I was a small child when Mum said one day: ‘I wouldn’t be the Queen for all the money in the world.’
I was stunned into rare silence. Why would you not want to be Queen? To wear crowns and beautiful dresses and to have everyone wait on you hand and foot? Besides, if Mum were Queen, I would be a princess. I’d read all the fairy tales in the Ladybird books lined up in the bookcase, so I knew that being a princess meant wearing tiaras and pretty dresses, and that a handsome prince would fall in love with me, and we’d live happily ever after.
I regained the ability to speak and asked: ‘Why?’
‘All that work,’ she said. ‘Always having to do things you’re told to do. Never having time to yourself, or doing what you want to. Always having to be on your best behaviour.’
I couldn’t comprehend that anyone would tell the Queen what to do. Wasn’t she in charge? Wouldn’t she cry Off with their head! if anyone tried to command her? I didn’t realise that what the Queen did on a daily basis was a job just like anyone else’s. I didn’t know she wasn’t merely swanning around in gorgeous clothes going to parties, smiling for the cameras. I didn’t know she couldn’t just hand in her notice if she felt like a change.
In time I understood what Mum meant. I learned that the Queen might live in a palace, but it was a place she didn’t really like much, that she’d rather live elsewhere. I learned that it was the accident of birth that had landed her in the role, that she had no choice. I learned how hard she worked, how much she did. I came to understand that she had committed her entire life to the service of those she ruled. I became glad my mother wasn’t the Queen.
I was shocked into a swearword when I checked the news Friday morning. If someone had punched me in the stomach I would have been less winded. I sat and stared at my iPad in one of those moments when the world seems to cease turning, and I wonder if I’ve fallen off it into a world where my brain struggles to make sense of what my eyes are seeing. It couldn’t be true. Could it? As I began to comprehend reality I felt tears fill my eyes and roll down my cheeks.
Why was I crying? I’ve never met the Queen and she has no impact whatsoever on my daily life. But she has always been there. As the sun will always shine, one day if not today, and the rain will always fall, the Queen was always there. Her face is on the money I pull from my purse. Her name is on both my passports – I swore an oath of allegiance to her when I got my second one, an oath I never swore when I lived in the same country as she. In my new country I get a day’s holiday each year in her name which, weirdly, was something I never had in my birth country.
I saw her once in person, a brief flash as a train pulled away from a station. I’d had to run for said train in London and, as was common, tried to get on at the first carriage to walk through to where my seat was. When a guard stopped me and forced me to leg it along the platform, lugging my bag and briefcase, I muttered curses in his direction. When the train slowed into its first stop a line of well-dressed people, one of them wearing a long robe and mayoral chains, stood by a red carpet. I wasn’t the only passenger with their face pressed against the window to try and see who it was for. As we pulled away the tannoy bonged and a voice said: You may be interested to know that the Queen has just left the train. It explained why I’d been prevented from boarding farther along and I was miffed that I’d clearly run past the Queen, already on the train, without knowing that I could have looked in and waved at her.
On Friday, as I read the news, it was as though I was waiting for someone to give me instructions, to tell me what to do, how to behave. I felt a sense of discombobulation, as though all ability to think and act had been removed from me. In the last few days I’ve learned I’m not the only one, that it’s a normal feeling when something so huge happens, when such a historic moment occurs. I’d say it won’t impact my daily life at all, and in the long term I’m sure it won’t. But for now I’m checking the BBC website live updates on my phone half a dozen times an hour (this is a time when only the BBC will do), part of me annoyed that I am, part of me wanting to make sure I don’t miss anything.
A few days in, I see the word king and think it’s a mistake, then get a jolt of shock when I remember that we do now have a king rather than a queen. I couldn’t tell you when I last sang the National Anthem, but I can’t imagine I will ever automatically think God Save the King and I’m pretty sure I’ll have to check myself at that line. Barring a major catastrophe, I will never see another queen on the throne of England. I watch all the pomp and circumstance (which, let’s face it, is one of the few things we British are damn good at) and regret that I can’t see it in person, but accept that I probably wouldn’t have travelled from my home in Sheffield to London even if I lived there still.
My grandmother was the same age as the Queen when she died and the only people who mourned her were those who personally knew her. It was the same with my mum, who left her family devastated by her early death. She was younger than the new King is now. Queen Elizabeth II was a remarkable woman who leaves a huge hole in not only in her family, but also at the heart of Britain, perhaps the whole world. She will be a hard act to follow. It will take me a while to get used to a king rather than a queen and I wish King Charles III well in his new role, the one he was born into. I’m just glad that I was born into nothing more than an ordinary family.