The pub by London Bridge is packed. Rain is pouring down, spattering into the bottom of the empty pint glasses. One man, inexplicably, is dressed as a scarecrow in a wizard’s hat.
“Guys, it’s happened. She’s dead.” A friend declares, flatly. We all look around. The world has shifted. Surely there should be a sign. The man in the wizard’s hat laughs at a joke and brushes rain off its brim. “Do you think we should like, tell people?” someone asks. Instead, we all instinctively reach for our phones, automatically refreshing social media again and again, to see the same message repeated, again and again. A man standing near us turns and says to nobody: “The Queen is dead.” He pauses, and then turns back to his pint. “This is really weird and I don’t know how I feel,” says a friend.
This is really weird and I don’t know how I feel. Thirty one per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds think that Britain should have an elected head of state instead of a monarch. Only 24 per cent think that the monarchy is good for Britain. Controversy surrounding Prince Andrew, the Meghan Markle debacle, anxiety about colonialism and Britain’s place in the world: this is really weird and none of us know how we feel.
Later, I sit in bed flicking through TikTok. Click. “She knows it’s her last one,” someone has written, over footage of the Queen waving goodbye at her last public engagement. Mawkish music plays. Click. “Just announce that school will be closed for 12 days. SHOW SOME RESPECT TO THE QUEEN.” Click. “Liz Truss met the Queen 2 days before she died. Coincidence? I think not.”
An unnerving mix of irony and sincerity, humour and grief. History reflected through the eyes of a generation for whom crisis is ordinary and everything is content. A series of bubbles of people speaking to themselves and those like them, but also to the rest of the world who are not in on the joke. Even in death, her image mangled, corrupted and regurgitated through an algorithm made in China, the Queen still somehow reflects us back to ourselves.
This is really weird and I don’t know how I feel. My first memory is of 9/11: the Queen telling our American friends that grief is the price we pay for love. Over a decade later, I watch my grandfather cutting up an apple for my grandmother that he knows she will not eat, and placing it on a plastic plate. There is something in his eyes that I have not seen before. “You know,” I suddenly find myself saying, “the Queen says that grief is the price we pay for love.” His hand jerks forwards and grabs mine. It feels like a spasm, a muscle memory dredged up from somewhere far away. I repeat the words to myself like a mantra on the walk home. I do not visit enough.
Months later, my grandfather sits bolt upright in the pew. It would be impossible to tell anything was wrong, but for the fact that he has the same look in his eyes that I saw when he was cutting up the apple. Then, the celebrant mentions a baby who died. An aunt I never knew. My grandfather lets out a yelp, an animalistic howl that I still feel sometimes, in the small hours when I cannot sleep. “You know, the Queen says that grief is the price we pay for love,” I want to tell him afterwards. But I do not. What do I know of grief – what do I know of love – compared to him, compared to the woman whose words I am taking in vain?
There is an article which Guardian journalists will tell you is rumoured to be the most read of all time on their website. “’London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death” is the headline. Amid the account of the planned ceremonials is this line: “People who are not expecting to cry will cry.” I have perhaps read that article twice a year each year since its publication. Each time, when I would read that line I would feel a lump catch in my throat. That’s me, I would think. I am one of the people who is not expecting to cry, but who will cry.
When it happens, I am not one of the people who cries. The hours after London Bridge falls feel too surreal, too complicated for tears. Then, walking into work the next day, I see on social media a picture of the new King driving to Balmoral, and the look in his eyes reminds me of my grandfather looking at the apple. The familiar lump catches in my throat.
Since then, three sentences keep circling in my head: erratically, jarringly, like the technicolour horror of the feed on TikTok. People who are not expecting to cry will cry. Grief is the price we pay for love. It’s really weird and I don’t know how I feel.