Short Stories

(A small collection.)

Not the Queen by Jackie Kay


Maggie Lockhart spent her life trying to work out what she’d done to deserve it. There are reasons for things. Things don’t just happen, no, they don’t. Sometimes the reasons are a long time coming, but when they finally do, they are clearly printed like her pension slip. Most things Maggie worked out to her own satisfaction, though getting people to see the thinking behind the reasoning was hard because nobody took her seriously. Maggie didn’t have the temperament for teasing; never had been good at being teased, even as a child, before the nose and the mouth and the cheeks set, but even the most sweet-natured woman would have balked at what Maggie had to put up with. No way in the creation of Christ was it easy going about the place as a kind of live joke with the Face on it. Nobody could see her face without thinking of the other one’s: not the man or the woman in the street, not the total stranger at the bus stop, not even her own family. And even she had the odd feeling when she glanced in the mirror that she wasn’t seeing herself, but the bloody Queen. No, no seriously. All right, not dressed in those uptight suits with the buttons, in all sorts of colours from navy to pink to emerald-green, with the scarves, and the bloody brooches and the silly hats, but the Queen just the same. Even with a fag dangling out her mouth and no make-up on, Maggie Lockhart had the bad luck of looking the exact spit of HM Queen Elizabeth the Second.

There had to be some reason that she’d been given the Face. From her teens, Maggie had grown old with the Queen. The Queen was ages with Maggie; Maggie was ages with the Queen. Now they were both in their seventies and it still wasn’t making any sense. Oh, she had had her fill of it! Not an overly religious woman, Maggie had some vague notion of a grand plan. Life had to have some sort of purpose or what was the point of it all.

Twenty years ago, Maggie’s car broke down on the M8 Glasgow to Edinburgh. When the AA man arrived, he gaped at her, ‘Christ, you gave me a fright there, hen.’ He lifted her bonnet and peered into her engine. ‘Has anybody ever told you, you’re the double of—’

‘The Queen,’ Maggie said, cutting him dead. ‘Aye!’ he said. ‘I’m no kidding but it’s a wee bit freaky so it is. Go and look away, will you, while I fix your motor cause you’re putting me aff. Jesus, whit a predicament fir ye. An’ I suppose this is jist gonna go oan and oan. Whit a burden fir ye, hen.’

It seemed to Maggie that the AA man was the very first person to ever truly understand. She stood nodding on the hard shoulder, as the rain swept across the three lanes of the motorway, making the road glisten and sparkle like a ballroom floor. A wee tear came to her eye and rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away quickly. She dabbed the end of her round nose. In Maggie’s head, her car had broken down for two reasons. The first was to stop her having a fatal accident. The second was to hear the AA man say, ‘What a burden for ye, hen.’ Twenty years later, Maggie still hadn’t got any further than that. A dour friend would say pragmatically, ‘Well, that was the face you were born wey,’ which was all very well but she wasn’t the one who had to go and get born wey the Monarch’s mug. Maggie couldn’t joke about her face; it was no laughing matter. It had ruined her life. People thinking one thing about her and then the other. She suspected some people chose her as their friend just because she looked like their stamps. Folk doing the big double take, folk on the make till they realized they’d got the wrong woman. Fancy your own face being a con; fancy feeling that you were going about the place trying to trip folk up. People following her around sniggering and whispering. There were even jokes about her. Some people would come and stand outside her small two-up two-down in Drumchapel. ‘Have you heard about the Glasgow woman that’s the spit of the Queen?’

Maggie was as bad as everybody else was. She looked at her own face and couldn’t see the individual. Imagine that. The thoughts in her head didn’t match her face; how many people had to go around thinking that their inside thoughts didn’t tally with their face? Of course it was all right for Her Majesty. It was plain sailing for Elizabeth. She was the Queen. She could look in the mirror and believe it. Come to think of it, she looked like she did look in the mirror daily and say to herself, ‘I am the Queen of England.’ But what could Maggie say to herself when her reflection appeared before her? Not a lot. Ever since the AA man’s pronouncement, though, she did have something to say. She’d apply a bit of blusher, which made her look even more like her, and she’d say to herself, ‘What a burden.’ And on really rainy days she’d think, Why me? Are faces accidents? Do they mean anything, faces? Maggie would think to herself when she was a bit squiffy and had had one too many glasses of sparkly spumante.

It seemed to Maggie walking down Sauchiehall Street in town that her face weighed more than other people’s faces, heavy on her shoulders. Going out shopping, people often just came right out with it, like the woman at the checkout in BHS who said, ‘Oh my God! You’re the spitting image. You gave me the fright of my life there!’ Maggie was shy and didn’t like talking to strangers particularly, never had not even as a child, but the Face made every stranger feel they could pass comment, just like that. She didn’t need to have a dog or a baby for complete and total strangers to talk to her; she just needed to look like the notes in her purse. It was rude. Everybody was so rude, so out of order. Cheeky wee madam, Maggie thought to herself when a teenager insisted she was the Queen’s twin hiding out in Glasgow. One of Maggie’s small satisfactions was talking inside her head to herself throughout the length of a day. What a big stupid glaikit bugger, she’d think as some hefty big guy gave her the eye. Sometimes she wondered if the Queen ever did that, so similar were their faces. What thoughts did she really think about people when she was going about shaking hands and smiling and saying sugary yucky things?

