We’re celebrating Queen Elizabeth II by sharing a short story first published in The People’s Friend May 14, 2016 for the Queen’s 90th birthday.
All the women in the family had their own memories of the Queen — now I was going to help my granddaughters create some of their own . . .
I rang the bell as I opened the front door. Pippa always said to come straight in, but I never liked to do that, even when she was expecting me. It was her house, after all.
“Only me!” I called, as I took my coat off.
I could hear laughter and chatter from the big kitchen-diner at the back of the house.
I went through to find Pippa and the girls gathered round the kitchen table. The paints were out and Imogen already had a face daubed with blue and green streaks.
“Nanny!” both girls shrieked with delight.
Pippa looked up, laughing, too.
“Hi, Mum! See what lovely painting we’re doing!”
“Mummy, too!” Imogen said happily. “She’s been painting a princess, but I’m doing the Queen and Lily’s doing the gold coach and horses.”
“Lily was told all about it at nursery. They’re going to have a party in the playground in honour of the Queen’s birthday,” Pippa said.
“Oh, how lovely! Just like the old days!”
I sat down at the end of the table and pushed my sleeves up. I knew better than to dress in my best when I came round to Pippa’s.
She, Imogen and Lily were always making something, or playing in the sandpit, or even making pasta sauce for dinner — which was the messiest of all!
“We had a party when I was a girl when the Queen had her Silver Jubilee,” I told my granddaughters. “That was when she had been Queen for twenty-five years and there was a procession through London and lots of parties in the streets.”
“Was there cake?” Lily asked seriously. “With red and white and blue icing? That’s what we’re having.”
“I’m sure there was cake,” I said, looking back over the years to that day.
Had it rained? I was sure I remembered the streets being wet that morning at the procession. All the flags had still been damp as I stood with my mother to wait for the Royal Family to come by.
“Do you have anything from the Jubilee, Mum? They’re trying to gather some things to put on show at school. It wouldn’t get damaged — they’re going to put them in the hall in that display case.”
“Oh, I’m not sure I do. I know my gran used to have some mementoes in a glass-fronted cabinet. I used to play with them when we visited. They’d be from the Coronation, I expect. But I’ve never been one for plates and souvenirs.”
“Don’t worry, it was just a thought,” Pippa said.
“I’ll have a look, just in case something got put away,” I promised.
We all got on with the serious business of painting. Unlike Pippa, my drawing ability was limited to stick people, and my painting was at about the same level as three-year old Imogen.
Imogen peered at my picture when we had finished and were clearing up for lunch.
“Who’s that, Nanny?”
“It’s Prince Charles,” I told her. “He’s the Queen’s son.”
“Silly Nanny! He’s too growed-up to be a son!”
“No, he isn’t, sweetheart!” I laughed. “You can be a son or a daughter and still be a grown-up. Your mummy is my daughter, isn’t she?”
Imogen studied me for a moment, then her mother, then frowned. Then she just took her paintbrush over to the sink to wash it.
I smiled. The idea was obviously too much for her to make sense of.
Mind you, I understood. When I looked at Pippa, this lovely young woman who kept a beautiful house, went to activity groups and dance classes with her children and fed them healthy home-cooked meals every day, I wondered sometimes where she’d sprung from.
It’s a strange thing to be in awe of your own child, but that was increasingly how I felt with Pippa. At her age, I hadn’t even had her yet. I’d been climbing determinedly up the career ladder.
I’d not been sure about having children, right up to the moment Pippa arrived. I didn’t feel confident enough. She instead had her children almost straight out of university.
“I can go back to work when I’m older,” she assured me, when I’d tried hard not to look surprised at her announcement. “I’ll still be young enough!”
That was true. I’d not had Pippa until later. Still, at least I had some time now to spend with Lily and Imogen. I’d dropped down to three days a week, and at least one of those spare two I spent with them.
Some of my friends told me how lovely it was to have grandchildren, enjoying them without the anxieties of motherhood, yet I still felt a little uncertain, never quite sure I was getting it right.
Pippa had an ease and an assurance I had never quite mastered.
Back at home, I went to the spare room. I dug around among the boxes, but there was nothing in the way of royal souvenirs.
I rang mum.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “I’m afraid all the bits that your gran had went to my cousin Renee, because she collected things like that.
“There was probably a Coronation mug or something. I kept the cup and saucer from Brighton, that was all, because that came from our first-ever holiday.
“I can still remember how excited we were to have a whole week by the sea.” She laughed. “And now we fly all over the world! How times change!”
