It is eight o’clock in the evening. The time when many families sit around a table together, eat and talk. But our children have left home. Now it is just my husband and myself. I am bored with cooking, and he is behind the evening newspaper.
“How was your day?” I ask him.
He grunts from somewhere in the middle section. I sigh, slam our plates on the table and sit down opposite him. Wringing the neck of the pepper grinder, I stare angrily at the headlines: “MPs Revolting”. Nothing new there, then.
When the smell of onions eventually reach Harry’s twitching nostrils, his newspaper begins to go limp from the steam, and my menacing silence becomes too loud for him to ignore, he will stop reading, and speak to me. How do I know this? Because every evening, it’s the same.
I used to fantasise that one day we would be rich enough to eat out every night, or have someone in to cook for us. I even fantasised the absurd—that my husband would develop an interest in the culinary arts.
He peers around the edge of the page, lining his face up with a picture of a pouting young starlet.
“Shepherd’s pie,” he says, as if telling me something I don’t already know. “My favourite.” Throwing the paper on the floor he rubs his hands together in anticipation.
“So did you have a good day?” I enquire again, picking up my fork.
“Ok,” he replies, pouring us both a glass of Rioja. “How was yours?”
“Auntie Marjorie is not at all well,” I say.
“How do you know?” he asks, swilling the wine around in his glass and holding it up to the light.
“Because I went to Uxbridge today, to see her. I took the day off work. I told you I was going.”
“Did you?” he says.
“You never listen,” I tell him, stabbing a carrot. “But I suppose that’s thirty-five years of marriage for you.”
“I do listen,” he says. Perhaps I don’t always remember what you tell me,” he smiles. “But I do listen.”
I raise one eyebrow. “Are you saying I’m boring?”
“Of course not,” he replies. “Go on then, I’m listening now.” He grins. “Tell me something really exciting. Tell me all about your fascinating day. But before you start, pass the salt, Sally.”
As I push the salt across the table, I remember the opening words of an old children’s radio programme:
“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”
When I was at Victoria Coach Station this morning waiting for the next bus to Uxbridge, I sat down on a bench next to an elderly woman who told me this rather strange story. There was nothing special about her. She looked perfectly conventional, even ordinary in her tweedy coat and sensible shoes, reading the Daily Telegraph. She saw me squinting at my watch and pointed.
“There’s a clock up there,” she said.
I suppose I smiled or nodded, which must have encouraged her to carry on talking.
“You’ve got a Union Jack watch,” she remarked.
I told her how you’d bought it for me as a souvenir when we went to the Olympic Games.
“You went to the Games?” she chucked. “How interesting.”
“It was,” I tell her. “We went twice. We got tickets for the cycling because we thought that if it rained at least we’d be under cover in the velodrome. And we went to the opening.”
She turned towards me with renewed interest, and began to laugh. I thought I might have toast crumbs stuck between my teeth, or that she might be a lunatic, and I looked around for possible help should I need it. I mean—what’s funny about that? Millions of people went. She pulled a lace edged handkerchief from her coat sleeve and took off her glasses.
“Did you see the Queen?” she asked, wiping away a tear of laughter.
“Only at a distance,” I told her. “She was a pinprick; miles away.”
The woman shook her head; her laugh became a gurgling chuckle.
“Let me tell you a story,” she said, cleaning her glasses on the dry half of her handkerchief. “About…a friend of mine.” And then she told me this strange tale, about someone called Pam.
“Just before the parliamentary summer recess,” the woman began, “my friend, struggling with a large trolley laden with cups and coffee, pushed her way backwards through the door into the Cabinet Room. The teaspoons tinkled as the trolley wheels ran over the edge of the carpet. She had been serving coffee at Cabinet meetings since 1964 when, as a young Labour supporter, she had joined Harold Wilson’s staff at No. 10 Downing Street. Although now well past retirement age the Prime Minister kept her on—his token working pensioner. He didn’t want to be accused of ageism as well as everything else he was being blamed for.
