British Sterling — By Alberto Fernández Carbajal



This is the story of a spoon that once belonged to Queen Victoria. It was a teaspoon, a meagre item in the Queen’s well-polished collection of cutlery. Up until its theft, it had been used by the monarch three times in total: to stir her Assam one morning, to extract a spoonful of raspberry jam during High Tea and, finally, to remove a garden pea from her right nostril after an accident lunching with the Marquess of Salisbury. It was a small yet reliable spoon: silver, its emblazoned handle perfectly sturdy. Despite its stolidness, it had a habit of disappearing amongst its comrades if accidentally pushed, and one day it vanished from the Queen’s breakfast table altogether.

Mary Rattlebone was a shy chambermaid, unlike most of her confederates, who were too happy to boast about how many dukes and duchesses they had served before joining the royal household. She knew she’d had her own share of luck, but she would never forget all the split fingernails, all the burns and scaldings experienced while working for her betters. She had never had any ambitions beyond being in service. Her marriage had happened almost accidentally, to a soldier in the household cavalry. They had never lived together, their duties being too disparate, and she was happy with the little allowance he granted her as part of their marriage settlement. One day, he was sent off to fight in the Boer War and he died soon after. She shed a couple of tears and rested both her hands on her swollen belly.


Despite her husband’s heroic death, Mary received only a small widow’s allowance from Her Majesty’s government. She was conscious of being unable to keep her son John living with her sister for much longer. He was quickly approaching schooling age, and Mary’s funds were limited. One morning, Mary was on her way to her Majesty’s bedroom via her personal chambers, when she chanced upon the breakfast room and its glittery inhabitant. It had not been used. In fact, it had been pushed and fallen on the carpet and was demanding to be picked up. Mary bent down to collect it, and as she was about to let it rest on the table-cloth, she looked at it again and saw it twinkle. It would be so easy to remove this spoon from this room, to extract one piece of cutlery a week, perhaps, without anyone noticing. Such items often went amiss, especially on royal palaces, where silver came and went like dirty laundry. Nobody would ever know. And the money she’d make from selling this spoon and its siblings would help her send John to school. Tempting. She grabbed it and buried it deep in her pinafore. That day, she made the Queen’s bed with a troubled conscience. What if she was found out? She’d be dismissed, without a character. She might even go to jail! But she was determined her child wouldn’t become a stable boy. He’d go to school and become educated. What were the chances, really, of a small silver spoon being missed in Her Majesty’s opulent home, then another, and then another, and then one more?

Mary never sold the spoon or stole any of its companions. She went to the theatre on her evening off to numb her painful conscience, when she caught the eye of a man, this time not a soldier, but a footman at Windsor Castle. They married within a few weeks. Mary left her position at Buckingham Palace and joined Mr. Buyington at the royal home in Windsor, and her husband footed John’s school bill like a dutiful stepfather. The spoon became a family heirloom and was passed down from Mary’s son John to his daughter Abigail. At the turn of the twenty-first century, it was still known as ‘the spoon that went up Queen Victoria’s nose’. Mary’s son John had become a butler, his daughter Abigail a politician, and Abigail’s son, Josh, a struggling part-time university lecturer. The spoon had remained with them through wars and economic recessions, as a token of good fortune.

True to his grandfather’s boarding-school credentials, Josh had turned out to be a homosexual, and an active member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Society at the University of Leeds, where he had drunk much vodka, and voted for the inclusion of transgender people in the Society’s name. His mother, Abigail, didn’t take kindly to her son’s sexual preference, and after several altercations at Christmas and during a couple of family funerals, she decided to let her son continue his lifestyle away from her tutelage. When it came to marrying, Josh had no financial support from his family, but he had inherited some of his great-grandmother’s flair. The last day he ever spent in his mother’s house, he extracted something from the living-room cabinet that fate had clearly intended to be his. As he danced away the day he and his partner Brian became a legal item, he spared a thought for Mary Rattlebone, with a glint in his eye and a sterling silver band round his finger.

Alberto Fernández Carbajal is a gay/cisgender writer and scholar from Spain living in England. He’s Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Roehampton, where his research focuses on postcolonial, queer, and Muslim studies. His first two scholarly books, on E. M. Forster’s legacies and on queer Muslim diasporas, are published by Palgrave Macmillan and Manchester University Press.