The Queen slipped through the oversized double doors, letting them fall shut behind her, soothed by their slow sweep. Her eyes swept through the shadows of the great room, surprised and relieved to find she was alone. So often these days she sought solitude in vain. To find it without trying was a rare treat.
As the light flickered to life, a slip of her mind sent her back forty or more years. There was a time in her youth when solitude had been the last thing she wanted. She had desired admiration and attention, for her power, her finery, her majesty.
So many had been happy to oblige. She had a flash of them now, supplicant before her. Smiling with too many teeth, laughing while their eyes darted from side to side, excited and fearful to be near her. Even at the time she had known that it was her title, her place in society and her wealth that had attracted them. She also sensed that it was she, the Queen intrinsic, which made them stay.
As the cold light removed all shadows, so it removed the past. The thrill of her former vanity caught her breath. Much had changed since those light long lost days. She had matured, had lived, experienced so many things, seen the world turn, and turn again. The thought of those things changed the trapped breath into a sigh.
Was she still vain? No.
Proud? Perhaps. False modesty was as ill fitting as ostentation in these straitened days.
The Queen stiffened her shoulders and moved through the room, making decisions that would affect all who followed. She set the tone for their day. It was a responsibility she accepted with signature calm grace.
Behind her the doors swung open and she heard someone bustle in. She didn’t turn to see who it was nor did the new arrival acknowledge her. That was the protocol and she wouldn’t be the one to break it. Even so, she did allow herself a glimpse, via one of the room's many glistening surfaces, at who had joined her. It was the dark haired worker who always managed to be around when she was around. If he could have seen her reflection, instead of her straight back, then he might have caught a tiny smile.
The Queen made herself appear busier than she was. She sensed that the young man was doing the same. He stationed himself where he always did and made great play of arranging the space around him, stacking sheets of paper, reorganising them. It was a ploy she regularly used herself. In her case it was to relieve the pressure on those around her who might otherwise wither under her attention. For a simple worker like the dark haired man, it was more likely nerves.
Continuing on her way, at her own pace, giving each space the appropriate attention, she saw that her route through the room would soon bring her close to him. Through years of experience she knew it would be better, for him, if he could see this in advance and remove himself from her orbit. There was a way of doing this that could seem both effortless and elegant.
The Queen dipped into the range of subtle gestures that were bred into her nature. She had learned them from her mother, who no doubt had learned from her mother and so on, in the royal way. Without any explicit gesture or sound she let the young man know that he could move away if he wished to.
The man, who was either unschooled or uncouth, made no attempt to move. A flash of irritation ran through the Queen. Not for herself but for him. His presence could not affect her. Her annoyance was that he had failed to take the opportunity offered. Particularly galling, since he was the one likely to become flustered when they came closer than decorum would allow.
She pressed on, looking at what she needed to, touching what she must and attending to everything that needed her attention. Her manner was thorough without being pedantic, scrupulous without being impossible to please. That was a lesson she had learned by observation. Her father, much as she respected and admired him, had made himself unlovable by his adoration to detail far beyond the spirit of the rule. She controlled the shudder that came when she thought about his end. As she released that necessary breath, she allowed that this side of his nature might have played a part in the lack of mercy shown him in the final days.
The dark haired man looked up at her as she neared his post. Her nearness startled him, she could see. Though no trace showed on her regal face, it took effort. It was all so predictable, so unnecessary. Taking pity on the poor man she allowed herself to become distracted by some papers near her hand. She glanced through them with perhaps more attention than they warranted, as if caught by some fascinating detail. That was also a technique from the old days.
She heard him say something, though she couldn’t quite make it out through his coarse accent. In any case she didn’t respond. To become embroiled now would only make his embarrassment complete. The Queen looked up from the sheaf of papers when she heard his chair pull back and his steps hurry away. He had finally taken his opportunity, though with no great élan. She hoped not to have to repeat this little play again.
At least with him gone she could continue her circuit, dispensing with the first duties of the day. As she got older the tasks that had as a new Queen seemed so dull and repetitive were now comforting and necessary rituals. She would miss them if they were no longer required of her. Pomp and display had its place of course but it no longer held the lure it once did. The glittering lavishness of her early years, in the old palace, seemed gaudy to her now.
“To be royal is to learn,” her mother had said. How true that was, thought the daughter. Would she be Queen Mother one day? No, she would not. The time for such things had passed,
The dark haired man held one of the double doors open for her as she approached it. She acknowledged him with the tiniest of nods, thinking that perhaps it wasn’t only royals who could learn.
That moment of goodwill left her as he spoke. His words were incoherent, his tone disrespectful. From his crude gestures she could see that he was trying to direct her attention somewhere. She followed the pointed finger and saw the door he was suggesting she take.
Without trying too hard to conceal her irritation the Queen stepped toward the door, which was ajar, then stepped into the small room behind it. She knew who occupied this room and prepared herself to deal with him.
The temptation was to sack her on the spot. Bill Morgan rubbed the morning grit from his eyes and wished he had not had coffee on an empty stomach Again. When would he learn?
He looked up at the stiff old woman who had stepped into his office without as much as a knock. As usual she looked as if everyone was an irritant to her, as if she didn’t want to be there.
Bill had inherited her, not hired her but if she didn’t smarten up he would be the one who fired her. The tab on his desk said Facilities Manager but it should have read Everything and Anything Manager, he often said.
“Come in,” he said with acid joviality. “I’ll get to it. I’ve had a bit complaint about your good self.” He paused, waiting for a reply, a defence, outrage, acceptance, apology. Got nothing.
“Now we’ve spoken about this before,” Well I’ve spoken, he thought. “It’s about you reading paperwork on the desks, going through their things. Now I appreciate that as a cleaner you have to clean, don’t get me wrong. And in general your work has been satisfactory.” He let the last word linger, wondering if it’s lack of endorsement would register with the stuck up old bird. “But by the same token I think you need to stick to just cleaning, do you follow?”
He waited for a response. That was a direct question after all. Damned if he was going to ask it again. On the other hand he wasn’t going to just sit and wait. He tilted his head, his eyebrow forming a question mark.
Early morning cleaners were easy to find. The urge to tell her to ‘eff’ off rose along with the coffee heartburn. No. Not enough to sack her. Enough for everyone to moan, but not enough to get rid. Bloody HR.
“Right. Unless there’s anything else?” he said through a stiff jaw while glancing at the door. The Cleaner leaned with a stifled grunt to pick up the half full bin liner she had lain by her feet while he spoke, then walked from the office without a backward glance. Bill allowed himself a grunt. Jesus, who did that woman think she was, the queen of bloody-
He never got the chance to finish the thought, instead answering the phone on its first ring. The real business of the day could begin. “Dave, you old-”
Outside the small room the Queen reflected that perhaps there were days when her previous opulence didn’t seem so meaningless. She walked past the dark haired man who sat at his desk, pointedly not looking at her.
If only those rumours of her own personal troop of henchmen had been true, she mused, before brushing away the thought as unworthy of her royal status.