In a sealed room in Beijing, China’s Politburo have come to a critical decision. In a few days from now, the government of a small, resource-rich Western nation will be thrown into chaos. Their US ally, caught up in its own problems, is in no position to come to their aid. Meanwhile, an English prince has a personal crisis of his own….
“Neddy,” she said. He turned.
She was holding the paper between her finger and thumb, as if it were a dead rodent she held by the tail. She dropped it on to the ivory side-table, one of the (now politically-incorrect) spoils of the Raj, and walked slowly towards him. She was very old now, and after decades of standing on hard floors making small talk, her feet hurt.
She put a hand on his shoulder. She had to reach up: ridiculously, he was almost twice her height. He glanced at the paper on the table, and gave a shrug of frustrated anger.
“Just the latest…crap. Isn’t there anything to be done?”
She settled herself in one of the armchairs, her three remaining dogs puddling at her feet. He remained standing. He felt like smashing something in this perfect theatre-set of a room.
“I’m afraid not, darling. It’s foul, absolutely disgusting, but you must realise there’s nothing one can do. If one were to even try to – exert influence, or…make a fuss – the situation would be far worse, believe me.”
His long fingers clenched. Not for the first time, he wondered, what the point of being first in line to the throne? It was nothing but a television serial writ large, a kind of morality play in which his family played, alternately, heroes and villains. At the end of the evening, the audience went home to their chip butties and sausages and mash, and they – yes, even her – were put away in their golden cupboard, ready for the next royal show. His father had always said that the public could be cruel. Not until Edward married did he understand exactly what his father had meant by that.
“Is she very upset?”
“Upset? She…” It was hard to describe his wife’s emotional state to being labelled ‘Madame Mao’ and (in the gutter press) the Right Royal Bitch. She’d always been reserved and in control of her feelings. To give way, to dissolve in the face of all this filth – she’d see that as surrendering. Instead, she froze, opaque as egg-shell.
“I know.” His grandmother put a soft hand on his knee. At ninety-eight, her hands were those of a woman twenty or thirty years younger. “I feel for her. I have the greatest sympathy, I really do.”
He felt his face changing colour, the way it always did when he was angry, or ashamed. He was ashamed – of them, those eager, ignorant men and women who lapped up the trash from the tabloids, and of himself. Just as the tabloid editors and their grimy staff, he too lived off the profits of fantasy. The public wanted Prince Charming and his Cinderella in white, his white bride – not the yellow-skinned, slant-eyed, black-haired princess who’d been foisted upon them. They didn’t want Sarah.
“I want to…resign. Can one resign – is it even possible? You know I can make my own living, Gran – I can go back to the army. I just don’t see the point of all this – of us.”
She clicked her tongue. The shrewd, diplomat’s eye took in the way he stood, tight as a bow-line, the soldier’s mouth thin and nervous.
“One can’t resign. One is born to do a certain job, and one does that job, to the best of one’s ability – oh, Neddie, you think that ‘we’ don’t have a purpose but we do – we do. It is a very distinct, a very special purpose…I’m not saying, of course, that we as a family, as individuals, are different than the common man, of course not..”
Edward noticed the way that she pronounced the term ‘common man’, with the emphasis on ‘common’. It was almost a comic imitation of royalty, of a certain attitude – as one might say ‘the common or garden snail’. Only she could provide that degree of condescension, and dignity, to the term.
“Our purpose is served precisely because we have no purpose. You know, dear, when I was very young I believed that as Queen I would have power – not very much but some power – to do something in the world, or…” she laughed, self-deprecating. “England. But after seventy years I have realised that if indeed we do have power, it is not to change anything but to ensure that things remain the same. That is so important for people – it gives them solidity, you see. Like one’s home.”
“But things should change. We’re a racist, nasty little island, and getting nastier by the day. This kind of – drivel – shows just what we’ve become. They call Sarah a Chinese gold-digger, all sorts of horrible names – and they don’t even know her. How dare they!”
He felt the stinging heat under his eyelids, and knuckled them. If only he could have called Tom Blackford, the editor of the Daily Star, out in a duel and shot him. Or had him sent to the Tower.
His grandmother, watching the colour in his face shift from red to white, and the gingery brows twitch, was powerfully reminded of portraits of her distant ancestor, Henry VIII. He had been a very handsome man in his youth. Quite mad, of course. Edward, though, was a lovely boy, and she rather liked Sarah. The bossy type – but then, so was she.
“Now then,” she said, ringing the bell to summon tea and cake, “I have an idea I think you may like.”