Two Weeks with the Queen: the children’s book that helped change my young life

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Trigger warning: This article contains depictions of homophobic abuse and may be distressing for some people.

I’ve always enjoyed reading. Some of my earliest memories are about books. My parents encouraged my brother and I both to read. Our weekly public library visits were an adventure and I was precocious. I liked non-fiction. My library loans were books about cities, ocean liners and skyscrapers. Fiction, when I did start reading it, meant Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and, thanks to my fifth-grade primary school teacher Mrs Plunkett (a true saint), an Australian author named Morris Gleitzman.

In 1995 where we lay our scene, Morris Gleitzman had published eight children’s novels. Mrs Plunkett read us Blabber Mouth, the story of a badass deaf girl, Rowena Batts, in rural Australia. In a foretelling of my adult neurodivergence, I immediately read six of Gleitzman’s seven other novels. The Other Facts of Life (published in 1987) wasn’t for sale at Angus and Robertson or part of the Maroochy Shire Library catalogue and this was decades before eBay or I’d have read that too. This osmosis of his bibliography led me to a standalone Gleitzman novel, Two Weeks with the Queen.

It will surprise few queer Australians to hear this was the first book I read with gay characters. In the intervening decades, it’s become quite famous. Motivated by the death of the titular Queen last month, I borrowed Two Weeks from the local library and read in Gleitzman’s foreword just how famous. It’s been published in multiple languages and adapted for the stage several times in several countries. It’s not hard to see why. A book for children, published in 1989, a mere five years after homosexuality was decriminalised in New South Wales, with a strong subplot about homophobia and AIDS. This book wasn’t just “brave”, the eternal slogan for art about minorities. It was a unicorn.

The gay men in Two Weeks go beyond a “positive depiction” of gay men. They’re singularly realistic and approachable. Ted and Griff are out gay men in their mid-twenties who first met while working at a sheet metal factory in their native Wales. They have matching tattoos saying “forever” in Welsh and they’ve been in a relationship for six years when Griff is diagnosed with HIV. They make for a great read. Griff (pre-illness) has “bulging arms” and a big smile. Ted is a cockeyed optimist with his heart on his sleeve. In chapter 13 he gets beaten up by homophobes. In chapter 16 he puts on a pink scarf and exits stage left.

“Queen!” says a passerby. Not a queen, says the narrator: the Queen.

Subplot though their relationship and Griff’s AIDS may be, their impact on protagonist, 12-year-old Colin Mudford, is profound. The impact of his known-knowns on the reader, more so. Colin knows some men are gay, homophobia is cruel, and you can’t catch AIDS by sharing a tangerine. He also knows Ted and Griff are good people. Exceptionalised? Romanticised? Stereotypical? None of the above. Everyday folk getting by as best they can. As depictions of gay men go, even in 2022 it’s spectacular.

I was hesitant to re-read it and only finally did the night before I was due to return it to the library. The darkest part about reading is rediscovering a novel you once liked decades later and finding it’s awful. I needn’t have worried. I chowed through Two Weeks with the same childlike wonder I did in 1995 and cried openly on the last page. Did I cry when I was 10? I think so? I know for certain at the time it hit me in “the feels”, to the extent reliving it brought back some childhood memories I hadn’t touched since they happened.

My favourite Gleitzman novels as a kid were his serials: Blabber Mouth and Sticky Beak; Misery Guts, Worry Wart and Puppy Fat. I thought their protagonists, Rowena Batts and Keith Shipley, were brilliant and re-read their stories multiple times. Two Weeks by comparison was an oddity. I only read it once. It’s not that I didn’t like it. My parents took it away from me.

Remembering the incident 27 years on, for the first time, gave me a shock. My older brother (then 12) also read Two Weeks. Upon finishing it, he confronted me and started talking loudly about the gay subplot. For context, you should know what I didn’t then: I was an extremely camp child. My parents’ code for it was “melodramatic”. They had already been trying to shame me into normalcy (sometimes violently) for years but it didn’t take.

