Catriona’s Jug 2001
(Read about the jug HERE)
As spring manifests everywhere around us my thoughts turn to my friend Catriona Urquhart, who while she never saw the garden at Ty Isaf, nevertheless exerts a tangible influence over what we have done and plan to do here. Catriona was a great gardener and plantswoman, and in my head she accompanies me on every turn of the garden I take, come wind or shine.
The beloved dead, I have increasingly found, stay with us, and getting on for seven years after her departure on May Day 2005, Catriona is as present in my head today… perhaps even more so… than she has ever been. Of course she’s present in more tangible ways too, surrounded as Peter and I are by the things… ceramics, furniture and plants… that she and her partner Ian gifted to us. Then there are the words and thoughts she left in the two slender Old Stile Press books that comprise the published works of her lifetime: the short story Palmyra Jones and the volume of poetry The Mare’s Tale. I fear there can be no more, because it seems our girl was thorough in destroying any of the writing with which she was dissatisfied.
French Jug and Anchovy Dish: Ceredigion still-life 2006
Yesterday I travelled to give a talk to members of the North West Wales Art Fund at Plas Tan-y-Bwlch. The subject was titled Clive Hicks-Jenkins Among the Poets, and alongside the projected images of paintings, I read the works of Dave Bonta, Callum James, Andrea Selch, Damian Walford Davies, Marly Youmans and of course Catriona. (More of that occasion in the next Artlog post.) Hard to select a single work by any poet that will represent them, but as I was showing the Mari Lwyd images that were in part the inspiration for Catriona’s poems on that subject, I decided to read Pegasus, her poem about my father’s death, in which she transforms the Mari of his nightmares into the winged Pegasus that will carry him away from his sick bed.
Peter gave the ‘Friends’ Eulogy’ at Catriona’s funeral. I think it possibly the best prose he’s ever produced. For those of you who never knew her, this is the most vivid account that could be wished for.
We have carried with us for years now fears that we would one day lose Catriona; but still, when the news came, it was impossible to believe.
So many friends have talked about the special, golden glow Catriona emanated. We all bathed in it. Catriona was one of the great ‘appreciators’ – especially of good company, gardens, the seaside, books, old china, poetry read aloud, paintings, and thoughtfully-prepared food, which we were always sharing. She adored to give gifts, her generosity leading her to spend days potting cuttings for other people’s gardens or seeking out the perfect book. She received gifts with infectious enthusiasm, too. When things were right, her pleasures seemed amplified far beyond those most of us can feel. Every time one discovered something beautiful, it was the reaction to think, ‘Ah, we must show Catriona this!’, ‘We must bring Catriona here!’ And so, until we learn to remember rather than grieve, every taste and every pleasure seems to turn to charcoal in our mouths, because she is not here to share them.
She seemed sometimes to know everything – the origins of words, the name of every rose, the biographies of writers, even the history of one’s own family. If she had bothered to go on Mastermind with these as special subjects she would have been a champion. She possessed the strong opinions and the disarming insights of the brilliant mind. She could dissect the frailties and foibles of everyone she met, whilst cherishing them as part of the rich and piebald world we all inhabit.
She had talent falling from her fingertips; though she wore it so carelessly that many never realised. She was an affecting singer and musician, though there are few recordings. She was strong and sporting. One of her father’s ciné films of his young family preserves an image of her fleet as an amazon, golden hair flying, leading out her sibling tribe; and she told us how she used to run with utter confidence the terrifying sheeptrack over ‘the elephant’, a rocky promontory near Ferryden that had us sinking to our knees with vertigo. She was a star at school and university. The Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney told her always to keep in touch and come and stay; but she never liked to bother him.
We knew that she had once been good at languages. With hesitation, we introduced her to Julia, a Russian girl working here who was all-at-sea and lonely through her lack of English. We believed Catriona could speak a little Russian, which might be nice. Within a minute they were chattering away, like old friends in a Moscow restaurant, Julia laughing and smiling for what seemed to be the first time in all her visit. Catriona picked up languages like most of us pick up colds, recently gaining fluent Portuguese on two visits to Brazil.
