Pomp and circumstance

31 October 2013 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Bär den som en krona (‘Wear it like a crown’, Schildts & Söderströms, 2013). Sanna Tahvanainen interviewed by Janina Orlov

A kick in the stomach – yes, that is what it feels like each time I catch a glimpse of the Crystal Palace. The miniature on Albert’s desk has finally grown to maturity. The great greenhouse towers where once the elms stood. On a clear day the sun dances along the glass, making it glisten, the whole place all but blinding us. One is forced to squint on approaching it. One reaches out a hand, and when it touches the glass and steel, one knows one is there.

The grand opening is a mere five days hence. I step inside, he will be there somewhere. He is unaware of my arrival; it is to be a surprise. These last months he has been gone long before I have woken, and arrives home only once I am asleep. He seems quite indefatigable, neither sleeps nor eats properly. These last weeks there has been nothing else on his mind but the Great Exhibition.

Inside is a frightful, deafening din, thousands of people busily making their final preparations for the grand opening. It is much like being caught up in swarm of bees. A fountain stands at the majestic entrance, no water yet bubbling through it. Two of the park’s most opulent elm trees have been spared and now stand shooting up through the floor and groping at the ceiling. Enormous crystal chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling, oriental carpets hang from the balustrades. There are palms trees and flowers, vitrines filled with miniature ships, porcelain china, sculptures. In the park outside is the curve of the Serpentine. Curious passers-by stop and gaze up at the building. A myriad of beautiful items blinding the eyes of those observers, all collected in one and the same place. It is like Uncle Prinny’s pavilion, only a thousand times larger. Strange and spectacular. And all this is Albert’s doing.

I stroll through the various different rooms. The mechanical room with its locomotives, envelope machines, speaking telegraphs, etcetera. In one room I find a daguerreotype of the moon. And as I saunter through the countless galleries, it strikes me that the Great Exhibition is Albert’s love letter to England. Now shall my people finally see his greatness, and come to love him just as I do. His glory shall be sealed. And so it must be. The opening will be nothing short of a great success. It shall be Albert’s resounding triumph. With that I remember the original purpose of my visit: I am here to surprise Albert. Where can he be?

‘I know precisely where I shall take you,’ says Albert when I eventually locate him in one of the lounges. He was deciding which cushions should adorn the profusion of settees. Full of expectation, I allow him to take my arm in his. We take a few steps forward, then stop.

‘Shall we no further? I thought you were to take me on a great adventure.’

‘Look, there are water closets that everyone can use. They only cost a penny,’ he says, joy radiating from his face. ‘I wager you hadn’t expected that!’

‘Albert, I am quite dizzy.’

‘Come, there is something else I must show you.’

‘I thought so.’

We take the stairs, walk through a number of galleries I have not seen before.

‘My love, I wish to show you the largest diamond in the world.’

‘How happy I am, how endlessly happy and proud of you,’ I falter.

‘Allow me to introduce the Koh-i-Noor.’

‘Is that it lying there? But it isn’t glittering. Why does it not glitter?’

‘I believe it should be yours,’ he says.

‘What on earth should I do with such a thing?’

‘It would make a fine brooch. Or you could wear it in the crown.’

‘I have no need for so many jewels. Come, let us continue. I was rather taken with the mechanical section. People will love it. The talking telegraph is quite magnificent. I would very much like one of those out at Osborne House.’

The opening was quite unforgettable. Even at a great distance, I can see the water glistening in the Crystal Fountain. It is as though all the beauty of the world has converged on this one place. Flowers in an abundance never before seen, statues, palm trees, everything on a monumental scale. Music from the great organ melds with the buzz of thousands upon thousands of visitors. Today everything is magnified and everyone, simply everyone, is smiling. The Koh-i-Noor is no longer in the glass vitrine, but now sits in the crown. And the crown sits upon my head, heavier than ever before. But I bear it, I manage it. Albert smiles, enthralled. Before the day is out I know that the opening of the exhibition will remain one of my dearest memories.

We enter into the Crystal Palace, accompanied by trumpet fanfares, throngs of peoples both inside and out. Albert leads me, with Bertie in my other hand. Before setting off, the boy spent an eternity in front of the mirror straightening his miniature clothes, without the remotest sense of modesty. Albert tries to interest him in theology and German philosophy, but Bertie would rather try on clothes. He hasn’t the slightest appreciation for life’s seriousness. It is clear that we must choose his friends with the utmost care.

But what of it? This is Albert’s day. We stand beneath the grand marquee, at the point where the Crystal Fountain gushes what looks like pure gold. The organ and choir seem to lift the roof. ‘Two hundred instruments, six hundred voices,’ whispers Albert.

At that moment it seems my Albert has the whole world in his hand. I think of the splendid lounges. How I wish I could steal away unnoticed, hand the crown to one of the ladies-in-waiting, and lie down and rest for but a short while. It would do a world of good for my head. But, of course, such a thing would be unthinkable. The glass walls and the cascades of water in the fountain match other gleam for gleam. One cannot mistake the elation in the faces surrounding us. Everybody is here and everybody is happy. There they stand, cheering – my people, guests from afar. I must remember to smile. That little smile, just not showing the teeth.

