A character interview with Sophia Castellana from suspense romance novel ‘Crowns’ for the Passion Patrol.
I’ve been at my home in south west France working on my next Passion Patrol story. There’s still some warmth in the sun in the middle of the day. I’m as English as fish and chips but my partner’s home is in France – a good 300 miles south of London where the sun is higher in the sky. A couple of days ago I was amazed to receive a phone call from a French woman working at Versailles – the royal palace of France at the edge of Paris. She introduced herself and informed me that the Queen had invited me to dinner at the Chateau de La Roche Courbon – an impossibly beautiful castle very close to my home. I wondered why some official had called me but I guess royals have staff to fix everything. The caller outlined her wishes:
“Her Majesty is hoping to see you alone on ziz occasion. Her ‘usband is gone to Canada for a spa water cure with his friend Monsieur Trou d’Eau. Her Majesty is also very happy in realizing zat you are writing sometimes for papers and magazines and can put forward her private aspects to zee public. It would be her plaisir for you stay overnight and sample her new crude wine.”
I put the phone down and sighed. Sophia – married to Charles 11th of France – is a bloody difficult woman to be frank. I caught sight of her at the Royal Ascot race meeting the day of the terror attack. I’d also seen pictures of her in the celeb’ magazines at the christening of the Ambastilias baby in Naples. The parents Helen and Marco were beaming but Sophia looked – well you know, regal. I think it’s her way of staying aloof from the semi-scandal surrounding her marriage. By staying above it all, she doesn’t have to talk dirty if you know what I mean. She was thirty nine. He was twenty four and a very innocent young guy. Sophia has a very close friend – Martine La Plume, president of France. I mean, these girls are very close and the press like to reflect upon the nature of their relationship. Is that what she wanted to talk about? Dear me – not my bag but I’m as curious as any cat and about to look at a queen. A few days later I kiss my man au revoir without saying too much and prepare for une promenade on the wild side – maybe.
I drive my elderly little Citroen C3 past the main castle building with its Sleeping Beauty towers into a private courtyard. A severe looking female with hair tied back into a bun stands by as I stop. She takes my small overnight bag and leads me through an old wooden door studded with chunky iron nails.
“Zeez are the servant’s lodgings. Her majesty will join you in the castle. The fires should have warmed the rooms.”
I follow her back out across an open area where I remember there was once a film crew making the TV show ‘Born To Be King’ about Sophia’s husband, Charles. That was a few years ago during all the French political upheaval which ended up with a grand yet constitutional monarchy. My companion has a strict and frigid military manner. The evening is deepening with the V formation of crows swooping down to roost with raucous calls, echoing a mortal shudder of black wings. I remember too that this was where Sophia first met Charles, when her life was very different and the woman destined to be a queen was herself a prisoner.
We enter a huge kitchen with a rotisserie style spit turning over an open wood fire. A wild boar is still recognizable as it sizzles, dripping fat down into a tray. A maid operates the mechanism with a rope and chain while basting the meat. The aroma hits my hungry button with a sledge hammer. OK, I’m not too self-denying or PC. We walk through to a grand salon with chaises longues, Louis XV chairs and a cheminée with a roaring log fire. A line of chestnuts squeak as they cook in the heat of the hearth.
“Her majesty will arrive Madame,” says the strict cool lady, pointing to a chair and moving back into the shadows.
“Thanks,” I say in English not wanting to show any imperfection in my French. I feared she might have some kind of school teacher’s baton in her pants to correct naughty grammar students.
A door opens and the Queen of France walks in. Of course, I knew her when she was Sophia Castellana, a London cop, before she turned cougar and scooped the boy king. I stand and she comes to me, arms open, smiling. I prepare for the French two-cheek peck but get a hug and a woman’s warm lips more or less on my eyebrow. OK – I’m cuddly short and Sophia is willowy tall.
“Emma – Emma you came to me. I’m so happy.”
