I, Alexandrina, page 1
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Blurb for I, Alexandrina
The year is 2018, and fifty famous people from history were cloned nearly two decades ago to star in a sort of circus show. When the extravaganza folds before it can truly begin, its founders sell rights to the clones. Amid much controversy, the British government picks up the clone called Alexandrina Victoria, a.k.a. Queen Victoria. They designate the current queen’s second son, Philip, Duke of York, and his estranged wife, Caroline, Duchess of York, as stewards of the royal family’s newest addition.
Alexandrina, as Victoria has come to call herself, is instantly attracted to the duchess, who is a much-needed breath of fresh air. As Alex spends more time with the duchess, their feelings deepen into love. Do Caroline and Alex have a future, or could Alex end up with the queen’s dashing elder son, Albert, Prince of Wales, for the match that much of the public is already calling the second coming of Albert and Victoria?
“Today is my eighteenth birthday! How old! And yet how far am I from being what I should be.”
My birth on 1 January 2000 began with the birth on 24 May 1819 of a certain Alexandrina Victoria, later queen of many realms. Nanny Flossie said I came into the world an obedient and cooperative girl, patient and slow to cry. However, my first memory is not of her, but of Russ Brendel and John Jameson. While the roots of my life are entwined with Queen Victoria, it was Russ and John who dared perform wicked and dastardly deeds.
It was they who paid undisclosed sums of money to scores of thieves and grave robbers to plunder the resting places of 50 famous people for their DNA. It was Russ and John who announced to a shocked world that they had cloned people from history and were opening a sort of zoo/circus in the former Soviet republic of Marslavia. They urged visitors from all over the globe to pay $2,000 daily for events such as watching the exact DNA replicas of Mary Todd Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln re-enact Lincoln’s assassination. (Popcorn and soda would cost extra.)
So, this first memory. I expect I was about four years old. The memory is hazy, like the pollution that renders much of Wosnia, the capital city of Marslavia, an ugly brown. I remember a huge looming door opening seemingly on its own. I walked into a whitewashed, robotic room. Two men greeted me. One possessed a wild beard and friendly brown eyes, and the other was nearly hairless. He wore heavy glasses.
“Victoria,” said the bearded man. “I’m Russ, and this is John. Please have a seat.”
That is much of what I recall, although at the end of the meeting, Russ sneaked me a biscuit. I also remember that one of the men smelled of strawberries. My next memory is of Nanny Flossie, quite some time later. I was perhaps seven years old. “Now, Victoria,” she said frowningly, “you really must listen to Mr. Burkus when he tells you to study your maths instead of writing stories about going to the stars.” I, of course, threw a fit, and Nanny Flossie spanked me so hard I cried.
I was ten years old when I discovered some of the truth about my life. Imagine growing up in an orphanage with forty-nine other children. We had women and a few men who tended to us. No one we called “Mother” or “Father.” We knew about these titles in an abstract manner from the books we read. We never really wondered about our own mothers and fathers, though. We were in an orphanage, well taken care of, and that was that. At least to me. Life to me was normal; I knew nothing else.
A woman with a severe gray bun came to meet with me on a fateful day that changed my life. Other women and men had come to meet with the rest of the children. Some of the women had quick smiles and pretty flowing hair. Some of the men laughed easily and heartily, and shook hands warmly. Unfortunately, my visitor was of the severe bun and thin, pinched lips.
“Well,” she said, peering at me over thin spectacles. Her eyes were a flint gray. “I’m Mrs. Rubberstone. I’m from England.” She sounded like Nanny Flossie, who too was from England. We clones were supposed to copy our nannies’ accents. As a result, many of us sounded different.
“Hello, Mrs. Rubberstone,” I said dutifully. “I’m Victoria. Pleased to meet you.” Nanny Flossie had tutored me in the art of greeting people. The art of manners.
Mrs. Rubberstone narrowed her eyes, her dislike of me evident. “I don’t want to be here,” she muttered. “I really don’t. This is sorcery!” She craned her neck as if she wanted to get out. To escape. We were in my study room where I did homework and the like. No escape possible, but what Nanny Flossie called magic eyes monitored us from several angles.
“Bollocks,” Mrs. Rubberstone said finally, and she leaned in. “It’s my son,” she said in a confidential whisper. “His gambling problems. They knew I wouldn’t be able to say no.”
Something about her words and the intensity in her eyes sent a thrill up my spine. Something bad, something illicit was going on. What was gambling? Who was they? How fortunate I was that Mrs. Rubberstone was choosing to trust me with a secret!
“What is your son’s name?” I asked eagerly.
Mrs. Rubberstone’s lip curled. The moment of shared suffering had passed. “Never you mind that,” she snapped. She brought out a thick book. QUEEN VICTORIA, it said in curling gold letters. It smelled of weighty matters. It also carried my name, and I had never met or known of anyone also named Victoria. The circular photo on the cover showed a dowdy, sour-looking woman. An unhappy woman. I assumed she was Victoria and wondered at the cause of her unhappiness. At the bottom of the cover were the words, “By Heather Rubberstone.”
