Chapter no 3


NEXT TO MY BEDROOM was a sort of round sitting room. Round table, wall mirror, writing desk, fireplace with cushioned hearth surround. In the far

corner stood a great big wooden door that led to a bathroom. The two marble basins looked like prototypes for the first basins ever manufactured. Everything at Balmoral was either old or made to look so. The castle was a playground, a hunting lodge, but also a stage.

The bathroom was dominated by a claw-footed tub, and even the water spurting from its taps seemed old. Not in a bad way. Old like the lake where Merlin helped Arthur find his magic sword. Brownish, suggestive of weak tea, the water often alarmed weekend guests. Sorry, but there seems to be something wrong with the water in my loo? Pa would always smile and assure them that nothing was wrong with the water; on the contrary it was filtered and sweetened by the Scottish peat. That water came straight off the hilland what you’re about to experience is one of life’s finest pleasures—a Highland bath.

Depending on your preference, your Highland bath could be Arctic cold or kettle hot; taps throughout the castle were fine-tuned. For me, few pleasures compared with a scalding soak, but especially while gazing out of the castle’s slit windows, where archers, I imagined, once stood guard. I’d look up at the starry sky, or down at the walled gardens, picture myself floating over the great lawn, smooth and green as a snooker table, thanks to a battalion of gardeners. The lawn was so perfect, every blade of grass so precisely mown, Willy and I felt guilty about walking across it, let alone riding our bikes. But we did it anyway, all the time. Once, we chased our cousin across the lawn. We were on quads, the cousin was on a go-kart. It was all fun and games until she crashed head-on into a green lamppost. Crazy fluke—the only lamppost within a thousand miles. We shrieked with laughter, though the lamppost, which had recently been a tree in one of the nearby forests, snapped cleanly in two and fell on top of her. She was lucky not to be seriously hurt.

On August 30, 1997, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the lawn. Both Willy and I hurried through our evening baths, jumped into our pajamas, settled eagerly in front of the TV. Footmen arrived, carrying trays covered with plates, each topped with a silver dome. The footmen set the trays upon wooden stands, then joked with us, as they always did, before wishing us bon appétit.

Footmen, bone china—it sounds posh, and I suppose it was, but under those fancy domes was just kiddie stuff. Fish fingers, cottage pies, roast chicken, green peas.

Mabel, our nanny, who’d once been Pa’s nanny, joined us. As we all stuffed our faces we heard Pa padding past in his slippers, coming from his bath. He was

carrying his “wireless,” which is what he called his portable CD player, on which he liked to listen to his “storybooks” while soaking. Pa was like clockwork, so when we heard him in the hall we knew it was close to eight.

Half an hour later we picked up the first sounds of the adults beginning their evening migration downstairs, then the first bleaty notes of the accompanying bagpipes. For the next two hours the adults would be held captive in the Dinner Dungeon, forced to sit around that long table, forced to squint at each other in the dim gloom of a candelabra designed by Prince Albert, forced to remain ramrod straight before china plates and crystal goblets placed with mathematical precision by staff (who used tape measures), forced to peck at quails’ eggs and turbot, forced to make idle chitchat while stuffed into their fanciest kit. Black tie, hard black shoes, trews. Maybe even kilts.

I thought: What hell, being an adult!

Pa stopped by on his way to dinner. He was running late, but he made a show of lifting a silver dome—Yum, wish I was having that!—and taking a long sniff. He was always sniffing things. Food, roses, our hair. He must’ve been a bloodhound in another life. Maybe he took all those long sniffs because it was hard to smell anything over his personal scent. Eau Sauvage. He’d slather the stuff on his cheeks, his neck, his shirt. Flowery, with a hint of something harsh, like pepper or gunpowder, it was made in Paris. Said so on the bottle. Which made me think of Mummy.

Yes, Harry, Mummy’s in Paris.

Their divorce had become final exactly one year before. Almost to the day.

Be good, boys.

We will, Pa.

Don’t stay up too late.

He left. His scent remained.

Willy and I finished dinner, watched some more TV, then got up to our typical pre-bedtime hijinks. We perched on the top step of a side staircase and eavesdropped on the adults, hoping to hear a naughty word or story. We ran up and down the long corridors, under the watchful eyes of dozens of dead stag heads. At some point we bumped into Granny’s piper. Rumpled, pear-shaped, with wild eyebrows and a tweed kilt, he went wherever Granny went, because she loved the sound of pipes, as had Victoria, though Albert supposedly called them a “beastly instrument.” While summering at Balmoral, Granny asked that the piper play her awake and play her to dinner.

