Several years ago, on a dark afternoon in December, Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, Defender of the Faith, Duchess of Edinburgh, Countess of Merioneth, Baroness Greenwich, Duke of Lancaster, Lord of Mann, Duke of Normandy sat at her desk frowning at a computer screen. The desk had once belonged to Queen Victoria. Its surface was polished, but uneven, like many other pieces of furniture in Windsor Castle, so the computer keyboard wobbled when The Queen pressed on it. She folded a piece of paper into a tiny square and slipped it underneath a corner.
The keyboard was one thing, but the computer itself was another. She expected it to work, but in her experience it was just as bad as the keyboard, though the reasons were more mystifying. It was always locking up just when she found something she thought she might like to see. She had been instructed to look for the cursor when this happened. Even though the young woman who handled Information Technology for the Privy Purse had helped her increase the magnification of the screen, her diminished eyesight made it difficult to find the tiny flashing bar, which she understood she was meant to move around with the little arrow buttons on the keyboard. She pressed what she took to be the appropriate key and the screen changed color. She tried another and the document she’d been working on (a memoir of her favorite horse, Aureole, who’d nearly won the Derby in 1953) disappeared. She punched a third and the computer emitted a startled “beep.” She sat back against her chair and sighed with frustration.
She had already called the I.T. woman three times. She couldn’t call her again. The Queen knew she needed help, but she hated to appear helpless. Everyone around her seemed to know what they were doing on the computer. She was the only one who didn’t. When computers had first begun to be commonplace she thought she could leave them to the experts. Pen and ink and paper would see her out. She wouldn’t need to learn. But she was wrong. Now, it wasn’t only the young who consulted the computers that were apparently inside their mobile telephones, it was also the butler who entered her choices for luncheon on a computer in the cupboard, the private secretary who communicated with Number Ten via what was called instant messaging, and even the Mews posted online films of mares foaling. It had dawned on her that she was going to have to learn the language if she didn’t want to be left behind. She had had what she thought of as endless lessons. And still learning how to manage the machine was more difficult for her than learning Chinese. She’d learned a few words of that with no trouble for the Chinese state visit a few years ago.
She stood up from her desk and looked out the window, up the Long Walk in the Home Park toward the statue of King George III. An old Boeing 747, which had just departed from Heathrow, lumbered into the air above the Castle, rattling the windowpanes. The sound was briefly deafening. The Queen had grown so used to this that she seldom noticed. She supposed that if one’s back door opened on to the railway into Waterloo one also became accustomed to the noise of the trains. When the wind was in the northeast, the air traffic controllers always sent the planes taking off over Windsor. She didn’t mind the noise. It was like a mini weather report. When she did notice the aeroplanes, three minutes apart, she thought to herself, “Ah, wind from the northeast.” No, the noise didn’t bother her, but something about being thwarted by the computer, and the impossibility of asking for more help, did bother her. She felt tired. She sat down dispiritedly in one of the chairs next to the unlighted fire. “Oh, Little Bit,” she said to herself, “what now?”
People had been writing about her from the very day she was born in April 1926. The newspapers had reported her learning to talk and published a photo of her posed as if she were a child actress when she was two years old. “Lilibet,” they wrote, was one of her first words, a small child’s pronunciation of her own name, “Elizabeth.” That was entirely wrong, as reports about her often were wrong. Actually, it came from a cake that she had been served one teatime in the nursery. It had pink, raspberry-flavored icing. Her eyes lit up when she saw it. Nanny told her she might only have “a little bit” of the cake if she were a good girl. “Lilibet! Lilibet!” she’d cried and Nanny had reported this to her mother. “Lilibet” had nothing to do with Elizabeth, but it was a name that had stuck and she’d grown up with it as the diminutive people in her family persisted in calling her. It was a tease really, a pinch, a reminder that it was undignified for a princess to be greedy for cake, not the sweet nickname people thought it was. Nevertheless, she even used it with herself from time to time, especially when she blamed herself for doing something wrong.
