I lift the latch of a blue-painted iron gate under the trellis archway laden with the Rambling Rector rose that was the gift of my sister, and enter the garden past the reading-bench tucked to my left under the umbrella canopy of a weeping crab-apple.
Pausing only briefly to admire the unlikely olive tree that has survived in the shelter of this place, I skirt the trimmed box-bushes now grown to the size of large sea-boulders and the myrtle propagated from a sprig stolen by a Scottish poet from a shrub in the grounds of a royal residence, grown from a sprig pulled from a nosegay given to Queen Victoria in 1845 by Prince Albert’s grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Saxe Gotha.
I ascend a grassy bank springy with tussocks and clustered with primroses to the ruins of the myrtle thief’s chair, still at the uppermost part of the garden, where in her last evenings with us she sat in the dusk among the flicker of hunting pipistrelle bats, the glimmer of the illicit Gauloises betraying her secret vice as I anxiously watched for her while washing the supper things.
My beloved friend Catriona Urquhart died early on May Day 2005, at home in Caerleon with her partner Ian, her mother and siblings and nephew and niece around her. I was sitting in the chair at the top of the garden in Aberporth thinking about her when the call came with the news. I’d spent time with her the previous week, squeezed her hand and whispered my goodbyes to her closed, peaceful face.
Seventeen years have passed, and still she is with me. Here at Ty Isaf the stick-in-a-pot she gave us is now a walnut tree nearly thirty feet high. Her collection of poems with Old Stile Press, The Mares Tale – still available from OSP – continues with its power to make me weep, because I feel as raw and bereft as I did on the day of her departure. But I laugh, too, whenever I see the myrtle, because Catriona was emphatically not a Royalist, and she would positively crow with delight to see the fruit of her thieving doing so well in this west Wales cottage garden.
I should say up front that I never set out to be a designer or maker of toy theatres. I love the whole idea of toy theatre and I’m an aficionado of the form. I collect toy theatre ephemera and have from earliest memory. My discovery of 19th century toy theatre sheets as a child was a significant influence on getting me to stage school as a young teenager for the training I’d need for a life of theatre, and while there I found my way, of course, to Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, which place still thrills over fifty years on.
So all of those things link up for me: love of toy theatre, love of theatre and love of Pollock’s. But what I didn’t see coming was that I would occasionally find myself designing toy theatres. That, was a surprise.
As a stage designer in my thirties, my background of toy theatre undoubtedly influenced the way I thought about stages and the way pictures on them were presented to audiences. Always the sense of a frame and what’s seen through it, which is not so very far from looking at a painting in a frame on a wall.