Read Skeleton-in-waiting Online

Authors: Peter Dickinson


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A Crime Novel

Peter Dickinson


We are all, of course, the prisoners of our pasts. This can apply even to imaginary people with imaginary pasts. Some of the central characters of this book are the prisoners of a past set out inKing and Joker,in which it is assumed that Edward, Duke of Clarence, elder brother of the Duke of York who later in the real world became King George V, did not die in 1887 but lived to inherit as King Victor I, being then succeeded by his grandson, the present King Victor II. The resulting family tree is set out opposite. The only point that might be added is that the king is in fact bigamously married to Queen Isabella (Bella) and her secretary Ms Anona Fellowes (Nonny), and that Princess Louise is really Nonny's daughter. SinceKing and Jokerhas of course not been published in its own imaginary world, this relationship is a very well-kept secret.



“Is that you?”


“Right. Now, listen. I've been thinking about what you said and I've worked out who it was you were talking about. In my book that wasn't politics. It was plain murder.”


“I know that's what you think. All I can tell you is if it had been anyone's else than you I'd've gone straight to the police.”


“Soon as I've finished talking to you. Give you a chance to get out.”

“You mean they'd kill you, just for talking to me without their say-so?”


“Oh, God! How stupid can you get! Why'd you ever want to get yourself into this? And me too, now? What are we going to do?”


“Oh, God, I suppose so. If you'll promise me nothing's going to happen before then. But I'm telling you this—if you don't come up with some kind of out for both of us, something which means nobody getting hurt or killed, I'm going to the police, no matter.”


“You do that.”


“Tell me, ma'am, what does it feel like to wake with the knowledge that on average some twenty thousand of your fellow countrymen have been sleeping with you in their dreams?”

“I never give it a thought. It's just one of those things.”

The don, a colleague of Piers, had been half drunk, or he wouldn't have asked, but Louise hadn't minded; her answer had been almost true. She must have been about sixteen when the bit of research on the erotic fantasies of the male Briton in relation to the royal family had first been published, and it had bothered her a bit back then, but in recent years never, not till this morning. Why now should she wake from the nightmare image of that immense and silent queue stretching from the bedroom door, down the stairs, along the hall, out past the bored security guards, along the lime avenue, through the gates, but then not into the Bedfordshire countryside which in real life lay around Quercy, but into a dream landscape composed of all her favourite childhood places, Windsor Home Park with its ponds, the Dee at Balmoral with Father impatiently fishing, a Spanish beach with Mother embroidering beneath a purple umbrella?

Louise stretched out a hand to feel for Piers. The discovery that he wasn't there prolonged the nightmare a second or two until she was properly awake and knew the reason—today there was the Visiting Head and they'd both be on parade, so Piers would have slipped away at five to get a stint of work in, deep in his own imaginary maze while she'd been constructing her horrible dream. She reached out an arm and turned up the volume of the intercom till she could hear the come-and-go of Davy's breath. Steady as a soldier. Right through from the two o'clock feed again. Terrific. She left the volume up and switched on the radio.

“… and finally Jersey. South-east by east; haze, four miles; a thousand and thirteen, falling slowly. And that is the end of the shipping forecast and reports from coastal stations.”

Pause. The pips. Six o'clock on the morning of Friday the thirtieth of October. News briefing.

“The death has been announced from Kensington Palace of …”

Louise had half-known before the sentence began. There had been that particular tone in the announcer's voice while he was reading the time and date—something Family, and serious. Given a few more seconds she might have gauged exactly how serious, and from that deduced, though she had heard nothing about Granny being ill, that it could only be her.

“… of Princess Marie, Dowager Princess of Wales, mother of His Majesty King Victor, following a domestic accident. No details have yet been announced, but it is understood that the accident took place late yesterday evening. The Princess was immediately taken to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, but was found to be dead on arrival. King Victor and Queen Isabella arrived soon after. A statement is expected to be issued from Buckingham Palace within the next hour.

“Now the rest of the news. The pressure upon the dollar has …”

Louise stopped listening and lay with closed eyes, staring into the past. Granny, last of the Romanovs. (Not true, of course—there were dozens of perfectly authentic Romanovs around the world, growing vines in Tuscany, dealing in real estate in California, racing horses in France, playboying in the West Indies, but Granny always tried to make out that their blood ran less purely Romanov than hers.) Talons across the harp-strings, glittering green eyes, carroty hair, sickly wafts ofChypre.A domestic accident. How she would have despised the adjective.

The telephone rang. Too soon for the switchboard to be open. Only Family knew the other number.

“Father? I'm sorry.”

“You've heard?”

“On the news just now. What happened?”

“Far as anyone can make out she fell off one of the pianos trying to catch that parrot of hers. I thought I'd ring you first, seeing you were about the only one who could stand her. Broke her neck. Death pretty well instantaneous.”

“That's something. I suppose it'll be court mourning.”

“Yes, of course—don't know how long. There aren't any decent precedents. Whatsername, George Three's mama, must have been the last.”

“It would have been months back then.”

“Three or four weeks should do it. Anyway, it lets you off this do today.”

“Great. Granny would have wanted months, too. I say, why don't you have a memorial concert to make up?”


“Get a lot of famous musicians who loathe each other onto the same platform. She'd really appreciate that.”

“Bella wouldn't let us lark around that much. Anyway the funeral comes first.”

“Not a Russian one, please. Kissing her live was bad enough.”

“Don't be disgusting. It looks like Thursday week, give the foreign lot a chance to show up. You don't sound too upset.”

“I don't know. I suppose I'll miss her—like a comic on the telly, or a smelly old dog you've got used to. Piers will be pleased about the mourning.”

“Tell him we'll claw it back. But listen, Lulu, while I've got you, there's something else. I'm afraid you're not going to like this … Hang on … yes … OK … I'll have to call you back, Lulu. Ten minutes?”

“Provided Davy stays asleep.”


She hung up. Not going to like what? Some fuss with the hacks? Trouble with Aunt Eloise Kent? Might be anything. Mother was going to need a bit of help with Aunt Bea, though. Granny had exploited and tormented Aunt Bea mercilessly, treating her more as butt and drudge than the companion-cum-lady-in-waiting she was supposed to be, but still Aunt Bea was the only person who would be genuinely grieved by Granny's death. Apart from that? A lot of it was automatic. The whole machinery of a royal funeral would trundle gloomily gleaming from storage to perform for the first time in … how long? Ages. Aunt Rosie had died when Louise had been about seven, but she hadn't been given the full works. The last real turn-out must have been forGreat-grandmama, Queen Mary, back in 1953. Over thirty years. Not that Granny would get anything as fancy as that. The Palace would brief the hacks that it was because she'd never been Queen, but everyone would know it was really because she'd been a joke, or a pest, or both together.

No point either in thinking much about your own rearrangements. First you had to have the Guidance. By now Nonny and Sir Sam and Commander Tank and a few others would be sitting over the diaries with the Amstrad sorting it all out. P. of W. at airport to greet Visiting Head. Black armbands for Guard of Honour. Retain State Drive in coaches, but without H. and H.M. All flags at half mast on route. Contact FCO re bigwig to accompany Head to Opera tonight, ditto Jockey Club re races tomorrow. (Lucky deceased equivalent of Mother of Chief—important figure in Head's culture.) Banquet tomorrow night? Stick to that, because HM down to make speech mollifying hurt feelings over ITV programme exposing uses of torture in Head's prisons. Sunday, thank God, he wants to himself, Palace having declined request to supply dancing-boys. P. and P. of W. to see bastard off at airport on Monday. No public events for His M Monday, Her M to open new ward at Great Ormond Street—she'll insist on sticking to that but cancel kids releasing balloons at entrance … and so on, gradually diminishing grief for the royal loss being measured down by calibrations invisible to anyone not wearing Palace spectacles—if Mother's jaunt to the hospital had been scheduled for a week later, then it might have been deemed proper for her to watch the balloons soaring towards the rain-clouds.

It would be a good hour before they retrieved Louise's engagements on the Amstrad and went through them and then rang Joan with the Guidance. Of course, if there was anything HRH felt strongly about they'd be happy to reconsider … Meanwhile, all Louise had to wonder about was what she could do with her day off. Her main impulse was to call Piers on the house phone and tell him about the Visiting Head being off so why didn't he come back to bed and finish his stint at a sensible time of day? No good. He'd been at it for an hour by now, and his mind would still be deep in the maze. Who wants to cuddle with a zombie? On the other hand, once he was through with it he'd take the rest of the day off without a murmur—three hours of Artificial Intelligence and he was mentally exhausted, which meant as far as Louise was concerned that he became normal, the man she had almost instantaneously fallen in love with, fought to marry, and still adored with a vehemence that alarmed and even distressed a whole section of her conscious self, the part whose training had been based on the unspoken premise that the one thing a princess cannot afford is emotion too strong to control. But, out of unpredictable ambush, this inner tiger had sprung.

The actual location of the ambush had been the university of which Louise was Chancellor. Her Vice-Chancellor, still at seventy-five as pushy as any politician, had decided that there might be publicity to be gained if after one degree-giving ceremony HRH were to meet informally with some of the younger fellows. The cut-off line for youth had been thirty-seven, so Piers had just counted and had come, reluctantly, in his only suit, straight from an AI session in which he had made what he had then believed to be a breakthrough, though it had turned out to be only another of the phantoms that beckoned through his maze. To accentuate the theme of youth the Vice-Chancellor had had a student jazz group playing in one of the rooms, and during small talk Piers and Louise had discovered their shared lack of enthrallment with all forms of music. Tin ear had called to tin ear, and in Piers's case the call had been expressed in terms of surreal distaste, so that Louise had broken the decorum of Chancellorship by laughing aloud. The bleating of the goat excites the tiger.

Sometimes she wondered whether it had been love at all, at first, or merely a rebellion by the rest of her against the willed, trained self which she had thought of since childhood as the princessing machine. Father was extremely broad-minded, as monarchs go, Mother by instinct less so, though with a fathomless capacity to sympathise, but both had considered Piers wholly unsuitable as royal spouse and incredible as a member of the Family. So had Piers himself. When he had at last acknowledged his own tiger (more indolent and amenable than Louise's, she was aware) he had set out his terms in a document which had brought on one of Father's coruscations of fury—an absolute classic, according to Nonny, just like the old days—detailing how much of the royal life he was prepared to live and how much not. Of course, he had stuck to his bargain, accepting the unwanted earldom, smiling and nodding to High Sheriffesses who embarked on intelligent questions about his work, judging rhubarb jam made by classes of eight-year-olds, applauding the traditional music of the Upper Gambo (nose-flute, two-stringed twanger and oil-drum flogged with bike-chain) and so on, but that didn't make him any more suitable or credible. Perhaps, Louise thought, that was all she had fallen in love with. Perhaps, in fact, it hadn't been love at all, but a sort of frenzy to be herself, to demonstrate by the enormous publicity of a royal wedding (the hacks and politicians had had an absolute field day) that she could make her own choices in spite of everything, and that the princessing machine, though it might be the public's servant, wasn't her mistress. Was that really all? No, but it had been part of it, an ingredient, a spice in the passion. It was why she was always going to love him more than he loved her. It didn't matter.

A flutter from the baby-alarm, not a whimper but a movement. Louise was out from under the duvet and half-way into her dressing-gown when the telephone rang again.

“Something I wasn't going to like,” she said.

“Afraid so. You remember those buggers who had a go at Mother and me in Chester?”

Louise seemed to feel her body go rubbery-cold before her mind had taken the question in. It was the word “Chester” that triggered that response. The bomb had gone off prematurely, killing the dog who had found it and his handler, as well as the woman who had been putting the cushions out. They'd been the only ones close. The other injuries hadn't been serious, because it had been only a small bomb, in one of the cushions. It would gave gone off when Father sat on it. The dais had been checked already, several times. If the woman had been less attractive, and if the dog-handler hadn't wanted an excuse to chat her up …

“I thought they were all in gaol,” she said.

“That lot, yes. They were a crack-pot little group and we think we got all the active ones. The Garda has been keeping an eye on the known sympathisers. Now they've told us Gorman's brother has disappeared.”

“What does that mean?”

“Can't tell. The brother was said to have been against Chester, but they're one of those Celtic families. Fairly unreadable to outsiders. Our people have a hunch he might try something to get Gorman out. That's all we've got.”

“I suppose it means tighter bloody security.”

“For a week or two, anyway. Will you talk to Piers?”


“If they want to get Gorman out the obvious thing is a hostage. He might look a softer target than some of us.”

“But we'd never … I mean, whoever they took … Can't they see … ?

“People in their position don't think in those terms. You're frustrated of what you regard as your legitimate desires, and your instinct is to take violent action. You rationalise your instinct by persuading yourself that the violence will have the effect you desire. For that to be the case, the nature of the real world has to be adjusted to allow such a chain of cause and effect to remain valid. There's all sorts of other reasons why Gorman's brother should have disappeared, if he has. And if thatisthe reason, there are other courses of action he may have in mind, and other targets at least as likely—ambassadors and so on. Just because it was us at Chester it doesn't have to be us again, only our security people are forced to act on the assumption of a risk to us. OK?”

“I'll do my best with Piers. That all?”

“Think so. Good girl. Look after yourself.”

Louise put the telephone down and turned towards the nursery door. The triggered response to the word “Chester” had left her. This was just another security scare, the sort of nuisance that happened half a dozen times a year one way or another. You got used to it. She had heard no more sounds on the alarm but since she was up, and Davy would be waking any minute now …

Janine was by the cot, but had heard the movement of the door, and turned.

“Hey,” whispered Louise. “This is my night on. You're supposed to be still asleep.”

Janine widened her eyes, earnest as a child. She was plump-petite, like a Russian doll from near the smaller end of the set. Her pink quilted dressing-gown and yellow pyjamas added to the look of vulnerable innocence. “Sorry, ma'am,” she whispered. “I forgot. Just woke, and thought I'd heard him thinking of crying.”

“It must have been a bird. I had the alarm right up. You go back to bed—but listen, I've got the day off all of a sudden, so I'll cope till, oh, let's say half past nine. OK?”

“If you're sure, ma'am …”

“Yes, of course. Sleep well.”

“Thank you, ma'am.”

Louise watched her go with satisfaction. Janine was just right, chosen for what everyone else had said were the wrong reasons—younger than Louise herself, straight from her training, so that Davy was her first baby, and—this mattered as much as anything—small. She fitted exactly with Louise's idea of what a nursery should be.

After nearly a year it still took Louise an effort of will to think of Quercy as home. Sometimes she imagined herself an alternative life. Suppose, for instance, we'd had a revolution like the one in Russia, of course there'd have been no question of Great-grandpapa and Great-grandmama and the great-aunts and great-uncles being shot in a cellar like the poor Romanovs—no, they'd just have been demoted to the ranks. Father would have been an ordinary doctor. Louise would have gone to the university as an ordinary student and met Piers somehow (all roads had to meet at that crossways, however you juggled history) and fallen in love and they'd have married or perhaps just decided to live together and started off in some ramshackle flat, she biking to her ordinary job and getting back in the evening festooned with carrier-bags … that might have felt like home, a nest she'd made, a lair she had to sweep and tidy for herself. But Quercy … it wasn't the house's fault. Or anyone's. It had to be big, for a start, with room for office staff and servants and drivers and a flat for Joan and Derek, and a suite for the odd lady-in-waiting, all that. No way it wasn't going to look a bit pompous. Then there was security. Security had turned down two other possible houses because they weren't happy with the perimeters; either of them might have done in the old days, though there'd always been snoopers, professional and amateur, and regicidal loonies, besides the extraordinary number of lonely and inadequate citizens who believed that all their problems would be solved if only they could get to chat in private with this or that member of the Family—like a psychic version of the Royal Touch. But now there were potential regicides who weren't loonies. Ten years ago Louise used often to walk, with one detective a few paces behind her but otherwise alone, from Kensington Palace across to Holland Park Comprehensive, and back again after school. Unthinkable since Chester. You lived in a sort of invisible force-field which moved when you moved, arriving with sniffer-dogs anywhere you were planned to visit a couple of days before you came and then surrounding you all the time you were there, armed and watchful on rooftops while you shook hands and fielded posies and chatted and moved on. Quercy was late Georgian, civilised, bland, symbolic of an era of peace, but for all that Davy, like his ancestors in the bloody centuries before, had been born in a fortress.

It had been a two-and-a-half-million-pound present from the father of the bride.

“I suppose it'll do,” the bride had said.

“Good as anywhere else,” the groom had answered.

Piers's only demands had been that they should live within driving distance of the university and that there should be one room where he could get a good fug up. He felt no need for a place he could think of as home. His home was himself, his habits and a very few possessions, like the blue mug he used at breakfast and the long-case clock he wound on Tuesdays. He created his notion of home as he had created himself, out of almost nothing. Even his name was one he had chosen when he was sixteen. No past contributed, no parents, no photographs of childhood, no mementoes. He had been discovered as a week-old baby on the back seat of a bus in a depot in Coventry. Later, of course, there were memories, but only if you asked, and then just lifeless dates and places—orphanage, schools, scholarships. No friends from before university. No one and nowhere he felt any wish to see again.

Louise by contrast had so much past that sometimes she felt she existed in the present only as a dimensionless moving point, there to create fresh pasts by the ripple of its track. For a start there was the past stored in the public memory—hardly a week could have gone by since she was born without her picture appearing somewhere in newspapers or on TV. Last month a souvenir christening mug, five shillings new in 1963, had been sold at Bonhams for two hundred quid (Albert's fetched only fifty because he was heir to the throne, so they were commoner). And the past beyond that—one person in three in the street, if you'd asked them, could probably have named her paternal ancestors back through five generations, which they couldn't have done for themselves. Then inside that immense public past there was the semi-public Family past, the comings and goings of ramified relatives, Yorks, Kents, Spanish and Russian and Greek royals, Mountbattens and so on, a banyan of family trees, parts of the grove open for everyone to see, other bits in deep shadow, secret, merely guessed at by outsiders. And then inward to the past of the personal Family, Father, Mother, Nonny, Albert, and then Louise's own private and treasured past, the central memories which had grown with her, made her, become her. Above all the network of places—the Palace, Balmoral, Windsor, Sandringham—which she collectively regarded as home.

Moving into Quercy Louise had found herself at a loss, even in the most superficial matters such as choosing a wallpaper for the dining-room. The rooms of a proper home had existing wallpaper, which belonged; when you decided to change it you did so from a known base, a feel for the function of that room in your own psychic architecture. What did you do, confronted with a blank like Quercy? Louise's answer had been to get a cousin of Nonny's who did that sort of thing professionally, to make the decisions. For form's sake there'd be a pretence of consultation and she'd rejected two or three ideas saying she didn't like that colour, but with one exception she had let Quercy happen, and then found that she tended to feel as though she and Piers were the only guests in a comfortable but dull country hotel.

The exception was the nursery. Louise knew what a nursery should look like and feel like. She couldn't have everything—the fire was no good for crumpets and it was all a bit new, without the haunting sense of the procession of children who had passed through it, mottling and abrading, trying whether this chair would break or that chest push over, producing spillage and spewage, testing crayons on bare bits of wall, mountaineering along shelving and fighting toy wars behind battlements of books. But most of it was pretty well right. There were the rocking-horse and the pouffe and the Margaret Tarrant print of All Creatures Great and Small and the cardboard parrot and the Mickey Mouse clock (though it ran off a battery and kept perfect time) and the toy-chest with buttoned corduroy cover and the tall chair with tray and counting-frame and the smell of ironed linen and damp rusks and talcum. And, more important than anything, the right-shaped nanny. Small and neat, but cuddly. Watching Janine make her way back to bed Louise envisaged not the past but the future, a vista of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren even, in whose own lives and memories that Russian-doll figure would become a much-loved landmark.

She gave the dim-switch a half turn and stole to the cot. Davy was lying on his front with his head turned sideways and his right arm crooked up on the mattress in aGreat Dictatorsalute. His breathing faltered in its rhythm, then steadied as he relapsed into that almost-too-perfect look which small children somehow put on in sleep. He'd be awake in a few minutes, so Louise stayed where she was, looking down. She had been leaning over the cot for a good half-minute before she realised that something was missing. Normally, if she stood like this, at this time of day, waiting over the cot for her son to wake, she experienced a faint but definite surge of maternal emotion, too primitive and physical to count as love, seeming to emerge from the pit of her stomach and flood through her body like a drug injected into the bloodstream. Not today. Perhaps she was too wide awake, after the shock of Granny dying and the other business about the bombers, but now she found herself gazing down as though her son were … no, not even a stranger, because other people's babies could give you a bit of that sort of kick, and so could kittens and foals … but a specimen, an exhibit. Vertebrate, mammal, ape, human, infant, royal. Louise was alien as a guardian angel watching over the cot in perfect but emotionless duty. She felt outside herself, outside time. Time, in fact, displayed itself in front of her mind's eye like the replica of the Bayeux Tapestry which stood at the end of an upper corridor in the Palace, the whole darned thing on a strip of canvas wound onto a pair of rollers so that you could trundle the strip forward or back with an electric motor.

During last night time had trundled. The pictures had moved. A generation had gone (not quite, because Aunt Tim York was still puttering quietly on, but that bit of the Family had got out of synch so that at one time there'd been gossip about Louise marrying Cousin Jack, who really belonged in Father's generation). Granny and her harp and dyed hair and crazy clothes had been wound out of sight, leaving Mother and Father on the left of the picture now, in the middle Albert and Soppy, Louise and Piers, on the right Albert's two kids, and last of all, wound into view only a few weeks back, this cartoon baby in his cartoon cot. DAVIDUS NATUS EST said the clumsy letters above.

In the bedroom the telephone rang. Louise reached for the intercom and switched it through.

“Joan? You heard the news?”

“I'm sorry, ma'am.”

“It's all right. No one's going to miss her much, except Aunt Bea.”

“Yes, I know. Still … I was calling to know if you'd like me down early.”

“Late, if anything. Let's all have a lie-in. I should think the Visiting Head's off, as far as I'm concerned. The Palace will be ringing with the Guidance around ten—we'll have a skim through the diaries and see if there's anything we want to make a fuss about. Father says Thursday week for the funeral.”


“See you around nine, then. Sleep well.”

At the click of the intercom Davy's smooth forehead wrinkled then cleared. The clenched hand loosed itself, the ridiculous little fingers probed blindly at the mattress. A dream, just before waking, brief, but leaving the face changed when it ended. It wasn't the sort of change you could measure or point at but it was there. Louise recognised the look at once. Davy's visible eye was closed, his nose was a mere blob, his hair dark fluff, but his look was Granny.

She bent and lifted him free. Still asleep he snuggled against her, fitting himself to her body like a piece of some soft jigsaw which belonged there and nowhere else in the universe. By the time she had stripped away his reeking nappies and padded him dry his lips were pouting into sucks. Deeply contented, with the drug of motherhood now flooding through her veins, she carried the last of the Romanovs back to her bed to feed.


As always, they lay in the dark and talked. It was already so much of a habit that when they had to spend a night apart Louise found that she needed to hold an imaginary conversation, muttering her own lines into the stillness, before she could happily fall asleep.

“… it was quite peculiar. Do you believe in reincarnation? He looked just like her for a few seconds.”

“You think he's been on hold until your grandmother's soul was free to take over?”

“It makes a change from looking like Queen Victoria. Half the babies you see look like her. But you get these sort of flickers. You can see there's a likeness but you don't know who. One of yours, I suppose.”

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