“They do,” I agreed.
“How are Lily and Imogen?”
“Covered in paint, mostly, this morning,” I said, chuckling over the memory. “I joined in but it’s not my strong point. Honestly, Mum, I think you’d have been hard pressed to tell the difference between my painting and Imogen’s.”
“You’ve always been more of a words person,” Mum said comfortingly. “You used to win all those essay prizes at school.”
“I suppose I did,” I said.
“And the stories you wrote, and the diaries you kept — always writing away in those notebooks. I used to buy them for you every birthday.”
“Aren’t you clever, Mum?” I cried.
“Often.” She laughed. “But why this time in particular?”
“I think you may have just solved a problem,” I told her.
I had to go up to the loft for the cardboard box that I remembered. Packed away tidily lay the series of notebooks that I’d used as diaries, recording everything through my childhood and teenage years, starting a new one as soon as I finished the old.
I found the one that covered the summer of 1977 and dived into the world of long ago. I was looking for the entry that I remembered from June, but I couldn’t help getting side-tracked.
“We went to the disco at St Margaret’s! I was asked to dance four times!! I said yes because they’d walked all the way across the hall to ask, but I didn’t really fancy any of them. I wore jeans and my new cheesecloth top that ties at the waist . . .”
Oh, the days of boys and discos! I was glad I’d been kind enough to say yes, even at fifteen. My mum had always instilled that idea in me.
Oh, here it was.
“June 7, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee! God Save the Queen!”
I’d certainly used a lot of exclamation marks in those days.
“Mum and I went down early. We stood by the Strand, just by the Savoy Hotel where there was a band. All the flags were hanging everywhere — still damp!”
Oh, I remembered that. On the corner Mum and I had waited with our flags at the ready.
“Then the band started to play the National Anthem, and a coach appeared and everyone went wild . . . only it was the golden State coach and it wasn’t the Queen, either — it was the Queen Mum, but we all got just as excited to see her.
“When the anthem started up a second time, we saw the gold coach, and there inside was a figure in pink — not on my side of the road, unfortunately, so I only caught a glimpse.
“To our side, we had the Duke of Edinburgh, and behind the coach rode the Prince of Wales in uniform. Mum had to tell me who it was, as you could only see about four inches of his face under the huge furry busby he wore!”
Why was it so exciting? Even now I couldn’t say. I just remembered the thrill, standing there with all those other people, sharing the same moment.
On the bus home, there had been my mother’s story of the Coronation. I’d heard them before, but I loved her tales of when she was young.
I used to look at photos of her and her sisters outside the little terraced house in a street empty of cars, and try to imagine the vanished world she told me about.
She told how her friend Pam was going to the Coronation with her cousins who’d come up from Devon and had invited her to come along.
They’d gone down the night before and picked a spot at the top of Regent Street.
They’d chosen it for practical reasons, because it was near a public toilet! They’d had no tents, just blankets and waterproofs, and they’d sat there all night.
“No-one really slept,” she would say. “There was too much going on.”
“Weren’t you really cold and tired?”
“We were too excited!” she’d say, with a laugh. “And younger then, too. We were right at the front, on the edge of the pavement, and then in the morning, along came a row of policemen and stood in front of us. Then a row of soldiers. There might have been some Boy Scouts, too.
“By the time the coach came along, we were peering between all their heads, but it didn’t matter, it was so exciting.”
She’d felt just the same as I had at the Jubilee. I sat back and thought about that, fitting the memories together with the scenes they’d shown on the news, picturing my mum among those crowds.
Pippa was very like her. My mum had always been a home-maker. She could cook and sew and knit. Her world had seemed so different from mine — days when you waltzed holding a boy instead of opposite him to a disco beat.
She’d lived in a terraced house with no indoor bathroom, while I grew up with central heating.
She had been unable to stay on at school, and left to go to work, while I had been urged to work hard and go to university.
I’d done my best for her and Dad, gone off and got my degree, worked hard and been successful.
I was good at my job, but sometimes I wondered, when I slid a ready meal into the oven or arranged child care for Pippa, if I was good enough as a a mum.
The thought had come to me more than once — did Pippa have her children early and stay at home with them because she was trying to give her girls the childhood she didn’t have?
I gazed back at my diaries, remembering that summer of 1977, and how I’d taken my world for granted. A world with fewer cars and no internet, where some sweets still cost a penny.
I must have some photos somewhere . . .
Pippa rang me later.
