A Royal Secret by Kate Rigby

I’ve been unfaithful to my partner, her best friend says.

Amber thinks, so have I.

Amber can guess the nature of Best Friend’s confession: Someone at the office party – a woman, perhaps – but the infidelity will be a physical matter. A kiss, or maybe even the whole shebang under the sheets. So what? People get bored, stuff happens.

But her infidelity is different. She secretly tuned into the virtual queue online to pay her respects to the queen. The rest of the family are, if not full republicans, pretty anti-monarchy and none more so than her husband: All that money, all those homeless people just needing a roof. She’s heard all the arguments. He cut his teeth on Johnny Rotten riling and spitting against the queen during her silver jubilee. She’s argued along with the best of them. As someone said, when the worms are burrowing through an eye socket, they don’t care if it’s royalty or a pauper. Death is a great leveller, though she can’t help picturing royal worms wearing little crowns.

Tuning in for the first time, she furtively flipped up her laptop while Hubbie was downstairs watching Netflix. It was the only place where he could escape the endless coverage, he groaned. She tried to focus on a single person in the procession but was mesmerised by the mass of humanity. They crossed themselves and bowed, there an old veteran in full regalia, here a child in jeans and hoodie.

Her neighbour had told her how much more it was in real life: the colour and pageantry; the tall cream candles; the brightness of the purple draped over the catafalque topped with crown, orb and sceptre; and – oh! – the flowers. Unless you’re there, you just don’t feel the camaraderie or make those lasting lifelong bonds we formed in the queue, experience that sense of pilgrimage or the beauty of a golden sunrise, sunny side up, after a cold and tired and aching night. We could leave our place for coffees and still be let back in. There was no queue-jumping. And now we’re all in a WhatsApp group and we’ll be friends for life…

So perhaps it wasn’t about the queen. It was about the journey.

The next time she snuck up to her laptop, she heard Father-in-Law downstairs complaining about being queened-out. Even Mother-in-Law, who latterly held a grudging respect for the queen for the length of her service to the country, was tutting. Less is more, she grumbled, after days of it. Even some royalists were getting royally pissed off now.

Hubbie came up to the bedroom and Amber just managed to exit the screen before he caught her at it. She was living dangerously.

Later she returned to her screen, and still the people came. She was drawn to the headgear of the Bearskins, covering their eyes; the gold chain under the lip or across the chin; the red jackets and white gloves; the crimson stripe down their trousers; the gold-trimmed collars. She felt guilty, like she was watching porn, as she stared too long at the Grenadier guards, one on each corner of the coffin, swords pointing down on the red dais bearing the catafalque. Then her eyes fixated on the two guards at the end with white feather headdresses, and onto the other four around the outer edge in royal embroidered red dress, stiff and flared, with socks and a spear, like those on playing cards. Were these the Yeomen? She wondered how everyone stayed so solemn.

Hubbie crept in unannounced, and this time she wasn’t quick enough.

What the f-?

I know, she said, adopting an expression of incredulity. She’d rehearsed her lines. I didn’t think they were really streaming it all the time!

She’s brought back to the present by Best Friend, waiting for a response to her confession of infidelity.

Amber says, do you want to talk about it?

Good Mate is Best Friend’s husband, and it occurs to Amber that Best Friend may have encouraged this jaunt so she can carry on with her shenanigans.

But Best Friend waves it away and seems to have lost her nerve. Amber feels guilty for the long hesitation which has stymied Best Friend’s disclosure. There can be no fellowship in shared secrets and so they talk about the Cost of Living Crisis instead. Besides, Amber is longing to get back to her pageantry porn.

Hubbie says he needs to go off-grid, do Bear Grylls stuff with his good mate. Amber is thrilled. Now she can watch the streaming uninterrupted. Good Mate is Best Friend’s husband, and it occurs to Amber that Best Friend may have encouraged this jaunt so she can carry on with her shenanigans.

Finally, Amber is alone with her laptop.

By the second day the thrill has lessened. Maybe it was just the excitement of the forbidden secret glimpses, after all. She’s familiar, now, with the tap-tap breaking the silence for the changing of the guards, the officials guiding people in an orderly fashion on each side of the coffin. But it’s still a little hypnotic, this people-watching: The little boy with ‘Epic’ on his T-shirt, not sure what to do. People carrying coats and carrier bags for their picnics. A guide dog, barking away the silence. A veteran with his medals, saluting and stamping to attention. There’s a boy with a fur-lined hood over his head, his anorak dangling behind, like he’s just wandered in by chance. She spots two people in standard-issue blue masks next to a Chinese man without mask. There’s more dainty bowing of heads.

Then she does a double-take. Even with their masks, there’s no mistaking who they are, one male, one female.

Bear Grylls, my eye, she thinks.

Kate Rigby is widely published and has been writing for over four decades. She writes mainly edgy or retro novels, but also non-fiction, short stories and poetry. She has recently been diagnosed as autistic, adding to her list of conditions, but sees it as something to celebrate.