Authors: Emma Tennant
On a dull morning in September at her Scottish castle Balmoral, the Queen was packing an overnight bag.
She had never done this for herself before, and after negotiating the luggage storeroom (which she had never visited before) she felt too much attention would be drawn if she was seen dragging a heavy suitcase down the corridors to her private sitting room.
Besides, used as she was to every day of a tour being planned to the minutest sartorial detail, the Queen was certain her outfits would be waiting for her when she arrived at her destination. That she was not embarking on an official visit â that, in fact, no one knew where she was going, not even the Duke, her husband (he was asleep in his room) â somehow did not contradict her lack of anxiety about a change of clothes once she was safely
abroad. The Queen had never gone anywhere on her own, and the choice of handbag preoccupied her more than a fear of independence. Should she take (to accompany the small suitcase she had selected) the white bag or one that would match the pale lavender tweed she had chosen for the journey? The Queen had always been meticulously turned out and now she must achieve that level of perfection without a maid or a lady-in-waiting. The future, as she had clearly decided, must look after itself.
The fact was, the Queen had reached a time when it was preferable to look back and record the triumphs and quandaries of the past, than to gaze at an uncertain future. For over half a century, she had reigned as a model sovereign: dutiful, always ready to hear the complaints or demands of her people and to put these before her own wishes and interests. But now, one
was set to follow another. The European Council of Ministers was about to declare that all EU member states must have a written constitution. Most had, the most notable exception being Britain, with its âflexible' unwritten constitution. Rationalising this system into a form that might make sense to anyone else would whittle down the Queen's role, in her view a further step towards a republic; descendants such as Prince William might end up as no more than exiled royals in their own country.
And Balmoral, the monarch's most adored
possession, provider of peace since Victorian times for those beset with the troubles of governance and the stress occasioned by constant exposure to the public gaze â Balmoral was under threat and would in all probability no longer exist as a great private estate when the new Scottish laws on land ownership went through. The Queen would lose her rights to shoot and fish and go stalking deer over the glorious forty-thousand-acre estate. The miles of heather and grass and the quiet lochs would be trampled by ramblers and the sense of a haven from prying eyes would be quite gone. Add to that the most recent scandal, a kiss-and-tell story just extracted in the tabloids on Prince Harry by a prior girlfriend and the Queen's decision to leave the country she had served so loyally needed little explanation.
By the time the overnight bag had been filled with nightdresses and summer outfits (these all strictly long-sleeved) there were only ten minutes to go before the cab â she had seen the number scrawled in the pantry when inspecting the day's tally of pheasants â would be at the side turret door of the castle. There remained only the question of what to place in the handbag, and this problem caused the Queen some difficulty, as she had never looked in any one of the several thousand handbags given to her by ladies-in-waiting or the Mistress of the Bedchamber before going on a factory visit or a
walkabout to meet her subjects. The Queen had never suffered a sniffle, which would have justified the existence of the Kleenex tissue lurking within the rigid confines of the handbag. Nor did she ever powder her face in public, which would have given meaning to the pristine compact and discreet lipstick to be found in an angular corner of the white shining leather handbag. So it was with a sense of breaking new ground â a taste of what was to come â that the painfully hard gold clasps were pushed apart and the interior examined.
When the Queen had noted that there was nothing in the white handbag, she walked to her desk where the pile of letters from her people was refreshed every day by new pleas for kindness, love or money â and she dug deep into the section where a secret drawer, fashioned for Edward VII a century before, contained her air ticket and a stash of jewels. The Queen selected the Cambridge emeralds (they had been the gift of Prince Francis of Teck, brother of Queen Mary, to his mistress and had remained in the drawer after the Prince's death from pneumonia caught while stalking at Balmoral) and popped them into her bag.
âOh good,' the Queen said as she stepped out into the corridor and found to her delighted astonishment that the small suitcase sported a pair of wheels. âDoes one simply pull it down the stairs?' she asked â but for once, there was no one there to reply.
âGood morning, Your Majesty.' The greeting, not one that would normally be encouraged by the Queen or other members of the royal family, came from a tall, heavy young man in footman's attire. As he stood and bowed, the Queen could be perceived to smile; that this type of encounter was also unexpected was borne out by the jumping into a landing cupboard of a scurrying housemaid, who had come up behind Brno (this was indeed the footman's name: he was from a part of Eastern Europe that no one could ever remember). âAll set, ma'am?' inquired Brno in a slightly louder voice than usual, this to conceal the sneezes of the maid trapped in goose-down pillows at his rear. âTickets, money, passport, ma'am?'
