‘She was a star, a constant’: Melburnians grieve their Queen

Ryan Tofts had knocked off his late shift at Woolies but couldn’t think about sleep. On the other side of the world, a woman he’d never met, yet couldn’t imagine not being in his life, was dying. Throughout the night he kept the TV flickering, waiting for news that was both inevitable and shocking when it came.

Later in the morning, he found himself carrying a dozen cream roses, walking through Melbourne’s King’s Domain towards Government House, where a makeshift floral memorial was slowly blooming outside the wrought iron gates. He stopped to talk and tried to describe what Queen Elizabeth meant to him.

Floral tributes are left for the Queen at Government House on Friday.Credit:Justin McManus

“She was like star, a constant,” he said. “The world is always changing and the Queen was always there. I never expected this day to come. I honestly thought she would outlive us all.”

In another Melbourne house not far from where Tofts spent his sleepless night, Elizabeth Howcroft woke to the voice of her own son Russel talking about the Queen on Melbourne radio. She felt a loss she can’t quite explain.

She is 85 and has grown old with the Queen. Their lives and the lives of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, although never connected, have always felt in sync. When her grandson Sam sent her a message from Sydney, saying simply that he was thinking about her, she began to cry.

“That was really lovely,” she said. “I haven’t turned on the television yet – I don’t want to.”

There is a moving picture of the Queen she won’t easily forget. When the newly crowned monarch and Prince Philip first visited Melbourne in 1954, Howcroft was 17 years old. She remembers joining the throng outside the Princess Theatre and paying a fruiterer 10 shillings for a wooden crate to stand on to get a better glimpse when her majesty’s car pulled up.

“She was all in white. The diamonds and the tiara – she just looked magnificent.”

When Australia voted at its last referendum, support for a republic was strongest in Victoria. In the hours after our longest-serving monarch died, we were all Elizabethans – to pinch a line from Malcolm Turnbull – at least for a day.

Premier Daniel Andrews, the leader of what he calls the most progressive state in Australia, paid careful respect to traditional protocols, donning a dark suit and tie to lay a wreath for the Queen, along with his wife Catherine, outside Government House. He paid tribute to a woman who kept her word, solemnly given when she was just 21 years old, to dedicate her entire life to service.

Premier Daniel Andrews and wife Catherine lay a wreath in honour of the Queen at Government House on Friday.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The tone of our response, both in Victoria and across the nation, was set in the early morning hours by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

In a well-crafted speech, he described the Queen as a “rare, reassuring constant amidst rapid change”, a woman who exhibited a timeless decency and enduring calm.

“There is comfort to be found in her majesty’s own words,” he said. “Grief is the price that we pay for love.”

Avowed monarchist Tony Abbott, his voice hoarse with emotion, called in to Sydney radio 2GB to praise Albanese’s words and add his own. “I didn’t have the privilege of talking with her privately very often, but everyone she touched was uplifted.”

Lucinda Mathieson with her eight-year-old corgi, Honey, known in her neighbourhood as the royal dog.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Therese Black, a regular reader of this newspaper, put it most succinctly: “I feel like I have lost my nan.”

If grief is the price of love, payment can take many forms. Lucinda Mathieson’s connection to the Queen is in her dog; a golden-coloured, Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Honey. The Queen was inseparable from her corgis and in the Fitzroy North streets near where Mathieson lives, Honey is known as the royal dog. “It’s quite surreal,” Mathieson says of the Queen’s death. “I haven’t known life without her in that role.”

Behind the counter of a Rob’s British Butchers in Dandenong, English expats Jill and Rob Boyle share traditional sausages, pork pies and condolences with regular customers who have driven across town for a melancholy taste of home. “You can see the look on their faces. Everyone knows it’s the end of an era,” Rob Boyle said. “It will really hit home when you see the royal family come out on their balcony and there will be no more Queen coming out.”

At the MCG, the beating heart of Melbourne where the Queen watched the Centenary Test in 1977 and opened the Commonwealth Games nearly 30 years later, the ground fell silent before the first bounce of Friday night’s AFL final between Melbourne and Brisbane.

Jill and Rob Boyle with a plate portrait of the Queen at their British butchery in Dandenong.Credit:Justin McManus

The most remarkable thing about this day was listening to the stories of people who had been touched by the Queen, whether by catching a glimpse of her through a crowd, sharing a chance conversation with her or merely feeling the warmth of her smile.

Midway through the morning, a mini bus pulled up outside Government House. As the residents of a Brighton aged care facility carefully disembarked, 102-year-old James Vane Lindesay led the way to the gates. Unlike most of us, he has been through this several times before.

“I knew the Queen was ill,” he said. “I heard on the radio this morning. I’m just getting used to the situation. We are going to have new coins of course, with a king on them. I’ve lived through three kings, I think.”

Lindesay was for many years a cartoonist and illustrator for Melbourne’s Argus newspaper. He lived through the reigns of George V, Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II and now, will welcome King Charles III. He was in London for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, one face among countless who crammed into The Mall that day.

People sign a condolence book at Government House.Credit:Justin McManus

“I have never seen so many people in all my life,” he said. “I’m never likely to again.”

Hayden Beasley, a naval officer during the Korean War, also stepped off the bus with a story to tell. He was on an exchange program with the Royal Navy when Elizabeth and Prince Philip were travelling towards Australia in 1954 and helped crew the SS Gothic, the ship which picked up the royal couple in Singapore. Later, in Melbourne, he shared a snooker game and round of drinks with the Prince at the Naval and Military Club, while Elizabeth was watching the tennis at Kooyong.

Along his travels, Beasley twice met the Queen. “She was just normal. Some people think they are above everybody else. She would just chat away with you like you were brother and sister. She was only about that tall,” he said, his arm stretched out to chest height.

Ana Retallak lives with her family in Geelong. Before she moved there, she worked for three years at Buckingham Palace in the office responsible for planning the royal family’s ceremonial events. Her years at the palace coincided with the death of Diana and what the Queen called her annus horribilis.

One of the tributes left at Government House.Credit:Justin McManus

The Queen’s great gift, Retallak says, was the genuine interest she had in other people and her capacity to listen.

“She was the absolute wizard of small talk,” Retallak said. “She had this wonderful quality of being genuinely interested in people. She gained their trust and respect. People felt that they had been heard, that she really did listen and took it in.

“If we are going to have a role model, she was it. We could all learn so much from the Queen.”

This is a common refrain in how people remember the Queen.

Governor of Victoria Linda Dessau and husband Anthony Howard in front of a portrait of the Queen by Brian Dunlop.Credit:Chris Hopkin

Linda Dessau travelled to London in 2015, shortly after she had been appointed Governor of Victoria, for an audience with the Queen. She was struck by her warmth, humour and interest. “She had an amazing capacity to feel relaxed, so you could have a genuine conversation.”

John Brumby, speaking to radio station 3AW, told a story of being driven by the Queen in a Land Rover across Scottish fields, a pack of corgis bouncing in the back. In the aftermath of Black Saturday, the-then Victorian premier, at the Queen’s request, had briefed the palace daily about how we were recovering from the state’s deadliest fires. In 2010, the Queen invited Brumby and his wife Rosemary to visit her at Balmoral castle.

The drive across the Balmoral grounds was eventful enough, but the thing that has stayed with Brumby is what happened after they’d finished eating a rustic picnic of cold lamb and salmon. “We had to clean up and pack everything up because it all had to go back to the house to be washed, and guess who joins in? It’s just like being at home at dinner time. She was just a fantastic person.”

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