Don Stoll lives in the Southern California desert. His fiction is forthcoming in KAIROS and has appeared recently in A New Ulster as well as in Tales from the Moonlit Path (tinyurl.com/y9nkpsbu), A Thin Slice of Anxiety (tinyurl.com/yfvh8m63), Eclectica (tinyurl.com/yzr2h9m9), and Jupiter Review (jupiterreview.com/issueiv). In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) which continues to bring new schools, clean water, and hospitals to a cluster of remote Tanzanian villages.
Battle of Hastings
No one could have anticipated that my grandmother would tutor William and Harry after the death of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. My grandmother had thought she would make a different kind of contribution to their upbringing. Images of vacuuming, mopping, and dusting dominate my memories of my mother, yet she always insisted that she had learned from a master to whose standard she had failed to rise.
However, at the time of Diana’s death my grandmother was much advanced in age. She had been born during the interval between the death of Edward VII and the coronation of George V; you can do the math (or maths). She also suffered from a heart condition. I don’t recall its exact nature. I would be able to ask my mother if my mother were still alive. But I remember that my grandmother spoke often of the problem she had with what she called her ticker. Her fragile ticker would prevent her from serving the young princes by doing the vacuuming, mopping, and dusting at which she had at one time excelled even my mother. Yet my grandmother was determined to serve the boys in some way. They had lost their mother and, rightly or wrongly, she put little stock in their father.
At first my grandmother spoke of ensuring that William and Harry had put on clean underwear and scrubbed behind their ears. These things did not require physical exertion so they would not make unreasonable demands on her heart. She could do them. But once the princes had been installed in the mobile home she shared with my mother, in a small city on California’s Central Coast, she saw that they had already developed good personal hygiene. She realized she could do a greater service by teaching them the history of Great Britain.
This was an audacious choice since she was not an educated person. She had grown up in Liverpool in a working-class family as the oldest, and only girl, among five children. After her mother literally ran off with the milkman, young Emily—for Emily was my grandmother’s given name—was withdrawn from school so that she could look after her father and brothers.
But the weight of responsibility that she had assumed by taking into her care two possible future occupants of the English throne drove her to undertake a crash course in history. She resolved to plug the holes in her knowledge that had persisted since childhood. She pronounced herself ready to start teaching just in time, when the boys were complaining about too much sunshine and, absurdly, saying that they missed the English weather. In fact, they had wearied of the needless reminders about underwear and ears.
During their residence in the mobile home, they received instruction in British history all the way up through the John Major era. (Although Tony Blair had become Prime Minister, my grandmother argued that respect for hermeneutical distance implied the impossibility of useful analysis of Blair’s service.) Yet whenever I asked what she was teaching the boys, she talked about the Battle of Hastings, reminding me that it had reshaped the culture. The English had learned some ten thousand new words from the Normans, including beef, mutton, and pork. Hence, she and my mother would not tell the boys that dinner would consist of cow, sheep, or swine.
Her tutorship would end abruptly, after she announced that she intended to supplement her theoretical instruction with practical lessons. I don’t know what my mother and I imagined that she meant. We would have intervened had we understood that the practical lessons were to be in shooting and in close-quarters combat. We would have reminded her of her concerns about her ticker.
In any case, the lessons took place on one of the windy, isolated beaches south of the city. My grandmother had reasoned that coastal combat would be vital to the defense of the princes’ small island nation.
Her devotion to the lessons proved excessive. Surprisingly, her heart withstood the trial by combat. But she sustained a knee injury that required surgery.
Her lengthy convalescence gave the boys’ father, Charles, Prince of Wales, a pretext to summon them back across the pond. He used that expression—the pond—when he explained his decision to her over the phone. Given her unfavorable opinion of Charles you would not judge amiss if you were to speculate that the princes’ return home displeased her. But there was nothing to be done about it.
A quarter of a century after Diana’s death, I published a story in a crime-fiction magazine. The editor had liked the version I submitted, but she hoped I would agree to one change.
The central character of my story, set in the spring of 2011, was an American policeman, who reflects with a colleague on the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. The operation by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs occurred three days after the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. My policeman entertains private thoughts about whether William has permission to perpetrate an unnatural act upon the body of Catherine, and, if not, whether such permission might be conferred should William ever ascend to the throne.
I always try to avoid controversial shit about famous people, the editor admitted in her plainspoken way. Especially royals. I don’t need that kind of trouble from people who can afford better lawyers than I can.
While the policeman’s musings reinforced the impression of his loathsomeness, I accepted the editor’s argument that their inclusion was superfluous. I had established loathsomeness by other means.
I told the editor that I also had my own reason to delete the objectionable passage. One month hence my daughter was scheduled to get married in Santa Barbara, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle lived nearby. The last thing I wanted was for Harry to crash the wedding, or the subsequent reception, for the purpose of taking revenge on behalf of his brother. My imperfect understanding of the fraternal relationship was that it had become strained. Yet the bond might have remained strong enough for Harry to feel compelled to act. Or else he might have seen this opportunity to defend the honor of the royal family as offering a path by which he and Meghan could find a way back into their good graces.
In one sense I may have had less cause for concern than the magazine editor did. That my story would have been brought to the royal family’s attention, despite the magazine’s relative obscurity, was not out of the question. But the possibility that anyone connected to the royal family would be made aware of a wedding and reception attended by fewer than seventy guests, and costing some fifteen thousand dollars, was close to nil.
On the other hand, nostalgia tempted me to knock on Harry and Meghan’s door myself. Thus, it made sense to apply discretion to the editing of my story, should the question of my activities arise.
Harry would have been less eager for news of me than of my grandmother. I would have had to deliver the sad news of her passing. She had passed more than two decades earlier, not five years after Alzheimer’s disease had awakened her devotion to Harry and his brother. END