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Authors: Peter Dickinson

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BOOK: King and Joker
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“Was it because the music was so beautiful?” said Louise. “I wish I could understand about music.”

“No, no, little owl, the music was nothing, a mere exercise, pooh, pretty little scales, chords, tinsel, you can play it without thinking, without feeling, which you see leaves you time to think stupid thoughts … no, no, I am not going to bore you with tales of your poor Grandfather (but what a king I should have made of him!) that is not why you come to this old harridan is it, little swan, of course not. No. I was thinking how soul-tragic it is for me that I shall never know—nobody will ever know—whether I am a great harpist (which I think I am, to be sure—but how can I be sure? That is the soul-tragedy). But you are my perfect audience, little sparrow, because you cannot hear it and have no need to lie to me!”

This was a much more typical snatch of Granny's talk than her opening remark had been.

“But everybody says you're terribly good,” said Louise, quite truthfully.

“I am a horse!” cried Granny, throwing her arms wide and looking considerably more like an orange-crested vulture of some sort. “A horse with flashing eyes and a long white mane and diamonds all over my bridle—also I play the harp. So everybody says I play the harp very well—for a horse. Even myself, sometimes I think I am playing with hooves!”

She clenched her many-ringed fingers into fists and made pawing motions in the air.

“Ah, but for my destiny I should have known, the world should have known, that here is a great human soul that speaks through music! Neeeeeeeaaagh!”

The whinny echoed among the twinkling objects and seemed to stir the harp-strings into unheard murmurs.

“You're a great actress too,” said Louise. “I'd love to see you on the telly.”

“You must never mock at a soul-tragedy,” said Granny, still clearly pleased. “Especially you, who will know the same soul-tragedy.”

“Me!”

“You will never know whether you are beautiful, little gosling,” said Granny sharply. “I will make a new face and then we shall have tea and I shall send stupid Beatrice away so that she will not interrupt our talk. Will you wait for me in the little sitting-room?”

“Fine,” said Louise, bobbing into a small curtsey as she held the door for her. It was quite unnecessary, and probably not even protocol, but Granny had a rather Hollywood attitude to things like that.

Every three months the
Gazette
listed a change of lady-in-waiting to HRH the Dowager Princess, but no matter who got her name into print it was always Beatrice, Lady Surbiton, who did the job. Louise found Aunt Bea (she was no relation—it was just a courtesy title) in the clutter of the drawing-room, looking as always hopelessly out of place among the rugs and icons. Aunt Bea was a dear old thing, Large and white with tiny pudgy hands, always dressed in a rasping tweed skirt, dark green twin-set and double row of pearls. She was very short-sighted and tended to knock things over if they had been moved from their usual place—Granny sometimes rearranged the room for the pleasure of seeing this happen and then scolding her. Her voice was so soft that she made everything sound like a wicked secret. Louise was glad that she wasn't staying for tea because it was uncomfortable to listen to Granny using her as a pincushion (though according to Albert Aunt Bea had tried to commit suicide a couple of years back when Mother and Aunt Anne had conspired to relieve her of the role. Albert said she'd jumped out of a ground-floor window and twisted her ankle.)

“Hello, Aunt Bea. How's life?”

“Who is that? Oh, Your Highness, you did give me a start. I almost dropped this … er … this … only luckily I must have put it down somewhere before you came in. Life? Much as usual. Very quiet. Very, very quiet. Except, oh yes, the most extraordinary thing, a lot of grand pianos arrived this morning. Eight or nine. I was quite at a loss to tell the men where to put them until HRH woke up and sent them all away again. Apparently it was some sort of joke. But I must say, my dear, that your Grandmother is perfectly capable of ordering nine pianos and forgetting to tell one about it, but of course she refused to see it that way, though she insisted on trying them all out and was quite tempted to keep two. You know, it made me feel quite uneasy. Jokes. Oh dear.”

Louise too felt a faint shiver of unease, like a creeping draught that seems to permeate an apparently cosy room. It was as though the jokes were a disease, and, now it was spreading.

“Poor Aunt Bea,” she said. “Let's talk about something else. How's Mike getting on in Canada?”

