Every eye in Britain is staring at the same door. It’s not a particularly nice door; it’s really rather drab, with a rusty bronze handle. But everyone’s staring because out of this door, any second now, the new royal baby will say his first hello.
His mother, Princess Alexandra, has been in the public eye for nearly thirty years now. Her face is plastered everywhere: on tea towels, keychains, rubber ducks. Her wedding two years ago was broadcast to 185 countries, and the subsequent demand for tartan hair ribbons singlehandedly pulled Scotland out of an impending recession.
Mrs Isadora Sampson of Number Eight Winston Street has Alexandra’s face in more picture frames than her grandson’s. “My grandson isn’t going to be a queen some day,” she says. A pair of sparkly size twelve stilettos in his closet beg to differ.
But it’s not Alexandra that the country is waiting for: it’s the new prince, born last night at 7:53 p.m. Twitter was ablaze with misspelled “congrautulations,” and a BBC Two anchor got word of the birth during a live broadcast and interrupted a story about serial murders to share the news. The Sun released an evening edition with a cartoon infant clad in blue. Inside was a collage of all the celebrities who had predicted a baby girl, alongside quotations showing how wrong they were.
Today, they’re saying, Alexandra will leave the hospital, baby in her arms. “Only right she goes back home,” says Sheila O’Connor, an indignant Irishwoman with eight children of her own. “The girl needs a rest.” And so the eyes of the isles watch on, staring at the drab door, searching for some sign of the princess.
Kenny Mubawe is standing outside the London hospital juggling an umbrella, a camera and a three-year-old. He thinks he sees her shadow through the window, but it’s just a passing nurse.
In Birmingham, Valerie Ng rings up her beau and cancels their plans for the night. “I can’t, babe, something’s come up,” she says, and turns up the volume on the telly.
The door opens, and together Britain takes a breath. The princess steps out without her husband at her side, and together Britain erupts in a clamor. She scrunches up her lips and shakes her head. She tries to wave at the crowd, a timid little greeting, but her hand ends up covering her quivering lips instead. Together, Britain quiets down.
The cameras zoom in. The baby’s skin is black.
Inside the hospital, the king is in tears, and equerries are scrambling to find him tea. “I don’t want tea,” he spits, but he drinks it when it comes. “Oh, God,” he says, “oh God, God.” He’s been saying it all night. No one goes near him.
The Duke of Albany, eyebrows thick as London fog, broods alone, too. He’s in the corner trying to determine where he went wrong. His cell phone is buzzing because, although he can mute it, he doesn’t know how to turn vibrate off. He wants to throw it, maybe at his wife, maybe at the ground, but he resists the impulse; he’s got some photos on there that he hasn’t yet figured out how to remove. No one goes near him, either.
It’s the women who have banded together, from the moment the baby emerged from the womb. This kind of moment is rare for their family: a moment that the country will never see. Weddings, funerals, and everything in between is televised, commentated, closed-captioned. But the moment of the little prince’s birth, when his little brown fingers first grasped at English air, and the kerfuffle that ensued… that, at least, was private.
The Duke, who had been gripping the bedpost while Alexandra screamed and pushed, simply left the delivery room. It had been just him and the doctors, and then it was just the doctors, huddled around the spreadeagled princess, her lovechild in their arms. In the ensuing chaos, one of the nurses slipped out to fetch the queen, who entered in a characteristic state of tizzy.
“What’s going on?” she asked, and then she saw. “You can go, thank you,” she told the doctors. Then she sat on the bed, and held her sobbing heap of daughter for the rest of the night.
It was four hours of silent tears, of refusals of meals, before Alexandra finally spoke. “I can’t go out there, mummy,” she said.
But her mummy said, “You must.”
Now Queen Margaret is holding the baby, cooing at him like a cockatiel, as he sloppily sucks on her finger wrinkles. The princesses are on the too-small hospital bed, sister holding sister.
“Well, I’ve got one bit of good news for you, darling,” says the queen. The baby gurgles, and she smiles.
“What is it, mummy?”
“You’ve got a whole life of public service ahead of you,” she says. “Your entire reign. But you’ll never make a mistake as bad as this one.” Then she rings a little bell, and a scrubs-clad peon comes running.