Sometimes it amused her to pick up a recent biography and to annotate it. The librarian had once shown her some nineteenth-century biographies in the archives that her Great Great Grandmother had annotated. Queen Victoria had written in the margins in her distinctive sloping hand “I never did,” or “Not true,” alongside the passages to which she objected. Inspired by the example of her predecessor, The Queen would correct errors in the margins herself. Lately, however, she hadn’t the energy. Did it matter to get things right any more?
She knew that sitting alone in her chair thinking gloomy thoughts and staring blankly off into space made things worse, but she couldn’t help it, no more than she could have stopped eating the pink cake if Nanny hadn’t been there to prevent her when she was a little girl. Only her internal nanny told her that sitting alone in her chair doing nothing was bad for her. Still, the part of her that felt rather sad was stronger than her internal nanny, more than a match for her, really.
No one had warned her that she might lose confidence as she grew older, and it was true that many of the things she’d known how to do formerly without a second thought, such as asking for help, she couldn’t bring herself to do now. She also worried more than she used to. A sheet of paper delivered the evening before to her sitting room with the coming day’s list of engagements sometimes made her lose sleep. She wondered what would happen if a Lady Mayoress chatted too much at the unveiling of a plaque and made her late for the luncheon at the factory she was scheduled to visit next. Would they lose patience with her, as she nowadays sometimes lost patience with herself?
Enough of this. Nanny suddenly got the upper hand. She shook herself out of her fit of anxiety and heaved herself out of the chair. She stalked toward the computer on the other side of the room as if it were game and she meant to shoot it. A sudden burst of creative energy gave her an idea. She reached over and turned the damned thing off. Then, a moment later, she turned it on again. She suddenly recalled the woman from I.T. doing this. “Yes,” she said under her breath, “turn it off. Then on again.” The machine whirred into action, flashing several screens which she could not in the least comprehend. After several moments, however, a screen appeared that did look familiar. It had several vertical rows of symbols on it. She recognized the symbol for the web browser: she knew if you pressed that you could what was called surf the net. The I.T. woman had a bit of Italian and had told her the Italians said “navigare in rete” which The Queen liked better as she silently amended it to an Italo-English pidgin phrase, “navigate in rot.” That’s what she liked to think of as the so-called wonders that were available online, a lot of rot.
It was Prince Edward who’d begun to show her a few things on the computer that were not rot. First he’d shown her the website of the Household Cavalry. Splendid young men. Scarlet tunics. Groomed mounts. Brave boys. Then he’d shown her a page for the Royal Mews where a mare, named Elizabeth, was giving birth to a foal. He’d shown her a little place on the right hand side of the screen where you could move the cursor, press it, and then a short video of Elizabeth would play. Superb animals. Remarkable little film. He’d also shown her (he knew his Mama’s bad habits) a website where she could place a small bet on the races. The site itself was too complex for her to understand entirely, but she kept coming back to it, studying the race meetings, the odds, and the names of the runners, promising herself that one day she might place a small bet, no more than five pounds.
Prince Edward had also shown her how to save websites under a heading at the top of the screen labeled “bookmarks.” He’d shown her how to save places there for Google and Twitter, which she silently called “Mr Google” and “Miss Twitter,” as their names seemed to have been invented for a nursery story. He’d also called up different screens for Yahoo and Facebook. She didn’t see the point of what she called to herself “Yah-Hoo.” How was it different from Mr Google? She didn’t like to interrupt him as Prince Edward was so evidently proud of what he was showing her. Facebook he showed her at the same time as he attempted to demonstrate what she thought he described as “cutting and pasting,” though there were no scissors. She didn’t understand that at all, confused it with Facebook, and started thinking of the two as somehow related, “Pastebook.” It made her think of being a little girl and sticking pictures into a large scrapbook with a big pot of paste.
