“Three days on one bottle of Stoli,” I said to Tom, “and yesterday she washed and ironed all the napkins without being asked. Maybe she really has changed.” He patted me indulgently on the head, much as he pats Augie, his mastiff, whenever Augie mistakes the fire hydrant on the corner for another, redder dog and tries to chase it away.
I know what you’re thinking. But if you remember any of my previous trips with Dolores, you will understand my urgent need to believe that this time would be different.
True, the ride over was pretty smooth, although the surly border guard at Heathrow insisted that Dolores was livestock and therefore subject to a long list of restrictions including quarantine. We waited nervously while she and several uniformed officials disappeared together into one of those Little Rooms. Five minutes and forty-three seconds later, she emerged with her hat slightly askew and a stamped passport.
Harry, of course, was agog and excited from the moment we stepped into the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and started trying out his idiomatic British English on the other passengers.
“Hi,” he said to the guy across the aisle. “I mean, g’day. No, wait, that’s Australian. Um. Wait. Oh, yeah. View halloo, old sport! My mates and I have just popped across the pond and are most dreadfully peckish would love to find a jolly mess of crumpets. Where do you think we should go to get some?”
The man frowned and turned to the lady next to him, who was buried in a copy of Le Figaro. “Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit?” he hissed. There was a whispered conversation, and a bunch of shrugging; and then the man tossed Harry what turned out to be a two-pound coin and waved him away.
“Wow,” Harry said to me, admiring the golden profile of The Queen. “I like England. At home all I ever got on the subway was a pamphlet about how Jesus is coming and he’s in a bad mood. Who’s this pretty lady?”
“That’s Queen Elizabeth,” said Dolores. “She runs this place.”
“The whole train?” said Harry.
“The whole frigging sceptered isle,” sighed Dolores. “Plus the island next door. Lucky bitch.”
“Wow,” said Harry. “That’s a lot to be queen of.”
“She used to have a whole empire,” I said, “but some of it dropped off.”
“She’s a hoot,” said Dolores. “If we run into her I’ll introduce you.”
“Of course,” said Tom. “Of course you know The Queen.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” said Dolores. “She wrote me a fan letter once.”
“I’m not going to ask,” said Tom, looking out the window. “I’m not, I’m not, I’m not.”
“Last time I was over here I was working for the BBC,” Dolores said. “Years ago. I had a recurring role on The Archers. I played a well-to-do American sheep who comes to Ambridge searching for distant relations–real heartbreaking stuff. They appreciate high-class drama in this country.”
“Notice how I didn’t ask,” Tom said to me.
“Well, at the climax of the story line I had this knock-down drag-out fight with Jill Archer because Phil was going to leave her and run away with me to Natchez, Mississippi, so we could start a new life together as co-proprietors of a puppet theater.”
“Still not listening,” said Tom.
“Oh, I am,” I said. “Do please continue.”
“Anyhow, I had no idea but Elizabeth–or Betty, that’s what she likes to be called–Betty is a big-time Archers fan and she got totally into the story, and the next thing you know this dude shows up at my door with the wig and the buckled shoes and the whole nine yards, and hands me a gushy note on her personal stationery asking me to come over and hang out, plus a signed picture and a little brooch shaped like a corgi.”
“What’s a corgi?” asked Harry.
“A dog,” I said.
“Sort of like Augie,” said Dolores, “but half as much dog and twice as much teeth. She collects them. They run around the palace and pee on the carpets. I’d hate to see her cleaning bills.”
“I don’t like how the dogs sound,” said Harry. “But I like how The Queen sounds. Can we go see her?”
“No,” I said. “She’s a very busy lady. But we’re going to visit one of the big houses she lives in, up on a hill at a place called Windsor.”
“Cool,” said Harry. “I mean, jolly good, old chap.”
“We’re almost to Paddington Station,” said Tom. “Finally. How long have we been stuck on this train?”
“Fifteen minutes,” I said.
He glanced at his watch, and sighed.
* * * * *
We were back at Paddington a few days later, bright and early, to catch the train to Slough and connect there with the train to Windsor.
In case you’re planning a visit of your own, be advised that Paddington Station is an absolute nuthouse on weekday morning. The platforms are crowded with Very Important People in expensive suits, dashing around like a startled herd of pinstriped gazelles
Harry was terrified of being kicked onto the tracks, so Dolores picked him up and stuffed him into her handbag until we found our car and settled in for the ride.
“I wish you wouldn’t have run so fast,” he huffed as Dolores lifted him, sputtering and disheveled, onto the seat. “You broke some of the cookies.”