“Tea for the lot of us,” she demands.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Oh, and bring Edward another cup.” The king. He’s still sitting there saying “Oh, God, God, Oh God,” and although he complains, he’s grateful for the second batch.
Margaret hands over the bundle of baby and for the first time, Alexandra takes him in. Everything on him is little, of course. His little brown eyes sparkle with new life, which makes it difficult to regret his existence. His little tongue searches for milk, his little hand reaches for her face. She takes a breath and thanks God that times have changed.
Not too many years ago, she thinks, she might have had to kill this baby. The backlash would have been incomprehensible. The baby would have been quietly suffocated and disposed of, and the Church of England would have started up a collection for victims of miscarriage in her name.
The tea arrives, and so does the Duke of Albany. He stands awkwardly in the doorway when none of the women invite him to sit. “Alexandra,” he says. She can’t meet his eyes, and she hasn’t since the birth. “Alexandra. Why did you go out there?”
“He’s my baby,” she whispers. She holds Mary’s hand tighter.
“But he’s not mine.” He looks at the child with a scowl. “How could you, how could you–” Queen Margaret stands up and begins to interfere. “Leave,” she says, her blue eyes ablaze.
“We don’t need any nonsense right now. Out!”
The Duke is enraged. “Your Majesty, I–”
“I don’t care, leave now.” She is a full foot shorter than him, a garden gnome in pearls, but he cowers.
“Alex,” he begs. All the muscles in the princess’s body tense up as she chooses not to answer. “Alex, please. Whose is it?”
But the queen is thwacking him with the tea tray and shouting. “Out, out!”
That, of course, is the question that the whole country is asking: “Whose?” Within minutes of the little prince’s reveal, headlines started popping up on internet tabloids. “WHO IS ROYAL BABY DADDY?” the world wants to know. Tammy Williams, a Lancashire mother, is telling anyone who will listen that it’s the American rapper Prince Zee. “He calls himself prince, I bet he’d love to get under a real princess’s skirt. Them rappers are like that, they are.”
The least polite papers are offering proof of Alexandra’s liaisons with male prostitutes. “An unnamed black man was invited to Kensington Palace nine months ago for an ‘interview’– or so she wants us to think.” The most polite papers are scouring through all of Alexandra’s school friends, clamping onto anyone with remote African heritage. They best they can find is Missy Carleton, the princess’s well-known confidante.
“Yeh, I remember the little bitch,” says Hamish Brown, a factory worker from Leeds. “Alex wanted her to be the maid of honor, but the king said no. She hadta pick her sister instead.” Hamish is actually right about that. “I bet the black bitch was so mad she got her brother to put a baby inside our girl.” That he’s wrong about. Missy Carleton has no brother. “Well, her father, then.” He’s dead. “Well, somebody.”
A hotter topic than parentage, though, is whether or not the newborn prince will be permitted to inherit the throne. Historians are scouring their archival minds to come up with the scholarly solution. Yes, there have been royal bastards before– that’s where the surname Fitzroy derives, son of the king– but not in recent memory, not since bastardy stopped being a serious offense.
The law, as it stands, prohibits the crown from passing to illegitimate children. Also Roman Catholics.
“They should let ‘im have it,” says Holly Kugel, a drug-addled Glaswegian who runs a yarn shop. “He sure as hell came outta her. D’you see ‘is eyes? He’s Alexandra’s son, no doubt about it, so who gives a shit if she was married to ‘is father? I wa’n’t! And my kid came out all right!”
Feminists, who’ve always loved the princess, are agreeing. “I think it’s the right step for the country to take,” says Christine, a student at the London School of Economics. “Look, we’ve got a princess standing alone, holding a baby that she alone is responsible for. She’s married, and the Duke’s a good man, but she doesn’t need him to be Queen. Look at Victoria, she reigned for forty years without Albert. Look at Elizabeth I! This is the world we live in, and I for one think this is the right direction.”
Buckingham Palace is keeping mum about the whole thing. King Edward hasn’t appeared publicly since the baby’s reveal, and some– mostly Tories and old crones like the Baroness Macleod– are worried about his health. “Oh, if my daughter had put me through that,” says the Baroness. She is too full of herself to actually finish the sentence.
