Bleep! Bleep! One by one, the Book Bitches of Beauchamp Street materialise on screen for their weekly lockdown club meeting.
Bridget leads the group. “Okay, Bitches,” she says. “The Duchess of Cornwall is joining us tonight and I’m not even kidding.” She tops up her glass with more Chardonnay, which she’s been chain-sipping since five this afternoon.
It’s now eight-thirty.
“So Facebook is true?” squeals Stacey. “The Royals really are living here?”
“Oh, it’s not just a rumour,” says Mei. “Look what’s leading Stuff tonight.” She swivels her camera to face her laptop, showing a photo of Camilla splashed across the news, her face buried deep in a stuffed animal.
“Is she pashing a teddy-bear?” asks Stacey. “I don’t get it. But I’m here for it.”
“It’s a long story,” says Bridget. “Just remember to treat her normally. She wants to be one of us.”
Bleep! The women freeze as a golden crown icon blinks onto their screens, blasting a fanfare of brass music. Camilla suddenly appears.
“Am I orn?” she asks, her hair in stiff wings either side of her face.
Bridget stands, pushes back her chair and drops a deep curtsy. “Welcome, Your Excellency,” she says. The others hurriedly do the same. “We’d like to offer you honorary membership of this club. It would mean a lot if you’d accept.” The others nod in agreement. “I mean, it’s not every day that ordinary Kiwis like us can call you a Bitch to your face.”
“Gosh, that would bring back memories,” replies Camilla. “Of 1997, mainly. THENK YOU. I accept.”
“Are you beginning to feel at home here?” asks Mei.
“Most definitely,” Camilla says. “This house is filled with so many furnishings and objets d’art from the Mother Country that I couldn’t possibly be homesick.” She angles the computer to one side, revealing a life-sized wall painting of a jigging Morris dancer, shaking bells on a stick.
Camilla swivels to the other side to show a stuffed fox-hound gripping a hare between bared teeth. Its eyeballs are like pinpricks. The Duchess returns into view. “I find this sort of thing incredibly comforting.”
“Do you have wine?” Bridget asks. “We have a game where, if someone mentions the word ‘book’, you have to have a drink.”
Camilla holds up a bottle of Burgundy and waggles it.
“Perhaps you’d like to start by telling us what you enjoy reading?”
Truth be told, Camilla can’t be arsed with books. Why read, when instead you can squeeze 18 hands of solid muscle between your thighs and gallop rhythmically for hours over the hills and dales of Gloucestershire?
“Books?” she says, perplexedly. “Oops! Said it.” She takes a deep gulp of wine. “Well, I did read a novel in my younger days, by a fellow called Austen. Four girls, no money. Moody chap, big house. Swims in a pond with his shirt on. He marries one of them in the end, but not enough dogs, in my opinion. You can’t set a book in the countryside and not have any dogs.”
She takes another big gulp.
“I think you might enjoy some New Zealand writing, while you’re here,” Bridget says. “The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize not long ago.”
“Is it any good?” asks Camilla.
“None of us have read it,” says Stacey.
“Nobody in New Zealand has read it,” says Mei.
Camilla pours herself another slug. “To be perfectly honest, we Windsors haven’t the time for long reads. A fish factory doesn’t just open by itself, you know. We must be there to snip the ribbon, or what will a nation eat with its chips?”
“I miss chips,” says Bridget, wistfully. “I miss caramel-walnut slice from Gipps St Deli. I miss getting my eyebrows done.”
“I miss my nan,” adds Stacey.
“I miss the thrill of the hunt,” says Camilla. “I miss hearing the bell for dinner. And lunch. And breakfast. I miss the Red Arrow flypast at Trooping the Colour. And my Clumber Spaniels, Betty and Pip. I couldn’t bring them. Betty barks. Pip bites, and has incontinence. He can’t be allowed out in public.”
“Still, it must be nice having your baby step-grandson with you at Homewood?” asks Mei.
“Who? Archie?” asks Camilla, suppressing a small burp. “Oh, he didn’t come. No. Harry and Meghan didn’t wish to unsettle him, so he’s being looked after by a roster of people the couple trust: Elton John, Oprah, and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
“That’s a shame,” says Stacey. “I was quite looking forward to seeing him in a buggy in Karori Mall.”
“Yeah, the Mall could use some Royal magic,” agrees Bridget. “Maybe you could pop down there when lockdown’s over, Your Greatness, and browse the slipper socks at Ballentynes.”
“When lockdown’s over, I’m going to be a better person,” says Mei, welling up. “I might volunteer in the Mary Potter Hospice shop.”
“I’m going to leave my husband,” says Bridget. “He ate 14 Tim Tams during a vid-con yesterday. There are only 16 in a pack. And then he moved the last two to the end of the packet, so it looked full, and put them back.” She thumps the table, furious. “Who does that? WHO?”
Everyone goes a bit quiet.
“I’m going to stand up to a few people,” says Camilla. “Old horse-face, Anne. Charles’s awful valet, Bates. He’s always limping about, and rummaging in Charles’s drawers. And I’m going to write a poison pen-letter to that dusty old stick-in-the-mud who refused Charles and me a church wedding.”
“The Archbishop of Canterbury?” asks Stacey.
“No,” says Camilla, “Her Majesty the Queen.” She hiccups. Her mascara has smudged a bit, and she’s lying back in her chair, with her crossed ankles up on a pouffe. She jabs the air with a finger. “And I can think of two other desperately annoying people who need a bloody good ticking orf. In fact, I might go and do it now.”
Camilla sways to her feet, looms close to the screen and stage-whispers: “Until next time, Bitches.”
In the next gripping instalment, Meghan finds meaning at Karori Mall