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Authors: Peter Dickinson

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BOOK: King and Joker
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“Of course I can. I know—one of the men here has been pestering you.”

Silence, but the sudden stiffness of the soft body gives the answer. Poor child. Abergeldie is full of male servants, stifling in the musty rituals of their duties and then idle for hours. How their eyes must follow a child like Catriona. How, given the chance, they will tease her—and worse.

“Never mind, child. I can look after you. I can see that your duties are changed so that you aren't left alone.”

“Ye canna. Ye canna.”

“Of course I can. The duties of the nursery staff are my responsibility now.”

A sob.

“You're being silly, Catriona. You will be all right, now you've told me.”

“Och, didna ye speir what he did to Nurse Bignall?”

“The Prince!”

“Aye. Him.”

“Oh, you poor child! Yes, I see. No doubt that's why he came up to the nursery in the first place. But he cannot touch you here at Abergeldie, my darling, not with the Princess here. And when we go back to England we will not be in the same house with him, and he has his own lady friends there, and …”

“Och, but he'll hae me in the end. He's the snake and I'm the wee bird in the heather. He'll hae me in the end.”

They lie in silence for a while until Nurse Durdon realises that Catriona has begun to weep again, without sobs, a helpless welling of slow tears. She lifts her head and kisses the salt lashes and runs a comforting palm along the soft back, as she would with a hurt child. With a wriggle like that of a fresh-caught salmon in a ghillie's rough hand Catriona throws her arms round Nurse Durdon's shoulders and drags her down to kiss her fiercely on the mouth. She is strong, and half again Nurse Durdon's weight. She fights the first shying buck of surprise and revulsion, forcing heads and bodies together.

“Let me go! Let me go!”

“Na. Na. Be kind wi' me. Ye're sae bonny and wee. I love ye.”

Catriona pleads on and on in whispers until, frightened and slow, Nurse Durdon relaxes into softness where touch tingles, breath smells of sweet fruit, nerves and muscles float in happy warmth. She finds that the muttered love-words her lips are saying twang with old Essex vowels. It is as though she had laid proper-spoken, careful Nurse Durdon neatly aside, like the dress and apron folded on her chair, and was Ivy, simple Ivy, in the caressing dark.

Mostly Miss Durdon found it unpleasant to have no feeling at all in her paralysed body, not even to know except by smell when she had wetted or soiled herself; if the electric circuits in the apparatus by the bed were to fail, then she would not feel the fall in temperature except as a slowing in the activity of her mind and a drowning into sleep. But in one way the lack of a palpable body was a gain. For sixty years, while she had work to do and a chosen life to live, she had shut Catriona McPhee out of her mind, but, now that the work was over, almost every day she allowed the time-drift to take her back and eddy her round and round that one Christmas at Abergeldie, Unhindered by any sensations from the used-up scrawn that lay on the bed, smooth-skinned limbs would form invisible round her central will; they would feel again the stiffness of tight-buttoned boots and tight-laced whalebone, the crackling glossy crispness of fresh-starched caps and aprons—so like the crackling surface of the snow that had been touched by each day's clear but feeble sun and then restarched by each night's ruthless frost. It needed a little more will-power to shut out the endless, surf-like drumming of London traffic from across the Palace garden, where the buses and taxis growled up Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park Corner, but it was no effort for Miss Durdon to close her eyes and see the spaniels gambolling along a glittering slope, and the Princesses sedate in their furs like little squirrels but with brilliant eyes and glowing cheeks, and Catriona—Cat—Kitten—with her wild animal look, wearing her uniform like armour against the sword-sharp glances of the men who paced along the swept paths.

Twelve days, eleven nights. Nurse Durdon during the diamond days, cased in that armour, careful and loving, watching the girls—Vicky especially—relax and lose the edge of wariness, discover that they were now free to live in the rejoicing instant, with nothing to pay into Bignall's iron till at the end of it. Ivy during the caressing, trembling, whispering nights.

• • •

That eleventh night.

“Och, and I love ye.”

“Now you dan't, Kitten. You just love to be stroaked. Shh. You lie still—I mun tark wi' you.”

“I winna listen.”

“Shh, shh. Lie still, Kitten, still. I'm goin' to tell the Duchess as she mun find you a good pleace in another family. I can meake her do that. Shh. Listen. This cawn't last—it mun all end in tears. When we go South, deay after tomorrer, we'll be in a real big nursery, wi' two more meaids beside. But it's not only that, Kitten. I mun choose. I mun choose now. Oh, Kitten, Kitten, you've bin tearing me in two—two people you've meade me. Oh, Kitten, I love you, more'n you'll ivver love me, or anyone, but I cawn't live like that. I cawn't be two people. Not all my deays I cawn't. I mun choose …

She has to go on saying it to be sure it's true. She has to name the choice before she can make it. Catriona (it will be fifty years before Miss Durdon, exploring these long-lost shores again with the knowledge and equipment of a lifetime's navigation, can draw a true map of the girl's nature—feeble and stupid about everything except herself, but there gifted with the strength of will and intuitive intelligence which intensely selfish people often possess) Catriona pretends not to understand.

“Ye needna. Ivy, ye needna. We're daeing naething sinfu'. When it comes tae marrying, what mon wi' ken the difference?”

“Oah, it's not that, Kitten, not that. I love you, but I mun steay wi' my girls, and I cawn't teake you wi' me. Spose nobody nivver found out, still it'd be like that Bignall and her tea. I mun be their Durdy, alweays there, all deay, all night, as long as they've need o' me. The Duchess cawn't do that, and she'll be Queen one deay, and further from them than ivver. They might as well have no mother at all. Doan't cry, Kitten. The Duchess'll find you a nice family, doan't cry … .”

But they are both crying now, sobbing in each other's arms, Ivy for her own death, for hands that will never again gentle a lover's limbs, lips that will never kiss lips or whisper love-words. And Catriona …

Nurse Durdon believes that the child is working her way back into her nightmare and tries to reassure her by nursery means, in the “well-spoken” accent she has so carefully acquired.

“There, there. It's nothing to be afraid of. I'll explain to the Duchess and she'll find you a place where the Prince will never come.”

“Och, but he'll hunt me doon. I've speired it in his ee. He'll hae me i' the end! He'll hae me i' the end!”

Chapter 4

n her thirteenth birthday Louise had been interviewed by a rather sugary lady from
Woman's Hour
about the whole business of princessing. Louise had been so anxious to point out that some of the apparent advantages aren't really that hot that the interview had come out rather whiny. It had been a bore when Mother had made her do the whole interview again, but listening to the tape Louise knew she'd been right, even though second time round she'd sounded rather more sugary than the interviewer. The GBP had loved that.

One example she'd chosen in the whiny interview had been that she was allowed to do her homework in the Palace Library. This ought to have made things like Geog and Hist an absolute doddle, with all those reference books to draw on, but it was pitted with bidden traps.

At one end of the scale were the books which had been acquired to help Great-grandfather—Victor I—understand something about the Empire he ruled. Everybody agreed that Queen Mary had worked wonders with King Victor and turned him into a model monarch, but even for her the improvement of his IQ had been a struggle. He needed constant stimulation to keep his attention for a few pages, so he had been supplied with books (or where these were not available with typed reports bound in marbled boards) written in very simple English and full of startling stories, with little nuggets of information scattered here and there. Louise found these enjoyable but distracting reading, and also dangerous to copy from. If a Princess has the bad luck to include in a Geog essay a sentence such as “The natives of South West Africa are very degenerate and will never be fit to govern themselves,” then the Princess's mother, or somebody, will make her write the whole essay again. It's no use simply crossing the sentence out, because who's to know that her Geog teacher isn't a Maoist who will send a photostat of it to the underground press?

At the other end of the scale were Father's books. Father didn't like anything simple, except detective stories. Louise sometimes thought that he really didn't enjoy reading things if he thought there was a danger that another member of the Family might understand them. For instance if be needed to mug up a few conversational tidbits before meeting the Ambassador for Upper Volta, he'd send for tables of the incidence of river-blindness and a pamphlet on the latest attempt to breed mildew-resistant varieties of cassava. Of course there were in-between books, but Father had insisted that Mrs Suttery, the Librarian, was not to help her find them.

On the other hand the Library was a good place to work. All those stacked shelves, and the green-lamped reading-desks, and the busts of Plato and Aristotle and Shakespeare and Dante with his cracked nose—work was what they seemed to expect of you. On the third night of term Louise had a history essay, a real peach for which she'd only needed to look up a few dates, because it was on a subject in which she'd had a deep and almost personal interest ever since she'd first been read the story at the age of five. She became so carried away that she had trouble keeping her handwriting tidy enough for Mother's exacting standards, and her last sentence carried her on to her fifth side of paper.

“… so Elizabeth was bang right to execute Mary, and she knew exactly what she was doing, and anybody who says different is talking sentimental rubbish.”