“Oh,” I said, “you wrote this book.”
“Don’t touch it,” Mrs. Rubberstone cautioned. “But look at the woman here. Does she seem familiar? Do you feel strange inside as you look at her?”
I tried. The woman wore a small crown or tiara-type thing on her head, and ribbons adorned her dress. Could she be one of the nannies who no longer worked here, someone who had been here when I was very young?
“Well?” Mrs. Rubberstone prompted. “Anything?”
I wanted to please her. She expected something from me, but I abhorred lying. I was trying to determine the best way to balance my competing interests when Mrs. Rubberstone exhaled a heavy sigh. “I’m here to teach you about her. About this woman.”
Mrs. Rubberstone massaged her temples. “Because you’re her. You’re the second coming of Queen Victoria.”
That afternoon, I learned about DNA, about biological mothers and fathers, about biological sons and daughters. I learned about reproduction and cloning. I learned that growing up in orphanages was not normal. I learned that my biological mother and father were named Victoria and Edward, and that they had lived in the 1800s. Some of this Mrs. Rubberstone told me face to face, matter of factly. Some of it, especially the science material, she recited from densely packed pages with incomprehensible illustrations. All the while, Mrs. Rubberstone’s face grew longer and longer.
I learned that when I and the other clones turned sixteen years old, we were expected to put on plays for thousands of people. They would come see us because we were these other people, people like Queen Victoria and Mary Todd Lincoln and Lucrezia Borgia. We had to know everything about the life of our DNA source. We must sound alike, share the same mannerisms, look the same way and so on.
I suppose that shock dulled many of these blows because I do not remember how I felt that day. I only remember the mountains of information and the hard grayness of Mrs. Rubberstone’s eyes.
I thought, “I do not want to look like that dowdy woman when I grow up! I do not want to!”
We clones’ sixteenth birthdays came and went. We had labored for weeks, months and years to do what was expected of us. But there would be no plays, not yet, we were told. Later, I realized it was because the world was horrified to find out about us. Russ Brendel and John Jameson had taken a huge gamble, and it backfired. On the Internet, Russ and John posted still photos of us. Videos. They posted clips of Mary, Abe and John re-enacting the assassination. They posted clips of me re-enacting the moment Victoria received the news of her accession to the throne. They posted a lot. (Only in a few years’ time would I learn what the Internet and these other mediums were.) Russ and John went into minute detail about DNA matching, DNA profiles. They wanted there to be no doubt. They allowed men and women dressed in white to visit us and poke needles into us, to swab our cheeks. They talked about how criminals crept into graves and stole DNA.
On our seventeenth birthdays, Russ and John, both grim-faced, addressed us. “We will open next month,” they said. “You must be strong. You must be tough. People say you are blights on God’s creation, that you are monsters. You are not. You are our children.” Russ’s face softened. “Do you understand? You are our children. We gave you life. We are your fathers.”
I was not sure I understood.
That evening, as I readied for the bedchamber, Nanny Flossie reassured me that I was no blight on God’s creation. “God knows you, Victoria,” she said. “Your sweetness, your goodness, your obedience. So do the people of Britain. They want to meet you.”
“Why have they waited so long to come, then?”
In the next few minutes, Nanny Flossie was uncharacteristically open. Maybe she felt sorry for me, or she realized that we had entered the beginning of the end and that a slight shift in loyalties was called for.
“Many reasons,” Nanny Flossie said. “Many reasons. I shall be honest. Yes, the clones in general are seen as blights. But not you, Victoria. Britain does love you. Some people even say that you, not Louise, are their rightful queen. Some say Queen Louise is frightened that you will attempt to wrest the crown from her.” A squeak of a smile sneaked into Nanny Flossie’s expression. “Many yearn for a future between you and Albert.”
“Impossible. There is no Albert clone.”
“Indeed,” Nanny Flossie concurred, “but as luck would have it, Louise’s elder son, the Prince of Wales, is named Albert. A steadfast group of the British hail your presence as the second coming of Albert and Victoria. It is why people love you. The timing. It is too extraordinary. It is nothing short of a message sent from the heavens. The opportunity for a new beginning, a new age. The opportunity for their bachelor prince to find his lady love at long last.”
“What do you think?”
Nanny Flossie stared at me for a heavy moment. “I think nothing,” she said at last. “Nothing at all.”
“What is this Albert like?”
“Mischievous. Breaks women’s hearts left and right. You’d do well to stay away from him.”
I would do well to stay away from him? Laughable. We would never meet. I would remain swaddled in Marslavia for life, or so I thought.
Opening night never did occur. I heard whispers from the cooks and nannies that Russ and John could not leave Marslavia or else they would be arrested. During the clones’ eighteenth year, we received another visit from our “fathers.”
“There will be no shows,” Russ said, defeat pressing his shoulders downward. “We are, ahem, selling off rights to each of you. It is the only way to recoup a fraction of what we have invested.”
Selling off rights? What did he mean?