A man steps forward from the sea of people and runs right at me. I imagine that my final hour must have come, but instead of a pistol he carries a large bouquet of flowers in his hand. The tautness in Albert’s face dissolves, and I see him give the guards a nod. I allow the man to approach me. He hands me the bouquet and I take it.

‘Mummy! Look at my new cufflinks! Aren’t they simply wonderful?’ exclaims Bertie before I lay down the flowers.

‘Can you see the fountain? Over there,’ I say in an attempt to divert his attention.

‘They have a B on them, for Bertie, and they’re made of gold.’

Bertie’s voice was drowned out by the choir, who struck up in a rendition of God Save the Queen, accompanied by the clang of the organ, the clamour of the strings. This is Albert’s greatest hour. We look at one another and smile so much that our faces hurt. When our eyes meet, standing there beneath the marquee, it seems as though all the nervousness we have felt finally ebbs away. It is an unforgettable day, a fantastic day. The bubbling of the fountain mingles with the peal of children’s laughter. Everything is fused, woven together.

‘They’re made of gold, Mummy!’

It seems as if the whole world has converged on the Crystal Palace. There is room for everything, and everyone is welcome. And all this, the doing of my dearest Albert.

‘Mummy, why aren’t you listening?’

Bertie grips my hand tight, holding on to me with both hands. I look down at him and catch his eye.

‘You’re not frightened, are you, little one?’ I ask.

Bertie shakes his head, but I can see that tears are close.

‘It’s just, you’re not listening.’

‘This is your father’s greatest moment, you see,’ I explain. ‘It could hardly be any greater.’

‘Must everything always be so big?’ he asks and looks around anxiously.

‘Inside there is a section full of miniatures. We can go there shortly, once the music has quietened down and I’ve said a few words to the crowd.’

At this, Bertie looks more content; he lets go of my hand and looks right up at the ceiling. A few birds are fluttering around up there; it is hard to make out what birds they are. Perhaps they are doves. And what bird would be better suited? Albert’s vision was guided by the idea of a brighter future. The whole world united in one enormous greenhouse.

The birds criss-cross one another above Bertie’s head, as though they are out looking for a playmate; he points up at them, enthralled, and I nod my head. He looks back as he runs further off, assuring himself that I really am looking at him, stretches out his arms and runs round in circles. He looks like a true little gentleman. His shoes glint beneath the crisp creases of his trouser legs, his scarf is carefully knotted and his jacket was tailored less than a week ago. Everything fits him perfectly. In general I rarely allow him to choose his own clothes; we mustn’t indulge his whims, neither Albert nor I would wish that. But this time Bertie chose everything by himself.

I keep an eye on him all the while, and see the accident out of the corner of my eye. Bertie stands stock still and backs away from the birds, which only a moment before had been his playmates. The little jacket with matching scarf now features a white blotch, slowly spreading out across the fabric. I can see his lower lip parting from his upper lip and beginning to quiver. He cannot understand that one of the birds has destroyed his clothes. His eyes look here and there; I see him but he cannot see me – there are swarms of people around him, so many long legs, and he, so little. It is just as well, for now his nose has started to run and he shall soon be bawling. I avoid making Albert aware of the situation, but nod discreetly to one of the ladies-in-waiting who calmly approaches him. I see them disappear the same way we arrived.

After the Great Exhibition, the park is never the same again. The remains of foundations jut into the air, and strange empty spaces are sketched on the ground where the elms once stood. One walks into Hyde Park now ready to be blinded by the sunshine reflected on the glass. But nothing happens. Nothing stands there now, shimmering by the Serpentine. The Crystal Palace has been moved to Sydenham, where latterly it is filled with bawdy spectacles.

Neither is Albert the same after the Great Exhibition. He seems to age quickly. Where once he had a head of thick, dark hair, now there is just his pate shining. His hair has been singed away by the glow from the green lamp. Prisms of light from the crystal chandeliers are reflected in the gleam. He looks like one of the servants. Where has my beautiful man gone? My stately Albert who fenced and hunted? He has become portly and practically bald. He looks so different from when I once said I do. As a matter of fact, it was I who asked the question. Royal protocol would have it so, and he agreed. And thus, my question to him was in fact my I do. I wanted us to be together. But by my life, I did not marry a man who looks like a servant.

The servants tell me how they take fright at him when they see him wandering the palace at night. He looks like a wavering wax candle, so pale and haggard as he is. He has taken more regularly to falling asleep midway through supper. Going to the theatre is entirely out of the question.

What exactly had I fallen for?

I take off the ring, just to see what it feels like, and gently stroke the band of skin that has lain hidden beneath the gold. It is younger than the rest of me. I play with the thought of not replacing the ring at all, of allowing that which is young in me to grow steadily older, to age just like everything else. I could go through to Albert and see whether he notices anything amiss. I could even ask him outright:

‘Do you see? Do you notice anything different?’

Translated from the Swedish by David Hackston


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