A Yorkshire couple, the Baxters, think Alexandra should be disinherited. “If we were Edward,” they say, “we’d skip right over her and give the crown to Mary. That girl’s a sweetheart. She’d never do something like this.” Princess Mary, the younger of King Edward’s girls, has actually had three abortions to date.
So-called “family values” groups (such as Build a Better Britain and Mothers for Heterosexual Unions) are agreeing with the Baxters. “This baby is not of royal blood,” says Sussex pastor Fred Jackson. “We cannot let it be our king.” He’s playing the wedlock card in public, but in private, Jackson has referred to the baby as “the royal nigger” no less than forty-four times. Thirty percent of octogenarians also used this phrase, although at least three of them meant it respectfully.
The racism is trickling out of places you wouldn’t expect, as well as the ones you would. At a military performance of “Rule Britannia,” which usually provokes intense, almost colonialist patriotism, a commentator drew attention to the line ‘Britons never will be slaves’. “Looks like we’re headed in that direction, folks,” he said, and was promptly fired by the Director General of the BBC.
The people who usually threaten to move out of the country are doing so again. Martin Jones, a retired veteran from Swansea, who most recently said he’d expatriate if Michelle Miller were elected Prime Minister– “she won’t be no Thatcher, the bleeding heart bitch”– is currently claiming he’ll move to Australia if a black baby ever ascends the throne.
Meanwhile, the king has been reading his red boxes and not absorbing any of it. Parliament has passed a law regarding sanctions in the Department of Something. Normally he would care. Really, he would– normally, he would ask the Prime Minister about it in their weekly audience. But this week, he can’t focus on anything but his daughter, and steely-haired Michelle Miller doesn’t bother to redirect their chat.
“What if she’d married a black fellow?” he keeps asking. “Would there be this outrage?”
“I don’t think so, Your Majesty,” says the Prime Minister.
“Because if so,” says the king. Obsessive monologuing is a tic of his. “If so, then maybe it’s a good thing. This is a Commonwealth of Nations, don’t people understand that? We are Africans as well as Europeans.”
“Your Majesty,” says Michelle, who’s staring at the carpet. “I don’t think it’s the baby’s race, sir. I mean, that will always be part of it. But this is about the princess and her fidelity.” Edward has been silent for too many consecutive seconds and begins to interrupt, but the PM holds her ground. “The British people are concerned. If the princess cannot be faithful to her husband of two years, what’s to say she will be faithful to the crown?”
Edward fidgets in his seat, but decides to uphold the constitutional duty of the monarch and keep his royal mouth shut.
“But don’t fret, Sir. The princess will thrive. The people love her. Just give it time, and carry on as normal. I guarantee, the press will contort it all into something absurd. ‘Edward X diversifies the throne’, or ‘black is the new purple.’ They’ll eat it up, if you only give it time. Just keep on keeping on, like nothing’s happened.”
He can’t stay silent for long. “Are you suggesting that everything’s alright?”
“Of course it’s not alright, Your Majesty,” says the PM. “But it will be.”
Elsewhere in Buckingham Palace, Queen Margaret’s private equerry is informing her staff of a slight policy change. Nothing drastic: simply that the Duke of Albany has been banished from all royal premises. She knows this isn’t fair, but as she makes well-known to the reporters, “my daughter comes first. Always.”
Plenty of mothers understand this. Effie Agyeman, a single London mother of five, gestures at the telly when the story comes on. “You see that, girls?” she says, while she loads up a loaf tin with mac and cheese. “You see that? Alex screwed up and Maggie had her back. I’ll always have your back, you hear me? Mummy’s got your back. On’y don’t screw up like that.”
Most women are less supportive of Margaret’s measures– especially those 65% percent of Daily Mail readers who said in a February poll that they ‘would LOVE to sleep with the Duke’ if they had the chance. Samantha Marshall is one of those women, and she is incensed by the turn of events. “What does Maggie think she’s on about? Ruddy bitch! The poor bloke didn’t do a damn thing wrong. It’s her slut daughter should be banned until she learns to keep her legs shut.” Samantha Marshall has a photo of the Duke as her iPhone backdrop.
