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Speech Therapy

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"Of course you must be in love with him," Myrtle's sister gushes. "Everyone's a bit in love with the King. It must be worse for you, since you've met him!"

Myrtle hides her smile. Though she's heard that fantasies about royalty are so common as to be trite, she doesn't dare try to explain her own.

"It wouldn't do to have such thoughts about my husband's friend," she says.

"To hell with propriety," her sister tells her. "I'd have such thoughts about him. Any woman would!"

Not just women, Myrtle wants to add. A secret smile plays about her lips.

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Sometimes Elizabeth wants to ask Lionel Logue whether sexual relations are supposed to cure stammering.

Surely the man must know what will happen, after lengthy sessions with her sitting on Bertie's chest while Bertie breathes in and out beneath her. Not to mention the frequent results of her rolling Bertie around on the floor.

And those tongue-twisters! She used to try to muffle them when they were driving her mad by covering Bertie's mouth with her hand. Now Bertie muffles them against her breasts, her thighs, between her legs...

They still drive her mad, though not in the same way.

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"Dad, whose airplane's this?"

"Please don't touch it."

"Is it Valentine's? You wouldn't even let me get the Albatros, why does he get a Fokker?"

"It's not Valentine's. It's a gift for a patient who's been working very hard. A bit of a joke to make him smile."

"Is it for that boy you let finish my Curtiss? The one whose dad wouldn't let him build models at home? You could bring him round to our house. We could work on them together."

"That's a very nice idea, Antony. I think he'd enjoy that. I only wish it were appropriate."

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"You're not going to tell me that this is some kind of tongue strengthening exercise."

"Doesn't your mouth feel fit?"

"Fit against yours."

"And well-stimulated? You aren't stammering."

"I'm too surprised to stammer. I haven't even caught my breath."

"That proves the value of the exercise."

"It proves how peculiar you are. What makes you think I won't thump you for it?"

"You've been an enthusiastic participant."

"That's your fault. You're quite good at it. Still seems like a risky exercise, though."

"The progress makes it worth the risk."

"So you do this with many patients?"

"Never tried it before."

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The evening after Bertie comes to make amends, a package arrives for Lionel. It's fortunate that the boys are off visiting friends and Myrtle has popped over to a neighbor's.

The box contains a silk dressing gown with a wide belt and sleeves, decorated with bright hibiscus flowers. There's a card with it: For my geisha girl.

Lionel feels his face grow warm as he wraps the soft fabric around himself. Bertie is only joking, of course, using Lionel's own words. Yet Lionel can't help but imagine wearing it for the King... or, better yet, taking it off for him.

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Since Bertie is the King's son, it's natural to imagine him ordinary. That's what Lionel tells himself. It's a prince, not a man, whom Lionel envisions in the throes of pleasure: touching himself, having his prick sucked, being penetrated by someone (oh, might as well be Lionel).

The fantasies are a means of coping with the inequality of their stations. They don't mean that Lionel wants Bertie that way. Except when he can't sleep. Except when he touches Bertie during lessons. Except when desire makes his hands shake.

And at such moments, he doesn't even remember that Bertie's a prince.

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God Save the King.

For years it's been the phrase that Lionel has repeated silently to himself when he's needed a moment to compose himself, to control his temper, to stop and think.

He's angry enough to catch his son smoking a cigarette. But when he tries to calm himself down before speaking, the inner recitation has the opposite effect. Suddenly he's shaking with fury.

"Dad?" asks Antony. "Are you all right?"

"Never again," Lionel says. He isn't speaking of the cigarette, already dropped, forgotten.

It won't ever be so easy to forget Bertie, with cigarette in hand, striding away.

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It wouldn't rankle so much without all the reminders. The name mentioned every time one of Lionel's boys turns on the wireless. The hastily printed new portraits on the wall of every shop. The chatter of neighbors. The posters declaring "Stand By the King."

It's like being pricked by pins, always in different spots, a dozen times or more a day. Neighbors, pupils, Lionel's own family may mention the monarch. He can't guard against the sting without cutting himself off from everyone. Even fleeing back to Australia wouldn't make it stop.

He'll have to bear his pain alone. Like Bertie.

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Cold, dismal rain. A last-minute cancellation. A scratched phonograph record. A leak in a window, a puddle on the floor.

An empty milk bottle hides a hole in the tablecloth. The engine sputters like it needs work again. The boys are too busy, or too restless, for Shakespeare.

They're small things, easy enough to overlook, yet they weigh on Lionel like punishments.

The ring interrupts while he's with a patient. He nearly ignores it. He is not polite when answering.

"Yes? What is it?"

The name. The request. The schedule. The confirmation.

And quicker than sunrise, all fixed, all forgotten.

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The final rehearsal has concluded. The next morning, Lionel will be the only common colonial seated in the royal box, while Bertie will be crowned King of England.

"Wear this tomorrow." Bertie opens a drawer in his desk. From it he takes a medal of the Royal Victorian Order. The Sunday Express editor had told Lionel that his name was on the Coronation Honors List, but Lionel hadn't believed it; most of the honorees are nobles.

"Thank you," he says humbly.

The King smiles. "Not at all. You have helped me. I am going to reward those who help me."

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Lionel bursts through the door in alarm. He hadn't thought he was late.

Bertie sits cross-legged on the rug beside Lionel's youngest son, studying a book of airplane diagrams. Behind them, Lionel's middle son slumps in a chair with his homework in his lap, mocking them for using the wrong screw on a propeller.

"Dad," Antony greets him. "Bertie says we should build a Sopwith Baby."

"Because you're a baby," Valentine grouses.

"Shut up," Bertie says, elbowing Valentine in the leg. He looks perfectly content.

Valentine stalks out, muttering. "Who does he think he is, the bloody King of England?"

