When I lived in Richmond I worked for Sorrels, the antiquarian book shop. Shut away amongst shelf upon shelf of musty-smelling books, cataloguing the latest acquisitions, life was duller than people imagine. Outside the shop, passersby would gaze in through the leaded windows at books on display. Then, likely deciding our shop looked too expensive – which in all honesty it probably was – they’d be off down the high street, taking coffee at the quaintly named Kiss the Hippo cafe, drinking in the Waterman’s Arms or tramping the narrow streets towards the glorious open spaces of Richmond Park, armed with the latest guidebook.
Sometimes we’d get visiting ‘celebs.’ Melanie Griffith buying an early edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Stephen Fry with his toy-boy ‘husband,’ buying Shakespeare and Houseman, and even Tom Cruise – his ‘minders’ crowding the narrow shop – splashing out on a fine copy of the very first Rupert Annual, published in 1936 and complete with the rare ‘Rupert and the Kite’ dust-wrapper. In fact, the only one of the much-loved and much-scribbled-upon series of children’s books to be thus-adorned.
But my strangest encounter was one weekday in June when I had the day off and decided to take the tube into town. The District Line platform was sparsely populated as there came that familiar rush of warm air and the eerie sound of an approaching train. I took my seat in one of the rear carriages as is my wont, believing myself safer there in the event of a head-on crash. The train pulled out and rattled on its way. The window reflected that strange, ghostly double-image of myself against the blackness of the tunnel and, after Kew, I took out my phone. No messages. I tapped on a Kindle app and became engrossed in Joseph Murphy’s The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, only vaguely aware of people getting on and off.
At Stamford Brook a couple got on and sat at the far end, and an elderly woman took a seat opposite me in the otherwise empty carriage. I looked up. She wore a smart silver-grey jacket and trousers, and a matching headscarf over curly white hair. I watched her take out a small notebook filled with tiny writing in a neat blue hand that went right to the edges of the pages. With a pencil she began to underline certain sentences and paragraphs. I watched her at her self-appointed task and the more I watched, the more I wondered. It couldn’t be, surely?
The woman looked up over pince-nez, sensing my stare. an imperceptible smile playing on her rouged lips. Then she went back to her underlining.
Finally, I could stand it no more. In a hushed tone I said, “Excuse me, do you know you’re the spitting image of … of the Queen?”
She put her book down and looked at me over her glasses with piercing blue eyes. “That’s one way of putting it.” She gave a small smile. “And who are you?”
‘My name’s Mark,” I said, as I gave a brief outline of my situation and job, getting tongue-tied then speaking too fast, stumbling over words.
All the while she sat there, quiet and composed, listening as if I were telling the most fascinating story ever told. Finally, she said, “That’s all very interesting, young man. I will say I have many old books myself, in fact a very great many.”
From her voice and manner my doubts were diminishing. I felt emboldened. “Then you are … I mean … er, Your Majesty, er … you are the Queen?”
She removed her glasses and gave a gentle, friendly smile. “Indeed, I am, young man, but, please, just call me ‘Ma’am,’ I don’t need all this Your Majesty malarkey today.”
“But, Your Ma– … sorry, Ma’am, isn’t it dangerous for you to travel alone on the tube?”
She smiled and nodded towards a nondescript couple sitting at the end of the carriage, staring blankly ahead, the only other occupants. “Ex-Mossad,” she whispered conspiratorially.
“Ah,” I said. “But … er, what if ….”
She gave me an earnest look. “There’s nothing to worry about, young man. You see, if I fancy a bit of a … walkabout, I suppose one would say … then I have a maid who dresses as me and is driven around with a lot of fanfare.”
“Look, I suppose I shouldn’t be telling you this.” She lowered her voice, glancing towards the man and woman at the end of the carriage. “But they had a mask of my face made and when she’s wearing it, well I swear I’m looking in the mirror!” She gave a little chuckle. “So right now, she’s being driven to Windsor castle in a motorcade and I’m free to travel around, incognito.”
“Ha, that’s amazing. So where are you going today … er, Ma’am?’
“Shopping.” She tapped a powdered nose.
She hesitated, then, “Yes, shopping for something special for my son’s birthday. I’m not certain what to get him though.”
“Which son, if I may ask?”
“Oh, I’m sure you have the internet on that thing,” she said, nodding towards my phone, “you can look it up. Then I won’t be giving away any state secrets.” She gave another little chuckle. “But my eldest!”
“Well, could I make a suggestion, Ma’am?”
She wrote it at the back of her little notebook. “Look, we’re getting off at the next stop. Is there anything you’d like to ask me before we go?”
A thousand thoughts crowded my mind but only one came out of my lips. “What’s it like, … er, what’s it like being the Queen?”
The train began to slow and the minders stood up. She swapped her pince-nez for a pair of Ray Bans. “It’s a life so different to yours that I couldn’t begin to describe it, and we have such … such immense wealth and property and possessions, sometimes it’s, well, overwhelming, even for me!” She chuckled again. “But a lot of the time I just go through the motions like an actress. I’ve been doing it for seventy years after all!”
A minder helped her off the seat as the train stopped. He looked like Uri Geller and looked at me as if I were something he’d just scraped off his shoe.
The Queen turned, “It was nice to meet you, young man.”
I suddenly felt embarrassed and tongue-tied. “Thank you, er, thank you, Your Majesty.” I gave a little bow, but she didn’t see. She was already on her way out of the doors, a minder at each elbow, her thoughts no doubt occupied with her gift-buying mission.
Then, six months later, a rather impressive Christmas card arrived at the shop. The envelope was gold with a red ribbon embedded all around. A lion and unicorn were embossed on the rear. Surprised, I opened it with no idea who could have sent it. As I read, it all came flooding back to me. In blue ink in a flowery hand, it said:
To Mark. A Merry Christmas to You and Yours, Elizabeth R.
P.S. Thank you so much for your suggestion. Charles is a big lover of Rupert Bear and was delighted!
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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