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