Dubai: It was a beautiful spring day in 1997. We left the kids with a babysitter and drove to London in our ‘Sunday Best’. The trees on the sides of the motorway were heavy with the promise of new growth, birds sang and small clouds scudded across the rolling horizon as the city and this most exciting day raced towards us.
The Buckingham Palace invitation, stiff and heavily embossed, safe in its envelope, was tucked up in my wife Caroline’s handbag. My best hat lay next to hers on the back seat, nestled between two empty child-seats. The protocol for a soldier was daunting with much for me to think about. Sword slings and crossbelt. Shiny buttons and a starched collar. Cuff links and medal ribbons. I smelt of six different types of polish. Caroline was relaxed. Or at least, she seemed relaxed to me. My mind raced.
We met my very proud parents – my father suited and booted with a top hat and tails – in the street and then presented our credentials to the policeman at the gate. Beyond the tourist fray pressed against the high, ornate iron fences lay manicured gravel, crunching rhythmically under the boots of the palace guardsmen. We were led through an archway and into the inner quadrangle. Now four, we excitedly entered the gilded palace along with a host of other worthies.
The previous year I had worked in Bosnia for nearly 11 months, leaving my wife and then one-week old daughter, for an active operation for NATO. Working for a very capable, mostly American team I had been the only UK representative at a level beyond my rank. On the conclusion of the tour, someone had seen fit to recommend that I receive the thanks of the Monarch, and a medal.
Once inside I queued up in a strict order and in due course found myself in the front of the line, a famous golfer who had been my company for the wait, nodded his head in a parting bow and stepped away from Her Majesty. My turn. I marched forward three paces, came to a halt (struggling not to stamp my feet – not here!) and shook her gloved hand. I spoke once she spoke to me. She asked a couple of questions that I answered with false confidence. I said ‘Thank You’ and she deftly pinned a new medal to my chest. With a firm and purposeful push in a second handshake, she indicated that my time was over. I bowed, stepped back and marched away. Pride swelled in my heart as my family looked on.
I will forever remember how this fabulous Lady engaged me with her eyes, how she knew me and the ‘why’ of my being there, how real her thanks felt, and how happy I and all the others present at the Investiture felt to have had a moment with the Queen. While even on a dais, she stood less tall than me, her presence was so much greater, her aura so much stronger than the sum of all those in front of her. Her kindness, her discipline, and her consistency all shone through the excitement and the pomp and the ceremony.
Everyone who she touched that day will have experienced something similar. They will remember her with warmth and some level of love and devotion. She stands for honour and duty, for fairness and spirit, for selflessness, dedication and compassion. A remarkable majestic character. My Queen.
Today, after 70 years on her throne, she is still a constant presence in my memories. No one has ever reigned longer, and there will never be another like her. God Save the Queen!
- The author is a retired officer from the British Army, which he served for 32 years.