“Betty, wake up, it’s starting!”
“Come on dearie, you don’t want to miss it!”
The words come through slowly, thickly, like they’ve waded in honey. Sticking together, they seem to make little sense. Still, I open one eye and then the other.
There she is, radiant even as an image on a glass screen; the satin gown seems to glow with its gold and silver threads as if she’s been dipped in a pot of light. That dress, it looks like it’s been spun from my sweetest dreams, perhaps the dreams of every girl watching. Who wouldn’t want a dress like that? To be helped into it, heavy yet soft, rustling rich folds; turning this way and that, catching your reflection in a gilded mirror before its beamed out to the whole nation and beyond.
I look down at my fidgety legs and wonder where my grey smock dress has gone. Perhaps Mum has taken it for darning; the fabric’s worn so thin, soon they’ll be nothing left to hang a stitch on. A hand- me- down, it’s more patch than pinafore and I wish for the hundredth time that I could have been bought a special dress for the Coronation.
My big sister Joan bustles over, edging herself next to me, no doubt trying to get the best spot in front of the box but there’s no way I’m giving it up.
“Bugger off Joan!” I snap, pushing her hand roughly away. A scream of pain catches my attention briefly, and out of the corner of my eye I see the teacup wobbling in its saucer and the brown liquid splash onto the carpet.
“Now no need for that language Betty.” I hear her reprimand, but I smile to myself as she recedes from view; the prime spot is still mine. I gloat over my small victory in the pecking order of age. It’s short- lived. My legs are all jittery, jumping about like they want to be coupled up with the eight fine horses now arching their necks and tossing their manes on the screen. Except my legs and feet won’t stop pawing the floor, while on the television the beauties have quietened down and are meekly being harnessed up.
“Quiet lads,” I tell my knees. “Settle down or it’s back in the box for you.”
They ignore me like they always seem to do these days, and so I push my hands into the bones of my thighs, leaning forward to stare harder at the horses on the telly set. I want to see if Tink is there, my gypsy pony. I can still almost feel his breath, warm on my palm, snuffling up the carrot I’ve pinched when Mum’s not looking. I wish I could bring him more, but I’d be sat on the doorstep with the milk bottles for a month if Mum caught me taking them, so I can only chance one now and then.
If wishes could come true, they’d take the shape of bales of hay and buckets of oats and bran; they’d spill from my head with a sloshing sound. Filled to the brim, I’d lug them over to him- watch him snort into his feed and blow on his water-and he’d be mine instead of some other girl’s pony. Yes, I’d wish me Tink, even over that gorgeous gown.
Of course, I know Tink isn’t there; how could he be? He’s flecked brown and white, more a cow with a mane than a thoroughbred. The horses on screen are pure grey, bred to pull a gold state coach all the way to the Abbey; trotting in time, their hoof beats write the fairy tale of our time: a young woman crowned queen. I thought I was too old for Once upon a time, but watching Elizabeth step lightly into the carriage, crowds cheering her on, flags waving, I feel like I’m being tucked up as a five-year-old, Mum asking which bedtime story I’d like from the big book of tales. I hug the memory tight.
Joan is back, one hand wrapped in a bandage, mopping at the floor. I don’t know when she turned so house proud, there’s more tea stains in this old carpet than the original rose prints, but I let her get on with it, sponging the cloth into the brown blossom. I give her a commentary while she’s at it.
“Cunningham and Torey, Noah and Teddy.”
“And who might they be Betty? She asks through laboured breaths, the stiff blue fabric of her dress straining with the effort of scrubbing the floor.
“Boyfriends?” quips someone behind me, probably my younger sister Mary. She’s been on the dig for gossip about boys ever since Joan started going to the Pictures with some lads from her class. But me? Surely, she doesn’t think I’ve started chasing the lads round the playground! I ignore her and continue naming the horses:
“Eisenhower, Snow White, Tipperary, McCreery.”
