First published in blAEkk vol.4, March 2017
They’re a proud, patriotic, idealistic people. They won’t let the death of their monarch stop them celebrating the jubilee.
This would have been the one hundredth year of the monarch’s reign – an amazing, unbelievable milestone, had it been reached. And they’d come so close! If only the monarch had held on for another fortnight. If only they, the people, had done more. They could have been less demanding of the Crown’s time and dwindling energies. They could have raised taxes to fund more of the wonderful medical techniques that had already extended the royal lifetime well into the 130s. Wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of genius that the monarch had always championed, the kind that made this society the finest the world has ever known?
No matter. In an ideal society, any event can reach an ideal state.
It’s a glorious day for the time of year. The air is crisp and the palace shines as white as an iceberg in the deep light of a February afternoon. In the palace forecourt, troops parade beneath the famous balcony at which, any moment now, the royal family will appear. In front of the palace gates, news reporters stand with fingers pressed to their ears, waiting for the throw from the studio. Occasionally there’s a flash from high in the sky as the sun glints off the windows of the helicopters circling overhead. If your attention wasn’t caught by one of those flashes, you might never even know that the helicopters were there. As loudly as their rotors are spinning, you can hardly hear them over the sound of all the people. There must be a quarter of a million of them here – people of all classes and backgrounds, of all races, all nationalities. Those at the very front have been camped here for days; others are arriving at the back even now to join in the celebrations. These latecomers are almost half a mile away from the action, and surely they know they won’t see much. They could have watched the whole thing at home, on TV, in comfort. But that’s not the point. The atmosphere is the thing.
There’s a flurry of excitement when, down in front, one of the reporters straightens herself out and stands to attention before her camera. Is she getting ready to broadcast? Does this mean it’s all about to begin? There are pockets of animated chatter in the vicinity. A group of schoolchildren begin yelling and waving their little flags, hoping to get on the telly. A few of the more well-to-do adults discreetly pull scented handkerchiefs from their pockets and cover their noses. (The monarch was only human, after all. And it’s been over two weeks now. Surely there will be an odour of some sort.)
But it’s a false alarm. The reporter was only doing a light check for her cameraman. The chatter dies down a bit. The kids keep waving their flags, but a bit less manically. Hankies are repocketed.
When it does all happen, it’s unmistakable. The reporter comes alive again and readies herself before her camera, as do the presenters from numerous other networks also ranged along the palace perimeter. Then, almost simultaneously, they begin speaking in their confident, fluid voices, introducing the world’s viewers to the scene. Inside the gates the sergeant major barks an order to his troops, who halt their parade and turn as one to face the crowd. A gossip of nervous enthusiasm breaks out among the masses, becomes contagious, and quickly spreads along the entire boulevard. Perfumed handkerchiefs are retrieved once more; scarves are quietly pulled up over noses. The sergeant major yelps a new order. The front row of his squadron takes a step forward and lifts a row of shining golden trumpets. But they don’t play a note just yet. First there are the jets. Here they come, three of them, ripping through the sky from behind the palace to pass over the crowd’s heads, their smoke trailing the three colours of this nation’s flag, and the qualities they symbolise. Kids shriek and cover their ears at the monstrous roar of their engines; adults go ahh and applaud. The jets disappear behind the end of the boulevard, behind the city, behind the horizon.
Now the squadron can play. It’s the national anthem, of course, its signature three-note introduction sounding every bit as triumphant today as it did during the monarch’s long, glorious, revolutionary lifetime. Everybody’s singing, even the non-natives, for this is as much a tribute to the universal ideals this nation has propagated as it is a tribute to the nation itself. Everybody knows the words.
When the anthem ends, the TV cameras pan from the people up to the balcony. From somewhere inside the palace, the hand of a royal aide can be seen pulling aside a heavy purple curtain. Through the gap comes the royal wheelchair bearing the Prince Regent, his three daughters, five adult grandchildren – and, following them, rolled out on a kind of mobile throne by another aide, the corpse of the recently deceased monarch.
If pushed, television viewers will later report that yes, there was a halo of flies circling the cadaver, and front-and-centre attendees who hadn’t covered their noses will admit that yes, you could indeed catch a certain sour-meat tang on the air when it wafted their way from the direction of the palace. But it’s indecorous to talk about such things, so nobody will ever mention them unless asked. One cannot perfect the world by dwelling on its imperfections.
The Prince Regent smiles and waves to his subjects with grandfatherly kindness – he’s well into his nineties himself – and waits for the adulation to subside. With aristocratic aplomb his daughters and grandchildren smile and wave too, their mouths and noses bare, showing no sign that they smell a thing. The eldest daughter even turns to the monarch during the ovation and whispers something to it, while affectionately patting one of the yellow-green hands that someone has crossed together in its lap.
The cheering is cacophonous and goes on for minutes. And yet you could hear a leaf fall when the Prince Regent approaches the microphone, gently clears his throat and begins his address.
In his cobwebbed voice, the Prince tells the crowd how grateful the royal household is to see so many people here on this most special day, the centenary of the coronation of their dear, beloved Grottii. (The ancient word is well chosen: it means both Mother and Father, which of course has specific relevance to the family, but it also has a more general, shared definition close to Leader or Founder that make it equally relevant to the multitudes also present.) A rash of applause among the congregation. This is indeed a bittersweet occasion, the Prince Regent says – and here he turns to check that the monarch hasn’t slumped in the throne or begun to disintegrate in the fresh air or anything. Sympathetic ahhs and some tearful sniffing in the crowd. An insect, a roach or something, crawls out of the monarch’s nostril and scurries up into the royal scalp – but it’s a tiny thing, and not even the heavily zoomed-in TV cameras pick up on it. Yet the monarch’s legacy will endure, the Regent continues. The Crown oversaw some of the greatest social changes in our history, he says. The prosperity and perfectibility of our lives today is directly attributable, he says, to the stewardship of our wonderful, beloved monarch. In such a context, Grottii’s reign can never end.
With the help of the eldest daughter, the Regent lifts himself from his wheelchair to lead yet another round of applause. Along the length of the boulevard, sad-happy tears are shed, flags are flown to and fro, camera-phones are held aloft. Cheers are bellowed. Tens of thousands wave to the dead monarch on the balcony.
And then a wonderful thing happens. The corpse waves back.
For days there have been rumours about this in the press, but no one seriously thought it could happen. Yet there it is, for all to see: the monarch stiffly lifting one bloated arm and waggling a palm at its people.
The crowd’s first reaction is a collective gasp of astonishment, but that soon passes and is replaced by something like rapture. They know the Crown isn’t waving, not really; they know that the arm is being operated by somebody behind the heavy curtain, puppeteer-style, via a delicate, barely visible rod stitched into the royal wrist. But that’s okay. The strict truth of a moment isn’t all that important; it’s what you do with it that counts. In order to make a perfect world, one must infer perfection in all events. And what could be more perfect than this: a monarch who did so much to bring people together, to defeat the forces of division and anarchy, now defeating death itself?
The people roar their happiness. The royal children and grandchildren smile and laugh in response, their reaction wholly genuine. The Prince Regent wipes away a proud, sad, joyful tear, and joins his subjects’ applause for his beloved Grottii. The TV cameras scroll back and forth, first capturing the crowd, then capturing the royals on the balcony, and then capturing the crowd once more. The images they will transmit are just that: images. They can’t convey the full glory of being here, at this moment, as the jets return, blasting overhead to paint the sky once again with the colours of idealism. But they will transmit the images anyway.
And around the world, billions will watch them, seeing how it’s all supposed to be done.