The Queen was homeschooled and the government, some years before, had settled my parents and me in a flat not so far from the Palace. To be her classmate you filled out an application form, and after that there were many interviews and different types of test. My father took me into the city on the bus five days in a row to sit them while my mother was at work. My parents tell me that it was my idea to apply but I remember it differently. I was a nervous child, even if I hid it well.
The results arrived by post in a real envelope, on real paper. My parents sat at our small, chipped, white dining table, and took turns reading from the document. It was a morning near midsummer but the light in our kitchen seemed thin to us. The sun in this country has nothing to it, no heat. In truth, I did not remember the country we came from, I had been too young when we left. But I believed my parents when they told me the sun here was false. My mother watched my father read, and then the same but in reverse; all the while, neither looked at me. As a unit, they went into retreat. Bewilderment, and silent pride. Like they had outdone themselves, and would never need or dare to guide me ever again, as if they might just ruin their own good fortune if they tried.
My acceptance into the Palace school was no surprise to me. It wasn’t the tests that made me nervous, but the footage. I hadn’t seen it yet because my parents were worried it would upset me, but everybody else I knew had. When adults watched they cried afterwards, including the President, who often screened the footage before making a public address. That poor girl, is what my parents called the Queen. And she was only three years old, they would say, shaking their heads.
This was the country we had come to.
I was her classmate for a year. That was the year we were ten, and then eleven – the Queen and I. It was already the seventh year of her enduring reign. The seventh year of our President’s, as well.
What can I tell you about those days? If I tell you she was lonely, I tell you very little. And yet the whole place was a ship that was listing to her. We were captives, we sensed it immediately, the nine boys and girls with her in that class. We knew this without telling each other so. Certain words and topics were forbidden to us when she was present, words and topics relating to those events that had been captured in the footage. But despite that, a sense of death you couldn’t escape. You felt it when you entered. I did not know how much she remembered of what had happened seven years before, and I did not want to find out.
Each morning it was the same. Waiting by the gates. Walking past the facsimile guards in their white-and-navy uniforms, their guns held high across their chests. Then through the scanners, and after that, if it was a broadcast day, one of her minders would come to straighten your clothes and smooth down your hair. The minders were interchangeable to me, even though some were men and others women, some dark and others light, some young and others old; they had an expression in common – taut, responsible concern. As you made your way to class along the musky parquet corridors, any minder you passed would smile. Their smiles were unyielding, like the wood. In response I kept myself very neatly arranged. My spine, my hands. You couldn’t help it. The place felt like it held you.
The paintings hung on the walls were there to be ignored, but walking past them every day I had chosen my favourites. One was a vast scene: children, dogs, shot pheasants; silken men in buckled shoes, frozen in exaggerated motion. In the background, Doric columns and a moody sky. The frivolity against the menace made me tingle. The other of my favourites was smaller: a portrait of a woman and a man. The woman’s dress was yellow and spectacular. I liked the man’s face, but the woman was so ferociously unattractive, so doughy and unformed, that I admired her.
When you reached the classroom the Queen would be waiting, at whichever desk she had chosen, often beside a window. The classroom had no paintings in it at all. Occasionally, a teacher would pull the shutters closed and project a picture onto the white wall – a map, perhaps, or a diagram. The rest of the time we looked at our own screens. The teachers changed regularly, like the Queen’s minders, rotating so often that it was our habit to simply call them teacher.
I did not try especially hard to grow a friendship with her. I had the idea, perhaps learned from my father or mother or perhaps from a book, that she would like me better if I did not capitulate to her instantly, and of course very quickly I observed how she treated those who did. When I arrived, in the final days of that summer, she seemed especially close to two of the girls and one of the boys, with everyone else, myself included, held at a certain radius of indifference. But the following week I heard her ask the boy what he was doing, standing next to her in line; hadn’t he figured out from the way she kept her back turned to him that he should find someone else to bother now? And later, in the dining room, I saw her laughing at the boy, whispering behind her hand and pointing. When I asked a long-plaited girl, later, as we left the Palace together, she told me that the boy was a great athlete, a fierce competitor. She predicted he would leave soon nevertheless; and it was true, he did.
This girl had been in the school longer than most. Three years. Since the beginning. She described her parents as friends of the Royal Family. Or, as she put it, the Royal Family that was. She had three siblings in regular school. They lived on one of the islands to the south of the capital, and she stayed during the week with her aunt, who had an apartment in the city. Every day after school, the long-plaited girl said, her aunt would sit with her and they would discuss, in some detail, every moment of the day she could recall. That was her secret, she told me. How she’d survived so long. Would she tell her aunt about this conversation? I asked her. She laughed. Of course she would. When the long-plaited girl approached the Queen, she often lowered her eyes. My darling, this girl would call her, like she was the Queen’s grandmother. She was very gracious. I noticed her body tuck under itself a little when the Queen was close by. This seemed to happen without the girl even noticing.
The broadcast days were once or twice a week. People had an appetite to see her on the screen. On some of these days, cameras so discreet we didn’t even notice would record short clips of our activities in class. The clips were put out in the evening, so that the public could enjoy seeing her live a normal life. At other times, the broadcasts were more staged, and occasionally, for these, the President joined us. We went along with whatever the Palace had planned, though it exhausted us to know that everything that passed between us would eventually play out before the cameras. The fragile allegiances, the little cruelties and negotiations, all on display. Those who had lasted the longest at the school, I observed, were the ones who were most circumspect during the broadcasts. For example, the long-plaited girl always took a great deal of care to keep a respectful distance from the Queen in front of the cameras, safely beyond the reach of any but the most subtle signals of rejection. She would relinquish her status and position in a self-effacing way. Apparently, she was inured to the advantages closeness to the Queen might give her.