I’d thought the place was empty except for me, Joan, and I suppose Mary, but the room erupts into howls of laughter; whoops of merriment make enough noise for a hall of people. I clutch the arms of my chair and whip my head round to see who’s making the raucous din; I want to tell them to pipe down or you’ll scare the horses.
Strange faces flash past as I turn frantically from one unfamiliar face to another.
“Snow White!” howls one, “funny name for a fella!”
“It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go,” sings another in a broken voice.
A stranger’s hand, wearing my wedding ring, grips my arm rest and I feel the chair rock forwards and backwards like it’s sobbing.
“There there, Betty dear,” soothes Joan, putting the cloth, stained brown now with the spilt tea, on a side table next to me. “No need to be making a fuss. Just ignore them.”
She places a smooth hand, slightly damp from the cloth, over my trembling one and turns to look over her shoulder.
“Sabryna, is it visiting time yet? Shall we start getting them ready?”
“Ten minutes still. I’ll get the trifle out and start plating up the sandwiches. You alright here alone for a bit?” asks Sabryna, and I think I recognise her as the Snow-White comment woman. Joan nods and turns back to look at my hand, worrying at a loose thread on the arm rest, unravelling it slowly.
“Now would you like to tell me about those boys?” She asks me, gently folding my fingers into her own. “You said Teddy. Was he your best boy before Dave?”
“Dave,” I manage, as her hand strokes mine, perfuming the air with the scent of soap and disinfectant.
I would like to say more, but the words seem to stick to my tongue. I would like to peel them off, one at a time, like pulling sweets from their wrappers and offer them to her. Instead I suck each one long and slow: like how there might have been boys before but never best ones; never one for a lifetime; one to put a plain gold band on my finger, making me feel as special as her- Elizabeth- that girl who they’re crowning now.
Joan doesn’t speak either. Her tongue seems gummed up too as she dabs a tissue under my eyes, pulling another from her pocket to wipe at her own.
The picture on the screen fades and another face stares out. It’s lined with age, hair as silver as the gown had once been. A stranger peers out from the balcony, at the street parties with their miles of Union Jack bunting and cake stands set for a British afternoon tea. I shake my head as if that will adjust the set to a picture I can understand, and turn to Joan.
“Where’s she gone?”
“Where’s who gone Betty?”
“The Queen? She’s there dearie; they’ve finished with the footage from her Coronation. Wasn’t she a picture back then! Next up are the Red Arrows, I think. You know, the planes with their coloured smoke.”
The words make smoke trails in my mind; looping and curling, the traces fade to nothing.
I'd like to throw the chair and shatter the lie on screen; but my legs are openly shaking now and I know I can’t get up, let alone hurl the furniture. I glare at the imposter Queen, ignoring her eyes, staring serenely out, just as they did on that day in 1953. I look instead at her mouth and wonder if she ate the lovely young Queen; whether she has eaten my whole life as well.
I want to prise more words loose, dig my nails underneath and lift a few free, but a noise outside disturbs me. A wireless somewhere is playing “God save the Queen,” and a man I don’t recognise stands on quaking legs, supported by a walking stick, and salutes the television.
Joan tuts but moves quickly over to help him back into his seat.
“Tom, Tom, no need to play the Colonel here!” she laughs, “you’ll be firing the salute next!”
When she returns, she stands right in front of me, blocking my view of the box. Stooping down, she places her hands on my shoulders and I feel her long dark hair tickle my cheek.
“He’ll be here soon Betty. You ready for visiting time?”
I shake my head. Visiting time? In our house?
“It’s alright pet,” she says warmly, straightening the cushion behind my back, “it will be the usual thing, just with a dollop of trifle and a coronation chicken sandwich thrown in.”
I don’t know what she’s talking about. Struggling to make sense of these spiralling words before they fade without a trace, I notice the badge pinned to her blue dress. It says Angelia.
“Where’s Joan?” I blurt out, and before she has time to answer I continue, panic finding the words for me.
“You’re not Joan!” How did I not notice before? This woman looks nothing like my older sister!
