A Buffoon From Essex

The last thing the dying queen wished to see before she took her final breath were the writings of a stranger. Her children gathered about the bed, hands clasped, heads bent, each looking on, thinking of something to say or do, something that might distract themselves or the failing matriarch as her eyes searched the room; perhaps an amusing anecdote or update on an absent family member, ‘on their way’. The eldest would lean to his mother’s ear and—‘Can I do anything for you, mum, anything?’ She will push all effort into a limp answer that cannot be made out. The children, now into late adulthood themselves, lean in, getting closer to her dry lips that move in glasspaper utterances. At a loss, her daughter urges the youngest-son to run and get the court jester, quickly. He flees the room, summoning a performance of haste, and calls forth the court jester. On a mobile phone just out of earshot—‘Now!’ he says, feeling proud of the assertion and urgency in his tone.
    Twenty-six minutes later, the court jester pounds into the room, adjusting his hat and laughing nervously, somewhat terrified at the mood of his audience. This will be an uphill struggle, he thinks. He wishes everyone a good morning and clears his throat, thinking through his entire life in a second that he might remember any jokes about a hospital or hospital food. ‘I was just down in the hospital waiting room and there was this man with a hippo, a hippopotamus, and the hippo…potamus is holding his balls, and—’ The middle-son smacks the court jester across his cheek—‘Not that one!’ The queen frowns; although none are quite sure of the cause; the jester insists it because she wanted to hear the joke; the middle-son because it was inappropriate. ‘Okay,’ he begins again—‘I was on a date with this nurse last night and she was holding my balls, and—’ The middle-son smacks him across the other cheek—‘Not that one, either!’
    The jester is dismissed and told he will not be financially compensated for his cab fare.
    In another moment, the dying queen’s prime minister enters the room, followed by a doctor who is surreptitiously attempting to adjust their underwear without her royal highness seeing. The prime minister stutters solidly for forty-two seconds without uttering a single complete word. The doctor smacks him across both cheeks. The dying queen groans with such force that her delicate chest appears to fall beneath the loose bedsheets.
    The youngest-son summons a stripper into the hospital room. Everyone watches as she sets up a speaker system and puts on a pop song from the year she graduated university. She begins to dance. The five royals and doctor observe the performance, and the daughter, a princess, asks loudly—‘Where did you get those knickers?’ The stripper finishes but none of the five royals or doctor applaud her. The youngest-son, a prince, apologises to everyone present, for he is embarrassed by association—‘She must not be ovulating!’ and the stripper, too, is hurried out of the room.
    ‘Can I do anything for you, mum, anything?’ But, still, she cannot be heard.
    ‘Ask her again,’ says the doctor, putting the stethoscope over her mouth.
    ‘Please, mum, what is your dying wish? What can we do for you? Anything?!’ He is almost weeping; trying to, but not quite.
    The dying queen, with a stethoscope over her dying mouth, says—‘Get me The Evening Party… I want to read The Evening Party.’ The doctor holds aloft their stethoscope and exclaims—‘She said—“Get me The Evening Party. I want to read The Evening Party!’”’ The doctor then pauses and thinks for a moment—‘What’s The Evening Party?’
    The eldest-son—‘It’s the blog of this uncouth buffoon from Essex!’
    ‘Ghastly! I hate him! So dumb!’ says the youngest-son.
    ‘I heard he hit a prostitute!’ says the daughter.
    ‘I think he’s one of the most talentless scoundrels to ever shit between two legs!’ says the middle-son.
    ‘Now that you mention it, I’m pretty sure he’s the bastard who owes me a cup of coffee!’ says the doctor.
    The dying queen mumbled something once more – or tried to – and all of them paid close attention, among the shifting beeps and humming, the sounds of an open window, but could not hear her royal highness. The doctor grinned smugly and put the stethoscope over her dying mouth again, then repeated what she had said—‘”Will one of you please get me The Evening Party?!”’
    The eldest son motioned again for the youngest to fetch their mother’s tablet. He returned, halfway through apologising to the opponents of his mother’s seven unfinished games of Words With Friends. ‘Sorry, G2G. Dying. Long live the queen. God save the queen. GG. HRH.’
    The youngest-son shoved his three siblings and the doctor aside, opened the web browser and loaded up The Evening Party, the writings of a stranger, some buffoon from Essex who owed the doctor a coffee.
    As the youngest-son held the tablet twelve inches from the dying queen’s face, she read and grinned, her eyes moving from side to side. She was truly happy and ready to go. As she finished his latest piece, which she had already read thrice previous, she beamed peacefully and exhaled her last exhalation after a lifetime of exhaling.
    At that exact moment, the author of The Evening Party was stirring himself awake on the train to work; waking not because he wanted to be woken, but because there was the alarm of a rickety carriage steadying itself into platform thirteen, a sequence of motions memorised by his bones and slumber. It rumbled him awake. He moved, dodging across the station’s large concourse, cursing as he went. For the first time, and with a palpable excitement, he entered a new tunnel from Liverpool Street down to the Elizabeth Line, deep into the earth, and although he walked left with sleepy unsteadiness down the escalator, he stared up in poorly concealed joy at the cavernous tunnels that opened up before him. Before it had been nothing by fermenting London earth, but now it was a route to a whole new network of trains, the idea of which excited him considerably. He moved briskly, shimmying others out of the way until he came upon a freshsmelling tunnel drilled into soil he had coursed over many times before.
    He stood the one stop to Whitechapel, tearing through its innards of the city out east, remembering, for instance, when he did not live so far away, and the memories pinned there of love, then of drunken stumbles home, of the dripping brutal east London concrete. To move east when everybody moves west is something else, and it befell him entirely. He was leisure. The author of The Evening Party, a stranger to the queen, some buffoon from Essex, paused multiple times – still half an hour before the meeting – to look around, to peer, and appreciate in the same manner one might fixate upon the second-hand of a clock when they have nothing else to do.
    On the overground was a Spanish couple. They slouched there with bulbous luggage, fit to burst. One of the bags had a leather tag that read—HANDS OFF! THIS IS MINE!’ The man thumbed his phone. The woman pulled faces, exercising the muscles around her mouth. At times, our author believed she was staring at him, but she would never do such a thing; no, she focused on the linoleum lines of the car’s floor. He alighted at Wapping and climbed the winding stairs up to street level. When he emerged, he thought of a life long ago, and how deep, how thick the line had been drawn underneath it. Between the buildings, he had sought to spot the single window of his old apartment. It evaded, shrouded by the shoulders of other blocks.
    In a café outside of the station, a friendly Australian asked him his order with ‘Hello’ and this grey stillness beyond the window.
    Because he was still early to the meeting, he took the coffee and meandered to where he needed to be. An adjacent Italian restaurant was in darkness. The tables, chairs and cloths floated there like spectres for dust. A handsome man arrived and swivelled a key in the lock. He entered into it. There was a whiff of varnish and olive oil.
    On the ground floor of the warehouse-turned-office building, the stranger spelled out his name to the lady there. The freckles of her summer were swiftly disappearing. ‘Please take a seat and someone will come to take you up.’
    ‘Can I go out there?’ he asked, pointing to the rear, where the Thames could be seen to bulge and swell. It was brown and never slept. She said that he could. When he walked there, onto the terrace with its table and absence, he lifted his arms as the river’s wind blew across him. A lone gull could be seen, flying over the surface of the water without beating its wings. A boat churned upstream.