Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Royal Visit

While the great majority of the population apparently is content to blunder through life on a diet of pork scratchings and pig ignorance, the more erudite among you will be aware that the Clapham Ambulance Brigade was originally founded under the auspices and protection of the Clapham Charter issued by King George III in 1807 for the purpose, inter alia, of providing some form of immediate medical assistance for his mistress, Princess Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he had installed in a fabulous palace on the common and who was, like most women, subject to fits of violent hysteria and unreasoning displays of quite impossible behaviour in accordance with the phases of the moon. His own brain had decomposed by this time to the extent that he was incapable of identifying even his closest relatives and not one of his courtiers or ministers was possessed of sufficient fortitude to bring to the King's attention the fact that Charlotte was actually his wife of forty-six years and the mother of their fifteen children. Thus was the Clapham Ambulance born into the world: by craven cowardice, out of utter madness, and for no good reason at all.

As this Amentia Carta has never been formally rescinded nor superseded and has now effectively become enshrined in the constitution of English political reality, the Brigade to this day enjoys, or rather endures, a special and theoretically permanent relationship with the House of Hanover, which arrangement renders both sides liable to certain obligations, those of the Royal Family being of a sporadic and mostly ceremonial nature undertaken with obvious reluctance and a thinly-veiled air of contempt.

For our part we are expected now and then to receive the King himself at the ambulance station to allow him to indulge his peculiar penchant for inspecting uniformed men and their equipment and then give him and his legion of twittering flunkies a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich in the newly refurbished messroom. On these mercifully rare occasions we are encouraged by our superiors to polish our boots, wash our hands, brush our hair and generally contrive to give an appearance combining smart professionalism with patriotic subservience. Hud Edgerton and some of the older, less fragrant members of staff will be given a day's Special Leave of Absence, disguised as members of the public and placed just outside the gates with the flag-waving hoi polloi while the rest of us are left to entertain His Majesty as best we can, which historically has always presented us with something of a dilemma.

On the one hand we are sworn to serve the Crown loyally and because of the madness of Farmer George we are in effect the monarch's very own personal ambulance service, and as such will occasionally be called upon if one of the royals has become too inebriated to climb the stairs or crawl to the lavatory. Conversely, like all ambulancemen, we are staunch opponents of any iniquitous system of monarchy and hereditary privilege and would to a man not only advocate the Bolshevik Solution but without a moment's hesitation, given the opportunity and sufficient ammunition, would put them up against a wall and shoot every last one of the sponging in-breds ourselves.

A right royal holocaust unfortunately not being a practicable proposition in the prevailing political climate, we have to content ourselves with making small and impotent gestures of mild protest, passing them off as the puerile practical jokes of obsequious lickspittles as an alternative to the rather more serious consequences of being tried for high treason. Besides, the King has always demonstrated a fondness for the childish prank, being especially renowned for his scatological sense of humour and fondness for breaking wind and we feel that we would be failing in our duty were we not, in one way or another, to oblige him.

Not long ago, with the tedium of a royal visit imminent, Albert Harness gathered us round and proposed an idea which was greeted with cheerful and unanimous approval, tempered only by slight reservations at the prospect of a venture into the malodorous hell upon which the success of the plan was dependent. We girded our loins, donned protective clothing, and with a goodly supply of gas masks set off on our bicycles.

Rather like trying to explain colour to the congenitally sightless, it's not easy to describe a smell, but if you've ever inhaled deeply through the nostrils in the vicinity of a mortician who's in the act of slicing open the stomach of a tramp's rotting corpse, you'd be on the right track. Add to that a hefty dollop of some of the better known household aromas such as human faeces, vomit, the cloying ammonia of stale cats' piss and the altogether singular fragrance of weeping leg ulcers, and you'd still have but a tenuous grasp of the consequences of being within olfactory range of Otto Grossminger, who the observant reader will recall is the foulest-smelling thing in England, bar nothing, and into whose foetid lair our noble quest directed us. Perhaps I shall describe the inside of the Grossminger residence on another occasion, for it certainly warrants some attention, but it will be sufficient for now to say that we burst in and wrapped our stolen prize in many layers of an impermeable plastic membrane before making good our escape, hauling the package with some difficulty back to the ambulance station, gagging, choking and vomiting in the gutter with only the thought of the King's imminent appreciation of our efforts to sustain us along the way.

