Master of Ceremonies
There’s strange goings-on at court at the moment. Someone broke the Queen’s platinum single last Tuesday; the chambermaid found it shattered in the hallway. Nobody’s owning up. They know all too well how the Queen would punish them. She took to her bed for the rest of the week and sent Sophie PA out to buy her a new dress. Which, of course, upset the costumier. And then we were all faced with the sight of Sophie herself, her tubby little body quaking, scurrying back up the drive trailing a sixty-thousand-dollar dress behind her.
And then there’s the matter of the security cameras. André, the bodyguard, halts midway through his habitual stalk around the hedges to tell me,
-Murdoch, someone’s taken out the security cameras. I’m busy feeding the koi carp. The Queen picked them out herself; intshikigoi, an exceptionally rare variety. Nobody knows what to feed them so I toss a bucketful of goldfish fodder every morning. Many of them die, so it’s my job to net them up and order in more from Tokyo.
-Someone’s taken out the security cameras, André repeats. What are we going to do? The fish are bright, like sunbeams.
-Someone’s taken out the security cameras? I echo. He blushes.
-Some men from the company arrived and took them away an hour ago, he clarifies.
-Were they on the list?
-Then don’t worry about it. Speak to Sophie PA if it’s a serious concern. From behind the hedges, a solitary camera is clicking. There’s always one idiot who thinks he can see her in one of the windows.
Adam is sitting by himself in the kitchen in his gym kit, watching the sideboard with a vacant expression.
-Just did two hundred and ten reps, he says as I approach, without much confidence. I prepare his smoothie. Adam, who’s been sleeping with the Queen for four months now, serves as a litmus paper to her moods and graces. When he looks glum, the rest of the household knows something dark is on its way from the bedroom to us.
I stir the ingredients out into the blender. He drops onto the tiling and begins to do push-ups.
-Went to see her just now, he says, and Sophie PA told me she wasn’t to be disturbed. Think she’s in a mood with me?
–I really wouldn’t know, Adam.
-Her last concert went well, right?
-And the movie’s still doing great.
The critics abhorred it.
-Box-office smash, I tell him. He grunts, downs the smoothie, and wanders off in the direction of the tennis court.
My final duty is always to clean the gold records in the recording studio. The first is the Queen’s from her teenage years. My predecessor told me how his predecessor would tell the story of her insistent deflowering; how after her first Grammy, the tender fourteen-year-old Princess dragged in some tuxedoed grin by the name of Dan and told him what was going to happen. My predecessor’s predecessor spent the next seven minutes listening intently outside the door of the master bedroom. When she began to cry, afterwards, he marched in and picked the man up by his collar and drove him out to the middle of nowhere, abandoning him by the kerbside. He came back to the bedroom with a rare breed of chihuahua for her. Its pups are still around, I think, littering the lower corridors.
-Not like anyone would have the balls for that these days, he said, ticking off the list of guests for her twenty-first birthday. If she told you she wanted you to shoot her in the face, you’d do it- I mean, Christ, what would she do to you if you refused?
He left two months later. You have to keep on your toes in this job. You have to know her mind better than you know your own.
The broken platinum single is lying under a discreet silk cloth. André claims he caught one of the maids next to it, sobbing, who insisted that she had not shattered the disc but that she was crying ‘because it was like she never won it’. She’s on probation for now, but André claims last week’s security footage will resolve everything.
He calls me again at a quarter to three.
-Murdoch? Murdoch, are you there?
-Something else funny’s happened, he says. The Queen’s not seeing anyone tonight.
-Murdoch, is someone else there with you?
-Nobody, I reply. Strictly true. A hopeful young actress. The lustre of the Queen is enough to make even moderately intelligent people think you can work wonders. Murdoch the Scotch court magician. I can summon demons. GQ, Cosmopolitan. Not so great; my predecessor, the second Murdoch, got her onto Time.
-She’s meant to be giving another broadcast, André persists.
-Another Alma Mater?
-Another of her African videos, he says. In the Heart. The Heart is where everything is recorded. The greatest of my duties is to fill the great blank studio for its every purpose. Music videos, interviews, and even, for two seasons, the hugely popular reality series True Royalty. And, of course, the Alma Maters; the Queen, emerging onto a fully-constructed African landscape, leaning down to starving Ethiopian children (the actors playing them make more money in this town than the blonde slip beside me ever will).
-Right. And...and the problem is?
-Nobody’s letting the crew in. Word is the Queen isn’t to be disturbed. The gates are shut.
I frown, and sit up. The hopeful young actress pulls face No.# 4 from her headshots, ‘Savage Disapproval’.
-So you’re locked out?
-All of us, he says. Adam went out for a snapper and now he’s here too. You need to come right away, Murdoch. Say hi to him.
A muffled moment.
-Hey, Murdoch, says Adam.
This is serious. It was the first Murdoch who initiated the snapper rule. Although nobody inside the house ever have need of anything, it remains important that the Queen’s consort be seen. So every couple of days, Adam must drive out through the gates on an imaginary errand; occasionally he will walk down and be picked up by a car. There the photographers can catch a few sneak glimpses of him. If he’s trapped outside the house, it’s entirely possible that they’re getting tired of him. Such a thing must not be allowed to happen.
-Just give me four-and-a-half minutes, I reply, and hang up.
I don my jacket and ask the hopeful young actress not to touch the mini-bar. She’s understandably shocked. She’d been under the impression that I live here. The Queen’s empire spans continents; many beds are hers and, by extension, mine to rent.
I arrive to an empty drive. The gates are open, and the security cameras are standing in the same places as ever.
The body is drifting in the carp pond. The bewildered crowd is standing all around it, but nobody seems to have noticed it. All eyes are upon the house. André spots me and nods, then turns back. And then the doors open.
The Heart, I remember thinking. She’s brought the Heart out here. Colours of people, like all the people of the world, streaming out into the night. My knees go faint. Torches somersault all around her. The Queen stands before us. She awaits our applause.
I lose my breath: magnificent. I’ve underestimated Sophie PA. She understands the power of good lighting. Presumably while the Queen lay bleeding to death in her chambers, she was already getting in the hairdressers and makeup to impress us. And perhaps her hair is a little blotchier, her face a little chubbier than the old Queen’s. But who’s going to notice that? She can probably sing, and act, just as well. She may not even punish me for sneering at her; after all, the illusion must be maintained. I glance over the faces of the crowd. Some other courtiers seem to have had the same idea. If anything, it’s the photographers who look less convinced.
And then Adam steps out from the crowd and walks the two, three, four steps up to where the Queen is standing. Their eyes touch. He kisses her, as a man kisses his long-loved and well-familiar lover.