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When his family sits down to dinner, Lionel refuses to switch off the wireless. The BBC will eventually report on the King's trip to America. If Bertie has spoken in some public venue, Lionel might even get to hear his voice.

Bertie had asked Lionel to come along, but Lionel had declined, citing Bertie's need for independence. His real reason was more complicated. He feared becoming too attached to following Bertie around.

"You're moping," chides Myrtle. "He'll be back soon, and ring you up to tell you about it.

Even the boys tease. "He's not your sweetheart, is he, Dad?"

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It's an old fear, probably foolish now, yet rainy afternoons trigger it nonetheless. Lionel can't forget the misery that struck him that awful day at precisely the same moment as the first drops fell on his coat, when he realized that Bertie had no intention of speaking to him again.

Bertie has since apologized, of course, and welcomed Lionel warmly each time he's arrived at the Palace. But when the sky is so dark, Lionel can't escape the desolation of the memory... the cold face of Bertie's Equerry dismissing him, the finality of the steward shutting the door behind him.

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Bertie would watch for Lionel out the window if he could. Instead, he can see only the stony sky, dark as iron, with clouds swirling like fits of temper about to erupt.

Of course Lionel will come. Lionel has never missed a speech, not even when he's had to drive through air raids to reach the Palace.

Sometimes Bertie thinks his nerves might be calmer if he didn't have to worry about Lionel risking his life to come to him.

But Bertie walked away once. Tried to lock Lionel out of his home... his heart.

He can't do it again.

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Someone's cleaned the cottage a bit already when Bonnie arrives. A bedsheet hangs from a makeshift twine clothesline, pinned with a note about a dropped teacup. Wet towels, smelling of soap, drape neatly over the side of the freshly wiped tub. Even the loose leg on the kitchen table has been twisted tight.

Still, ashes fill the bedroom fireplace, and the pillow on the outer room's evenly-mussed fold-out bed is crushed flat. There's no impression of a head, though, and no indentations in the rug where the bed legs should have pressed all night. Clearly, no one slept on it.

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"Are you sure you've never done this before?"

Bertie's voice was gratifyingly breathless, particularly since Lionel knew the Duke must have been the recipient of such attentions by skilled women. "I think I'd remember." He gave Bertie a lick for emphasis.

"I suppose you exercise your tongue and your throat the way you make me..." Bertie broke off with a groan.

Lionel smiled up at him before demonstrating his control over his own throat muscles. His jaw might have been getting stiff, and Bertie's fingers might have been digging into his shoulder, but Bertie hadn't stammered even on the W.

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She's been the Queen Mother for half her life, three times as long as she was married to the King.

Bertie still looks young in her photographs. She knew he was ill for months, yet the end came suddenly, too quickly for farewells.

After Logue's wife died, though Logue was a man of science, he went to spiritualists and séances, trying to speak to Myrtle. When Elizabeth learned of it, she thought he must have gone mad.

Still, if there is a Heaven, at least Lionel followed Myrtle to it fairly quickly.

Would Bertie even recognize his own wife there?


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Bertie finds Lionel with Robert Wood and three BBC technicians, rerouting wires in the little room Lionel redecorated. They won't take the equipment out. Another speech, soon, will be inevitable.

"I'll finish," Lionel tells them, hiding a microphone behind a drape, as they scuttle out of the King's path.

The Council, the Prime Minister, the officers have gone to plan for war. Elizabeth has taken the girls upstairs. Bertie has documents to sign, but one task remains unfinished here.

"Thank you, Lionel," he says.

Lionel smiles. "You've already thanked me."

"Not properly." And before Lionel can disagree, Bertie kisses him.

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Reports come in waves, like guilt.

The numbers horrify. Thousands have died, mostly on ships, serving their own Navy as Bertie did before he became a King.

It is a time for mourning, not for relief so profound that it borders on exultation.

Yet submerged beneath the sorrow, the King can see salvation for his people. Churchill sees it too. Now the Americans must join in the war. Now Roosevelt must keep his promises to Britain and her monarch.

When the United States enters the fight, Bertie will not wish it undone.

But did his own prayers bring it about?

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"Suppose I c-could," whispers Bertie, hand on Lionel's knee. "Suppose we could."

The night cracks open. Lionel gazes out the window at the stars, a dazzling path to heaven or hell. He can't tell the difference.

"We can't," he croaks, surprised how tight his throat feels, his speech as unsteady as Bertie's. He wants to say, But let's. A sound like doodlebugs drones over the words, their menace deafening.

Bertie sighs, already resigned to the destiny that holds him above Lionel. Even now, together, they must remain apart, saving England, saving the world.

The dark hums. Clouds obscure the stars.

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"Don't worry about the exact words. Say whatever comes into your head."

Outside, the sirens wail. Bertie can't read one sentence of the speech without stammering.

"When our p-people fuck are f-faced with shit bugger arse the adversity w-w- bastard I love you!"

Lionel stares as if a bomb has fallen through the ceiling and landed between them, undetonated.

"Do you think of love as a profanity?" he asks.

"N-n-no," Bertie manages to sputter.

"Neither do I." Lionel's smile could defuse an entire fleet's munitions. "Now, let's try that again."

The sirens fall silent abruptly, and the words flow out.

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"You don't understand. You don't have daughters," snaps Bertie, then immediately regrets it. Lionel has sons, each of whom has fought for king and country. Lionel sent his boys off into greater peril than Bertie's girls have ever faced, even if the princesses were targets because of their lineage.

Surely Lilibet has been in greater danger at the Palace during bombing raids than she will be out tonight among the unruly crowds. So why does Bertie feel foreboding?

"They're growing up," Lionel says sympathetically. And therein lies the problem. Bertie's girls have ceased to be children safe in his care.