Aunt Bea launched into one of her long, sighing accounts of the great interest in her life, her delinquent grandson, heir to the Surbiton title, who seemed only to have to attend a pot-smoking party to make sure it was raided, only to have to borrow a friend's car without permission to run down a Lady Mayoress in it, only to have to go for a quiet Sunday walk in the country to disappear and emerge in the small hours of Wednesday morning blind drunk, stark naked, hammering on the door of some night-club performer's Mayfair flat. She hadn't really got round to describing the effect of Canada on him, and vice versa, when Granny's butler, Mr Forster, came in with the first of the cake-stands and handed her a note written on bright green paper. She put on her pebble glasses and peered her way through it.

“Oh dear,” she whispered. “It seems I'm not to have tea with you after all. Well, I've a lot of letters to write, I expect, so if Your Highness will excuse me …”

Poor Aunt Bea, thought Louise. What a bitch Granny can be. She'd have made a pretty grisly sort of Queen, too. I wonder if Sir Sam and the Palace machine could have kept her battened down. She'd have silvered his hair for him OK.

Granny had invented a tea-ceremony to suit her own personality. It involved a number of cake-stands and very tiny tea-cups, so that her guests spent most of their time levering themselves out of deep-cushioned­ chairs to fetch each other stamp-sized sandwiches and mini-cakes and fresh thimblefuls of tea. Albert used to bring his own whole-wheat sandwich and flask of apple juice so that Granny couldn't use him to treat Aunt Bea like a yo-yo. He wasn't often invited.

But today Granny came sweeping in in a black trouser-suit a-glitter with diamonds and glared at these arrangements. Instantly she rang the bell.

“I cannot think why Beatrice insists on using these ridiculous little cups,” she snapped. “Ah, Forster, please take these cups away and bring us two of the big breakfast ones. Now, little owl, take one of these tiresome stands and fill it up with everything you need—tip the rest on the tray—then you can settle into your nest and chirp away. When my children were small I used to steal off to the Nursery to have a proper English tea—that is the only civilised invention of this nation, nursery tea. Durdon understood about tea. There were crumpets, always, toasted on the gas fire. What are you smiling at, little swan? You must be careful how you mock me. I have an uncertain temper. Everybody knows that.”

“I had crumpets with Durdy yesterday.”

“What! Is she still alive? Absurd!”

“She can't move and she can't feel but she's still more alive than anybody.”

“Without that woman this country would have been a republic by now. How I longed to dismiss her—don't look so shocked, little wren, of course it was impossible, as if I were to suggest blowing up the Tower of London like Sir Guy Faux …”

“The Houses of Parliament, Granny.”

“What does it matter? This country has no history. How many Kings have you assassinated? One! And you did that by committee. It simply shows that your Kings have no meaning for you, except as a peep-show. Seriously, little wren, suppose my father-in-law, that abominable King Victor, had died in youth, as he nearly did. Suppose my mother-in-law, Queen Mary, had married Georgie York, who was secretly very fond of her—only he could not show it, being so English. Why, then you would have had a quite different Royal Family from the one you have now. But do you suppose anything else would have been the smallest bit different? Pooh!”

“But that means even if you'd become Queen things would be just the same, Granny!”

“You must not be too clever with your Grandmother, little owl. For you are wrong. I would have been the meteor of change. Your poor Grandfather! By now—supposing Lord Halifax had not arranged for his so convenient drowning—by now I would be either in noble exile or gloriously reigning. I would have made him a true monarch. Think of it! With Oswald Mosley at our side—no Hitler war, no strikes, no communism, all Europe peaceful and disciplined, and at home respect for the social order and the arts! I had such plans for the arts in this nation of philistines!”

When Granny said shocking things it was important to look a bit shocked or she got huffy. Louise knew about Mosley from a Sunday paper article which Father had made her read, but had only the dimmest ideas about the other bloke. She let her eyes widen and waited for a pause.

“But that's thrilling!” she said. “How did you find out about Lord Halifax? Why doesn't everybody know?”

Delicately Granny picked the icing off a little yellow cake, ate it and threw the cake itself into the fireplace.

“I have always known,” she said. “It was a conspiracy of nonentities who did not dare let me become Queen. But until this day I have told nobody—I resigned myself to the dignity of defeat and my music. It is important to have secrets, and to keep them … and since you are so sweet to come and have tea with your tiresome old Granny I will tell you a little secret about yourself. Do you know how you were born?”

