Watching Prince Harry gallop across a sunlit polo field in southern California it was tempting to wonder if it brought back any nostalgic memories for the very different kind of life he used to lead as a member of the Royal Family.
But of all the regrets he surely privately has over his exile, the greatest must be the animosity that exists between him and his father-in-law, who remains seriously ill in hospital after a suspected stroke.
The rift between Thomas Markle, his daughter and the son-in-law he has never met, has been one of the most tragic and enduring features of the entire Harry and Meghan saga. It is also by some distance the saddest. For despite the pain and suspicion that undoubtedly still exists between Harry and his father Prince Charles and brother William, the Prince has not completely severed those royal bonds. And although pointedly not invited to share the Buckingham Palace balcony, he and Meghan will be participating in next week’s Platinum Jubilee.
Contrast that with the sorrowful events surrounding Mr Markle’s admission to hospital after reportedly losing the power of speech and suffering a fall while out shopping in the Mexican town of Rosarito where he lives in solitary retirement.
Families at war: The Duke and Duchess during their controversial television interview with Oprah Winfrey last year
In footage posted online, the former TV lighting director is seen lying on a stretcher with an oxygen mask strapped to his face as a paramedic gently explains that he is being taken across the U.S. border to San Diego for treatment.
No one is quite sure these days how Harry and Meghan will respond to the plight of the Duchess’s father and whether they will put aside the bitterness of the past four years and travel the four hours from their home in Santa Barbara to be at his bedside.
This is a particular conundrum for a couple who in their public roles make a virtue of their compassion.
How different things could have been, not just for Thomas Markle but for Prince Harry, too. Far from home, having the kindly figure of his father-in-law to turn to might have provided Harry with the stability he has so plainly been lacking since abandoning his own family.
And who better than Mr Markle to guide him in the realities of life in a mixed race marriage. But none of this wisdom has been available to Harry. Instead their relationship has been one of sour mistrust.
Suits you: Thomas pictured being measured for his wedding outfit
It has hardly helped that Mr Markle has offered his own uncompromising views of his daughter and her husband. Accusing Harry of being ‘snotty’ and an ‘idiot’ who is ‘whipped’ by Meghan was never likely to endear him to his son-in-law. Even so, this cannot excuse Harry’s own behaviour. The roots of this unhappiness lie in the weeks leading up to Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding in 2018. Mr Markle was revealed to have collaborated with a paparazzi photographer in staging pictures of him preparing for the marriage ceremony, from reading up on British history to being measured up for a wedding suit.
It was naïve, foolish even but hardly wilful. The irony was that this act of invading his own privacy came at the very time Palace officials were sending strict warnings to the media not to harass him.
Indeed, it was hard not to escape the conclusion that royal advisers had failed to realise that this lonely but thoroughly decent man would struggle to deal with the enormity of his daughter marrying into Britain’s Royal Family.
Daddy’s girl: Meghan was doted on as a teenager by her father
It seemed then — and it seems now — remarkable that proper efforts were not put in place to prepare Mr Markle for the news, providing an aide to brief him or better still flying him to London and accommodating him in a royal home where he could have acclimatised ahead of the wedding.
But perhaps the most baffling failure of all was Harry’s. Even now, four years later, it is hard to understand why Harry did not meet his girlfriend’s father in person, as any prospective son-in-law would do.
There must have been countless opportunities for Harry (and Meghan) to have paid a private visit to her father — long before he started giving interviews.
By the eve of the wedding, when Thomas revealed he was pulling out of giving his daughter away because of heart problems, the relationship between the two men was turning toxic.
Mr Markle said he had hung up on Harry during a heated telephone call. Although he accepted the Prince had every right to reprimand him over the staged photographs, he described the timing of the call as ‘rude’.
While admitting he had lied about the incident, he added: ‘There is a time and place to say what he said but not when I’m lying in hospital after a heart attack.’ He claimed he had ended the call after telling the Prince: ‘Maybe it would be better for you guys if I was dead… then you could pretend to be sad.’ Resentment had been bubbling for some time.
He claimed that when the couple’s engagement was disclosed, two representatives from the British consulate in Los Angeles had visited the home of his ex-wife Doria Ragland — Meghan’s mother — to present her with a copy of the official scroll bearing the Queen’s announcement.
‘No one came to my door in Mexico,’ he complained. ‘I would have liked the engagement announcement, too.’
Petulant maybe but perfectly understandable.
Yet by the time of the Duke and Duchess’s interview with Oprah Winfrey last year, Meghan described the fake pictures episode as feeling like a ‘betrayal’.
She said she had asked her father directly if he had talked to tabloid newspapers (over the pictures) and he had replied: ‘No, absolutely not.’ She said she told him that ‘if you tell me the truth we can help’. According to Meghan her father ‘wasn’t able to do that’ and she described his refusal to answer as ‘so hard for me to reconcile’.
By the time of the interview, of course, the couple had already long slammed the door shut in Mr Markle’s face.
Even so rather than seeking a reconciliation, the relationship unravelled further.
In December 2018, Thomas claimed he had been ‘ghosted’ by his daughter and that she had not responded to the countless attempts he had made to contact her. The situation deteriorated even more when details of a handwritten letter she had sent him were revealed by The Mail on Sunday.
Last year the Duchess sued the newspaper for reproducing parts of the ‘personal and private’ letter and it paid damages for infringing her copyright.
Even then a rapprochement might still have been possible. Thomas longs to see his two grandchildren, Archie and Lilibet.
It is not just three lives damaged by this escalating tragedy, now there are five divided by this bitter disagreement.
Harry has spoken of how sad it was that his mother Princess Diana never knew Meghan. How much sadder it will be if he never gets to know Meghan’s father.
Just imagine how much he could learn about fatherhood from the man who displayed a unique approach to teaching his daughter about her mixed-race heritage. Meghan proudly recalled how one Christmas Day she had opened a present containing a set of Barbie dolls, specially customised by Thomas to reflect her family — one black doll and one white.
After her parents’ divorce in 1987 the young Meghan lived with her mother but continued to spend time with her father who often brought her in to the TV studios where he was working.
When he won money in the California State Lottery in 1990 Thomas invested some but spent most of it on his children — Thomas junior and Samantha by an earlier marriage — and paid for Meghan to attend a Catholic high school.
These were formative years for Meghan when she mainly lived with her father. Of course, Doria has been able to tell the Prince something of Meghan’s childhood but a complete picture needs to involve her father, too.
Is it really too late for Harry to put the past behind him and reach out to poorly Mr Markle? I don’t think so — but if he does not I fear he may come to regret it.