“Has anyone ever told you that you look like that English princess?” the grandmotherly Target cashier asked me.
It’s true. I do resemble a shorter, slightly younger Catherine Middleton. Or how she might look after pulling an all-nighter and without her perfect mask of makeup. In my everyday yoga clothes I’m more like frumped up Sandra Bullock or Anne Hathaway characters before they gain confidence, get makeovers and reveal their stunning beauty. But today I was wearing a belted orange-and-white-patterned Joseph Magnin dress that my great aunt passed on to me. Lucky for me, I’m the only girl in the family thin enough to wear her vintage clothes. She recently handed them down when she moved into an assisted living facility. “I live in my Juicy velour tracksuits nowadays, honey,” she insisted.
The Target cashier questioned, “Miss?” For some reason, in a tony British accent, I answered “How kind of you to say so.” A vision of the Duchess of Cambridge appeared before me and admonished “Quit holding up the bloody line with your delusions of grandeur!”
As I was saying, I looked nicer than usual since I was stopping by AAA to get an Alabama map and Tour book. I was hoping I’d see the tall, blue-eyed worker there behind the welcome counter. He’d be wearing a rumpled chambray shirt and ask me with a shy smile, “What can I do for you today?” But when I got to the AAA office, my shoulders slumped when a white-haired bearded man greeted me. I got my Alabama materials and left feeling like a deflating party balloon.
Five days earlier I had been fired from my job at GreenShoots Health Food Store and Café. I admit I got sidetracked at times by visions of Kate offering pithy quips and advice. She frequently tsked in sympathy about how rude the GreenShoots owner, Brenda, could be. I was extra nice to customers to compensate for Brenda’s crabbiness.
One time a customer tried to use an old $1 off coupon. Cindi was working the register and hesitated when the middle-aged petite woman handed it to her, “Uh, I haven’t seen this one before…” Brenda swooped in and said curtly “This is too old!” and brusquely crumpled it up. “There was no expiration date on it, so I…” started the tiny customer who then shrugged and gave up. I was serving the food so I gave her an extra-large helping of smoked tofu to make up for it. Another time, Brenda scolded a Japanese lady about using a large bag for some small muffins.
“The large bags are for the large pastries and the small bags are for the small ones,” Brenda lectured her officiously. I slipped a complimentary big pastry in the customer’s bag. “Just following the rules,” I whispered cheerfully. The Duchess of Smiles watched on and approved. The customer bowed her head several times in thanks. One time Brenda even got into a yelling match with a nice looking man who warned he’d Yelp about her incivility. Brenda retorted, “Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll Yelp about you!” “Ace comeback,” deadpanned Duchess Kate in my ear. Ultimately, Brenda fired me for what she called my “inattentiveness.” Customers will be spared my friendly but occasional inattentiveness, but will be left with Brenda’s constant mean over attentiveness.
I moped around my apartment for two days straight. I wore the same hot pink sweatpants and grey tank top both days and felt sorry for myself. There were no visits from my Royal muse. Running out of milk flushed me out of my gloomy cave. On my way to Trader Joe’s I heard a British-accented voice saying, “Come to London!” I thought, “Kate’s back!” But then I realized the voice was male and coming from the car radio. “London’s Calling!” the voice continued. I do not have enough cash for an international plane ticket… “Join us for a celebration of the upcoming royal birth in London—Alabama!” …But I could go on a driving trip! “I’m Colonel Friendly,” announced the radio voice, “and I invite you to Royal Baby Watch 2013!!”
When I got home, I went online and Googled all the details. A British expat known as Colonel Friendly owned a Quality Comfy Inn in London, Alabama.
He was devoting the lobby/breakfast area to 24/7 television coverage of the big event. The hotel would serve tea and crumpets daily at 4 pm and run a trivia contest with a grand prize trip to England! Without Kate having to tell me, I knew that it would be worth the 1,250-mile drive to London, Alabama. The nearest tourist attraction was in Monroeville, hometown of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite novels and I would definitely need to stop by this literary town on my way back home. I needed to hit the road immediately to make it to Alabama before the baby’s July 19 due date.
