“OK, guys,” she called but almost none of the 15 French and Italian teenagers in front of her paid her any attention. “OK, guys,” she repeated, projecting more forcibly. “That’s the end” – she illustrated this by drawing an imaginary horizontal line in the air – “of the lesson.” Eventually, they all stopped rehearsing and quietened down. “Right. Can you pack everything away, please? Ooh! Give me your namecards. Give your namecards to me.” Once she had those pieces of paper on her desk and the students had lined up by the door, Kat grabbed her grey wool jacket and gold cashmere-blend scarf before fighting her way to the head of the line and leading the class out. As soon as she stepped out into the courtyard, she wished that she had pulled on her gloves. It might only be the middle of October and brilliantly sunny but it was bitingly cold; she wondered if there would be frost that night. She reached the lake and found her line-manager and two of the three other teachers clustered around the group leaders with their students. Her class had run ahead as soon as they caught sight of their friends by the lake, so Kat did not have much to say to the two blonde sports instructors in charge of the teenagers from which her class was culled.
“All OK?” asked the girl in charge of the French group.
“Yeah,” shrugged the teacher and both blondes grinned.
“Lunch?” suggested her line-manager.
“Aren’t we waiting for Bill?”
“He’s been and gone,” grinned Naomi, one of the other teachers. “We were waiting for you.”
“You shouldn’t have,” grimaced Kat, guilt squirming in her chest. “I hadn’t realised that I overran.”
“It’s not that you overrun,” chuckled Amy, their line-manager. “But you finish the lesson at half past and everyone else finishes a few minutes early to get here at half past.”
“Can we move now?” chattered Jamie, playing up how cold he was.
“Yeah,” grinned Naomi, pulling Kat’s arm through her own. “I’m starving.”
“I still need to grab my bag,” Kat said, apologetically, looking at Amy. As she did this every day and all four of her colleagues had worked with her before, no-one was surprised. When they reached the teaching block, Amy and Kat turned left, towards the classrooms, while the other two headed for the dining-room. The teacher darted in and grabbed her satchel, abandoning the ink-covered whiteboard until after she had eaten. As the course director locked the classroom, Kat pulled out her phone and her stomach plummeted. She had two missed calls from her mother. Her mother never rang her during class; she rarely rang without texting first. “Sorry, Amy,” she gasped. “I have to return this call.”
“Sure.” The older woman’s face was creased with concern but Kat was in no position to re-assure her boss. She walked deeper into the labyrinth of corridors surrounding the classrooms before starting the call.
“What’s up?” Katherine asked as soon as her mum answered the phone.
“It’s Grandma. She called a little while ago to ask us to come up at once.”
“Is Papa really bad?” She could not bring herself to ask if her grandfather was dying.
“He must be. You know Grandma.”
“Head in the sand,” agreed the daughter.
“We’re just at your brother’s. Then, we’ll come to pick you up. It shouldn’t take us more than an hour. I’ll get Simon to text you when we get off the motorway.”
“Right. I need to go pack. I hope Amy will be alright to teach.”
“Just make sure you apologise when you explain. They can’t expect you to stay; these happen in the adult world,” snapped Morag Haddow and Kat had to remind herself that her mum was facing the prospect of losing her father. It was not a feeling with which she could empathise; she had walked away from her own dad ten years ago and had never had a great relationship with her mum’s parents.
“I’ve gotta go. See you in an hour.” She rushed back to the classroom but Amy was already gone, so Kat headed on to the dining-hall. Amy had joined Naomi and Jamie but they were still in the queue outside, making it easier for her to find them but more awkward for her to explain as they could be overheard by any of the staff queuing around.
“Everything alright?” Naomi chirped as soon as she saw Kat and the other teacher winced.
“No. It’s my grandpa. He’s really ill – dementia, heart-attacks – and Grandma rang– I’m really sorry, Amy, but I have to go.”
“No! Of course! Your record of work’s up-to-date?”
