The Princess stooped at the bottom of the grand steps of the palace and picked up the glass winklepicker, cast from the foot of the chap who had legged it off mere moments before. She examined the intricacy of its design, but had to turn away as following the hours of dancing Quadrilles that its occupant had performed in it had left an atmosphere not conducive to the regal nose. She passed the fragrant pump to Maltravers, her lady-in-waiting, who had run out with her and said, ’I must know who that dashing dancer is.’
‘Hmm’ said Maltravers, knowing the Princess well enough to understand that she had a penchant for any male prepared to minuet, even if like this one, he fluffed his enchuflas, and did not care whether they had a 6-pack, 1 pack, or a Watneys Party 7 concealed beneath their frock coats.
There was a bang and a flash from the other side of the trees. The eloper’s carriage had reverted back at the predetermined hour. Moments later, the ladies were doused from the sky with what the head chef subsequently identified as a roughly chopped, burnt pumpkin soup, A couple of seconds after, the other glass shoe followed, shattering on the ground in front of them, and with it the Princesses latest hope of love.
The King of Newbury rushed out from the ballroom to see what the fuss was about.
‘Oh Papa,’ wailed the dripping Princess. ‘I’ve been waltzing with the man I intend to marry.’
‘Sweet child,’ said the King. ‘You don’t mean that bulbous clove, with the transparent shoes and the verruca sock on his left foot? That plum duff, who hokeyed when he should have been cokeying, and walrussed his way through the Valse-a-Deux-Temps?’
‘Yes Papa,’ the Princess sighed. But now I’m covered in something rather unpleasant and… orange, and now he’s left me – like all the others.’ She had a point.
The King and Maltravers exchanged knowing glances. It was always the same at these dances for lancers and prancers – the Princess always fell in love with one of them by the end of the evening. The King had been so protective of his daughter, that he’d declared war on the neighbouring kingdom of Thatcham in order to send would-be suitors to the front. It had worked – None of them had ever returned. Not in the last twenty-seven years.
That night, the king did not sleep well. He thought about that bubble of blubber, wobbling on the dance floor and wondered what had happened to all the real men in his kingdom. Over the years, he’d become quite practiced at spotting those who would chase the Princess’ chasteness, hoping to be favoured with a fandango. But by morning, these brash Lotharios would wake to find themselves not plumping the princess’ pillows, but fixing bayonets at the insistence of a belligerent sergeant major. The King had chaperoned his daughter’s virtues so well, that the next dance would be to mark her forty-fifth birthday, and she still had no husband. More importantly, he was getting older too, and she had produced no heir for him to pass his kingdom to. Of course, there was that ineffectual son of his, Prince Gerard, but he seemed less driven by procreating the family line than powdering his wig and putting on amateur dramatic versions of Hollywood musicals. The King decided there was only one thing to do: call off the war, bring back his men and allow his precious princess to dip into the gene pool.
Next day, the King told the Princess he was going away and that he would be returning with a surprise. He packed his saddlebags and took Prince Gerard with him – he could always give him to the enemy as a gesture of his goodwill. They rode to the station, tied up their horses and caught the 9am train. To disguise his royalty, the king had cunningly papered his crown with anaglypta and allowed Prince Gerard to decorate it with glitter. This made him look less despot, more someone on his way to a party. They disembarked at the rival town of Thatcham to a shocking sight. They walked past grave after grave, all with names of men the King recalled sending over the decades, none of them over 21 years old when they died. The king muttered. ‘What have I done to have wasted all this manhood?’ Prince Gerard shed a tear too.
They reached the castle to find it not battered by years of brutal conflict, but painted glossy black and scarlet, the turrets studded with silver knobs and deafening throbby music pouring from the ramparts. The King was appalled. Prince Gerard wasn’t.
They approached the gatehouse. Each of the two great wooden gates had a woman’s prostrate leg painted on the back. As the gates swung open, they parted suggestively to reveal the main entrance between them. ‘Oh dear,” said the King.
‘Look, Papa,’ clapped Prince Gerard. ‘The portcullis appears to be coated in black PVC.’ The King was surprised that his son even knew what a portcullis was.
In front of them, a garish tongue-pink drawbridge was lowered to meet the exposed entrance. They crossed it.
‘Ooh, this is so camp,’ tittered Prince Gerard, who knew about these things. The portcullis lifted to reveal a sign marked out in flashing neon – Welcome to the Orifice.
‘That’s outrageous,’ extolled the king. ‘That bloody King can’t even spell ‘office’.’ Before Prince Gerard could say anything pithy, two men spilled out and collapsed on the drawbridge. The King recognised them as the infiltrators he had banished from last month’s dance. He remembered them as being staunch and potent young men, but now they looked like fizzled-out fireworks, each sporting black eyes, a stance suggesting acute saddle sores, yet grins wide enough to encompass the draught of the Kennet and Avon canal with lipstick kisses all over their faces.
‘Sire,’ said one of the men, recognising his monarch despite the cunningly disguised crown. ‘I beg you. Don’t send me back.’
‘What kind of King would I be to send you back to fight those fiends after what they’ve done to you? No way, loyal soldier. You will return to Newbury ˗˗ a hero!’
‘No, no,’ implored the man. ‘Don’t send me home; I’m happy to die here.’ He looked up at the windows where a giggle of girls, all cleavage and hair extensions, were blowing kisses and beckoning him back in.
The King was perplexed. He asked the other man, ‘What say you?’
He simply bubbled at the mouth and pointed to go back into the castle.
‘Hmph,’ harrumphed the King, appalled at his troop’s lack of loyalty. ‘I’m going to have it out with the King of Thatcham.’ Prince Gerard tried hard not to smirk.
They found the wizened old King of Thatcham in the crèche looking very frustrated, surrounded by dozens of bawling babies. He had three in his arms, and was bouncing a fourth unhappy little girl in a rocker with his foot. ‘At last,’ he said, greeting them. ‘Intelligent conversation.’
‘I wouldn’t count on it,’ said Prince Gerard.
‘This used to be a nice town’, said the King of Thatcham, shouting over the sound of babies squawking. ‘When it was just me and my ten beautiful daughters.’
‘Ten daughters?’ exasperated the King of Newbury.
‘No sons?’ exasperated Prince Gerard.
‘All girls. For the first few years it was lovely, and though it cost me a fortune in pony lessons and hair braids, we were happy until that bastard King of Newbury declared war on us.’
The King of Newbury, touching his crown to make sure it was still disguising his identity whimpered. ‘Oh?’
‘The sod started sending men, two or three every month. Of course, my daughters, one-by-one reaching puberty and being true Thatcham girls, seized upon the handsome, unsuspecting chaps of Newbury, and twenty-seven years on here I am, still picking up the nappied consequences of their avarice in this tart’s window box of a castle, having to fund an ever expanding maternity unit, as every daughter had ten daughters of their own. Now I seem to get a new great-granddaughter every month.
The King of Thatcham repositioned a baby, so he could rub his forehead. ‘A man’s castle is meant to be his home. But mine is now just a knocking-shop. And my daughter’s taste in décor is simply appalling.’
Prince Gerard, who fancied himself as a bit of an interior designer, looked at the mirrored ceiling and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Not my chalice of Darjeeling, but I can see it has a certain appeal to the provincial chav princess.’
‘How dare you!’ The King of Thatcham would have reached for his sword but his arms were full of babies. ‘Guards!’
The King of Newbury and Prince Gerard made it under the closing portcullis, across the lifting bridge and ran to the station just before the doors of the 5:08 swished shut. They sat in silence on the way back, though the Prince did Instagram Percy to come around and watch Real Housewives of Reading that evening.
The King was sorely troubled by his afternoon’s experience and as soon as he got home, declared the end of hostilities with the Kingdom of Thatcham.
‘Cool,’ said the Princess. Does that mean all the soldiers are coming home?’
‘Aye, just to see you, dear child,’ he lied, unable to dislodge an image of his spent men forming in his head. ‘But if they don’t, I’ll allow you to marry any of the subjects in my Kingdom, even that feckless foxtrotter if he hadn’t been liquidised, on one proviso – No children. I seem to have changed my mind about the whole grandfather business.’
The princess stroked her father’s hair, ‘Oh, Papa. I’m far too old for that sort of thing. Now don’t be cross, but I rang the Thatcham Maternity Hospital, and they say they have lots and lots of children I can adopt. Sit there while I get Maltravers to cook you something nice. Pumpkin soup alright? There’s still plenty left over.’