Queen Elizabeth II visits the tiny Caribbean island of Petite Guadeloupe to open a new radiology wing, but there’s a problem; by Peter Marsh.
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The day the Queen came, it rained.
It began to rain just after the red carpet had been laid on the jetty. It paused for a while as Her Majesty and her entourage alighted from the Royal Yacht Britannia, a brief but powerful burst of tropical sunshine raising a steamy haze from the squelching red carpet as she stepped ashore. Then it rained resolutely on until sunset.
Some blamed the choir.
I watched the Royal Arrival through binoculars from Poinsettia Point, where Lance and Trish Meddling had invited me to spend the night before the great day. Trish was anxious about the choir. Lance was anxious about the Queen Elizabeth II Radiology Wing or, more precisely, about the X-ray machine it purported to house. They probably thought that the presence of a third party about the house would keep these anxieties in harness. They both had important performances ahead of them, and could not afford to blow any emotional gaskets.
Trish had switched on the radio, tuned to the local station, on which a live commentary was being broadcast.
“Her Majesty the Queen is now pausin’ on the jetty of Falmouth, here in Petite Guadeloupe,” commentated Fidel Smith-Mackintosh, an erstwhile student of mine, “prior to bein’ driven to the island hospital, where she will be opening the new medical facility, named in her honour. Right nex’ to me, I have the Chief Medical Officer of Petite Guadeloupe, Dr Rahul Chandrasekhar, better known locally as ‘Dr Jab’. Dr Jab, can you tell us what this new wing will mean for a small Caribbean island like Petite Guadeloupe?”
Through the binoculars, I could just make out the debonair Fidel Smith-Mackintosh proffering the microphone towards the dumpy figure of Dr Jab.
“What will it mean?” said Dr Jab’s voice. “I tell you what it will mean, Fidel. It will mean a very very great deal – in fact, a whole new concept in medical care for the four thousand souls who dwell here in Petite Guadeloupe. That is what it will mean, and nothing less than that, I can assure you.”
“Boy, can that guy bullshit,” said Lance. Trish hushed him.
“Sure, Doc,” said Fidel. “The listeners may like to hear an example jus’ how this new facility will actually affec’ the people here.”
“You want an example? Well, I will give you an example. Here is my example: now that Petite Guadeloupe has a radiology unit of its own, there need be, for example, no more bumpy rides on the mail boat for patients with, let us say, for instance, suspected fractures…”
Fidel interrupted him: “Sorry to cut in, Dr Jab, but some listeners may be wondering what this radiology unit actually is.”
“Like you, for instance,” said Lance.
“Can it, Lance!” snapped Trish.
“…is where we take X-ray photographs,” Jab was explaining. “We are very very happy to have received from the government of Great Britain a gift of an X-ray machine and we can assure the Queen today that we will be putting it to very very good use…”
“What a joke,” said Lance. Trish tweaked up the volume.
Fidel had cut in again: “And I believe not just Britain, but America too has been involved in this projec’. Can you tell us something about that?”
“Certainly I can, Fidel. I will tell you how America is involved. You see, an X-ray machine on its own does not make a radiology unit. Not at all. On top of the machine, you need two more things. By that I mean one more thing and one person, if I may be truly precise about it. And these are what the United States of America are providing us with.”
“So tell us, Dr Jab…” began Fidel. I saw Dr Jab snatch back the microphone.
“Sorry. Most generously providing us with,” he corrected himself.
“Absolutely. So tell us, Dr Jab, what are these extra things – this thing and this person – that the United States have provided?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Fidel. The thing is the building in which to house the new machine, and the person is the person to operate it. You see, we can’t just leave a machine like this out in the rain, as it were…”
“Careful, Jab,” growled Lance.
“…and we can’t have any Thomas, Richard or Henry operating it, if you take my meaning. We need what is called a trained radiographer, and that is just what we will be getting. We are very very fortunate to have on the island Dr Lance Meddling, of Project Dole…”
“Yes. Let me spell that out for you. That’s D-O-L-E. And it stands for Development Opportunities for… let me try to remember this…”
” ‘Through Local Expertise’,” prompted Lance.
