The Queen's Day Out - A Christmas Story
‘Alice has told me all about contouring. I thought, if its good enough for Ru Paul, bless his spangled corset, it’s good enough for the Queen of Hearts'
The number 10 bus disgorged the portly but determined figure onto the pavement on Hankinson Way. ‘Thank you, my good man’, she said, depositing her bus pass into her pocket as the doors hissed closed. Handy that. Never used it before, she thought. Always relied on the five and six of clubs to cart one around on the palanquin.
She leaned heavily onto the outstretched and rigid pink flamingo who, today, was acting as her walking stick. He squawked loudly.
‘Silence, bird’ said the Queen.
‘It’s Eric,’ said the flamingo. ‘I do have a name.’
She ignored him, suddenly realising that the harsh December wind was whipping nastily around her kneecaps. She wished she’d brought The Ermine. As quickly as her arthritis allowed, she hopped regally past the gawping market traders and into the main shopping centre.
‘Excuse me,’ she said to the security guard ‘…can you point me towards the person in charge? One is here to perform the Christmas light switch on ceremony.’
She adjusted her crown and dusted the snow from her elegant slippers. The guard looked at her with incredulity and then, recovering himself, he replied ‘Yes, your majesty. Up here then turn right. I can….take you..’ But she’d already hobbled off.
At the office, there was no record of her being booked. Which was all rather unfortunate, as she started screeching ‘Off with their heads!’ at Charlie and Ted behind their desks.
‘It’s that lass from Love Island who’s doin’ it’ said Ted. ‘Not much call for characters from children’s fiction, however memorable they may be. Are you on your own or is the King here?’
‘I left him watching the 3.15 from Kempton Park. He adores the fillies.’ she scowled.
‘We are so sorry for your inconvenience. May we offer you complementary afternoon tea to compensate for your trouble?’ He nodded at Charlie, who picked up the phone.
The Queen inclined her head and followed him out. Maybe she’d WhatsApp the Mad Hatter. It’d been a while since his release and surely he’d like a chinwag on Salford Precinct? She was salivating over the idea of a steak slice, hot from Greggs oven, when a shiver reminded her of her underdressed state. Using Eric’s beak, she neatly pivoted and vanished into Peacocks before Ted could say mince pies.
‘Excuse me,’ she said to the shop assistant manning the till ‘..I’d like this lovely red coat with the fur collar in a size 18’
‘£44.99 love’ said the shop assistant, eying her dubiously.
‘I am the Queen of Hearts. I don’t pay, I don’t even carry cash!’
She applied what is commonly known as a ‘Precinct Face.’ Hatter had taught her this. Sort of ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ – not that she’d needed much help to learn it. She was just about to raise Eric to strike the blasted woman on the temple when a pair of eyes appeared over the till, which expanded to reveal white whiskers and eventually the Cheshire Cat appeared.
‘No use being the Queen of Hearts if you’re going to end up on North West Tonight for assaulting a shop assistant with a flamingo and getting done for ABH. Not the sort of image to get you a starring role in JK Rowling’s next best seller.’ He had a point. He whispered something in the Queen’s ear.
‘I shall see you later, young lady’ she trilled to the relieved shop assistant and bobbed out of the shop.
‘How much do you want for it?’ said the manager of Cash Converters.
‘Who are you calling it’ Said Eric, somewhat affronted.
‘It is uniiiqqque.’ She pronounced the words with poise. ‘I think £100 will suffice.’
‘£100 for a walking stick, yer having a laff luv!’
‘But think of the provenance – as owned by the Queen of Hearts! I shall sign it too’ she added.
‘Seventy and no more’ He looked at her. This old love was clearly down on her luck.
‘Er, hang on’ said Eric, twisting his neck in several directions at once to try to keep up.
‘When he’s not looking you can walk out and find me. Don’t worry. I’ll be in Greggs.’ She hissed. He nodded.
She WhatsApped The Mad Hatter
‘Meet me in Greggs, Salford Precinct. Your Queen.’
He replied ‘Waiting 2B interviewed under caution at Pendleton cop shop’
‘Counter feet cigs’
‘I shall venture there, and have you released immediately. Your Queen’
Pendleton Police Station was only few hundred yards away. The Queen hobbled into Peacocks to buy her red coat. She continued the motion to Greggs to grab her steak slice to power her onward journey. As she passed Boots she caught sight of her reflection in the window. Thoughts of Hatters plight forgotten, she went up to the beauty counter.
‘I have an important event later’ she announced to the counter assistant ‘..switching on the Christmas lights and I want to look my best.’