“Course,” shrugged Kat, nonplussed. Then, she saw Amy’s smile and remembered the last contract, which had been before the summer, and Amy telling her that she was the only one who stayed on top of her paperwork every day. The line moved and she startled. “I’d better go.”
“Aren’t you going to eat?” asked Jamie, sounding concerned.
“No time. Mum’s already on her way. We’ve gotta head straight up to Scotland if we want to make it by reasonable time.” The Glaswegian nodded but the two women frowned. Kat hugged them each, briefly, and then ran back to her accommodation as quickly as her court shoes and asthmatic lungs would allow. Once she was inside, she started pushing everything that had escaped the suitcase back into it, worrying even less about neatness than she normally did. She had a roll and some slices of chorizo left from their last run to the supermarket, so scoffed those after the suitcase was zipped shut. Then, she went to wash her hands and realised that, in her hurry, she had forgotten her towels and toiletries. She packed those and then went through every drawer and cabinet to ensure she hadn’t left anything else. Next, she bagged up all her rubbish and took it out to the main bins. When she got back, a green light was blinking at the top of her phone. She checked the text was the one from her brother and then, knowing that meant she had about ten minutes, Kat slung her satchel across her body and grabbed her suitcase. Five minutes later, she was checked out of her accommodation. Ten minutes later, she was at the front gates. Fifteen minutes later, she was in the backseat beside her brother heading for Scotland.
It should have taken them about six and a half hours to reach Mum’s childhood home. However, Katherine had always suffered with travel sickness. While she was no longer prone to throwing up, she still became nauseous after about an hour and a half in a car or bus. So, they stopped every 90 minutes or two hours to allow her to go to the toilet, drink some water on firm ground and eat a couple of the ginger nuts she bought at the service station at which they stopped. This did also allow Morag and her wife, Hillary, to swap over driving on a regular basis. However, they did not reach the ex-council house until almost 10pm.
“We can’t all stay here,” Katherine muttered as they trudged up the steps to her grandparents’ lawn. “I mean, Jean’s come up, too.”
“We’re going to stay with Aunt Ages and Uncle Tom,” her mother replied, referring to her father’s sister and brother-in-law. “We’re just here to see how he is.”
“I still don’t get why he isn’t in the hospital,” her daughter commented.
“Neither do I,” replied Morag for at least the third time that day. She rang the doorbell and, almost immediately, it was opened by a young man in the trousers of pinstriped suit and a pale blue shirt.
“Morag Haddow?” he inquired in an accent more likely to be found near Katherine’s childhood home, Tooting, than here.
“Yes...?” replied her mother, cautiously.
“Good,” beamed the young man. “We were beginning to worry. Your sister got here two hours ago.” Before any of them could ask who he was or what was going on, the young man retreated down the corridor to the door of the sitting room and pulled it open for them. With an exchange of glances, they entered and proceeded into the throug-lounge. There, they found both Sandra’s sisters, her mother, her aunt and uncle, their son and daughter-in-law, their daughter and her daughter around the hospital bed in which lay James Haddow. There were also another two men in bits of suit; one – the age of Morag and her sisters and cousin – was in grey trousers and waistcoat over a white shirt, while the other was younger and dressed with similar informality as his colleague who had answered the door.
“Now that you are all present,” wheezed the waistcoat-adorned, sounding as though he might start coughing at any moment. “We can explain why we have brought you all together.”
“Can I get anyone some tea?” offered the young man who had opened the door.
“Coffee, please,” bit out Morag, evidently resisting the urge to demand to know who he was.
“Same, please,” muttered Katherine, grateful that she was still in her teaching garb as she did not feel under-dresssed surrounded by these men.
“Nothing, thank you,” murmured Hillary, her London accent cultured by age and improved circumstances.
“Just water, please,” added Simon and the affable young doorman bustled into the kitchen.
“I am Sir Malcolm Tryre of the heralds’ office,” continued the older intruder, his voice still bearing the strain of repressed coughs. Katherine gasped as her brain put together the implications of what he was and the fact the whole family had been summoned. When she caught her brother’s eye, she was certain the same thought had occurred to him.
