James Holden: One is Amused

Copyright © 2012 James Holden

The Queen walked into her bedroom at Buckingham Palace, tired after a long day at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. It had been exactly the kind of event that she hated – all bright lights and loud music. She understood that as monarch she wasn’t able to pick and choose which parts of her job she carried out or negotiate a pay rise in return. But the one thing that she would quite gladly give up was sitting at events like the Opening Ceremony, watching performers thrust, gurn and wail their way through three minute slices of rubbish. She had already been bored to tears by the concert that had been thrown in her honour earlier in the year, sitting there with a polite smile on her face for two hours. The Queen had initially been enthusiastic about the idea of a concert outside Buckingham Palace when it was first floated. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a symphony orchestra perform Benjamin Britten, or something else suitably rousing and patriotic.’

‘But your Majesty,’ they had responded, ‘that’s not how The People want you to celebrate your Jubilee.’

Duty had won out as it had in June, and after a long and noisy Opening Ceremony she was looking forward to getting to bed. She struggled to focus as her tired mind wandered into the past, as it did more and more. Memories resurfaced of previous opening ceremonies, ones she had gone to as a guest and ones that she had personally opened. She thought back to the last time London had hosted the Olympic Games – if 2012 was full of razzmatazz, 1948 was at completely the other end of the spectrum. There been none of this fuss and it had just been about the competitors.

She pressed the buzzer next to her bed, before sitting down at the dressing table to start to remove her make-up. A maid entered, asking demurely if there was anything she wanted.

Did you watch the opening ceremony?’

‘Y-yes, Ma’am. We watched on the television in the servants’ dining room. It looked very exciting to be there.’

‘Did I look excited?’

She hesitated. ‘You looked … you looked … You looked like you fit right in with the celebrations, like you really belonged … Is there anything else Ma’am?’

‘Yes, I’ll have a single malt and a Horlicks, please. And can you find Philip?’

The maid curtsied and left the room, and the Queen started to remove her make-up. The problem with the Olympics, she thought, was that there were too many officials, politicians and other heads of state present. What she really enjoyed was meeting people, ordinary people and today had definitely not been about that. She had had to meet and greet the Olympic bureaucrats, although she didn’t really understand what they all did, and she had had to meet and greet the other attending heads of state, although what they were up to was often all too well known. She had avoided the indignity of being slapped on the back by Boris Johnson, and was grateful that she had at least managed to meet some of the competitors.

Athletes often fascinated her, because of the sheer tedium that must be involved. Her life was sometimes fairly monotonous, though she recognised it wasn’t without its compensations. But athletes she couldn’t fathom. Take the cyclists for example, a sport in which the Queen had been assured the chances of winning medals were particularly high. Surely they must get bored at some point, keep going round and round in circles. Since driving an ambulance in the Second World War, the opportunities for the Queen to take charge of a vehicle had been few and far between, and mainly for press purposes, but at least there was always something nice to look at from the window of the Royal Train if she got bored of Prince Philip’s company.

She wondered where he was, as she had been looking forward to the chance to gossip with him about the day’s proceedings. How well he had performed today, she thought. He had managed to avoid any diplomatic incidents, minor or otherwise, and had won many people over with his genuine enthusiasm for sport. In the absence of a steeplechase, the only thing that really stoked her interest was the shooting.

She took her earrings out, and sighing deeply she looked at the tired face in the mirror in front of her. Smiling, she thought about how happy everyone had been at the Jubilee. She had even memorised some of the facts that had been trotted out during the celebrations. That she had launched 21 ships and sent 175,000 telegrams congratulating people on reaching their centenary; that twelve different Prime Ministers had kissed her hand, each of them deeply flawed individuals, apart from dear old Winston.

The maid came back with the drinks, and laid them down on the dressing table, curtsying.

‘Did you find where the Duke of Edinburgh is?’ The Queen noticed a slight blush appear on her cheeks, and raised an eyebrow. She raised an eyebrow at her.

‘I think he’s in the private sitting room, Ma’am,’ she said, curtsying again.

‘You can go for the evening,’ said the Queen, dismissing her with a wave of her arm.

