Princess Talia finds the modern world frightening. When she wants to go shopping she asks her college friend, Sally, to come with her. In a department store, a woman steals Talia's purse. Talia attacks the thief with unfortunate consequences for herself. Now, more than ever, she needs a knight in shining armour.
Should you wish to escape from the Medieval walls of an Oxford college, and into a less rarefied atmosphere, all you have to do is to cross Cornmarket Street. Once your foot touches the opposite curb, you are right in the world of mothers pushing buggies loaded with toddlers, dads taking their kids to the ice rink, hooded teenagers hanging out in hamburger bars, and shoppers sliding plastic cards into cash point machines. Even an Oxford professor with a domed head full of Greek epigrams, becomes a citizen of the modern world when he is queuing for his weekly groceries.
Princess Talia had been a student at Westerly College for almost two terms and she was yet to set foot on the other side of Cornmarket Street. She lived as much as possible inside the college.
One Saturday morning, the princess found her best friend lounging in the Junior Common Room as she thumbed through the magazine of a weekend newspaper. “Sally,” she said. “I must know. Where do you get your clothes?”
In truth, Sally’s fashion sense was not something that most people found interesting. She was wearing a blue hooded fleece over a t-shirt with the slogan 'Angel in Disguise', some loose, slightly shiny trousers, and some old trainers. She looked up from the magazine and said:
“Sorry Talia. We can’t all dress like a princess you know.”
“Yes, I understand that,” said Talia. “It's just that I want to look more like you Sally.”
“Why in the world would you want to dress like me? Your clothes are beautiful. Mine are just rags by comparison.” Sally stood up and held her friend’s hand. The cuffs of her shirt were embroidered in silk with a delightful bird pattern. The buttons were of pearls. A silver pendant hung from her neck in the shape of the moon. The workmanship was exquisite.
“Nobody else could get away with dressing like you do around college, but you carry it off perfectly. If you dressed like me, you’d just be one more slob.”
At this, Talia whispered in Sally’s ear. “I think that Basil is afraid of my splendour. My plan is to dress down to his level, and then he might, well, you know, realise what he’s got to do.”
“Oh, I see,” said Sally. “Well if it will make you feel better, let’s take a spin round the shops. I wasn’t doing much anyway.”
As the two friends crossed Cornmarket Street, Talia entwined her arm around Sally’s. Sally could feel how tense the princess was. When they had reached the St. Giles Shopping Centre and passed through the wide door of a large modern store, Talia took a silk fan with a silver handle out of her bag and wafted it in front of her face.
“It’s the people,” she said. “I’m not used to being among them. Their manners are so rough. They pass so close by. Do you smell the perfume that man’s wearing? It makes me feel quite sick.”
Sally saw the heavily scented man turn his head. He had clearly overheard the remark. She couldn’t help blushing on behalf of her friend.
Talia stepped uncertainly onto the moving escalator. At the top, Sally guided her through the racks of clothes, and showed her how to find the labels with sizes and prices. Talia held up a few sweatshirts in front of herself, and Sally shook her head: “This is so not you,” she said.
“I don’t think I can bear this much longer,” gasped Talia. “Sally, can you just ask them to send a selection of sweatshirts and jeans round to my rooms? I think I’d be able to make my mind up so much better in private.”
“Sorry Talia, this sort of shop doesn’t do that sort of thing.”
A flash of annoyance passed over Talia’s face. "Don’t be so defeatist Sally. There’s no harm in asking. See here... Miss, yes, you, shop girl. Thank you. Will you send one of each and every sweatshirt in size medium round to my address for inspection, first thing on Monday morning?”
Sally was so embarrassed by her friend’s haughty tone that she wanted to hide behind the clothes rack.
The girl said: “Er, Sorry Madam. You pay at the till first.”
“I see,” said Talia. “Look, here’s something for your trouble.” And she reached for the bag that hung around her shoulder. The clasp was open. “Oh,” she said, and looked quite stunned, “it’s gone.”
“What?” asked Sally.
“My purse. It’s been stolen!” And then for perhaps a minute she froze and her eyes stared blankly into space. “It was that blonde woman!” she said suddenly.
“What blonde woman?”
“The one that was standing near us a moment ago. Quick Sally. Stop her, she’s heading for the moving staircase.”
“I’m not quite with you,” said Sally.
“Stop thief!” called out Talia. “Won’t somebody arrest that woman?” And she darted after a tall well dressed shopper and grabbed hold of her.
“Give me back my purse,” she demanded to her startled captive. She was about thirty years old. Her hair was done up somewhat elaborately, and she wore gloves. In fact, of all the people in the shop her appearance was probably the closest to Talia’s in elegance and perhaps extravagance. She did not seem to Sally to be a likely purse-snatcher.
A moment later, Sally and the shop assistant caught up with the princess.
“Talia, leave this poor woman alone,” pleaded Sally. “She’s not taken anything from you.”
“I saw her do it!” exclaimed Talia. “I caught her red-handed, the rotten-hearted thief. She’s possessed by demons!”
“No you didn’t see her take it,” said Sally wearily. “You only noticed that your purse was gone when you looked in your bag a moment ago. It could have been anyone that took it. Now please let her go before there’s any more trouble.”
“Yes, let go of me!” exclaimed the woman haughtily. She tried to jerk her arm free, while uttering a rather rude word which was perhaps pardonable under the strained circumstances. But Talia’s grasp on the woman’s arm was surprisingly strong. She didn’t let go.
“I did see her,” insisted Talia. “I saw her the second time around. Look Sally. You know that I have second sight. I slipped back a minute in time and I saw her do it.”
“I’m sorry Talia,” said Sally rather embarrassed. “This is way too crazy for a Saturday morning out shopping. If you don’t let go of the lady, I’m going to leave, because I just can’t get my head around any of this.”
Then the woman kicked, and Talia kicked back and Sally slipped away through the crowd.
About two hours later, Basil was cycling back to college after a morning rowing on the river with the college’s first eight. He wobbled slightly as he reached into his tracksuit pocket and pulled out his mobile phone. There was a voice-message which he listened to, rather dangerously, as he pedalled along a narrow backstreet.
“Basil,” whispered a familiar voice. “Save me! I’ve been robbed. Sally ran away. And then it got worse. The police put irons around my wrists. They say I assaulted the robber and they will throw me into a dark dungeon. Oh I’m so afraid of being alone in a cell. I fear I might rot and die there and will be forgotten by everyone but you, my dear. Come and save me, my prince. Come and save me without delay!”
Basil was totally bemused by this message, and if it had been from anybody else, he would have been sure it was a prank. But Talia didn’t do pranks. It didn’t matter how oddly she was behaving she was always in earnest.
It was only when he tracked Sally down in her room that he received a slightly clearer picture of what had happened, and before long he was speeding furiously down the High Street to the police station. As he pedalled, Sally’s words played over in his head.
“She’s totally bonkers! She really believes she’s got second-sight.”
And he was thinking: “She’s not mad. Or at least, if she is, I am too.” Because he had experienced such strange things since he had met Talia, he knew there was something utterly extraordinary about her. The effect she had on him was more powerful than anything he had ever known. These days, he hardly ever stopped thinking about her - or at least wondering about the weird way he felt, and trying to puzzle out if he was in love, or under some other mysterious spell.
He was still out of breath when he spoke to the police sergeant behind the counter at the station. As he was physically fit and in training from rowing, it was adrenaline rather than the effort of cycling that made him gulp for air. He was still in his tracksuit, which was unfortunate because the officer wanted to see some identification, and he didn’t have any with him.
“There’s been an awful mistake,” he said.
“Well,” said the Officer. “Your friend is not doing herself any favours by claiming that she’s a princess and refusing to give us any identity that we can verify. All she will say is that her name is Talia. When we ask where she’s from, she says it’s a secret.”
“Well that’s right,” said Basil. “She has plenty of secrets. But that’s not a crime, is it? And besides, it’s true. She really is a princess - and she’s had tea with the Queen.”
“Yeah, and I’m Charlie Chaplin,” replied the sergeant. “Listen young man. There’s an offence known as Wasting Police Time, and if you and your friend insist on keeping up this prank, you’ll soon be sitting in the cell next to hers. I’m calling the Inspector, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll give him a straight story.”