Once inside the room, Pam stopped her trolley discreetly behind one of the tall pillars, and stretched her back. Her feet were aching and her ankles had swollen—she hoped she could get a seat on the bus on the way home. Through the flimsy white drapes covering the adjacent window she could see the misty outline of the water sprinkler in the garden outside. As the edge of the filmy curtain billowed slightly in the soft breeze she glimpsed the sparkling droplets soar in the sunlight, and fall back onto the green lawn.”
The woman patted the back of my hand.
“A large crow flapped its wings under the spray,” she said in a low tone laden with menace, and a meaningful nod.
“Pam was about to pour the coffee,” she continued, “When she noticed how silent the room was. In all her years of service at No. 10 she couldn’t remember a moment of quiet in a cabinet meeting before. But that day, had woodworm been at work in the furniture, Pam could have heard them munching. She turned round, half expecting to see that the room had mysteriously emptied, like the Marie Celeste. But every chair around the long coffin-shaped table was occupied with figures so still that they resembled a collection of off-colour marble busts in a museum. She listened to her own nylon tights rustle against each other as she carried the first tray of cups across the room, and could have sworn that she heard the pink Peonies ping open in the silver bowl in the middle of the table.
The Prime Minister held his head in his hands.
“It’s a disaster,” he said.
One of the few lady Ministers sniffed and blew her nose. The man next to her cleared his throat. Larry, the tabby cat, known for his love of rats, purred from his surveillance position between the Chancellor’s elbow and a small pile of paper clips. Pam squeezed her way behind the carved mahogany chairs towards the Adam fireplace. Above it Robert Walpole looked down on them gravely. Below, sat the Prime Minister. From her standing position Pam thought how bald all the Ministers were getting. Politics seemed to age people almost overnight, Prime Ministers especially. The present incumbent had a lot of thick dark hair when he took over, but it seemed to be falling out, perhaps in sympathy with his ever-thinning body of supporters. She placed a cup at his side and moved on. Through the large windows the sun flooded across the room throwing ghostly grey silhouettes of those seated either side of the P.M onto the wall behind them. Pam liked to call these alternative images the Shadow Cabinet. The minister in charge of Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, broke the silence.
“She can’t die now, not with the Games so imminent,” he said.
“But she just has,” snorted the Secretary of State for Scotland, smugly.
Pam’s hands started to shake. The cup rattled in its saucer. Who’s dead? She wondered.
“If London is swathed in black this summer, in a state of mourning,” the Scot continued, “it will benefit the Edinburgh Festival no end.” He almost grinned.
The Chancellor glared at him. “But what about the economy?” he asked.
“And all the tourists,” added the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, adjusting his faded yellow tie. “All flooding into London to spend their money. All wanting to have a good time in bars and restaurants.”
“We can’t possibly refund all the tickets,” the Chancellor continued. “It would be an administrative nightmare. Apart from which the outgoing expenses of the Olympics have been enormous and if we don’t recoup we’ll be into a triple dip recession.” He looked around the table for confirmation. Everyone nodded sagely.
Never before in Pam’s working life had the atmosphere in the Cabinet room seemed so tense. Not even when Gordon had been having one of his notorious black moods, one so dark that it would have rivalled a thunderstorm on a moonless night—with the added complication of a power cut.
“What are we going to do?” said the Minister of State for Universities and Science. We can’t cancel everything at this late stage. Think of all those new television sets bought, and the old ones switched over to digital and re-tuned, ready. And all the anarchic students. Marshalling at the Olympics was supposed to keep them occupied. How else are we going to stop them pillaging and raping their way through the summer?”
“What about the children?” said the Secretary of State for Education. “Mini Olympics have already been arranged in parks throughout the country, with running races round the bandstands, long jump in the sand pits and homemade flags.
“All the bunting bought, and cakes commissioned with the five rings symbol on,” added the Minister for Women and Equality. “And the souvenirs: the t-shirts, the tea-towels, the cushion covers, the specially designed outfits for the competitors, the jugs, and the mugs,” she went on, swinging her legs furiously under the table until one shoe flew off and she ran out of breath. The Minister sitting opposite her winced and his eyes watered.
As usual no one noticed Pam. She returned to the trolley, poured more coffee and distributed the cups down the other side of the table. What on earth has happened, she wondered, not daring to contemplate her worst fears.
“If only she’d waited until the middle of September,” said an Eeyorish voice.
“You’re the Secretary of State for Health,” someone retorted. “It’s up to you to stop this sort of thing happening.”
“The country will love it if Kate and Will stand in,” a female voice whispered.
“Kate has done such a lot for the fashion industry. Such a pretty girl. Such lovely hair.” The cat yawned. “So good with children…” she trailed off, becoming aware of the dozens of glazed eyes like dusty marbles, staring at her.
“Perhaps her sister could be brought in to help,” a man squeaked excitedly. “If she keeps her back to the crowds she’ll be a sensation.”
Pam looked up just in time to see someone throw a rubber at him. The target ducked. There was a loud meow. Larry jumped down from the table and disappeared behind the curtains.
“We will announce that the Queen has a slight cold,” said the PM calmly.
Pam nearly dropped the tray. “And say that in view of her age she will be staying indoors for the time being,” he continued.
After placing the last cup down and spilling coffee in the saucer, Pam hurried back to the kitchen, sliding across the tiled floor on a sliver of carrot.
A middle-aged woman with a red polka-dot scarf tied around her bleached blonde hair stood at the sink peeling vegetables, and humming something from The Sound of Music.
The tap was running fast and furiously.
“I think the Queen’s dead,” Pam told her in a stage whisper.
The woman spun round, narrowly missing stabbing Pam with the peeler.
“What?” she said.
“You heard,” said Pam. “The Queen. D.E.A.D.”
“When?” asked Dawn. “How?”
Pam opened her eyes wide and shrugged. After wiping her hands on her blue and white butcher’s apron, Dawn took a large tin of biscuits out of the cupboard.
“Get back in there and find out more,” she told Pam thrusting the tin into her stomach and winding her.
Pam looked down at the portrait of Her Majesty on the lid. Tears slid down her cheeks.
“Definitely dead,” she assured the picture, trying to catch her breath.
Dawn sighed, snatched back the tin, emptied the contents onto a large plate, and handed it to Pam. Pam sniffed, removed the broken biscuits, blew hard at the stray crumbs and adjusted the remaining Special Selection. But as a tear trickled onto a Rich Tea, she shook her head and returned the plate to Dawn.
“The Health man said no more biscuits,” Pam wheezed.
“But we must get you back in there somehow,” Dawn told her. “Perhaps more coffee?”
“They don’t usually have any more.”
“Well, water then?” Dawn said, filling two jugs, wiping off the drips with a blue tea towel and holding them out.
Pam folded her arms. “You do it.”
Dawn looked at her watch. “I’ve got the lunch to get. It’ll have to be you.” She put the water and biscuits on a tray, pushed it into the older woman’s hands and took her by the elbow.
“Come on, Pam. Over the top,” she said, marching her towards the Cabinet room and propelling her through the door with a sharp dig in the back. Turning round Pam saw that Dawn had left the door slightly ajar; an eye glittered in the crack. Pam kicked it shut. Dawn hissed in the hall.
The crowded room was stifling. The sun beat down through the windows and the hot topic had generated extra heat. Several of the men had taken off their jackets. Others had loosened their ties. Pam handed around the biscuits. Larry appeared from under the curtain, his whiskers twitching.
“She will be missed,” said a man in a blue spotted tie. “She’s the main draw for a lot of people. It’s a pity she can’t be seen at least at the Opening of the Games,” he mused. “If only in the distance. And it would stop any rumours starting.”
“Surely you don’t mean prop her up somewhere?”
Everyone looked around to see who had come up with this unorthodox idea, but as no one seemed to want to own up, they all glared accusingly at the cat that, partial to a Bourbon, was now walking nonchalantly down the middle of the table.
