by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part II: The Royal Wedding
Chapter 4: Problems for Oliver Simpkin
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
When it was announced that Crown Prince Egbert of New Zephyria was to marry the Sleeping Beauty, there was great excitement. Kings and queens, emperors and empresses dukes and duchesses, grand dukes and grand duchesses, ruling princes and princesses, ex-kings and ex-queens, emperors in exile, presidents, prime ministers and prelates all dusted off their stateliest robes, polished up their jewels, and eyed with great satisfaction the gold-embossed invitations placed prominently on their mantlepieces.
The Archbishop ordered a complete refurbishment of the cathedral. Armies of cleaners scrubbed its stonework, polished its brasses, washed and ironed its altar-cloths. The panels of its ceiling were regilded, the shields above the canons' stalls were repainted, and the carved wooden pinnacles of the archiepiscopal throne were polished until they gleamed as bright as gold.
The streets of the capital were swept and scrubbed. Every house was cleaned, and many were repainted as neighbours vied with one another in loyal ostentation. Flags and bunting adorned every façade. Pictures of the royal couple were displayed in every window. Thousands of royal wedding mugs, royal wedding plates, royal wedding glasses, royal wedding spoons, royal wedding tee-shirts and royal wedding socks were sold. Sight-seers swarmed around gawping at the palace, taking photographs of its railings and of each other, and erupting into near hysterical cheering whenever anyone shouted that a face had appeared at one of the windows. Thousands of others flocked to the new princess's former home, some way outside town, and happily paid for admission to the room where she had lain so long asleep - under a fairy spell, it was said.
Her two stepsisters were only too willing to talk about her.
"The DEAR girl," Bulkomia would breathe, her considerable bosom heaving with emotion. "How we ADORED her as she lay there so PALE and UNMOVING ..."
"... pale and unmoving ..." Araxia repeated.
"... and how overJOYED we were when she was awakened by the Prince's kiss!"
"... the Prince's kiss ..." simpered Araxia.
Not a word of rebuke did Bulkomia utter to her irritating sister. The sound of shekels clinking into the cash register was music to her ears and balm to her soul.
"I do BELIEVE, Araxia," she observed when they were alone, "that we are making more money now than ever we did when Cinderella was here. We shall be RICH! We shall be positively ROLLING in money. We'll paper the parlour in £1,000-notes!"
"And then," quavered Araxia, "When all this dreadful excitement is over, we can devote ourselves to being ourselves, as dear Dr Pimple said, to ..."
"Of course, of course. But THINK what we've earned already! Think how much MORE we're going to earn!"
"... to make our lives works of the highest art ..."
"The FOREIGN tourists have hardly STARTED coming!"
"... aesthetic creations of stunning proportions ..."
"I wonder how much we could charge for allowing television cameras in."
"... so that the whole of mankind will contemplate us in bewildered ..."
"Oh do be QUIET, Araxia!"
* * * * *
Foreign tourists flocked to the capital like sheep to the shearers. Every hotel, motel and guest house was packed full to the doors. Bed and breakfast was offered by loyal citizens with spare rooms and eagerly snapped up by Volturnians, Eurusians, Aquilians and Kaikasians - and not just in the capital itself but for many miles around. Each day the eager sightseers left their lodgings to surge around the streets taking photographs and filling their bags and baskets with gifts for the folks back home: royal wedding table-mats and bookmarks, royal wedding diaries and toasting-forks, royal wedding tea-towels and tea-caddies, teapots and tea-cosies, egg-cups and egg-cosies, handkerchiefs and headscarves, mittens and muffs.
Mountains of mail were posted each day, post cards by the thousand, with pictures of the mountains and lakes of beautiful New Zephyria, the fine buildings of its capital city, the colleges of its ancient university, the royal parks and palaces, and - most popular of all - the royal bride and groom. And every one was adorned with a special royal wedding stamp.
The Postmaster General rubbed his hands with glee. "The Post Office is making a fortune," he said.
"Tourism is booming!" cried the Minister of Tourism.
"The Exchequer is filled to overflowing," gloated the Chancellor.
"Excellent! Excellent!" murmured the Prime Minister. "I must admit, Your Majesty, that I was doubtful whether we could afford the expense of a royal wedding, but we're making so much money out of the people who have come to see it that it's a pity we can't have one every year."
"There will be Royal Babies to christen soon, I expect," said the Home Secretary.
"Not quite in the same class," the Minister of Tourism muttered. "Now a coronation ..."
"Hem-hem-hem-hem," coughed the Prime Minister.
"Well, I'm glad you're all enjoyin' it," said the King. "I know Liz is, but I'm not gettin' any time for m' gardenin' or m' stamp collection - and as for droppin' dead just so you can all have another beano at m' son's coronation - well you can forget that!"
"Two beanos," whispered the Minister of Tourism. "The old boy's forgotten about his funeral."
"Luckily for him the King did not hear.
* * * * *
Of course the grandest hotels and the spare palaces were reserved for King Arthur's fellow heads of state, and, despite the Chancellor's wishful thinking and sidelong glances, they were treated as guests and not expected to pay.
