The royal family have managed, as they often do, to claim international headlines in recent times, but as I try to absorb the exhausting latest covid updates and marvel at the possibility of speedy vaccine rollouts, I don’t tend to linger for too long on the details of their behaviour and the consequences of their actions and inactions. I realize, however, that I have a story up my sleeve that likely isn’t nearly as dramatic as the unfolding of their acrimonious family feud, and it certainly won’t lead to a tabloid frenzy, but nonetheless it does involve our monarch, a member of her family, and a cup of much loved and cherished tea.
Before I go on, I do need to make something indelibly clear. I am a Scot, and as such do not fall into the camp that holds royalty in particularly high esteem. I am also not someone who thinks the state of the world is adequate when one family owns palaces, huge areas of land and riches beyond compare, while another, just around the corner from her castle, can not afford to pay the rent and to feed the kids. However, as you will see from my story, the queen can definitely come in handy once in a while.
It’s not every that day that you casually drop a letter addressed to Buckingham palace into the red mail box, where it lies in obscurity beside the paid and unpaid bills, the birthday cards, and the much awaited news from distant relatives, until it gets sorted and delivered to its destination. I giggled a bit to myself as the envelope and I parted company, and hoped fervently, as it fell from my fingers, that it would be well received. It had been a last-minute decision that was made earlier that day in the wee small hours, as a small group of us gathered anxiously in an airless attic room to ponder and to problem solve our currant predicament. An appeal to the queen had been suggested as a strategy by one of us as a half-hearted joke, when our thinking had become befuddled, partly due to the lateness of the hour and partly as a result of swallowing someone’s, not so delectable, home made beer.
When I reflect back on my student days, the most memorable and meaningful part was not hanging out with the fascinating new friends I had made, nor going to classes where I read books, wrote papers, and snored a bit, but rather it was the time I spent volunteering my time with a student run group called Children’s Holiday Venture. There were about eight of us adventurers who were involved, and our work entailed going to two of Edinburgh’s largest and most notorious public housing projects, befriending some of the kids who lived there, and giving them a break from the intensity of their home environment by taking them swimming a couple of nights a week, and on camping trips at various times throughout the year. Let me tell you that I learned immensely more from these bundles of resilient beings, than anything I could possibly glean in the classroom.
However, calamity had struck our tight knit group, as on the last camping expedition, we had had an accident with our precious van , built to transport these wee waifs to adventures beyond their neighbourhoods, and it was now lying upside down in a scrap yard somewhere near the village of Aberfeldy where it had met its demise. We were now not able to fulfill our commitment to these kids and to the communities they came from. A commitment that was unspoken, but that nonetheless lay written in the corners of our convictions. We could no longer take them to the activities they so much enjoyed, and nor could we fully extend the hand of adult friendship and support that many of them had wordlessly come to rely on.
Access to most of the social determinants of health was way beyond the grasp of most families in these neighbourhoods, and poverty, hunger, abuse, substance dependency, drug dealing, conflicts with both the law, and other local gang members were all fully switched on experiences in these kids’ lives. Many of them who were mainly between the ages of 9 to 13 had never set eyes on a sheep, or seen the colour of the heather blooming in the nearby hills. The Jimmys and the Johnnys and the Sandras and the Paddys and all the other colourful little people we came to know, were already dabbling in shop lifting, glue sniffing and purse pinching, and in the scheme, of things, our connection with them was perhaps a mere dribble in a rain barrel. Important, valuable, and meaningful, nonetheless.
We had no funding for our group, other than the proceeds we made from a huge annual rummage sale, a pittance of a subsidy from the university, and a[i]few paltry fundraising attempts, so there was no money to replace our trusty four wheeled friend. She had been elderly enough that the insurance company only sniffed at her briefly as she lay belly up and gave us a fraction of her replacement value. It was during our desperate brainstorming about what we could possibly to do next to resolve our state of vehicle- lessness, that we decided impulsively to make a plea to royalty.
Inconceivably and incredibly, a week or two later a response dropped into my letterbox, in the shape of a large white envelope with a silver embossed invitation inside, asking the four ringleaders in our group to attend the queens ‘ Royal Garden Party’, set to take place later that month in the grounds of Holyrood palace . Included in the envelope was a letter to say that the queen’s husband , prince Philip would like to meet with us privately because ‘ his royal highness was very interested in the wellbeing of children in Edinburgh.’
So off we went to the local charity shop to find suitable clothing for such an event. A frilly frock and a dainty hat were probably in order for the lassies, while the lads found ill fitting suits that hung clumsily on their unaccustomed frames. We were told that the women would be expected to curtsy delicately when we were introduced, and so we practiced with much hilarity, transforming our clumsy warrior postures and lunges into something a little more refined.
Way back in the 1859 Charles Dickens wrote a book called ‘The Tale of Two Cities’ and that is what it felt like when we arrived at the palace. Most cities have many faces with numerous tales, and Edinburgh is no exception, with the stark wealth of the well to do sharply contrasting with the opulent poverty we had come to witness when we visited the neighbourhoods our young friends grew up in. Perhaps the strangeness was more striking for us because these two cities were only separated by a ten minute drive, or a short walk over a steep hill.
I’d have loved to have been able to sneak in a couple of the kids underneath my hat, so they could join in with the regal festivity, but alas, they were not invited, and on reflection perhaps they weren’t ones for social conformity. Likely they would have sat on the queen’s lap, and asked for a taste of her strawberry, pinched a few of the crown jewels, or whisked off someone’s lavish head arrangement. Or worse.
So there we were, lining up with the other dozens of invitees, to shake hands politely with the queen who was dressed in green, and was consuming tea in between. I bailed on the curtsey in the end, as some things are just too hard to do, and it didn’t seem to be a mandatory way to address the monarch. When it was my turn, the eyes of us two fellow tea drinkers met momentarily, and our hands shook briefly through her lace glove, as her mouth turned into a smile and she moved her gaze to the next in line.
After tea had been sipped, and intricately crafted finger foods gobbled, we were ushered into the palace down a long corridor lined with suits of armour, into a chamber where the queen’s husband, prince Philip was sitting, looking sunned and very much at home. He pointedly asked me if I was wearing anything warm underneath my frock, as the day was indeed chilly, and then, as if he had been coached in how best to talk to young students, he made a few jokes that weren’t funny, but we tinkled a laugh anyway, happy to encourage his attempts to connect across the divide. Then the conversation became more earnest, and we told him about our predicament and about the many kids we had come to know. He seemed to be truly interested by what we were doing, and asked a lot of curiosity inspired questions, until after about twenty minutes he stood up abruptly, and thanked us for coming. It was evident that our allotted time was up.
A week later we got a call from a local car dealership. A spanking brand-new van was ready for us to collect. Donated to us by the prince. Along with it came a year of free gas as well as a lifetime of repairs. Plus, it was fully insured.
Once the paperwork was signed and sealed, we set off delightedly in our shiny new treasure towards the neighbourhood where our young friends lived. When we got there, a group of them were throwing bricks at an unlived in derelict house, trying to break as many of its remaining windows as possible.
As we flung open the doors of our new vehicle, they excitedly abandoned what they were doing, gushed towards us and leapt in.
And off we drove to the hills.