August 24th, 2020
Meeting the QueenEton was boys school. When I was sixteen I learnt what it meant for boys to be boys. We all stood around the swings in a part of Windsor we shouldn't have bothered ourselves with, laughing about school things because that sacred place was our lives. A boy hanging off the top of the slide, a boy going easily, carefree on the roundabout. Two boys on the swings, the others standing by, and the boys from Windsor hadn't shown up yet so we were feeling pretty full of ourselves. I was somewhere central in the social strata, lucky enough to avoid regular skimming without feeling the pressure of maintaining popularity. Though, when on enemy turf any gripes were usually set aside in favour of an all-for-one mentality. Without them it turned to grassing up the ticking line from smallest to largest, personality-wise until everyone eventually got their fill, and the minions were given their fair share at a big shot as the evening went on. On specific occasions the system was set aside for personal effrontery. I was the brunt that day, for having met the Queen. 'I've invited you into my office because you've been invited-' You could tell he really wasn't happy to say it. He chewed on the inside of his lower lip. 'You've been invited to tea with the Queen.' 'What?' Every year a list arrives from Buckingham Palace. The Housemaster had called my dad to the school. Into the study again he came. All wood panelling, bronze ornaments on the desk, excessively large binders where, most likely, were detailed the wrong-doings of five-hundred boys who swaggered through the streets under the castle, showed no remorse at the races, spat on the river if they crossed South. At thirteen my dad was not happy to be called in, but when he found out I wasn't in trouble he was animated like I haven't seen before or since. Rather than the usual paternal deep-water faith his expectations of my behaviour clearly ran shallow and stopped often to form swampy pools where animals stuck up their noses and fled to the running water elsewhere. 'There's been some horrible mistake,' he said, no confidence in my royal credentials, 'Check the list.' 'I've already checked,' said the master, and I bet he bloody had. A hundred times he would have scoured for a mistake in my countryside regularity being so irregularly placed on a charter of such high dignity. Alas, no such error was found, and, after some bemused looks swapped between men and boy, my dad left shaking his head, the master shook his head after him, and I racked my brains for anything of note I had done in the short while I'd worn the white tie. So I met the Queen. It was scheduled for my fourteenth birthday, the actual day itself, which at the time I thought must have been the reason I was invited. Looking back I very much doubt the Palace had a comprehensive list of teenage birthdays. Thirty, maybe forty of us were coached down to Guards at the south end of Windsor Park, all excitement and showing off. We exchanged horror stories from years past. One boy was there on his fourth visit and looked unamused as the novices amongst us spread rumours we had just heard or made-up on the spot. Another boy, a prefect, sat us down on the approach and gave the brief for the day, how to greet Her, what to say, what not to say. 'This is not the time to make a prat of yourselves, alright?' Respect your elders applied a lot more from thirteen to eighteen then than it does from thirty to eighty now. 'Get anything sordid or boring out of your naive little heads and remember who you're talking to… and what you represent.' This last was the real seal. Prank the Queen and you'll go down in Etonian history as the funniest boy to have trod those hallowed halls. Embarrass the school itself, however, and you can kiss your tails goodbye, you'll be in Kensington by nine the next morning. We lined up in alphabetical order outside a pavilion, more village fete than Tudor hunting party but still impressive in a grand summer party sort of way. This was when excited nerves started to turn into genuine fear. The image of the woman on the other side of the canvas was embedded so deeply into my mind I thought I might be sick if I was confronted with the real thing, spontaneously combust and be swept away into a silver dustpan by a footman in crimson and gold with a boar bristle brush. One by one we were to go in and say our hellos and mention how much of an honour it was. As I was let in, and confronted with the woman herself, sitting bolt upright, angled slightly away from the entrance for cinematic effect, I threw up a little in my mouth and swallowed it quickly. There was the Ex-empress of India, wasn't she small. A man who was standing nearby came over and said 'This is Mr William Boot and I should tell you ma'am it's Mr William Boot's birthday.' 'Well, many happy returns,' she said. I thanked her and we had a little chat about school, nothing really interesting at all. Then we were out again breathing sighs of relief and there were games on, with us standing on the porch watching. Prince Phillip was sitting just by us, complaining about a massive megaphone that blasted out some commentary. 'Why the fuck have they got a fucking megaphone when I'm literally watching the match right here?' A few of us fourteen year olds went ha yeah, and had a few brownies from the table stacked with strawberries and classic English snacks. The woman is miniscule. She is tiny, proper tiny. So I met the Queen, and it was probably a mistake that I was on the list in the first place (despite it being my birthday). There's a boy whose Dad's a Lord and he might be on his way to be one now too, but his name is close to mine alphabetically and phonetically. The year after, he was on the list, and I wasn't invited back.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale