A Pilgrimage to Home - A Week of Alice and The Queen

Image by Author - The Lilies

The flowers she bought me before she left are still sitting on the table. “Those lilies have lasted longer than you did in Edinburgh, Alice,” her dad jokes. There is a smile but the only way to describe her is shell-shocked. She feels like she’s failed. “Shall we add her into the ‘non-uni girls’ group chat?” her sister asks. They circle round her, enthralled by the drama of her sudden return. “It’s so embarrassing,” one of them says, “she has to go back”.

As she left to go to university just over a week ago, the Queen had just died, and we were a nation descending into ten days of back-to-back mourning. A series of 16th century rituals were being intricately followed, embellished by 21st century hysteria, every second captured on social media. We were hooked on the 24/7 coverage, obsessed with Huw Edwards’ eye bags, leaky fountain pens and hand-holding. There was confusion about etiquette, what exactly constitutes disrespect in the modern age - supermarket beeps, exercise, cutting the grass, holidaying at Center Parcs, foodbanks. A sea of floral tributes was evolving at Hillsborough Castle, at Holyroodhouse, at Balmoral, at palaces and public places across the UK. I spotted bunches of them at roundabouts, in front of war memorials for the fallen. I wondered were there any flowers left? Were there any tears left? We were creaking with emotional exhaustion. The loss of a monarch was surfacing all other losses. People were generally feeling a little weird. The rainbows that popped up didn’t help. At times, the weight of my own personal grief bundled up with the collective grief was almost too much to bear. As the country struggled to make sense of the loss of their matriarch, I was struggling to make sense of the end of my daughter’s childhood. I had to hold tight to keep a grip on reality. I was prone to weeping in strange places, the maudlin music on the radio adding to my mood. Careless Whisper and the Carpenters were driving me crazy. Heart 80s was on a go-slow. I craved normality. “The rug has been pulled out from under her,” someone said as I shared how Alice was adjusting to life away from home. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under all of us.

On Tuesday, I found myself in a church. A shaft of light was streaming in through a stained glass window. There was something about the voices raised together singing It Is Well With My Soul that I couldn’t quite process but I reckoned that if it was well with my soul, I probably didn’t need to worry about much else. I was spiritually reassured but I clung on to Royal Mail anyway. By Wednesday, Craig in the Post Office said he was seeing more of me than his wife. I was learning about consignments and guaranteed delivery. I was tracking multiple packages - books to bring Alice comfort, fluffy socks to keep her warm, the freshly-washed throw from her bed. Against all advice that the handle was likely to get broken, I bubble-wrapped her tennis racket. I held my breath until it arrived intact.

As the week progressed and ‘The Queue’ gathered momentum, I wished Alice had a queue she could stand in. Her increasing isolation was in stark contrast to the solidarity and camaraderie people were finding there. A young couple had met in it. They were giggling, high on the initial stages of love, planning to watch the funeral together. Research was being conducted on the reasons for queuing. There were murmurs about the speed of the ethics approval. Most people didn’t know why they were there but everyone was definitely searching for something. Many simply intended to pay their respects but others had accidentally joined it. Some were nosey and wanted to see what the fuss was about, a few saw it as a challenge, a feat of endurance, like scaling Mount Everest or completing an all-nighter. It seemed less about the Queen and more about them. I was reminded of some lyrics, “Pack up the babies. And grab the old ladies. And everyone goes¹”. Were they seeking salvation? They were certainly on a pilgrimage, a journey that would culminate in a quick bow, a curtsey, a nod. There was no badge to say they’d done it, but they would be part of history. They would look for themselves in the camera feed later. Many would describe the wall at around eight hours, like a marathon or giving birth, then the euphoria of making it. There was anger at the celebrity queue-jumping. The unwritten rules of ‘being in it together’ had been broken. There were tweets about Richard Curtis producing a film script, a potential Sheridan Smith drama. There was cynicism too, moral outrage about the infrastructure that had sprung up overnight in the capital to support this queue. The Scouts were out in force, the Samaritans were on standby to counsel those dealing with unprocessed grief, particularly men on their own. Would the same infrastructure be available for the hungry, homeless, lonely and despairing going forward? A Girl Guide broke down when she realised she could no longer swear allegiance to the Queen but she had made a promise to God too. Surely the Queen with her humble faith would want any worshipping to be targeted in the right direction. Many describing ‘The Queue’ mentioned passing the National Covid Memorial, seeing the names of those who had died from Covid-19, painted in hearts. Most people knew someone on that wall. They were remembering so much more than the Queen as they filed past it.