The Prime Minister shuddered. “Of course not.”
Only one person dared to take a biscuit. But the Secretary of State for Health, who was watching the plate like it was a ticking bomb, sucked in his cheeks, breathed in heavily through his nose and shook his head vigorously until the minister, who had obviously attended far too many fund raising dinners, put the offending object back. Although not before he had taken a big bite which he sucked and savoured. With his head on one side Larry looked at him longingly, and licked his lips.
“Why don’t we keep her on ice,” suggested the Secretary for Energy and Climate Change.
“What?” another minister spluttered, choking on a sugar lump. “Keep her on ice from now until the Olympics are over?”
In perfect time like a troupe of dancers, everyone turned to face him.
“Why not?” They chorused.
“The people won’t stand for it,” he blustered, his puce face clashing with his yellow tie. Pam revived him with a glass of tepid water.
The Prime Minister tapped his biro on his blotter, in time with the chimes of the clock on the mantelpiece behind him.
“They’re not going to be told,” he said slowly. “This has got to be an official state secret. We all know now that George V’s death was embargoed. This information can also be withheld. Perhaps for fifty years, maybe even a hundred. Fortunately, as we are about to break up for the summer hols, we won’t have to worry too much about the news leaking out and the press getting wind of it.”
While the Ministers contemplated silently, Pam stood still, halting her harmonious hosiery. She couldn’t stretch the biscuit routine any further. She had piled them into threes and handed them around, then spread them out and handed them around again. She had even turned over some of the chocolate ones to show their plain side to get another excuse for a further circuit of the table.
“But what will the Palace say?” someone asked.
“They’ll have to go along with it,” the PM told him. “A lying in state would clash horribly with beach volleyball in Horse Guard’s Parade and the men’s cycling road race down the Mall. And the spectators mingling with the mourners watching the funeral cortege pass would cause chaos. We wouldn’t have enough police to control the crowds. Most of them will be fully occupied anyway, putting down riots at overcrowded bus stops and tube stations.”
Pam noticed the sweaty palm prints on the baize-covered table. She tried to remember her 1950’s Girl Guide first aid for heat stroke, but all that came to mind was how to tie a tourniquet. To extend her stay in the room she began filling the water glasses. As fast as she poured, the liquid was drained.
“But what if the palace does object?” persisted the insistent Minister.
“I’ll tell them it’s in the national interest,” the Prime Minister replied.
“Shouldn’t we discuss this with the opposition?” asked the Secretary of State for Transport.
“It would probably send them completely off the rails,” a wag retorted.
Everyone guffawed loudly.
“Surely we have to inform them.” said The Deputy Prime Minister.
“That’s settled then,” the PM said, appearing not to have heard him. “We’re all agreed. No one is to be told. No one outside this room must know anything about this.”
“But won’t Charles want to take over immediately?” someone asked thoughtfully.
A chair squeaked. “The people would prefer to have Will and Kate,” a female voice piped up. “The country needs youth and glamour. It’s more in line with today’s celebrity culture. The chair squeaked again. Perhaps if ‘the duration’ could last until after they’ve produced an heir…”
“Let’s just deal with the immediate problem,” the Prime Minister interrupted. “We can’t sort out the succession now.” He ran his hand through his hair. His blotter was beginning to look like one of Larry’s relations. “Keeping her in the freezer, until the Olympics are over is all we can do for the moment.”
Pam had no excuse to stay in the room. The jugs were empty.
The Prime Minister cleared his throat. “What we could do with…”
The room fell silent. As Pam made her way to the door, the PM continued, “Is someone…”
Closing the door behind her, Pam returned to the kitchen, where Dawn was waiting for her.
“Definitely dead,” Pam said, putting down the tray and wiping her forehead with her sleeve.
“You’re absolutely sure?” Dawn asked.
Pam sighed and nodded.
Dawn took her phone out of her apron pocket and smiled.
“How much do you think the press will pay for the story?” she breathed.
“You can’t do that,” Pam told her, grabbing the mobile. “It’s a secret.”
