There was once a little girl called Sharon who wanted nothing so much as to be a princess. Nobody could quite say (herself included) where and how she first heard about princesses, or who put the notion in her head, but long before she went to school she was determined and would not be shaken.
“Of course you’re our princess,” her parents assured her, or at least they did most of the time, when they hadn’t (because they were only human) had enough of princesses for one day.
“Every little girl wants to be a princess,” her grandmother said, glad that birthdays and Christmases were solved with sparkly pink tiaras (though Sharon preferred yellow ones, being, quite rightly, of the opinion that they looked nicer in her shiny black hair) and glittery capes, and even the odd sceptre.
“We are all potential princes and princesses, figuratively speaking,” her kindergarten teacher, Ms Rowe, who didn’t believe in being condescending by adjusting her vocabulary and talking down to children, said, “And that means doing the right thing and respecting others and ourselves.” Ms Rowe was liberal on many matters, but sparkly tiaras and glittery capes were not to her taste at all, and she had a quiet word with Sharon’s parents on the subject. Sharon took it surprisingly well. She didn’t want to get her favourite clothes messed up.
Sharon was a precocious reader, and then the world was hers. She was not narrow-minded on the subject of princesses, whether they were in books or on TV or in movies. Disney princesses singing sweet songs or power ballads as they swirled their colourful gowns were fine, but so were the princesses in the old-fashioned books with black and white illustrations made to look like woodcuts that her Auntie Kim, who was heavily into folklore, bestowed on her as if opening the keys to a magic kingdom. She read newspaper articles about real princesses, even though her parents were worried if some of the content were quite age appropriate, and there were words they hoped she wouldn’t ask them to explain. She had mixed feelings about the book “A Little Princess” – it was a good story, and she liked Frances Hodgson Burnett, she had wept buckets over “A Secret Garden” even though there wasn’t so much as a sniff of a princess. But a book that promised a Princess ought to have one and not just a heroine who got treated like one, even if the name Sarah did mean “Princess”. She wished she could be called that, or at least have a name that had been given to a princess. Who in this history of the universe (she couldn’t remember where she’d heard that saying, but she liked it) had ever heard of a Princess Sharon? In her first year at high school, a teacher with a slight taste for the obscure was arranging the Christmas concert and there was a carol that said Jesus was “Sharon’s Rose”. Well, Sharon was, she supposed, a Christian girl, though her family wasn’t that religious, but she didn’t want to be a Rose, even though she found out that the Queen’s sister had been known as Princess Margaret Rose when she was little, which helped a bit, and she didn’t want to be a man at all, even Him, and explanations about metaphors were little comfort, even though English was her favourite subject.
Her parents and her teachers, and maybe even her grandma thought she would grow out of it, and told themselves, as they had for years, that it was relatively harmless.
At a relatively early age, Sharon had learnt the habits of discretion. Though she entertained secret fantasies that much as she adored her parents she was adopted, she kept them largely to herself. The fact that she had a birthmark on her arm in exactly the same place as her mother, and what was rather mysteriously called a “Widow’s Peak” in her hair just the same as her father did make her reluctantly admit that she might as well abandon that particular notion. Still, perhaps all of them were the descendants of European royalty, of some ancient noble house that had been wrenched from their rightful position by the Russian Revolution. As she entered her teens, history rivalled English as her favourite subject, and she was neither the first nor the last to go through a “Russian Phase”. Perhaps despite what the kind of people who thought they knew everything said, the Grand Duchess (there were some circumstances where a Duchess seemed higher ranking than a Princess, in the British royal family, too, which was strange) Anastasia had escaped, and had children.
True, reading about what had happened to Anastasia’s siblings, if not to her, at Ekaterinburg, was a chilling reminder that being a princess was no guarantee against the horrors of life, and she preferred not to think about that, though she discovered the sad fact that the more you try not to think about something, the more you do think about it.
On reflection, though, perhaps it was still a more pleasing thought that she was connected to the British royal family by the Bend Sinister, which she discovered referred to something more often known by a far ruder word she’d get a telling-off for saying, though it was apparently fine when Shakespeare did, which was one of those minor unfairnesses you just had to learn to live with, and weather with an air of dignity.
Sharon both worked on her air of dignity and told herself she didn’t have to. Those who knew her could never quite decide if it were endearing or irritating, and it could manage to be both at the same time. She was sporadically accused of being a snob, but even her detractors had to admit that wasn’t quite true. Though she was one of the brightest girls in her class, she wasn’t a boaster, and she never made a full when it was her turn to empty the bins. She spoke nicely, but not in a silly or affected way. She would not have said she’d learnt to dissemble, but had learnt that she quite simply couldn’t expect people to understand, and though she wasn’t scared of arguments, they could so easily descend into something undignified. All the same, she couldn’t help thinking, her friend Mattie wanted to be a surgeon, and her friend Imogen wanted to be a writer. Everybody, it seemed, thought that was absolutely fine, so why couldn’t they treat her the same way?
By chance, when she was fifteen, she ran into her old kindergarten teacher, Ms Rowe, who didn’t look a day older, and said that now Sharon must call her Chris. Sharon wondered if it stood for Christine or Christina, or maybe even something like Christobel, and knew that if she asked her, she would be told, but also be told, in that firm but fair way that had worked so well with pre-schoolers, that she preferred simply to be called Chris, thank you very much. Sharon and Chris were both volunteering in a scheme to clear up the local river bank. In Sharon’s case it contributed towards her Duke of Edinburgh’s award, which was something she was, of course, morally obliged to approve of. “I’ll give you this, Sharon,” Chris said, “You’re a worker. There are some here who don’t pull their weight as much as they might, but you’re doing splendidly. When I think of that Princess nonsense – you’ve turned out remarkably well!”