Like everyone else in the country, my parents and I watched the Palace broadcasts at home together those evenings they were on. But they did not ask me for details. So, from the beginning, I decided to hoard them. In any case, it was inexpressible; life in the Palace school did not belong in our small flat. That listing of the ship, I asked myself, at our chipped, white table? Never that.
In those days I still played chess, and it was over a game that the Queen and I first spoke directly. We played on a board built into the top of an antique table. The table sat by a window, which looked out on the parterre gardens, in the small, quiet room adjacent to the classroom. I had to tell her what I liked, she said. I told her I liked chess and she said this didn’t count because it was old and dead, and I said that if it was old and dead then I liked it that way. I can’t imagine where this courage came from.
Did I want to know what she liked? Did I want to guess?
What first came to my mind, I am ashamed to admit, was jewellery. Her many polished stones lay somewhere below us in vaults, although I had noticed that on her wrist each day she always wore a simple beaded bracelet, surely worth nothing. Her clothes were aggressively plain. When I ventured nothing, she said that she had realised she was like an actor, and that’s why she liked the actors in films and on TV. She said this sotto voce. She didn’t like films and TV for the stories, she liked them for the actors. ‘I didn’t know there was a difference,’ I said, ‘between those things.’ ‘Of course there is,’ she said. She told me that when she watched, she looked through the story, past the story, for the person who was acting, and she said she liked the bad actors, not the good ones, because the good ones didn’t show you much about themselves, whereas the bad ones were always just themselves no matter what they did.
At home I was not allowed television or films, except for the Palace or news broadcasts, and, occasionally, documentaries. As I told her this, the pleasure of difference I had always felt for that reason, even at ten years old, slipped aside for a moment. She made me want to watch more television.
‘I like actors our age best,’ she said. ‘I know more about child actors than any other kind.’ Her eyes were large as she said this, and at times they would go glassy and flat, whether to conceal or to protect, I was never sure. It would often precede those times when she began a spell of behaviour her minders labelled ‘unacceptable’, at which point they would intervene in some way to contain or avoid it. On occasion, during a lesson, she would stand up and begin circling the classroom tables in her usual slow walk; everything held in place until she returned to her seat. Other times, she would stand at the window and simply scream, her face pressed against the glass, the window shut, until a pair of minders came, took her arms, and placed her on her seat again, or else removed her from the classroom. A boy asked her once why she couldn’t go to boarding school; he himself had been at one, for a short time, and he said it had been fun there. ‘Because there isn’t one that’s safe enough,’ she told him. ‘And besides, I won’t go. Can you imagine it?’ We had all glanced at one another; we couldn’t.
Now, she was bouncing her knees up and down and had a bishop in her mouth. I sensed that her eyes would not go glassy and flat this time. This time, I thought, I would be able to stop it coming to that.
I put my fingertip on a black square. ‘You should put that there,’ I said. She asked if I was sure, and I understood that she was giving me the chance to change my mind. ‘Of course I’m sure,’ I said. ‘Don’t you believe me?’ She said she didn’t know. ‘That’s fine with me,’ I said. ‘We haven’t known each other very long, after all.’ I watched her face pause, and then assume a softness.
‘You should put that there,’ I said again. And she did.
The following day was the first that she sat next to me in the dining room. She gave no explanation. It was not what I’d expected. Suspicion, of course, from the others. Perhaps it was simply that a vacancy had arisen. But I imagine she liked that I did not pursue her. I had then, and I still have now, an ability to hold myself in silence, to be quiet and still in my resistance, and I suspect that she liked that about me. Later she said that she could see me in a show as the quiet friend, the loyal friend, who is hiding something desperate. She said she couldn’t tell whether or not I would be a villain in the end.
It was her letters that made the difference. To both of us. She chose the day of the President’s first visit that autumn to give me the first one.
That smile the President has – it was just the same then as it is now. Close up, that smile blinds you. When he arrived we pushed our desks to the walls and pulled our chairs into a circle, his among ours, and he pulled her onto his knee. She might have been one of his dogs. He was not shy with her at all. Her smile, as he lifted her, was fixed. The minders and his entourage were smiling too. His sleeves rolled up, like a doctor’s. The broadcast camera was already running.
By that age she had already gained a lot of practice. If she was anxious or unsure, she never showed it. Never in front of a camera. She was trained like a professional. She spoke effortlessly, clearly; her consonants were crisp, as an immigrant’s like mine could never be. She never looked into the camera, unless answering a question put to her by an out-of-shot presenter standing beside it. On this occasion neither the President nor the Queen looked into the camera, but only at each other. The President asked her what she had been studying this week, and she began to talk about a book that we had read in class. Her reply sounded spontaneous and natural, but I had heard a minder help her to prepare the afternoon before.
He kept his arm around her all the time they spoke. Eventually he took it away, and she slipped from his lap and returned to her own seat the moment he did. After that, he swivelled round to look at me. For a moment I felt blinded again, like I might fall. When he shook my hand, his grip was firm but his skin was very soft. Everywhere, the strange, strong scent of his cologne.
‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘Welcome to this great country. What do you like about it best?’ It was difficult for me to answer, because this country was the only one that I remembered. ‘Snow,’ was what I finally responded, and he laughed. ‘Snow in the capital isn’t real snow,’ the President said. ‘If you want real snow, you’ll have to travel north.’ One day I would, I told him. I tried my best to match his smile but couldn’t. All the children sat still in their chairs as he spoke to me, and the Queen gave me a look reserved for amateurs. The President continued. Did I like the Palace school? Was I enjoying the great honour of learning beside our Queen? ‘Yes, very much,’ I said, copying her consonants. And was I doing my part to take care of her? Here, I only nodded that I was. I confess that I was scared to give him more. I saw her blink at him, her eyes flat and shining. Then she turned away.
That afternoon, after I had already put on my coat, I became aware that she wanted me to approach. We were in the corridor, alone, out of sight of anyone. She took a letter from her bag and held it out for me to take. The letter was heavy and bone-coloured, and it was addressed to a young actor I knew that she liked, care of his talent agency, located in that city on the far coast of the other continent. She had written the address on the envelope by hand, in blue ink. ‘I want you to post this,’ she told me. ‘And when you receive the reply, you have to bring it back to me.’ I ran the envelope over with my fingertips; we did not use real paper in our classroom very often. It was far better quality and more expensive-looking than any paper I had ever handled.
I handed the envelope back to her, confused. ‘If I do post this for you,’ I said, ‘why would a reply come back to me, when it was you who wrote the letter?’ She glanced around the corridor; it was still empty. Some way off, we could make out two guards blocking the large pair of wooden doors that led to the other wings of the building. We could see no minders anywhere nearby. ‘Because I put a return envelope inside,’ the Queen said, ‘with your name and address on it.’ Quickly, she reached to tuck the letter into the pocket of my coat. As she did, I caught a brief, clean fragrance. ‘My address?’ I said. ‘How did you get that?’ She put her head to one side and folded her arms, and only stared at me.
I knew better than to try to give the letter back a second time. But when I asked her why she could not post it herself, she did what I had begun to recognise she often did when she felt threatened: she switched into an arch, self-aware imitation of one of her minders. I found this repellent but felt compelled to pretend that I did not, which created in me a queasiness; I often felt this queasiness when I was near her. ‘Will you do it, or won’t you?’ she said, although it was the tone that counted; the same tone her minders used when she was behaving ‘unacceptably’. She was used to being pinned by them, and now, copying them, she had pinned me. And I sensed, in any case, that she was frightened.
I took the letter home with me, and when I could, I posted it.
When the reply arrived, delivered care of me at my address just as she had promised, in the same type of envelope as the outgoing letter, only this time with a foreign return postmark, I took it to her as she had asked, taking care to conceal the exchange. She seemed shocked when I passed it over, like she had never expected a reply at all; as if all she had really been expecting in return was trouble. But there had been no trouble. After receiving the post earlier that morning, one of my parents, I did not know which, had simply left the letter for me on the desk in my room, without comment. And now, quite undetected, the Queen slipped it in the pocket of her skirt and took it away with her.
An unfiltered line of communication to and from the outside world: that is what those first two letters gave her for the first time ever, I was almost certain. Whether because of this, or because of the contents of the reply itself (the details of which she did not volunteer, and which I did not ask about), she seemed to light up from the inside in the days that followed. So, again and again, we repeated the procedure. She would write to various of her favourite actors, usually care of their talent management agencies, which were often located on a particular boulevard in that distant city. Then, during shuffles for gym shoes or books, she would leave the letters in my bag for me to post on my journey home. Not always, but mostly, a reply came back. If one did, it would appear one day on my desk in my room without discussion, and I would pass it to her secretly.
Occasionally I wanted to provoke my parents into asking me about the letters. I thought about doing so when my father and I played chess together, or when I was cleaning with my mother before she left for her morning shift, but I never did. I did not want to take the risk. The Queen had begun to side with me against all the others in the class. And sometimes, as we ate our pea soup sitting side by side in the dining room, she would reach underneath the table to take my hand. I imagine that she trusted me.
I never read the Queen’s letters, even though I was in possession of them so often, both those she sent out and those she received. I could have, if I’d wanted to. But I never did. She had so little in her life that was her own. And the longer I knew her, the more I understood, or thought I did, how fragile she truly was.
That winter, the false sun of a whole day came and went in class and we did not see her. She had made her mysterious exits and entrances on occasion, but never, prior to this, had she been fully absent; she had always been well physically, never prone to sore throats or flu. That day we heard intermittent shouting, far off in the Palace. The teacher, alert, shut the door. We continued to feel her absence like some sort of wound, all the time aware that in any other, normal school, this would be unheard of, ridiculous. Not for the first time I felt the situation of her life, in its entirety, to be a kind of violence. Sometimes that thought pressed in on me so urgently that I wanted to scream. And yet, I reminded myself, she was my friend. But our friendship, such as it was, felt uneasy; it was too unbalanced to be otherwise.
In refusing the temptation of reading her letters, it was also true that I did not want to violate our bond. Which is to say, I was afraid. I had never expected her to like me, and I had never expected to enjoy it so much that she did. Strangers now occasionally walked up to shake my parents’ hands when we were in the supermarket, and our neighbours spoke to us differently when we passed them in the stairwells of our building.