‘You..what?’ Said the assistant, coiffured eyebrows disappearing under her blonde fringe. She looked sideways at her manager, who had overheard.
‘Alice has told me all about contouring. I thought, if its good enough for Ru Paul, bless his spangled corset, it’s good enough for the Queen of Hearts. I would like a makeover. I have a hankering to look like Dame Helen Mirren in Calendar Girls. What she can’t do with a bath bun isn’t worth knowing. She has a glorious ability to flash a withering look in a glamourous way, much like myself.’
The manager touched a forget-me-not badge pinned to her collar and picked up the phone. She nodded encouragingly to the counter assistant, who was dubiously eyeing the flabby cheeks of the Queen and then back at her colour palate. Seconds later, the Queen stormed out, with a face-full of Ivory Satin and one cheek adorned with Blushing Rose: she’d forgotten about Hatter!
Outside, it was still snowing. Eric was in Cash Converters, her feet were cold and wet and her head virtually bare – crowns not being very warm head-wear. She looked about. Now, which way was it again to the police station? She set off more gingerly now, feet slipping, knees complaining, flaky pastry crumbs trailing off her coat and into the snow.
‘Eh up luv. Mind ‘ow you go.’ said an elderly man, not much older than the Queen herself. He smiled.
‘Please address me as Your Majesty.’ said the Queen, with slightly less imperiousness than usual.
‘Been at the Christmas sherry?’ he said.
‘I am a moderate imbiber of a choice Amontillado, if you must know.’ She sniffed ’Why do you ask?’
‘No reason’ he replied, continuing to smile. She ventured another 50 yards and then tottered back into the market to look for stouter shoes.
‘Eee luv, why did you come out in your slippers? Are you OK?’ said the stall holder. ’Geoff, Geoff, here a minute…Tell Charlie in the office to come over will yeh?’ He nodded.
The stall holder lifted a wilted paper crown from the Queen’s Head and clocked the white nightie with red hearts peeking out from under the red coat. ‘Been to a Christmas party luv?’
‘It is none of your business. How dare you remove my crown. I am the Queen of Hearts’ The stall holder’s face changed. ‘I’m sorry, your majesty. How can I help?’
‘I want…some stout shoes. In red.’ She drew out a £20 note. ‘And, I fear that I have mislaid my telephone. I have an appointment to get to and I fear that I shall be too late to be of assistance if I do not hurry. I know just how the White Rabbit feels now.’
‘Wait here a bit an’ Charlie’ll sort you out.’
‘Please sell me some shoes and I shall be on my way.’
‘Just hold on a couple of minutes, I’m a bit worried about you…’ But the Queen shook off the stallholder’s well-meaning arm and tottered away.
Ten yards on, she reached round the back of a stall to grab some red wellingtons that she estimated were about her size. Hiding them under her coat, she ventured outside again as quickly as she could until she felt that she was far enough away to stop and put them on. But there was nowhere to sit. She kicked off her sopping slippers and stood on one leg to put the first wellie on. It was too big and the sole was not rubber, but some plastic material that didn’t grip the snow. She felt a little dizzy and unsteady, what with the sore knees, slippy pavement and Eric not being with her. But she was a Queen and wasn’t going to let a little dizziness affect her, so she raised her second leg to put the other wellie on. And that’s when it happened.
Suddenly she was looking at the sky, with soft flakes falling on her cheeks. Two passing teenage boys laughed and chanted ‘She fell over, she fell over!’ until it was ringing around her brain.
‘Piss ‘ead’ muttered a woman with a pram, the child’s wide eyes staring at the Queen over her sausage roll. A veil of what felt like mist started to rise in the mind of the Queen. For a moment she forgot who she was, forgot where she was.. and then suddenly she had a moment of clarity. She was Joyce Hart from Langworthy and she was in a terrible mess. Her throat hurt with emotion and shame. She mustn’t cry. She tried to get to her feet, but her knees wouldn’t let her. Shoppers stared as they walked by. She reached for her phone but it wasn’t there. Eventually, she heard a voice from behind:
‘Ah, found you. We’ve been looking everywhere. Ted, call the ambulance – best to be safe.’
‘I absolutely refuse to go to hospital’ said the Queen, kicking her legs up and down in the snow, like a two-year-old in a tantrum.
‘Ok well, we can’t leave you on the ground. Let’s get you in this chair. Up you get mi dear’ said Charlie. ‘Ted, give me a hand will you?’
Seated in the precinct wheelchair with Ted’s coat over her knees, Joyce disappeared to be replaced by the monarch she was.
‘Let’s get you into the Gateway so the docs can give you the once over.’ Said Charlie. Your daughter’s on her way. She called the police when you walked out of her house. She’s been really worried about you.’