His instrument looked like a drunken octopus, except that its floppy arms were etched silver and dark mahogany. We’d seen the thing before, many times, but that night he offered to let us hold it. Try it.

Really? Go on.

We couldn’t get anything out of the pipes but a few piddly squeaks. We just didn’t have the puff. The piper, however, had a chest the size of a whisky barrel. He made it moan and scream.

We thanked him for the lesson and bade him good night, then took ourselves back to the nursery, where Mabel monitored the brushing of teeth and the washing of faces. Then, to bed.

My bed was tall. I had to jump to get in, after which I rolled down into its sunken center. It felt like climbing onto a bookcase, then tumbling into a slit trench. The bedding was clean, crisp, various shades of white. Alabaster sheets. Cream blankets. Eggshell quilts. (Much of it stamped with ER, Elizabeth Regina.) Everything was pulled tight as a snare drum, so expertly smoothed that you could easily spot the century’s worth of patched holes and tears.

I pulled the sheets and covers to my chin, because I didn’t like the dark. No, not true, I loathed the dark. Mummy did too, she told me so. I’d inherited this from her, I thought, along with her nose, her blue eyes, her love of people, her hatred of smugness and fakery and all things posh. I can see myself under those covers, staring into the dark, listening to the clicky insects and hooty owls. Did I imagine shapes sliding along the walls? Did I stare at the bar of light along the floor, which was always there, because I always insisted on the door being left open a crack? How much time elapsed before I dropped off? In other words, how much of my childhood remained, and how much did I cherish it, savor it, before groggily becoming aware of—


He was standing at the edge of the bed, looking down. His white dressing-gown made him seem like a ghost in a play.

Yes, darling boy.

He gave a half-smile, averted his gaze.

The room wasn’t dark anymore. Wasn’t light either. Strange in-between shade, almost brownish, almost like the water in the ancient tub.

He looked at me in a funny way, a way he’d never looked at me before. With… fear?

What is it, Pa?

He sat down on the edge of the bed. He put a hand on my knee. Darling boy, Mummy’s been in a car crash.

I remember thinking: Crash…OK. But she’s all right? Yes?

I vividly remember that thought flashing through my mind. And I remember waiting patiently for Pa to confirm that indeed Mummy was all right. And I remember him not doing that.

There was then a shift internally. I began silently pleading with Pa, or God, or both: No, no, no.

Pa looked down into the folds of the old quilts and blankets and sheets. There were complications. Mummy was quite badly injured and taken to hospital, darling boy.

He always called me “darling boy,” but he was saying it quite a lot now. His voice was soft. He was in shock, it seemed.

Oh. Hospital?

Yes. With a head injury.

Did he mention paparazzi? Did he say she’d been chased? I don’t think so. I can’t swear to it, but probably not. The paps were such a problem for Mummy, for everyone, it didn’t need to be said.

I thought again: Injured…but she’s OK. She’s been taken to hospital, they’ll fix her head, and we’ll go and see her. Today. Tonight at the latest.

They tried, darling boy. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.

These phrases remain in my mind like darts in a board. He did say it that way, I know that much for sure. She didn’t make it. And then everything seemed to come to a stop.

That’s not right. Not seemed. Nothing at all seemed. Everything distinctly, certainly, irrevocably, came to a stop.

None of what I said to him then remains in my memory. It’s possible that I didn’t say anything. What I do remember with startling clarity is that I didn’t cry. Not one tear.

Pa didn’t hug me. He wasn’t great at showing emotions under normal circumstances, how could he be expected to show them in such a crisis? But his hand did fall once more on my knee and he said: It’s going to be OK.

That was quite a lot for him. Fatherly, hopeful, kind. And so very untrue.

He stood and left. I don’t recall how I knew that he’d already been in the other room, that he’d already told Willy, but I knew.

I lay there, or sat there. I didn’t get up. I didn’t bathe, didn’t pee. Didn’t get dressed. Didn’t call out to Willy or Mabel. After decades of working to reconstruct that morning I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: I must’ve remained in that room, saying nothing, seeing no one, until nine A.M. sharp, when the piper began to play outside.

I wish I could remember what he played. But maybe it doesn’t matter. With bagpipes it’s not the tune, it’s the tone. Thousands of years old, bagpipes are built to amplify what’s already in the heart. If you’re feeling silly, bagpipes make you sillier. If you’re angry, bagpipes bring your blood to a higher boil. And if you’re in grief, even if you’re twelve years old and don’t know you’re in grief, maybe especially if you don’t know, bagpipes can drive you mad.

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