Earlier this month, Meghan the Duchess of Sussex stood in the 1844 Room at Buckingham Palace and prepared for her final public outing as a working member of the royal family.
The picture that those who were in the room paint of those final moments – Meghan having just met with dozens of young students and academics who had won scholarships from the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and preparing to leave for Westminster Abbey for the Commonwealth Day Service with husband Prince Harry – is one that is deeply emotional.
The Duchess with tears in her eyes farewelling staff; the royal embracing a select couple of loyal journalists.
Later that day, according to UK reports, Meghan flew out of London on the last commercial flight of the day to be reunited with her 10-month-old son Archie. (As in January when Meghan and Harry made a dash across the Atlantic to Britain, they left their only child, reportedly, in the care of a nanny and her best friend Jessica Mulroney.)
When Harry and Meghan exited Westminster Abbey on that Monday afternoon it marked their final outing as frontline royals, though their official final day of "work" will be March 31.
The post-mortem of how, in barely 22 months, the Bright Young Hope of the royal family – a couple who brought an unprecedented dynamism and charisma to a slightly mildewy, naff institution – has up and left will go on for years, if not decades. Accusations of racism, a rabid tabloid press and even royal houses allegedly briefing against one another have swirled but there is one inescapable truth – no one wanted it to come to this.
Harry has now joined her in Canada where the family have been hunkering down in a borrowed $20 million mansion on Vancouver Island. While lurking paparazzi trawl the area trying to spy on the Sussexes, the locals have been banding together to try to protect them from the press. (One move included setting up a Facebook page where residents can log where they have seen photographers.)
Once the dust has settled, the looming, million (if not billion) dollar question here is, what next? Where will the Sussexes live, how will they earn a crust and is there any chance at all that they might one day return to the royal fold?
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Everyone needs it, even if you are the Queen's grandson.
One of the thornier issues that has arisen since Harry and Meghan announced their plans to quit has been to do with cold, hard cash. Per their own website, when they were still working Windsors, they received 5 per cent of their income from the Sovereign Grant (a percentage of money earned by the vast Crown Estates and which goes to the royal family to help pay for official expenses), which was used to fund their Buckingham Palace office and for work-related travel. This they have now given up.
That other 95 per cent? That comes from the Bank of Dad, aka from Prince Charles' revenue from his vast Duchy of Cornwall holdings. Both the Sussexes (and the Cambridges) receive about $4.5 million each annually, the Mail reported, and this status quo will reportedly stay in place for the next 12 months.
Meaning Harry and Meghan won't have to revert to non-organic kombucha any time soon. What happens after that 12-month period remains to be seen.
While the duo are independently wealthy (estimates put their combined fortune at about $65 million) what is known is that they are keen to work, having told the world they plan to become financially independent.
Rumours and reports about quite what sort of paying gigs they're looking for have been swirling – she wants to do a Marvel movie! She's set to appear on Jessica Mulroney's wedding reality show! She's looking for a Hollywood agent!
What seems more likely is that they will try to find a way to undertake commercial projects that are more in line with their humanitarian interests.
To wit, in February when they spoke at JP Morgan's alternative investment summit in Miami it was alleged they were paid a six or seven-figure sum.
While much was made of their first, allegedly, paid job being for a global investment bank, what is more interesting is that when Harry took to the podium he reportedly spoke about mental health, an issue that has been a key focus for both of the Sussexes.
The challenge here for the duo is finding a way to balance the need to earn some serious bucks (especially if they have to foot their own security bill, more on that below) while preserving their standing and brand as global humanitarians. Translation: No hawking Sussex-branded juicers on the home shopping network, something that Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, did in 2015.
"The media attention is not going away and whatever they do to earn money will be scrutinised intensely," Majesty magazine's managing editor Joe Little tells news.com.au.
"It'll be another bumpy ride, and it's got off to a bad start with the fake telephone calls becoming public knowledge."
Consider Barack and Michelle Obama who, since they left the White House, have amassed a reported $214 million fortune – and without ever having descended into crass commercialism. Instead they have penned memoirs and been pumping out documentaries, one of which (American Factory) picked up an Oscar earlier this year.
Could we see Harry and Meghan picking up their own gold statuette in years to come for a similar project, say about gender equality or the struggles that military veterans might face? A betting woman would say yes.
Royal biographer Robert Lacey has told the Times that their stateside achievements could actually be a boon for the Queen and co: "They will have success in America. And that success will redound to the benefit of the royal family. The fact remains that Harry is bringing British royal qualities and aptitudes to a new frontier. I believe there is cause for optimism."
HOME SWEET HOME
While "home" for the moment is a whopping stone mansion in North Saanich – which seems to be owned by a very generous rich-lister happy for the Sussexes to stay there semi-indefinitely – at some stage they are going to have to find their own digs.
Staying in Canada would make sense, given Meghan lived in Toronto for seven years while filming Suits and it just happens to be a Commonwealth country.
Little tells news.com.au that this could just be a temporary pit stop: "My feeling … is that sooner rather than later Harry, Meghan and Archie will move south, across the border into the US, possibly California. I see Canada, a Commonwealth country, as being a bit of a softener." He also points out that "coronavirus may slow down that process".