Sometimes the Queen seemed to look at me as if to say, is there nothing more? Her expression burning. As if she expected me to fail her, to fail to keep her secrets. As if she wanted that. I wonder, now, what might have happened if I had obeyed the apparent, unspoken command, rather than the spoken. By then, most of the letters I was sending and receiving on her behalf were addressed to or from one particular well-known actor, a former child star, who was, at that time, aged about seventeen. She had confessed to me, red-faced, the obvious truth that yes, this actor had taken to corresponding with her, but she revealed no more than that. I felt in no position to press her further on it.
The President winked at me when I saw him next, on the day of the parade. Our National Day, which he had moved to midwinter’s day by then. Celebrating at midwinter reminded us, the President said, how the country had found its unity and purpose in the depths of greatest loss. That year, I paraded beside her in national costume. In an armoured car. Our two pairs of knees, side by side. I only sat there, while she waved. Beside the car, which crawled along, the soldiers’ buttons, shining. And when it stopped: his offered arm for her, and that one, small wink, for me.
I kept that costume a long time, remembering how my parents would watch that evening’s broadcast over and over again, as if it was the final proof they had been seeking that they had arrived and were citizens of this country.
One night at the end of winter my father woke me – the Palace had phoned my parents; the Queen had requested me. I would have to dress quickly. My father was already dressed. In the car he rubbed impatiently at the inside of the windscreen with his handkerchief to remove the condensation. We drove the eight or nine miles to the Palace in falling snow. The gates opened for us, and a guard in the gatehouse beckoned my father in. The usual guards were not present. Inside, a minder spoke to me softly and began guiding me upstairs with an arm on my elbow. I looked back and saw another one speaking quietly to my father. On an upper landing I looked down, peering over the balustrade, and saw my father walking back towards the door. Then, through a window on the first floor: his footprints in the fresh snow, his car door closing. I watched him drive away.
We went further into the Palace than I’d ever been before, into a different wing from where our schoolrooms were. It was low-lit and sleek and modern. The minder showed me through to her bedroom. Except for the light from the large television screen, it was completely dark. The television had been muted but blaring across it was a movie. The Queen was in her bed, sunk back on many pillows, wrapped in a quilt covered in raised, red roses. On the far wall, beside the bed, I noticed an irregularly shaped dark patch. The patch was liquid, dripping.
She had not been able to sleep, she said. She had screamed, she said, until she had persuaded them to get me. She was half smiling now. She was proud. Her eyes flashed with the light from the TV. She had taken on that arch manner again; I could see her spine straighten, the lining up of her vertebrae. What she wanted, she said, was for me to watch her favourite film with her. She patted the bed, beside her. Now my eyes had adjusted I could see a lamp on the floor, too, beyond the bed, lying horizontally and with glass fragments all around it. It was not lit; it appeared to be entirely broken.
I turned to look for permission, but nobody was there. Someone had silently closed the door behind me. My heart flowered up. I felt, for a moment, like I wanted to run. It was not clear what was expected of me, or even how I was allowed to be with her here, alone. But when I climbed in beside her, the covers were thick and heavy, and my beating chest eased. I sat upright against the pillows, too; there were enough for both of us. The roses on her quilt were each the size of my abdomen. She switched the sound on. The actors had the accent of the other continent, which was not especially familiar to me.
This, this was her favourite, she told me. It was a film in black and white. ‘But it’s not old,’ she said. ‘Not as old as you’d think.’
On screen, a girl sat with a man in an old-fashioned car. You saw them front on, as if you were lying on the bonnet. The girl clutched a battered tin box on her lap as the car bumped across a barren landscape. ‘It’s called Paper Moon,’ the Queen said. ‘He’s her father and she’s helping him to run his cons. But it turns out that she’s better at it than he is. And he doesn’t like it very much.’
I said nothing. I watched. The car pulled up in front of a house and the man and the girl climbed out. The man fetched a Bible from the boot of the old-fashioned car and took it with him to knock on the door of the house. The girl in the film wore a hat and had a fixed little face. ‘You’ll like this,’ said the Queen. She paused the film and mimicked the girl’s line. ‘Give me back my two hundred dolla!’ I had to do it too, she told me, and she laughed until I did. Eventually, we laughed together. ‘You trying to keep secrets from me?’ we repeated, over and over, like the woman at the door of the hotel room where the man was trying to keep the girl hidden. ‘You got diamonds and rubies in there?’ Once the woman left, the girl sat up in bed and lit a cigarette.
She had her own box underneath her bed. Inside were sweets, and we shared them, and we wondered together what it would be like to smoke a real cigarette. She was happy in my company. She sounded how they always wanted her to sound. I didn’t know whether I had underestimated or misunderstood her, this girl beside me in the bed.
She picked at a tiny loose thread on one of the bed-quilt roses, and she chewed on a liquorice lace. And then, ‘My grandmother,’ she said to me, ‘rode her bicycle to school every day. Even when it was snowing.’ She nodded towards the Park, which ran to the north of the Palace, towards the centre of the capital, just as it had done in her grandmother’s day, and for hundreds of years before. The Park was full of enormous, ancient trees, but its lawns were always mowed and its paths were always busy. You could ride a bike there any time you liked.