I relax and smile back. She’s wearing a burgundy velvet pants suit, a cream high-necked blouse and a double string of pearls. Her face is calm and her long aquiline nose still gives her an air of aristocratic certainty. She seats herself opposite to me in the light of the fire, crosses her legs to show off her flat heeled hand stitched leather boots. I’ve worn medium stiletto heals and a blue and cream striped jumpsuit I bought in Naples in September. I look at my scarlet fingernails and romantic display of gaudy rings. Fearing the chill of a draughty castle I completed my look with a wool blazer, in dark navy with a sparkle silver plaid in the weave. She was out-gunned. I was just out-classed.
“That hog smells so good. If you hear a noise it’s me rumbling,” I say, not sure what to call her.
“It’s in the tradition of the great kings of France and of course of the English royal house of Stuart”
“Oh yes – like the heritage of Charles – I mean your husband, um – the king.”
“Yes, indeed – now we try some chestnuts and our vin bourru. It is the autumn tradition here.”
From nowhere a waitress steps forward with two bottles of what looks like cloudy cider and places them on a side table. Then she collects the chestnuts from the hearth and sets them on a heavy earthenware dish, their skins split and giving off a sweet yearning aroma. The girl pours the wine into large glasses, curtsies and departs. A couple of low electric lamps come on in the corners of the room but still her features change and reflect in the firelight. I sip the drink. It’s fizzy, yeasty and actually lovely. I peel a chestnut as Sophia does the same. I feel a bit awkward – like maybe you would, wanting to ask a queen what it’s like being a cougar and if she’s also gay. I raise my glass to her.
She catches my hesitation.
“Sophia, please and salut to you.”
We make eye contact. The French believe that a toast needs eye contact to ensure good sex. It’s my favorite tradition.
“Sophia, I was a bit nervous. Since we last met you’ve been mixing with the great heads of state, the artists, the stars and all the other royals of the world. You’ve gone beyond my realm of experience.”
She stared into the fire and spoke without looking at me.
“And what do you think of me now?”
“Sophia – the truth is I don’t know you now. I think you’re beautiful, I think you’re regal, I think you’re strong and brave. When you came to France after that night in London, that terrible night of death, I wasn’t expecting you to marry a boy and end up as a queen.”
“A boy you say?”
“A boy relative to you. He’d never had a fight, or a woman. He’d been training to be a priest for Christ’s sake.”
“He was twenty-three, I was thirty-eight. If a man of forty marries a woman of fifty-five – so what? Who would care?”
I nod. She was right. She was so right.
“Look, I’m with you on that. We expect different things for and from a man of forty that’s all. Maybe he’s not looking for a child with a woman. A younger man still has to make his way in the world.”
“Sure I get that. Supposing you had a baby crab that had lost it’s shell while the hungry seabirds hovered above the beach. Let’s imagine that this is the last crab and it needs to survive at all costs. To save a society from civil war a man needs survive and bring a new focus to the people. Charles needed that and he wanted no one but me. He loved me.”
“And you loved him?”
She turned to pick up her glass and smiled. Her eyes were warm on mine and I could feel her strength.
“Emma – you of all people don’t run from the complexity of love. Love is not one thing. You can watch waves on the shore and they can always look the same. Yet, in the history of time no two waves have made exactly the same sound or the same exact pattern on the rocks or sand. When two people meet it’s like that wave and like that shore. If love was a precise idea everyone would know exactly how to get it – like we know how to make a pizza.”
“A French queen wouldn’t talk about pizza.”
“My name was Castellana. I’ll never be French no more than the Medici.”
“So, he loved you and….”
“And I felt my own sexual desire as a woman. I felt pride that a young man would desire me over perfect younger women. I’ve had a child and have the belly medals to prove it. I felt power like I guess a teacher feels power. I’ve never wanted ultra-Alpha types. I wanted a relationship where a guy had fixed his idea of ecstasy on me rather than other women. A man never forgets that first time.”
“Nor a woman.”
She held my eyes, brought her hands up to her jaw and looked back into the fire.”
“You’re right again. I was a good girl from a good Italian family. I went to a girls’ school to keep me pure. Emma – sex is a powerful drive. It’s like bloody Vesuvius.”
For a moment I wanted to keep her mind on Charles. All the same I knew what she was saying. I was about to speak when she began again.