“As an example,” Russ said, eyeing me, “the British government is in talks to purchase Victoria.”
My pulse became thready. Purchase me? I did not understand. My life was here.
“A man from America,” Russ continued, making eye contact with Mary Todd Lincoln, “has made a sizeable bid on you, Mary. In fact, you’re…take a moment, Mary. Say goodbye. You leave now.”
Mary went pale.
“No!” screamed John Wilkes Booth. It was common knowledge among the clones that Mary and John were an item. They sneaked kisses and time together whenever they could, and Abe helped them find that private time.
“Can’t John and Abe come with me?” Mary pleaded.
“No,” Russ said.
“Did you know?” I demanded of Nanny Flossie later that afternoon. “That the British government is in talks to…to purchase me?” I directed rage toward her rather than dwell on Mary’s tearful goodbye hours previous. She and I had never been close, but we hugged goodbye as if our lives depended on it.
“Get me,” she wailed, men pulling her away. “When you’re out, come get me so we can be together! Please, Victoria! You are the queen of England! You have power, more than any of us! Come get me, and buy John and Abe!”
I was queen of England? Poor Mary had become delusional in her moment of panic.
“Well?” I demanded of Nanny Flossie again. “Did you know?”
“It does not matter,” Nanny Flossie said.
I studied her. The deep lines bracketing her dry lips. The stray white hairs escaping from her cap. She looked more unhappy than Queen Victoria did in the dour picture, but I was angry, very angry. “Tell me about you,” I shouted. “Why did you leave England? Why are you here?” We had never discussed her life. For much of my childhood, it was because I never realized she could have had a life outside of what she did for me. When I became more self-aware and asked, Nanny Flossie simply said she did want to talk about it.
She swallowed. “It’s the same old tale. Woman works hard to support her family. She can’t, no matter how hard she tries. Someone representing a rich man approaches her and offers lots of money if she can be discreet and is willing to give up her life for the foreseeable future. She says yes. She will send the money back to England and ensure her family is taken care of.”
“How old are you?”
“Too old, Victoria. Too old. I have seen too much.”
A knock sounded on the door before she could elaborate. Russ and John wanted me.
“Have a seat,” Russ said.
“I will stand.”
“Suit yourself.” Hands in his pockets, Russ wandered to the window revealing the brown, uninspiring skyline of Wosnia.
“It’s done,” John announced. “You belong to the British as of nine a.m. tomorrow. The transition will occur over a few days. There is a grace period in case the British regret their decision.”
I squinted at the tallest point in Wosnia, a brown church steeple. Wosnia was a city of brownness, plain and unremarkable like me.
“Congratulations,” John said.
I wanted to cry. “What?” This had happened too suddenly and without warning. This Queen Victoria and her land of England were barely more real to me than my dreams. I had never touched the ocean. I had never ventured outside of the walled mini-city that Russ and John had made their own. I had never dined in the restaurants of Wosnia, never took worship in the brown steepled church. It seemed impossible that I was expected to leave, nor did I want to leave. Many clones hungered for freedom. Not me, obedient, quiet Victoria.
“We want you to be happy, Victoria,” John said gently. “Whatever people say about us, remember that we gave you life. We treated you well.”
“May I go now?”
Russ sighed. “Sure, sure. A few things first. Um, the queen’s set to appoint you a HRH. Her Royal Highness Alexandrina Victoria, the Countess of Lancaster. Takes effect the moment your plane leaves this godforsaken country.” He spit out the last words, and I studied
“Congratulations, Victoria,” he whispered. “I wish you the best. Who knows, you could be queen one day.”
I stiffened. “Alexandrina,” I said in my first act of rebellion. “I am Alexandrina. Victoria is dead.”
“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”
Three days later, two visitors peered at me. They were extremely important people, as Nanny Flossie took great pains to point out. In fact, they were so extremely important that Nanny Flossie admonished me to practice my curtsy until it was starchier than the white dresses she ironed.
I curtsied, bending my knees and sweeping my right foot behind the left. I straightened and gazed into the man’s eyes. He looked better in his pictures. Now, his comb-over made painfully obvious he was going bald. The woman looked much as she did in her photos: pixie-cut blond hair, blue eyes, a ready grin to balance her husband’s awkward smile.
“Oh,” she said easily, “there’s no need to curtsy.” She held out her hand. “I’m Caroline. This is Philip.” She was a few inches above my height of five feet. The man was much taller than us both.
I shook their hands. The woman’s skin was cool and confident. The man’s was hot and uncomfortable. I itched to wipe my palm against my dress.
“Such a pleasure to meet you,” I whispered.
“Likewise,” the woman said with a nod. “Yes, yes, likewise.” She indicated the table in the middle of the room. “Shall we sit? I see biscuits have been laid out.”
The man and woman were the Duke and Duchess of York. He was the second son of the queen of England, and she was his wife of five years. She and I were relatively close in age, me coming in at eighteen and she at twenty-six. He was thirty. He was British through and through, while she had been born and raised in the United States of America. She decided to go to college in London, met Prince Philip, and the rest was history.