Their eyes met over the litter-pickers, and Chris suddenly realised, “Oh, my Lord. You still have those ideas, don’t you?”Chris wasn’t the only one who gave credit where it was due, and Sharon had to admit that even after years of not seeing her, Chris Rowe was more perceptive than many folk her saw her every day.
“I don’t see what’s wrong with that, Ms – Chris.”
“I’m not saying it’s wrong wrong.” She still had her habit of repeating a word to give it a specific meaning. If someone were just feeling a bit under the weather, they weren’t ill ill, and if they were just popping round the corner, they weren’t going out out. If something wasn’t wrong wrong, it wasn’t on a par with mass murder or arson in a naval dockyard, but still ….. “I have to say I’m disappointed to hear it – don’t you think it’s far better to achieve things on your own merits and not rely on some fancy title or outdated institution ….?”
“But you don’t seem to have any objections to the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme.” She wasn’t one of the Leading Lights of the school Debating Society for nothing.
“Well …. That’s just a name, and I certainly wouldn’t say I approve of all his pronouncements. Still – I suppose you make a fair enough point. Life is a compromise. But please, Sharon, promise me this, don’t waste your brain. You have a good one. You do intend going to university, don’t you?”
“Of course I do!” she replied, entirely truthfully, and that appeared to mollify Chris, and they worked on in relative harmony.
In fact, Sharon had no especially strong feelings about university one way or the other, but decided it could do no harm. Her A-level results, to nobody’s surprise, her own included, were excellent and she went to St Andrews to read English and History.
She would not have gone so far as to say she had a definite plan, but would not have denied that her choice was no coincidence.
Her first year passed without much obvious event, and she had no intention whatsoever of making a fool of herself. Nor would she ever, because at heart she was a romantic, despite her practical streak, have got involved with someone she didn’t like and respect. Love, she meant. Of course. It would have been hard not to like and respect – or love – James. He was the kind of man who would never be called Jim or Jimmy, but wouldn’t have made a fuss about it if anyone did. Until you got to know him you’d have said he was very friendly and nice, and not at all stand-offish, but a bit reserved and old-fashioned in his ways, but as their friendship developed she discovered he had a zany, slightly surreal sense of humour, and was an excellent mimic. They even seemed to agree about the most trivial matters – they both liked their eggs well done, and hated carrying an umbrella. She was well aware that at university, to some extent, they were in a bubble, and couldn’t pretend that going to meet his family was the same as going to meet any old boyfriend’s family, but they couldn’t have been more charming and made her more welcome, and though it was a little unnerving, she could quite understand that they were oh so subtly and gently weighing her up and wondering if she would “do”.
She would. Her friends and family felt the strangest mixture of being absolutely gobsmacked and having seen it coming. They were very fond of James, and couldn’t say a bad word about him, but her parents still had one of those quiet words with her to the effect that though it was all wonderful and they were delighted, if she changed her mind, even at the last minute, they would always stand by her and love her unequivocally and unconditionally, and help her any way they could.
She gave them a hug and told them they were the best parents in the world, but had no intention of changing her mind.
Perhaps the wedding was less flamboyant (and certainly less expensive) than such an affair would once have been, but the papers still used the phrase “fairytale” about it, and even the most republican-leaning ones admitted that it seemed to exert a unifying force in troubled and divisive times.
They spent their honeymoon at a friend of James’ villa in the French alps, and it could not have been more idyllic. They went for long walks breathing in air that really did smell like wine, and where anyone they did meet merely called a friendly Bonjour and left them in peace. They made their own fondue, and indulged their shared taste for old black and white movies.
Of course Sharon had known, both literally and figuratively, that the honeymoon would come to an end. It always did, no matter who you were and who you were married to, and it would be good to get on with their normal life.
For a while, she revelled in that, too. She kept up with all her old friends, and there was no unease or formality between them. She and Imogen were still very close, and she was so pleased that Imogen had had her first book published and it had been well reviewed. The two of them snuggled up on the comfortable, slightly shabby couch over a cappuccino as they caught up on the gossip.
“You remember Trisha MacKay? Well, would you believe it, she’s decided to do a PGCE and train as a teacher!”
“She’s never!” Sharon exclaimed, genuinely amazed. So far as she remembered, Trisha had, to put it mildly, never been one of life’s child-lovers and had been quite happy in her work as a PA.
“She has. Apparently she earned some extra cash tutoring, and would you believe it, she discovered she enjoyed it and had a gift for it.”
“I sometimes think I wouldn’t mind doing that….” But then she broke off. Whether she would mind doing it or not, was neither here nor there. She wouldn’t do it. At best they might humour her and find her a sinecure in some tiny private school, but she doubted even that. She had no illusions that she shared Imogen’s literary skill, but she had a way with words and had thought about writing at least a couple of short stories. Well, nobody was going to stop her doing that. But they would never be judged on their own merit (and if she used a pseudonym, it would get out) and she would never, as Imogen had the previous week, visit literary festivals and sleep in quaint guest houses. Auntie Kim, relatively late in life, had decided to retrain as a social worker, and she loved it. Sharon wasn’t sure she would, but that wasn’t the point.
She would never regret marrying James. Never. Would she?
But that night, she had one of the worst nightmares she’d had since those childhood ones about the fate of the Russian royal children. She was being taken to a room, to a beautiful room, but to a room with a large, heavy door, and a large, heavy key, and that door was being slammed to, firmly, and locked, forever. And the man she loved was locking it.