A new short story from Paul Torday


At the time of this story, in 1970, Ned Summers was the senior clerk in the Accounts section of the Abandoned Vehicles Department at Middlesbrough Town Council. He had a son, Charlie, born shortly before the sad death of his wife eighteen months previously. Since his wife’s death he had buried himself in research into his own ancestry and he had established some important genealogical connections.

His interest in where he came from was the driving force in his life. After his wife’s death his hobby became an obsession. Some of his colleagues at work began to find it tiresome.

“Where did you go on your holidays, then?” asked Billy Skeggs, who was a clerk in the same department as Ned. They were sharing a table in the canteen at lunchtime.

“The British Library in London,” replied Ned.

“Nice weather, was it?” said Billy, with the delicate irony for which he was famous throughout the Abandoned Vehicles Department.

“The weather was quite mild, thank you” said Ned, “but I didn’t really notice, you know, because I was indoors most of the time. I was researching some of my ancestors in the nineteenth century.”
“Oh, were you really?” asked Billy Skeggs. “Pass the brown sauce, would you?”

“In fact, I found,” said Ned, pausing for a moment to add weight to his words, “that I am descended from Ernst II, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Coburg.”

“Well I never.”

“The Grand Duke Ernst was Queen Victoria’s brother-in-law. And therefore I am related to her Majesty the Queen”

“You really have some strange ideas,” Billy Skeggs told him. “What did you do with the bairn while you were away?”


“Your son.”
“Oh. Charlie. I left him with his aunt for a few days. She helps about the house since Martha died.”

Billy Skeggs rose from the table, wiping the remains of the brown sauce from his lips with the back of his hand. Ned saw him stop to speak to a group of men at another table and tap his forefinger against his right temple. Ned knew that most of the people he worked with thought that he was odd. Maybe I am, he told himself, but how many other people in the Abandoned Vehicles Department can claim royal connections? Or in the whole of Middlesbrough?

But of course, nobody believed him. Nobody would attach much importance to the letter he had found tucked away in a book in the British Library. In this, an unknown writer described the affair between the Grand Duke Ernst and his female pastry cook; and the unlooked-for outcome nine months later. Ned’s son Charlie was the latest male descendant of that romance. What future might Charlie have if his relationship to the House of Windsor through its Saxe-Coburg ancestors could be proved?

That evening his sister-in-law Helen, who had moved into the house shortly after Martha’s death, brought Charlie to see his father. At first glance there was nothing regal about this grubby infant. When Charlie saw his father he tottered forward crying:


“Now that will do,” his father said, handing Charlie back to Helen and removing something sticky from his hand. A thought had struck him, and he wanted to share it.

“Helen,” he said, “don’t you think it’s time that Charlie was christened?”

On the way home from work, annoyed by Billy Skeggs’ indifference, a brilliant idea had occurred to him. It was so brilliant that he wondered if it might not be a little crazy. But now he was sure – he was almost sure – that it was the right thing to do.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Helen. “Yes, of course he should be. I’ve been meaning to mention it myself.”

And she impulsively kissed Ned on the cheek.

“We’d have to talk to the vicar, of course,” said Ned, “and then there is the question of godparents.”

After some research, he addressed a letter to: ‘The Private Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen, Buckingham Palace, London SW1’. With the letter he enclosed a print that he had run off on a copier in the planning department. It was a chart he had been working on which proved beyond doubt the relationship of Charlie Summers, descendant of the illegitimate daughter of the Grand Duke Ernst’s pastry cook, to the Private Secretary’s sovereign mistress, Queen Elizabeth II. The chart, about a metre square in area and covered in tiny spidery diagrams, was complex. But he had no doubt the Queen had experts to help her.

In the letter he stated his connection to her Majesty in clear terms and then said:

“I would count it the greatest possible honour if Her Majesty would condescend to act as godmother to her distant cousin, my son Charles, at his forthcoming christening which will be held next Tuesday at St. Joseph’s Church, Back Street, Middlesbrough.”

Then he posted the letter and chart.

When Charlie was in his late teens, his father confessed to him that he had once asked the Queen to be Charlie’s godmother. Charlie ascribed the look of hurt disappointment with life that was the most noticeable characteristic of his father’s face, to his failure to pull off what would have been a remarkable social coup. In his later life Charlie imagined how his father must have waited, day after day, for a letter from the Queen’s Private Secretary that never came. As far as Charlie knew his father’s letter had not even produced an answer in the negative. The silence from Buckingham Palace was deafening, and crushing. Perhaps they were afraid of scandal. Perhaps Ned Summer’s letter never reached the Private Secretary, let alone the Queen. And as far as he knew, Charlie was never christened. The disappointment of not having the Queen attend the service in Back Street, Middlesbrough, must have put paid to the whole idea.

Paul Torday

First published at the W&N Fiction Blog.