National Dress | Rebecca Sollom | Granta

National Dress

Rebecca Sollom

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.

Rebecca Sollom

Rebecca Sollom is an Australian writer living in the UK. She holds a PhD in cosmology from Cambridge and is a recent graduate of UEA’s MA in prose fiction. ‘National Dress’ is an extract from a longer work of the same title.

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