“…for People Everywhere, or something of that sort…” Jab went on.
” ‘Dope’. Great,” drawled Lance.
“And this Dr Meddling, is he your trained radiographer?”
“No, Fidel. That is not what I was about to say at all. But he has selected one of our local people, a young lady of Petite Guadeloupe by the name of Matilda Clouden – a very very bright girl indeed – and she has been sent to attend a most rigorous course in the United States of America. Matilda will be returning shortly to take up the key position of Island Radiographer.”
“For about two days,” said Lance.
“Wow!” said Fidel. “An island radiographer for Petite Guadeloupe! So it seems like Petite Guadeloupe will be pretty well self-sufficient for this kind of service in the future.”
“We hope so, Fidel, we certainly hope so.”
“Thank you, Dr Jab. Well, now Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is bein’ led to the official car, which will convey her to the hospital on the top of the hill here in Petite Guadeloupe. The rain is startin’ to fall again, and all around me the umbrellas are goin’ up…”
Lance switched the radio off. “We’d better get ourselves up to the hospital, and get this piece of mummery over with.”
“Lance. Will you give me a break?” said Trish, turning round in the doorway and raising her arms to bar his exit. “You’re not the only person on display today. I’ve got my choir to think about, and if you’re all set to demoralise them, I’m going to ask you to stay right here at home.”
Lance tried to push past her. “Come on, honey. We need to go.”
“I’m serious, Lance.” Trish continued to bar the way. “I can do the job a whole lot better without you.”
Lance paused for a moment, then reached out and pinched Trish’s cheek. “Get me up there, and I’ll be the perfect diplomat,” he said.
“I promise. If you’ll let me come.”
Trish weighed Lance’s offer, then dropped her arms to her sides. “OK. Let’s go, then. They’ll be setting up the receiving line.”
Lance knew as well as I did that Trish’s threat was not in earnest. He was her only bass.
The Petite Guadeloupe Choral Society had been the indirect result of the résumé Trish had given to Ron, the principal, when she joined the staff of the island’s only secondary school. With a commendable commitment to the whole truth, she had chronicled just about everything she had ever done since her conception. Noting that this included a college course entitled “Voice 101”, Ron had appointed her to teach music twice a week to Form One. And this was how Trish had discovered just how far a little learning goes in a place where everyone else has even less. Encouraged, she had gone on to form the Choral Society, as a means of sharing with adults the expertise she had never before suspected herself of possessing. The choir, consisting of twelve women and three men, had taken the local world by storm and, together with the Lozère Cross Steel Band, had become something of an island showpiece. At Christmas, they had mounted a joint concert in Falmouth Town Square, at which Graham Jeffreys of the British High Commission in St Nicks had happened to be present. So impressed was the Resident Representative with Trish’s mixed programme of Christmas carols, songs from the shows, and classic calypsos, that he had invited her and the steel band to provide the entertainment for the Royal Visit.
Trish’s initial enthusiasm had matured into apprehension and, as the big day drew nearer, she had become increasingly aware that, anywhere other than Petite Guadeloupe, neither she nor her singers would have come within a royal mile of making a Royal Command Performance.
“What did you guys think of the rehearsal last night?” asked Trish, as Lance steered the Pajero through the driving rain up the winding back road to the hospital.
“It went very well,” I said.
“It sure went a whole lot better than the rehearsal for the Christmas show,” said Lance.
“Thank you so much, Lance, for reminding me of that,” said Trish.
The final rehearsal for the Christmas show had come to an abrupt end two minutes after it had started when rumours of an impending hurricane had spread among the choristers. Hurricane Sylvia of 1954 had left a lasting impression in the collective memory of the islanders, and Trish had found her choir suddenly depleted to one bass and one tenor, while all around us the island night grew resonant with the arrhythmic clatter of plywood boards being nailed over windows.