“Not for much longer,” Dawn giggled, wrestling for the phone.
“We’ll be sacked,” Pam said, pulling the now buzzing object towards her.
“Who cares? Think of the money. Anyway they’ll never find out who leaked the information,” Dawn told her, giving a final tug. “I used to have a hot line to the News of the World, now I suppose I’ll have to try one of my other contacts.”
Pam let go of the phone. Her eyes were as big as the pineapple rings that Dawn had cut earlier. Her mouth as round and cavernous as the Charente melon halves lined up in their fine white china bowls along the charcoal Corian work surface.
“Have you told them things before?” she asked. “Things I’ve told you when I’ve come out from serving the coffees and teas, in there?” she nodded towards the Cabinet room.
Dawn shrugged. Her eyes twinkled with the reflection of the cutlery laid out on the tray in front of her.
“How do you think Bobby and me have been able to afford our holidays in Barbados? And our Kevin’s education at Eton? You think I could do all that on what I’m paid for this job?”
Pam bit her lip. “But you told me the money was from a legacy. From a grateful MP.”
“Yes,” Dawn winked. “That as well.”
Pam plunged the empty jugs, into the sink. “I’ll never tell you anything ever again,” she said.
“Why not?” Dawn shrieked.
Pam turned to face her. She put on her glasses and glared over the gold rims.
“Have you been phone hacking as well?”
“Of course not,” the younger woman replied, adjusting her hair.
Pam stared at her.
“Anyway, what if I have?” Dawn mumbled, pretending to count the cutlery. “You’ve got to tell me what’s going on in there.”
“Why?” Pam snapped. “It’s a state secret”. Her eyes narrowed. “But I am going to tell them all about you.” Leaning towards Dawn with her chin jutting forward she poked her still wet forefinger in the middle of Dawn’s cleavage. “And you will be taken to the Tower and tried for treason,” Dawn looked terrified. Pam poked her again. “And then,” she was starting to enjoy herself, “you will probably have your head cut off.” She picked up a knife and waved it around, suddenly morphing into an elderly pirate, from Treasure Island. “Aha! Me hearties,” she said, with the benefit of a state education, and one eye closed.
But Dawn was staring at the door. Turning to Pam she swivelled her eyes from side to side, frowned and flapped her hands. Pam spun round and suddenly found herself facing the Deputy Prime Minister, hovering in the doorway, twiddling the knob. Pink to the roots of his hair.
“It is Pam, isn’t it?” he asked her, shifting from one foot to the other.
Holding the knife behind her back, she nodded.
“The Prime Minister would like a word with you,” he said, smiling uncertainly.
Pam’s eyes widened. She put down the knife, wiped her damp hands on her apron and swallowed hard.
“What have you done?” Dawn mouthed. “Flooded the room? Killed the cat? It’s you for the Tower, not me.”
“I danced naked on the table,” Pam hissed as she followed the Deputy PM out of the room.
“And they want you back?” Dawn snorted after her.
Pam turned quickly and poked her head around the door.
“Just don’t forget, I’ve got your number,” she warned, crossing her eyes and sliding the side of her hand across her throat.
The Deputy PM walked into the Cabinet room ahead of her and took his seat. Pam stopped just inside the room, gripping her hands together in front of her to stop them shaking. Her legs felt wobbly. She wished she had been wearing her knee support bandage. Every head was turned towards her. Every mouth was moving. She assumed they were talking, but she felt dizzy and but the sound seemed far away.
“Ah, there you are,” said the Prime Minister as if he had been longing to see her and had forgotten that she had been in and out of the room all morning. He turned to the Cabinet.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
The room was a blur. Pam was still wearing her reading glasses. She went to take them off.
“No, no, leave them on,” said the PM.
The people at the far end of the room stood up, craning their necks.
“Can you walk up and down a couple of times?” he continued.
Pam walked. She thought of mooing and wondered if bidding was about to begin. But why would it? It was well known that the PM didn’t even know the price of a pint of milk. She could hardly breathe. She wondered what a stroke felt like, and whether she was having one.