She walked through the shop — same as usual, several ignoramuses performed the open mouth. The Big Stare. She did her best to ignore them. Everybody knew the Queen. Everybody knew what the Queen looked like. Nobody would ever say to the Queen, ‘You are the double of Maggie Lockhart’ — though Maggie had a great dream the other night when exactly that happened. No, Maggie was the double of the Queen. It didn’t work the other way around. The Queen was not the double of Maggie Lockhart. Maybe that was what rattled her. How could you be nobody to yourself?

There are reasons for near enough everything. When the holiday to Tunisia fell through because the bucket shop went bust, Maggie knew that it was probably a good thing; some terrible experience had waited for her there, where she would have got mobbed, literally mobbed.

One year, as she’d stepped off the plane to Cyprus, a whole flock of people had gathered around her. And Maggie had had to wave her hands, ‘No, no, no, no! I’m not who you think I am,’ until her Charlie made the crowd vanish. Oh, but Charlie loved it, the swine. The big limping swine loved to see her awkward and embarrassed and to take her arm and rush off as if the pair of them were famous. There was something cloying about Charlie’s attentiveness that drove her up the wall from time to time. She came close when he came back from London with a mug with the Queen’s face on it. ‘No many people can drink their tea and look at their wife,’ Charlie had said, raising the mug. Maggie yanked it off him and put it in the box for the jumble.

On the other hand, there were times when it had its advantages. Charlie was always the one to look after her, particularly now they were getting on, the one who did the hoovering, the gardening in their small bit of a back garden, changed the bed, because he thought putting a duvet into a duvet cover was too much exertion for her. It was Charlie who always made the cups of tea, who’d bring a steaming mug to her in the living room. ‘Yir tea, Maam.’ When they walked out, Charlie walked a couple of steps behind her, always on the lookout for any chancers. Once Charlie said to her, ‘Dae ye no think we could dae wey a bodyguard fir you?’ Charlie was always dreaming up schemes like this. Of course they never had the money, even supposing Maggie Lockhart wanted a bloody bodyguard.

It was a relief now that she no longer worked as a wages clerk after all the comments she’d had to suffer year in year out. People saying, ‘It’s all right for some,’ when she handed over the wages on a Friday. Wee Glasgow blokes all full of themselves as if they were the first ones on the planet to crack a joke. Yug. ‘No wee smile? That’s like her too. Have you noticed, she hardly ever smiles?’ If Maggie had not felt so furious as the Face, she would have by now started feeling a strange sympathy for the Queen. ‘Right soor puss. Doesnie even manage a real smile on Christmas Day, fir her own speech.’ That was wee Edna. Wee Edna seemed to delight in discussing the Queen’s personality with Maggie. ‘Do you think she actually feels anything for her children?’ wee Edna would say. Or, ‘I think she’s a bit obsessed with those corgis.’ It didn’t matter what Maggie said, or what look she gave, wee Edna would read everything about the Queen and come into work announcing confidently, ‘The Queen is blazing with Diana, absolutely blazing.’ As if Maggie should care, as if any of it mattered to her. ‘It bores me to tears, Edna. I’m not the least bit interested.’

And years before, it had seemed that no man would be brave enough to marry Maggie. Then Charlie did. And in bed that first night, to Maggie’s absolute horror, he whispered, ‘Who’s my very own wee Queen, then, eh?’ She leapt out of bed and made him swear never, ever to say anything like that again or it would put her off. But it was clear to her looking into Charlie’s small eyes that it was the very thing that turned him on. No many men got to see the Queen naked so they didn’t no they didn’t.

They were always the same age, Margaret Dorothy Lockhart and the Queen of England. There was never any chance of the Queen suddenly getting older and leaving Maggie to get younger or anything like that. So it was a lifelong thing, and after a while Maggie stared at photographs of the Queen in many magazines and would make comparisons. She couldn’t help herself, especially when they were both getting on. Not many had a double to compare themselves to unless they were identical twins and Maggie and the Queen looked the same, so much the same that Charlie would say, ‘I’m telling you! Put the pair of you side by side and pit her in your claes and you in hers and not a single bloody person in the whole of England wid be able to tell the difference!’ Charlie would get quite het up, as if he was sitting on a goldmine and didn’t know how to get at the gold. The Queen had bad posture; Maggie’s was better. The Queen had good skin, better than Maggie’s skin. (Mind you, think of all the expensive moisturizers.) If you could look into the Queen’s eyes for a long time, you’d find that she was shy just like Maggie. The Queen’s health was better than Maggie’s was too. Maggie had bad asthma and would wheeze when agitated or nervous. Maggie also had irritable bowel syndrome and spent a good portion of her day these days on the toilet cursing and muttering to herself, which was her privilege. She allowed herself that, Jesus and fair enough too. When it came right down to it, Maggie didn’t know much personal about the Queen. She knew her favourite dog and horse and castle because wee Edna was always reeling out the facts, but she didn’t know if she liked her nose, or her eyes or her cheeks, if she thought she was attractive or handsome or plain. If she looked in the mirror and felt pleased enough or if she never troubled to think about it, if she just didn’t have to think about how she looked at all because she was the Queen whereas Maggie had to think about it because she was not the Queen.

