The Prince.


There was no coffin at the funeral; and it is now a week since the Prince's second marriage.

Wedding, funeral, wedding; married twice, but still no coronation, the kingdom oscillated between joy and grief. Between the flags, and mugs, and chocolates, and dark suits, obituaries, and solemn music. The bell is muted and unmuted and muted again; the red-white-and-blue garlands replaced with black hangings. The Bishop, who told us yesterday that the good lord giveth and the good lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord, is telling us today, that the good lord once sanctified a wedding with his presence. With a glance backwards at happier festivities in days of old, trestle tables are dusted off, and flags hung up, and cakes baked and neighbours who have not spoken to each other in years prepare street parties for the children; and anti-Royalist newspapers print souvenir editions. And the streets are jammed; and the population of the kingdom crowds into the royal park, and the foreign kings and queens in their white hats and shiny carriages are roped off in special enclosures, and an orchestra is squeezed into a band-stand, and the sun goes down and the fireworks explode. The tragedy in between is forgotten, and nobody dares to ask.

And among the kings and queens, in the royal marquee, looking out across the lake as the fireworks wound the sky, sad faced, handsome, is the Prince. He looks out across the lake and listens to the festivities and knows that he can have no part in them.

The last rocket is fired at an impassive sky, and it is suddenly the morning, and the gates of the palace are flung open, and the Prince emerges, and the white horses, seeming to march in step, pull his gold carriage through the streets, through a marble gate, looked at with green brass eyes by his great-great-grandmother, who founded the kingdom. And then, past crowds who cheer far too loud, along the huge avenue, and thence to the greatest cathedral in the land, where the bishop is waiting to repeat his well-rehearsed service.

And she, the Princess, young, girlish and pretty, from her smaller palace, in her smaller carriage, meets the Prince, as she walks down the aisle, and looks at pew after pew of visiting royalty, and wonders what world she has been sold into, as rings are being exchanged, and national anthems sung, and husband and wife loaded into the carriage and back to the palace; and we are sweeping up the paper flags and coloured ribbons and spent fireworks, and holding our breaths.

A week has passed, now, and I am seeing the sights of the big city. I look up the avenue, with trees and royal park on one side, and the houses of the most rich and famous and powerful on the other, and see the palace, in the distance, at the other end. I hold my breath, overawed with the size and grandness of it all, and begin to walk up the avenue, to get a better look and to see the soldiers marching up and down outside it. But as I walk, looking now at the trees and the birds, the smart mothers with messy children and boxes of sandwiches, and now at the houses, wondering who these rich people are and if the Prince ever visits his neighbours, and thinking, idly, about what a huge trestle table they would have had to erect for all the little dukes and duchesses, I realise why everyone has stopped. There is a carriage coming up the long street, a golden carriage pulled by white horses, that march almost in step. The Prince has been out of the palace. Perhaps he has been out visiting important, rich, people, or perhaps shopping in the huge, opulent stores that royalty frequent. It is said that the hugest shop in the whole land throws all the Viscounts and Generals and Millionaires out when the Prince comes, to do his shopping alone and un-interrupted.

But the carriage stops, and it stops only a few feet away from me, and I am standing, gawping at the windows, brushing down my cheap, travel-worn dress and running my fingers through my hair, in case he should be looking at me. And suddenly, before I can realise it or think to question, the door to the carriage is open, and the Prince, smiling charmingly, is looking at me, and his foot is on the foot plate, and his hand is reaching out, and pulling me, gently, gentlemanly, onto the plate and into the carriage and I am sitting on the expensively upholstered seats and looking at the walls of the carriage, more beautiful and larger than the best room in my house, sitting next to my Prince.

And the carriage is moving up the road, under the statue of his great grandmother, through the cast iron gates, and the soldiers in red are saluting him - saluting us - I realise, and we are in the land that the public never sees, beyond the walls, in the courtyard, in the palace, and I am looking, dumbfounded, at the Prince, and he is smiling, back at me, and nothing is passing between us but the smalltalk of ruler and subject; he, asking about my mother, my husband (I have none) my job; me, replying "Yes Sir" and "No sir" like a schoolgirl before her teacher.

I have heard of people crossing this threshold before; invitations to royal parties sent out to important people on gilt edged cards; inviting them, for those few hours, to be guests in that elegant world of meringues and flamingoes. But they are not led into the palace itself.

There is a moment of shocked disappointment when the wide, painted door is opened by a smart, uniformed, butler and I am standing in an entrance hall; it looks like the entrance hall of many other huge houses that I have been in, places where you pay a pound for a guided tour. There is a slightly worn red carpet on the floor, and paintings on the walls, - past Princes, and the omnipresent great-great grandmother. A footman stands by a wood panelled double door, but he signals to another servant, and I am led through a side door, bearing a sign saying "no entry to the public", and the Prince, pleasantly enough, although he never smiles, whispers that he will see me shortly, and I am led along white painted corridors with no fingerprints on the walls, through plain wooden doors, until I have a sense that I have gone back stage, into a world that even the Prince never sees, a secret world belonging to the servants. Up a flight of stairs, not a grand flight with curved bannisters, but a narrow path with a worn-out, green carpet: and across landings, and up more stairs, and realise that I am at the top of the palace, in, it seems to me, the loft.

But the loft is laid out like a lady's chamber, and, although the walls are bare brickwork and the roof is unpainted rafter, the fixtures are nice enough. There is a dressing table with a heart shaped mirror, and chest of drawers and a wardrobe and several armchairs; and everything is pink, not painted, but somehow carved of pink wood, looking like a wedding cake. For a moment, I think that this must be where the Prince stores things that have worn out; but the furniture is neatly arranged. As I am opening the wardrobe, and looking at the dresses within; so beautiful that they seem somehow old, and wicked, so ornate that they seem somehow comical; another door opens, and two women come into my loft. They are dressed in clothes from the wardrobe, and thick make-up struggles to mask their ugliness.

"Have you come to join us." they ask, and laugh hilariously.

I recognise their changed faces. The palace door has been shut behind me.

I hear the Prince's footstep on the worn-out, green carpet.