Royal occasions have a strange stickiness for me. A sentimentality, a saccharinity, a pageantry that, try as I might, I struggle to look away from. I’m not a royalist by any means. I certainly don’t think of myself as a royal subject. I know that royal wealth stems from blood, that the Crown Jewels are African diamonds, and that we pay for their pomp. But I am already too exhausted to be angry. Their present thievery blends in with all the other royal thieveries. Maybe I’m not angry because I don’t have to worry about money every day. Or maybe I’m not angry because I was born after the millennium, after the towers fell, inside the epoch of loud pastel infographics and hushed, performative nihilism. 

My mum made me go to the Queen’s funeral. She shook me awake into the early hours of the morning while my brothers were sleeping, and the damp smell of dusk hung in the air. I washed my face half-asleep and wore muted colours. In the car I feigned disinterest, balancing a travel mug that leaked hot coffee over my knees. My stomach was laced with knots. Close to Windsor, we left the car with my mum’s friend Elaine. We walked through sleepy villages for about an hour. It was still a damp morning. We spoke occasionally – about our next holiday, about a boy I liked at the time, about my dad’s new girlfriend. When I got bored, I asked her easy and difficult questions. She responded honestly, as always. Then we were silent for long stretches. It was vaguely sad. Someone was dead. 

While walking I remembered that I had seen the Queen before. She was opening a building at the local college prep school. She wore all pink. I was six. The night before, my dad shined up my shoes and smeared Vaseline all over my face. Now you look presentable. He gave me a tartan handkerchief, which I stuffed up my jumper sleeve like a magician. I think he must have done that in his Anglican boarding school days, in Cape Coast. He learnt Latin and played cricket as though he was an Eton boy. That was the model, anyway. So I was proud of my borrowed hankie until girls laughed. Heard of a tissue? But I felt British, English, even, and no one had ever told me that I wasn’t. 

Windsor was more fiesta than it was funeral. People brought their babies and their dogs and their unfinished homework. They Facetimed and watched Netflix and ate undercooked beef burgers whilst sipping from jumbo cups of Coke, then discarded their straws in the long grass when they thought no one was looking. Everyone was committed to being there, committed to something indefinable, something that didn’t really exist. An elderly Ghanaian lady, Grace, draped in the Union Jack, emerged from the crowds. She was jubilant and defiantly youthful. Her greyish eyes crinkled as she spoke to my mother animatedly, her long braids flying around her face. I was first in line at Westminster Hall, to see the lying in state. We’d seen her on the news, cradling a queen cut-out and a jar of Golden Shred marmalade with a pinkie-sized Paddington on the wrapper.

Squinting under the glare of the sun, I snapped pictures of the soldiers in their pillbox red military uniforms. When the Queen came by, I dipped my head in an awkward, uncertain movement. Then we trudged home, too exhausted for conversation. We detoured through Eton College and chatted about a family friend who had a scholarship. The muscles in my legs were leaden from ten hours of walking and standing. I could’ve cried because it hurt so much. To distract myself, I imagined stories for all the people walking back with us. A couple in their twenties, who wouldn’t normally care but happened to be nearby. They shared a single pair of headphones, which played The Smiths, or The Sundays. A family with young kids who wanted to give them a day out, to make up for the year of being inside. A middle-aged man, maybe divorced, maybe widowed, who nested in the crowds so as not to be alone. 

The next morning, my mum woke up early again, to buy a newspaper. She spread it out on the table in her office, peering through tortoiseshell reading glasses. The photograph on the front spread was an aerial shot. The draped coffin parted the people, the heads like peanuts. No faces. I tried for a very long time to help her find us, sprawling out on the rug and kicking off my slippers. I couldn’t. It doesn’t matter, we were there, she said. This is a piece of history.

Grace appears in dangerous dreams of mine. Sometimes we cling to a life raft in a choppy sea, sometimes we are falling from a burning building. But she is always cradling the marmalade jar with the gingham lid, too. I am in a pinafore with raw knees, grasping my tartan kerchief as we flail. Both of us cling to belonging.