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Authors: Sue Townsend

The Queen and I

BOOK: The Queen and I
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TITLE: The Queen and I

AUTHOR: Sue Townsend

PUBLISHER: Methuen

COPYRIGHT: ©1992

ISBN: 0 413 65000 6

ABEB Version: 3.0

Created: 2003/12/13 @ 11:35

An mdf Scan & Proofread.

The Queen and I

Sue Townsend

For Gabrielle, Bailey and Niall

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Queen and I
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used entirely fictitiously.

Now, when thou wak’st, with thine

own fool’s eyes peek

William Shakespeare,

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

April

1 Uneasy Lies the Head

The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris. It was election night, 11.20 pm, Thursday 9 April 1992. Harris yawned, displaying his sharp teeth and liver-coloured tongue.

“Are you bored with the election, my darling?” asked the Queen, stroking Harris’s back.

Harris barked at the television, where a display of computer graphics (little men in top hats) was jerking about on the screen. The Queen watched with amused incomprehension for a while, before realising that the red, blue and orange computer men represented the present composition of the House of Commons. A tall man with flailing arms stood in front of the display and gabbled about the accuracy of opinion polls and the likelihood of a hung parliament. The Queen reached for the remote control and turned the volume down. She recalled how, earlier in the day, a secretary had passed her a clipping from a Conservative newspaper, saying, “This may amuse you, Ma’am.”

It certainly had amused her. A spirit medium employed by the paper had claimed to have been in touch with Stalin, Hitler and Ghengis Khan, who had all assured the medium that, given the opportunity, they would have been hot-footing it to the polling stations and voting Labour. She had shown the clipping to Philip at dinner, but he hadn’t seen the joke.

Harris grumbled in the back of his throat, jumped out of bed and waddled over to the television set. It was now 11.25 pm. Harris barked angrily at the screen as the result for Basildon was declared. The Queen lay back on her crisp linen pillows and wondered who would be kissing her hand tomorrow afternoon, nice John Major or perfectly agreeable Neil Kinnock. She had no particular preference. Both party leaders publicly supported the monarchy and neither was Mrs Thatcher, whose mad eyes and strangulated voice had quite unnerved the Queen at their regular Tuesday afternoon meetings. The Queen wondered if the day would ever dawn when a victorious Prime Minister did
not
support the monarchy.

The computer men vanished from the screen to be replaced yet again by anxious politicians being interviewed and Harris lost interest and jumped back onto the bed. After turning full circle, he settled himself onto the downy softness of the bedcover and lay down. The Queen reached out and patted him goodnight. She removed her glasses, pressed the “off” button on the remote control, then lay in the darkness and waited for sleep. Family worries came crowding into her mind. The Queen whispered the prayer that Crawfie, her governess, had taught her, over sixty years ago:

If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

As she took her last conscious breath before sleep overtook her, the Queen wondered what would happen to her and her family if a Republican Government were to be elected: it was the Queen’s nightmare.

2 A Breath of Air

The Queen winced as Jack Barker ground his cigarette out on the silk rug. A faint smell of burning rose between them. Jack fought the urge to apologise. The Queen stared at Jack disdainfully. His stomach gurgled. Her picture had hung in his classroom when he was struggling to learn his nine times tables. In his boyhood he used to look to the Queen for inspiration. Prince Charles bent down and picked up the cigarette stub. He looked for somewhere to put it, but, finding nowhere suitable, he slipped it into his pocket.

Princess Margaret said, “Lilibet I’ve
got
to have a fag. Please!”

“May we open the windows, Mr Barker?” asked the Queen. Her accent cut into Jack like a crystal. He half expected to bleed.

“No chance,” he replied.

“Am I to have a house of my own, Mr Barker, or must I share with my daughter and son-in-law?” The Queen Mother gave Jack her famous smile, but her hands were twisting the full skirt of her periwinkle dress into a knot.

“You’ll get a pensioner’s bungalow. It’s your entitlement as an ordinary citizen of this country.”

“A bungalow, good. I couldn’t manage stairs. Will my staff be living in or out?”