I checked in to the Quality Comfy Inn on July 18th. Its exterior was stucco with dark wood trim giving it a half-timbered look. The lobby’s red, white, and blue banner proclaimed “ROYAL BABY WATCH CELEBRATION!” Life-sized foamcore-backed photos of Kate and William stood at either side of the stone fireplace. My room had an English cottage decor complete with cabbage rose prints on the comforter and wallpaper trim.
I took out of my suitcase the burgundy-boxed Royal Albert plate my mother had brought back for me from England. When I was in elementary school, my dad had won the trip for two to London, England on a radio contest. I ran my finger around the thin gold band on the plate’s rim. In the center of the small porcelain plate, Lady Diana, shyly smiled. Somehow it seemed appropriate to bring this childhood relic on my trip to London, Alabama. My eyes teared up realizing that Diana was not around to see the birth of her first grandchild.
I wondered if Prince William would hold Kate’s hand while she was in labor. William’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, was enjoying a game of Squash when Charles was born. “Why would anyone play squash?” I wondered. It looked like a ridiculous sport. Granted my limited impression of it was colored by a dated photo from 1976.
In my 8th grade Social Science class, from the plastic bowl Mr. Newstat passed around, I drew out a pale green folded paper with the subject “squash” printed on it. When I wrote the regional squash organization for information, the promotional photo they sent for my report was surely from their musty archives. Somehow the image of the sweaty players with their long hair, mustaches and headbands didn’t make it look appealing to a preteen girl. All I remembered from my research was that Squash was invented in some tony English school around 1830 as a mashup of Tennis and a “Racquets” game played in London’s Fleet Prison.
The next morning the breakfast room was packed to the faux wood-rafters. All the tables were taken. A short-haired blond woman waved at me to join her and her husband. Patty had a leathery look and explained how they had driven out from Dallas, Texas. She took over the room with her piercing voice and sociability and her head bobbed like a cassowary when she talked. She cackled about how she was into cooking.
I asked what she liked to cook and she laughed, “Myself! I drove here in the convertible with the top down and cooked myself!” That explained her sunglass-tan raccoon eyes. Patty and her husband, Bob, were visiting friends in Birmingham, but detoured to London because “We are genuine anglophiles!” she roared. Then she admitted, “And I am positively addicted to Downton Abbey.”
That night in my room, propped up with multiple white pillows behind my back, I flipped lazily through the TV channels. I saw Steve Austin jumping up on a car accompanied by the distinctive staccato slow-motion bionic sounds. One of those forensic crime shows was on another channel. I clicked away quickly when I saw the too-realistic rotting body they were inspecting. Next, I briefly saw Sheriff Andy talking to Opie.
Then a hand modeling a cocktail ring flashed by. I paused to see Antonio Banderas brandishing guns in each hand. As the movie was in Spanish, I could not understand what he was saying except I could pick out “Cuidado!” or “Careful!” as a half dozen heavies were closing in on him. He shot his way out of that tight situation. I went around the dial again and saw Antonio giving another warning of “Cuidado!” before he exchanged a barrage of bullets with men popping out from behind pillars.
At two in the morning I awoke to the sounds of people jumping off the beds above me. It sounded like a herd of bison stampeding and throwing themselves off a cliff. It went on and on. I half-dreamed that I was holding a squash racquet in each hand with the handle ends pointed out like gun barrels. Wearing a striped tan, brown, and dark green serape, I yelled “Cuidado!” like Antonio and aimed my squash racquets at the ceiling.
In a slow sweeping arc, I fired black rubber balls up at them. I asked myself, “What would Kate do?” which in my fantasy made a petal pink pillbox hat with netting pop onto my head. The balls then coalesced and lifted up the loud offenders and carried them into bed where they fell instantly asleep. The ding of the elevator bell brought me back to reality, but I could still feel the smile on my face. I happily realized that at 3:25 AM it was at last actually quiet.
The next morning I showered and went down the stairs. As I opened the stairway door on the lobby level, I could smell bacon and coffee from the free breakfast buffet. The breakfast area was once more crowded with hotel guests. A man with a large gut was making a waffle in the lone waffle iron. I poured myself a cup of batter and stood nearby. When it beeped, he took out his waffle and poured another cup. Okay, now I’ll have to wait another 4 minutes. I know it’s not the same, but I felt like “Waity Katey” right now. I poured myself a powdery tasting O.J. and cup of milk. Beep.
