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What could one give royalty down on their luck? A chance meeting on a park bench gives a brief hint at history unfolded!

Humor / Drama
Sandie Barker
Age Rating:


“Actually,” he said. “I was suffering from loss of memory. Still ­am for that matter.”

I shifted on the hard park bench and then nodded my head sagely. “Amnesia.”

A soft tired sort of a smile curved his lips and he rubbed the grey stubble on his cheeks. Flakes of dirt fell off and floated in the ­warm still air. I tried hard not to notice. “Education is a wonderful­ thing.” he muttered. “I wish I had yours.”

“But, surely. A person of your birth ...?”

“Ah. But it would not have been an English education, would it?”

“You mean ...”

“Russian, I suppose.” He stared thoughtfully at his black boots. ­Not what I would have worn with brown trousers. But you couldn’t be­ critical. After all, he would have probably been setting fashion­ trends - in other circumstances.

“Perhaps French.” He wiggled a big toe that peeped out of the­ left boot. “I really can’t be sure. In any event, it was never ­completed. You might say that I was expelled with a bullet.”

We exchanged knowing smiles. Seated on a park bench in a world of ­our own. A world apart. It was thrilling to be a part of history. ­Great romantic history. He threw back his head and spread his arms ­along the back of the bench.

“The folly of it all. The sheer waste of it all.”

His voice had been rather loud and it carried to an old lady who ­was thrusting some oranges into a rubbish bin.

“But they were bad,” she protested.

We ignored her - naturally. Our indifference was too much for ­her. She reached back into the bin and withdrew the oranges. Then­ waddled away in a cloud of subdued mutters, casting an odd glance or­ two over her shoulder at us.

“Kismet,” he exclaimed, having carefully looked around to make ­sure that there was no other who might misinterpret what he was ­saying. “Such is my fate.”

We contemplated the Awfulness of Fate. At least - I did. For­ nearly two minutes. I mean - it was expected of me after hearing his­ story. He probably contemplated it for much longer - but he had a­ royal mind. And a lot more practise.

“You don’t remember a thing about it - your former life I mean?”

He sighed. “Not really. In dreams - sometimes it all comes back. My instincts are revolted and outraged by all this.” He indicated his­ torn jacket and ragged pants. “Perhaps it is just as well that I­ remember so little. The burning pride inside my heart makes life a­ hell enough as it is. This I must now subdue and control, to fit in ­with my life today. Among lesser beings who are quick to take offence ­at royal actions - words.”

I nodded again. Oh, how well I knew that. I had that feeling­ inside of me too. Did that mean that I too had royal blood? Perhaps -­ back in the past - one of my family had run into George Rex - or one­ of his family on a visit?

Mind you, you can’t always suppress it. Like when I told Jimmy Carstairs a thing or two. It was all his fault that we had lost the Strongworth account. Entirely due to his lack of talent. His face was­ quite a picture when I finished.

So was mine when he fired me.

Well, being unemployed was no real disgrace. Just could be a­ little embarrassing - financially, when the bills came in.

“I thought that the whole family had been wiped out?”

“No. I was left for dead - with a head wound. It did not kill me ­but it killed my memory. And my chances of ever regaining my throne.”

His head rose proudly out of the collarless neck of his dirty ­shirt. I just knew that great royal thoughts were going through his ­head at that moment. It was in the air. Not the body odour - the vibes.

“One of our faithful retainers found me and took me away to a ­safe place.” He paused. Then said softly, “I was not the only one, of­ course. There was another - my sister.”

Memory flooded back into my mind. It must have been a sort of ­amnesia of my own. What else had I forgotten? A link with George Rex?­ “I remember about her. Saw the film too - Ingrid Bergman, I think. Her­ name was Anastasia or something like that.”

“Quite right,” he said. “Your pronunciation is excellent. I never ­met her - not since the day they came and - and ..”

“I understand.” I tried my best to give him some privacy as he struggled with his emotions. Not easy when you are both sharing the ­same park bench. “Didn’t you ever try to get in touch with her?”

He shook his head sadly. “Oh, I wrote some letters to her. And­ then tore them up. She had problems enough without my adding to them. ­Look how she had to battle with the disbelief of her critics. I could­ never face up to that sort of thing. In here, ” he laid a hand on his ­right breast. (Odd place). “In here, beneath these torn garments, the­ grime upon my body, there is a sensitive soul that would never ­withstand the hate of a jealous world.”

His hand dropped to his knee. ” I have tried to be content with life, - with my lot. Such a very little really. But it is enough.” He­ looked up into the branches above us. “Besides, she could have been an ­imposter. Some said that she was. I could not afford to risk being ­associated with deception of any kind.”

I was a bit puzzled. History was never my strong point ­but...“Wasn’t all this a long time ago. Yet you don’t look that old.”

A cynical laugh broke from his lips. “I am a lot older than I look. One thing about my life style, there is no stress, no rat race.­ But, though I was very young when this all happened, I am old now. ­Lord, at times I feel I must be the oldest man alive. Living through­ ages past yet remaining alive today.”

He coughed and politely put a hand in front of his mouth. As he withdrew it he examined it closely. So did I.

But there was no blood. A pity.

“Which one were you? I mean, do you remember or can you figure­ out the possibilities?”