Without realising it, my younger self knew who he was and stuck to his guns. In pre-school, I routinely took sequinned women’s clothes from the dress-up box. I had fiery arguments with adults about why Barbra Streisand was the world’s greatest singer. Age five, I had the lyrics to “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles memorised and reeled off zingers from The Golden Girls to the manner born. On Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in the early 1990’s I stuck out like a sore thumb and my conservatively educated parents hated it.

Even after years of intervening therapy, it’s tough to admit my parents hated who I was. They also worked hard to isolate me from queer culture and to demonise any inadvertent glimpses. In 1992 when Peter Allen died and Channel Seven played his obit on the news, my father heard Peter’s voice from an old interview clip and said: “oh. He was a poofter!” And quickly turned off the TV. One of my mother’s colleagues in the local St John Ambulance entered a lesbian relationship. I was told to be extra polite in front of them because they were “sick”. A gaggle of distant relatives, including a gay couple, visited from Melbourne. We endured a dinner even as a kid I perceived to be nastily uncomfortable before everyone quickly departed. I like the memory of those boys. They stared down a room of homophobia with fire in their veins.

Hearing my brother talk about queer people brought my mother into my bedroom like an avalanche. I remember my brother’s jarring grin as he said: “I don’t think David should be reading this.” At the time, I assumed it was because I was too young. I fought back and my mother immediately confiscated Two Weeks with the Queen. When I retrieved it from my parent’s bedroom and put it back on my bookshelf it got thrown in the bin. Its title became a watchword for trouble and so I did what I was learning to do with all the other daily micro-aggressions, I buried the memory and shut my mouth.

As an adult, I now know my childhood was difficult. The episode with Two Weeks reinforces one of the harder angles to digest. My family knew I was gay, knew I didn’t have the words or the wisdom as a child to understand, and did their best to hurt me anyway. There were no attempts to understand their gay son. Just a double down on the belief I would grow out of it with relentless isolation and negative reinforcement.

Age six I was beaten up on the playground by older kids for being a “faggot”. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I was told it was my fault for being “melodramatic”. I “made” my mother ask my teacher Mrs Dawson if I could be a farmer’s wife in the Old MacDonald’s Farm-themed year one assembly. That night she threatened to emasculate me with a Wiltshire kitchen knife. I called my father an “idiot” for insisting I do more manly things on weekends. He beat me with a stick till I was bruised. I was seven.

Highlights reels of homophobia are unfortunately necessary to understand and to grow. The moral of it all becomes the enduring legacy of those tiny glimpses of queer normalcy. The gay men in Two Weeks lingered in a way not even twenty years of concerted abuse could silence and I was staggered by how much that means to me now. Queer folk are taught to value cultural depictions, even if they’re heterosexual whimsy (Breakfast on Pluto), dangerous stereotypes (Call Me by Your Name), or naked cash grabs (My Policeman). This thief’s bargain is made with the understanding even misguided brushstrokes make the picture of queer life brighter and harder to drown out. For some child, somewhere, desperately trying to make sense of who they are, even a tiny glimpse can be a gateway and enough to change a life.

Two Weeks with the Queen was my first glimpse at a future, bright and bold with possibility. It remains a rarity and special for its achievement: a depiction of queer men simply being. Ted and Griff, in their own small way, did end up changing my life. I suspect this is the case for generations of children, and parents, keen to open young minds. Gleitzman, now the author of 43 books, says in the foreword of the 2010 edition there’d been an effort then to make a movie for 15 years. It’s heartening to realise the same year my young, queer self lost this book as a dangerous influence, Verity Lambert OBE was submitting it for consideration to Hollywood studios.

I now own the same edition of Two Weeks my parents threw in the bin. Thanks eBay. Thank you also Mrs Plunkett, who, sadly, I now know passed away last year. And thank you Morris Gleitzman. Not bad mate. Not bad at all.

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