Saturday, May 17, 2008

Trooping the Colour

Published 'Footsteps' 1996

The disturbance at the dead of night was the sound of a nose-bleed. And Donald was so ashamed of the fuss and bother, he decided to make it up to his wife and, on the spur of the moment, said:

"How about going up to see Trooping the Colour in London, today?" He smiled, automatically fingering his nose which had caused all the trouble, testing if it had renewed its flow.

"Trooping of the Colour? You're not usually interested in all that brass band stuff and pomp and circumstance..."

Mary was genuinely bewildered by Donald's suggestion following close on the heels of their sleepless night with his nose - especially since he rarely took her anywhere. She recalled the way she had needed to baby her husband, after he'd woken up covered with blood. In the heat of the moment, his whole face and head seemed drawn out into the shape of a nose, not unlike a horse's. Indeed, she had wanted a bit of calming down herself, after the initial shock, but soon realising it was merely a nose-bleed, if a bad one, allowed her quickly to regather her matronly forces, as she vanished downstairs to find a cold penny to drop down his back.

"Come on, Mary, a day up in London will do us both some good. Blow away the cobwebs. And you always like seeing the Queen..."

The last time she'd actually seen the Queen in the flesh was on her succession to the throne back in 1952 - and, even then, Mary had not expressed a view one way or the other. She rarely did. It'd been far too hot, she recalled. Everybody was sweltering, kids flaking out - and, yes, plenty of nose-bleeds. It was funny how thoughts could run in circles, especially the thoughts of someone as round as Mary.

"We don't even usually watch it on television, let alone traipsing all the way up there to see it properly."

That was her last word on the matter, as she went off to see if she could dredge up any more kitchen chores to keep her busy.

Donald shrugged. He didn't even know himself why he'd plumped on the Trooping the Colour for an unfamiliar trip out. Perhaps it was because he had accidentally watched Beating the Retreat on telly the evening before. Soldiers threading between each other in always resolvable ranks. The bands keeping time to the unnaturally fast marches. Just a smidgin short of goose-stepping. Quick-fire changes of routine. All for what? Mary's phrase about "pomp and circumstance" came back to his mind as uncharacteristic of her. Other words like "ritual" and "ceremonial" came to him against all the odds of his feeble vocabulary of thought. The plush flags with motifs betokening brave actions in history. Killing fields where they cultivated the cropped corpses of men and horses. The officious shouts echoing across Horseguards Parade. The rigid stands-to-attention, held for periods on end. The endemic patriotism of the Englishman. And, again, he had to ask. Why?

He gingerly touched his nose again. Not as if he regularly suffered from nose-bleeds. The last one was as a teenager. The sweet sickliness at the back of the throat. The fear of a body drained of its fluids.

Mary returned bearing two cups of coffee.

"Perhaps, we ought to go out," she said.

"To Trooping the Colour?"

"Yes, why not? What time shall we get a train?"

Donald looked at his watch and absentmindedly remembered a dream.

Dreams were often either recurrent or obsessive, dependent on the guilt the dreamer felt and whether the dream controlled the dreamer or vice versa. A particular dream of Donald's, however, was sired by Obsession, out of Recurrence. The dream depicted his act of waking up to discover sleeping beside him, not Mary, but the Queen. The most frightening part of the dream was not the fact that the Queen was actually there beside him but that she snorted.

The air was like dead meat. Indeed, far from blowing away their cobwebs, the humid atmosphere festooned Donald's and Mary's faces with sticky strands of its own, with not even a single spider in attendance. Mary fanned herself with a folded Sun, as the train trundled northward through South London. The desolate expanses of British Rail land was a junkyard of disused tracks, whilst the rusting rails were still on equidistant parade for potential use. All the sleepers were worm-holed, except, Mary hoped, for the ones which the train clattered above. The scrawny trees trooped brown and green, with tower-block sentries as intermittent backdrop.

