Book Excerpt from This was a man

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30 January 2017

(The last book of Clifton chronicles)

'What time are we commanded to attend Her Majesty's pleasure?' asked Emma, with a grin, unwilling to admit how proud she was of her husband, and how much she was looking forward to the occasion. Unlike the board meeting she would be chairing later that week, which was rarely far from her mind. 'Any time between ten and eleven,' said Harry, checking his invitation card.

 
Publisher: Pan Macmillan / Price: Rs 599  

'Did you remember to book the car?' 'Yesterday afternoon. And I double-checked first thing this morning,' he added as the front doorbell rang. 'That will be Seb,' said Emma. She looked at her watch. 'And he's on time for a change. 'I don't think he was ever going to be late for this one,' Karin said.  Giles rose from his place at the breakfast table when Markham opened the door and stood aside to allow Jessica, Seb and a heavily pregnant Samantha to join them.

'Have you lot had breakfast?' Giles asked, as he kissed Samantha on the cheek.

'Yes, thank you,' said Seb, as Jessica plonked herself down at the table, buttered a slice of toast and grabbed the marmalade.

'Clearly not all of you,' said Harry, grinning at his grand-daughter.'How much time have I got?' asked Jessica between mouth-fuls.

'Five minutes at the most,' said Emma firmly. 'I don't want to arrive at the palace any later than ten thirty, young lady.' Jessica buttered another piece of toast.

'Giles,' said Emma, turning to her brother, 'it was kind of you to put us up for the night, and I'm only sorry you can't join us.'

'Immediate family only is the rule,' said Giles, 'and quite rightly, otherwise they'd need a football stadium to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.'

There was a gentle tap on the front door.

'That will be our driver,' said Emma. Once again she checked that Harry's silk tie was straight and removed a grey hair from his morning suit before saying, 'Follow me.'

'Once a chairman, always a chairman,' whispered Giles, as he accompanied his brother-in-law to the front door. Seb and Samantha followed, with Jessica bringing up the rear, now munching her third piece of toast.

As Emma stepped out on to Smith Square, a chauffeur opened the back door of a black limousine. She ushered her flock inside before joining Harry and Jessica on the back seat.

Samantha and Seb sat on the two tip-up seats facing them.

'Are you nervous, Grandpops?' asked Jessica, as the car moved off and joined the morning traffic.

'No,' said Harry. 'Unless you're planning to overthrow the state.'

'Don't put ideas into her head,' said Sebastian as they drove past the House of Commons and into Parliament Square. Even Jessica fell silent when the car drove through Admiralty Arch and Buckingham Palace came into sight. The chauffeur proceeded slowly up the Mall, driving around the statue of Queen Victoria before stopping outside the palace gates. He wound down his window and said to the young Guards officer, 'Mr Harry Clifton and family.'

The lieutenant smiled and ticked off a name on his clipboard. 'Drive through the archway to your left and one of my colleagues will show you where to park. 'The driver followed his instructions and entered a large courtyard, where row upon row of cars were already parked.

'Please park next to the blue Ford on the far side,' said another officer, pointing across the yard, 'then your party can make their way into the palace.'

When Harry stepped out of the car, Emma gave him one final check.

'I know you're not going to believe this,' she whispered, 'but your flies are undone.'

Harry turned bright red as he zipped himself up before they made their way up the steps and into the palace. Two liveried footmen in the gold and red uniform of the royal household stood rigidly to attention at the bottom of a wide, red-carpeted staircase. Harry and Emma slowly climbed the steps, trying to take everything in. When they reached the top, they were greeted by two more gentlemen of the royal household. Harry noticed that the rank rose every time they were stopped.

'Harry Clifton,' he said before he was asked.

'Good morning, Mr Clifton,' said the senior of the two officers. 'Would you be kind enough to accompany me? My colleague will conduct your family to the Throne Room.'

'Good luck,' whispered Emma, as Harry was led away. The family climbed another staircase, not quite as wide, which led into a long gallery. Emma paused as she entered the high-ceilinged room and stared at the rows of closely hung paintings that she'd only seen before in art books. She turned to Samantha. 'As we're unlikely to be invited a second time, I suspect Jessica would like to learn more about the Royal Collection.'

'Me too,' said Sebastian.

'Many of the kings and queens of England,' began Samantha, 'were art connoisseurs and collectors, so this is only a tiny selection from the Royal Collection, which is not actually owned by the monarch, but by the nation. You will notice that the focus of the picture gallery is on British artists from the early nineteenth century. A remarkable Turner of Venice hangs opposite an exquisite painting of Lincoln Cathedral by his old rival, Constable. But the gallery, as you can see, is dominated by a vast portrait of Charles I on horseback, painted by Van Dyck, who at the time was the court artist in residence.'

Jessica became so entranced she almost forgot why they were there. When they finally reached the Throne Room, Emma regretted not having set out earlier, as the first ten rows of chairs were already occupied. She walked quickly down the centre aisle, grabbed a place on the end of the first available row and waited for the family to join her.

Once they were seated, Jessica began to study the room carefully. Just over three hundred neat gold chairs were laid out in rows of sixteen, with a wide aisle separating them down the centre. At the front of the room was a red-carpeted step that swept up to a large empty throne that awaited its rightful occupant. The buzz of nervous chatter ceased at six minutes to eleven when a tall, elegant man in morning dress entered the room, came to a halt at the foot of the step and turned to face the assembled gathering.

'Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,' he began, 'and welcome to Buckingham Palace. Today's investiture will begin in a few minutes' time. Can I remind you not to take photographs, and please do not leave before the ceremony is over.' Without another word, he departed as discreetly as he had entered.

Jessica opened her bag and took out a small pad and a pencil. 'He didn't say anything about drawing, Grandma,' she whispered.

As eleven o'clock struck, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II entered the throne room, and all the guests rose. She took her place on the step in front of the throne but did not speak. A nod from a gentleman usher, and the first recipient of an honour entered from the other side of the room. For the next hour, men and women from around the United Kingdom and Commonwealth received honours from their monarch, who held a short conversation with every one of them before the usher nodded once again and the next recipient took their place.

Jessica's pencil was poised and ready when Grandpops entered the room. As he walked towards the Queen, the gentleman usher placed a small stool in front of Her Majesty and then handed her a sword. Jessica's pencil didn't rest for even a moment, capturing the scene as Harry knelt down on one knee and bowed his head. The Queen touched the tip of the sword gently on his right shoulder, lifted it, and then placed it on his left shoulder, before saying, 'Arise, Sir Harry.'

(See interview: Rendezvous with the master story teller)





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