It is before nine in the morning. The Queen’s senior dresser, Shirley MacDonald, a woman who has served The Queen for decades and is now nearing retirement, is brushing out The Queen’s hair. They are in The Queen’s sitting room, looking out on a shaven lawn in Aberdeenshire. A dark mountain can be seen in the distance. The Queen is sitting in a hard-backed chair with a tartan slipcover on the seat.
“The baby arrived just in time, Ma’am,” said Shirley.
“One or two days more and we would have had to delay coming up here,” said The Queen.
“It would have been a nuisance, Ma’am.”
“I loathe altering the calendar.”
“Everything had been settled and arranged months ago.”
“Why, it would have meant dozens of changes.”
“Dozens and dozens, Ma’am.”
The Queen detected a hint of mockery in the air. “That will be enough Mrs. MacDonald.”
Shirley had long ago ceased to be intimidated by her employer, whom she’d come to think of as Mrs Queen. This was approximately how her employer also thought of herself, though The Queen did feel the need occasionally to put her foot down.
“You must be happy, Ma’am, that the succession is assured.”
“It’s been assured for a long time Mrs. MacDonald. Since 1948. With the birth of the Prince of Wales. I did that.”
“You did, Ma’am.”
“The Duke of Edinburgh helped, of course.”
“Of course, Ma’am.”
“But not in the same room for the delivery. I believe he was off having a cigar somewhere.”
“No doubt, Ma’am.”
“Barbaric custom, that.”
“The cigar, Ma’am?”
“No, no, Mrs MacDonald. Having the father in the delivery room.”
“Do you think so, Ma’am?”
“Yes, I do think so. Why have the husband there? One wants to scream in peace.”
“I agree, Ma’am.”
“A stout midwife and a strong opiate is what one wants, not some hopeless male covered in dismay.”
“The opiate is a must, Ma’am.”
“In my day, one also had a cabinet minister in the anteroom as well.”
“Did you, Ma’am? Why was that?”
“Well, it all goes back to the baby in the warming pan.”
Mrs MacDonald had been told by the physicians to be on the qui vive for telltale signs of President Reagan’s condition. The Queen was after all 86. She proceeded with caution. “The warming pan, Ma’am?”
“Look it up Mrs MacDonald! Look it up! King James II had a baby in 1688. Rumor had it that it wasn’t his baby or the Queen’s at all. It was a stray child smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan. It was a plot to divert the succession!”
Mrs MacDonald said nothing. She stood back and looked at The Queen skeptically.
“And so for what? Three hundred years practically there had had to be a Privy Councillor on duty to certify the baby’s legitimacy. They were witnesses who could testify the baby was really who they said it was”
“And you, Ma’am, had a Privy Councillor present when you delivered your babies?”
“Not in the room, Mrs MacDonald! They were down the corridor sitting next to the drinks tray.”
“Yes. Quite. I don’t think any of the current lot assisted at the Duchess of Cambridge’s delivery, do you?”
“I didn’t see any of them, Ma’am.”
“All in Tuscany, I should think.”
“No doubt, Ma’am.”
“None of them have their holidays in Britain any longer.”
“Very unpatriotic, Ma’am.”
“And you Mrs MacDonald? Have you ever holidayed abroad? In Benidorm, say?”
“I once went to Boulogne, Ma’am.”
“Yes, I’ve been there too. I prefer Ballater.”
“Moi aussi, Majesté.” The two women exchanged a glance and chuckled.
In the midst of a pause in the conversation, an old-fashioned white phone began shrilling.
“It’s rather early for them to be bothering us,” said The Queen, checking her wristwatch.
Shirley went to the phone with a dark look, as if she were getting ready to send off a tele-marketer. She picked it up and said into the receiver, “MacDonald.” She listened for several minutes. She put in “Hmm,” and “I see,” and “Well then.” After several minutes she held the receiver against the shoulder of her cashmere twinset, a Christmas gift twenty years ago from her employer. “It’s the Assistant Private Secretary.”
The Queen sighed. “The new boy.”
“He apologizes for disturbing you so early, Ma’am. He says he’s ‘abjectly sorry.’”
The Queen looked up to the ceiling and moved her wrist in a circle, to indicate Shirley should waive the polite preliminaries.
“But the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have decided to dispense with having a nanny. No maternity nurse either. They want to break from tradition.”
“Break. From. Tradition,” The Queen repeated slowly. She was not amused.
“He would like to release this to all the media. Ma’am. As soon as possible. With your permission. He advises it.”
The Queen refused to meet Shirley’s glance. It was if she’d just been told one of the corgis was ill. She rose from her chair and went to look out the window.
Without turning around, The Queen waved her hand as if she were shooing away a midge.
Shirley went back to the telephone receiver. “Her Majesty says, ‘Approved.’” Then she rang off.
“In the old days it was only The Court Circular,” said The Queen returning to her chair. “Maybe a confidential word to The Times.”
“No longer, Ma’am.”
“Now it’s all over Miss Twitter and Pastebook before you can say ‘snap.’”
Shirley did not feel it was her job to correct the sovereign’s understanding of the names of the principal social media sites. She was surprised to find The Queen knew as much as she did. “And do you follow, um, Miss Twitter, Ma’am?”
“Me? Why yes. Yes, I do. The Earl of Wessex taught me all about it.”
“He did, Ma’am?”
“He’s a good boy.”
“He is, Ma’am.”
“He also showed me how to ‘like’ British Airways on Pastebook. They send you early notice of deals and discounts.”
Shirley folded her arms. The Queen was beginning to sound strange to her again. “Deals and discounts, Ma’am?”
“Why yes. As you ask. They have one on now, as a matter of fact. Lexington, Kentucky for only £799. From Heathrow. Return.”
Shirley looked steadily at The Queen and said nothing.
“Has it occurred to you Mrs MacDonald? All the media are so busy with the baby at the moment that we could slip off to Kentucky for a few days and no one would be the wiser. Visit a few of the stud farms? Smell the bluegrass? See the white fences. I know a trainer near Louisville who’d put us up. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
Shirley planted her feet rather wider and did not uncross her arms.
“Oh come now Mrs MacDonald. All we’d need are some headscarves. Some dark glasses, big ones, like Mrs Onassis used to wear. Perhaps a hoodie for each of us? All the young wear them now. One is so anonymous in them. When the grandchildren wear them I can’t tell which is which.”
Shirley turned reluctantly. She walked across the room and sat down at a computer in the corner. “Where, Ma’am?”
The Queen rubbed her hands together and giggled girlishly. “LEX is the airport code!”