“Margaret,” says the king, when they’re in bed later that night. “Why did you do that?” “Do what,” she replies.
“Banish the Duke, Margaret. You’re not William the Conqueror. You can’t just banish people.”
“It was upsetting Alex, having him around. She doesn’t need that right now.”
“Margaret,” he says, and he deeply inhales, the way he usually does before one of his snoring soliloquies. “We can’t react like this, like tabloid fodder. We have to hold our heads high. We’ve got to keep on keeping on.”
The queen scoffs and rolls onto her side. “Oh, fine. Listen to Michelle Miller, why don’t you.” And she goes to sleep.
“Let’s look at the list again,” says Princess Mary. The two sisters are lying in their childhood bedroom, the one that they shared before Alexandra hit puberty and was granted her own chambers. It is an untainted, holy space, rooted in a time before both princesses had independently had their first kisses with the Greek ambassador’s son. “There’s Edward.”
“It seems wrong to have two Edwards at once,” Alexandra says. “Richard?”
“Too ugly. And too white.”
“All of these names are too white. They’re royal British names.”
“Yes, well. William?”
“Possibly William.” She kisses the baby on his forehead. Then she says, “Mary.”
“Hmm? No, that won’t do at all–”
“No, Mary. Listen.” She meets her sister’s eyes and touches her hand. “I don’t know who the father is, Mary.”
The still-giggling baby starts to cry, his week-old emotions as flexible as his fleshy cheeks.
She presses him against her chest, and together they silently shake.
Mary fetches a piece of paper from her bag, and flings herself belly-down on the bed. “Time to make another list,” she grins.
On the other side of the palace, Margaret is sitting down to tea with the Duke of Albany. “So,” she says. “You’re back.”
“You invited me–”
“I’m aware.” She puts a cube of sugar in her tea. “But now you’re back. Understand?”
He eyes his cup and wonders if it’s poison, and then eyes the queen. “You sent me away.” “That was not productive.”
He rolls his eyes. “And what would be productive here?”
“You going back to Alexandra,” says the queen. He begins to protest, but she silences him with her eyes. “Just go back. All this drama is reflecting very poorly on us.”
“On you?” he laughs. “Sorry to hear that, Your Majesty, but don’t you think it’s reflecting rather poorly on me?” “I said us.” She smiles. “And you are one of us.”
“But I don’t want to be.”
She takes a sip of tea. “Well, it’s far too late for that.”
That night, while the baby is asleep in his nursery and Mary is out rendezvousing with the Greek ambassador’s son’s brother, the Duke pays a visit to a still-distraught Alexandra. Name lists are sprawled across her pink paisley childhood blankets, and she still hasn’t changed out of the dressing gown, which is stained with milk and spit-up.
“Alex,” he says. He’s standing in the doorframe, shoulders sagging, a bouquet in his hands. She jumps up and kisses him. After a moment, he kisses her back.
The princess has announced a name for the baby. It’s Edmund. Prince Edmund Arthur William. Just “Prince”– not “Prince of.” He should have been Prince Edmund of Albany, but, not being biologically descended from the Duke of Albany, that bit of peerage didn’t pass down.
Scholars all over the country are making King Lear jokes. Katherine Rigby, a professor of English at the University of St. Andrews, can’t believe no one picked up on that.
“Edmund? The bastard in Lear? Come on, it’s got to be the most famous–? No? Have none of you read Shakespeare?” “Evidently none of the royal family has,” says Joanna Ford, who’s currently playing Desdemona in Stratford-upon-Avon to terrible reviews.
“You know, it’s really an homage to Father,” Alexandra later tells The Guardian. “He’s Edward, and my son is Edmund. I didn’t want to have two Edwards, so I made the adjustment.”
“It should have been Edgar,” Katherine Rigby retorts, when she reads the interview. “He’s the good one in the play.” Of course, he also spends most of the play dressed as a beggar, pretending to be insane.
A man comes forward and claims to be Prince Edmund’s father. He’s a Nigerian medical student called Okoye Okafor, and was at Cambridge around the same time as the princess. He clinches a few daytime TV interviews and explains his relationship with Alexandra. “Well, you know, we didn’t know each other great, but we got along. We ran in the same circles, you know?”
