The Queen I Knew | The New Yorker

The Queen I Knew | The New Yorker


If no one except her closest friends and family knew what Queen Elizabeth was really like, that’s exactly how she wanted it. . . . She was an outline of a woman that people could fill in however they fancied. —New York Times.

What was she really like? That’s what people have been asking me lately.

Yes, I knew her, to the extent that anyone really knew her.

Betty. I called her Betty. Which she hated. So I stopped calling her that. Then Betsy. She hated that more. “Don’t ever call me that again,” she’d say with a look, like, I will hurt you. Mostly I called her Burt. She liked that.

We met many years ago, on the subway. This was in London. The train was delayed and I happened to look over at her and she happened to look over at me and she made a face as if to say, “Can you believe this?” I shrugged, and she shook her head and rolled her eyes. She reached into her handbag, which I noticed was huge, and took something out.

“Lozenge?” she asked.

“Thanks,” I said, taking one and popping it into my mouth. “I’m Ed,” I added, extending my hand.

“Elizabeth. Queen of England.”

“Yeah, right,” I said, laughing. “And I’m Gig Young.” (This was a while ago.)

“No, seriously. I’m the Queen. Look at this bag. Look at these initials—E.R.”

“What does that stand for?” I asked.

“Extremely righteous.” She laughed. She was always laughing. Except when she was in a bad mood or angry or talking about the Irish. I told her that my last name was Joyce and that I was one-hundred-per-cent Irish and she said, “Well, they’re not all bad. But most!”

We laughed. And that’s how it started.

Things we’d do:

We’d play catch. She loved baseball. She loved the Cardinals and hated the Mets. She had this old Rawlings glove and she’d hold it up to her face and smell it. “What’s better than that?” she’d ask. “Smells like a summer day.” We’d throw for a while and talk. Or not. She liked the silence. That’s just how she was. She had a pretty good arm, too.

“Fucking Mets,” she’d say out of the blue. And then she’d laugh. She never swore. Unless it was about the Mets. God, she hated the Mets.

We’d hit a bucket of balls. I’d get a call in the morning. Crazy early. “Fancy hitting a bucket of balls?” she’d inquire. It took a while for me to get used to how she spoke. Her accent was mostly fake. She just thought it was funny to talk like that. Not a lot of people know this but she was born in Finland and retained a really strange Finnish accent which came out when she drank. She couldn’t pronounce the word “fish.” It came out “fiss.” I used to kid her about it and boy did that piss her off. “I could have you killed with a single nod,” she’d say. And sometimes I thought she was serious. That was the thing about Burt. She was all over the map, emotionally.

Other things. Motorcycle riding. She loved that. Darts in a pub on a rainy day. Except she was super competitive and, after a few pints, this weird aggressive side would come out and she’d pick fights. We did a thing sometimes where we went to Heathrow or Gatwick and would sit in a sports bar and play a game where you had to make up stories about the other people at the bar and where they were going and then walk over and ask them. Closest to the truth won a drink and a Scotch egg. She loved Scotch eggs, but who doesn’t?

She was quirky. She’d do a thing where you’d be at a pub or on the bus and she’d reach behind you and slap you on the back of the head. Hard. It hurt. And she’d say, “Who done that?!” And I’d be, like, “What the hell?” And she’d be all, like, “It’s just a joke.” And then we’d sit for a while, kind of annoyed with each other. And then we’d laugh. It did hurt, though.

One of my best memories is of the time we rented flying suits and jumped off a cliff in the hills south of Inverness. I thought she was kidding when she suggested it. But that was another thing about Burt. She was a madwoman sometimes.

I remember we stood on this cliff, both wearing those winged suits. She looked ridiculous because she also insisted on wearing one of her large hats. She was always wearing those damned hats. And I was, like, “Burt. You look ridiculous. Take off the hat.” And she started laughing and then I was, too, and I thought, How great is it to have a friend like this? And then she pushed me off the cliff and I heard her shout, “Don’t ever make fun of the hat!”

Later, we ate lunch at a little place in the local village. We watched the small crowd—mostly working people—eating pork pies, nursing pints. And she said a really cool thing. She said, “We’re all royal, you know?”

And I said, “Do you think so?”

She was silent for a moment and then turned to me and said, “Absolutely not.”

We laughed and laughed although I’m not really sure why. But that’s just who she was. ♦



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