“Oh, yes. The doctors said Mother had to have peace and quiet so Father took her up to Glas-allt Shiel and I was born a fortnight premature and Father delivered me and Durdy helped and there was the most frightful fuss because you aren't supposed to be born without a lot of witnesses to prove that you haven't been smuggled in in a bedpan. I'm afraid I know that already, Granny.”

“Ah, but what you do not know is that you were
not
born prematurely. It was your wicked Father, wanting to do it all himself without the proper fuss and protocol … oh, he persuaded himself that it was for your poor Mother's sake … she is not a good bearer of children, dear Isabella—not like me—she cannot feel what a godlike act it is to give birth to a Prince—a little pain, pooh!—I smiled, I laughed with triumph, I gave birth like a cat, purring, I wished to do it before all the world, in Westminster Abbey, yes, and Ted Elgar should write me a birth-anthem for those sweet little choirboys to sing, with many many trumpets, so that the child should know that he had truly been born a Prince. And there would be public holidays and the bakers should bake loaves of a special shape—oh! … but dear Isabella, who is afraid of nothing else, wishes to creep away and give birth in secret, because she is afraid of that. But of course it was your wicked Father who put her up to it so that he could play at being a doctor. Premature? Pooh! You were a nine-month child if ever I saw one.”

“But Mother's doctors must have known, Granny.”

“Oh, my dear little gosling, when you are as old as I am you will have learnt how these doctors stick together. The crimes they hush up in their hospitals! And Vick is one of them—and remember he can reward their little lies with knighthoods and baronies and goodness knows what. So that is
your
little secret.”

“Thank you for telling me. I've always been a bit worried about their going off for a lovely quiet holiday and me barging in and spoiling it.”

“There, there, little owl. You must be careful not to have too sweet a nature. It is important that people should understand that you have it in you to make them suffer.”

Louise had her mouth full of chocolate Digestive biscuit, so she made a grunting noise. Granny was not deceived.

“Pooh!” she cried, waving another of the cakes as though it had been an elfin hand-grenade. “They will suffer in any case. Let a people choose a saint to be their prince, a deaf, dumb, blind saint, he will cause them to suffer by his saintliness. Your sweetness will hurt many people, people you have never seen, because you are a prince. It is better to choose whom you make to suffer, as I do … but you do not come to tea with me to hear sermons, but to talk gossip. What is happening inside that hideous Buckingham Palace? How is dear Sir Samuel?”

“Sir Savile, Granny. I know Father calls him Sam, but …”

“Nonsense! A Jew if ever I saw one—how is he?”

“Quite well, I think. Only before a big reception on Monday someone got into his dressing-room and cut the legs off all his evening trousers. He made it sound worse than if they'd cut off his own legs.”

Granny nodded.

“And somebody ordered a great many bad English pianos to be delivered here this morning,” she said. “Somebody in the Palace, who knew the ropes well enough to see that the gate-porters let them through. Oh, don't look at me like that little owl—it was your brother Albert of course. He is angry with me because I no longer invite him to tea. You will tell him I am not amused.”

“It wasn't Bert, Granny, honestly. We've had several of these jokes and two of them happened before Bert and I got back from Scotland, and the next one somebody used one of his toads for, which I'm sure he wouldn't have done.”

“Good. I am capable of making life unpleasant for Albert but it would give me no pleasure, and I am now too old to waste time on matters that give me no pleasure … so! You have a joker in the Palace. It is of course all the fault of Harold Wilson.”

“Oh, Granny! How can it be?”

“Why, of course, little owl, for not giving the King enough money to run his palaces, and for allowing everybody to be paid absurd wages—what sort of a country is it that has no poor?—so that your father must tell his faithful servants, ‘Go and find yourself a different job, because I can no longer afford to let you serve your King.' Then of course there would be a man—or a woman—no, it would be a man to cut off the trouser legs—who says to himself, ‘So, I am to be thrown out after all these years of loyalty. I will have my revenge in advance, before I go, so that I can see it happening, and all they can do is sack me. They cannot any longer put me in dungeons or crop my ears or even send me to Australia.' That is how I would think, little wren, except that my revenges would be more cruel. Trousers! Pianos! Pooh!”

BOOK: King and Joker
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