This is good enough for the press. The gates to Buckingham Palace haven’t been this crowded since Edward’s coronation. “Is it true? Is it him?” they ask the palace guards, who stare, unsmiling, firmly into the distance.
Inside the palace, the queen sets down her teacup as furiously as one can possibly set down a teacup. “You’ve got to say something, Alexandra,” she demands. “This is getting out of hand.”
So the next day, the princess makes a live broadcast, and it becomes the second-most- watched Youtube video of all time– a clip of a puppy biting off a man’s speedo maintains the top spot. The camera zooms in on her, sitting in front of a palace window, wearing the yellow sundress and tiara that will become the go-to Halloween getup for would-be Alexandras. As the orchestral trumpets fade, she smiles at the camera, and begins to speak.
“I would like to apologise, from the bottom of my heart, to the British people for these events. I apologise to the many millions of you who watched my wedding and wished the Duke of Albany and me nothing but happiness in our days ahead. As you have seen, there has been some turbulence, but our marriage remains strong. It will survive my dalliance.
“I must, however, be firm about one thing. I do not apologise for my son, Prince Edmund. While it is true that his birth is proof of my sins, and while I ask for your forgiveness in that regard, he is still my child. He is a child of this nation. And I intend for him to succeed me, as the first-born child of a monarch must do.
“The Duke of Albany is a forgiving man, and I thank God for his patience. He has decided, from the goodness of his heart, that he will treat Edmund as a son, and we will raise him together. The identity of his biological father, however, is a private matter, and it will remain that way. I assure you that Edmund has indeed inherited centuries of royal blood. Already, at two weeks old, he has shown a strong ability to lead and think for himself. Why, yesterday he found himself hungry, and rather than cry he reached right up and unbuttoned my blouse!”
Even the Mothers for Heterosexual Unions laugh at this. Michelle Miller, watching from Number Ten Downing Street, accidentally snorts the sugar that she’s putting into her tea. Susan Williamson, a lifelong republican from Battersea, laughs out loud to her empty flat and shouts, “Finally! One of them’s got a sense of humour!”
There’s still a minute left in the speech: “Edmund, if I have any say, is second in line to the crown my father wears. It is my belief that Britain, the Commonwealth of Nations and the world will soon learn to love him as their own. I am blessed to be able to share him with you. By all rights, Edmund’s father is the Duke of Albany. His biological father is, and always will be, England. Thank you, and may God bless you all.”
It is hailed as the beginning of the modern monarchy.
Not everyone is enchanted by the princess’s speech. Pastor Fred Jackson, for example, has not given up on his attempts to dispossess the bastard prince. He starts a mildly popular movement called “White and Pleasant Land,” which leads to his arrest. This sparks a Parliamentary debate about hate speech, during which Baroness Macleod and Prime Minister Miller have a showdown which pundits call “the catfight of the century.”
It’s in the aftermath of this that Christine, the student from the London School of Economics, gets involved. She’s interning at Downing Street and manages to clinch a short meeting with the PM to talk about what she’s calling ‘The Full Circle Movement’– an obscure Lear reference that no one picks up on.
“And how, exactly,” says a careworn Michelle, whose eyes are developing cataracts, “do you think the government can help with this… movement?”
“Well, for the short term,” Christine says, and launches into a litany of clever but infeasible suggestions. Michelle smiles to herself. She remembers when she was this earnest about politics, and knows that it won’t last long.
But Christine takes the smile as encouragement, and goes on. “Then in the long term, and this is what I’m really excited about, I think we need an act of Parliament.” The girl is beaming, and the PM can’t bear to quash her spirits, so she nods. “A change in the law would put us closer to the modern England we all want, don’t you think? Marital legitimacy laws are outdated, there’s no reason to have them in the Britain of today.”
“Yes, it’s a good thought,” says Michelle, as she stands and shakes hands. “I’ll keep it on the books. Now back to work with you.”
Christine is galvanized by this, and immediately creates a Facebook event to bring together other supporters of the prince. She sends it out to her feminist group at school, and it spreads from there. Sixty-five people say they’re attending.
