There’s nary a corgi or a Union Jack to be seen in central Nelson at ten o’clock on the morning of the royal visit. There are hardly any people either. Although Trafalgar Street isn’t exactly Dead Man’s Gulch, it’s certainly quieter than usual. “Don’t quote me” says a shopkeeper, “but town is dead”.
The green-painted Spud Cart, a potential hotbed of IRA sympathisers, is not under any kind of surveillance. Beside the ANZ, there’s a small cluster of people including a child in a glittery wig and another dressed as a tiger. A woman in a peasant skirt sits smoking on a bench outside the museum. On the other side of the street, there’s another woman waiting for something to happen. She’s sitting in a striped folding chair, knees pressed against the barricade with a Fox Terrier on her lap. She’ll have a prime view of the royal entourage as it strolls by, but at the moment it’s a lonely vigil she’s keeping. A couple of women stand chatting outside Cruella’s Natural Fibre Boutique. One of them is clacking away at some knitting like an antipodean Madame Defarge.
They are disarmingly irreverent about the heir apparent. "I looked Charles up on Google” says one of them. “Do you know that Charles has 23 titles? He's The Everything of Everywhere. I reckon I'm gonna give myself a few titles".
The market is curiously quiet - more people seem to be fleeing the market than hurrying toward it although a woman dressed as a fairy in pretty frock and tattoos is adding a small note of festivity by blowing streams of bubbles into the air. I join a friend under a market umbrella to sip coffee and nibble at an olle bolle while awaiting developments.
Security still seems somewhat underwhelming: we don't spot our first policemen until 10.20, the Pearly Queen rattling her Hospice donation bucket follows. At 10.50 another two police officers stroll by, then a pair of callow youths in army uniforms. They are unarmed and it’s not clear if they are on duty or simply browsing the market. At 11 o’clock when three more policemen appear my friend and I decide we should get ourselves a pozzie at the barricades. En route she presses anti-TPPA leaflets into the hands of two policemen who have mysteriously bulky midriffs under day-glow vests. They accept the leaflets good-naturedly but are very evasive when I ask what’s making their stomachs bulge. “Pies” one of explains not very convincingly.
Finally we join a two-deep crowd near Whitcoulls. No one is dressed up - the aesthetic is very shorts and jandals. A man in a Norton motorbike t-shirt delivers a cardboard tray of coffees to his friends and they share a cellophane packet of Melting Moments.
My friend, who has a dickey hip asks plaintively how much longer we’ll have to stand. Then, without even a ragged cheer to herald his arrival, His Royal Highness Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland appears.
Charles and Camilla are preceded by men in suits and earpieces and fancy ties and followed by a phalanx of Important People, Aides De Camp and Ladies in Waiting who dawdle carefully to avoid overtaking the royal pair. Charles and Camilla work the crowd like a tag team: Camilla handles one side, while Charles handles the other. Then they swap sides.
Our side gets Camilla. She talks to the children in front of me and then patiently holds up her face - like a sunflower to the sun - for the phone cameras aimed her way, then walks on. All we see of Charles is his bald spot, his stoop, and the back of his slightly wrinkled grey pinstriped suit. It’s hard not to feel sorry him, living a life so cramped by archaic formality and never free of scrutiny or of obligation.
As soon as Camilla and Charles have passed the meagre crowd begins to disperse. But wait! A heart-stopping moment! There, through the thinning crowd I spot a Corgi! He’s a thickset little chap in classic tan and white. His name is George. His owner reports that Prince Charles patted George, and George graciously licked the royal hand in reply.
And now, there was I, patting George, and George was licking my hand! It put me in mind of that great old song “My word I've had a spree / I'm wild with exultation / I'm dizzy with success / Because my hand has been licked / by the dog who licked / the hand of the Prince of Wales!”