Prince Edward had created an account for her with Miss Twitter. He asked her what she would like as a username. She looked at him blankly. “What do you want to be called on Twitter, Mummy?” he said with some exasperation. “Little Bit,” she said, and he’d entered that as her Twitter name and then come up with the idea of using the Buckingham Palace postcode as her username, @SW1A1AA. In fact there hadn’t been time for her to do much exploring, but she’d made a few notes on the back of a used envelope she reclaimed from the wastepaper basket as he’d talked. She gathered that she had to “follow” other people with Miss Twitter if she were to learn what everyone was talking about. She also understood that to follow people, to read what they had to say, she had to click on a little colored square at the top labeled “Who to follow.” She sat down again cautiously, grasped the mouse as if it might shock her, and then, when it didn’t, selected Twitter from among her bookmarks. She began entering the names of people it might be interesting to follow. Typing with her two index fingers she put in “Boris Johnson,” and @MayorofLondon came up with a photo of a handsome blonde, now past his prime and a little stout. “Bit of a belly he has now, Mr Johnson, didn’t used to,” The Queen thought to herself. “An amusing fellow.” She looked at the text that had been entered and it was all PR bumpf from the mayor’s office.
Next she put in “Duchess of Cornwall” and up came a photo of Camilla Wales next to @DuchessCornwall. Here the text was more interesting, absurd, rather funny actually. Camilla had described herself as “Future Queen of England. One does like to chat with the public... but from a safe distance. Lover of Horses and Gin.” All that was true enough, thought The Queen to herself, except the “future Queen of England” bit. There were still some legal niceties to be sorted out there. She didn’t think it was very wise of Camilla to write about the gin, however. She made a mental to note to have a word with her. As a Twitter novice, The Queen was so far unaware that many people posted Tweets pretending to be people they weren’t.
The Queen then entered her own name and @Queen_UK appeared. The text here however made her indignant. Every day, for the past several weeks it appeared, at six p.m. @Queen_UK had tweeted “It’s gin o’clock!” She wondered whether Camilla was already daring to tweet as Queen of England. The gin did seem to be a telltale motif. She’d have to ask Sir Robin to take a look at this. What annoyed her still more was that The Queen did rather like gin herself. She didn’t think she’d ever abused the green bottle of Gordon’s, however, just long ago got in the habit of having a cocktail before supper. Usually the same one. Only one. Couldn’t hurt. In fact she found it helped a great deal.
The gold clock on the chimney piece struck a bell indicating the half hour. Late afternoon in Windsor. Monday after breakfast she’d have to go back to London. Business. The office. She had a full week of engagements ahead, she reflected with a Sunday-afternoon sigh. Before that, however, her yoga instructor was coming for her weekly lesson. Prince Edward had also introduced her to yoga. He’d also told her how much he enjoyed what he described as a combination of meditation and exercise, how Sophie Wessex had got him started, how good it felt to have one’s muscles stretched, how even an octogenarian like his mother might feel the benefit. She’d cautiously agreed to a trial. With anyone else, she would have laughed and said instantly, “No,” but she had a soft spot for her two younger sons, whom she’d managed to protect from some of the public attention she’d lived with all her life. An instructor had turned up and now The Queen had been doing her yoga practice for several months. She found it did calm her down. She always walked more slowly and deliberately afterwards. But some of the poses were more difficult than others. And the instructor expected her to remember them from week to week. There were only a few she had memorized. She decided to try out a few of them before the instructor arrived, to warm up a little.
The Queen stepped out of her patent leather shoes. She then walked across the Turkish carpet in her nylons and stood in front of a long gold mirror at one side of the room. The Queen had no vanity whatsoever, so her appearance didn’t interest her in the least, but she did feel she needed the mirror to check the shape of her body while she was practicing the poses. She recalled one of her favorites, where she stood with her back foot at a right angle to her body, facing forward, front knee bent, arms outstretched before her and behind. She thought she might get into this pose and hold it, breathing steadily, to the count of 60. She hitched up her skirt slightly and, as she assumed the pose, she heard in her mind’s ear the instructor proclaiming: “Warrior Two!”