The Full Circle Movement meets up at the Victoria Memorial across from Buckingham Palace, where Christine is standing with a donation tray, a few blown-up photos from the prince’s christening, and a pizza. Sixty-five people don’t show up, but about thirty do.
Kenny Mubawe is there with his three-year-old, who’s almost four now and knows it. Kenny is eating pizza and chatting up Effie Agyeman, whose girls are on the stairs, playing with a Happy Meal toy.
Mrs Isadora Sampson of Number Eight Winston Street hears about the Full Circle Movement from her drag queen grandson, and takes a thirty-minute taxi ride to London to attend. She tips the driver an extra tenner and climbs the Memorial stairs carrying her seventieth birthday present: a large framed collage with photos of her grandson, printed from Instagram, and of Edmund, printed from Google. It usually sits above her fireplace, but she thought it might be useful, so she brought it with her to the rally. “How nice,” says Christine.
Okoye Okafor, the royal baby daddy pioneer, is busy with Celebrity Big Brother and doesn’t bother to turn up. Samantha Marshall does, though. Her Duke of Albany iPhone backdrop has been replaced with a shirtless pic of Okafor, and she came to London today in the hopes of meeting him. She hangs around in case he’s just fashionably late.
“Excuse me, everyone,” shouts Christine. She’s trying to sound professional, but it’s hard when you have to holler. “Could I have your attention?” Most people turn to look at her, but some (read: Samantha Marshall) continue to talk amongst themselves. “I’m going to come around with a tray for donations. I’m hoping to start a fund that will get us some publicity.”
Effie Agyeman is thrilled, and puts five pounds into the tray. “You see this, girls? You see this? We’re gonna change the goddamn law for this kid. I’d do that for you. Mummy’d do that for you.”
Mrs. Isadora Sampson puts in twenty pounds, and Samantha Marshall drops in two. “Thank you, everyone,” says Christine, as the money piles up. “I’m thinking we can maybe get a bus.”
Unbeknownst to everyone, Edmund’s father is at the rally, too. He stands in the back eating a bag of Walkers crisps (Chocolatey Onion and Cheese), and throws one hundred pounds into the donation tray on his way out.
Just across the street, inside Buckingham Palace, Alexandra is sitting down with the Duke of Albany to tell him the news: “I’m pregnant again.”
The Duke is thrilled. In the past few months, he’s been praised by the tabloids for treating Edmund like a son. The paparazzi have snapped shots of royal male bonding everywhere from the West End to Regent’s Park, where Guardian photographers caught him trying to teach the infant how to pronounce “sovereignty.” He’s put up a convincing façade, smiling for the cameras and relishing in faux fatherhood, but this new pregnancy makes him happier than Edmund ever could. This baby might fix their broken marriage. This baby will be his own.
Alexandra peeks through a palace window and sees the rally across the street. The people are tiny, but she recognises the photos that they’ve blown up. “Look, darling,” she says, “it’s Edmund.” She wipes a tear from her eye. “They do love him, you know.”
“I know,” says the Duke. He joins her at the window, and watches the group mill about the Victoria Memorial. He touches her stomach gently and smiles. “They’ll love this one, too.”
The unborn child that’s growing inside Alexandra will, in the end, supersede its brother as heir to the throne. Despite the best efforts of Christine and company, no law will be introduced. Michelle Miller will resign over the controversy, but the princess will never give up hope, not even when she becomes Queen. Then, one day, old, wrinkled and alone, she will pass away, and the crown will pass Prince Edmund by.
But no one knows that yet. For now, Alexandra is kissing the Duke, who’s suggesting they call the baby ‘Charlotte.’ Effie Agyeman is giving Kenny her mobile number, and Samantha Marshall is showing Mrs Sampson how to send a text. The queen is having tea, the king is greeting guests, and Princess Mary is fetching baby formula.
Edmund the prince is crying in his cradle, unaware that there’s a rally in his name happening just across the street, unaware that an entire kingdom has been watching him from the moment he first breathed, rooting for him, hating him, and everything in between, from the moment he first emerged from that drab hospital door.