“Please.” He put out the bloodless hand towards me. “Please.­ Perhaps - Alexei - but let us not talk of it. My mind has been wiped­ clean of the horror. Let it remain in its peace. I would not like to­ try and recall now that which has been denied me this long.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” I really was. My only excuse was the fact that it was not every day that I shared a park bench with­ royalty. Russian royalty at that. I wondered how he had got here.

“Have you any idea how you came to South Africa? Or is that part ­of your amnesia?” As soon as I spoke, I could have bitten my tongue ­off. Just after he had asked me not to do so. But he smiled -­forgivingly.

“You mean part of my loss of memory? Pardon me if I am not too­ familiar with your mode of speech.”

I nodded humbly. You could definitely see the royal graciousness. He loosened the string holding his pants and stretched out his legs.­ “Partly. I was very ill at the time. With my head wound. Everything ­was very confused. A dream. A nightmare.”

I dropped my head in shame for making him go over it all. But ­there was no rebuke in his eyes. Just understanding.

“I remember endless days of travelling. Of hiding. Searchers. ­Hours when I had to lay dead still. Scarcely a breath. Seeing the ­shining blade of a bayonet stabbing down. Fear. Partly dreams. Partly ­memory. Partly - I don’t know. Everything a jumble of blurred ­impressions.”

I nodded my sympathy. “You must have suffered.”

He shrugged his shoulders and the tired smile creased his face.­ “I have suffered. So have my people. They suffer still - as I do.”

We stared into the park and thought about his sufferings. And ­mine. I was getting hungry. Perhaps I had better get a bite to eat at ­the corner café. It would be cheaper than having to pay Mrs Hodgson­ for my lodgings, which were due. Not that the corner café had the best­ hamburgers in the world.

“What do you do?”

He raised his hands to heaven. The bloodless one higher than the­ other. In the rays of the sun parts of the flesh looked red. You could ­just imagine that there was blood there - by not looking too hard.

“What can I do? We were never trained to earn a living. Only to ­rule. Nor could I engage in the fighting of the commercial jungle. The ­shallow, sharp life of the top business man would kill me. Mentally­ and physically I am only able to operate on a higher, rarer plane.”

I wondered if I should have apple pie as well. That they did do ­well.

His arms dropped. Were stretched out along the back of the bench­ again. His head was held high and back. A martyr looking for a cross. ­“I had my offers. From friends in high places who could not recognise ­me openly. Could only help through devious ways and secret channels. ­But I could not accept charity. At least,” he amended hastily, ” not ­secret charity of such magnitude.”

Though his head dropped to his chest his voice was never muffled.­ The words came through with crystal clarity. Due to his early­ training, I suppose.

“The little kindnesses, the small tokens of esteem, these I­ accept. For the sake of the donors. It is twice as blessed to give as ­to receive.”

I nodded and slowly put a finger into my pocket where I kept my ­small change. Nudging the coins about. Just what size of gift was­ appropriate to a king down on his luck?

“You don’t happen to have the time on you, do you?” He carefully avoided looking at my investigating finger. Absolute perfect manners. ­As it happened I did. I would not have to pawn my watch for at least a­ month.

“It’s just half past twelve.” Time for that hamburger, that cup of coffee and especially that piece of apple pie. Then an afternoon at ­the employment agencies.

“Are you on holiday?”

“Sort of. I have just been fired from my job,” I confessed. ­“Have to spend the afternoon in interviews and things.”

A cloud seemed to pass over his face. He was disappointed in me. “You will get another situation quite easily?”

Nice of him to be so concerned. “Oh yes. Terrible staff shortage ­in my field at the moment. Nothing to worry about.” It was what I had­ been telling myself so it was only fair to pass it on to him. I was­ about to give him some agents’ addresses as well when I remembered­ that he could not face fighting in the commercial jungle. Funny, I ­hadn’t noticed that. Maybe my royal blood was too heavily diluted. ­Mind you, my tiff with Jimmy C. could have come under that heading.

Anyway, he seemed quite relieved at my reply. “Good. It would­ grieve me to think that a nice, sensitive and generous man like you ­would be without work. Having to face the sneers of the passers-by. ­The terrors of not knowing where or when your next meal was coming­ from. Even your next cup of coffee.”

“You’re right.” He had even noticed that I was sensitive. Just­ shows what breeding will do. I dug down into my pocket and pulled out­ a coin. “Perhaps you will let me help you?”

He looked at the coin in my hand and the same tired smile was on­ his face. No rebuke. No offence. He knew I was trying. That my mistake ­and the slight given was not intentional.

“There are places where you can get a cup of coffee and a bite to ­eat for a rand,” he said patiently. “I have been there at my lowest ­ebb. But the soul-destroying experience was not worth the slight ­comfort given by the food. Could you make it a little more?”

I felt the hot flame of shame flood through my body. A violent ­tide. Real shame that purges the soul. Leaves a man naked and revealed­ in all his shabby thoughts and deeds. Here I was thinking of my ­hamburger, my cup of coffee, my piece of apple pie - a meal that ­would cost me nearly R10. Ten rand! And I was offering a man of rank,­ of noble birth - but distressed circumstances - the soul searing hell ­of R1 humiliation. I was worse than a slave trader.

What was called for was a special effort. A gage thrown into the­ very face of fate. I needed to make a Royal gesture.

I made it R4 - and had two pieces of apple pie.

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