Abdication A Novel - By Juliet Nicolson


On a gloomy February afternoon in 1936 a young woman of nineteen years brought the dark blue Rolls-Royce slowly to a halt. Managing the mahogany steering wheel with surprising ease for someone so slight, May Thomas parked the car outside the country home of a middle-aged man and his married mistress.

The journey from London to Sunningdale had taken about an hour and shortly before reaching the town May edged the car along the boundary of Windsor Great Park before turning off the road into an unmarked opening. She was enjoying the unaccustomed feeling of stylish authority given to her by the new chauffeur’s uniform of blue trousers, jacket and matching navy blue cap with its shiny patent leather peak. Driving through a pair of wide open and crisply painted white gates, she took the car slowly up a rising avenue of plump-trunked oak trees and thick rhododendron bushes. There were signs that substantial clearances had been made within the undergrowth but in some places, where the tangle of branches at the top formed a thick canopy, the snow had failed to make its way down into this melancholy landscape.

As the sand-coloured house—although no one could actually call it that—appeared round a bend, lit up by an ingenious series of concealed electric floodlights, May was relieved that she was only dropping off her passenger and would not be required to stay the night. The series of battlements surrounding the central tower that protruded from a mass of crenelated buildings were very un-house like; and yet the building’s diminutive size made it ineligible for the status of castle. May was reminded of a picture she had seen in one of her brother Sam’s old cowboy books, a turreted fort out of which an invading Red Indian leapt complete with bow and arrow.

A woman in a slim-fitting and tightly belted black dress with long sleeves and a white collar was standing at the front door. She looked a bit like a nurse or a school matron. As May eased the car slowly alongside her, the woman stepped forward and opened the car door.

“Evangeline, my dear!” said the woman in a hard-edged accent that sounded like coins rubbing up against each other in a pocket. “You have no idea how pleased I am to see you!”

May’s passenger was struggling to get out of the car. In fact, Miss Evangeline Nettlefold was wedged between the back seat and the back of the front passenger seat and the harder she struggled to get free the more stuck she became. A little dog, a Pekinese that had been sitting on his owner’s lap throughout the journey, appeared to be having an asthma attack and when May ran round to the other side of the car to release her passenger she saw that the dog had drooled onto a patch of Miss Nettlefold’s grey wool skirt, leaving a black stain on the front panel.

After an awkward tussle between May, Miss Nettlefold and a now frothing dog, the large woman found herself suddenly catapulted into the open air.

“Oh, Wallis, you know me! Too many delicious English cookies for my own good!” she apologised, in a surprisingly unflustered and rather beautiful voice. Her chubby cheeks resembled pink gobstoppers. “But how divine it is to be here at last.”

And with a wave to May, she turned towards the front door, her fur coat flapping open in the wind. The two women immediately fell into conversation, glancing briefly backwards in May’s direction before vanishing inside. Miss Nettlefold’s arm had been tucked tightly into that of her hostess, a woman with an unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high shoulders and an enormous head. She reminded May of someone, although May could not quite identify the memory. After several deep breaths of cold winter air May returned to the car, removed her cap and shook her hair free. She was about to resume her place at the wheel when she noticed the flat square package on the front seat. The brown paper parcel was imprinted with a store logo, a sharp-edged four leaf clover separating the letters “H” and “K.”

“I brought this all the way from Baltimore,” Miss Nettlefold had told May when they set off from St. John’s Wood that afternoon. “Can you put it somewhere safe for me? Knowing my luck, if I find a space for it here in the back with me and Wiggle, I will probably sit on it, and records have a funny way of snapping when