Jack laughed and looked at his fellow Republicans. Six men and six women, hand-picked to witness this historic occasion. They laughed along with Jack.

“You don’t seem to understand. There’ll be no staff, no dressers, no cooks, secretaries, cleaners, chauffeurs.”

Turning to the Queen he said, “You’ll have to nip in now and then, help your mum out. But she’ll probably be entitled to Meals on Wheels.”

The Queen Mother looked quite pleased to hear this. “So I shan’t starve?”

“Under the People’s Republican Party’s rule, nobody in Britain will starve,” said Jack.

Prince Charles cleared his throat and said, “Er, may one, er, enquire as to where … ? That is, the location …?”

“If you’re asking me where you’re all going, I’m not telling you. All I can say at the moment is that you’ll all be in the same street, but you’ll have strangers as next-door neighbours, working-class people. Here’s a list of what you can take with you.”

Jack held out photocopies of each of the lists his wife had compiled only two hours before. The lists were headed:
Essential Items; Furniture; Fittings, suitable for two-bedroomed council house and pensioner’s bungalow
. The Queen Mother’s list was much shorter, she noticed. Jack held the papers out, but nobody came forward to take them. Jack didn’t move. He knew that one of them would crack. Eventually Diana got up, she hated scenes. She took the papers from Jack and gave each member of the Royal Family their list. There was quiet for a few moments while they read. Jack fiddled with the gun in his pocket. Only he knew that it wasn’t loaded.

“Mr Barker, there is no mention of dogs here,” said the Queen.

“One per family,” said Jack.

“Horses?” asked Charles.

“Would you keep a horse in a council house garden?”

“No. Quite. One wasn’t thinking.”

“Clothes aren’t on the list,” said Diana, shyly.

“You won’t be needing much. Just the bare essentials. You won’t be making personal appearances, will you?”

Princess Anne rose and stood next to her father. “Thank God for that! At least something good has come out of this bloody shambles. Are you all right, Pa?”

Prince Philip was in a state of shock and had been ever since the previous night when he had turned on the television for Election Night Special at 11.25 and seen the announcement of the election of Jack Barker, founder and leader of the People’s Republican Party, as the member for Kensington West. Prince Philip had watched incredulously as Barker had addressed the joyous crowds in the Town Hall. Middle-aged poll tax payers had cheered alongside young people wearing ragged jeans and nose rings. He had lifted the telephone and advised his wife to watch the television set. Half an hour later, she rang him back. “Philip, please come to my room.”

They had sat up until the early hours as one Republican candidate after another had been declared elected in front of cheering crowds of British citizenry. Gradually their children had joined them. At 7.30 am the servants brought them breakfast, but nobody ate. By 11 am the People’s Republican Party had won 451 seats and John Major, the Conservative Prime Minister, had reluctantly conceded defeat. Shortly afterwards, Jack Barker announced that he was Prime Minister. His first job, he said, would be to go to Buckingham Palace and order the Queen to abdicate.

The thirteen Republicans in a minibus had been waved through the gates of Buckingham Palace by smiling policemen. The soldiers of the Household Cavalry had removed their bearskins and waved them in the air. Members of the Queen’s personal staff had shaken them by the hand. Champagne had been offered, but had been declined.

Until his election as member for Kensington West, Jack Barker had been the leader of a breakaway section of the Television Technicians’ Union. For the three weeks preceding the General Election, Jack and his disgruntled members had broadcast subliminal messages to the watching public: “VOTE REPUBLICAN – END THE MONARCHY”.

On the Saturday before polling day,
The Times
had called for the dismantling of the monarchy. A hundred thousand anti-monarchists had walked from Trafalgar Square to Clarence House, not knowing that the Queen Mother was at the races. A violent thunderstorm had dispersed them before she returned, but she saw the discarded placards from the window of her limousine.

“GOD DAMN YOU MA’AM”

An error, she thought, surely they
meant
“God Bless”, didn’t they?

That evening, she noticed that her staff were surly and unco-operative. She’d had to wait half an hour for a servant to draw her bedroom curtains.

On polling day the British people, brainwashed by the television technicians, had made their choice.

An officer of the Household Cavalry knocked and then came into the room.