The King had put his Private Secretary in charge of the arrangements for all royal and presidential visitors. This secretary, whose name was Oliver Simpkin, was famous throughout the land for his memory. When he was quite a young man he won the well-known radio quiz for boffins, Brain of New Zephyria (or BONZ). Then after that he was Bonz of Bonzes three years running - until they asked him to stop entering. The trouble was, he remembered everything he had ever heard or read, and knew the answer to every question. His memory was as infallible as that of the fabulous Oliphaunt, the great grey beast with the prehensile snout of which the brothers Jolly tell in their fairy tales. The other competitors had no chance against him, and the question masters were reduced to despair. Finally they elected him Master-Bonz of New Zephyria and asked him to set the competitions instead of entering them, and King Arthur, who was very impressed by his prodigious memory, invited him to be his Private Secretary.
Since then the King had never missed or even been late for an appointment. He had sent birthday greetings to every other monarch in the world to arrive exactly on time. And every centenarian in the Kingdom had received the royal telegram on his or her hundredth birthday, without a single one being missed. It was all thanks to his Private Secretary: Oliver Simpkin never forgot.
No-one else could be trusted with the seating arrangements for the wedding ceremony and banquet, because no-one else could remember just who was friendly with whom, and who still, beneath the polished surface of courtly diplomacy, bore a grudge about something that had happened three or four hundred years earlier. It was all very difficult. The Emperors of Borania and Skironia were neighbours and allies, but they could not be seated next to each other in case one of them happened in idle conversation to mention the celebrated incident when some Skironian frontier guards displayed their bare bottoms to a passing Boranian Grand Duchess. That started the First War of the Buttocks which lasted for forty-nine years. The Second, Third and Fourth Wars of the Buttocks all started when one of the Emperors mentioned the First War to the other and started the quarrel all over again. It might even be safer to seat the President of Aquilia next to either of the Emperors, even though he was the deadly enemy of both. With a bit of luck Emperor and President might not speak to each other at all.
The Grand Mogul of Argestia could not sit near the Emperors because his land touched the borders of both their empires and he might remember the War of the Mountain Passes or the Battle of the Great River. The rulers of the petty duchies of Skiro-Argestia hated each other so much they might start fighting in the cathedral itself. The Kings of Volturnia, Eurusia, Apeliota, Subsolania and Kaikasia might be seated with any of the Skiro-Argestians, but they had many quarrels of their own. Only Old Zephyria was popular with everyone - but no-one knew what might happen if Queen Edna's tongue ran away with her. It was no wonder that Oliver Simpkin's brow was furrowed as he puzzled over the seating arrangements and called to mind every incident and quarrel in the history of every country under the sun.
The President of Aquilia, he recalled, could not be seated next to the Emperor of Borania, because he had taken up a new hobby: collecting, and (unfortunately) telling, Boranian jokes.
"Of course I believe there's freedom in Borania," he had said to the Boranian Foreign Minister. "Lemme tell you a story to prove it. An Aquilian once said to a Boranian, I can prove we're freer in my country than you are. Why, I could stand outside the President's palace and yell Down with the President of Aquilia! and I wouldn't be punished for it. - So what? said the Boranian. We are just as free. I could stand outside the Palace of the Emperor of Borania and shout Down with the President of Aquilia! and I wouldn't be punished either! - Huh-huh-huh, good joke, eh?"
The Boranian Foreign Minister was not amused, nor was the Emperor when he heard the story. The Boranian Ministry of Propaganda was ordered to make up an Aquilian joke. Long and mightily they laboured, and this was what they produced.
"The President of Aquilia loved to go riding on horseback with his wife, and, because he thought he was the greatest horseman in the world, he insisted on riding a half-wild stallion. Whenever it could it would buck and rear and try to throw him off. It was so bad that he called it Dire. His wife had a nice quiet little horse that she called Tim. It was sweet and gentle, but it did have one failing: whenever it saw another horse behaving badly it just had to join in. - So, whenever it saw Dire rear, Tim bucked too."
"I don't understand it!" snapped the Emperor.
"It's a play on words, Your Imperial Majesty, may You live forever," whined the Minister of Propaganda. He explained the lavatorial humour of the pun on diarrhoea and reminded his Imperial master of the fabulous city of Timbuctoo that was supposed to lie in a mythical continent called Africa.
"I understand it," snarled the Emperor, "but it's not funny. The new Minister of Propaganda had better do better!"
Oliver Simpkin sighed impatiently as he remembered the reports.
"Perhaps," he thought, "I might seat the Caliph of Simoom next to the Boranian prince, or possible the Khedive of Khamsin."
The Emperor of Borania had decided not to attend the wedding himself. Instead he sent his eldest son, Prince Boris, who was called Boris the Bear. Since he seemed to be proud of the title and to take it as a compliment to his bravery rather than a rude comment on his stoutness and his short, fat legs, he and his retinue were lodged in the Bear Hotel.
It was not long before Prince Boris of Borania announced his intention of calling at the Royal Palace. King Arthur at once sent for Oliver Simpkin, but the Secretary could not be found. He had retreated to an empty cellar beneath the west wing, locked himself in, and all the hustle and bustle out, and set to work on his seating plans in peace. At that very moment he was kneeling on the dusty floor and spreading around him dozens and dozens of little cards, each of which bore the name of a country and its ruler.
The Archduke of Föhn, the Sultan of Sirocco, the Khedive of Khamsin and the Thesmothete of Etesia might all sit among the great powers without causing an international incident, but what was he to do with the Dictator of Leste? Distrusted even by his closest allies and reviled by half the world as a "mad dog", the Dictator would almost certainly insist on sleeping in a tent instead of a hotel, and in taking offense if any of the guests were served food that he had declared unclean.
Wearily Oliver Simpkin began to reshuffle his cards.
* * * * *
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