“I was a cop once. You live with a cop. I don’t have to explain this to you but here’s a question for you. You’re hungry, you’ve got no money. You’ve never stolen a thing because everyone says it was wrong. Society says it’s wrong to steal but you’re hungry. In the shop there’s a sandwich – you snatch it. You eat it. It feels so so good. It’s a wicked sandwich. It tastes so so good. You’ve done what you needed to do. The hardest crime if you like, is the first. To take sexual food when you’re starving is no moral crime. The law just masturbates in order to stay untouched and neutral.”
I think I’m wide eyed, maybe hanging my jaw. This is a freaking queen guys! I love her frank honesty and compassion.
“You were a working girl in London when a situation broke over you. Your courage and strength burned itself into this young man’s mind and he needs that strength every day in his life. His situation in France has enemies. Do you ever fear that he will falter?”
“Yes, Emma please believe me, yes yes yes. I stay regal, brave and proud because that’s the expectation. That’s what royals are for. Charles is a man of royal blood – the house of Stuart. His blood unites the story of the Bourbons, the Medici and the throne of Britain. I’m more alone than I’ve ever been. I cling to my self belief and….”
“Martine,” I say.
She lets out a long sigh. I see her utter vulnerability and loneliness. She waits with her eyes closed before looking back at me.
“Yes of course. Love of Power is to have no fear of loneliness. She’s a wonderful woman. She’s bold and takes the heat of conflict.”
“She has advisors and experts around her I’m sure.”
“Thousands, yes. She operates from her heart you know. You can have too many hangers-on. I tell her that and she knows it. I was a police sergeant and when it gets tough you just act. You give the orders and believe me, under stress, that’s the real you. You won’t be judged on cool long term policy. When the gun came out, when the fist hit your face – what did you do? That’s you right there.”
I take a good swig at the cloudy sweetish wine. She seems ready to talk so I dive in.
“A lot of people speculate about your relationship with Martine.”
“Ah – but not you Emma?” she replies with a smile and a raise of her eyebrow. “I’m sure a hardcore female like you would never ever ever have the slightest curiosity about love with another woman.”
“OK – I’m curious.”
“I was on a police operation to rescue Martine from a plot within her own close group. We pulled it off by the skin of our teeth. We were thrown together and she let me know where she stood on her sexuality with just a small gesture. I admired and respected her. Her hand touched my shoulder and she knew from my response that I wasn’t troubled by her implication.”
“But you married Charles.”
“Of course. I wasn’t expecting it but events and social media created that momentum. I wasn’t expecting anything from Martine. Charles is a good and gentle man. He’s a superstar with a generation of teenage girls and I believe, their mothers. He is very handsome – maybe more beautiful if you like. I love him for that. I love him more for his desire for me.”
“The European press say that you are the boss at Versailles and that you and Martine are the government.”
“Then for once the press are right.”
Her gaze was fixed on my eyes. I had forgotten that this was a woman who’d stood up to a machine gunner in London and risked her life on the streets of Paris. That same toughness was still in her core. I hadn’t discovered too much except that I was looking at a powerful woman, a beautiful woman, an attractive woman and above all, a queen.
I decide to nudge our chat away from the intensity of world control and politics.
“Do you still see any of the old team? Anna La Salle still lives close to Paris.”
“Sure, but she’s a top cop now and often in London. I saw her husband at the Petit Palais gallery a few weeks ago. He’s an art collector and expert on Courbet. He’s desperate to buy a picture they have there.”
“What’s it called?”
“‘Le Sommeil’. I told him I’d like to buy it myself for Versailles. I think it might shock Charles.”
I nod as if I know this painting. All I know is that Courbet was
a local artist who spent a lot of time at the chateau of Bussac, not far from here. I also knew he loved the erotic. I’d be hitting Google later.
“What lies in your future Sophia?”
“A dinner of roast boar with my wonderful friend and a few local officials. Then a flight to Moscow with Martine to see President Pinupskin in the morning,” she answers, downing her wine. She stands and gestures for me to follow her.
“And if I write any magazine features about you – what would you like to present as your message?” I ask.
“That I have the heart of a woman.”
“That’s very enigmatic.”
“And very true,” she replies.
My audience is over.
Available in e-book and print formats on this link: ‘Crowns’
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