“I spoke to Gran. It’s a shame there’s nothing for the display, but don’t worry.”
“Well, I’ve had a bit of an idea,” I said thoughtfully. “When do you need it for?”
“I suppose the sooner the better. We’ll need to see what comes in so we don’t have six identical Jubilee plates!”
“I’ll see you on Thursday as usual.”
I went to see Mum the next evening to talk over old times. She told me all the old stories again.
“There was a traffic island just opposite us, so the coach had to go one side or the other, and we were so lucky, because it came along our side. We got such a good view! The Queen was so young and so pretty.”
She gazed into space for a moment, clearly watching scenes from the past.
“It really felt like a new world, after the war. We still had some rationing, mind you, but it all felt bright and hopeful at last. I suppose it was easier for us to feel that way — we were young and didn’t have the memories.”
“I found these photos from the Silver Jubilee,” I said, showing her some of the pictures I’d found.
Not a street party, strictly speaking — it was held in the little park at the end of the road. Mum and I had gone along when we came back from central London.
“And these from the Diamond Jubilee.”
They were much clearer than the faded ones from the Seventies — pictures taken on my phone when the Queen came to nearby town for one of her walkabouts.
She glowed in a coat and hat of elegant purple, a small figure but with a presence that drew all eyes, waving as she passed us. I was sure she’d had a special smile for Mum.
“What a lovely baby!” her lady-in-waiting had said to Pippa, who’d had Lily in a sling decorated with flags.
So all four generations of us had seen her that day and what different lives we’d each had. Mum and I sat late that evening, chatting and remembering, as she told me the old stories one more time, of her childhood and her wide family, who had all lived so close then, in the little terraced streets of the city.
The next day, I finished typing and arranging, and went over to Pippa’s.
“I hope the children like it,” I said a little uncertainly.
“They’ll love it! So will the school. Having people’s own memories and photos is the best thing of all. How clever of you to think of that!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do anything special like you. I’ve never been the creative type!”
“Mum, everything you do is special.”
“That’s kind of you. But I could never do with you the sort of things you do now with Lily and Imogen. I sometimes feel . . .”
Maybe I was emboldened by my talk with Mum the previous evening, for at last I said what I had so long felt.
“I sometimes feel that you’re having to make up for the childhood I never gave you, since I wasn’t a stay-at-home mum, like you and like your gran.”
Pippa’s mouth went into a circle of astonishment, just as it used to when she was a child.
“You were a great mum! I was always so proud of you for working. I loved that you turned up to parents’ evenings in a suit, looking just as important as the head, and you were so confident. That time when the Geography teacher told me I wouldn’t amount to anything, do you remember?”
I laughed. I’d been quite sharp about such negative talk!
“But if I was such a good role model, how come you didn’t want a career?” I asked.
“Mum, I do. It’s just that we do things differently. In Gran’s day, you didn’t work after marriage. In your day, you had to prove yourself in the office and wear those suits with big shoulders!”
I nodded, remembering power dressing in the Eighties.
“Me, I can start my own business when the girls are a little older. I’ve got all sorts of ideas. After all, you taught me not to be like everyone else, to find what I’m good at and do that.”
I gave her a huge hug, until Imogen, who had been playing across the room, came trotting over to join in.
“Will you come down to the school d help put the display up?” Pippa asked.
I looked down at Imogen, whose small hand was tucked into mine now.
“I’ll come and advise along with Immy here.”
* * * *
In the front hall of the school, Pippa worked out how to place everything she had gathered. My entries — carefully printed in large, colourful type — were going on a board.
“Look, Nanny!” Imogen cried, with delighted recognition. “It’s the Queen isn’t it? Wearing her crown like a proper Queen?”
I followed her gaze up to the picture of the Queen that stood at the top of the display. It was a recent picture and she looked serene and dignified. You could see a life well lived in her eyes and the lines on her face.
What changes she’d seen, and how things changed and how they stayed the same. A world where we moved from black and white into full colour, where the pace of life speeded up, yet we had comforts we could never have dreamed of 60 years ago.
From my mum in her circular skirts to Pippa in her jeans, I realised no matter how different life had been, we had all done our best with the most important of things — bringing up our families.
I was glad that Lily and Imogen would be old enough to remember this day. Through all the changes, these times were like a thread of bright beads, winding through lives both rich and ordinary.
These occasions when we all waved flags and ate cake with red, blue and white icing and shared the excitement of another royal celebration.
Read more tributes celebrating Queen Elizabeth II from the “Friend”.