Paris, February 1992
I’m meeting her in Ladurée, a tea room on the corner of rue Royale – a street named after the only people who can afford to shop here. Ladurée fits in effortlessly. Its windows are filled with macarons and from the inside it looks like a palace hall, with lots of pink. Little wooden tables are occupied by ladies who are fashionably dressed, even for French standards. Two Arabs in ill-fitting suits make the exception. I suppose they were drawn in by the sugar.
The waiter greets me in French, and when I tell him I’m looking for Madame Marceau, he nods. I don’t suppose he speaks English; no one here appears to speak English. Fortunately, the former queen of Beledar studied at Oxford. ‘Monsieur Wilson, I presume,’ she says as she looks up from her book. I nod and she gestures at the empty chair opposite to her. ‘S’il vous plaît.’
‘Thank you.’ I pull back my chair before the waiter can assist me, and say, ‘Interesting place.’
‘When I was young, women in Paris were not allowed to enter cafés. Times have changed, but this place…’ She shakes her head. ‘We lived just around the corner, and my nanny brought me here. Times have changed, but this place still feels like a home away from home.’
Times may have changed, but she hasn’t. Or not as much as she should have. She doesn’t look a day past sixty-five, even though she must be well over eighty years old. ‘What do I call you?’ I ask. ‘Madame Marceau, Majesty, Mrs Amin? Or did you remarry?’
‘After one was married to a king, ordinary men lose all attraction.’ She sighs. ‘Not that I cared for ordinary much before. Champagne?’
‘Sure.’ Not exactly my poison of choice, but who am I to refuse a former queen? ‘According to my publisher, you have never given an interview before. What made you agree to tell your story now?’
‘Old age, Mr Wilson. Soon, I will dead and then it will be too late.’ She lights a cigarette, as I get my tape recorder from my bag. From the corner of my eyes, I notice that the Arab men are staring at us. I turn towards them, but they do not look away. ‘Don’t mind them, they don’t bite.’
‘Who are they?’ I ask.
‘They are Beledarian spies, Mr Wilson. They are here to make sure that we’re not planning a coup.’
I turn back to her. ‘They’ve been following you for thirty-five years?’
‘Not quite. I first noticed them shortly after Mr Khan became president. I wrote to him that there was no need to follow me, but he disagreed.’
I frown. ‘He wrote back?’
‘Of course.’ The waiter has arrived with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, and a glass for me. He refills Madame Marceau’s glass before he serves me.
‘Do you still have the letter?’
She shakes her head and raises her glass. ‘I am not sentimental. Shall we drink to Beledar?’
Following her example, I say, ‘Beledar.’
We stare at each other and for a moment I can’t find any words. Another sip brings my serenity back to me, and I ask, ‘After your husband was killed, how did you get out of Beledar?’
The is an excerpt of the novella, Queen of Beledar, which will be published in July 2017. Subscribe to my email list before 1 July 2017, to receive a FREE copy and new short stories.