The King and I

The passing of Her Majesty Elizabeth II shook us all, even though we knew she was 96 and had been looking frail for some time. “London Bridge” was the code name for the various protocols and actions that were to begin on her passing, but as she was in Scotland it was “Operation Unicorn”. And as I was to find out, in Northern Ireland we had “Operation Shamrock”.

She died on a Thursday, and I was already planning to travel to London on the Friday, having got tickets for 2 shows including one starring my daughter. Lots of events were being postponed or cancelled, such as the football, so I wasn’t totally sure whether theatres would be affected. But I went to the capital anyway.

I managed to run a parkrun parkrun tourism: Highbury Fields on the Saturday morning, though some parkruns were cancelled either as a mark of respect or because geographically there would be traffic and parking issues. But as I was chatting to some other parkrunners we agreed it was important to keep some semblance of routine and normality, in this strangest of weeks. Over lunch with my daughter, I asked what changes they had made to her show. “Oh” she said, “we had a 2 minute silence and then sang The Song.”

“The Song?” I queried, “Do you mean the national anthem?”

“Yes, the one about the king!” she replied. To be fair, we are all still trying to get used to the unfamiliar words.

I flew home on the Sunday, and early on Monday morning I was checking up on emails, including the account for Chairman of RSCDS Belfast. And I let out a cry of horror, as I had missed a number of important messages from the Northern Ireland Office, inviting me to a special service of reflection on the Tuesday, but replies had been due by 9pm on the Sunday. I cried even louder when my husband reminded me that Tuesday was the day that the new King Charles III would be in town. But I submitted an apologetic email requesting if possible to be added to the guest list. And to my delight I received an acceptance a few hours later! I fair skipped around the kitchen whooping with delight.

But what to wear? My work colleagues always used to joke that I had a frock for every occasion – so here was a real test of my wardrobe. I tried on an asymmetric hemmed black dress – too tight. Navy drawstring waist from White Stuff? Too casual. Dark blue twist waist? Too short. And then at the back of the cupboard I spotted one I’d bought from Joe Browns a while back, but had never worn. Black tafetta with just a hint of red tartan, and long sleeves. (Probably why I hadn’t worn it as I don’t like dancing in long sleeves). Black jacket with little RSCDS brooch, and we were nearly there. Then I discovered I had no black handbag, and all my black shoes were very casual. So I made a quick last minute dash to M&S for a neat bag that I could tuck under an arm, and flat shoes with a little bow.

On the Tuesday morning I pressed the frock, and took my time doing my makeup before heading to the Eikon centre, where we would collect our invitations before being bussed into Belfast.

There were a large number of invited guests, many wearing medals or chains of office. There was tea, coffee, sandwiches and shortbread. I chatted to chef Paula MacIntyre, who is a regular customer at my sister’s farm shop, and to a former Head of the Civil Service. We shared tales about our dogs and how much we are enjoying retirement. I said hello to former colleagues from the field of integrated education, and to representatives of the girl guides.

Around the table I asked who else had made that dash to Marksies for a bag, and many hands went up. We checked we had all the essentials in the bags – spare tights, sucky sweets, tissues.

Then we formed a good-natured queue to get on the bus, where I met some folk from the dental association. Once off the bus there was a serious level of security check to pass through, understandably.

At St Annes Cathedral, there was a crowd forming behind the barriers, and television crews everywhere.

Inside the cathedral, staff with “shamrock” lanyards showed us to our seats, where there was an order of service, decorated with a black ribbon. I watched the other dignitaries entering. There’s Dame Mary Peters (very tall), and health minister Robin Swan (very short). Oh there’s Irish President Michael D Higgins (even shorter), and our new PM Liz Truss.

Cameras on booms glided overhead as the TV teams worked out the best angles.

We were asked to switch off our mobile phones, and no photos to be taken during the service. I knew the King had already had a busy schedule this morning, and I wasn’t expecting things to begin on schedule. But at about 5 to 3 we heard a loud cheer from the crowd outside, indicating their majesties’ arrival, and bang on 3 pm the buglers sounded their heralding welcome. A procession of church dignitaries began their slow march up the centre, and then our first glimpse of the King and Queen consort.

The service was beautifully crafted, with readings and prayers shared between leaders of the main faiths, the Duke of Edinburgh youth ambassador, and the Assembly speaker. The sermon was very poignant, highlighting her late Majesty’s important role in reconciliation on this island. I wiped away a tear during the Nunc Dimittis, and found the final hymn to the tune of The Londonderry Air very moving. But singing God Save The King, while he was there in the same building, was a really special moment that I will treasure for years to come. At least the words were printed in the booklet, so we all managed to get the correct he/him/his/King.

As they walked out of the cathedral, the King was on my side of the aisle, and he caught my eye as he passed, and I smiled and bowed my head.

After a little wait for the buses to return we all piled back on. I seemed to end up in a bus with most of the DUP on board, but we were all in jovial spirits, passing polo mints around and waving out the window to the crowds.

Once back home, I was able to re-watch some of the footage, and shout “there’s me!” at intervals, and one of my very sharp-eyed friends even managed to get a few pictures of me. Apparently I looked deep in thought during the sermon, and was spotted singing in the final hymn.

It was a real honour to represent the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, of which the late Queen was patron, at such a moving and respectful service.

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