I stared at the sweet wrappers strewn across the bed. I did not know what to say. She made me tired. Her contradictions. I wanted to lie down properly then, and I did. She lay down too, and then she put her head on my shoulder. I felt my breath catch in my ribs. I felt like a failure. I felt that there was something I had missed. We might have been lying in a coffin, it was so dark in the room. She smelled of soap and lavender, and I fell asleep, and when I closed my eyes I could see images in black and white from Paper Moon.
When I woke, she was no longer beside me; I lay in the bedspread of roses alone. Someone had tidied away the wrappers and lamp and broken glass, and the slick of liquid on the wall, and they had set a glass of juice beside the bed. The curtains were still drawn, and the snow was bright outside when I got up and peeked through them. On her dresser, framed photographs of her horses. On weekends she went into the countryside to ride the horses. That is what the minders told us. I had never heard her talk about them. Was it that she did not want to make us jealous?
I felt a terrible aloneness. My stomach ached. Her room was too precise, it was exhausting and oppressive. I went outside into the corridors, and nobody was there. They were chill and carpeted. They might have gone on forever. I chose a direction and I walked. Finally, as I rounded a corner, a minder was there. She seemed to be anticipating me, folding her hands in front of her as soon as she saw me. She took me to my father, who was already waiting for me in the forecourt, his woollen hat held pathetically in his hands.
But it is the second time I was summoned that is important. What I have to tell you concerns, more closely, that second time. My parents were notified in advance. A weekend date was fixed, and at the appointed time a driver came to collect me in one of the Palace cars. Since that night in her room, we had sometimes shared our special jokes together at school. But as the weeks passed and the weather warmed, the Queen came to class on fewer and fewer days. We did not know for certain where she was when she was not in school, but occasionally noises of disturbance would reach us in the schoolrooms, and I pictured her shouting and destroying her possessions. We saw her minders less frequently, and when we did see them they would walk past us with their heads down, apparently preoccupied. The Queen had missed events scheduled at the Palace as well as several broadcasts, and I had been approached in the street by people concerned for her welfare. I had been waiting for her to hand me another letter, but she had not. In the back of the sleek, silent vehicle, I burned with the idea that she wanted to be with me again.
I was driven up to an unfamiliar Palace entrance: a small, nondescript door I had difficulty placing in relation to the other sections of the building. It led into a corridor that was dark and low-ceilinged and smelled of damp. Inside, a minder that I recognised a little greeted me. She stood with her hands clasped together in front of her. She seemed relaxed, but I sensed that this was a performance, a highly contrived effect.
‘I do need to thank you for coming,’ she said. She inclined her head towards me as she spoke. Her tone suggested we were resuming a conversation we had not had. ‘How wonderful for you, to be the Queen’s best friend.’ I didn’t think that was true, I told her. She shook her head at me; I could tell it was very important to her that I understood I was wrong. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘You are special to her. That has become very clear to us.’
The minder gestured for me to sit down with her on a nearby chaise. It did not look valuable but was worn; a functional piece of furniture, not decorative. It had been placed near a large door, which was held ajar by a bundle of electrical cables snaking out of the bottom. They flowed out into the corridor in which we were sitting and continued along it, down to my left and out of sight. A man wearing headphones rounded the corner with a jug of water and several tumblers on a tray. He did not glance at me for even a moment before opening the door with the cables and taking the tray inside.
‘As you are surely aware,’ the minder said, ‘the Queen is not currently herself.’ I said nothing, feeling as if I must give nothing away. ‘This is very sad,’ she said. ‘We here at the Palace need her to be well. Her country needs her to be well.’ I nodded a small agreement; I felt compelled to agree in some part. I briefly felt the fact of my being alone, here, with this woman. Earlier, when they called for me, it had been that rare occasion when my father was out and my mother was at home; she was recovering from a bad flu and had been unable to work. She had greeted the Palace staff with deference and had ushered me out of the door of our flat as quickly as she could manage; my father might, perhaps, have taken the opportunity to enquire in person why again it was that I was requested.
The minder wrapped her linked hands around her crossed knees. ‘We are all mindful,’ she said, ‘of exactly how unusual this situation is.’ She let her eyes roam broadly, to indicate our surroundings. ‘We empathise very much with the Queen’s distress. And it has taken those of us in charge of her care a long time to devise, in consultation with certain world-class experts, what we believe to be an appropriate solution.’ Her face was grave. ‘I hear you are a very clever child,’ she said. ‘Am I correct?’ Again, I felt I had to nod; a terrible repeat. I felt choreographed. ‘I thought so,’ she said. She began to smile, and her hand reached out and settled on my knee. ‘That’s why I have no doubt that you will understand exactly what we need, and why we need it.’
The Queen was, the minder told me, in need of a break. ‘A holiday?’ I said. ‘No,’ said the minder. ‘We have offered her a holiday, but she will not go. Did you know that she is afraid to leave the Palace? Impossibly afraid?’ I frowned at the minder. ‘No, that isn’t true,’ I said. ‘On weekends she rides her horses in the countryside.’ The minder shook her head. ‘Have you ever seen her ride a horse?’ she asked. ‘Have you ever been there at the time?’ I hadn’t, I told her, but I was sure I’d seen a picture of it. ‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘You’ve seen a picture.’ Apparently, I had pleased her greatly, but I still didn’t understand.