Maggie was a shy and rather difficult Glasgow woman, more like an Edinburgh woman, wee Edna was always saying. Never one to put herself first or forward, Maggie would have been perfectly happy going through life taking a back seat. But the Face made her take a front seat. There she was — stared at from the minute she got up to when she went to bed. When Maggie went to get her hair done, it was always the same. She came out with the bloody Queen’s hair even if she’d asked for a frizzy perm. They cut it even when she said, ‘I’m growing it.’ Year in year out, hairdresser after hairdresser couldn’t resist giving her that coif, those silly smarmy marmy waves. She could have opened many a library or hospital or theatre, she could have cut many a ribbon. She could have gone about Scotland nodding seriously and saying a few judicious words before pushing people away with her strong handshake.

Once wee Edna and Maggie went to the Bingo and Edna enjoyed all the people staring at Maggie as if Edna had taken some part in creating her, as if she was a circus act or some bloody freak show. Edna didn’t even concentrate on her numbers properly for looking at people looking at Maggie. When Maggie shouted, ‘House!’ somebody shouted, ‘You’re rich enough already,’ and her row roared with laughter. Maggie couldn’t be persuaded to go again. ‘I’m just not putting myself through it,’ she told Edna to Edna’s great disappointment. Being out with Maggie caused quite a sensation, quite a commotion.

The day came for Maggie to do something. It finally dawned on her that there was no good reason for her having the Queen’s face in the way that there were good reasons for other things in her life. She’d been patient for ages to wait and see what the purpose and the point of it all was. Always a bit philosophical was Maggie, always one to say reassuringly, if Charlie didn’t get a job promotion, ‘What’s for you won’t go by you.’ Always one to believe that there must be some intention behind the smallest of things. No such thing for Maggie as coincidence or accident, things were meant to happen for some reason. So she’d put up with her face for years looking in the mirror and seeing herself and simultaneously the Queen. Well not for much longer. Maggie was no mug and it was time she asserted herself. She had been saving on the QT for some time and had a total of three and a half thousand pounds. It was a toss-up between really treating her and Charlie to a cruise or doing what she was going to do. But the cruise would have been nightmarish, port after port of people squealing. So that was that then — decided for her, in a way.

Maggie got up at seven. Her bag was already packed from the night before. As far as Charlie knew, she was going to stay with her sister for a couple of weeks. That would give her the time to get over the bruises and let things settle. She was having the operation in London to be as far away as possible from home. On the train down, Scotland changed into England but she couldn’t see the difference properly.

She’d already been down to London a few months before to see this particular man that she was putting her faith in. She’d already told him what she wanted: a longer nose, higher cheeks, a different chin, and he’d told her that all that would involve an enormous amount of work and wouldn’t be good for her face at her age. So they had settled on just changing the nose. The nose wouldn’t cost too much and would change the look of the whole face.

Of course you get the wind up when you make a big decision like that, and in the taxi up to the West End, Maggie was having second thoughts. Had she not just been a bit touchy all her life? Couldn’t somebody who liked a good laugh have enjoyed herself with the Queen’s face? Had Maggie used her face as a scapegoat to cover her own inadequacies? Would her life really have been different without the Queen’s face? How? Because it was not as if she had the Queen’s money or palaces or anything else, it was not as if she had benefited in any way, but then had she really suffered? Charlie loved her for being herself and looking like the Queen but all husbands had funny ideas about their wives, didn’t they? Some husbands liked to see their wives as wee whores as well as wives, so at least her Charlie wasn’t that bad, and he’d never been violent and he’d never, ever been aggressive and he’d treated her like his Queen. Christ, wouldn’t most not-well-off women give their eye teeth for her Charlie? What would Charlie say if she came back with a different nose? Charlie would be gobsmacked. He would hit the roof. He would say, ‘In the name of Christ, Maggie, could you no have consulted me? Whit were ye thinking of, wuman?’ And then he would probably cry. Oh God, yes Charlie had only cried twice in his life, when his father died and when Scotland lost in ‘74, and both times had filled Maggie with a mixture of pity and revulsion, because Charlie hadn’t just dabbed at his eyes like she did. Charlie had gone for the whole waterworks, heaving and making a lot of noise and saying, ‘Oh Christ! Oh Christ!’ bawling his eyes out like a man who hadn’t had a chance to cry since he was a boy. It was the thought of Charlie crying that changed her mind. To hell with it. Have the Queen’s face and put up with it. Maggie looked out of the black-cab window as it passed Piccadilly Circus only to see some people excitedly looking in. She gave them the smallest of waves.