“Good, good,” said the Prime Minister. He turned to his Cabinet.
“But what will Prince Philip say?” his deputy enquired.
The PM appeared to swat a fly. “So what do you think? At a distance…. with a big hat, and perhaps some sunglasses.”
“She’ll do,” boomed a voice from halfway down the table. They all nodded in agreement.
“Now, Pam. It is Pam, isn’t it?” the PM asked.
Pam was annoyed. He couldn’t remember her name, after all the tea and coffee she’d had served him. She wished now that she’d thought of putting strychnine in his cup.
“Unfortunately, by being in the room this morning, you’ve become a security risk,” he said, in a half sorry sort of voice. Everyone nodded again. The cat meowed. “You’ve heard all about the predicament we find ourselves in?” It was Pam’s turn to nod. “Everything you’ve heard is of course top secret. I assume you signed a confidentiality agreement when you joined the staff here?”
Pam could barely remember what she had done yesterday; she certainly couldn’t remember that far back. She’d just threatened Dawn with treason. Now it seemed that it was her head on the block.
“It’s very sad of course,” the PM continued. “But we have to think about the good of the country. What the Queen herself would have wanted us to do. She always put duty first, and I’m sure you will too.” Pam knew now that it was all over for her, and wondered whether they would use the guillotine.
“We would like you to…” the PM stopped, and began again. “We are offering you a super chance to show your loyalty to Great Britain.” A loud cough in a Scots accent ricocheted around the room.
The PM cleared his throat. “To England,” he smiled. “Like the Kitchener war poster. You remember: ‘Your Country Needs You.’” He pointed at her.
Kitchener? Thought Pam. How old does he think I am?
“We want you to stand in for Her Majesty at the Olympics,” he said.
Pam wondered whether she was having a bad dream. She couldn’t pinch herself to check, it would be noticed. So she clenched her pelvic floor muscles instead. She was definitely awake. Although she knew that to the young everyone over fifty looked identical, she was about to tell the PM that the Queen was quite a lot older than her, when he spoke again:
“I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?” he said. “Great, that’s settled then. I’m sure you will enjoy yourself. All you’ll have to do is wave and smile. We’ll dress you up in nice clothes. My wife can help; she’s good at that sort of thing. Of course as this is top secret we can’t let you go home. But don’t worry; we’ll work out of a cover story for you. I think you’ll find it all jolly good fun. If you just wait here, someone will come and collect you.”
The PM shook her hand. “Glad to have you aboard, Pam,” he said. “Or should I call you ‘Ma’am’?” he bowed. The cabinet laughed heartily.”
My husband is leaning towards me, his chair tipped up, his dinner neglected.
“And that’s the end of the story,” I tell him.
“But what happened next?” he asks, his eyes wide and shining above his congealed shepherd’s pie.
I shrug my shoulders. “The woman looked up at the clock,” I tell him. “Said it had been nice talking to me, and went to catch her coach. You haven’t eaten your dinner.”
“That can’t be the end of the story?” He looks disappointed. “What was the woman’s name? And who was her friend?”
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I had a coach to catch as well.”
“Where was she going?” he continues, putting his cold shepherd’s pie in the microwave to reheat, pushing the start button, and sitting down again eager for my answer.
“The coach she boarded said: ‘Slough, Windsor, and Legoland’ on the front,” I say. “As it pulled away I saw her, sitting in a window seat. She waved.”
He frowns. “Do you think the story’s true?” He puts his elbows on the table and rests his chin in his hands. “But if it happened to her friend, how come she knew so much detail? Perhaps she was the woman herself.” He pauses, tapping the end of his fork rhythmically on the table. “Did she look like the Queen? And what about now? Where’s the Queen now? Who is the Queen now? Do you think…?”
I sip my wine and help myself to some more pie. He studies my face.
“Or did you make it all up?” he says slowly.
I smile. “Now it’s your turn to tell me something exciting about your day, Harry. But before you begin, pass the salt.”