She would explain, she said, from the beginning. ‘The Queen does not ride horses,’ she said, ‘but it pleases many people to believe that she does. So, from time to time, we construct a picture of her riding, and then we put that picture on the news sites, where everyone can see it.’ But the picture isn’t real, I said. ‘The picture isn’t real,’ she repeated, ‘but the happiness it brings is real. And all the while, don’t forget,’ said the minder, ‘the Queen has been at home, safe in the Palace like she wanted to be.’ I said nothing; I continued to listen. Then, she fixed me very steadily in her gaze. ‘Now imagine,’ she went on, ‘that instead of making picture after picture, we could make a version of the Queen, a kind of copy of her, that we could use in videos, and which could even, in certain special places with certain special equipment, take her place in real life. Then the Queen could always have a rest when she needed to, without anybody being worried about her or becoming cross about it.’ She paused, and I knew she was waiting to gauge my response. I swallowed before I spoke. ‘Nobody should be cross with her,’ I said. ‘She isn’t even a grown-up yet.’ The minder blinked a number of times. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘perhaps that’s so. But we cannot change what is.’
She swept me through the rest of it, which she said would all be very simple. The Palace had already hired the best craftsmen and -women in the world to create her copy. But to be able to do it, she said, they needed to capture her reactions. And they needed to be strong ones, authentic ones. Ones that only a close friend, like me, someone she truly cared for, could help to evoke. ‘Her reactions?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ the minder said, ‘like laughter, fear, sorrow. We must record them closely. We need to capture her feelings to allow them to exist outside of her.’
I did not know what she meant by this. I kept staring at the minder’s dark red lipstick, which did not shine in any way. I wanted some of that water I had seen pass by in the jug on the tray. I was thirsty. There was something dreamlike I couldn’t break through, as if I were in a memory. I could barely hear my own voice. The minder sat patiently, observing me.
I asked her what it was, exactly, that they needed me to do.
The minder smiled again. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘She wishes to see you.’ Then she stood and showed me through to the room.
The walls were hung with screens of blue fabric and there were no windows, no paintings. Inside the room were five or six people, quiet and dressed in black, behind cameras of various sizes and shapes on tripods and dollies, or holding tall, jointed microphone booms at various angles. At the centre of the room was a table, piled with neatly folded clothes and boxes of various sizes, such as you might find in an expensive store. Beside it the Queen stood waiting for me, her expression placid and unreadable. I could not tell, and knew I would have no opportunity to ask, how she felt about the minders’ plan, or even to what extent she knew its details. Was it her plan too, I wondered? Did she know what was going to happen? Her presence, I told myself, seemed to imply that she had agreed, at least in some small part. ‘Look,’ she said, that same flat expression in her eyes. ‘We’re allowed to play.’
A soft-spoken word: the cameras began to roll. She pulled at something knitted and pink, which sprang loose, gutting itself readily. A sweater. She slipped it over her head. I did not know how to play with clothes. They were dumb under my fingers. I passed her, shyly, a pair of neat-heeled shoes. She put them on with quick, demure motions of her ankles. At the edges of the room, the silent, black figures.
On the table there was jewellery too, and I asked if it was real. She said she supposed some was; she didn’t herself know which of the pieces here were real, and which were not. Every item in her collection, she told me, had a companion version, an imitation almost impossible to distinguish from the genuine. It was safer that way, she said. She was happy now, and began to perform for the cameras. She placed a necklace on my collarbone, but I shucked it off; it felt alien and heavy. She took off her beaded bracelet and replaced it with one that looked as if it was made of diamonds and rubies. Everything sparkled and glowed underneath the spotlights.
After a time, minders brought seats up to the table, and then, while we sat, it was cleared and then re-piled, this time with food. The Queen took the diamond bracelet off and put her beaded one back on. We could hear murmurs: instructions, directions perhaps. In the peripheries, the cameras and microphones shifted positions. We forgot about them for a while. We began to eat, and to laugh. How could we not? We were giggling and stuffing our mouths with pastry when the clown came. He had a harlequin costume and a heavily painted face, and he came and stood beside us on a little plinth. He gave the Queen a bunch of paper flowers. She and I looked at one another, uncertain if this was a joke. With a raise of my eyebrows, and her almost imperceptible shrug in return, we agreed that we would play along. The clown juggled and made balloon animals and acted out little slapstick scenes with them before offering them to us.
For a time I forgot where I was and what I was doing. It felt good to be like a child. To have treats offered you, to delight in them, to share them with another. This, then, was happiness. I felt pleased to know, finally, what it was. But only a moment later, I saw her face seize. She was staring at the clown. She had become rigid. When I looked, I saw it for myself. The clown’s smile had creased his caked white make-up, revealing something of his brows, and of the trenches running downwards from his nose. They were familiar. Once you noticed that, then you could see it, too, in the way he moved his arms. Could it be true? That the clown in the harlequin costume was, in fact, the President?
The Queen’s eyes fell to her plate, and her back straightened even further. She began to tremble. I set my own plate down. The cameras shifted collectively, and creaked as they did. The peak of happiness had passed. You could feel it. Her hair had fallen over her face. The clown took off his hat and bowed, and then retreated.
Movement at the edges of the room, among the black-clad figures. A minder went to the Queen, patting my arm in light acknowledgement as she passed. ‘Well done, my dear,’ she said to her. I had never heard any of them call her that before, or any appellation like it. The minder pushed the Queen’s hair behind her ears and ran her fingers down the Queen’s cheekbone, then her jaw. I could see now that the Queen was crying. ‘Quickly,’ said the minder. She announced this to the room. ‘Quickly now,’ she said.
One of the figures in black pulled a projection screen down from the ceiling, so large it covered the whole wall in front of us, as if we were in a cinema. The microphone booms and cameras adjusted their positions. The minder squeezed the Queen’s shoulders and then she moved back to stand by the wall. The Queen was frightened, I could tell. Quiet again, and stillness. Behind us, a projector hummed and lit the screen. What would I have said to her, then, if I could have? It is impossible to know. I wanted time to breathe, but there was none. I was frightened, too. I had guessed what was coming.
My parents had been careful to prevent me from seeing the footage, wrapping their hands around my eyes or ushering me quickly out of rooms when necessary. We had, ourselves, fled violence, albeit of a different kind, though I remembered nothing of that. I knew only facts: that the footage was one minute and four seconds long; that, though always called ‘the footage’, it had, in fact, been compiled from video taken by two drones, both positioned near the church the Royal Family were entering that morning. I knew that she had been held by her mother for most of the film’s duration, and for a short time afterwards by her uncle. Those were the technical details on which I tried to focus. But of course, they meant nothing. In particular, I had anticipated nothing of the sounds. They seemed to come at me from all directions, even from inside. It was in my belly that I felt the hot staccato of the automatic weapon; in my own throat that the voices curdled into panic.
Observing her, I knew that she had never seen the footage, either. She kept her eyes open throughout. She did not collapse, not even once the projector was turned off and silence returned, raw and overwhelming. Yet, the sadness which had overcome her was thorough and real. The capturing process had surely been successful, her responses now available for use. I could not help but admire her. I realised I had never seen her stronger. Other, perhaps, than in the final moments of the video, in which she alone, miraculously unharmed, stands and reaches out her tiny arms.
During those final moments, did I reach across to hold her hand? I am sorry to say that I did not. My chair was not positioned close enough to hers, and it had not felt appropriate to move it. The room was warm but I felt held in place by ice. Had the positioning of the chair been purposeful, I wondered? Had I been supposed to comfort her? Or had I done as they intended? Had I failed, or succeeded?
After that, they took her away. She was ushered behind the curtain of blue fabric. The food and the clown’s gifts were cleared from the table. I was offered water, and as I drank I spilled it on myself, as if I had forgotten the proper usage of my mouth.
It was suggested I stroll the parterre, and, for an hour or so, I did. It was late afternoon by then. The breeze in the gardens was fresh and full of the sea. I tried very hard to think of nothing at all and felt queasy whenever I failed. So much blood, blooming into all those colourful clothes. I did not want to take the path that would return me to the small, nondescript door. I did not want to go back inside that room. In the centre of each of the parterre beds lavender flowered, and to make myself feel better I rubbed a head or two between my fingers and breathed it in.
I had reached one edge of the garden and was doubling back to begin another lap when I saw the President approach. He wore his usual rolled sleeves, and as he grew nearer I repeatedly glanced at his face, but I could see not a single trace of make-up there nor any tinge of white. He was inscrutable. I knew that I would never know, could never know, whether it had been he in the harlequin costume or whether she and I together had imagined it.
He put his hand between my shoulder blades. He turned on his heels, executing a move; we were walking back to the Palace now, together. I felt strangely limp underneath his touch. ‘You have done very well,’ he told me. ‘And there is only one more thing we require you to do.’ I stopped and turned to face him. He regarded me with what I felt was pleasure. ‘This time,’ he said, ‘you need to make her angry.’ The breeze blew around the two of us. ‘She is angry all the time,’ I said. I was afraid I had spoken out of turn, but he laughed and patted my back more firmly. ‘That is anger to which she is accustomed,’ he said. ‘With you, it will be real and new. We want you to play chess with her and cheat.’ He winked at me again, like on the day of the parade. ‘She doesn’t like to lose, you know. She isn’t good at second-best.’
At the end of the path ahead, a minder saw us approach and held open the door. I stopped walking again. The warm breeze came up once more as the President fixed on me, and I smelled the lavender and the ocean both, beneath the top note of his cologne. I had, perhaps, not ever felt as much alone. ‘I don’t want to do that,’ I said. He sighed, then, a small, brisk noise, and took his hand from my back. ‘There will be many times in your life when you won’t want to do what you must,’ he told me. ‘When you are older, you will remember this as the first time. Have you not enjoyed living here in this country? Have we not made you safe and welcome?’ Yes, I told him, of course. ‘And don’t you think that you should do your duty, just as she does?’ I felt helpless. My stomach pulled on me. Eventually, I said that I could, yes. I told him that I would.
Inside the blue-screened room the Queen was sitting at the table again, the chessboard set before her. She seemed refreshed, renewed. Her hair had been dampened and swept back, and her lips seemed to have regained some of their colour. She wore a simple navy dress, one I had not seen before. Her skinny knees were bumping up and down. ‘Let’s play?’ she said. I glanced behind me; the President nodded, almost invisibly, and slipped among the dark figures standing by the wall. I sat down, and the room became silent. The cameras once again began to roll.