“Sure I’ll remind you of it,” said Lance. “It showed we can do great even without rehearsing.”
“That wasn’t for the Queen of England,” said Trish.
“Trish. Everything is going to be fine.”
“Of course it is,” I agreed.
I could tell from the ensuing silence that the reference to the Christmas dress rehearsal had returned Lance’s thoughts to the ill-starred X-ray machine.
It was Graham Jeffreys who had somehow or other arranged for the machine to be donated to the Petite Guadeloupe hospital. Lance had protested, quite realistically, that they had nowhere to put it and nobody to operate it, but the Resident Representative, working to some agenda of his own, had ploughed resolutely ahead and, in due course, a huge wooden packing case labelled “MEDICAL APPARATUS – WITH CARE” had been offloaded at Falmouth jetty. The case had been taken up to the grounds of the hospital, where it had remained for several months while Lance entered into negotiations with his employer, Project Dole, for the money to build a hut for it, and to retrain one of the hospital auxiliaries to operate it – negotiations which had borne fruit just before the aborted dress rehearsal for the Christmas concert.
I remember the timing of these events very clearly, because it was on the way home from that rehearsal – the Meddlings had offered me a lift as, in partial fulfilment of the hurricane alert, it had started to rain very hard – that Lance suddenly slammed on the brakes, yanked the transmission into reverse, and swung his headlamps towards a small house he must have noticed out of the corner of his eye as we passed it. It was the boards nailed over the windows that had seized his attention. They bore the inverted legend: “MEDICAL APPARATUS – WITH CARE”.
“I can’t believe this,” he said to himself, as we all stared at the boards. “I just can’t believe it.”
Without another word, he drove at top speed to the hospital. There, rolled over in the mud and exposed to the lashing rain, lay the brand new X-ray machine.
It was Trish who had broken the stunned silence: “Perhaps it will still work if you dry it,” she had said.
“Well, I ain’t planning to be near that thing when someone throws the switch,” said Lance. “Goddamned fools. They wreck a million-dollar machine for the sake of a few lousy boards.”
“Lance. You don’t know it’s wrecked,” protested Trish.
“I’m sorry. I’m very sorry, but I’ve tried to be broad-minded. I’ve tried to be sympathetic to these children of nature. This does it for me. You just can’t help these people.”
Never would there come a better opportunity for me to turn my cultural orientation training to good effect. “You’ve got to see it from their point of view,” I said. “They’re protecting what’s of most value to them – their homes. That machine was an unsolicited gift. They probably didn’t even know what it was. They saw a set of boards abandoned, and they made good use of them. Correctly viewed, what we’re seeing here is responsible, rational behaviour.”
Lance drew breath, with his eyes closed. “You sure suffer goddamned fools more gladly than I ever will.”
He never had got over the wreckage of the X-ray machine. It was understandable, as he had already wasted hours of his own time in persuading Dole to donate the funds to support it. The building plans and training programme being by this time set irrevocably in motion, an unrepeatable allocation of funds was to be wasted too.
Now here we were, once again driving through the rain to the hospital, to take part in a pantomime of a hand-over ceremony.
“I can’t get over what that guy Jab was saying on the radio,” said Lance.
“He was just being diplomatic, Lance,” said Trish. “Like you’ll have to be when she talks to you.”
“I’ll be diplomatic, sure, but I’m not going to lie like that fellow did. That kind of trickery turns my stomach. Island Radiographer! You know what Jab told me about the training programme? He said it would allow Matilda to get a better job in the USA. Christ – do you think we’re training these people up to take jobs away from our own people, or what?”
“It’s realistic, though.” I said. “People with professional training don’t stay here long. Along comes the chance, and off they go. Matilda wouldn’t be here for long, even if she had a machine to operate.”
Lance parked as close as he could to the awning that had been stretched in front of the main door of the hospital. Trish and I dashed for shelter while Lance walked across to the newly built lean-to extension, most of whose available wall space was covered with “Queen Elizabeth II Radiology Wing” in freshly stencilled red gloss paint. The door was open, and a red ribbon was stretched across the threshold. A large pair of scissors, with the price label still on them, hung from the ribbon. Lance was looking into the new room, when he was accosted by Hezron Godley, the car repairer. The rain was making such a din on the awning, I had to move quite close in order to hear what Godley was saying.
