For the past few years he had met the Princess at least once a week. Whenever she had had a birthday or anniversary he had made a point of giving her some flowers or a present. Only last Thursday he had delivered 100 red roses to her door, to mark the first anniversary of her divorce. "She came out to receive them personally," he said. "She shook my hand and smiled at me. I'll always remember that smile."
Now he felt physically sick: it was like losing a member of his family or his best friend, he said. Such a special bond seemed odd - until slowly it emerged that this was the homeless man whom Princess Diana had famously saved from drowning in a lake in Regent's Park three years ago. Martin O'Donoghue, as he was then (he has changed his name by deed poll and grown a beard to avoid being recognised by the press) feels he owes everything to Princess Diana. "If it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't have been where I am today."
There were thousands outside Kensington Palace yesterday who felt similarly moved by the death of Princess Diana. People of all nationalities, all walks of life and ages had come to pay their last respects.
A South African tourist joined an orderly queue alongside an HIV-positive man who had bumped into Princess Diana on an early morning shopping spree in Harvey Nicholls before he had been diagnosed. A Croatian woman was comforted by a young boy, while a Chinese man tied a white silk scarf to the railings and burnt incense above it.
One card was signed "on behalf of land mine survivors and victims", another from "The people of Pakistan". Yet another came from the "Somali community". A helium balloon had "Our Queen of Hearts" written across it in big letters, words often repeated, as if Princess Diana had been writing her own obituary in the Panorama interview two years. Over and over again, people were saying "she was one of us".
High Street Kensington was uncharacteristically hectic for a Sunday morning. The traffic was at a standstill and the entrance to the Palace carpeted in flowers: sunflowers, lillies and honeysuckle. On the face of it, in the park behind was just another normal Sunday with prams being pushed, dogs walked and couples strolling hand in hand. People sat in small groups, apparently soaking up the sun. On closer inspection, the scene was anything but normal. The groups were soaking up the sadness, not the sun. Anyone upright was either making their way to or returning from the Palace.
Biba Blaskovic, a 49-year-old Croatian, knelt before the gilded gates, praying and crossing herself with her rosary. The entrance had become a sort of shrine and anyone who drew near automatically respected the solemnity. Ms Blaskovic pressed tissues to her eyes to stem the tears, murmuring that Princess Diana was "like a Catholic saint". A chapel should be built where people could go and pray to her, she added.
Beneath the surface, there was a barely suppressed rage. People wanted someone or something to blame. When a man stood up and gave a spontaneous speech castigating the wall of photographers, the crowd let out a cheer. "Parasites," they chorused. "The press got their blood money."
Others took swipes at the Royal Family. "Her husband's no good," wailed an Iranian woman. "At least she knew happiness for two months of her life," cried another. One card was pointedly addressed to HRH Princess of Wales.
Some mourners lit candles, others brought teddy bears. Many scrawled messages on the familiar head-shaped postcards of Princess Diana in a sparkling tiara. Royal Ballet programmes, a Rolling Stones record sleeve and, regrettably, a Harrods drink container, were among the tributes people left.
Lord Thomas and his partner Ceri, both wearing red ribbons, were devastated by the sudden loss. As fundraisers for Aids charities, they would sorely miss Diana. But they were determined to retain some sense of humour. "She may have been a Princess," said Ceri, "but she's been loved by queens all over London and there will be one big party for her. We'll send her off in style."
Mike Berry, a station assistant at High Street Kensington Tube station, would miss her too. "She was always about," he said, adding his bouquet to the pile. "She was always very pleasant. Up and down the High Street. One of us."
Mr O'Donoghue, the tramp whom Princess Diana saved, prepared to leave. He had places to go and people to see: The Sun had bought his story.Reuse content