Still full of pent-up vehemence which she'd been unable to release in the confines of the essay, Louise signed her own name in the blank area of paper and underlined it with a baroque curlicue of the sort her heroine used to draw. She shut the book from which she'd got the dates with a snap as final as the fall of an axe. Mrs Suttery looked up from gathering her belongings into her bag. She was a tall, hollow-cheeked woman with intensely white hair and sad brown eyes.

“Finished already, Your Highness?” she said in her twittering voice.

“I'm early, you're late, Mrs Suttery,” said Louise.

“Yes, I'm afraid so.”

“I expect you've been busy.”

“Not really. No more than usual. You know, when you're worried everything seems to take longer.”

“I'm sorry you're worried. Is it anything …”

“I'm afraid not, my dear. We're all worried, you know. It can't be helped. We all know that there've got to be cuts. In a way I'd almost rather I was one of them, because it would be so awful staying on and thinking about the people who've had to go. Oh dear—I shouldn't be talking to you about it, really.”

“I hate it,” said Louise. “I bet they choose all my favourite people. It's horrible.”

“Well I must get back to Alexander,” said Mrs Suttery, bravely changing the subject (which technically she wasn't supposed to do). “He's moulting again. Never fall in love with a Blue Persian, my dear. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye, Mrs Suttery.”

Outside the cones of light from the desk-lamps the Library was full of autumn dusk. The clock—just like an old Post Office clock in its plain brown case—said twenty to seven. Mother wouldn't be ready to read the essay until seven. Louise's defence of the Virgin Queen had left her full of impetus, like that of a horse which has cleared its round so easily that it insists on looking for fresh fences to jump. She strolled over to see what Mrs Suttery had been doing—pasting in the week's press-cuttings, it turned out. The big cutting-book lay open so that the glue could dry. Louise grinned again at the picture of Albert offering an enormous carrot to a round-faced farmer dressed as John Bull and carrying a placard saying “Beef put the G into GB.” Mother had been quite angry about that. Below it were five photographs of Louise herself walking through the school gates. She looked at them with a slightly irritated interest. A quite pretty, rather cool-looking round-faced blonde child with a satchel under her arm. Jeans and check shirt. It was the look of coolness that irritated her, because she remembered that moment as one of sudden near-panic. A year before she had walked through those gates for the first time into a very bad six weeks of friendlessness, curiosity and suspicion, which she'd only got through because she'd been able to talk to Durdy about it. It had been her own choice, after a long and obstinate battle, to go to a State School, and she'd known all along that she'd have to make it work, but she'd nearly failed. Then things had settled down and she'd enjoyed herself; so it was strange that the new year should begin with a sudden return of those old miseries, and stranger still that they shouldn't show at all. She ought to have been used to it: the
Daily Mail
had once tried to saddle her with the nickname of “The Ice Princess”, but mercifully it hadn't stuck. It wasn't true—it only looked true. Julie, her best friend at school, was always gesturing and grimacing, but Louise had slowly discovered that inside this dramatic shell was a rather cautious and calculating person, a little too grown-up to be quite happy. Louise herself was the other way round and sometimes it worried her. Still, it came in useful for putting on a show.

Her eye slid to a nasty little paragraph in the
Daily Mirror
, pointing out that for the Princess to walk to school wasn't quite as democratic as it looked, because she'd been taken as far as Kensington Palace in a Rolls, and only walked from there. Nothing about it usually being only one of the Triumphs, and the Rolls being used that day because Mother was visiting Granny …

“Tittle-tattle,” she said aloud, doing rather a good imitation of Durdy's sniff.

The word, lingering among the silent books, reminded her of something she wanted to know. She crouched her way along the shelves behind Mrs Suttery's desk until she reached the volumes of press-cuttings for 1954. One of them had a more used look than the others—that'd be the Wedding, first marriage of a reigning British Sovereign since 1840. How long had they been engaged? Say a year. Lugging out one of the early 1953 volumes Louise laid its spine on the floor, shut her eyes and let it fall open at random, at the same time making behind her eyelids a picture of what she wanted to see—Nonny, laughing, creamy-skinned, in that strange half-swaying stance of hers which even the wide-hipped skirt of the New Look wouldn't be able to hide. She opened her eyes.


Does Princess Isabella Carry a Fatal Disease?

Violently Louise shut the yelling headlines away, raising a cloud of dust which made her cough. No she doesn't, she thought, so you're stupid, arncher, and I hope your paper was one of the ones that went bust! She leafed around in the volume before that one, but found nothing except a back that might have been Nonny's in a picture of Father welcoming Mother at Victoria Station, but even by then she'd lost interest in her original search and begun to think more about Mother.