“I ain’ really invited, you know, Docta Meddlin’, but I feelin’ I ‘ad me part to play, so I commin’ by jus’ in case I gettin’ the opportunity o’ meetin’ the Queen.”
“We do appreciate your fine work, Mr Godley, so don’t take offence that we haven’t been able to include you in the receiving line.”
“Not that I questionin’, Docta Meddlin’.” Godley sounded crestfallen. “I jus’ wonderin’ why the builder gettin’ include an’ not me, when I fixin’ up the machine so good. See.” He gestured inside the hut. “I smooth out all the dents, an’ I spray over the rust so you ain’ seein’ it at all at all.”
“You sure did a very fine job, Mr Godley.”
“I even take off the knob, like you tell me, so they ain’ gettin’ paint.”
“I appreciate all your care, Mr Godley, but I’m afraid this is just not the right occasion to recognise your contribution.”
“An’ so many people here who ain’ contribute not’in’.” Godley sniffed, and walked dejectedly away through the rain.
He had a point. Dennis and Gertrude Churchill, the island’s plantocracy, were there. Long-term expatriate retirees Percy and Edith MacSkinner were there. Mr Benjamin from the supermarket, and Festus the excise man were there. Father Gabriel and Father O’Malley were there. Dr Jab, and the entire staff of the hospital were there. A photographer from the St Nicks Inquirer was there, as well as Fidel Smith-Mackintosh of Radio St Nicks. And, of course, the Petite Guadeloupe Choral Society, and the Lozère Cross Steel Band were there. We were quite a sizeable crowd to be huddled under a metre-wide awning. There was barely space for the plates of canapés to pass between us.
“Where are the honoured guests?” asked Trish, as Lance returned from his inspection of the new wing.
“I guess still inside the hospital, meeting the patients,” he replied. “We’ll be next.”
One of the secretaries from the High Commission, armed with a typewritten list on a clipboard, was trying to organise the people into a line. “Principal of Toussaint College?” she was calling.
“Not here,” I called back; Ron, the ultimate recluse, would sooner be buried alive than attend a royal garden party.
She struck his name out and continued down the list. “Dennis Churchill?”
Churchill shuffled into the line.
“Don’t tell her, but I am here,” said a voice in my ear.
“Ron! What the heck are you doing here?”
“They invited me. I didn’t want to come but, well, I guess there’s only one Queen Elizabeth. The second.”
“Tell them you’re here, or you’ll lose your place,” urged Trish.
“No. I ain’t standing in line now. I’ll leave it to the last minute.” He gestured towards his trousers. “Look at that. As a special effort for Queen Elizabeth, I had the girls across the street press them, and see what they did?”
Ron’s neighbours must have possessed either a radical sense of fashion or a knavish sense of humour. The impeccable creases they had ironed into his trousers were unorthodoxly positioned to the left and right side of each leg. The new creases, combined with the remnants of the conventional fore-and-aft ones, gave Ron’s legs an eye-catching box-section look.
“I didn’t even notice until Churchill’s wife there got a fit of the giggles.”
The trousers were beginning to have the same effect on Trish.
“Just stand in front of me, OK?” said Ron. He was holding me by both shoulders. “I don’t want to be no laughing stock.”
“Relax, Ron,” said Trish, briefly composing herself. “People wear all kinds of things these days.”
“Well, I ain’t people,” said Ron.
The secretary called my name, and I joined the line, to the left of Dr Jab. Lance was called next, and took his place next to me. After him came Mistress Lawrence, the hospital matron, and after her, the MacSkinners, followed by Trish.
