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Authors: Peter Dickinson

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BOOK: King and Joker
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There was no shake in her voice, no glimmer of wetness in her eye. Her kiss was as precise as the full stop at the end of a sentence.

“Sorry,” said Louise as she disentangled herself. “Don't move. I'll tell you if I've left any marks … I think your dress is OK but there's a little blotch on your neck. Do you mind lick? Oh, Mother, don't be silly. Sit still. There. I'm glad you haven't got a moustache and you don't smell of aniseed and old sheep, but I'd love you even if you did. I think that's all right now. Bye.”

Only when she was out of the room did she realise that she'd left her essay on the desk, and that it wouldn't be fair to go back and collect it now. Mother would bring it along to supper. Somehow her face managed to smile at Annette when she met her bustling along the corridor, but really she felt as upset as Mother had been. The only thing she could think of was that Mother hadn't really accepted Nonny as easily as she'd pretended to, and that there was something about it in the cutting-books which still hurt. And yet Durdy had said it was all right.

• • •

Mother did bring the essay to supper. All the Family were at home, for once, and Father insisted on charades afterwards. They had a laughing evening, and Louise managed to push her sense of danger and hurt deep down and close the lid on it. But next afternoon when she went to the Library to start her homework she had to wait in the doorway to let out a couple of the Palace porters who were pushing a rubber-wheeled trolley piled with slabby green volumes. Inside she found Mrs Suttery looking harassed.

“Hello, Mrs Suttery, have you had the removals men in?”

“Yes, thank heavens. I've got rid of all the press-cuttings before 1960, except the wedding volume. Lovely empty shelves—just what a librarian dreams about.”

“Where've they gone? Are you going to burn them?”

“Good heavens, no! They've just gone into store. I've been wanting to move them out for simply ages.”

Louise smiled. One of the likeable things about Mrs Suttery was that she was a less practised liar than most of the Palace staff.

Chapter 5

“B
lighter had a go at me last night,” said Sir Sam.

“But you foiled him,” drawled Albert.

They were standing with Louise on the slope of lawn below the West Terrace. Further down, on the level, Mother and Father were talking to Mr Farren, the Head Gardener. A little to the right Mr Jones was arranging his tripod, watched by Commander Tank, the Press Secretary. Louise hated photograph sessions. The less formal they were the more trouble they seemed to be, with endless fiddling to achieve the apparently snapshot effect. Usually Mr Jones was quick and clever, but even so there was a lot of waiting about.

“Foiled him?” said Sir Sam sharply. “Far from it. It was dashed annoying. I had to attend the reception in these trousers—thank God His Majesty's not like King Edward. Old Toby told me he once heard Edward blow his top about the width of braid on a guest's lapel. Pin-striped trousers with a boiled shirt! Whew!”

“What happened?” asked Louise.

“Oh, it was just silly and tiresome. My office has a bathroom, you know, and I keep a few clothes in the wardrobe there. Can't always be dashing home every time I've got to change. Hadn't left myself much time last night—never do—it's pretty well automatic—I reckon to get out of these duds and into tails in four minutes flat. Fact, it's so automatic that I was into my trousers before I realised that the blighter had scissored both legs off at knee-level!”

“You must have looked like a boy scout in mourning,” said Albert.

“That's right,” said Sir Sam. Even on almost-private occasions such as this he used his royal-joke smile—neat, eager, appreciative, but at the same time vaguely nervous, as though feeling that things could quickly get out of hand if much more of that went on.

“But you've got a spare pair of pants, haven't you?” said Albert. “I remember last week, when Mrs Kissinger spilt her borscht in your lap, you snapped your fingers and somebody twinkled off, and a couple of minutes later you disappeared behind the service screen and popped out all immaculate, like a quick-change turn.”

“Yes, of course I've got spares. Fact, I'd three suits of tails and two dinner-jackets up there, each with two pairs of bags. They'd all had the treatment.”

“What a waste,” said Louise.

“English tailors are no good at trousers anyway,” said Sir Sam. “If I were a rich man I'd have my jackets cut in London and my bags in New York. Anyway, there they were, all hung up on their hangers. The blighter had even had the insolence to take off only one leg of those pairs and hang them up so that it didn't show. He'd had plenty of time. My secretaries push off at five-thirty and then I have a session with HM until six. And, you know, that pair Mrs Kissinger chucked the soup over, I suddenly remembered they'd only just come back from the cleaners. They were still in their box in the outer office. Done him, by God! I thought. But by heavens he'd found it, done his deed, folded the trousers neatly back and pinned his damned red cross to them? Hello, you're wanted.”

This year Commander Tank, after taking his mysterious soundings of public feeling, had come up with a number of subliminal targets to be aimed for in the annual Royal Wedding Anniversary photo. It had to demonstrate a strong sense of family unity, of course. It should hint that the Royals were helping to fight inflation by doing things for themselves, but not overtly suggest that they were on their uppers. Whatever they were doing should be rather English and middle-class, because the last official photographs had shown them at a champagne picnic on President Giscard d'Estaing's country estate, and so on. These effects were to be achieved by showing His Majesty and the Prince of Wales planting a Queen Isabella rhododendron to mark the anniversary, Queen Isabella herself standing by and looking pleased. So far so good, except that Mother had always thought the colour of the flower that bore her name brash and unsubtle, and Mr Farren loathed having holes dug in his turf: Louise now presented an added problem, because in the interview with the sugary lady she had said that she hated anything to do with gardening, and this had struck the GBP, that nation of gardeners, as a charming eccentricity. In the end Commander Tank decided that she could lie in the foreground doing her homework, clearly of the Family but not—when it came to planting rhododendrons—with it.

As photographic sessions went it wasn't bad. The rain held off. Albert shovelled earth out of the barrow with a will. Father, majestic even on his knees, tendered the roots into place. Mother held the shrub upright with a smile that implied some ancient enemy was being buried alive beneath it. Louise's homework was French, a language in which she'd been bilingual since she was four (though with a slight Spanish accent), so she got some of it done in spite of the distractions. Mr Jones clicked for the last time and said “Thank you”. Albert produced a bunch of plastic tulips he'd kept hidden in the barrow and popped them in round the shrub. Father bellowed, snatched them out and started pelting him with them and with clods of earth. Mother laughed. Albert scampered away across the lawn, an ape-man in jeans. By the time Louise had gathered her books he'd caught up with Sir Sam and was talking earnestly to him.

“… might have been anything,” Sir Sam was saying as she came in earshot. “A plain flat box. Cleaner's name on top, but somebody'd put a couple of files on it, so that was covered up.”

“Then I don't believe he found it, just like that,” said Albert. “It's too much. Prowling round your bathroom looking for extra pairs, yes. But I know what your office is like … what happened when the messenger brought the box up?”

“I wasn't there. When I got back Mrs Anker said, ‘Something's come—I think it must be your bortschy trousers'.”

“You see,” said Albert, suddenly sounding remarkably like Father, which happened when he was seriously interested in anything, “that means the joker's made a mistake this time. He's narrowed the field. If you get going on it at once you ought to be able to find everybody who knew that your pants had come back from the cleaners—there can't be many.”

“I'll make a small bet there won't be any.”

“Well, you'd lose,” said Louise. “McGivan told me he'd checked your toad, Bert, in case it was a bomb, and Sergeant Theale had made a joke about it. I bet that happens with all the boxes that come.”

“Yes of course it does,” said Sir Sam. “It's standard procedure. I wasn't thinking about the security staff.”

“Well, I think we ought to,” said Albert. “It's going to be a bit tricky because they're the ones you'd naturally get to investigate anything. But you see, not many people knew about my toad either. They did.”

“They could have told somebody,” said Louise.

Albert reverted to his usual slightly quacking gabble.

“Oh, sure,” he said. “We've all seen the staff passing on tidbits out of the corners of their mouths. ‘Sir Sam's trousers what Mrs Kissinger threw the soup over have come back from the cleaners.' Not very high on the rumour scale, Lulu.”

“I meant your toad, you fool,” said Louise.

“Sergeant Theale's got a curious manner,” said Sir Sam. “I hope it's not him. He's a very good man, otherwise. Well, if you're right ten pairs of trousers will be a small price to catch the blighter.”

His frown vanished with an almost audible click as he turned, suave and smiling, to thank Mr Jones for coming and make sure that Commander Tank fed him into the machinery for easing such people out of the Palace. As he moved away Louise saw that Mother was still holding the shrub and Father still shovelling the earth round its roots.

“Hell,” said Albert. “I'd better go and help. I wish he felt he could leave it to Farren.”

“I don't,” said Louise. “The papers are going to say he planted it himself, so he's got to.”

“Lucky he doesn't feel the same about foundation stones, or he'd finish up building the whole hospital.”

“That's different. Bert?”

“Uh?”

Louise looked at her parents. Though Mr Jones had gone they still seemed posed and artificial against the sweep of the lower branches of the big cedar, with the edge of a storm bruise-blue behind its apex and the slant light of evening slotting between the heavy horizontal branches.

“Do you know about Nonny?” she said.

“Yes, of course. Mother told me when I was about ten. I've always felt it was funny they should make such a song and dance about telling you.”

“Mother told you?”

“Yes, of course. Why?”

“Something happened yesterday which made me think she minds more than she pretends to.”

“I think you're wrong. What sort of thing?”

“Well …”

With a little stumble of hesitation Louise explained about the essay, and her talk with Mother, and the sudden sense of rejection as soon as she mentioned the press-cuttings.

“… and when I went to the Library next day,” she finished, “I found they were moving out everything before 1960.”

“What! All the good wishes about my birth, and poor old Masefield's extraordinary poem in
The Times
?”

“Oh, Bert!”

“Sorry. I know what you mean, but I think it's something else. I don't know what—you do hit reefs with Mother, though. Something happened when I was born, for instance—I've never found out what. Are you worried?”

“A bit. I'm glad I asked you, though. I don't like the idea of living with a sort of lie. I mean … Look at them now.”

They watched the King of England straighten, put his hand to the small of his back and do a mock hobble round to Mother. She said something. He put his arm round her waist and together they watched Mr Farren brush the last of the loam from his lovely turf.

“It's funny how things become symbols,” said Albert in his Archbishop Coggan voice. “Father's not interested in plants, and Mother doesn't like this one, but now they've made it mean something to both of them. I make these observations from the standpoint of one who is destined by birth to become a symbol himself, in his own humble way.”

“I'm glad it's you and not me,” said Louise.

Slowly, with linked arms, Mother and Father began to stroll along the lawn, not towards the Palace but sideways, parallel with the lake.

“That's nice, isn't it?” said Nonny's voice from behind them. “It seems a pity to interrupt them.”

She was walking down from the terrace, looking very secretarial with her specs pushed up on her forehead and a pad in her hand. She smiled vaguely at Louise as she swept past with her long-legged bouncy stride.

“No, watch,” muttered Albert, somehow guessing that Louise felt it was not just prying but actually risky to do so. Their Majesties seemed to hear Nonny coming, for they swung and stood there, still arm in arm but in a faintly formal stance, as though they were now posing for a much more old-fashioned picture of married harmony. Nonny seemed to sense this too, for she turned her last stride into a curtsey so low that she unbalanced and almost fell sprawling. It was Mother who helped her to her feet and then, as if greeting her after a long separation, kissed her warmly on both cheeks. The three of them moved off together. Mother in the middle with her arms round the waists on either side of her. Behind them Nonny's pad lay where she had dropped it with its upper sheets gesturing feebly in the light breeze.

“They're putting on a show for us,” said Louise.

“Yes. But it's a show of something real. I don't think they laid it on, Lulu. It happened.”

“I don't understand it, really.”

“Nor do I, but it's a functioning system. If you muck around with it it'll break down.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don't ask too many questions.”

“I wasn't going to. I'm not like that. It's just … Anyway that's interesting about Sir Sam's trousers. I'm having tea with Durdy tomorrow. It'll make her laugh.”

Durdy did laugh. Anything that discomforted Sir Sam was balm to her heart, provided it didn't in any way upset the members of the Family. Louise fetched the crumpets out of the corner cupboard (Kinunu put a fresh packet there every day, whether or not the old one had been eaten; the O and M men would soon stop
that
if they found out) and was sitting on the brown rug by the gas fire toasting one on the old telescopic brass toasting-fork whose prongs were the horns and tail of a grinning devil and whose handle had once been a pudgy angel but was now worn with use into an abstract blob.

“Mother was telling me about some horrible German cousins,” she said. “They smelt of sheep and aniseed and kept picking her up and kissing her. Did you ever meet them, Durdy?”

“Yes, darling. They came to your grandfather's funeral.”

“Kissing and crying?”

“I soon put a stop to the kissing.”

“How on earth? They sound like a real kissing mafia.”

“I borrowed Lady Elizabeth Motion's little girl who was just coming out with, the measles.”

“But didn't that mean that Father and the Aunts got measles too?”

“They'd had it, darling. I always saw that
my
children got the infectious diseases as soon as they were old enough. If I heard of a suitable child with mumps I'd borrow him at once. Why, I even borrowed one of the Ribbentrop boys to give your Aunt Anne the chicken-pox. But their German Highnesses weren't to know my little ways, were they? And your grandmother was always too far up in the clouds to remember who'd had what.”

“Durdy, you're marvellous. I wish Mother had had you to protect her from the kissing mafia.”

“Nanny Cramp was an excellent Nanny, darling. She did the best she could in very trying circumstances.”

At the first faint whiff of burning Louise withdrew the fork until its prongs were stopped by the criss-cross mesh of the fireguard. Reaching over the brass rail at the top she reversed the crumpet and thrust it back to within half an inch of the red-gold elements.

BOOK: King and Joker
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