As the maid left through one door, so the Queen passed another, carrying her tumbler into a small sitting room. A two-seater sofa sat opposite a large television that had been positioned within an antique cabinet. Prince Philip was reading instructions from a leaflet to a footman who was on his knees at the back of the cabinet, fiddling with wires.

‘Philip, what on earth are you doing? I thought we’d got the digital recorder fixed okay?’ She grimaced, remembering the last time it had gone on the blink and he had erupted into a rage at missing Midsomer Murders, whilst they’d been having dinner with the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

‘I’m installing this thing – it’s a games console.’

‘A games console? Philip, where on earth did you get that from?’

‘One of the sponsors gave it to me. It’s got an Olympic game with it as well – look’ he said, waving Track & Field TwentyTwelve in her general direction. ‘That chap Coe says it’s meant to be very good.’

 *

Fifteen minutes later and the footman had managed to rig up the console. The Queen had called for another whisky and watched in bafflement as the footman showed the Duke how to use the controller by waving it in the air.

The footman scrolled through the menu options and selected a two player game. ‘Who would you like to be, your highness?’

The Queen sat forward as likenesses of past champions flashed before her, trying to remember the names of the ones she had met – Daly Thompson, Jonathan Edwards and Kelly Holmes.

‘I think they’ve made Linford Christie a bit on the small side, eh?’ said the Prince laughing, slapping the footman on the shoulder.

The footman and Prince Philip proceeded to complete a javelin competition, and then a shot put. The Queen started to giggle at the pair of them waving their arms around in huge arcs. The footman managed to win each time.

‘You’re meant to discreetly let the Prince win, I think,’ she said eyeing the bottom of the glass and wondering if she risked ordering a third.

‘I say, is there any beach volleyball on this?’

‘Philip! I think to even it up a bit, I should give you a race.’

The Duke of Edinburgh looked at her. ‘Are you sure, Lizzie?’

‘Absolutely. I certainly couldn’t do any worse than you.’

She got to her feet slightly unsteadily. ‘You’re going to have to show me what to do,’ she said to the footman. He took a few demonstrative swipes with the controller, and she watched carefully to see how the figures on the screen moved in response.

‘Right then, what sport shall we have a go at?’ she asked when she thought that she had got the hang of what she was meant to be doing.

‘Let’s have a go at the hurdles, they always look like fun.’

The footman loaded up the game.

‘Who is that he’s made me, Philip? I’m sure I gave her an honour once.’

‘Oh, that’s Sally Gunnell. She won gold for the hurdles in Barcelona, if memory serves correct.’

They stood ready in front of the television, waiting for the starter’s pistol to be fired. The Queen achieved a false start looking round to see if there was any whisky left in her glass and prompted the footman for another by raising an eyebrow.

When they were finally off, each pursued completely different, yet equally inelegant, strategies for getting round the course. Prince Philip’s avatar ambled up to each hurdle leaving him enough time to swing his arm properly for the jump needed to clear it. The Queen’s avatar, struggling to achieve the height necessary at the key moment, instead smashed its way through each hurdle. She cringed each time the hurdle toppled over, the obstacle slowing her down significantly.

The footman stood there bored as the slowest race he had ever seen slowly unfolded in front of his eyes. When the Duke’s avatar finally crossed the finishing line a couple of minutes later, way ahead of the Queen, he was unsure whether he should clap the victory or stay silent to preserve the loser’s dignity.

‘Not too humiliated I hope, Lizzie?’

‘At my age, I don’t think you can expect me to be all that at computer games, can you,’ she said, beads of sweat on her top lip and brow. She took a deep slug of her drink.

‘Re-match?’

‘No,” she said yawning. “Time for bed.’

They both shuffled out of the room, leaving the footman to tidy up. He was about to turn the light off when the Queen walked back in, her dressing gown tightly wrapped round  her small frame. She grabbed the footman by the wrist, and looked into his face with bloodshot eyes.

‘You get that Gunnell woman round tomorrow to show me what to do, and tell her if I beat the Prince next time we play, I’ll make sure she gets a better honour next time they’re up.’