That said, Los Angeles, or somewhere in that rough area, is also a strong contender given that her mother Doria Ragland lives there. Lending weight to this way of thinking is that setting down roots in California would mean the couple are an easy distance from both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, two commercial hubs that could very likely figure largely in their futures.
One place we know they will, at least occasionally, stay in is Frogmore Cottage, their home on the Windsor estate. After having agreed to repay the $4 million-plus to the Sovereign that was spent to renovate the property, this will still be the Sussexes' UK residence as evidenced by them staying there during their most recent trip to London.
What seems unlikely, however, is that Harry and Meghan will adopt some sort of 50/50 lifestyle, splitting their time evenly between both sides of the Atlantic. They also face making some tough choices when Archie reaches school age, and they will have to decide on a permanent base.
Now this is a very tricky one. Currently, they are guarded by officers from both the British and Canadian police forces, but come April 1, that will change. The Canadians have said they will no longer provide protection for the family, while in the UK, it has been reported that the Metropolitan Police are undertaking a review given, allegedly, skyrocketing costs associated with their globetrotting ways. Earlier this month, the Mirror reported that the Sussexes' security bill could hit $39 million a year.
What is a given is that they will need protection and there is zero chance they would follow in Diana, Princess of Wales' footsteps who, except when she was attending official events, eschewed bodyguards after separating from Prince Charles, leaving her vulnerable to the marauding paparazzi.
REJOINING THE ROYAL FAMILY?
Here's the thing: Harry and Meghan are no longer working, senior members of the royal family. However, they are still very much part of the Queen's family on a personal level. No lesser authority than Her Majesty herself said as much, saying in a statement in January, "Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family."
The current parameters that are in place around the couple, such as Harry stepping back from his military patronages and being barred from branding themselves as "Sussex Royal", are all set to be reviewed in 12 months, which has been widely interpreted as the Queen leaving the possibility of their return on the table. (Likewise, Harry will not be replaced as Captain-General of the Royal Marines in the interim.)
"The Queen will keep the door open," Dickie Arbiter, a former Palace spokesman, has told the Times. "At the end of the day it's family. The Queen is very fond of Harry."
Clearly, the Sussexes have had a tumultuous and emotional time over the past year.
No matter their royal duties, they have had to navigate married life, work and the arrival of their first child, all stressful experiences irrespective of who you are.
No matter your thoughts on the various PR crises that buffeted the couple in 2019, go back and listen to them speak to ITV's Tom Bradby for the TV documentary about their trip to South Africa and they are both clearly people struggling on a deeply personal level.
That's now, but who knows what frame of mind or how they might be fairing from a mental health perspective in a year?
I'll refrain from trotting out the maxim "time heals all wounds" but maybe, kinds in the future, the internal divisions that have increasingly distanced Harry from his wider family might slowly mend. (Details of a call in which Harry was pranked by two Russians posing as climate activist Greta Thunberg and her father Savante were revealed this week, during which he said "we are completely separate from the majority of my family".)
Factor in also, without being too ghoulish, Prince Philip turning 99 this year and the Queen turning 94. While they have both been an immutable public presence for the better part of a century, there will come the tragic day that each will pass away. Family grief and the ascension of Charles to the throne could both have ramifications we cannot predict at this stage.
THE SHACKLES COME OFF
The world is watching and waiting to see how the Sussexes' next chapter will unfold, but I think there is one thing we can be sure of: they are going to surprise us.
Jonny Dymond, BBC royal correspondent, told news.com.au there was no telling which way the family would go as they forged their new life together.
"Who would have predicted they would be doing what they are doing? My presumption is that they will take it slow, not rush into things, but they are both people who feel they have a lot to do," she said.
"Let's not forget Archie! There's no doubt from what Harry's said that he wants to spend time with his son. And who knows, a little brother or sister?
"But if they want to use their presence for the public good, and make a living, they'll need to maintain some kind of a profile. Finding the balance will be another one of their challenges."
Both Harry and Meghan are ambitious, creative and have little interest in maintaining the status quo when it comes to how they undertake their philanthropic work and the projects that draw their attention.
At every turn, Harry and Meghan have scrupulously followed their own playbook and rewritten the rules, and now that they are unfettered by any pesky concerns about protocol, they will really be able to spread their wings.
Keep in mind they have been largely out of the spotlight since early November last year, giving them plenty of time to strategize and plan. (Sure, the loss of the Sussex Royal name was most likely a blow, necessitating changes to their brand name, website URL and Instagram handle … but hardly insurmountable challenges.)
That total freedom must be thrilling (for them) while perhaps might be causing a few sleepless nights back in London. Every one of the Sussexes' headline-grabbing project announcements or celebrity outings will likely dominate the news and detract attention from whatever worthy things the rest of the Windsors have going on at home. The global spotlight on the couple is not going to dim an iota.
I also think they are two people with a capacity for a lot of fun. The last two years have taken a toll, but with the time to refresh and renew their spirits, there is every chance we might start seeing them – prepare yourself – having fun. St Barts with Beyonce? Brunch with Jeff Bezos? The Met Gala with Michelle Obama?
Bottom line: The coming months are not going to be dull, and I expect Harry and Meghan are going to shock, surprise and maybe confound fans and critics alike with what comes next.
The clock is ticking down to their independence day on April 1.
We are all in for a wild, wild ride.
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years' experience working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.