The royal party, steered by Graham Jeffreys, emerged from the hospital, and a hush descended on the company. Ron discreetly took up a position behind Dennis Churchill’s right shoulder. I tried to recall the main points in the briefing I had received by last week’s mail from the High Commission. Touch the Queen’s hand lightly when she offers it – don’t squeeze it or shake it vigorously. Call her ‘Mam’ (not Ma’am!) and him ‘Sir’. Answer their questions briefly, and ask none in return. And, above all, be blandly positive about everything.
The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh began to progress, in that order, along the line, from my right to my left, Graham Jeffreys sidling along behind them with the clipboard, presumably in order to tell them who they were talking to. Since Ron had inserted himself upstream from me, it struck me that my name would now be out of register, Dr Jab becoming me, and I, Lance Meddling. We were all intensely eager to show ourselves to our best advantage yet, I found myself wondering, would it really make any difference if each of us was presented as somebody else? Given the quintessentially stilted, ritualistic nature of the proceedings, I doubted it. To the visitors we were supposed to esteem so highly, we were no more differentiated than a row of nine-pins.
The Queen’s voice being softer than the Duke’s, and the rain continuing to drum mercilessly on the awning, I could make out only his questions – “What do you do on the island?” and “Do you like it here?” – repeated in slow crescendo, with the barest minimum of variation, as he advanced along the line. Not until the Queen reached Dr Jab did I get any indication of what questions to expect from her.
“How long have you worked here?” she asked him.
I earnestly hoped that Jab had noted the instruction about answering briefly.
“I have been working here on Petite Guadeloupe for nineteen wonderful years, Ma’am,” he replied.
“This must be a second home to you by now.”
“Petite Guadeloupe is my only home, Ma’am, and no doubt about that. You may not know this, Ma’am, but when you have lived in a place for nineteen…”
Mr Jeffreys raised a halting hand, and Jab shuddered to a stop.
“Peter Nash, from the UK, science teacher,” said Mr Jeffreys, as the party shifted one more notch along the line. Ron must have been absorbed after all without disturbing the even tenor of the proceedings.
I touched the Royal Glove, as the Queen, for the ninth time that afternoon, asked, “How long have you worked here?”
“Two years and seven months, Mam.”
“And when are you returning to Britain?”
I had not expected this, and it was a tough one. Leaving Britain was by far the best thing I had ever done, and I resented the assumption that the soggy old place exerted some sort of elastic pull on its passport holders. But, blandly positive about everything, remember.
“As soon as I have completed my time here,” I replied.
Either satisfied or indifferent, the Queen moved aside again. “Lance Meddling, Project Dole,” announced Mr Jeffreys, as the Duke of Edinburgh treated me to the Royal Handshake.
“What do you do in Petite Guadeloupe?”
“I teach Science and Maths, sir.”
“And how do you like it here?”
“Very much, sir.”
Prince Philip moved on. The only two conversations with royalty my life was ever likely to contain were over. Truth to tell, I had had more rewarding conversations with Ron’s cats. Prestige, though, is everything in this world, and I knew I would remember my brief and anodyne encounter with the Royals long after I had forgotten the confidences I had shared with Edith and Percy.
Lance, however, was not to get off so lightly. The two standard questions having been briefly answered, a silence descended between Duke and Doctor, through which I caught a wisp or two of the conversation two stations to my left. Mistress Lawrence and the Queen had, it seemed, discovered a common passion for black-belly sheep. As there was no sign of their conversation flagging, and as the Duke of Edinburgh had apparently shot his bolt with his two standard questions, Lance had no option but to ease the uncomfortable silence by his own effort.
“Of course, the new facility will mean that suspected fracture cases will no longer have to be sent by mail boat to St Nicks,” he explained. There was another lull. The Duke of Edinburgh continued to nod agreeably while, next-door, the black-belly sheep were going from strength to strength. Lance plunged in once again: “And the project has also facilitated the creation of a new key post on Petite Guadeloupe, the post of Island Radiographer, which, I am more than pleased to say, will be filled by a local person, currently undergoing rigorous training in the USA.”
The Queen, at last, moved on. Prince Philip followed. Lance turned to me. He was in desperate need of relieving his feelings but, noticing that Dr Jab was nearby, he turned away and swallowed them instead.
The receiving line completed, the centre of attention shifted to the red ribbon across the threshold of the Radiology Wing. Dennis Churchill, called on by Mr Jeffreys to act as master of ceremonies, took the microphone and, from a dauntingly thick wad of notes, proceeded to deliver a history of medicine from Hippocrates to the present day, before narrowing his purview to the Petite Guadeloupe Hospital, and finally, to the palpable relief of the audience, to the history of the Queen Elizabeth II Radiology Wing in particular. From the moment he began, the Queen had stood with scissors poised for action – a posture she held doggedly throughout the twenty-five minutes of his oration.
“It is a signal honour,” Churchill concluded, “that Her Majesty The Queen has graciously seen fit to include our beautiful little island in her Caribbean tour, and it is now my very special pleasure to invite Her Majesty to sever the ribbon and thereby to inaugurate this exciting new facility. Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Compared with Churchill’s speech, the Queen’s was a model of conciseness: “By this act,” she said, “I now declare the Queen Elizabeth II Radiology Wing open, and on behalf of the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I hand over the equipment it contains to the people of Petite Guadeloupe.”
To forcibly prolonged applause, the ribbon fell in two at the fourth snip of the scissors, and the royal couple, escorted by Drs Jab and Meddling, went inside to examine the gift so munificently bestowed by their government on their former colony. Jab took the patient’s position, while Lance took the controls. A camera flashed. Everybody who needed to be fooled, was fooled. In all justice, Hezron Godley should have been there too, to share in this glorious triumph of surface over substance, but at least he would see his artful façade reproduced on the front page of the following week’s Inquirer.
There had been a slight remission in the rain while Churchill was speaking, but when Trish took the podium it began to fall harder than ever. As the Petite Guadeloupe Choral Society launched into its Royal Command Performance of “What a Wonderful World”, our only comfort was that our royal audience could hear even less of it than we could. Trish tried desperately to keep us together, but never until this moment had we needed to take our beat from the baton, and there was precious little consensus as to how her movements were to be interpreted. The Lozère Cross Steel Band were in an even worse plight than us, there being no space for them under the awning. They had tipped and sponged the rainwater out of their instruments before we began but, with the water flowing off the edge of the awning, they quickly filled up again, and it was difficult to distinguish the players’ efforts from the aleatoric contribution of the raindrops. In the choir, each had his or her own way of coping. Some set their own tempi, and carried on without regard to those around them. Others, less self-assured, threw frequent sidelong glances to their neighbours, trying to lip-read, then to pitch in as best they could. And the rest looked around them in utter bewilderment, shrugging and suppressing the urge to laugh. We were united only in appearing to subscribe doggedly to the belief that, with all its uncertainty and disharmony, chaos and incomprehension, and rainy days, it remained a Wonderful, Wonderful World.
Trish led the bow, just as we had rehearsed. The camera flashed again. We could see, but not hear, the polite applause of our patient audience.
The day’s programme completed, almost everybody followed the royal motorcade back down to town. The Meddlings and I remained up at the hospital to watch the Royal Departure from there. The rain abated for just long enough to allow the party to traverse the jetty and board the lighter that would return them to the Royal Yacht. Against a cloudy sunset, the little boat crossed the bay, and docked alongside the big one.
“One more diplomatic mission accomplished,” said Trish. “Do you think they could hear us at all?”
“The Queen was absolutely rapt,” I replied. “She never took her eyes off us.”
“I was kind of hoping they couldn’t hear.”
With an imperious blast from her hooter, Britannia was slowly turning her prow towards the open sea.
Trish sighed. “What these little pantomimes must cost!”
I wondered why Lance had made no comment and, looking round, I noticed he was no longer with us. The single bare bulb in the Queen Elizabeth II Radiology Wing threw his elongated shadow through the doorway on to the grass. He was standing at the controls of the new machine, quite motionless, as if wondering what on earth he was going to do with it now.