“As you are no doubt aware: before our late queen’s death, she came to the conclusion that Prince William ought to succeed her, not his father,” expounded the man Sat beside Sir Malcolm. “To that end, Her Majesty instructed the Home Office to draw up an Act of Succession–”
“They did. It was debated in Parliament. The wrong version was signed into law by the queen,” Katherine rapped out. “No-one noticed the error until after her death, when the provisions were needed. We know all this. Why are you here?”
“Because, Miss Fornier,” replied Sir Malcolm, using the surname of her discarded father, which she had almost entirely abandoned. “As incredible as it may be to you. The queen’s nearest living relative – who was not in the line of succession before her death, has no title, is not a Roman Catholic and was born in the United Kingdom – is your grandfather.” Just then, the doorman returned, holding two mugs of milky coffee, and with Simon’s glass of water tucked into one elbow. He handed the mugs to Katherine and her mother, who both looked at the contents in dismay.
“Yay. I love latte,” Katherine drawled, setting the mug down on a nearby coaster. Her mother shot her an angry look but the young woman rolled her eyes. “So, what, Grandpa is now King James eight and third?” Sir Malcolm gave what should have been a polite cough but it left loose the fit he had been suppressing throughout the conversation. Morag wordlessly held out the cup of coffee that she was definitely not going to drink, due to its contamination with cows’ milk.
“The problem lies in Mr Haddow’s current state of health,” explained the young man sat beside Sir Malcolm, once his colleague had quietened enough not to drown him out.
“I know the Commonwealth prefers absolute primogeniture–“
“How do you know that?” interrupted Catriona, her mother’s younger sister.
“I did study law, Catriona, and I’m interested in this stuff.”
“Under other circumstances,” wheezed Sir Malcolm. “There might have been a conflict. But, in this scenario, the British government is more concerned with getting someone on the throne.”
“So, Mum is queen,” grinned Katherine. “The Church of England is gonna love that.”
“You understand, Miss Fornier.” Sir Malcolm gave her a faint smile but Katherine’s powers of comprehension had failed. She looked at the senior civil servant with her forehead ridged into a frown and an unformed question on her lips.
“He means you,” said her brother, his tone light and smiling. “They want you to be queen, sis.”
“What?” choked out Katherine.
“I know, right?” smirked her little brother, teasingly.
“What if she says ‘no’?” snapped the girl’s aunt, Jean. “You go to Simon, then me, then Catriona, then Aunt Agnes, Douglas, Audrey and then what? Amelia’s five! What happens if we all refuse?” Katherine whirled on her with an incredulous laugh.
“Then, the UK falls apart. Think about it! Without a monarch, there is no kingdom. Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland would revert to being individual nations. Possibly Cornwall, too! They could re-join together as a parliamentary democracy but why would Nicola Sturgeon agree to that? If independence were dropped in her lap, why would she re-unite with England? Why would Northern Ireland? We’d all be out of the EU, immediately, because the country that’s a member stats would no longer exist. So, wouldn’t it make more sense for Northern Ireland to unite with Eire, which would keep it in the EU without having to re-apply and stop there being a border in Ireland.” She paused for breath and her eyes went wide. “We’d have to start over from scratch. No laws would be good, the government couldn’t continue, there’d need to be a constitution...”
“They could find someone else,” suggested Catriona. That snapped Katherine out of her fog of horror.
“Oh, come on! We’re, like, tenth cousins to the queen and it’s taken them six weeks to find us! How long do you think the Prime Minister can wait? Especially with Brexit in March.” A light came into her eye and she began to grin.
“I am glad you appreciate the gravity of the situation,” said the young man beside Sir Malcolm as he got to his feet. “Would I be correct in assuming this means you accept your responsibilities, ma’am?” Katherine took a deep breath and then nodded, weakly.
“Yeah. Yes, I’ll do it.”
