Picture by brapps: racing off to Chesham
Diana goes to Chesham every May.
She catches the first train of the morning, all the way out, as far from the centre of London as you can go on the Underground. Trees rush past the window. In Chesham, she leans on the brick of the station and surveys her kingdom, then she starts to walk: past the bus shelter, down the road, poking at flowers and grass as the sunlight grows warmer. She’s seen it all before, of course, and the aesthetic appeal of late spring has waned over the years, but she has a job to do.
April 1957, and at Townsend Road School, rumours and notes have been flying for weeks; who’s nicest, who’s prettiest, who’s the most popular, who’s making her mother put her hair in curlers every single night, who was sulking at lunch, who are you voting for? The selection of the May Queen is a complicated process, complete with occasional interference by vote-rigging teachers (or so the rumours have it). The outcome is always in doubt. But there are frontrunners all the same, and grumbling contenders with no chance of victory who declare the whole thing absurd by the middle of the month; some of them say they wouldn’t be Queen even if they won, and a few of them probably mean it.
Diana, frontrunner among frontrunners, nods and says that it does seem a bit silly sometimes, then she goes to pinch her cheeks red in the bathroom and deepen her dimples with a pencil.
May 1957, and the pencils pay off: Diana is the Queen of May. She has a throne, and a white dress, and a host of attendants who didn’t get quite so many votes. Four-year-olds dressed as flower fairies bring ritual tribute. Photographs are taken. It’s a rare May Queen who makes it through the day without bursting into petulant tears, and Diana isn’t one of the exceptions, but helpers rush with handkerchiefs and comfort and sweets, soothing her into contentment again. When she assumes the crown, laid on her head by last year’s Queen as she relinquishes her power, Diana is, it’s quite clear, the centre of the world.
March 1958, and the school’s new headmistress calls off the May Queen elections: they are divisive and cause inharmonious behaviour, and distract the girls from their work. This decision causes widespread dismay, but nobody can deny that the objections are, in fact, true, so April comes and goes with no votes, with no rumours, with no more tears and broken friendships and disappointment and sorrow and glee than any other month.
And Diana never lays the crown upon another’s head; and she is still, technically, the Queen of May.
She doesn’t realise until 1968, when she moves out of Chesham in February and comes back to visit in June; when she returns the bluebells and the daffodils are still in flower, in midsummer, and the asparagus has yet to ripen. “That’s Chesham weather for you,” her mother says, but by the time Diana leaves the next day the lilacs are beginning to wilt, the roses are accelerating through buds into bloom. Coincidence, perhaps, but why risk it? So the next year she comes back on the first of May, just to get the process started, and the year after that, and the year after that.
The dress, of course, no longer fits; and at 63 she no longer has any patience with the trappings of her queendom. The crown is in a box in her attic somewhere, but the rest of the paraphernalia went to a charity shop years ago. Her procession is simple: into Chesham in comfortable shoes, make sure May gets started as it ought to, shake a few trees in the orchard if they’re still showing blossom, and then back home in time for afternoon tea.
One day, she supposes, she ought to crown a successor, but for now it’s quite nice to feel special and efficient and to keep the seasons turning, even if the cost of a journey all the way out to Zone 9 is frankly ridiculous.