What ho, Your Majesty!
A short story of our times by Gyles Brandreth
It was a beautiful morning in the breakfast room of Oodles, the oldest club in St James’s. Bright sunshine poured in through the tall windows. The club silver sparkled, the dust danced in the sunbeams, and round and round the bread rolls came - winging through the air, now high, now low, now from the left, now from the right. Once in a while there was a loud ‘Huzzah!’ as someone scored a direct hit.
The laughter never seems to stop at Oodles and the breakfast is always tip-top. Today Chef had excelled himself. The fried eggs were positively giving me the glad-eye, the bacon sizzled like Pippa Middleton in one of her backless, strapless numbers, and the fried bread . . . Well, it was with the first happy scrunch, that I looked up to see Quiffy Cartwright beaming down at ‘Ah, Quiffy,’ I said, ‘I bet you don’t get a brekkers like this at Number Ten, do you, old bean?’ (I still can’t get over Quiffy being prime minister: at school he didn’t even get a pass in Religious Studies, and at Oxford he read Geography.)
My old friend widened his big blue eyes and ran an elegant hand through his famous forelock. ‘I don’t come to the Club for the breakfast,’ he answered, smiling, ‘– superior as it is. I’ve come to see you, Willie.’ He pulled up a chair and sat down beside me. ‘I know I can count on you.’
Actually, I like to think he can. Before the election, I gave him my policy paper – Back to the Future: A New Way with National Service – and he’s been decent enough to say it’s what helped nudge him over the finishing line that hair’s breadth ahead of the other chap.
Quiffy glanced around the dining room. ‘By the way,’ he murmured, ‘have you got a cheque for me, old bean?’
‘What? Another one?'
'You know, Willie, as I was saying to little Mr Putin the other day – in fact, as I always say to anyone who asks after you – “Willie Dabney is the brains of the Party, the brains.”’
‘Fear not, Prime Minister,’ I laughed, fishing my chequebook out of my pocket. ‘Will fifty k do?’
‘Can you manage a shade over?’
‘A shade over fifty? Why not? You know I’ll always do what I can to help the Party in these parlous times.’
‘Good man,’ said Quiffy, pushing back his chair and trousering my contribution to the funds. ‘We need another policy paper from you, Willie – and soon.’
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘but I’m rather struggling with my column for GQ magazine this month. “Tweeds – what happens next?” It’s proving trickier than I expected
‘When you’re ready, old bean,’ said the PM - at which point a bread roll bounced off the prime ministerial bonce and landed squarely at his feet. It was swiftly followed by two more.
Quiffy, quick as a flash, spun round, bent down, picked up all three rolls and whizzed them back whence they came – in the direction of Teddy Ivanhoe, Mayor of London, who ducked, but not quite in time.
‘Cripes!’ squealed Teddy, clasping his forehead and jumping up and down like Humpty Dumpty on a Bungee wire.
Chuckling, I returned my attention to the breakfast nosebag – and to the prime minister who was now fielding a beauty of a bumper from the mayoral corner. ‘What’s on the race-card today, Quiffy?’ I asked.
‘The Emergency Budget, then off to Brussels for soup and escalopes with Johnny Foreigner.’ Quiffy zinged a zooter Teddy’s way. ‘The European Union . . .’ he sighed.
‘Good grief,’ I murmured, ‘Is that still going on?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Quiffy laughed. ‘But you’ve got to look on the bright side. They all speak English nowadays.’ Having delivered his quip and bunging a beauty of a bosie as his parting shot, Quiffy went merrily on his way.
Moments later, while reflecting that Teddy Ivanhoe is actually a bit of a dibbly dobbly in the bowling stakes and wondering to myself whether or not a slice of old-fashioned toast-and-marmalade might not just round off breakfast rather nicely, of all people Tubby Orr Balls came padding excitedly through the hurly-burly of bread rolls towards me.
‘Willie,’ he cried breathlessly, ‘I’ve found you.’ His moon-like face was wreathed in smiles. His bald pate was shiny with perspiration.
‘You have, old bean,’ quoth I, raising an eyebrow while casting a glance towards Tubby’s bulging waistcoat.
Tubby spread his arms wide with pride. ‘Charlie likes a fellow with a touch of tummy – reassures her he’s really an Englishman.’
Charlie is Charlotte Bonar-Law, actress, revolutionary, dangerous sports addict; and Tubby’s current affianced.
‘It’s because of Charlie I’m here.’
‘Because of Charlie?’
‘I’m producing a film.’
‘This is a gem, Willie. The Private Life of Nell Gwyn. Charlie is going to star. She was born for it, Willie, absolutely born for it. And Benedict Cumberbatch is playing King Charles.’
‘Eddie Redmayne, surely? Cumberbatch is a Harrow man.’
‘Willie,’ said Tubby, dramatically, ‘the point is this: we need to film the film at Upton Hall. It’s the only place. It’s the right size. It’s the right period. Charles II actually slept there – with Nell Gwynn.’
‘Topping, Tubby. So what’s the problem?’
‘The Earl of Doncaster says No.’
‘Ah, that’s my Uncle Donald for you. The Donkey’s a racing man, really. Bit of beagling. A touch of riding to hounds. Not really one for the moving pictures.’
‘He can’t say No, Willie.’
‘He can say No, Tubby. It’s his house. He won’t change his mind.’
‘He will – if you ask him.’
‘You, Willie. I know I can count on you. You’re his favourite nephew.’ Tubby put out a pudgy paw and squeezed my arm. ‘That’s why I’m here, Willie. I need you.’
‘Oh no you don’t.’
‘Oh yes I do. I need you to persuade your kind-hearted old uncle to allow your old school friend, Tubby Orr Balls, to make his BAFTA-bound, Oscar-destined, three-dimensional cinematic scorcher in the old family pile.’
‘I’m sorry, Tubby. I won’t. Never forget,’ I cried, warming to my theme, ‘we Dabneys came over before the Conquest. We’ve been saying No for a thousand years. When we say No, we mean it. I am not going to Upton Hall for you or anyone else, Tubby, and that’s that.’
Tubby thrust his imploring face right into mine.
I was saved by the bell. With a mighty chirrup the mobile in my left breast pocket began to throb and jingle. I pulled it out and, ducking through the flurry of flying bread, zigzagged across the dining room and out onto the landing – where mobiles are permitted. I answered the call. It was Aunt Lilibet. I must say you can always rely on the old girl.
‘What ho, Your Majesty? What’s the goss? What? Upton Hall? This very afternoon? Of course, Aunt Lilibet. Nothing I’d like more.’
Well, it’s difficult to say no to Aunt Lilibet. She’s not actually my aunt: she’s my godmother – and the best: as solid as a rock cake and as shrewd as an on-course bookmaker. She is also the Queen of England, of course, and I think we can agree, the best of the bunch in that department, too, eh?
‘It’s my long weekend at Upton Hall,’ she explained. ‘We’ll be playing Bridge. We always do. Your Uncle Donald insists on a rubber after dinner – and I need a partner, so, of course, I thought of my godson, Willie . . . You’re still playing a Weak No Trump, aren’t you, Willie?’
‘I certainly am, God-mater. Who else is going?’
‘I can’t remember. Your Aunt Augusta did send me the guest list. There’s a Russian, I think. There usually is nowadays. But it’s always a jolly party. And there’ll be the fancy dress dance on Saturday. You love a fancy dress dance, Willie, don’t you?’
‘Well, yes, Aunt Lilibet, you know I’m partial to a spot of shimmying in the old fancy dress – as are you, if I may say so.’
Her Majesty snorted merrily. ‘You may say so, godson,’ she chortled.
‘And who are you coming as this year, godmater?’
‘Yes. Well, I’ve got the ukulele and I know the songs . . .’
‘I’m with you, Your Majesty. Don’t break with tradition. Let’s face it, the year you came as Winnie Mandela was not a complete success.’
‘It was Ella Fitzgerald, Willie.’
It was my turn to snort merrily – but as I did so I heard a curious scrabbling, scratching, rattling sound coming down the line. ‘Are you alright, Aunt Lilibet?’
‘I’m fine,’ she replied, but the strange noise was getting louder and Aunt Lilibet’s voice sounded breathless and more distant.
‘What’s going on, Aunt Lilibet? Where are you?’
‘On my hands and knees, if you must know.’
‘Are you feeding the dogs?’
‘No, no. Bronislaw’s walking the dogs.’
‘My new page – Bronislaw. He’s a poppet. Doesn’t speak a word of English, but he’s got a heart of gold.’ As she spoke, the scratching noise was getting louder.
‘What are you doing, aunt?’
‘I’m rummaging around in my honours drawer. I need to find a gong for the Donkey. I always take him something - as a hostess gift. Your Aunt Augusta expects it.’
‘What did you give him last year?’
‘The Order of the Thistle.’
‘Is he Scottish?’
‘No, but he likes a malt whisky.’
‘And the year before?’
‘St Michael and St George.’
‘He’s got the Garter, I suppose?’
‘He’s had that for years. I gave it to him for his sixtieth.’
‘And the Order of the Bath?’
‘Sixty-fifth. He’s a Knight Grand Cross.’ The Queen snorted. ‘Very grand, very cross – that was your Aunt Augusta’s joke.’
‘Oh lordy, I give up. He’s had the lot. I suppose I’ll just have to give him a book.’
‘A book? Uncle Donald? Good grief.’
I heard her struggling to her feet. ‘I know. He only really likes to read one book.’
‘Three Men in a Boat?’
‘Exactly. I always think it’s the only book anyone ever needs to read, don’t you?’
‘Absolutely, Aunt Lilibet. Couldn’t agree more. Shall I get him another copy then?’
‘No, no. You’ll have to get him a new book. With lots of pictures. Lots of pictures.’
‘Do you have something in mind?’
‘I do, Willie. I had the Astronomer Royal to lunch this week – with the Poet Laureate and the Master of the Queen’s Musick. It got a bit sticky – some rather long silences, I’m afraid, though the Keeper of the Swans did his best to keep it going with his bird impressions. Anyway, the Astronomer Royal was telling me he’s just published a new book - In the Shadow of Venus. Packed with wonderful photographs, apparently. It’s won some sort of prize. I thought it would be right up the Donkey’s street. You know how he likes to sleep under the stars now and again. He’s a great outdoorsman.
‘If you say so, Aunt Lilibet – a picture book for Uncle Donald, just the ticket.’
‘Now, Willie, would you be a dear and pop in to Hay and Stoppard and get a copy for your old godmother? Get it nicely gift-wrapped and bring it down to Upton for me to give to the Donkey as my hostess present?’
‘You can rely on me, God-mater.’
‘I hope so, Willie.’
‘I know so, Your Majesty.’
Without even a fleeting backward glance in the direction of the dining room, all thoughts of hot-buttered toast and thick-cut Oxford marmalade abandoned, I set about my royal errand right away. When Aunt Lilibet commands, a chap obeys.
Happily, as I reached the foot of the stairs, who should be coming across the hallway towards me but Mann, the Club butler, bearing his tray of mid-morning bracers? The bracer is an Oodles speciality: mostly gin, with a just trace of vermouth and two splashes of Napoleon brandy in place of the common-or-garden Angostura bitter. Frankly, it’s a pick-me-up like no other.
I took one, raised the glass to Mann (a most excellent fellow) and downed it. The effect was immediate and immensely cheering. I took another and as it slithered down the hatch I can tell you that all the problems I’d been having with my column for GQ Magazine began to evaporate before my very eyes. The future of tweeds became as clear to me as a stag at bay silhouetted on a Highland hilltop.
In this mellow frame of mind, I slipped out of the Club, executed a sharp left and climbed up St James’s towards Piccadilly. To the merry blast of horns, I crossed the busy thoroughfare, offering a friendly wave to the bus driver who was raising his finger cheerily in my direction, and made my way down the side-street leading to Hay and Stoppard – Aunt Lilibet’s, bookseller of choice.
The shop was deserted and I did not recognise the cove behind the counter, though he looked amenable enough.
‘I have come in search of a book,’ I announced.
‘Any particular book, sir?’
‘Oh, yes. A very particular book.’
‘Er . . . ar. . .’ For a moment, the Dabney mind went blank. But not for long. I rewound the old brainbox, re-spooled the morning’s encounters and bingo. ‘Fifty Shades of Venus is the title.’
‘Fifty Shades of Venus? Are you sure, sir?’
‘Quite sure – my godmother recommended it. You have it?’
‘It’s in the back room, sir. We only have a few copies – for the discerning customer.’
‘The illustrated edition.’
‘Oh yes, sir, it’s certainly illustrated.’
‘To be honest, it’s the pictures that I’m really after.’
‘I can imagine, sir.’
‘Yes, well, can you get it?’
‘I won’t be a moment, sir.’
The fellow returned pretty smartly. They know their stuff at Hay and Stoppard. Didn’t even have to ask them to gift-wrap it. I believe this brown wrapping is the latest thing.
Mission accomplished, I ankled my way back to the club, giving Aunt Lilibet a quick call on the way. ‘I’ve bagged the prey, godmater. Book bought, wrapped and ready for you to hand over to the Donkey.’
‘Oh,’ she purred, ‘I can’t wait to see his face when he opens it. It’ll perk him up no end. Thank you, Willie. I know I can always count on you.’
‘What ho, Your Majesty.’