Wednesday 9th March 2016
Here's the first story folks. Queens and Sitting Rooms.
Harry peels the potatoes half heartedly, his mind far away, his spirits as low as can be. If only he hadn’t opened his mouth. If only the others hadn’t believed him. If only he hadn’t listened to the visitor talking. The Queen coming to Seafield House? How stupid. And yet, at the time, it seemed entirely possible, especially when Miss Romney talked about secrets and surprises for the Boys. He’s going to look a right fool. Everyone’s going to hate him. Even The Littlest, who thinks Harry’s thmathing.
“Harry, wake up! I don’t want eyes in my potato pie!”That’s Mrs Tilman, the cook. She’s got a voice like a foghorn, a chest like a bolster and hair like a wire brush. She’s lovely. “And mind you don’t cut yourself. I don’t want no blood in it neither.”
Mr Tilman helps around the house and mends things that accidentally break and sometimes things that don’t accidentally break. Boys being boys. He’s not very happy about the new contraption coming to Seafield House. “It’s not natural,” he says, examining a vase which is in four pieces on the table. “I don’t know why we can’t make do with the wireless. We’ve made do with the wireless since I don’t know when…it was a friend to us during the war, the wireless.” There’s a sad note in his voice. He and his wife used to have a son, but then the war came and now they haven’t.
“It’s just a craze. It won’t catch on,” Mrs Tilman assures him.
They’re talking about the television coming from the Men’s Club this afternoon. Harry’s never seen one. None of the boys have. The thought of it should be exciting, yet for Harry, it’s anything but. He finishes the last potato which resembles something a mouse might have been at. He begins to chatter to stop him thinking. Harry likes facts, they’re good for distraction. Mrs Tilman, though, is trying to concentrate on her special Coronation Pie.
“Harry, if you’ve finished them potatoes help me with this pastry, and keep your mind on the job!” She waves a floury hand at him. “I don’t want to hear how many gills are in a pint or yards in a mile. All I want, is for you to measure that water properly, so’s I can get on with this pastry.” She gives him a gentle cuff, as if he’s a puppy needing kindness. “Is there room in that head of yours for anything so simple?”
“They’ll be running a mile in less than four minutes soon, you watch,” Mr Tilman says, winking at Harry, who now tries to picture a mile by laying down thousands of twelve inch rulers in a line right through his head.
“A man can’t be human, if he runs that fast. Water, Harry…. in the jug, not all over the floor…” When the door knocker sounds Mrs Tilman frowns. “Now who’s this disturbing the peace?”
“It’ll be the Men’s Club.” Mr Tilman picks up the base of the vase. “Well, I’ve not got time to help with televisions.”
“Harry, where do you think you’re off to?”
“I can help, Mrs Tilman.” He’s standing in the doorway, straight and tall, like a strongman.
“You’ll do no such thing!” The strongman turns back into a boy. Mrs Tilman softens her voice. “Alright, you can watch. But don’t let Miss Romney catch you!”
Harry hurtles into the hall and bounds up the stairs before the front door is opened. He kneels down on the landing, pressing his face between the spindles.
“If you set it down in the hall first, I’ll show you where it’s going to go.” That’s Miss Romney. She’s in charge.
Two men heave in a heavy looking cupboard. A cupboard…? Harry recognises the tall thin man from this morning. The other man is like a barrel. He mops his brow and looks around the hall. “Are they all orphans here, then?” he says, as if this is a zoo and its occupants caged.
Harry pulls back into the gloom of the upstairs landing.
“That’s right.” Miss Romney sounds crisp, as if she’s talking to a naughty boy.
“Not all. Now, shall we get on?” She marches across the hall to the sitting room and throws open the door, giving the barrel man a pointed look as if she doesn’t quite like the word orphan.
The cupboard is hauled up once more and disappears into the sitting room. Harry frowns. There has to be more to it than this. He creeps downstairs, avoiding the creaking step at the bottom. He inches around the hall wall, pressing himself into it like a shadow. The cupboard’s by the bay window. When its doors are opened, they spread out like wings, and there in the middle of all the dark brown wood, is a tiny square of dull grey glass.
“With our compliments, Madam! Your television!” The tall man sounds rather like a trumpet, as if to herald the arrival of the best present ever. When it doesn’t do anything. “We can’t have folks missing out on such a glorious occasion.”
“Bringing the Queen right into your sitting room. Marvellous!”
“Indeed!” Miss Romney clasps her hands and smiles at last.
There they go again. People saying what isn’t true. She’s not coming to Seafield, Harry wants to bellow at them, unless she’s going to jump out of that cupboard thing. Somehow, he feels betrayed. Having been told this morning, quite distinctly, that the Queen certainly isn’t coming to Seafield (if only he’d checked before telling the others), there’s Miss Romney agreeing with the men that she is!
“The queen? In Seafield?” It comes flooding back, like a blocked drain, the conversation he had with the others.
“That’s what they said. Mind you, it’s a secret, so we mustn’t let on we know. But, there’ll be horses and carriages and kings and queens from all over the world. Just you see.”
“In our sitting room?”
“Why not the parlour? Thpecial people alwayth go in the parlour.”
Why hadn’t it occurred to Harry, then, when The Littlest spoke? They could have made a joke of it, had a laugh. But no. Even now, the memory is like an open wound.
“How can I thank you enough?” Miss Romney’s saying now that everything’s plugged in.
“No need.” The tall man shakes his head. “It’s a pleasure to help the poor unfortunates.”
“I would be grateful if you could show me how to work it,” Miss Romney says, that brisk note in her voice again, as if she doesn’t like hearing the word unfortunate either.
The barrel man holds up a finger as if it’s a magic wand, and he begins. There are lots of words about turning this and turning that, there’s Vertical Hold and Horizontal Hold and Atmospheric Pressure and Test Pages. He flicks a switch at the wall, turns one knob, and then another. There are sudden lines and dots. The grey glass turns into fuzz. He picks up something like a large metal beetle and waves it about in the air. “Aerial,” he declares.
The storm in the grey glass begins to calm down.
“Heaven’s, how clever!”
Harry stands in the doorway bathed in the wonder of it all. He inches further in. He’s never seen or heard the like. The words go on. Interference. Electricals. Thunder. Snow. Lines. Ghosting. It all sounds…fascinating. Like Meccano. He’s drawn in like a magnet. And trips over his feet.
Miss Romney gives him a look, then his marching orders, and his pulling-up-socks orders and his tucking- in-shirt orders. Only they aren’t really orders when Miss Romney gives them out, they’re gentle, smiling commands.
It’s past midnight and wild outside. The sea froths and fizzes. Harry’s glad the Queen’s not coming to Seafield in such bad weather, only he wishes he could have told the others the truth. He waited till tea, but the right time didn’t seem to come. He thought about after supper, when they were in their pyjamas and singing songs, but that wasn’t right either. Now he hears them all sleeping soundly. Not even The Littlest is awake, when usually he gets upset by the wind and the sea thrashing and the rain drumming. He got himself over-excited and over-tired with keeping secrets about queens and sitting rooms. He hasn’t stirred all night. Harry has no-one to comfort, and his heart shrivels with guilt.
Breakfast is over, chores are done and it’s all excitement and whispers, high jinks and chatter. The boys are in smart shirts, trousers and red school ties. Their shoes gleam. Mr and Mrs Tilman are in Sunday Best. Miss Romney is wearing her special-day pearls. Soon the boys are sitting in a quiet semi-circle around the bay window.
“Now, I think it’s time we turned on our surprise,” Miss Romney says. “Our television!”
The boys begin to bubble with excitement as she opens the cupboard wings with a flourish. The dull grey glass stares at Harry like a dead eye. He invents a smudge on his shoe and glares at that. The boys will soon discover how stupid he really is, when the Queen doesn’t arrive. And no surprise, no secret, no television, is going to help. Miss Romney twiddles with the left hand knob. Nothing happens. She stands for a while as if contemplating, then twiddles with the right hand knob. The mantle clock ticks. The boys begin to shuffle. The Littlest begins to scratch. Mrs Tilman tuts at them and they’re still again. Another twiddle, and nothing.
“Oh, dear me.” Miss Romney shakes her head.
“I’ll get the wireless, then, shall I?”
“No, no, Mr Tilman, that won’t be necessary.”
Harry leaps up, remembering something important. “Don’t you have to switch it on at the wall first?”
Miss Romney beams at him. “Of course! Silly me.”
The switch is flicked. The knobs are turned. Lines appear. Snow. Waves. Fuzz. The boys gaze, mesmerised. More twiddling.
“I think you have to do something with this.” Harry lifts up the aerial and waves it about like the man did.
“Look!” shrieks The Littlest. “Horthes and carriageth!”
The place is instantly abuzz. There indeed, are horses and carriages. Harry drops his arm, it’s so amazing, and the lines come back, the snowy haze.
Realising what is called for, Harry raises his arm like a guard, saluting. He holds the aerial as if it’s something precious, like a jewel discovered in a tomb, and the pictures move cleanly, the horses clip clop across the screen.
“Cor,” says The Littlest.
“Here, that lad can’t stand there for a whole coronation,” says Mr Tilman. “It’s not right…”
Oh, but he can, he will. He could stand there forever, for the Queen and Miss Romney, for the Tilmans and The Littlest. Because now he sees! Now he sees what they all meant, the people from the Men’s Club and Miss Romney.
“…I’m getting the steps.”
The aerial is sitting on top of the little stepladder and the picture is magnificent, according to Mr Tilman, who seems to have taken to this new contraption. The Littlest has somehow wriggled and snuggled his way next to Harry, thumb in mouth, and his warm little body’s like a cushion you can hug. Mrs Tilman’s mopping her face. Miss Romney has roses in her cheeks. All the Rulers of the world drift by, the Priests of all the churches, the Dukes and Duchesses of all the lands, the Knights and their Ladies, one after the other. Harry hopes there’s no interference or electricals, no snow or thunder, no lines or test pages, whatever they are. He waits, his heart swelling, full to bursting.
“Ith the Queen going to come thoon, Harry?” The Littlest whispers in his ear.
“Oh, yes,” he answers with complete confidence, “very soon.”
Older news articles >>