Fifteen minutes later, Basil was seated in an interview room. The sergeant sat mutely at the corner of the table and pressed the button of a cassette recorder. The man who did all the questioning wore a suit that had seen slightly better days.
“I must warn you,” said the Inspector, “this interview is conducted under caution. We have reason to believe that the young lady who has identified herself as Princess Talia” (he pronounced the name rather ironically) “belongs to an international gang of pickpockets that has been operating in Oxford for these past two weeks. For all we know, you may be one of them too.”
Basil shook his head. “You’ve got this all the wrong way round,” he said. “Talia was the victim. It was the other lady who stole her purse.”
“So you were there?” asked the Inspector.
“No. But if Talia says that’s what happened, then that’s the truth.”
“Well, it’s not what the store detective told us.”
After some more fruitless and frustrating questioning, there was a knock on the door. The sergeant got up to answer it. He said: “There’s a lawyer here for the so-called princess, and he says he represents this here lad too. The gentleman’s er, not one of the local solicitors, at least, not one I’ve seen before.”
Basil wondered who on earth the lawyer could be. Perhaps Sally had called him.
“Will you please let me pass,” said an imposing voice in a posh English, but with a hint of Italian accent, and into the room stepped a tall figure whose slight baldness was compensated for by long curly black hair which fell down the back of his head to the collar of his perfectly fitted Armani suit. In his hand, he held a green velvet hat. If you were observant, you might have noticed that his nose and forehead were dabbed with white face powder.
He laid an embossed card on the table. The Inspector cast a sceptical gaze over it. The name on it was:
Count Anthony J. Mancini QC.
Basil knew him, of course. Count Anthony was the college’s Law don, who had pursued a brilliant career at the bar before returning to academia. His family hailed from some sort of dispossessed European nobility, hence the title of 'Count' on his card.
“Well well well,” said the Inspector, in the manner that policemen are supposed to speak. “So we have a princess, and a count, and I suppose you, young man, are the heir to the throne?”
“Sorry Inspector,” said Basil. “I’m the only person here without a title. Huh! It almost makes me feel naked.”
“And can any of you prove that you are who you say you are?” asked the Inspector. “There’s a pantomime on at the theatre,” he continued ironically. “Shall we ring the director to see if he can provide references?”
“And can you prove that you exist?” asked the Law don. "But there will be no need for further philosophical speculation because in precisely one minute’s time, you shall receive a call from London that will put you fully in the picture.”
“Oh how very Hollywood,” said the policeman. But right on cue, an officer knocked on the door and said:
“DPG on the phone for you, Sir,” and the Inspector replied:
“Can’t you see I’m busy? Tell him I’ll call back later.”
Count Anthony shook his head: “Tut Tut. Not exactly a shrewd career-advancing move, I would say... as a member of the force, perhaps you should know that DPG stands for Diplomatic Protection Group.”
Basil could see that Inspector did not appreciate being told his business by this exotic character in a sharp suit, and he clearly didn’t believe a word that he was hearing. It was not entirely surprising when he retorted:
“You, my friend, are under arrest on suspicion of Attempting to Pervert the Course of Justice.”
And when he had finished cautioning the count and telling him his rights, which of course the Law don understood far better than anyone else, Basil sat back in his chair and laughed:
“Oh bravo. I’m enjoying this. You just arrested one of the most brilliant legal minds in the country. I think you will find yourself tied up in legal knots for the next ten years, Inspector.”
“And just for that, you’re nicked too,” said the policeman testily.
There was another knock on the door.
“Telephone again, Sir.”
“And who is it this time?” and he muttered: “the Archbishop of Canterbury perhaps?”
“No Sir, number Ten Downing Street. The Prime Minister’s secretary would like to have a quick word with you.”
Half an hour later, the princess, the count, and the plain untitled student, were being driven back to college in a car escorted by motorcycle outriders. Meanwhile the police Inspector sat at his desk, composing an incident report explaining how the princess had been arrested for her own safety. He knew that this account was going all the way up to the Prime Minister’s office. He choose his words carefully.
Meanwhile, the police sergeant was wondering where they could find the lady who had taken Talia’s purse in the department store. They had just realised that the driving licence which she had shown them as her proof of her identity was stolen, and that the address where she claimed she was staying in Oxford, did not exist.