At lunchtime on Sunday, in the gentlest way possible, the British government suggested that the Queen’s faithful subjects stand down: “TO AVOID DISAPPOINTMENT PLEASE DO NOT SET OFF TO JOIN THE QUEUE.” This advice was appended to the official queue YouTube channel.
The queue, of course, is the miles-long line to see the casket of Queen Elizabeth II, who died in Scotland on Sept. 8th at the age of 96 and will be buried in Windsor on Monday. Since Westminster Hall opened to the public on Wednesday with the Queen’s coffin inside, hundreds of thousands of people have waited in lines as long as 24 hours to pay their respects. The queue, like the queen herself, has become a symbol of the country’s sense of duty and resolve.
“Possibly the most British thing the British people have ever done,” said queue skeptic Chris, who was on a bike ride with his daughter that brought him to the line’s starting point. “A five-mile line to see a box that may not have anything in it!”
The message, however, did not define “set off.” A family of three was already driving down from Manchester after their son’s soccer tournament. Brian Smith and Lucy Bucking were already on the road from a small town near Portsmouth, with a stop at Sainsbury’s to load up two plastic bags with white wine and ham sandwiches. “When you see what’s going on in the world—if the queen was replaced with someone voted in? Would be terrible. Of course,” Smith said. “There’s been terrible monarchs too but they never seem to last long.”
By the time the message went out, royal admirer Paolo Scimone was already on a plane from Milan, where he owns a coffee shop called His Majesty the Coffee. “Monarchy these days is a concept that is not so easy to make work,” he said, panting as he raced to obtain the coveted brown numbered wristband that helps keep the queue in order. Royalty, he added, was “paid to be something that she was, but the rest of the family is not.”
And so on Sunday afternoon, with less than 24 hours to go until the funeral and a queue estimated to have a 14-hour minimum wait time already, the mourners just kept coming.
That left a Portuguese immigrant, also named Paolo, with one of the hardest jobs in London that day: Cutting off the royal viewing line at its start. With a walkie-talkie tucked into his jacket under a yellow vest, the tattooed security contractor was the man who would pull the barricades across Southwark Park and tell some very disappointed monarchists they had come to the queue too late. In a funny way, it was this former social worker from the Azores, up since 4:30 a.m., who would mark the end of the Queen’s public life.
He was not excited about his task. “My English is rubbish,” he said. In fact, his English was quite good, and I told him so. “No,” he laughed, “That’s what I’m going to say when they come. Sorry, I don’t speak English.”
It was dumb luck that this task had fallen to him: On Sunday afternoon the queue was starting, or ending, in Southwark Park, which is his domain. “I was thinking it’s a Portuguese thing,” he said, as late arrivals raced past a bank of television cameras for the start of the line, “We leave everything for the last minute.”
A chaplain nearby in a clerical collar had come to console the disappointed, though no one had yet been turned away. Ironically, he felt it was the Queen’s role as a bulwark of stability that had allowed the country to go through with the reckless—in his view—Brexit vote. “We may lose Northern Ireland, we may lose Scotland,” he said. Even the special relationship, as the UK-US alliance is known, seemed precarious: “Keep us close,” he pleaded. “Because we’ve got nowhere else to go.”
The queue has become almost as much an attraction as the Queen herself, and no small number of people were beginning to walk the line with no intent of making it across the river. At least they were intentional about it: Hundreds have collapsed along the way, overwhelmed by fatigue. There are also rumors of meet-cutes.
Along the route, various entrepreneurs had come to cater to the queue, selling tea and coffee and booze and snacks. Charities give out blankets. Henrietta, whose house sat a stone’s throw from the Thames along the queue route, was giving coffee and tea away for free. “Coffee, love?” she called. “We’re doing it for our queen. It’s the least we can do.”
Henrietta had gone one step further: She opened up her ground-floor bathroom to the public. FREE TOILET TO USE PLEASE FEEL FREE. While she poured hot tea for the stragglers, a policeman in his black hat and a woman in a fur shawl discussed who had to pee more. Last night at 2 a.m., she said, a woman from Houston, Texas had stopped in to use the bathroom. Two nights ago, a man mistakenly barged into her bedroom while she was sleeping. But instead of locking her house up, she got her local council to install a temporary boltable plywood door at the foot of the stairs, walling the bathroom off from the rooms above.
At first I thought what united these last-minute queuers was the urge to do something just as the possibility vanishes, like buying a dress just because it’s the last one on the rack. Sure, there were plenty who only got it together then.
But it was also Sunday afternoon, and many of the people arriving had been working all week. It was only on the eve of the bank holiday that they could finally come to London. Tomorrow, everything—work, school, shops—would be closed, so they could stay up all night trudging along the south bank of the Thames.
As it turned out, though, most Brits were true to form: When the government told them to stop coming to queue to avoid disappointment, they did. All through Sunday, the queue faded. It left Henrietta’s bathroom behind. By sunset, the distribution of the crucial brown wristband necessary to enter the abbey—and ensure no cheaters jumped in as the queue crossed busy streets on its way there—had moved a full mile west to Tower Bridge. The queue finally closed to new entrants as 11 p.m. approached, though those already in line were expected to reach its conclusion sometime during the night. And Paolo, at the end of a 12-hour shift, had missed his shot at history. What a relief.