Stories are one of the most ancient and most effective ways of making sense of the world. There are some very stern people who think that stories can’t be important or useful because they’re only made up. How wrong that is! The human imagination is profoundly important, and when it turns to exploring the problems we human beings find when we try to live a good life in a world we seem to be simultaneously destroying, there is nothing more valuable or worth encouraging.
Phillip Pullman, from the foreword to There Was a Knock at the Door: 23 Modern Folk Tales for Troubling Times
If the royal family had anyone to thank for saving them from a PR nightmare, it was the housekeeper, Mrs Gorse. Hooped but nippy, like an agitated bird, she dashed around the halls each morning, managing the greeters hired seasonally by the household. One of the Dutch girls didn’t like her, but she’d be back off to university by the end of August, taking her scowl with her. None of them understood the importance of the role here anyway – they whinged about the pay and ranted about having to put their bags through security every day without a thought for the welfare of their employers. What good was it to speak three languages if you were surly in all of them?
Nothing escaped Mrs Gorse’s gaze. She had weeded out the odd thief, the frequent shirkers and the rule-breakers over the years without a thought. When your job was to oversee a shifting tide of recruits from all corners of the continent, you had to have a kestrel’s eye.
That eye fell almost immediately on Karolina. A pretty girl from Warsaw, Karolina did not carp about the palace metal detectors, and didn’t once complain about the minimum-wage pay. From the off, she worked hard, greeting everyone – even the brash Houstonites who wondered aloud where the nearest McDonalds was – with a warm and genuine desire to help. There was something odd about her.
It was as though she had been born for the job. Arriving 15 minutes early each day to put on her uniform (unlike the others, who seemed to think nothing of arriving at 9am, clutching an un-ironed mass of fabric with the royal crest on it), she would wave hello to the gardener’s assistant and make a quick cup of black tea with sugar before taking her place in whatever location she’d been assigned that day.
The girl’s amiable nature began to concern Mrs Gorse, just as a perfectly clean kitchen bothers a health inspector. At least with the others you could tell what they were thinking. Take the Dane, Klaus. He was usually wondering if his favourite serving lady would be working in the great hall that day, so he could get an extra-large portion at lunch. Or the French girl, Annette, who was always smoothing her hair in case Ben from the grounds staff came by. Mrs Gorse could deal with people if she disliked or worshipped them. Anything in between was a source of great anxiety to her. She felt an overwhelming need to find some dirt on the neat little Pole.
It was a month into Karolina’s employment when Mrs Gorse spotted her opening. The eldest son of the queen had returned home from university and immediately the summer staff became even more distracted than usual. A rower at Cambridge, Prince Richard was a well-built, horsishly affable young man. Not handsome, but sandy and likeable, and relaxed in a way that only the immovably rich can be. When the student noticed Karolina, he was clearly smitten.
Karolina, for her part, became suddenly shy, her Warsaw accent washing over her excellent English whenever the prince addressed her. When Richard asked her if she would join him for lunch, she became all but mute, and managed to convey that she was busy. Clearly, thought Mrs Gorse, she’s star-struck. Obviously foreigners had always dreamt of meeting such important people. Explained why so many of them showed up here, year on year.
Eventually, the girl agreed to spend half her lunch hour with the prince, and they headed out together into the sculpted gardens. That was the first day Karolina was late returning to work, her apologies gushing forth over a barely squashed smile.
A fortnight passed and Karolina began to undertake tours, beaming throughout, and was always thanked profusely for her enthusiasm. They weren’t to know that the heir to the throne was meeting their guide daily now, and had begun to joke about the future. While Karolina was blossoming with confidence, the prince had become somewhat nervous, as he hovered by the inner palace gates each evening after her shift, waiting for a goodbye kiss.
As soon as she realised how rapidly the pair were growing closer, Mrs Gorse felt a low hum of panic in her gut. She looked upon Richard as a son, having summoned his mother’s convoy to the hospital when she gave birth to him. She had seen his first steps, and noted to herself his royal bearing, even as a tot. The idea of letting an unknown quantity like Karolina so close to him began to make her extremely nervous.
All I need is one thing, one fault to reassure me, she thought. I need to know she’s not an assassin or a spy. Got to find the minor typing error in the manuscript.
Now the thought had crossed her mind, that Karolina might be a spy, Mrs Gorse could not help imagining her vaulting the gates at night with a dagger, pushing open the door to a sleeping royal. But no, that was silly. Why do that when you could walk right in through the front door, arm in arm with the heir? When you could lay beside him and slip something into his night water, then kiss him goodnight and blame it on the housekeeper.
It’s amazing what a royal seal and a threat of culpability can do for diplomatic relations. Hitherto embargoed international documents began to warm Mrs Gorse’s hands. By desklight, she sifted translations of confidential government papers, hunting desperately for Karolina Nowakova. Too many, too many. Then she moved onto the gruelling task of searching the most common name in the Polish electoral rolls. Pulling up Karolina’s HR record, Mrs Gorse cross-checked and cross-checked over several evenings, nearly giving up before checking one last ream of medical records. Jackpot.
Born Janek Nowak, the son of a dentist from Katowice. Son. Those arms around the prince of her country. My god, the bullet Mrs Gorse had just shot from the air. She printed out the records and ran wheezily through the staff quarters into the family wing, her unfit frame rocking like a ship, desperate for someone to see what she had found.
Karolina Nowakova’s employment was terminated the following day. Failure to fully disclose identification records was cited, and the dismissed girl was asked to change out of her uniform, leaving it by the laundry before being escorted off the premises.
A few months later the news broke that Prince Richard had gotten engaged to a girl from his college and photographs of her foamed from the covers of every magazine, alongside descriptions of how refreshingly normal she was in all the chaos.
‘What was it like?’ asked a pink-maned queen, as Karolina served up a weak tequila sunrise. ‘Working at the palace.’
‘I don’t remember what it was like then,’ said Karolina. ‘Just how it feels now. Like every step I’ve ever taken has been across knives.’
‘Polish saying,’ she apologised, and began to wash a glass.
Kirsten Irving is one of the two editors behind award-winning poetry publisher Sidekick Books. Her work has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, published by Salt and Happenstance, translated into Russian and Spanish, and thrown out of a helicopter.
Syrenka is published in There Was a Knock at the Door: 23 Modern Folk Tales for Troubling Times, published by the New Weather Institute, bread, print & roses and the Real Press: therealpress.co.uk
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue