I got into a taxi one afternoon in November 2007 — one of those black cabs London is famous for. I was all dressed up, a flower in my hair, and was carrying two yellow roses tinged with red that I had taken from a flower arrangement.
“You look lovely,” the driver said to me, glancing in his rear-view mirror. “You going somewhere special?”
“Actually, I just came from somewhere — I met the queen,” I said. He looked at me, longer this time, and told me how lucky I was.
“Some people live to be 100 and never meet the Queen.”
That’s when the magnitude of the day really hit me; Queen Elizabeth II, then aged 81, had already been on the throne for 55 years. She had steered the United Kingdom from post-WWII poverty and devastation, through the transformation from an Empire to a Commonwealth, through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st.
The queen was the patron of the London college I had attended the previous year and was coming to visit, and I was one of the lucky alumni invited.
We were told to arrive early for a protocol briefing.
We were placed in small, pre-determined groups arranged by the college with the layout communicated to Buckingham Palace staff, as was the norm for such events.
The college secretary went through the list of dos and don’ts:
- Do not touch Her Majesty unless she offers her hand
- Do not speak unless spoken to
- Call her “Your Majesty” the first time, then ma’am as in rhymes with jam
- Don’t turn your back on the queen
- Do not ask personal questions
- Don’t talk about politics or news (there was an inquiry into the death of Princess Diana underway)
After each point, the secretary would look sharply at me, as though I would be the one to embarrass the college in the presence of the queen.
“One thing Her Majesty does not enjoy,” he told the 100 or so of us gathered, “is to have a room go silent when she enters.” He instructed us to please keep talking to each other in polite tones when she arrived.
I wasn’t concerned we would go silent. This room was experienced — diplomats, military officers, senior government officials, all well-practiced in the art of small talk.
Prince Philip had accompanied the queen and came to chat with our group first while she was in another room. I don’t remember much of what was said, except that it was polite, perfunctory, and he was very tall.
Soon after, the imposing wooden doors leading into the room swung open and there she was — Queen Elizabeth II.
The gentleman I had been speaking with a second before went silent, so did the rest of our group.
“No, no,” I said in a soothing tone. “Keep talking — it doesn’t matter about what — talk to each other about what you had for breakfast, but keep talking.”
The college commandant, a knighted former admiral, accompanied Her Majesty and began to introduce our group. When he came to a Romanian diplomat, the queen said, “Ah yes, didn’t we meet before?” and mentioned a previous function whose details I now forget. The Romanian diplomat was delighted, breaking into a smile as she said “Yes Ma’am” (as in jam).
I don’t know whether the queen had been well-briefed or actually remembered the meeting, but I recall marvelling at how quickly she had put everyone at ease. Tens of thousands of times she had been at the centre of events like this and she appeared curious and happy, focused just on us.
She was wearing a tan and cream skirt suit, and someone came and placed a glass of cranberry juice into her gloved hands — cream-coloured gloves. The glass was very full, and as she chatted with others in our group, I feared it would spill — no one had told me the etiquette for that.
Could I mention it? Dare I? That would be speaking before spoken to and interrupting. What if she spilled and I hadn’t said anything? The commandant saved the day, gently removing the juice and replacing it with a less-full glass.
As I pondered the protocol issues, the queen turned to me.
“And I understand you are the only journalist to ever have attended here,” she said, before asking me why. “Who wouldn’t want to come here Your Majesty?” I said, gesturing to those standing in our semi-circle. “You have an Indonesian military officer next to a Turkish diplomat, next to a Romanian one,” I said, going through our whole group, saying there wasn’t another course in the world that could have offered me this.
She asked me who paid my tuition, as others were sponsored by their countries or organisations. “I did,” I said.
And then she moved on.
I felt as though I had hit a diplomatic home run — in front of the queen no less. I had remembered everyone’s details, got to include the whole group in our chat — no gaffes, no embarrassment.
Later, we watched as she and Prince Philip descended the grand onyx staircase and took their leave.
Still feeling quite proud of myself, I went to the dining room for lunch. As I was just about to pick up a sandwich, the commandant came in and said, “What did you say to Her Majesty?” in the booming authoritative tone of a former military commander.
“Me? I didn’t say anything about anything,” I stammered, wracking my brain about how I could have messed up. “As I was escorting her out, Her Majesty asked about why you paid your way to come here,” the commandant said.
I told him she had asked me the initial question and I had answered.
“Does that mean I’ll get a refund?”
“No,” he answered emphatically.
The queen had spoken to at least 100 people after our brief encounter — I was astonished that she remembered that detail.
There are photos of that day, but none of me speaking with the queen. Maybe it’s better that way.
For a few moments, I was in the presence of a woman who had seen more than most of us would see in a hundred lifetimes. I looked into her curious and smiling eyes, watched as she laughed along with some of my colleagues, and I felt her genuine sense of duty and obligation.
She left an indelible mark.