“They’re calling for you, sir,” he said.

Jack snapped, “Don’t call me
sir
, I’m plain Jack Barker to you – right?”

Jack addressed the assembled Royals: “We’re going on the balcony for a breath of air.”

The walk from the back of the palace to the front made Jack breathless; he was out of condition. It was a long time since he’d walked so far.

“How many rooms have you got?” he found himself asking the Queen as they trudged along the endless corridors.

“Enough,” said the Queen.

“Four hundred and thirty-nine, we think,” said Charles helpfully.

As they turned a corner a low grumbling growl could be heard, as though a hibernating bear were being prodded awake with a stick. As the Republicans and the Royals entered the Centre Room the noise overwhelmed them. When Jack Barker stepped out onto the balcony the crowd below opened their throats and roared, “Jack, Jack, send ’em back!”

Jack looked down at the citizenry of Great Britain surrounding the palace. The Mall and the Parks were so full of bodies that not an inch of pavement or a blade of grass could be seen. He was now responsible for their food, their education, their drains – and finding the money to pay for it all. Could he do it? Was he up to it? How long would they give him to prove himself?

Above the noise he shouted, “Would the ex-Royal Family join me, please?”

The Queen straightened her back, adjusted the handbag on her arm and stepped onto the balcony. When the vast crowd saw the small familiar figure they grew silent, then, like children defying a stern parent, they again began to roar, “Jack, Jack, send ’em back.”

As the other ex-Royals filed onto the balcony the boos and catcalls began. Diana tried to hold her husband’s hand but he frowned and put his hands behind his back. Princess Margaret lit a cigarette and inserted it into a tortoiseshell holder. Prince Philip and the Princess Royal linked arms, as though the noise of the crowd were tangible and would knock them off their feet.

The Queen Mother smiled and waved as was her habit. She was too old to change now. She longed for a gin and tonic. It wasn’t her custom to drink before lunch, but this was rather a special day. She would ask Mr Barker if it was possible when they had finished this rather disagreeable duty.

One of the Republicans handed Jack a Safeways plastic bag. It contained something heavy and bulky. The bottom of the bag strained to contain its burden.

Two Republicans held the bag open and Jack removed the Imperial State Crown. It was bordered with pearls and set with glowing clusters of emeralds, sapphires and diamonds. Jack turned the crown around so that the Black Prince’s Ruby faced the crowd. He then held it over his head with his arms fully stretched and hurled it into the courtyard below. As it fell, the Queen recollected how she had hated and feared that crown. In the days before her coronation she had dreamed of the crown falling from her head as she rose from the throne. Now, as she watched her household staff scrambling for the scattered gems in the courtyard below, she remembered the nervous breath of the Archbishop of Canterbury as he had placed the seven pound crown on her head.

“Wave goodbye,” instructed Jack Barker.

The ex-Royal Family waved, each remembering happier occasions, wedding dresses, kisses, the cheers of the adoring crowds. They turned and went inside. Now it was Jack and his colleagues who were cheered until the pictures on the palace walls vibrated. Jack didn’t stay long, he would not encourage the cult of personality. It caused jealousy and resentment; and Jack wanted to keep the affection and respect of his colleagues for as long as possible. He liked being in charge. At infant school he had been the class milk monitor, placing a bottle of milk before each pupil, then making them wait for a straw, then collecting the silver foil tops and pressing them into the large ball they were intending to give to the blind. If a child inadvertently squashed its straw, Jack sternly refused to hand out another.

Five-year-old Jack lived in chaos at home. He liked school because of the rules. When Mrs Biggs, his fat teacher, shouted at him, he felt safe. Jack’s mother had never shouted; she hardly spoke to him apart from telling him to go to the shop for five Woodbines.

Inside the Centre Room the Queen waved Margaret’s cigarette smoke away and asked, “How long have we got?”

“Forty-eight hours,” said Jack.

The Queen said, “That is very short notice, Mr Barker.”

Jack said, “You should have known your time was up years ago.” To the assembled Royals he said, “Go to your homes and stay there. You’ll be notified of your removal dates.”

BOOK: The Queen and I
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