The day Diana came into my shop
I got the shy eyeroll, the coy smile, the blushing cheekbones
In the summer of 1990, en route from London to the Florida Keys, my family spent the night on the floor of the airport in Bangor, Maine. It was my first taste of life in the United States, and I recorded the life-changing moment in my teenage diary. “THIS SUCKS,” I scrawled in enormous letters, mimicking what I understood to be the American literary style of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. “IT, LIKE, TOTALLY BLOWS.”
Our plane had been grounded, due to “an engine not working”. These were the words told to us through a supersize smile by Tammy, the attractive flight attendant manning the desk at the departure gate. Tammy was wearing a tight-fitting lemon uniform that perfectly matched her hair and heels. When my father wasn’t flirting with her, he was listening to an atonal string quartet on his Walkman. My mother was ignoring them both, her nose buried a dog-eared paperback of Gone with the Wind. It was 5am. On the far side of the lounge, my twelve-year-old sister was sitting cross-legged and alone on the bristly carpet tiles, playing solitaire. I moved over to join her, and she hungrily hoovered up the cards, asking if I wanted to play a game called “Shit”.
“Shit?” I said.
Sophie stared. “That’s right. ‘Shit’.”
I didn’t trust my sister as far as I could throw her. She reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck’s character in The Lady Eve, a film she’d watched on repeat back home until the VHS tape wore out. “Alright,” I said hesitantly. “What are the stakes?”
She nodded towards my rucksack. “The usual.”
Five losing hands in a row later, I accused her of making “Shit” up just to swindle me out of Opal Fruits. Her strawberry-coloured mouth contorted into a malevolent grin. Then she leaned forward and whispered in a vibrating American twang, “I need you like the axe needs the turkey.”
On cue, an apple-faced couple shuffled across the floor towards us. The pair introduced themselves as Rhonda and Wade and looked to be in their late thirties. They were clad in enormous, ugly cargo shorts and matching T-shirts that depicted the St. Louis arch. Spotting an easy mark, Sophie invited them to join our game, changing its name to “Sugar”.
“I just adore your accent,” Rhonda told my sister as she settled in. “Are you from Canada?”
“London,” Sophie said, dealing the cards one-handed, like a croupier.
Rhonda threw two pudgy hands to her mouth. “Oh! My! Lord!” she yelped. “You must know Lady Di!”
“You’re really friends with Princess Diana of England?” Wade said, as if Sophie had suggested as much.
My sister stopped dealing. Dollar signs had appeared in her eyes. “Of course,” she said. “We take tea together. All the time.”
“At Buckingham Palace?!” Rhonda screeched, bouncing up and down on her ample buttocks like she needed to pee.
Sophie shrugged. “Or at our place. It depends.”
“Who’s bought the cakes,” Sophie said.
Thirty years on, my family repeats this anecdote ad nauseum. America makes an unforgivable hash of things in Afghanistan and you can count the seconds before a Hilton relates the story of Rhonda and Wade from St. Louis, the ignorant simpletons who believed that every Londoner took tea with their close pal, Diana, Princess of Wales.
The problem is that the anecdote doesn’t work. Rhonda and Wade were an ideal target for my sister’s cardsharp cons, but they weren’t wildly off the mark about the life of an average Londoner. I didn’t say so at the time, but the month before meeting them in Bangor International Airport, I had in fact met the “people’s princess’ in a quiet corner of Knightsbridge. We didn’t have tea, Diana and I, and regrettably we didn’t play a hand or two of “Shit”, but we did spend a few minutes of quality time together, just me and her, enjoying each other’s company in what I choose to remember as a Sliding Doors sort of way.
I recognised her immediately but for some reason, I didn’t feel starstruck
Our brief encounter was not by design. My schoolyear had to complete a week’s work experience in what our teachers called “the real world”—so my mother suggested I go and work for my godfather, who managed an haute couture fashion boutique in Beauchamp Place. The placement suited me just fine. My classmates were making cups of tea in high street estate agencies or wiping bottoms in care homes for the handicapped. My first day’s chores including unhooking the bras of a gaggle of tittering lingerie models. I knew there and then that I’d learn more that week than I’d learned in a decade of school.
“You bastard,” my friend Josh said when I detailed my responsibilities to him on the phone that night. “You utter, utter bastard.”
Josh had spent the first day of his work life scrubbing toilets in a local Wimpy. If I had a complaint, it was that my mild-mannered godfather would disappear every day for hours on end to take stock in the basement, forcing me to secrete myself in the changing room with the models, who’d parade around carefree and completely naked, admiring their curves in the three-way mirrors as they playfully ruffled my mop of boyish hair.
The boutique was by appointment only. Wealthy private clients would be guided to plush, flamingo-coloured sofas, where they’d be served luxury cake and champagne as a camel train of beautiful girls strutted out of the wings to model the latest fashions. I’d direct proceedings from my catbird seat in the changing room, helping the carousel of hurried models to step out of their handstitched minidresses and into their silk camisoles, before sending them back out again, for the client’s eyes only. Thanks to my mother, I now knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I’d been on the job four days when my godfather finally came to find me. “Ah, here you are,” he said, sheepishly entering the changing room to ask if I’d mind watching the shopfront for half-an-hour. The models all protested, claiming they’d miss me, but I was feeling smothered by their constant attention, and welcomed the chance to take a quick breather. No one random ever came to the boutique anyway, so I knew I wouldn’t have to do anything. I stood behind the pointless counter, examining my nails and thinking about my wildly unreal life back in school, when a Rolls Royce limousine pulled up to the kerb outside. Two broad-shouldered men with earpieces climbed out of the car on each side, checking their perimeters. Then the man nearest to me opened the rear door of the vehicle, and a shapely woman’s leg popped out, her heel lingering momentarily on the paving stone.
