Jonathan Crowe stood on the sidewalk along Buckingham Palace Road, staring at the security entrance for the palace. He glanced at his watch. He was 10 minutes early for his interview with Jay Lanham, head of communications for Buckingham Palace who, at only 30, was already becoming legendary in UK public relations and media circles. Lanham was the communications man for King Michael and had successfully fended off a series of almost brutal public attacks on the king.
Lanham, and the king, were looking for a speechwriter.
Jonathan was 26 and a reporter at The Guardian. He was five foot ten, with closely cropped hair, a slight beard, and a medium-dark complexion. The only person he had ever written a speech for was himself, and that was for presentations he had made at university. But Lanham had seen Jonathan’s newspaper stories, and had read dozens of them, in fact. During the initial phone interview, Jonathan had been impressed with just how well Lanham had read his stories. Lanham also knew a considerable amount of Jonathan’s background, including his family’s Jamaican heritage, where his parents worked, that he still lived with his parents (a reporter’s salary alone wasn’t sufficient for almost anything in London), and that he attended St. Paul’s Church in Brixton.
Lanham had both reassured him and slightly alarmed him when he said that palace security had already done background checks.
“It’s standard procedure, Jonathan,” Lanham had said on the phone. “But it’s also more than that. This speechwriting job reports to me, but you’re going to have ongoing access to the king. He takes his words seriously, and he doesn’t want bureaucratic layers between him and his speechwriter. In fact, he’s made that a condition of the job. We have to make sure that all of his staff pass security checks.”
Jonathan had already had a videoconference interview with Josh Gittings, the king’s chief of staff. Gittings was also legendary, but it was of a different kind than Lanham. He’d served for years as the prime minister’s hatchet man and chief political operative, until he was dispatched to San Francisco by the PM to help Michael Kent-Hughes and his family during The Violence. And Gittings seemed to have had a fundamental change of heart – some called it a religious conversion – while in California.
Jonathan shuddered at his memories of that weekend the previous October. The royal family had been assassinated, and what amounted to open warfare between Muslim extremists and British nationalists had turned London and the country into a war zone. Trying to cover the story, Jonathan had been chased and shot at by a Muslim group and almost caught by a skinhead group looking to attack anyone they thought might be a Muslim.
Somehow, palace security had learned about that as well.
He had dressed carefully for the interview, keeping in mind that he would eventually interview with the king as well. He was wearing a blue suit, white shirt with a muted red tie, and tan shoes (he had polished them just that morning.) He hadn’t said anything to his parents or his sister, or anyone else, about the interview. At breakfast, his mother had noticed he looked a bit spiffier than usual but kept her words to how nice he looked. She hadn’t asked any questions, but he could see she suspected more was afoot than just another day at The Guardian.
He’d tell them if things worked out. He didn’t expect to be offered the job. He believed he was likely the diversity candidate. Michael might be new to the monarchy and being a royal, but this was still old-boys network Britain. Still, he knew that they’d gone to significant lengths to learn about his background.
It was time. He walked inside the security station, gave his name, and presented his identification. The woman security officer checked a list, nodded, and smiled. A second officer assisted him in providing a basket for his watch, wallet, and whatever was in his pockets. His portfolio was sent through x-ray, as was Jonathan himself. Everything went smoothly.
The security officer walked him through a hallway. He expected to be escorted to Lanham’s office, but Lanham suddenly appeared through a doorway, smiling and holding his hand out to shake Jonathan’s.
“It’s good to meet you, Jonathan,” Lanham said. “And call me Jay. My office is close; we’re actually in the administrative wing now. Do you want a coffee or tea, or water?”
“Black coffee would be fine,” Jonathan said.
They entered an area containing a suite of several offices. Lanham introduced him to several communication staffers in the area and then walked to the small kitchen included in the suite. He poured the coffee for Jonathan and fixed a tea for himself.
Lanham’s office was spacious and comfortable but not opulent. One wall included several screens of television news channels, newsfeeds for twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and a scrolling list of news stories from Reuter’s, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, and several other wire services. One screen contained a scrolling list of stories from all the major UK newspapers, including The Guardian.
“How is your time today?” Lanham said.
“It’s fine,” Jonathan said. “I’d holiday time and some comp time stored up, so I took the day off.”
“No other appointments?” Lanham said.
Jonathan shook his head. “No. “
“Well, that’s great, then,” Lanham said. “I hope you can stay for lunch. His Majesty asked me to check to see if you might be available.”
Jonathan felt his heart pound. “That should be fine.”
“It will be just the two of you,” Lanham said. “I have a luncheon and the king usually likes to have some time alone with people he’s interviewing.” He smiled. “Don’t let this throw you. The king likes to move quickly. And he’s fairly certain that we’ve found the right candidate.” Lanham sipped his tea. “Based on our background and reference checks, and our phone conversations, both Josh Gittings and I have recommended you to the king as the best candidate. Josh and I have interviewed others, but you’re the only candidate to talk with the king. We’re that convinced. I’m that convinced.”