She told stories with such extraordinary vividness and ease that I badgered her to write them down. She said for months that she was writing a story for me. Finally, she announced that it would be my birthday present, and it was nearly finished. When she and Ian arrived for dinner, there was just the little problem that she had not put pen to paper! Trina locked herself away, and an hour later, there the story was, without so much as a crossing-out, perfectly formed in her head and transcribed unhesitatingly. What a gift she gave me; and what a gift she had! She was persuaded to read it out, and I will always hear it in her honeyed singer’s voice and Scottish accent (even though the narrator in the story was in fact an Irish seaman!). Like Alan Bennett, Catriona was the exception to prove the rule that authors are poor readers of their work. Among those rapt by her magic that birthday evening were Nicolas and Frances McDowall, who later published the story, Palmyra Jones, at The Old Stile Press, and later still her cycle of poems, The Mare’s Tale.
There were short-lived times when ill-health took away Catriona’s ability to be the things she was, but she fought back courageously. She used every ounce of concentration to write her Mare’s Tale poems through a haze of anxiety and depression. They are masterpieces.
Catriona was unforgiving of the second-rate, the lazy and the puffed-up. Perhaps she avoided writing because she knew how gruelling it is to achieve real quality, but that excellence was how you showed proper generosity in giving things to others. I for one was influenced by Catriona to try harder, not to take the easy route. And I believe many of us will go on to seek the best in everything – propagating all the best plants in the garden for our friends, caring for each other, and sharing around a table food that warms the cockles of the heart.
Sometimes Catriona loved to be the princess, served by those who brought her flowers and sweetmeats, answering her whims, making her comfortable. For nearly thirty years Ian was her hero, her young Lochinvar. He undertook quests for her, fought monsters, brought back treasures: commissioning an alteration to the alterations to the house, buying an old piece of furniture that needed her to love it, or taking her on a journey literally to the other side of the world. Of course she was no princess at heart, and she cared for Ian and others in return, especially her friends and family, and her nephews and nieces, whom she adored. But in her last illness she accepted care with calm contentment. Her family wrapped around her like a warm blanket of love. It was heart-rending to watch her brother Roddy gently cradling her head in his strong hands, Ishbel, face swollen with tears, leaping on her bed with cheerful cry of ‘Hi Trina’, and all of them at her side – Alasdair, Rhona, Cathy, the partners and the children. Catriona floated above the house-full, as she always liked to do in the bedroom at Ferryden or the croglofft at Penparc, knowing all was well, listening to the gentle tinkle of the tea-cups, raising an ironic eyebrow to things overheard, dozing, dreaming, waking with a smile to those who visited.
This will be a cruel summer, seeing Catriona’s flowers bloom – in many different gardens. People passing by will wonder, ‘Why is he sobbing at that beautiful new iris? Why does she look so sad amid that bower of roses?’ We will all move on, every one of us, and some die much younger than Catriona. But there were many things we wanted still to do together. She would have been an exceptional old lady – wise, surprising, generous, a keeper of traditions but subversive. She had so much more to give, and I suspect she would have found the best age to give it.
We must follow Catriona’s guiding light. She showed the joy there is in life. Even in her death, she tells us life is not for ever, and we should do the things that count, particularly those that cherish one another and the world around us. We will still hear her laugh sometimes – that irrepressible, mischievous, clear laugh; and we will still think often, ‘Ah, Catriona would love this!’
She will be strong in our memories, and she knew better than anyone that memories turn into stories. Stories sometimes transform to myths. And one day in future I know Catriona will be just that – the myth of she who glowed with love and wonder at the world and taught others to appreciate it: “Golden Catriona”. I think she will rather like that.
11 May 2005
11 May 2005