22nd November 2014, what a day.
It all started unassumingly enough – My PA wasn’t due in until 9.30am … a lie-in … bliss … and then the postman arrived early.
As he was already up and having his quiet Saturday morning cuppa, Steve collected the post from the doormat, and as usual, just put the pile of letters to one side, for us to deal with later in the day. There was nothing striking about the envelopes – a few brown ones, a couple of white ones, and plenty of Christmas catalogues which always arrive during that time of year, and that really was it. The morning progressed, and at 12.30pm my PA left for the day. Apart from munching through a bacon sandwich (this is usually brunch on a Saturday) we proceeded to open the post.
One particular envelope came to light – a plain white window envelope addressed to me and marked as coming from the Cabinet Office. Steve slit the envelope and then handed it to me and I pulled out a letter on quite flimsy paper which was headed “in confidence” and dated 21st November 2014. I read the letter, and quite frankly thought it was a joke. It was the kind of prank that Steve or James would pull and it was only when I questioned the equally astounded Steve, that we realised it was for real. The substance of the letter was that I was informed “in strict confidence that having accepted the advice of the Head of the Civil Service and the Main Honours Committee, I was to be recommended to Her Majesty … that I be appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year 2015 Honours List.”
The citation was, for Services to Equality and Rights for Disabled People. I had no idea that I had even been nominated, and to this day I do not know who it was that nominated me. If you are reading this blog, thank you so much, you have my heartfelt gratitude.
The letter went on to say that I had to complete an acceptance form (as if I was going to refuse … John Lennon I am not!) and if I accepted, no further communication would be received, and my name would be included in the Honours List published in the London Gazette on the 31st December 2014.
Contrary to popular belief in my family, I am rather good at keeping secrets, and this was one mighty secret that I couldn’t let out of the bag. And so, we celebrated the arrival of this momentous letter with a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee – and not one phone call was made to anyone to tell them of my news. I have to say it was very difficult not telling the family and there were one or two occasions that I very nearly let it slip. Not even a dickie bird was said to James until he returned from University for the Christmas holidays, and his immediate reaction was that he could wangle a new suit out of us for the Investiture day!
Not being able to tell anyone was difficult, but not insurmountable, however I can tell you that Google went into overdrive that afternoon, as I surfed the net to find out what I could about the appointments procedure.
The five weeks, until New Year’s Eve seemed to go on forever, but you are told that the list goes “live” at 10.30pm on the 30th December, and so at 10.31pm precisely, I made an awful lot of phone calls. Facebook went into meltdown, and, to this day, I am humbled and overwhelmed by the response I got to my news. Literally from all corners of the globe came good wishes from friends and relatives who are usually dormant on Facebook. We sat mesmerised (for over an hour) by the “ping-ping-ping” of the computer as the messages came flooding in. (Of course I received an incredible amount of letters and cards as well, all of which I have started putting into a scrapbook.)
I tried to answer the messages as best I could, but I would have been there for days responding to the posts, and so I posted my thanks to everyone, replied to especially personal messages, and woke up the following day still wondering if it was really true?
It was really true, and so I let the fun bit start and my imagination went wild – Where would the Investiture be? Who would do it? Hat or Fascinator? … Rather like a wedding … But most importantly … would I get there on time? We Moriarty-Simmonds’ are not known for getting anywhere on time (or just about making it) so this was one appointment that I was not going to be late for!
The original letter advised that recipients would be told of their Investiture date about five weeks before the event, but my Dad had other commitments during the early part of the year and was asking me on a daily basis if I had heard anything. So, I decided to enquire with the Investiture Office as to what date I had been allocated. I am sure the people at St. James’ Palace are lovely to everyone, but to me they seemed especially nice. They advised that my Investiture would take place on the 17th July 2015 at Windsor Castle. Closer to the date, I would be sent a formal invitation and instructions on timing, but at least I could now plan for the rest of the summer. And of course more importantly my Dad could attend his bowls weekend and two weddings without having to worry about attending my investiture instead!
With my trusted dress-maker Mel placed on notice of this major event in my life (short of my wedding day, of course) I started to source material for my outfit.
As many of you know, I am not known for subtlety, and my clothes are usually made from material with big, bright bold colours. On almost the first journey to find the material, I came across just what I wanted; but the problem was the hat. Steve had, by this time, endured my “I wonders, what ifs, and what should I wears” for about two months – and whilst he patiently agreed to trundle around town for hats and accessories, he decided it was time for action. His idea of millinery is a million miles away from mine, but I let him have his fun. So, having agreed to go along with his idea of hat creation he marched me into TK Maxx. Whilst not finding quite what I wanted we did have some fun in browsing the hats, and quite by coincidence, did find one with all the colours in my chosen dress material. However, my “big” day wasn’t about to crowned with any old millinery and so the services of renowned Cardiff Milliner, Robyn Coles was sought. Oddly, we know a number of Coles’ in Cardiff … Coles (the Driving School – who got James through his driving test first time); Robert Coles (a wonderful decorator who is one of the nicest men in a pair of overalls, you could possibly meet!); and then Robyn, so I really wasn’t worried about the creation that she would design for me.
I’m not really a hat person … But we had a scream when she called with various hats for me to try, and I felt a bit like Goldilocks – One was too heavy, one was too small, but then the last one we tried was … Just right! Robyn said she would take a main colour from the dress material and contrast it with Ostrich quills that would be painted in some of the other colours from the fabric. It all sounded rather glamorous, and I began to wonder if I could live up to the obligation of looking like someone who would be presented to a member of the Royal Family.