“You’re kidding me,” I thought when he poured another cup of batter in and flipped over the waffle iron. I left my batter cup near him and walked over to the lobby coffee table to get a newspaper. When waffle dude started cooking his fourth waffle, his equally rotund wife came over and offered with a cloying smile, “Sorry, he’ll be done soon.” I had a shorter fuse due to my lack of sleep and said “It would be nice if he gave someone else a chance to use it.” She said “It’s first come first serve.” “I was surprised that he was making so many waffles,” I replied. “Is that why you rolled your eyes at him?” she asked, still smiling through her teeth. I argued, “People usually let others take turns.”
“Is that what they do?” she said with a tight smile. I couldn’t help myself, “Your insincere smile is creeping me out.” Then I added as I felt my face get warm “I don’t think you’re really sorry at all.” In a flashback to the movie scene from last night, I fantasized gripping my two squash racquets, yelled “Cuidado!” like Antonio, and blasted her with squash balls that shot out the ends. Several of the squishy black balls connected right at the thin lips that were pulled over her teeth. Beep! Finally, her husband was done with his waffles.
He carried all four to the table where his wife and two butterball kids joined him. No fruit or milk for them, just sugary apple juice and lots of syrup. As my waffle cooked, I thought that Kate Middleton would not have handled the situation the way I had. But then she wouldn’t be staying at Quality Comfy Inn and making her own breakfast in a common room. After about ten minutes I saw the waffle husband carry a stack of their dishes to the trash can. Large pieces of uneaten waffles stuck out between each white foam plate!
My daily routine included breakfast, showering, and then reading the newspaper. At some point I would check email, work out in the fitness room, and swim in the pool. Lunch was usually a PB&J along with a yogurt, apple and a hard-boiled egg pilfered from breakfast. I would read my Best of the Southanthology on the navy and green plaid armchair in the hunting-themed corner of the lobby. A framed print of two hounds was on the wall above me.
I tried to be in the main room as much as possible so as to not miss any of the Baby Watch coverage. I started to recognize the other lobby regulars. Most drifted in and out and would ask me about the latest news on Kate’s condition. Most of the day I was alone save for hotel staff. At the 4 pm tea time, the lobby would again bustle with activity as guests munched on their tea and crumpets. They would talk about their excursions to the big park and antique mall in Monroeville. Several took a “Volkswalk” or a walking tour that included the historic downtown and locations important in the lives of Harper Lee and Truman Capote.
My fourth breakfast at the Quality Comfy Inn or the “QC” as I referred to it in my mind was punctuated with a boomy voice that carried across the dining room. I looked out of the corner of my eye to see a pear-shaped man who appeared to be in his early 60s talking to a hotel guest. “I’m so blessed,” he practically shouted. He went on oblivious to her attempt to escape. “My son-in-law got me this room for my birthday. That’s the only way I could afford this hotel. I was homeless and driving a 15-person church van. I had a friend with a place and who needed a car so we help each other out.” As he told his story, he piled his plate high with scrambled eggs and sausage. Then he disappeared for several minutes. When he returned he told his story to every single person who got near him.
Another guest, a young mother in a dress so short you could see her light blue panties every time she bent over to talk to her toddler son, said “Oh, that’s nice,” and then whisked her child off to their table. A grey-haired lady who was reaching with tongs for a cheese danish under the sneeze guard entered his orbit. “Hi, how are you doing?” He boomed. She smiled but then retreated quickly when she saw his worn black T-shirt and stained baggy jeans.
I wanted to get a yogurt so I waited until he turned to a uniformed military man who had just entered the breakfast room. “Hi, how’re you doing?” He bellowed to the officer on his left. “I serve too…” I snuck in to the right to grab my yogurt. I was in and out before he could turn toward me. “…I serve at church, driving a van that holds fifteen people!” He had filled up another plate heaping with scrambled eggs and sausage.
“I’m going to get my money’s worth,” he said to no one in particular. I breathed through my mouth because it looked like he hadn’t gotten his money’s worth out of his room shower yet. As he launched enthusiastically into his story for the tenth time, I started loading my racquets up for firing. Then he asked a woman who listened longer to his story, “Would you like me to pray for you?” “Yes, pray for me, I need it,” she replied. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Rose.” “Do you want to tell me your last name or should I just use your first name when I pray for you?” he wanted to know. “Just use Rose,” she answered. He took his next loaded plate out from the room in time to escape my volley.
I had just settled into a corner of the lobby to read the day’s paper when the buzzing in the main room grew louder. A reporter on the screen hinted that Kate had given birth, so we anticipated an official announcement soon. I was so excited, I could hardly breathe. The QC lobby got increasingly full as the hours passed. Finally, at 2:31 PM (8:31 PM British time) Kensington Palace made the official announcement. Our room erupted in cheers that mingled with those on the television. We all hugged each other. We cheered again when the official birth notice was placed on an easel at Buckingham Palace. We hooted and laughed when the Colonel dressed in a hat with huge red and blue feathers, ruffled white shirt, and red brocade coat reenacted the official town crier’s announcement.
The next day, many of us barely left the TV area. I watched raptly until hours later William and Kate made their first appearance with their son outside St. Mary’s hospital. “He’s got a good pair of lungs on him that’s for sure,” said Prince William chattily as he held his newborn before the hungry cameras. (My favorite headline that referred to this was the Los Angeles Times’: “The Prince of Wails Has Arrived.”) It amazed me that this tiny creature was now third in line of succession for the British throne. William continued, “I’ll remind him of his tardiness when he gets a bit older. I know how long you’ve been standing here. Hopefully the hospital and you guys can all go back to normal now.” Later, William clicked his son in the rear car seat next to Kate, climbed into the front of the shiny black Range Rover and drove off.
Suddenly, I was aware of my unwashed hair and stale clothes. The Kate on the screen, of course, looked unbelievably radiant in her light blue polka dotted dress. It also occurred to me that I hadn’t had a personal appearance by Kate in a long while. In fact, she had not shown herself to me once since I had driven to London. I guess even the Kate of my imagination had been busy preparing for the birth of her first child. But, if the real Kate could find time to get freshened up, so could I. I went up to my room and took a much-needed shower.
As the warm water pulsed over me, I thought about all the waffles I had eaten on this driving trip. There was the one in Las Cruces, New Mexico that I overfilled so the batter dripped down and made waffle stalactites, the one in San Antonio shaped like the State of Texas, and the one in Lafayette, Louisiana where I mixed chocolate and plain batters to make a marbled waffle. I did not want to end up like the QC’s chunky waffle waster so I wanted to get some exercise. Plus, I had eaten all that bacon the day before. I had never seen bacon sliced so paper thin.
They were irresistibly crispy like bacon chips. But now I needed to get outside and burn some calories. The hotel pool was closed due to a potential exposure to Legionnaire’s Disease (Church Van Man, perchance?) and it was too ungodly hot and humid outside to run. I asked Lawanda, the nice hotel clerk, for a suggestion. She said there was a Squash court around the corner that the Colonel built. It was free for use by hotel guests while the pool was being cleaned. I took it as a sign that I needed to try out this sport. After all I liked tennis and ping pong, Smashball and paddle ball. Maybe it would erase the negative image I had irrationally held since age twelve. I’d do it in honor of the royal birth.
When I returned to the QC, the Colonel was in the lobby. “Just the person I was looking for. I have a proposition for you,” he said to me. “Darlin’,” (his posh accent occasionally went southern), “if we slap a blue wrap dress on you, you could have a career as a Princess Kate look-alike.” “Would I be able to leave my life in Southern California, so easily?” I wondered. I skeptically said “I doubt you have a big demand for Catherine Middleton appearances in the middle of Alabama on a regular basis.” “London is trying to become a tourist destination,” he explained.
“We want to emerge from the long shadow that Monroeville casts and shine brightly on our own. The Chamber of Commerce has been looking for the faces for their ad campaign. They sent feelers out to casting agents in New York and Los Angeles, but here you walk right through our doors! The budget has been approved and I’ve already found our Prince William. Ah, here he is now. Yes, his hair is the right color but there is too much of it. We need to shave his hairline back and…” His voice faded into the background as our eyes met. It was my AAA guy! What were the odds?! I returned his not-as-shy-as-usual smile and knew the answer to “What would Kate do?”
About The AuthorMarcie Chan lives in a cozy Craftsman bungalow in Pasadena with her husband and teenage son.
She enjoys singing, dancing, reading, writing, and making pottery, though not simultaneously.