"Perhaps, it wasn't such a good idea, after all," suggested Donald, as he looked away from the fleeting frames of a no-man's-land where people lived and with which he dreaded getting acquainted. Central London was at least an oasis, where strangers, being straightforward cosmopolitans, weren't as strange as those true strangers of the inner suburbs. The sooner he and Mary reached London Bridge Station, the better. The sooner they returned home, even better. Excursions were probably a necessary evil, Donald thought. However, the less that people went out of their homes, the less evil would necessarily be evil. People wouldn't mug, murder or maim each other, if they stayed at home, considered Donald, studiously forgetting the domestic variety of violence. Yes, he hadn't hit Mary for several years now, even thought he physically loathed the tufts of old-lady hair that were now sprouting in odd patches on her erstwhile youthful face and body.

"Makes a change," replied Mary to his earlier comment, with barely a pause for thought. Thoughts were not her forte. However, she hoped the railtracks held up as long as she was on them.

"Makes a change," echoed Donald.

Makes a change? What ever does she mean? Who wanted change, anyway. These days, even change itself had changed. The world could do with far less of change, to his mind. Routines were not half so bad as they were painted. Like Trooping the Colour. And the train passed the open goal of one end of Tower Bridge, temporarily closed to traffic, he assumed. Yes, he remembered. An initial study had reported that its girders were corroded and badly in need of repair. It had been originally built for horse-drawn traffic to cross the Thames. Come to think of it, only a few years ago, the Queen used to ride her own horse in the Trooping the Colour ceremony, side-saddle, with a stiff-brushed white feather standing up in her tunic hat. Now she was too old. The soldiers were more regimented in those days, too. More colourful, despite being seen by most of the population in television's black and white. No hint of governmental Defence cuts, then. Nowadays, the Queen was dragged behind another horse in a phaeton. Everything had a more burnished look in the Fifties, more spit-and-polish. Even trains were smarter. There had been a certain nobility in the blood. And no scandals.

London Bridge was bustling with visitors, many just idling at a loose end, some with intent on their faces, a few who decidedly had the air of being complete strangers, making Donald's hair prickle up on the back of his neck - and he saw at least one stranger who had more in common with an actual animal than a human being. Mary was oblivious to such concerns, wanting to sit down and have a hot drink. Yes, hot, despite the heat. Both Donald and Mary were dressed for cold weather. One of the few affectionately secret jokes of their marriage was Mary's hatred of the cold - on his behalf and well as her own. Indeed, they had not plucked up the courage to remove a few things, as had the cooler, if uglier, customers milling around them.

The question neither had yet asked themselves was why they had come to London Bridge Station. Victoria or Charing Cross would have been far more convenient, bearing in mind the venue of the ceremony they had come to see. And, here they were, looking for Bank tube, having eschewed the station nearer London Bridge for no accountable reason other than that the Northern Line was too deep for them. The Central or Circles Lines from Bank would be better, less claustrophobic, especially on a hot day, they thought. But they hadn't told each other the reason, in case the one laughed at the other's madness.

The truth, which neither could admit, was that they were lost. They ended up walking round St Paul's Cathedral in a rather desultory fashion. They returned home, without having the nerve to do anything else, nor even to partake of a tea and a fancy-cake. Neither mentioned to each other the original purpose of their trip to London, not even when they later saw the news and discovered that there'd been a terrorist bomb at the Trooping the Colour ceremony, which, thankfully, missed the Queen by a whisker, but had maimed one of the horses. That night, Donald dreamed that he was woken up in the dead of night by the sound of clattering upon the roof above their bedroom. Followed by snorting noises in the general direction of the skylight.

In the morning, Donald saw that the roof slates were covered in something black and evidently sticky. Some white tufted birds seemed to be in a parlous state as they tried to hop into the air from off it, only managing it at great cost to their plumage. The bits they left behind looked more like hair than feathers. Mary, who washed the pavement outside the house every morning, shine or showers, was quite aghast at this outrage. She looked accusingly at Donald.

"I'm sorry," said Donald. Which was exactly the right thing to have said. And they went indoors for a nice cup of tea. Mary's looks were similar to the Queen's, he had always thought. He squinted through a silver tea-strainer at her. She was the only person in the world who was least like a stranger. He later gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek. The first for many years. She smiled, as if she knew the cold times were over. Or simply the smile knew.

At least Donald arranged a funeral with a token of pomp and circumstance: a local rag-and-bones horse borrowed for the morning, with tail-feathers and coxcomb mane specially groomed - and a bright red nosebag to discourage its head snorting around for chance titbits on the way to the crematorium.

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