“Sshh, sshh Betty, don’t start up, not today of all days and now of all times- visitors about to step through the doors.”
“But where’s Joan gone?”
Angelia’s face falls and I wonder if I have asked her this before; she looks so weary, like she’s repeated the answer many times. I feel like a clumsy child; I’ve dropped the answer, broken it. Or perhaps it’s rolled away, like an empty cup slipping under a sofa. I feel like if I reach far enough, I could pull it out, but by the time I do, the need for it will have long passed.
The person I thought was Mary is back, pushing her wide hip against the door, holding it open so she can carry two trays loaded with sandwiches and a large glass bowl. She’s beaming as she breezes into the room.
“Well, Ladies and Gentlemen. Look who’s here to see you all!”
Following her in, bobbing faces on a sea of bodies, are people I think I have seen before. One face separates from the swell and swims into focus; eyes smile out like they did that day he slipped the ring onto my finger for the whole church to see.
“Dave,” I manage, as he bends down and kisses the top of my head.
“Hi Mum, couldn’t let you celebrate without me; Sabryna and Angelia have promised me this will be bigger than the party at the palace.” He waves to the two of them, laying a long table with plates and trays of food. They wave back, easy in their recognition.
Martin, it’s Martin, of course it’s Martin not Dave; but his eyes…I stare into them, convinced my husband is in there somewhere.
“And look who I’ve brought to see you. Someone else who likes a good party.”
With a peppering of freckles and the piercing stare which always belied her age, a little girl steps out from behind her father: Mary.
“Hi Granny. You remember me don’t you.”
It’s not a question, which is just as well as I don’t know the answer. Thankfully, Martin helps me out.
“How could she forget you Olivia!”
As soon as the name has left his mouth, it chases my phantom younger sister out of the door, still laughing at the trick she’s played on me. Of course, it’s Olivia; she sounds nothing like that mischievous Mary!
Joan, wearing Angelia’s badge, is back, handing out bowls of trifle to us all.
“An extra big one for our Betty, who’s got the sweetest tooth amongst the whole of the residents!”
That sounds about right, although my days of crunching on sherbet lemons and cracking the hard shells of mint humbugs are long gone. This sweet mess of cream, custard, jelly and fruit is easier for me to suck on; it slips through my gums and it’s like swallowing every birthday party I’ve ever had. I plunge the spoon in and I’m four, clutching the gift of my first doll; I dig the spoon in again, swallow, and I’m five, first school bag strapped firmly to my back; again, and I’m gulping down my sixth, all my new class mates singing happy birthday dear Betty, happy birthday to you!
I scrape that bowl with the spoon. If I could, I’d lift it to my face and lick the smooth white ceramic clean; I’d swallow until I was fully me again.
“Well that did the disappearing trick!” laughs Martin, taking the bowl and handing it back to Angelia.
Olivia has finished her trifle too. Putting the bowl on the side table, she pulls a bag onto her lap. She takes out, one at a time, two little toy horses: one is a beautiful jet black; the other is brown and white flecked, just like my Tink. With her intent eyes, she watches my hand edge across the blanket on my lap. Smiling, she trots the two horses, one in each hand, over to me; the little gypsy horse nuzzles my hand before she gently pushes it into my palm.
“Granny, did you use to like horses?”
“Your Granny was horse mad, just like someone else I know,” laughs Martin, although it could be my Dave, with his deep belly laugh, shaking his head as I come back from the stables, straw in my hair and a smile on my face as big as a stable door.
“Were you really Granny?”
“Tink, wasn’t it Mum? The horse you learned to ride on?”
I nod happily.
“Oh, tell me about him Granny! What did he look like?”
Others spoon trifle, wave flags and watch the Jubilee, but I grip the little horse firmly and start to talk. Slowly at first, worried the words will stumble, but then faster and faster: walk to trot, canter to gallop, until we’re racing- mother, son and granddaughter- together, on a trip down memory lane.