At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.
'Now that I have you to myself,' said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, 'I've been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.'
'Ah,' said the president. 'Oui.'
The 'Marseillaise' and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.
'Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,' and she took up her soup spoon, 'was he as good?'
Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
'Jean Genet,' said the Queen again, helpfully, 'Vous le connaissez?'
'Bien sűr,' said the president.
'Il m'intéresse,' said the Queen.
'Vraiment?' The president put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.
It was the dogs' fault. They were snobs and ordinarily, having been in the garden, would have gone up the front steps, where a footman generally opened them the door.
Today, though, for some reason they careered along the terrace, barking their heads off, and scampered down the steps again and round the end along the side of the house, where she could hear them yapping at something in one of the yards.
It was the City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors. This wasn't a part of the palace she saw much of, and she had certainly never seen the library parked there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise.
The driver was sitting with his back to her, sticking a label on a book, the only seeming borrower a thin ginger-haired boy in white overalls crouched in the aisle reading. Neither of them took any notice of the new arrival, so she coughed and said, 'I'm sorry about this awful racket,' whereupon the driver got up so suddenly he banged his head on the Reference section and the boy in the aisle scrambled to his feet and upset Photography & Fashion.
She put her head out of the door. 'Shut up this minute, you silly creatures,' which, as had been the move's intention, gave the driver/ librarian time to compose himself and the boy to pick up the books.
'One has never seen you here before, Mr . . .'
'Hutchings, Your Majesty. Every Wednesday, maam.'
'Really? I never knew that. Have you come far?'
'Only from Westminster, maam.'
'And you are . . .?'
'Norman, maam. Seakins.'
'And where do you work?'
'In the kitchen, maam.'
'Oh. Do you have much time for reading?'
'Not really, maam.'
'I'm the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.'
LRB 8 March 2007 | PDF Download