“I’m surprised,” Jonathan said. “I didn’t expect this. I thought my meeting with you today was a step in the process.”
“It is,” Lanham said, “but as far as we’re concerned, it’s close to a final step.”
“Can I ask an impertinent question?” Jonathan said.
Lanham laughed. “Absolutely.”
“Am I here because of my Jamaican heritage?”
Lanham shook his head. “No, you’re not. We’re not asking you to join the staff here at the palace because you’re a black man. Let me explain how we did this.”
Lanham sipped his tea. “We never advertised this position. We put feelers out to people who might know good candidates for speechwriting. A lot of names came back, and we screened them carefully. We put out more feelers and received more names. We narrowed the list to three, and then we went about collecting samples of their writing – articles, blog posts, newspaper stories, speeches, whatever we could find. We then gave each a designated letter, A, B, and C, and we removed any and all personal references. We gave the three sample sets to the king. He saw no resumes or anything else that would identify the writers. This was about as blind a test as we could devise. What he knew was that all three were well qualified; it was my responsibility to make sure of that.
“When he came back to us, it was your writing set he singled out. And what he told me was that all three were technically and professionally excellent, but it was the samples for candidate A he felt the most comfortable with. And more than that, it was candidate A’s writing that demonstrated someone writing from his heart.”
For a moment, Jonathan said nothing. Then he spoke. “You’re doing a terrible job of convincing me not to accept this position.”
Lanham laughed. “To continue. After he picked the samples of candidate A, then we showed him your resume. He read it, and he personally called one of your references.”
“The king called one of my references?” Jonathan said.
Lanham nodded. “He called your vicar at St. Matthew’s. And he was circumspect. He didn’t say you were being considered for one of the top communications positions at the palace. He asked the vicar what he could tell him about this young man who had come to his attention. I was there when he made the call. And so you know, your vicar said nothing about your race. He talked about your service at the church and two ministries you were involved in, tutoring of at-risk children and the choir. When he’d hung up, the king looked at me and said, “’See, I was right about him writing from his heart.’
“And that, Jonathan, is how you came here today,” Lanham said. He then summarized Jonathan’s starting salary and benefits. “Your office will be next door here to mine. We have normal 9 to 5 working hours, but there are times for various emergencies, crises, and things that suddenly happen. You should expect to see a lot of the king, sometimes with me and sometimes on your own. And I know this is all rather overwhelmingly, so we don’t expect an immediate answer. But you are officially being offered the position of speechwriter to King Michael.”
Lanham stood, and Jonathan followed suit. “It’s time for you to see the king,” he said. “If you have questions, we can talk on the way or you can call me afterward. I’ll be off site when you finish lunch, and a security officer will see you out.”
They walked down a hallway toward the back of the palace.
“The king is currently in the library,” Lanham said, “His office is still be renovated; the construction manager discovered an old broken pipe and some rotted wood, and Mr. Epworth, the master of the House, has been having to jump through hoops to get approval from the landmarks commission to make the repairs. Have you been to the palace before?”
“No, I haven’t,” Jonathan said.
“The library is actually two rooms across from each other, underneath the Music Room. The area gives out on to the terrace, and I believe that’s where the king said he’d be for lunch.”
They turned a corner and continued to the library area, where Lanham stopped.
He handed Jonathan an envelope. “This is the official offer,” Lanham said. “If you find the terms acceptable and decide to accept, simply sign one copy and return it to me.” He turned and continued walking. Jonathan followed him up a short flight of steps and through the door to the terrace.
It was a brilliant June day. The sky was blue without even a hint of a cloud.
“By the way,” Jonathan said, “I accept the position, assuming the king approves.”
“Good,” said Lanham, smiling. “I’m very pleased. And I think King Michael will be very pleased as well. I’ll let you tell him.”
Jonathan could see a man sitting at a table set for lunch. His back was to them and he was reading something.
“Sir?” said Lanham.
Michael turned and stood up, a huge smile on his face.
“You’re Jonathan,” the king said, extending his hand. “I am so pleased to meet you.”
Jonathan shook the king’s hand and remembered to bow.
Later, Jonathan was again one the sidewalk on Buckingham Palace Road. He stood for a minute next to the gate, out of the way of the pedestrians and the lines waiting to buy tickets for the palace tours, beginning at the end of June.
He knew he had just spent the most remarkable three hours of his young professional life. He and the king of Great Britain had just finished talking and developing a rough scheme for speeches. He would need to give notice at The Guardian today; he would start working at Buckingham Palace in two weeks.
He thought about his vicar, who had said such kind things. He thought about working for one of the top communication operatives in the country. He thought about the man he would be working with and writing speeches for.
And he thought about the looks on his papa’s and mama’s face when he told them about his new job. His father the janitor. His mother the worker at the dry cleaners. He thought about what they had sacrificed for him and his sister. He thought about the position of trust he’d been given, and, there at the fence, he said a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
This story is about one of the characters in my upcoming novel, Dancing Prophet, to be published this fall.
Top photograph by Ian Baldwin via Unsplash. Used with permission.