“Cookies? What cookies?”
“The ones I brought for the Majesty Lady if she’s at home. You should always bring a little something when you visit somebody’s house so I brought snickerdoodles. If she’s not there I’ll leave them in the hall with a note.”
“Crumbs!” Dolores snapped, peering into the depths of her handbag. “My whole damned bag is full of cookie crumbs! If there are butter stains on my emergency panties swear I’m gonna smack you until you felt!”
“Let’s moderate our voices, shall we?” I said. “Seeing as we’re in England, Land of Hope and Glory and Nice, Hushed Tones?”
“I’m going to take pictures,” said Harry. “Smile, Tom!”
The journey from London to Windsor is blessedly brief, and minutes after leaving Slough the famous Round Tower of Windsor hove into view.
“Check it out,” I said. “The standard is flying. The Queen’s at home.”
“Whee!” said Harry. “Good thing I remembered the cookies.”
“Calm down,” I said. “It’s not like she’s going to answer the doorbell. If we’re very lucky, we might catch a glimpse of her from a distance.”
“Pish,” sniffed Dolores. “I’ll just let one of her people know I’m here and we can all say hello. If found out I came over and didn’t tell her, she’d be pissed.”
“American pissed or English pissed?” Harry asked.
“American,” said Dolores.
“Righty-ho,” said Harry.
Dolores dropped her name repeatedly¬–to the ticket taker, a tour guide on the North Terrace and a guy pushing a wheelbarrow through the Moat Garden–but to her great surprise we were not immediately ushered into The Presence.
“Her Majesty will wish to see me if you will kindly let her know I’ve arrived,” she said to the guard at the entrance to the exhibit of Queen Mary’s Doll’s House.
“Yes, madam,” said the guard vaguely, “this way, please, and mind the step.”
“That’s Van Hoofen, with a double O.”
“Yes, madam. This way please, so as not to block the doorway.”
Even as royal residences go, Windsor is in a class by itself. Harry was mesmerized–as we all were–by the sight of what can be achieved over the course of one thousand years by scores of artists and architects all pouring themselves into the creation and decoration of one splendid building.
“I wish we could take pictures,” Harry whispered to me as we stood at the door of the Waterloo Room, taking in the colossal portraits of the European leaders who had banded together to defeat Napoleon.
“Me too,” I said.
When we reached St. George’s Hall, an immense banqueting room magnificently restored after the fire of 1992, Harry’s jaw dropped.
“It’s so big! Do you think sometimes The Queen likes to put on her roller skates and come in here and go around and around until she gets dizzy?”
“I hope so,” I said.
Dolores, meanwhile, had buttonholed one a particularly well-shaped guard near the fireplace.
“With a double O,” she was insisting. “We’re friends from my days with the BBC. Listen, gorgeous–if she finds out I was here and nobody bothered to tell her, she’ll start cutting off heads. You know how she gets. And it would be a shame for such a pretty head to end up in a dumpster.”
“Perhaps madam would like to move on to the next room?” said the guard nervously.
“Madam is definitely moving,” I said, grabbing Dolores by the arm. “And I apologize profusely.”
“Not at all,” said the guard, looking relieved.
“When they break both your skinny legs on the rack,” she shouted as I nudged her onward, “don’t come running to me!”
Harry is a stalwart fellow, but by the time we’d crossed the full expanse of the hall and reached the next room, Tom noticed he was rolling a lot slower than usual.
“You feeling okay, Harry?”
“Yup,” Harry said. “But there sure is a lot of floor in this place.”
“Maybe Dolores could give you lift.”
“Nothing doing, bright eyes. The inside of my purse already looks like an explosion at the Little Debbie factory.”
“Please?” Harry begged.
“The young gentleman does seem a trifle peaked,” said yet another guard, stepping forward. “If you’ll pardon my saying so, miss.”
For a moment, their eyes locked. Dolores sized him up, and down. “Cripes–does she handpick all you guys on the basis of a close resemblance to Colin Firth? Or is it just a coincidence?”
The guard blushed and looked at his brightly polished shoes.
“Honey,” she said, stooping to give Harry a gentle pat, “of course you can ride in Auntie Dolores’s purse. Step right in and get comfy cozy, and maybe this handsome specimen of British beef would be kind enough to point out some fine points of the architecture?”
“With pleasure,” said the guard, still blushing. “Over here is a memorial to those who fought the great fire…”
“Pssst. Check it out,” said Tom quietly to me, nodding at a door inside in alcove that had been cordoned off with velvet rope. “The guidebook says it’s the entrance to the private apartments.”