Brno had been solely responsible for making possible the Queen's escape from a world in which she no longer believed she had a part to play. Some
weeks before, going at speed down the upper corridor with the aim of avoiding a royal duke banished to the high-up bachelor quarters after a particularly painful bout of publicity, Brno had dodged (as the maid had today) into a tall wardrobe and as he did so a clutch of British passports had flown his breeches and floated down a magnificent cedarwood spiral staircase to land almost exactly in front of the Queen as she went to take her corgis for a morning walk. The rest played out as if already planned: the Queen retrieved the passports, invited Brno back into her sitting room, and half an hour or so later, had the best forger in the country at her service. (The air ticket, too, had been procured as if by magic: a firm called The Westminster Travel Bureau had called in a Polish plumber to unblock their loos and Brno, on standby as he had been responsible for Slovenian sanitation in his youth, had made love to the charming young proprietor of the firm.) The Queen, seeing she had been booked to travel upper class on a Virgin Atlantic flight to the Caribbean, was reassured by the apparent assumption by Sir Richard Branson that she would prefer to go incognito in a class to which all her ladies-in-waiting, friends and more distant relatives belonged, rather than as royalty. Both the Queen and the Queen Mother, of course, were described by the aristocracy as irredeemably middle class; but Sir Richard had anyway not created that tariff.
âYes, everything ready, Brno,' the Queen said.
âYou'll send me a postcard, won't you ma'am?'
âA postcard?' For a moment the vision of a postage stamp danced in front of the Queen â but she remembered the island of her destination had been granted independence some years back: God knows who or what they had put on their stamps. âOf course I will,' the Queen promised Brno. âAnd I know that not a word will be said to His Royal Highness about â about all this?'
âI leave the castle today,' Brno promised â and this was indeed true: as Sir Brno he had purchased a thousand acres in Transylvania on the proceeds from his passports and had booked Lord Rogers to renovate the mouldering castle there. By this evening, as the Queen's Atlantic flight headed west across the ocean, Brno would be entering Romania (newly elected to the European Union).
âI must say goodbye now,' said the Queen gently as she also realised their diverging paths and thanking providence that she need never have to think about Europe again. âI wish you the greatest good fortune in your future projects.'
Brno was still bowing when the Queen, carried along by the excellent wheels on her suitcase (she had chosen to push it, like a pram), disappeared from sight round a bend in the corridor. âWhere the fuck's she going?' demanded the maid (her name was Louisa Stuart), as she climbed out of the cupboard and indulged in a lengthy coughing fit.
âShe's not getting the fuck out, is she?' And as Brno shook his head and looked firm, the girl added that she'd most certainly do the same if she had the chance.
The Queen had walked past the dressing room where the Duke was installed (a euphemism: men who had long ago stopped sleeping with their wives found themselves in need of a dressing room, as these invariably contained a bed with a plump eiderdown and a washbasin in case the stay was protracted).
There had been no farewell, emotional or otherwise â the Duke would hear along with the rest of the nation that his wife had disappeared. To tell him now would be folly, for the Queen had generally obeyed her husband as the old wedding service said she should; and to find her plans thwarted would have been insupportable. She might be the sovereign, but the Duke was her spouse: even contemplating the tussle involved was out of the question.
One of the Queen's sons was upstairs in the
bachelor quarters, but she couldn't remember whether this was due to an abrupt return to bacherlordom due to divorce or some kind of a nightclub scandal splashed all over the papers. At any rate, she walked past the corkscrew staircase leading upwards and went down to the drawing room off the main hall. Here, in time-honoured tradition, her corgis awaited their morning greeting from the Queen, followed by walkies on the wide lawns of Balmoral. And, just as she expected, a chorus of excited yapping met her entry: Whisky, Sherry, Trifle and Drambuie leapt up at the trim, tweed-suited figure and an eager queue formed just below the Queen's left elbow. Here, normally, a carrier bag (the Queen liked to use the same one every morning until it wore out and had to be replaced) swung with its allotted ration of biscuits. One each â and the dogs had learned there would never be a second helping â and it was time for the fresh air and happy scampering over the grass.
But today, as the Queen noted with some consternation, she had not been handed a carrier bag and there was no sign of the dogs' pre-breakfast snack on any of the occasional tables in the drawing room. Trifle, who was the Queen's favourite, understood this first and set up a moaning sound not unlike the bagpipes with which the castle regaled important visitors on their first evening there. Sherry followed suit, a look of disbelieving disgust on her face (she was descended from the
Queen Mother's corgis and did not like to forego a treat). The Queen, subject now to an attack from the rushing dogs, fumbled with the clasp of her white handbag, and for a few seconds a tense silence ensued.