It isn’t easy being six. It isn’t easy being dragged out of the coolness of an infant school classroom, plasticine models left half-fashioned, painted murals abandoned. All we leave behind is a dormant school, empty of life. Wind whistling down the corridors, with maybe a tumble weed or two rolling by.
It is the summer of 1977 and Queen Elizabeth has ruled our little country for 25 years, Mrs Webb says. She leads a rabble of my twenty-or-so classmates on, what seems like, a marathon walk through the East London back streets to the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital. I am surprised to see crowds lining the busy street on both sides. So this is important then? We feel privileged to find seating on the searing hot steps leading up to the hospital and I make sure I squeeze between Valerie and Petrona. It isn’t a great idea to split up from your best friends (who knows what plans will be hatched without me?).
I don’t really know what is going on, to tell the truth. I do know that I am melting in this 90 degree sunshine and would dearly love a drink. I stare down at my tattered trainers and off-white socks, half-mast. My hair is braided into it’s two customary long plaits that have begun to fray during the day. What will the Queen make of me? Just another scruffy kid from Bethnal Green, probably.
Mrs Webb promises us Opal Fruits once the Queen has been and gone. She shoves crudely made Union Jacks in our fists and says if we “wave them with pride”, those Opal Fruits will be a cert. I grimace and hope my parents or five other siblings aren’t lurking about. If my mother caught me waving a Union Jack or singing ‘God Save the Queen’ or anything like that, I would be for it. Our family don’t believe in the monarchy.
“Why should that woman get to rule over us just because she was born into the right family? She wasn’t elected or anything,” Mum would say and Dad would follow with something far more unsavoury. I don’t think my parents are communists or anything, they don’t want to ‘line anybody up against a wall’ and all that because Ann and Ian (my eldest sister and brother) say we are pacifists as well. But then if my family are anti-monarchist, then I must be too, I suppose. The Queen is absolutely loaded and we are ‘lurking somewhere beneath the poverty line’ (Ann assures me and she is studying sociology so she must know), so that can’t be fair, can it? Okay, I think I’ve got this right – in summary, we are ‘pacifist, socialist, anti-monarchists who are a bit too lazy to have militant or communist tendencies’, I think. Anyway, Lynn, my next eldest sister says I have to have strong opinions about things or I will just be boring and common. However, I would wave a Tory Party banner right now if an Opal Fruit was on offer. I’m serious.
I glance behind me up at the hospital doors. I love this hospital. I like its surgical spirit smell and the badly painted Disney characters daubed along the corridors. There is an excellent, if slightly frayed, rocking horse in the Accident and Emergency waiting room but you literally have to fight to get on the thing. I have never broken any bones, I am sorry to say, but have had some really painful scrapes and sprains. Elaine, the third eldest sister, says a bad sprain is just as painful as a break so that’s just as good. And no matter how painful the injury is, I am never afraid to go to hospital. Sitting on the steps, I wonder if the Queen is pleased that so many buildings are named after her, it must get confusing knowing which is which.
“When’s that woman coming?” Valerie groans but earns herself a ‘thwak’ to the leg from Mrs Webb’s unusually large hand.It would be a ruler to the thigh if we were back in our classroom but the pain is more or less the same. Petrona and I smirk and snigger because we aren’t in trouble.
“…That woman…that woman is your Queen!” Mrs Webb seems genuinely offended and we stifle the chuckling immediately.
“She ain’t my Queen,” Valerie curses in a hushed voice. Valerie and Petrona probably aren’t anti-monarchists like us, but perhaps ‘anti-establishment’, I think Ann would say. The unpleasantness is soon forgotten when a long navy Bentley breezes by and as if the slow motion button were pressed; we get a good look at the queen in the back seat accompanied by a severe-looking man in a suit. Her window is cracked open an inch and even through the glare of the blistering sun, we see her pink frock and matching hat. She manages a smile and a cursory wave with her white-gloved hand, acknowledging her hospital and her people. A half-hearted cry goes up from the crowd which sounds more like, “…Ray…” than “Hooray!” but people are bored and hot so it’s the best they can do and we wave our flags frantically because Opal Fruits are at stake. Then the car passes as soon as it arrived and the Queen has gone.
“Isn’t she supposed to stop or something?” Petrona turns to me.
“…Dunno, maybe she’s going in round the back entrance…or she’s got better stuff to do…” I say and stick my hand out ready as the sweets come round, as promised. It is, indeed, an Opal Fruit to remember.
So that’s it then. We heave ourselves to our feet and rummage in our pockets in case any belongings have slipped out. I have 10p, just enough for a 10p-Mix-Up or maybe even a lucky bag now that my sweet tooth has been triggered. I will be sure to frequent ‘Kenny’s’ confectionery shop once school has finished.
I glance up and down the street for my youngest sister, Ali, but her class must be lost in the crowd or something. It’s a pity we can’t all go home now but we troop off back to Seabright Infant and Junior, our heads filled with the Queen, all dressed up in a stuffy car with lots of people to wave at for the rest of the day. I feel a bit sorry for her really, but if you tell any of my family that, I shall deny it.