(“Durdy, who's your top Queen? Mine's Elizabeth, and the rest nowhere.”

“Ah, I've no book-learning, darling. It never did anyone much good, I always say.”

“Oh, come on, Durdy—you've known a lot of Queens. You met Queen Victoria, didn't you?”

“Only just the once, darling. She was a real Queen. Queen Mary was a real Queen. Some of those continental Royals were a mousy lot, of course. But Her present Majesty—she's a real Queen too, and don't you forget it.”)

Mother had given up so much to marry Father. She had changed her religion at the risk (she still seriously believed) of eternal damnation. She had come to live in a damp climate among a people who hadn't any of her own feelings about the meaning of monarchy but treated it half the time as a glorious peep-show and half as an expensive way of causing traffic jams. And now it turned out that she had done this knowing that Father really loved somebody else. And still she had made it work.

With its chuckling whirr the Library clock chimed seven. Louise heaved the cutting-book home, scrabbled her homework together and left. Half way along the corridor she remembered that they were saving money now, so she scampered back to turn off the Library lights.

Mother was at her little gilt writing-desk under the left-hand window of her private drawing-room. Annette evidently hadn't yet come round to draw the curtains, but the reflection from the desk-lamp made the space beyond the glass look as black as deep night. Mother managed to lean over her work without in any way bending her spine; this, and her shiny dark hair pulled tight back to her nape, and the even pallor of her arms and face, made her look like a doll from Queen Mary's collection, one of the expensive Parisian family whose flesh was the finest wax. Louise paused in the doorway, still tinged through all her consciousness by her thoughts in the Library. I'll always see her like that, she thought. She walked quietly forward and slipped her essay on to the desk.

Mother finished her sentence and picked it up without a word. That was OK, Louise thought—just another part of Mother's endless duties. She was perfectly fair. If something was “over the line” so that the whole thing had to be done again, she'd always explain why. If work was messy she'd say so but never permit any changes because that was teacher's business. Her spelling, luckily, was worse than Louise's. This evening as she turned the first page she began to smile, which was strange enough to be worrying, and when she'd finished she put the paper down and sat there tapping the arrogant signature with a long fingernail.

“I couldn't help it,” said Louise. “I got carried away. I don't think they'll mind.”

“Of course not, darling. It is very amusing, and strong. And of course Elizabeth huas right, though in my own history books I huas taught that she huas a great devil. But have you ever huondered how she felt? Huat huas it like to huait so long, and then to let herself pretend to be tricked into signing the order? Nobody could love her, you know—not the huay they all loved silly Mary. Is it enough to be right?”

Mother had turned to Louise as she spoke and now she let her long pale arms fall in a gesture of appeal. Automatically, like a bird obeying its innate response to stimulus, Louise slid on to her lap, though there wasn't really room because of the desk and the hard gilt chair creaked with the extra weight.

“I love you anyway,” she said as the cool arms closed round her.

“I huas not aware that hue huere talking of personal matters,” said Mother. “Last time you sat on my lap I could kiss the top of your head. Soon I shall only be able to kiss your chin.”

“Am I too heavy for you? People don't hug people enough.”

“Don't you believe it. Huen I huas much smaller than you are now some of those terrible old German cousins came to stay. Huenever they saw me they huould pick me up and hug me and insist on a kiss. They huere huomen, but they had moustaches, and even in Madrid they huore huool next to the skin, huich made them smell like dirty old sheep, except that their breaths smelt of aniseed.”

“Oh, both sides have got to want to. It's got to mean something. Do you want to?”

“Just now, yes, in spite of your filthy hands. Huat on earth have you been doing, Lulu?”

“Oh, I finished my homework early and started looking for something in the old press cuttings.”

“Which year?”

It didn't need the perfectly pronounced W to tell Louise that she'd trodden on a mine, hidden in the grass of the soft meadow through which she'd just been strolling. Deliberately she pulled herself closer into Mother's stiffened embrace.

“Before you were married,” she said. “That's why I'm a bit sloppy this evening. I was thinking how marvellous you are, and how foul people can be, and what a lot you've given up. And I do love you—it's just that I don't get many chances to show it.”

It wasn't any good. She'd made it worse.

“Well, I love you, Lulu,” said Mother, “and I know I am not very good at showing it. I'm sorry. You'd better go and wash, darling, because I don't want to have to change this dress before dinner.”

BOOK: King and Joker
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