In Edinburgh, not far from the Royal Mile, Alice wanted to find ‘her people’ too, preferably in less than the time it took to walk along the River Thames from Albert Embankment to Westminster Hall. She was putting everyone she met into a category - flatmate, walking companion, potential best friend. She no longer knew why she was in Edinburgh. She liked the city, but maybe for a weekend, not as a permanent home. She wanted certainty, timescales. “How long will it take before I feel better?” she kept asking. But we were just parents. We couldn’t give exact answers. Neither of us had any professional expertise we could draw on - my writing, his spreadsheets didn’t make any difference when it came to curing homesickness. We tried to push her through, suggested she hang on for another week, speak to her Studies Advisor. We wanted her to experience the euphoria of making it past the wall but there was little infrastructure to protect her on the way. We debated whether we could have managed the drop-off better, had we left her there too early? My mother had said I should have gone and stayed a few days². Somehow, I knew it would end up being my fault. I explained there still had to be a goodbye at some point. “What’s the best way to do it?” my normally composed husband had asked. “Make sure she has something to occupy her, someone to be with,” I said. He left her outside her halls. “Nearly cried myself,” he admitted. We acknowledged the first week hadn’t been ideal - the vomiting bug, the distance from campus, the half-empty flat.

By Friday, my concentration span was zero. I may have made arrangements with people I can’t now remember. I apologise if I don’t turn up. I was losing two hours’ sleep each night responding to messages as Alice decompressed at the end of each day. There was an embargo on FaceTime. We weren’t allowed to see her puffy face. I told her how proud I was of her. I was impressed that she’d gone to a Christian Union ‘acoustic night’ followed by a beach foam party in a club. “Interesting combination,” I said. But, on Saturday evening, when she confessed she didn’t feel up to going to the quiz in halls and was in her room alone with a pot noodle, I realised she was both physically and mentally depleted. A public holiday and a funeral meant she had to fill a three-day weekend. I wasn’t sure if she could do it. “I just want to be at home sitting on the sofa with you and dad and Toby³,” she said.

And in the end, all I had to rely on was a mother’s instincts. At 9.24am on Sunday morning, I made a decision. I was conscious that there are never any medals for sticking out a mistake. “Could you get yourself to the airport?” I asked. A line from Solsbury Hill was running through my head, “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home”. A flight was booked. The relief was immediate. She would throw essentials into a rucksack, bring any valuables, all documents relating to her course. When I checked her packing progress at lunchtime, she had invited someone round to use up her bagels. It seemed pragmatically efficient. There was an element of closure about finishing those bagels. She was leaving her dirty washing in the wardrobe. She texted a photo from the airport. She was early, sitting outside, eating a cookie her friend had posted to her. She had picked it up from reception just before she left. ‘Sending a big hug’ was emblazoned across it. She was happy, she was Alice again. She could hear familiar accents. “I’m sitting near people from Northern Ireland and it’s making me want to be home more,” she said. As the plane landed just before 8pm on Sunday 18 September, she and the rest of her flight waited onboard and observed the two-minute silence. It seemed symbolic, the end of a week of Alice mixed up with the Queen, the end of a week of everyone searching for something.

After all the publicity about leaving, telling people she was back would be hard. “I’ll put in on Instagram,” I said. “I’m such an influencer, it’ll be public knowledge in no time”. There were no judgements, only steady messages of support. I heard other similar stories, of those who had briefly tried it, but had come back because the pull of home was stronger than the allure of being away. “It’s not a failure,” someone said, “it takes a lot of maturity, confidence and bravery to know that something isn’t right for you”.

As I climbed into bed, she came in and lay down beside me. She was holding the book I’d randomly stuffed into one of the packages earlier in the week - Dr Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go. “I brought this back, Mummy,” she said. I flicked through it. The words held different meaning now than when I’d originally plucked it off the shelf. “You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care. About some you will say, I don’t choose to go there”.

Today, as the Queen was making her final journey, I read another message.

“There’s something lovely about Alice just needing home. And finding herself here all along”.

A pilgrimage to home. And maybe that’s all any of us are searching for? Maybe home is all we can ever hope to find.

(If this writing moved anything in you, and you want to keep me awake to write more, there is the option to buy me a coffee buymeacoff.ee/deborahjsloan!)

[1] Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show by Neil Diamond.

[2] https://dj-sloan.medium.com/why-i-am-not-taking-my-daughter-to-university-71a6913425a4

[3] The dog!

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter