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Authors: Peter Dickinson

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BOOK: King and Joker
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Sniff.

The King laughs again and returns to the bedside where he talks low-voiced and tenderly. Miss Durdon stares out of the window at the gleaming loch, and the slabs of pine plantation and the treeless slopes of heather sweeping down to the left of it. Somewhere over there, only ten miles away beyond Conachraig, lie Balmoral and Abergeldie. But where does Catriona McPhee lie? Where is that granite headstone? It is sixty years since Ivy last saw her and almost that since she last thought of her, but now she suddenly remembers the wild face dim in the glow from the night-lights, eyes closed, tears on the long lashes. She is startled. The baby snorts on her shoulder. Ah well, she thinks, it's only natural.

Chapter 6

H
olland Park Comprehensive School disgorges its pupils in tides. At one moment all the channels from it seem choked with strollers and scurriers; satchels swing, jaws champ gum, bikes wobble between the groups, last messages are shrieked. A minute later only one gloomy straggler mooches past. Then the next tide floods out.

Louise deliberately timed her leavings to coincide with one of the tides. At first she'd done it in order to baffle the odd unimaginative photographer who might be hanging around for an informal snap, but now it was more for the sake of her bodyguard. He, poor man, came in for a good deal more chiyiking than she did, but if she went out in a crowd and didn't even glance at him he could usually tag along without being noticed.

The day after her crumpet tea she walked, as usual, with Julie and Jerry as far as Church Street, where the other two caught their respective buses home, then on alone past the antique shops as far as York House Place, where she could cut through to Kensington Palace Gardens. She was just coming out of the narrow, brickwalled path to the wide avenue where the Foreign Embassies drowse beneath the plane trees when the man appeared.

He was about twenty, very tall, red-haired, with a thin, clean-shaven worried face. He wore an expensive brown jersey, dark trousers, suede boots. He took a quick but gangling pace from behind a tree, almost as though he were about to say “boo!” Without thought Louise put on her public face, the small non-committal smile and the glance of intelligent interest.

“Shall I show you something, little girl?” he whispered. His hand was at his trouser-zip when the bodyguard reached him. There was a rapid, dance-like flurry and then the two men were standing with their backs to Louise, the stranger held in an efficient arm-lock. He didn't struggle but threw back his head and began to crow swear-words, making them sound like a chant at a tribal dance. Louise turned away and crossed the avenue where she waited while the uniformed policeman guarding the gate of the nearest Embassy came striding down, talking as he did so into his shoulder radio. Only when he recognised her and saluted did she remember to take off her public face. Another policeman arrived from lower down. There were no questions. The stranger was still chanting his litany of dirt when the bodyguard handed him over and turned to follow Louise. It was Sergeant Theale. She waited for him.

“Thank you very much,” she said. “Poor man. What'll they do with him?”

“That's out of my hands, Ma'am.”

Sergeant Theale looked small for a policeman, but this was really because he was very neatly made and within the limits of bodyguarding was a snappy dresser. He managed to achieve the same light tan all the year round. His face looked faintly Irish, flattish and small-nosed, and his hair was light brown and close curled. He held a Commonwealth Games Bronze Medal for the four-hundred metre hurdles. In contrast to McGivan he always managed to look happy. He wasn't Louise's usual bodyguard.

“Where's Mr Sanderson?” she said.

“Dentist, Ma'am. Came on sudden with toothache, so I stood in for him. I only got to the school with a couple of minutes to spare.”

“I'm glad you did,” said Louise. “Not that he'd have done me any harm, really, but it's a bit shaking … I know it's out of your hands, but could you put in a word for the poor man? I'm sure he needs help.”

“He needs a good belting if you ask me, Ma'am.”

Suddenly Louise saw what Sir Sam meant when he talked about Theale's curious manner. There was a twist of tone towards the end of his sentences which made them sound as if he thought they were funny. It was very distinctive, though he probably didn't know he was doing it. Louise put on her public face and took it off again.

“Please see what you can do,” she said, turning towards Kensington Gardens. “No, please don't drop back. I know I don't look as though I minded, but … anyway, I'd rather not face my grandmother for a bit—besides, she won't have finished practising. Let's go and look at the ducks.”

It was one of those September days which you sometimes get after a poor summer, as if July were trying to remind you what it could have done if it hadn't been too busy raining. Half a dozen kites were up and four big model yachts were racing on the Round Pond. Loose Labradors and Dalmatians lolloped about. The green of some of the trees was mottling towards yellow, and a gang was working with chain-saws at two elms, dead of the disease. It was warm enough, in spite of the breeze, for Louise to take off her jersey and fold it into her satchel. While she was doing this a slim black boy in a yellow shirt came up to her. He must have been about ten.

“Can I have your autograph, please Miss, um, Your Highness?”

“Now, move along there please,” said Theale.

“No, wait a sec,” said Louise. “I'd better explain. I'm not allowed to sign autographs—it's one of the rules. Oh, you've actually got your book. Hell! I know what, I'll draw a duck for you and, put my initial in. Will that do?”

“They'll all say I did it myself, Miss.”

“No they won't, because Sergeant Theale will witness it. And anyway you're not to show them, because then they'll all be here tomorrow and I'll never be able to come and look at the ducks again. That's why it's a rule … there. It's a pochard, I think. Thank you, Sergeant. OK?”

“OK,” said the boy. “So long. Thanks.”

Louise watched him go. A moment before he'd been an individual. Now he plopped back and became part of the murky waters of the GBP.

“Sorry, Mr Theale,” she said. “I can't help bending the rules some of the time, but I needn't have dragged you in.”

“That's all right, Ma'am.”

They strolled on. Louise felt edgy. She hadn't realised that Theale was such a stickler, and wished now she'd gone and sat quietly at Kensington Palace waiting for Granny to finish. Still she was stuck with her decision, and it was up to her to start the conversation.

“Have you got any grandmothers alive, Mr Theale?”

“No family at all, Ma'am. My parents died in a coach crash three years back, and they were the last.”

“Oh, I'm sorry.”

(The correct form of words added “That must have been a great loss to you,” but something told Louise they weren't needed.)

“I'd not seen them for three years before that. He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

“I shan't get very far in that case. Sometimes it feels as though everybody in the whole world was some sort of cousin.”

“There's some pretend they are. Some I know.”

“Oh, yes. My father keeps an album of Rightful Kings of England. It's one of his hobbies. He's got about thirty at the moment, including two black men and one Chinese. He says he's going to give a special Garden Party where they can all meet each other, but of course he won't do it. It wouldn't be kind.”

Theale grunted. While she was speaking Louise had been watching a grossly fat small boy trying to catch a pigeon; his mother/nurse/au pair was busy with an endless kiss with a young man on a bench. Theale's unexpectedly informal reply made her think that she had touched some sort of a sore point with him, but then she'd decided that she must have offended him by her attitude to the whole princessing scene.

“You have to joke about it some of the time,” she said, “or you'd go mad.”

“There's jokes and jokes, Ma'am,” he said. “The Prince is a great joker, and none of us mind that. It makes for a bit of brightness in our lives sometimes. But, now, you take this customer who's been playing tricks in the Palace—I don't go for that at all. It's not just that they're a nuisance, and bad for morale, and that. To me whoever's doing them is no better than that feller back there who tried to commit a gross indecency in front of you. That's what this joker in the Palace is doing—committing a series of gross indecencies. I hope it's going to be me as catches him, that's all.”

Louise decided he was genuinely angry, though she could never have told it from his tone. As always the speech ended on a slight lilt that was almost a chuckle.

“Do you like working in the Palace, Mr Theale? I mean, it's a bit of a backwater, isn't it?”

“It's an honour, Ma'am.”

“That doesn't stop it being a backwater. I expect a lot of honours are, really. Suppose you could choose your next posting, when it happened and where, how much longer would you like to stay?”

“Just under two years,” he said promptly. “That's one good thing about the job, the hours are pretty regular, which you can't say of a lot of other police work. Makes it a whole sight easier to study for my next go of exams.”

“Are you looking forward to them?”

“You bet, Ma'am.”

“So'm I. I'll be doing my O-levels almost the same time. We must remember to wish each other luck. What's the time—I don't carry a watch?”

“Getting on half past four.”

“My grandmother ought to have finished practising now. Thank you for the walk.”

“Thank you, Ma'am.”

As Louise changed out of her jeans into the deliberately “sweet” frock which she'd dumped at Granny's on the way to school, she thought about Theale. Until he'd mentioned the joker she'd clean forgotten Albert's suggestion that it might be somebody from the security office, Theale himself even. No, she decided, not him. It wasn't just his being a stickler—the joker might well be like that—you'd need to have a bit of an obsession with Palace ritual to want to muck it around. But it was hard to think of anyone so keen on his own career running the risks with it that the joker ran, and there was his voice, with that curious chuckle in it—Louise instinctively felt that somebody who talked like that without noticing it must have no sense of humour at all, and the joker's jokes had been pretty funny, in their way. Besides, Theale's reaction to the joker had been so like his reaction to the poor man outside the embassies that she almost felt that if Theale was the joker he'd have had to have hired the man to go there and jump out at her. No, not Theale. It would be impossible to explain to Sir Sam, and difficult even to Albert …

Louise brushed her hair, slipped into her special Granny-visiting low-heeled shoes and went out into the hall. Upstairs Granny's harp was still sending its acid tinklings

into the musty, mourning air, so there was time for her to shut herself into the dotty old mahogany phone-box in the hall, ring home and ask for the Press Office.

“Hello, is that Katie? It's me. Yes. Have you had anybody ringing up asking for lurid stories? Oh, good—only a bloke jumped out at me on my way back from school—I don't think he thought I was anyone special, just a passing girl, poor man. No, Sergeant Theale arrested him and handed him over to a couple of bobbies from the embassies. I just thought I'd better warn you. Yes, quite all right, just sad for him. Look, Katie, can you ask the Commander to see if he can fix it so the man doesn't get charged? That'd be marvellous. No, he was quite young—it was sad. Thanks—see you.”

Somehow that exorcised the spectre of the red-headed man and made Louise feel quite light-hearted as she trotted up the stairs towards the harp-music. She opened one leaf of the big double door and tip-toed into the music-room. There bright day streamed through tall windows, twinkled off veneered wood and polished brass, but still seemed somehow to leave shreds of ancient gloom floating between the sun-shafts. It was the same with all those polished surfaces—no doubt every one of them was speckless, but still the room felt as though the dust had gathered in it undisturbed since the night the news came of Grandfather's drowning.

Granny had her back to the door and seemed not to have noticed its movement. She crouched at the harp with her head pressed close against the frame as though she were listening to whispered messages beneath the notes. Her bare, scrawny arms made angular shapes as they reached for the strings. She was wearing her music-clothes, shapeless swathes of black and grey lawn which made her look (Albert said) as though she'd got half way through the Dance of the Seven Hundred Veils and then given up. Her hair was a brighter orange than last time.

Louise simply waited, listening to the notes without understanding them. It's a twangling instrument, she thought. That's what. Hey! I bet Shakespeare had a tin ear, like me. Everybody keeps saying how musical he must have been, but then you get a word like “twangling” which gives it away. And what about that corny old duke—or was he a prince?—no, only a duke—asking for a bit of music all over again? And then being surprised when it didn't come off? If you were musical you wouldn't muck around like that, and you wouldn't be surprised when it didn't work. It's only that old Shakes knew the sort of things he was expected to say and said them better than anyone else … something about a cat's guts—that shows he knew what it was like
not
to be musical, so think again, everybody … but it's funny how even if you've got a tin ear you can tell that it's almost over … any minute now … she knows I'm here of course …

Ping. Twangle. Plockity-plock. Punggg. Head flops. Arms flop. Count five. Swing to audience. Smile.

Sure enough the Dowager Princess of Wales swung round on her music stool like a harbour crane. The deep maquillage of her cheeks was all tunnelled with tears which were still streaming from the corners of her jade-green eyes. She rose groggily and stood blinking at the intruder. Then she pretended to realise who it was, shrugged her pointy shoulders and produced a bitter little smile.

“And now I have ruined my face,” she said.

“At least it means I can kiss you properly without spoiling anything,” said Louise as, with slight gritting of the will—as if forcing herself to eat her unfavourite prawn cocktail at a public meal, and smile while doing so—she hugged Granny tight and kissed her on both cheeks. The films of veiling made it feel as though she were clutching a cocoon of cobwebs. Granny chuckled through her tears and pushed her away. She looked pleased though.

BOOK: King and Joker
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