“She’s not dead, you know,” a voice beside me says.
The woman sharing the park bench in Kensington Palace Gardens has been observing me write on the back of a postcard.
Fifteen years have passed since that immeasurable worldwide torrent of grief. Even so less than fifteen minutes ago, I’d found myself unable to walk past that famous face on a display of vintage cards at a Bayswater Road stall.
“Diana’s not dead.” The woman shifts on her thighs and re-settles herself on the bench, a faint unidentifiable smell exuding from her dirty grey overcoat.
Really, I can’t help myself when it comes to Diana. You have had to be around in her time to understand the mesmerising effect she had on people. “Oh?”
“She wasn’t in that coffin.”
“No?’ Despite myself, I am intrigued. The woman eyes me steadily, holding me fast with her gaze.
“No. She’s in a mental institution.” The tone is matter of fact. “Under lock and key. They’ve kept it from everyone.” She gives me time to consider this, turning her attention to a man in a dark suit eating a cream doughnut, a blob of cream falling onto his blue and red striped tie as he hurries past.
Plastic bags rustle. “She had brain damage. They didn’t want people to see her like that. It was another woman’s body.”
Freed from her gaze, I shake my head. “But how -?”
“Military Intelligence. MI5 can do anything. She could’ve been a prostitute, a tramp, a runaway. Or-” She gives a furtive glance at a girl sunbathing, her black skirt pushed up to expose white floppy thighs, black stilettos with red soles discarded on the grass beside her. “A secretary at Whitehall. A lot of them go missing. They did her up to look like Diana.”
On the postcard, the princess peeps up winsomely from beneath her eyelashes.
“Except they missed her earring.”
“Really?” She has got me now. “An earring? I remember reading something about an earring.” I have said this with indecent eagerness.
“Charles noticed. He said, ‘Diana wouldn’t have liked that.’”
I remember that comment, but - “Where was it?” I ask more quickly than I intend to.
“ Somebody had forgotten to take it out. That’s M15 for you.” The woman sighs. “She hates it there.”
“So how do you - ?”
“Know? I know a nurse that works there. Sworn to secrecy.” Another movement on the bench, another waft of something rank. “They’ll never let her out. Diana. They need her dead.”
I check the time on my cell phone. I’m meeting a friend who lives in London. I can’t be late.
“Are you going to have that sandwich?” She points to my untouched half of a Pret A Manger sandwich still in its plastic carton.
“Would you like it?”
“I could eat it, I suppose.” She turns away as if she couldn’t care.
As I move away, I see another woman is waiting to take my place.