THEY never knew our names, and we never knew theirs, but for an hour on a damp Tuesday evening in September, we stood by a darkening dual carriageway and waited together.
The man in front of us said that the last time he had done a thing like this was for the Silver Jubilee when he was eleven. I remembered that event as well, and although I had never gone to it, I had been given a model of the Gold State Coach and its horses. I treasured it for a while, kept it safe under its perspex canopy, until it was later commandeered to support some toy soldiers in the recreation of a battle that could never happen.
There was a sleeping boy in a buggy who I took to be his grandson, and two women in their twenties, one of whom was pregnant and needed to sit on the crash barrier. She explained that the boy, who wore glasses and a Spiderman top, thought they were going to meet the King, because the King was his friend. She wasn’t sure when to wake him, if at all, but I suggested if there was ever a time to disturb a child’s sleep, this was it.
Two elderly women wanted to know if she had landed. I had supposed that we might be able to see her emerge from the low cloud, but clearly we were in the wrong spot. Instead, like so many others around, I relied on my phone, studying a flickering representation of a small plane edging its way east from Slough. She would be here soon I told them, but doubtless it would take a while to unload the coffin. I reckoned it would be another half an hour. They were very grateful.
Others were a little quieter, such as the young woman with a small bunch of roses. I guessed she knew she would never be able to throw them all the way onto the carriageway. Perhaps, like us, she had supposed she might be able to stand on a bridge or a flyover, and throw them from there. As she was in her twenties, I wondered if she had seen people doing that on the footage from the last time a thing like this had happened. The hearse then had had to use its windscreen wipers.
But we weren’t allowed to go on the bridges, and there were lots of policemen to make sure that none were tempted. In this, they were only mostly successful, because at one point a handful managed to sneak up onto the footbridge. When someone asked our nearest policeman whether we could in fact use the bridges, he doubled away, as did his colleagues on the other side of the road, and there was much cheering as a woman in a leopard-print coat found herself caught in a pincer movement.
Then came the news that she had landed. I told those around me, and as they could not get any reception on their phones, I held mine up, and for a couple of minutes we watched the small coffin emerging from the big plane and being loaded into the hearse. We saw the Prime Minister standing there, and somebody wondered whether we might see her drive past as well. Nobody was sure.
Another policeman walked by, and he told us to get our phones ready. People raised their arms instantly. It looked like they were saluting, I thought, unfairly. Anyway, they were too early, because we could see on the news that she hadn’t left the airfield, and she would be a good ten minutes at least. Word got around, and people slowly put down their arms. The policeman walked past again, this time looking a little sheepish.
Suddenly, there was a flash of flickering blue lights emerging from our right. A pair of police motorbikes sped past. The pregnant woman got to her feet, repeatedly asking if this was it. She sounded worried. People started to push forward, which meant that many would soon not be able to see. The policemen shouted at people to get back. People shouted at people to get back. They did so slowly, reluctantly, their phones ready. Nobody wanted to miss it. But this wasn’t yet it.
It was clearly time to wake the sleeping Spiderman. It was hard to blame him for looking bewildered. He was told that he was going to see the King, which seemed to perk him up, but I couldn’t see why he wasn’t being told the truth. I let it go. He sat on the crash barrier and the man who I took to be his grandfather said we could push his buggy back so we could see better. It was quite all right, but he insisted. On the other side of the road, people has stopped their cars and were getting out. It felt soon.
And then, lots of blue lights. We all knew this was it. People started moving forwards, and there was a bit more shouting, but not too much. Nearly everybody held up their phones and I like to think there was a hush, but I don’t think there was. Some people clapped. The hearse appeared, passing by a big red Royal Mail lorry. The interior was illuminated, and the colours of the Royal Standard looked deep and rich against the gun metal of the sky.
I later reflected that the coffin was like a needle and thread passing among us, briefly holding us together, but at the time all I sensed were the stirrings of sadness, and the awareness of something important. But then she was gone, all too soon, below a concrete underpass and really quite a big McDonald’s.