The board was set to a standard opening, a chess problem of a kind I often set up at night on my small magnetic set. Before I went to sleep, I would think my way into the problem, in the hopes that when I woke, I would know the best solution. More often than not, this is what happened. Now, I was supposed to cheat. She was still pistoning her feet. For a moment I imagined her skin to be transparent so that I could see the tendons working underneath.
We played a few moves without speaking. For the first time, I saw her glance occasionally towards the figures at the edges of the room, and at the cameras and booms in operation; prior to now, she had seemed intent on maintaining the fiction that they were not present. Surely, this task I had been set was nonsense, a joke. Did she know what my objective in our game was going to be? Did she know the intended outcome was her fury? Surely, I thought, that could not be true. My task would be impossible if it was. And if it wasn’t, what was she expecting? She seemed to be expecting something.
I wanted so desperately to ask her, but I could not. There was a weight of expectation in the room that was palpable, and which I greatly feared to disappoint. I did not know how to disobey, but I realised, hopelessly, that I could not cheat, either. My thinking felt smudged over; my fingers simply would not make the moves. I could take my fists and sweep the pieces off the board, but I suspected this would delight her, rather than anger her.
I lifted my rook, and then I set it down again. I took a breath, and for a moment, I shut my eyes. Desperate this time, undaunted, I shuffled my chair closer. Then, I leaned to whisper in her ear. At the edge of my vision I noticed the cameras and sound booms moving in response, the better to capture her. I covered my lips with my hand. ‘I told the minders about your letters,’ I said. ‘I gave them every reply to read before I even passed them to you. They sealed them back up afterwards, so you couldn’t tell.’ My nose pressed close to her hair, my chin to her neck; she smelled, again, of lavender. She was poised, trembling. I could feel how rigid she was. ‘I showed some of the others in the class too,’ I said. ‘We all kept it secret. We laughed about the letters every day on our way home.’
I sat back, and I saw her blue eyes seem to flatten against the screen walls, and her shaking began to gather its own momentum. It was like a video we had watched once in class, of a bridge across a distant peninsula set to vibrating so violently by the wind one day that it collapsed. When she picked up the solid wooden board, the pieces fell away to the ground like the bridge parts falling into the water. She held the board horizontal when she hit me with it.
When I was able to sit up, a car took me home. It was nearly dark by then. My mother had made a stew and my father was ironing. They smiled at me and said nothing, refusing to violate their shared wall of silence, which surrounded the details of my life inside the Palace. For many days I was worried that the ringing in my ear might be permanent.
Less than a month later, I saw it for the first time. I was watching the evening broadcast with my father. An artist had come to teach us how to paint in a pointillist style and was explaining how the dots were like pixels on a screen. The Queen and I were shown painting side by side, though she had not been present that day. She was ill, a minder had told us. She needed to rest. An easel had been set up for her in the art room, and nobody had used it. But in the broadcast, there she was: painting. Her bright eyes, flicking up and down from her work; her curling hair, backlit by the window. I looked over at my father. He was delighted every time he saw me in a broadcast.
It was the first of many. Her absences grew in length and number. And in the evenings, she appeared on the screen in places I knew for certain she had not been: climbing a rope ladder in the ballroom; tending to tomato seedlings in the greenhouse; baking cookies. At school, the faces of the other children were impenetrable. I tried to make friends but it was as if I was diseased. On those occasions when she was in class with us, the Queen looked at me as if I were not a real person; as if I were dead. She had fallen so far behind in her schoolwork that the teachers had stopped even making her try to do the same as everyone else. I watched her closely to see if she had found another friend, but she had not. She did not respond to the kind words of the long-plaited girl any more than she did mine. I wanted to ask her: what is it you do when you’re not in class? Where do you go? Do you only watch films and television? But she would not speak to me at all. Occasionally, as we all shuffled into the dining room for lunch or jostled in the corridor putting on our coats, I reached out to touch her with my fingers, so lightly that she did not notice, to check that she was still real. I was always reassured that she was. But still, I ached, because I had lost her anyway.
In the summer I received notice that my place in the class had been terminated. My mother received a transfer to a position in the north and I began attending a new school. At first, because I was recognised from the broadcasts, we were a little famous, and people kept their distance. But this celebrity did not persist; after two or three years it was all but forgotten, and we were like anyone else in that small town, which lay under snow for most months of the year. The broadcasts were different by then. They had already taken on a form very close to what is familiar today: a casual address on a matter of interest, highlighting commendable acts, perhaps, or relating an inspirational story, five to seven minutes in duration, the Queen speaking in a warm and reassuring manner to the camera, in one of her rooms, sometimes in conversation with the President. And twice a year, an appearance on the balcony, or, at least, an appearance at which she could be seen through it, since she always remained standing within the balcony’s open French doors, just inside the Palace itself. Never in person, or even in close proximity. Never shaking hands. The Queen had been diagnosed with an immune illness, they said. She was now individually schooled.
On several occasions, I tried to contact her. But my letters were returned unopened. To wait near the Palace itself in hope of a glimpse, as many people did, was fruitless, impossible. Her seclusion was rigid and absolute. Or so you were supposed to assume. Such was the illusion, the mechanics of the lie. I knew nobody who doubted that the monarch they saw daily on their screens was real. It was possible that, since I had known her personally once, they simply did not voice their doubts in front of me. But I did not think so. After all, the Queen offers daily comfort, and over time I had come to accept that belief in her provides its own reward.
Artwork © Catherine Yass, Corridors, 1994, Tate/Catherine Yass