‘I have no daughter, only knaves and a blackguard of a spouse!’ she spluttered, her position in the hierarchy of society restored to her.
‘Oh yes, my mistake,’ said Charlie. ‘Two ticks and we’ll have you at the docs.’
Standing in the reception area of Pendleton Gateway, her face a knot of anxiety, was Alice, flanked by Ted. ‘Mum!’ she shouted, running over to the Queen and hugging the damp but indignant figure who replied,
‘I don’t know who you are, so please release my person before I set my knaves on you.’
‘Mum, it’s me, Alice, your daughter! We thought we’d lost you. I gave you a mince pie and a Christmas cracker for your elevenses. Then you just walked out and we were all frantic!’
But the Queen didn’t even bother to reply. She adjusted Ted’s coat neatly over her knees and looked at a nearby poster advertising flu vaccinations. Alice started sobbing quietly, knowing that further attempts to make herself known were fruitless.
The receptionist at the doctor’s surgery looked harassed. ‘Well, we can fit her in as an extra at 3.45 but she isn’t our patient, so you’ll have to fill in this form.’
‘Excuse me, who is she?’ Said the Queen. ‘Address me directly, you slovenly wench.’
‘I’m sorry, but we don’t tolerate harassment. If she speaks to me like that again she’ll have to leave.’
‘Mum has dementia’ said Alice. ‘It’s best to talk to her, involve her, engage her in her world. I’m sure you’ve had training?’
The receptionist looked embarrassed and changed her tone. ‘Mrs Hart, we’ll try to fit you in as soon as we can. Is there anything that we can get you?’
‘Some Earl Grey would be most acceptable’ said the Queen. ‘I am a trifle chilled’.
Alice got her a cup of tea out of the vending machine and the Queen sipped it with some distain until someone called ‘Mrs Hart?’
Dr. Ainsworth declared that, other than a few bumps and bruises, all was okay. She’d write to Joyce’s own GP about the arthritis, which was clearly getting worse.
‘She never goes out without her walking stick’ said Alice. ‘Where is it, mum?’
‘I have no recollection of a stick’ said the Queen ‘I only had Eric with me.’
‘Who’s Eric?’ Said Dr Ainsworth.
‘He’s a Flamingo.’
The GP’s eyes never flickered. ‘OK, well I’ll suggest an occupational therapy assessment and a dementia review. But how are you both coping?’ Alice couldn’t speak. The Queen looked affronted.
‘Coping? I’ll have you know that I was coping before you were born.’
‘Here’s the number for Salford carer’s centre. Someone to talk to. Practical help and advice.’
Alice opened her purse to put the business card in. The Queen shouted ‘Hatter!’ pointing to a picture in Alice’s purse. ‘Hatter’s in trouble. He’s at the police station.’ The Queen started to get agitated.
‘No. mum. He’s…’ she trailed off, clearly embarrassed. ‘He’s my son and…he’s gone away.’ she explained to Dr. Ainsworth.
Charlie was waiting outside the surgery. ‘Mrs. Hart, your majesty, please come this way, we would like you to be our guest of honour at the Christmas Lights switch on. It’ll only take 10 minutes and then you can get home. We didn’t want you to miss it.’
Right there on the main mall, children sang, fake snow fell and an elderly lady with one pink cheek and wellies placed her hand over the tanned and bejewelled hand of Love Island’s best talent, to switch on the Christmas lights. The lady from Greggs presented the Queen with a selection of fondant fancies and her missing mobile phone. The manager from Boots gave her a contouring set. The stolen wellies were offered back to Mrs Kay the stall holder, who promptly swapped them for ‘some stout shoes, in red’.
And then Hatter appeared. He’d been listening to the radio and heard that his nan was missing, then found.
‘Aw man, you know it was doin’ my nut in when Nan started acting weird. I had to get off and sort my head out.’ He confessed to Alice. ‘So I kipped at a mates house for a bit. But he made me see that she needs me now, like I needed her when I was little. I’ve been a coward, hiding away.’
Alice was crying now, watching her son – who was really called Ryan – do some sort of complicated handshake ritual with his nan, involving fist bumps and hugs. He tried to explain to her that he wasn’t being interviewed under caution and that she shouldn’t worry, he was going back to college and would visit every day.
Later that night, when Joyce was fast asleep, an alarm went off. The keyholder for Cash Converters was called out. Inside his shop he found a live flamingo beating itself against the door. Joyce woke up with a start and remembered where she’d left her antique walking stick.
For my parents Geoff and Hilda and my friends, the people of Salford.
Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental