I was the two-million-three-hundred-and-seventy-thousand-one-hundred-and-eighty-sixth person she’d shaken hands with since February 6th 1952. That averages out at almost a hundred hands per day. Almost twelve million fingers — give or take the odd accident, military personnel, etc. — twelve million fingers clamping around hers, some vice-tight, some so soft they were barely tangible through the white silk of her gloves.
It could have happened to any of us, the lucky two-and-a-bit million. More likely to none of us at all. I found out afterwards that Ladbrokes had been offering odds of 15-1 on heart failure, Betfred even shorter at 12-1. In retrospect, perhaps I ought to have had a flutter. But then they also had “thrown from horse” at 25-1, and “savaged by corgis” at 75s, so maybe they were just plain guessing.
We were stationed in The 1844 Room, a typically ornate space replete with carpets of red and gold, marble columns flanking busts of god-knows-which-dead-dignitary, a crystal chandelier overhead that I wanted to shake like a maraca, a dozen or more portraits of serious looking men. The largest of these must have been ten-feet high; it depicted a gentleman in red uniform with a blue sash, spotlighted against a dark background like some sort of savior. I guessed it was the Duke of Edinburgh, but when I looked at the plaque I saw it was an old Russian emperor called Nicholas I; an anti-Semitic nationalist with a penchant for violent expansionism, I found out later, who committed suicide when he realized the Crimean War was about to go south. They’ve always been a puzzle to me, the precise criteria for being honored in this building.
There were about thirty of us, all invited for one reason or another; charity work, scientific research, random acts of heroism. I spotted somebody I recognized from the news but otherwise couldn’t place, a former cricketer wearing his MCC tie, a guide dog. We’d been briefed: Her Majesty will ask you what you do, keep your answers short — ten seconds max — same applies to any follow-up questions, but don’t bank on being asked any. Wait for her to extend her hand — don’t grab at her — and remember to smile. There’s no need to bow or curtsey, but please address her as Your Majesty.
I was near the end of the line, two down from the dog, a black Labrador fitted with a harness and handle like you get on old ladies’ shopping trolleys. I felt nervous. By the time Her Highness was close, had scratched and preened at the hound’s muzzle for several elongated minutes, my hands were clammy and unpleasant. I wiped them surreptitiously against the buttocks of my trousers. Suddenly her scent hit me; rose water from Persia, camellia from the foothills of the Himalayas, waves of citrus fresh from the Iberian Peninsula. Whatever it was, it all failed quite spectacularly to cover up the sweet and sour stink of old lady that wafted off her like so much cabbage and pissy dust.
She stood before me on unsteady legs, her scrumpled face a used plastic bag, her hunched shoulders an expired houseplant. She was inanimate, an objet d’art surrounded by the same, a thing ready for storage. But then she did something incredible; she beamed at me with those sad, kind old eyes, paused just for a beat and studied me, met my gaze. And quite without realizing it, I found myself smiling back, my heart suddenly light in my chest. She reached out her tiny gloved hand towards me and, with an unexpected pang of regret, I took it.
Ever so gently I cradled this ageing woman’s palm in my own, felt the metacarpal of her forefinger beneath the tissue-paper skin, applied just the right amount of pressure.
Call it a trade secret. A kindness.
“And what is it that you–” she said, cutting herself off, eyes wide. “What is it–”
I’m an orthopedic surgeon. I head-up a team at UCL that is conducting research into new treatments for those suffering with the most acute forms of arthritis.
That’s what I was penciled in to tell her, anyway. People her age suffer with it so terribly. But she was already crashing to the ground, her delicate little glove having come off in my hand like shed flesh.
I watched her go. She ought to have shattered into a thousand pieces; an old stone statue toppled amidst the onlooking busts, her heritage and, now, her fate. But instead she just flopped over, supine on her red-carpet slab, her denuded right hand clutching at her chest. In seconds the paramedics were working on her; me slipping the glove into my jacket pocket; they slipping a breathing mask over the royal face. It was purely for our benefit; there was no question the old woman was dead.
In the panic that ensued nobody cared about debriefing us, let alone conducting any sort of search. I simply slinked out the door, minding to hurdle the pungent Labrador turd freshly laid to mark the historic moment, and from there blended with the crowds. On my way home I pulled the car over beside a patch of farmland and ventured out into the field where a solitary scarecrow stood slumped, facelessly surveying all that was his. I took out the glove and pulled it over the figure’s right hand, then turned and walked away. When I reached the car I looked back to see the straw man in his little kingdom, his silk fingers now waving in the breeze.
That was over a month ago. This morning I received an envelope from the palace, a letter stamped CIIIR inviting me to meet the new monarch. It seems the new king wants to shake my hand.