Now we may be but simple ambulancemen and while we would not consider ourselves to be entirely representative of the population of England as a whole, we are probably about averagely intelligent and knowledgeable, and we'd be the first to admit that whereas we are pretty good on certain subjects, though none springs immediately to mind, there are fairly wide and gaping holes in the fabric of our overall education, the most notable area of deficiency being that of current affairs and politics and that general type of thing. I can assert with a fair degree of confidence that there is not a single one among our number who could name the current Prime Minister, but I would have sworn on Mother's life that the King has always been called George the something-or-other, or possibly Edward. Imagine, then, our collective astonishment, as we stood expectantly and respectfully in a line of gleaming buttons and immaculate creases, when from the huge black Rolls Royce which swept gracefully into the courtyard on that fine autumn afternoon, there stepped not a peculiar-looking cove with jug ears and a beard, dressed up as a sailor, but a miserable-looking little old lady with grey hair and spectacles, wearing a pea-green coat and matching hat. She looked vaguely familiar, a bit like that bloke on the stamps, and I wondered if perhaps I might have lifted her sister from the floor on to a commode a few years ago. Whoever she was, she certainly wasn't the King and she didn't look remotely like the sort of old duck who appreciated a good joke with a strong lavatorial flavour and I became invested with a terrible anxiety that all was about to backfire disastrously.

I glanced over her shoulder and up at the flagpole, where in place of the traditional flag of the Union there fluttered audibly in a rapidly stiffening wind an inordinately enormous pair of grotesquely soiled underpants. A wave of unease spread along the line and the tension became quite palpable and almost too excruciating to bear. As Her so-called Majesty was shepherded slowly along towards me, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, I thought I would pass out and prayed that she wouldn't turn and look up.

"Your Royal Highness," fawned Sir Leslie. "This is Stanley Tablets, another of our long-timers." As Stan curtseyed beside me I took a last opportunity to glance up once more and to my exquisite delight saw that the offending garment had disappeared from sight, presumably torn from its moorings by the fierce north-easterly, and hopefully was half way to the coast by now. Oh, thank God! I let out a sigh of relief and the Queen of England was standing before me.

"And this, Your Highness . . . " I smiled politely and began to extend a hand, but before my name could be spoken there came a fearful noise like a terrific rushing of air through a torn sail accompanied by the most awful smell imaginable as Otto Grossminger's underpants flew closely past me and wrapped themselves around the Queen's head like a massive, putrid jellyfish, completely obscuring the royal countenance and no doubt rendering the act of respiration neither possible nor, given the circumstances, particularly desirable. She clawed frantically at the ghastly thing and began to stagger blindly about.

"Get it orf! Get it orf!" she shrieked hysterically, before falling to the ground and writhing around on the tarmac. All at once I saw an opportunity for an act of heroism that might transform my fortunes as thoughts of a knighthood for the man who saved the Queen's life flashed through my mind. I stepped briskly forward to do my patriotic duty, but fame and honours would have to wait, because I was driven back instantly by the ineffable stench which seemed to invade the throat like a physical object and burn the eyes like tear gas. It was hopeless; one could as easily have walked calmly into a bonfire as within ten feet of those perfidious underpants.

"That was a bit of a turn-up, wasn't it, Guv?" said Albert with characteristic understatement when it was all over, the royal corpse having been removed, the murderous Y-fronts destroyed by SAS flamethrowers. But Sir Leslie didn't answer; he just sat there, unblinking, unhearing, stunned into unthinking vacancy, quivering gently from head to toe, staring silently at nothing as the hapless minnow, confronted by the hungry shark, will gaze numbly into the black, bottomless throat of imminent oblivion.