With hat and dress all sorted, we then proceeded to find a hotel in close proximity to Windsor Castle, and (more importantly) someone who could do my hair and makeup on the appointed day. Whilst Steve is pretty good with hair and makeup, I didn’t relish the possibility of looking like Coco the Clown, or ending up with a topknot sitting on one side of my head – rather like a middle aged version of Cyndi Lauper from her “Girls Just want to Have Fun” days.
So, we decided the best thing to do was have a day trip to Windsor – and a very worthwhile trip it was. We found a really good hotel in the shadow of the Castle, and more importantly, a lovely lady called Rachel Staggs who agreed to do my makeup. Now all I had to do was wait for the 17th July. I suppose you could liken it to the anticipation that comes with waiting for Christmas, a holiday or a Birthday – and this was well worth the wait.
We left Cardiff on the 16th July (late as usual) and headed along the M4 with dresses, shirts, ties and suits all cleaned and pressed to within an inch of their lives! We were also accompanied by a Good Luck cake that my good friend Alison had delivered to us – a rather yummy jam and cream sponge, which went very well with the Champagne that Steve had arranged to be on ice by the time we arrived at the hotel. After a really nice evening, and a good meal to boot, we had an early night. The following day was going to start very early – and by early I mean 4am! Steve fell out of bed and managed to get me sorted in time for a room service breakfast and, as promised Rachel arrived armed with curling tongs and make up that would have satisfied the most discerning Princess.
RACHEL DOING MY HAIR AND MAKEUP
By the time Rachel left, I did feel like a Princess. Cinderella was going to the ball – well to an Investiture in any event. You will be pleased to know that we weren’t late and having been given a VIP pass to take our car into the Castle grounds, we were waved along the Long Walk leading to the Castle, by some very excited school children, who clearly thought the black car that was passing them contained some Very Important People … Sadly, it was only me, and the rest of the party, but they looked really happy to have waved me on!
What a lovely way to start this unique event, and I knew then that all my wishes for the day would come true.
It was only as we passed security that we were told the Queen would be officiating at the Investiture. I was over the moon. I had secretly hoped it would be the Queen, and my first wish of the day had been granted.
The Castle is an amazing place. Very old, and not terribly accessible, but the staff were wonderful, and couldn’t have been more helpful. They helped Steve and I up to whichever floor it was, in a very old, very small, Victorian lift; through a maze of corridors, and then we were separated … I went one way, and everyone else had to go in another direction. The air of expectation from all the recipients was palpable, and having been given our “pep” talk on what to do we, waited in eager anticipation. I needed a glass of water and a member of staff (who had been assigned to help me) despatched, a very nice man in uniform, who I think was one of the Queen’s footmen, to the kitchen to find me a straw … a straw from the Royal kitchen!
My second wish was not to make a fool of myself when finally appearing before the Queen. It is incredible how the royal machinery operates, and at exactly 11am the Investiture starts. The whole operation is done with such precision that it runs like clockwork.
My time had arrived. Before I knew it, I was waiting to move forward to meet Her Majesty. There are a host of things mulling around in your head, do’s and don’ts, when to bow, when to take the signal to move off – and my mind genuinely went blank as the person in front of me bowed and moved off to the right. I went forward, bowed (I think at the right time) and then received my Honour.
The Queen is small and delicate, with porcelain white smooth skin. Her voice was softly spoken and at times it was hard for me to hear what she was saying. She is gracious and gentle, and we, as a nation, should be proud that she is our Queen. It is only on reflection, that you realise her life of service was determined by a love story between her Uncle King Edward VIII and Mrs Wallis Simpson, over which she had absolutely no control. However, after over 60 years of dedication to her country, she carries out her royal duties with such dignity that you cannot help but be humbled by her selflessness.
I think I acquitted myself without embarrassment, and hope that I did my family – and in particular Steve and James, and my Dad and Sisters proud. I would have loved for my Mum to have seen me receiving my Honour but, a few days before we left for Windsor, Steve gave me a locket with a photograph of my Mum (on our Wedding Day) and of my wonderful Grandmother (on Debbie’s Wedding Day). They were dressed in lovely outfits and wore hats … my Mum’s hat was strikingly similar to the design I chose for this special day. I wore the locket with pride, ever grateful to my Mum and Grandmother for their love and support, which had allowed me to become the person who was able to receive such a wonderful accolade.
A tour of the State Rooms and Official photographs in the Great Hall topped off what was a remarkable and memorable experience, and my third wish for a day to remember was fulfilled.
OUTSIDE WINDSOR CASTLE AFTER THE INVESTITURE, WEARING MY OBE WITH PRIDE
In our usual fashion, we partied, at lunch time and into the evening. I made contact with some wonderful people, and witnessed recipients receiving awards for selfless bravery and loyal service to the Royal Family. I saw members of the establishment receive their Honour in recognition of the work they do for the country. I was honoured to be part of such a wonderful occasion, and (in the words of some colleagues from the Cardiff Business Club) to join a very exclusive Club.
I still can’t quite believe it has happened, and I haven’t yet resorted to wearing the “gong” to bed – even though I threatened to, I’m not sure it’s quite the right thing to do! But, I am so proud to be able to say that all the work that I, and many ordinary people do, in their own fields of charity and business, really is recognised in such a tangible way.
To end, I have two last wishes … and they are these …
In the Queen’s Official Birthday Honours List 2015, two of my Thalidomide friends, Mikey Argy and Lorraine Mercer were recognised for their campaigning and charitable work. I wish for them, a day that they will enjoy and relish. It will be a day of well deserved recognition, and I hope they will have as much fun as I did.
Even though the Thalidomide story which gave rise to my Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes is now into its sixth decade, the contribution that we Thalidomide Impaired people have made to the advancement of inclusion for disabled people, is at long last being recognised – as it should be, and should have been many years ago.
And so to my final wish … long may that recognition continue.