The woman was wearing dark glasses. She skipped up the steps, pressing the buzzer. Unsure what to do, I checked my own perimeters, seeing no one. The woman jabbed a finger against the glass door, signalling something I couldn’t comprehend. “Eh?” I mouthed, throwing up my hands. Then I remembered how characters in films were always pressing buttons hidden under their desks. I fumbled around blindly at crotch height and eventually located a switch. I pushed it and the door clicked open. The woman entered the boutique, lifting her sunglasses from her big doe eyes to park them atop her bleached, blow-dried hairdo.
As my contemporaries wallowed in the grungy ennui of Generation X, I bought the tabloids just to clip pictures of Diana
I recognised her immediately as the most famous woman in the world, but for some reason, I didn’t feel starstruck, and I wasn’t anxious about breaching royal protocol. I failed to bow, curtsy or genuflect. I didn’t adopt any of the formal codes of behaviour my mother had drummed into me. I forgot to address her as “Your Royal Highness’ or “Ma’am”. I just waved like a fourteen-year-old idiot and said, “Hi.”
“Hello,” she said timidly, studying me as she reached an elegant hand into her fashionable, oversize bag.
As with all of the most significant moments in my life, what happened next is a blur. The Princess asked after the designer, a friend of hers, and I apologised, saying she wasn’t in the building, that I’d in fact not met her yet, a situation Diana called “dreary”. She handed me a slip of paper, saying, “Here,” and I slid it under the counter without looking or asking a single question about it. Her bodyguards stood watch outside the store, while I got the shy eyeroll, the coy smile, the blushing cheekbones. I remember thinking it maybe looked strange—an adolescent boy overseeing a fashion house—but Diana didn’t say anything, and besides, my hormones were raging.
I apologised again for being useless, then the Princess turned to leave and there was an awkward, theatrical moment, as she stood with her hand on the door, waiting for me to remember to press the switch to open the latch. After her limo sped away, I took an instant to reflect upon my increasingly peculiar existence, then I deserted my post to race down into the basement. My godfather was veiled amongst rows of hanging negligees. When I told him what had happened, he barely looked up from his clipboard. “I’m not surprised,” he said, matter-of-factly, “the Princess is a valued client.”
His reaction was so blasé that it made me wonder if I’d imagined the whole thing. Had I been so bored upstairs, stood behind that pointless counter, examining my nails, that I’d dreamt up a pubescent fantasy just to pass the time? I started to question my own sanity, and to this day, though I’m told that yes, it did all really happen, I’m not one hundred per cent convinced.
In the years following our surreal encounter, I cultivated a semi-ironic crush on Diana. As my contemporaries wallowed in the grungy ennui of Generation X, I bought the tabloids just to clip pictures of Diana hugging AIDS patients or exercising in cycling shorts. I’d stare at a photo of her tight, stockinged leg climbing out of a limousine, and recall the very same scene back in Knightsbridge, wondering if she remembered me. In my dreams, we were lovers, our insatiable lust clandestine and forbidden, yet somehow public enough to get me invited onto talk shows.
When she died in the car crash in Paris, I’d been out clubbing with Sophie in Central London. Our parents were in Macerata, Italy, and we’d staggered into their empty home with dry mouths and an intense sense of wellbeing. It was 5am. We fell onto the sofas, turned on the TV, and watched the news break. For a solid hour, we thought we were hallucinating.
Two years later, I fell in love with a woman everyone agreed was a dead ringer for Diana Spencer
“Your Princess is dead!” an economist told my father at breakfast in Italy that morning. Dad threw his head back and laughed, thinking he’d failed to understand a joke. “Yes, very good!” he replied, flashing the thumbs up at the baffled academic.
While I didn’t feel anything much at all, my parents’ reaction freaked me out. Sophie and I returned to our respective flats, and they returned home from Macerata to join the pilgrimage of grieving mourners to Kensington Palace. This was so stunningly out of character that my sister and I assumed some dastardly Italian scientist had replaced them with media-manipulated, hysterically sentimental replicas. “It’s funny,” my father said to us one night at a restaurant in Bloomsbury, “but I don’t recall ever feeling this upset by anyone’s death before.”
“Not even your own parents?” my sister asked. “Or your siblings? I don’t recall you ever once mentioning Diana before… all this.”
Dad stared right through her across the table, like she wasn’t there.
“Just promise me you and mum didn’t leave a handwritten poem outside Kensington Palace,” I said. “Or a stuffed animal.”
“Flowers,” he said. “We left flowers.”
“Why?” Sophie asked him.
“I don’t really know.” He chewed his lip. “Everyone else was doing it, I suppose, so your mother and I just fell in line.”
Two years later, I fell in love with a woman everyone agreed was a dead ringer for Diana Spencer. I didn’t spot the resemblance at first, but after we ran away together, declaring ourselves soulmates, she took me to Cambridge, where she studied. Our first night there, we walked arm-in-arm into a busy Greek restaurant she was fond of, and in a joyful, welcoming way, all of the staff stopped what they were doing to yell, “Diana!”
She turned to me, bowing her head and smiling coyly as she rolled her eyes. “See?”
I saw, alright. I saw everything—including the note I’d left under the counter at the fashion boutique, about which I’d forgotten to ever tell anyone.
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