“Wait!” protested Jean, starting from her place on the sofa. “What about the rest of us?! It’s not just you; this’ll change all of our lives.”
“I’m sorry,” she said with a slight smile to her aunt. “I’m not going to refuse this, so we can continue living in the comfort of what we’re used to. I love this country and it has been riven enough over Brexit; I’m not going to be responsible for letting it fall apart entirely.” Simon clapped his sister on the shoulder and she turned her face to him.
“If you hadn’t said ‘yes’, I would’ve,” he grinned and Katherine leant into his touch.
“But, Katherine,” interjected their mother. “What about us?” She indicated herself and Hillary.
“Lots of people have gay parents. If the Church and the tabloids have a problem, they’re just gonna have to get over it.”
“We had hoped to keep it quiet,” interposed the same young man who had put the question to her.
“No,” she replied with fierce determination. “My mother is married to Hillary. I am not going to treat that like something to be ashamed of. New royal family for a new world. I just wish there was an inter-racial couple.”
“I’ll try my best to fall in love with someone who isn’t white,” beamed Simon.
“You do that,” smirked his sister, jostling his shoulder.
“There’s not going to be a problem with Amelia, is there?” asked Audrey.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Hunter,” inquired the young man who seemed to have taken charge.
“Well, because I wasn’t married to her dad...”
“Audrey,” laughed Katherine, who had only met her second cousin a handful of times before tonight. “How many million women in the UK have had kids with their boyfriend? Seriously, it’ll be fine.” The young man gave a polite cough. “Who are you, by the way?”
“Oh! I beg Your Majesty’s pardon. I am Tim Cooke, your private secretary.”
“Well, for the time being–” She was interrupted by the need to yawn. “Let’s stick to ‘Your Grace’; I’ve not been crowned yet.”
“Well, ma’am, you’re obviously tired and we still need to get you to Holyrood,” began Tim Cooke.
“What?” groaned Katherine but she raised a hand to forestall any justification. “Sure. Whatever.” Then, a thought occurred to her. “Simon, Mum and Hillary should come, too.” Everyone stared at her and her mother began to protest. “There’s no point you sleeping on Aunt Agnes’ bed-setee when there’s a palace full of empty bedrooms.”
“Your Grace,” interposed Tim Cooke with another polite cough. “We only have one vehicle here–”
“So?” Katherine’s teachin-honed patience was beginning to fray from the length of her day, the excessive amount of time spent in a car and all the curveballs that had been sent her way.
“Well, it is inadvisable for the monarch and her heir to travel in the same car.”
“Of course,” she conceded, suppressing another yawn. “But we have the family car, full of our luggage, so surely they can follow us, which still lets you talk to me in private.” Tim Cooke’s eyes bugged out with surprise and she allowed him a tired smirk. Then, she stepped forward and planted a kis on her unconscious grandfather’s forehead, then kissed her grandmother on the cheek and waved at the rest of her mother’s family. “I will see you all soon.” She then strode towards the door but the young man who had greeted them when they first arrived for there ahead of her and held it open. “Who are you? My gentleman usher?” she teased.
“No, ma’am. Charlie Seymour; I work in the Home Office.”
“Seymour? Any relation to the Duke of Somerset?” The young man did a double-take.
“Yeah. He’s my dad.”
“The Lord Protector was your dad?” she gasped, feigning shock. “What are you? A vampire?”
“No,” frowned the young man. “My dad’s just Duke of Somerset.” She sighed; people rarely did get her historical allusions but she had expected an aristocrat to know his own family history.
“Edward Seymour... Lord Protector to Edward sixth... executed by John Dudley... who went on to put Lady Jant Grey on the throne... ringing any bells?”
“Sorry, Your Grace, I’m not properly up on my history. I read economics.”
“And, yet, you’re in the Home Office.” Suddenly, Tim Cooke was at her elbow; she suspected this might be something to which she’d become accustomed.
“We should go, ma’am. It is an hour’s drive to Holyrood.” She nodded and they left the two-bedroom terrace for what she hoped would be the last time.