Queenie Mason sat a little straighter in her artfully angled comfy chair. She leaned forward to pour a cuppa from the Teapot of State, placed just in view of camera one. She lifted her chins to the little red light and began to read from the autocue rolling along below it.
‘Citizens of the British Republic. Good afternoon.’
She shut her mouth and wrinkled her brow.
‘What’s the matter Queenie?’ Caroline asked, sitting just out of shot and wrinkling a younger brow of her own.
‘This ain’t live is it?’ Queenie hissed.
‘No, it’s a practice run, but the next one will be live so let’s sort out any problems now, eh?’
Caroline, hearing the sighs of frustration, opted not to glance at the cameramen. She got it. They wanted to get home to their families, their Christmas dinners, crackers and booze. So did she, even if it was just the one cracker for her and a tin of Festive Feline Turkey Dinner with Gravy for Lady Jo. But, as the Cabinet Support Team’s official head of state-sitter, she had no more choice than they did.
‘Why have I got to say, “Good afternoon”? It’s stupid, nobody says “good afternoon” to anybody.’
‘I think you’ll find plenty of people who do—’
‘Well I don’t. This whole speech, it’s not me is it? “Your government has been working tirelessly on your behalf since taking office,” blah blah, it’s boring. And what the hell is a behalf when it’s at home? Which, incidentally, is where you should be, not sitting here while I make an arse of meself.’
‘The head of state always makes a Christmas afternoon address to the nation, Queenie, you know that. It’s one of the things we kept on from the old days because people like it.’
‘Well my Bert never liked it, even back when it was the proper queen. He used to put the telly on ‘specially to swear at it. “Silly old baggage,” he used to say, “why should she care what sort of a Christmas we’re ‘aving.” Sometimes he’d save a mince pie special and chuck it at the screen. I don’t want people all over the country sayin’ that about me.’
‘And wastin’ mince pies.’
‘And thinkin’ I’m a person who says good bleedin’ afternoon—’
Caroline capitulated. ‘Okay, then, what do you want to say?’
‘I want to talk like me, tell them what really goes on, be a bit genuine.’
The sighs from behind the cameras grew more audible. Someone let fly a muttered ‘ah shit’.
‘It’s a bit late to change the script now…and you were fine with it when you practised before…’
‘I know. And I’m sorry.’ Queenie directed her apology to the oh-shitter behind camera three. ‘It was all right then, no weirder than reading the stuff you have to say when you open stuff, or go visit some other poor chump who’s got to run a country until their time’s up too. We all know it’s diplomacy.’
She’d learned to do the air quotes quite well, Caroline thought. The old Queenie wouldn’t have even known what they were.
‘But this isn’t playing around pretending to be posh opening a fete, it’s talking to people while they’re having Christmas. I’ve had some crap Christmases, and the last thing I’d have wanted is someone good-afternooning at me.’
‘Excuse me, ma’am.’ The chap behind camera one spoke up while checking his watch. ‘We don’t have long until we go live.’
‘That’s all right, ducks.’ Caroline winced. ‘Just turn your blooming cameras on, I know what I’m goin’ to say.’
‘You’re going to make it up as you go along? I’m not sure…’ Caroline tried to catch camera one’s eye for some reinforcement but the guys were too busy grimacing at each other to include her in any eye-rolling.
‘Too right I am. I’m going to do what our Debs says all the time about the advertising stuff they do at her work. I’m going to keep it real. Now, where’s my pretend tea?’
Caroline picked up the teapot and carried it to the inner door that led from the reception room in Queenie’s official residence; a little flat above the mews in what had been the old Buckingham Palace. She opened the door and called to the kitchen. ‘Any chance of some more cold tea Eugene, dear, we’re just about to go live.’
‘I don’t see why it has to be cold, anyway, what’s wrong with a proper cuppa?’
‘We’ve been through this.’ Caroline couldn’t help the sigh, she really wanted to get home. ‘If you’re live on camera, trying to pour and drink tea and it’s hot, well you might spill it, or burn your mouth, or something.’
‘Bloody stupid if you ask me, I’ve been pouring and drinking tea all me life, why am I going to suddenly turn into an idiot who can’t find me mouth just because a camera got switched on?’
‘Well, some people do you know…’ Caroline couldn’t help it, she had Foreign Minister Andy Carswell in mind as she said this and her right hand waggled an imaginary cigar by her mouth, in a remarkably good impression of his most irritating gesture.
Queenie’s face crumpled into glee. ‘Oh no, now you’ve made me laugh, oh dear…there’s tears on me make-up…’
‘Ten seconds everyone.’ Camera one came over a tad shrill, Caroline reckoned, but then there was now a mess of chaos framed through his lens. Eugene replacing the teapot, Caroline dabbing Queenie’s cheeks, Queenie testing the temperature of the tea in her cup with her pinkie…
Eugene turned the teapot two degree clockwise and retired to the kitchen.
Queenie slurped the cold tea from her finger and grimaced.
Caroline finished dabbing and withdrew, with a handful of damp tissues, to her chair just out of shot.
Queenie surveyed the arrangement of the coffee table to her left. She frowned.
‘Where’s me mince pie?’
‘I want a mince pie to wave, sort of like a toast.’
‘I’ve got one.’ Oh-Shit popped a hand out from behind camera three. It held a ziplock bag containing a Marks and Sparks mince pie.
‘Thanks.’ Caroline grabbed the bag, retrieved the pie and placed it on Queenie’s saucer.
‘I was looking forward to that.’
‘We got more in the kitchen, luv, this is just a prop, honest.’
Andy Carswell watched his wife switch the telly on.
‘You don’t really want to see this do you?’ he asked her.
‘Why not, we always have before. It’s part of Christmas! Just because you don’t think much of her. Anyway, this is the first year we’ve known who it is. I expect some of the others were annoying to work with too.’ Beth turned the volume up. Presumably to spite him.
‘I don’t see why she has to keep going on the telly all the time. When we started out in government they put me on all the time…all the reporters asked me stuff. Now, whenever we go anywhere the cameras push me out the way in the rush to get to her. I mean’—he brushed imaginary crumbs off his tie with one hand and buffed the fingernails of the other on an imaginary lapel—‘she’s hardly photogenic.’
‘Hardly the point. People like her.’
‘People like me too.’ He pouted.
‘Yes, no doubt they do, and I’m sure you’re as photogenic as any other random public servant but she’s head of state and you’re not. Like it or not this is the Christmas speech and they don’t get foreign ministers to do those. It’s what we do. Just like overcooked sprouts and bad jokes in crackers. And horrible Christmas pudding. So shut up.’
She sat on the settee beside him with one of those massive tins of Quality Street that you only see at Christmas.
‘Blimey, where did that come from?’
‘School. My class clubbed together.’
‘Any green triangles left?’
‘Not sure, Sophie was rifling through looking for them yesterday, she might have missed one.’
‘I only like them. Oh, the purple ones with the nut in aren’t bad, any of those left?’
Beth sighed and started lining up purple-wrapped choccies on the cushion between them.
‘It’s just as well I like the toffees eh? Now stop rustling, I want to listen.’
She switched to BBC One just in time for them to watch Queenie pour a cup of tea. Andy tutted. He’d seen the old bat pour enough bloody tea. It was all she ever did. Behind her, the room looked pretty much as it did whenever Andy had to suffer a meeting there, except there was no stupid knitting on the table. The old bat looked directly into the camera and began.
‘I’m supposed to say, “Good afternoon, Citizens of the British Republic,” but that sounds a bit poncey so I’ll just say “hello”. I know you don’t want to hear much about my year, you’re all too busy wantin’ to have a nice Christmas and rest up and watch old films and that, but this speech is a thing, ain’t it? A tradition, so people switch on and watch and they’—she nodded her head sideways at whoever was off camera—‘they wrote me a script about what we done this year and that. But there’s a few things I think’s more important so if you want to know what happened this year, you can go and read the news.’
‘Good god.’ Andy slammed his fist down on the settee and sent his collection of purple Quality Street with the nuts in flying. ‘She’s making it up. They never let me do that.’
‘Shut up, I’m trying to listen.’
Beth turned the volume up a bit more.
The camera cut away to a profile view and Queenie turned her head. The shot closed in as she spoke.
‘This time last year I was terrified of having to come and see what they wanted me to do. Me and my Bert was having a crappy Christmas and I had no work and we had no money and having to come here and do gawd-knows-what was just about the last straw. We switched on the telly Christmas Day and watched the last guy, and he said all about the Republic and foreign visits and trade deals and business as usual and the ship of state and he wished us a happy Christmas and my Bert said “bloody pillock” and chucked a mince pie at the telly.’
‘Actually, I can see the old bugger doing just that.’ Andy laughed and a bit of chocolate went down the wrong way.
‘But then I came here, we all did, just normal people and we had to do our best. Some of us was terrified, some of us was all gung ho and thought we was fancy and important, and some of us just wanted to get through it with no trouble and go home. Well, it’s been quite a year. (That’s a bit from the script!) I’ve been all over the place, doin’ diplomacy. I’ve opened places, like proper shops with people in, that we’re really proud of. And I’ve opened places, like fancy new sewage plants, that I don’t really understand, and I’ve been scared, and done things stupid and they shout at me a lot. But it’s been…new…different…all right. And what I want to tell you is two things. The first thing is, they try hard you know. The people we whinge about all the time. The ‘Them’. They might be a bit snotty and they might talk posh and they might not do what you want with your tax money all the time, but they try as hard to get it right as I do.
‘And the other thing is…try stuff. Don’t let being old, or scared, or stupid, stop you tryin’ stuff. One minute you might be working the tills at Tesco and then you can be takin’ a Teapot of State to some island you’ve never heard of.
‘So, if you’re having a grand Christmas, all happy with your family and that, I’m pleased for you, Merry Christmas.’
She lifted something off her saucer and waved it at the camera.
‘What is that? A mince pie?’ Andy squinted to see it better.
‘Looks like it. Is she going to eat it?’
‘If she waves it around like that much longer that snotty little Eugene will appear in front of the camera, bum upwards, mopping up the crumbs.’
‘Don’t be so crude…’
‘And if you’re having a rough year—if Christmas ain’t so good for you and yours—well, I’m proof things can turn around and I hope they get better for you. Now, if you’ve got a mince pie in your hand like I have and you can’t wait for all this festive crap to be over, you can call me a bloody pillock, or whatever you like, and chuck it at me right now and I won’t mind.’
Beth giggled. ‘I can see why everyone likes her.’
It was Andy’s turn to say, ‘Shh.’
‘And just before I go, I’m supposed to tell you what our government has planned for this year. I’m goin’ to read this bit.’
She turned back to the full-face camera.
‘Well, there’s a new trade deal with America that’s supposed to make it easier for scientists to help businesses and Foreign Minister Andy Carswell will be doin’ a lot of meetin’s about that.’
‘About bloody time she mentioned me.’ Andy nodded as he opened another choc.
‘And we’re planning “a pilot scheme to have patients more involved in psycho-social support in clinical settings” which will be very pioneering and done by Health Minister Sally Farnham. Plus a “full review of consent policing” which is about what happened in the riots last year and Home Office Minister Clayton Brown will be running that.
‘Oh, and I’m supposed to tell you that if you haven’t had compensation yet, for any damage or lost earnings after the, uh, trouble, or if you’ve got any more problems or “issues” (funny word that, when I was a kid only newspapers had issues) then please go see your local rep because your government really does care. Right this is me again, bet you’re glad I didn’t read it all, eh? I’ve thought of another thing to tell you. Back before I was doin’ this I never thought I was the sort of person who could just go to a constituency rep and complain and get taken seriously. But I was, and so are you. And Merry Christmas.’
She raised her teacup in one hand and the mince pie in the other. Then she winked. And the shot changed to an external panorama of Buck Place.
‘Blimey,’ said Andy. ‘They let her off the lead good and proper.’
‘I thought it was cute,’ said Beth.
Sally Farnham muted the sound. She turned to face Doug Sideworth, who was chuckling.
‘Is it me, or was that a bit, I dunno, kind of…colourful?’
Doug took a swig of his post-prandial coffee and appeared to consider the matter.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it was different. Endearing…genuine…’
‘But a tiny bit “language, Timothy”?’
‘I’m surprised they let her wing it like that, they always insist I stick to scripts word for word.’ Sally had faced her fair share of cameras last year, although Health had had an easier time of it than Employment. Poor Doug had been chucked on the TV to cover for all manner of potential disasters.
‘She’s quite difficult to resist once she gets an idea in her head, I should know.’ Doug looked at the bottle of alcohol-free Tempranillo they’d attempted to enjoy with the turkey and trimmings and grimaced.
‘You seem to be implying that you’re only on the wagon because Queenie said so. That’s a bit insulting to both of us, isn’t it? You could have brought proper wine. I could have chucked that muck down the sink.’
‘It was a bit nasty wasn’t it?’
‘Look on the bright side.’ Sally laughed. ‘I let the twins try it and they declared they’d not be drinking when they grew up if that’s what booze tasted like.’
‘It was good of you though.’
‘What was, swigging drain cleaner with my Christmas dinner?’
‘No. Inviting me to join in. It’s family time, you didn’t need to be kind.’
Sally shrugged her shoulders. ‘Kindness didn’t enter into it, I have an easier time if someone else plays with the twins’ new toys with them while I trim the sprouts. You did sterling service clambering all over the floor with that annoying bloody train set Martin sent. Honestly, you’d think he deliberately went out and got the most infuriating gift he could find. Who has to soak decals off backing paper in a saucer of water these days?’
‘Now then, less of the swearing, you’re turning into Queenie.’
They both giggled.
‘How about a small bet?’ Sally asked. ‘Unless you’ve sworn off gambling too.’
‘What kind of bet?’
‘A pound on who’s going to be first to bollock Queenie for swearing in her speech to the nation when we get back to the House next week?’
Doug grinned. ‘That’s easy, my money’s on Gerald.’
‘Hmm. I’m not so sure, I think he might let it slide. I reckon it’ll be a constituent. Somebody who likes teaching people manners…like Martin’s mother…in fact she’s probably being incandescent over the turkey as we speak.’ She smiled at Doug. ‘Nasty not-wine notwithstanding, I’m definitely having a better Christmas than my ex. Thank you.’
Doug gave a gracious incline of the head and a reasonable approximation of Queenie’s bonkers official wave. ‘You are more than welcome.’
‘I guess last Christmas was pretty grim?’
There it was, the thousand-mile stare, Sally regretted the question immediately; she’d not seen that face for a while.
‘It was the first without Katie,’ he continued. ‘People say, don’t they, that you have to do a year of special days before you stand a chance of recovering. Once you woken up on one Boxing Day having survived, you know you can get through it. But that doesn’t mean you want to. That’s where all the counselling crap goes wrong. They assume you want to go on…’
‘And you don’t?’
‘That was rude, wasn’t it?’
‘No. It was honest.’
‘People think you and I are an item you know.’
Sally snorted coffee through her nose. She coughed, spluttered, sniffed and dashed to the kitchen for some paper towel. Then she blew her nose, loudly.
‘I don’t think that’s a healthy question to ask, and not just because of the coffee-inhalation dangers. There’s you, pining for the love of your life and moments from suicide every time her name comes up in conversation and me, sick to the back teeth of men and their crappy, snotty, controlling, bloody…’ She shuddered.
Doug held his palms up in submission. ‘Yeah. Right. Sorry, it’s just…Queenie…’
‘Queenie is a lovable but simple old darling who thinks in fairy tales. It doesn’t help, of course, that she seems to be currently living one. We survived Christmas, as did that fucking train set. That’s all.’
‘I suppose a House of Commons swear box is out of the question?’