In 2005, CBC radio’s Alberta Anthology ran its usual contest for poetry, fiction, non-fiction and dramatic monologue, and in celebration of Alberta’s centennial, asked for themed entries. Normally, I find it hard to write to themes, and usually end up scouring the work I have at hand, looking for some slim connection. But a true blue monarchist friend gave me the gift of a story when she invited me to come with her to catch a glimpse of HRH Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on their visit to Calgary.
With this year’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it seems good timing to share the story that resulted and that was ultimately broadcast on CBC’s Alberta Anthology and included in the book published that year by Red Deer Press.
The Queen is Coming
My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”
I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.
I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.
“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.
“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”
My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.
“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”
In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.
The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head. Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings. Four in all.
I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.
Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”
“Right!” I say in jovial response. I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.
“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,” Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”
“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”
“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”
Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons. I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.
The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary is cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.
But she insists. My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”
I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.” But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.
Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched covering her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.
I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”
Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”
The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.
I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view. I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.
She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”
I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”
“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”
I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.
“No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.
I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block. Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.
“Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!” At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past. Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.
Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”
I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”