I knew what he was thinking.
“Dolores,” I said, “We really need to get going.”
But she had already spotted the door, and had a determined look on her face.
“Do you smell that?” she whispered, sniffing the air.
“Smell what?” I said.
“White Shoulders. Her perfume. She’s probably right there on the other side.”
“I don’t know what perfume The Queen wears,” said Tom. “But I’m pretty sure it’s not White Shoulders.”
“Oswald,” said Dolores to the guard, “Oswald, sweetheart–to what of fragrance is the boss lady partial?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know,” said the guard. “Most embarrassing. We’re supposed to be able to answer all questions a visitor may pose.”
“Shucks,” Dolores pouted. “I’d really like to know. See, I’d like to get a bottle of whatever it is myself, and dab it gently on all my tenderest parts when I’m fresh from the bath.”
Oswald turned as scarlet as his coat. “Er, um, well, you know,” he stuttered, “I could ask my friend Eddie–he’s just in the next room–he’s been here heaps longer than I–I’m sure I could find out for you.”
“You do that, lovey,” cooed Dolores, blowing him a kiss.
Oswald disappeared through the door to St. George’s Hall, and Dolores ducked under the velvet rope. I grabbed at her coat, but she was too quick.
“Next room?” said Tom.
“Next room,” I said.
We moved briskly along the designated path, pausing now and again to listen for the alarm bell that would indicate Dolores had come face-to-face with her old pal.
“Do you think The Queen might shoot her?” asked Tom, sounding rather hopeful. “I bet she carries a gun in that purse.”
“She must have people to do that kind of thing for her.”
“If they serve mutton at the next Garter Lunch we’ll know for sure.”
We had reached a room that looked out over The Quadrangle, a large courtyard separating the State and Private Apartments. Tom wandered over to the window and gasped. “Come here! Quick! Corgis!”
Sure enough, a trio of royal dogs was bounding across the emerald-green grass, chasing after a little blue ball.
We had only begun to take in the charming scene when a rapid tapping of hooves and the sound of ragged breathing made us turn around. And there, breathless and panting, was Dolores. Her coat was torn and her open handbag dangled from a shaky hoof.
“So,” said Tom, “How’s Betty?”
“Ha frickity ha ha,” said Dolores. “Before I could get near her those dogs came outta nowhere and lunged at me. Look at my clothes! Shredded! I thought they were gonna eat me alive.”
“If only,” Tom sighed.
“It was like a frigging Merchant-Ivory remake of Wolfen. All brocade and sharp teeth. I threw everything in my purse at them and I still barely got away with both legs.”
“Everything in your purse?”
“Everything. I’m gonna sue the knickers off that woman. I had a brand-new two hundred dollar tube of mascara in there.”
“Dolores,” I said, swallowing a rising sense of panic, “You’re here. Where’s Harry?”
“He was…I just…wait a minute…”
She turned her open bag upside down, dislodging a small cascade of snickerdoodle crumbs.
Out in the courtyard, the corgis began yapping like mad. We turned to the window and saw them still chasing the little blue ball–which was now trying frantically to climb up the wall.
* * * *
That afternoon, on the train back to London, Harry sat quietly on my lap munching a Duchy Originals Oaten Biscuit and pondering a sheet of extremely posh stationery covered with crisp black handwriting.
“Did I tell you that she looks just like she does on the money?”
“Six times,” muttered Dolores.
“And she said she was so sorry about what the dogs did to my old ball band, and she gave me this new one as a present,” he said, puffing up his chest to show off the gilt EIIR emblazoned across the front, just above the washing instructions.
“Do we have to go over this again?” Dolores moaned. “I have a sick headache.”
“Ignore her,” I said. “You look very snazzy. Right royal, in fact.”
“I told her about the snickerdoodles and she said it was too bad the dogs got them because she really likes a good snickerdoodle in the afternoon. Did you know that?”
“I bet they pair well with Dubonnet and gin,” said Tom.
“Fascinating,” said Dolores. “Alert the Times.”
“And she told me I should come back again soon and we can have tea and she’ll introduce me to her yarn. All I have to do is show the doorman in the funny hat this letter, because now my name is on a list.”
“Ain’t that just dandy?” said Dolores.
“Oh,” said Harry. “I asked if I could bring you, Dolores, and she didn’t remember you, but I told her all about you, and spelled your name for her, with a double O. And she put you on a list, too. Except I guess it’s a different kind of list.”
“Harry,” said Dolores, “When we get home I’m going to spit splice you to the tail of Mrs Teitelbaum’s cat.”
“Righty-ho” said Harry.