Knock­ing on Heaven’s door

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Joe Gibbs

THE death of our diminu­tive 94-year-old neigh­bour, Va­lerie Hunter Gor­don, has left a dis­pro­por­tion­ately gap­ing hole in our com­mu­nity. The pages of na­tional news­pa­pers de­voted to this lady’s life bore wit­ness to her worldly achieve­ments, par­tic­u­larly the in­ven­tion of the dis­pos­able nappy, by which she touched the lives of mil­lions fun­da­men­tally.

To my fam­ily and oth­ers, she was also a trusty friend and neigh­bour, a larger-than-life char­ac­ter and a hardy trooper. Many were the whis­pered con­fer­ences and mourn­ful shakes of heads in the dark re­cesses of Beauly Post Of­fice that fore­cast her im­mi­nent demise in re­cent years. Each time, it had been heard on good author­ity that her ex­ten­sive fam­ily was on the point of gath­er­ing at her bed­side. And, af­ter each oc­cur­rence, I would bump into her a few days later, in the ‘pre­pared meals’ aisle of the Co-op, furtively giv­ing the slip to a dis­tracted carer.

These Ground­hog Day re­vivals be­came so reg­u­lar that they lost their power to amaze, so that when, at last, re­ports of her demise did not ap­pear to be ex­ag­ger­ated, there was gen­uine as­ton­ish­ment. She has been in her house across the fields from us all my wak­ing days. Although only half my height, I have al­ways looked up to her. It will be even eas­ier to do so now.

The funeral ser­vice took place in the beau­ti­ful and iso­lated St Mary’s Eskadale Ro­man Catholic Church in Strath- glass, built by the 12th Lord Lo­vat. Among the dis­tin­guished head­stones in that church­yard, of which Va­lerie’s will be by no means the least, is that of for­mer parish priest Fa­ther An­gus Macken­zie.

He died in 1856, to­gether with two other High­land priests, dur­ing a din­ner in Ding­wall, where they had con­gre­gated to dis­cuss the build­ing of a church. All three be­came vi­o­lently ill and per­ished on the spot. Poi­son­ing had to be the cause and, in the at­mos­phere of the evan­gel­i­cal Low Church re­vival of the 19th-cen­tury High­lands, all sorts of das­tardly the­o­ries gained cur­rency.

It fi­nally tran­spired, how­ever, that a ser­vant, who had been sent out into the gar­den to pick some radishes to make a sauce for the roast beef, had mis­tak­enly pulled up the roots of aconi­tum. Oth­er­wise known as monks­hood, ev­ery part of this beau­ti­ful dark-blue plant is deadly.

Pres­by­te­ri­ans had to rest con­tent that the wrath of the Almighty had fallen on the heads of the ‘mis­er­able’ Catholics for their temer­ity at propos­ing an­other church, their Sun­day roast ren­der­ing them Sun­day toast. And the Catholics had to wait an­other 50 years for a church to be built in Ding­wall.

At the con­clu­sion of Va­lerie’s ser­vice, taken by our Nige­rian priests, Fa­thers Max and James, we were ser­e­naded with a quite ex­cep­tion­ally mov­ing ren­di­tion of Ave Maria. A last­minute in­spi­ra­tion, Fa­ther James’s per­for­mance of this fairly blew us away.

Later, at the wake (epi­curean, aconi­tum-free sand­wiches), a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween neigh­bours re­vealed that Bri­tain’s Got Ta­lent au­di­tions were tak­ing place in In­ver­ness that very hour of that very day. Af­ter a swift draught of ef­fer­ves­cence and a de­cent in­ter­val, both priests were bun­dled un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously into a small car and rushed 12 miles into the High­land cap­i­tal.

Out­side the au­di­tion, it was nec­es­sary to per­suade a long line of hope­ful dogs, trick ponies, chil­dren and teenagers trail­ing gui­tars that this was a blue-light job. Could they re­spect­fully stand aside, please, for these men of the cloth who were needed back at their day­time jobs as soon as was de­cently pos­si­ble? A star­tled ITV pro­ducer who thought she’d seen ev­ery­thing found her­self switch­ing from a pro­ces­sion of Ed Sheeran cov­ers to a sonorous tenor singing the Ave to Charles Gounod’s set­ting of J. S. Bach’s Pre­lude No 1 in C Major, com­plete with West African or­na­men­ta­tion.

Then, it was back to the wake in time to help fin­ish the re­mains of lunch. We are agog to see whether Fa­ther James makes it

through to the next round.

Rail travel in the South has be­come di­vert­ingly Kafka-es­que as I dis­cov­ered last week when I tried to get to Pen­shurst in Kent. The fastest trains went from Vic­to­ria, the in­ter­net sug­gested. I duly pre­sented my­self at the sta­tion and pur­chased a ticket. Mildly per­turbed at no men­tion of Pen­shurst on the de­par­ture boards, I asked a wan­der­ing func­tionary, who di­rected me to plat­forms 15 to 19. ‘No,’ said the help­ful gent at 15 to 19, I should have been sent to plat­forms 1 to 5 at the other end of the sta­tion. ‘Trains to Pen­shurst?’ said the chap at 1 to 5. ‘Not here, mate. Try 15 to 19.’ A some­what fret­ful in­ter­view en­sued at some­thing called an ‘in­for­ma­tion booth’ where a yawn­ing of­fi­cial had never heard of Pen­shurst.

Try con­sult­ing his com­puter per­haps? Ah yes, no trains to Pen­shurst from Vic­to­ria to­day. Go to Char­ing Cross. A black­cab ride and sprint past Trafal­gar Square grid­lock and still no Pen­shurst on the de­par­ture boards. ‘Did you mean Pen­zance?’ asked Mas­ter­mind in the in­for­ma­tion booth there.

Does Pen­shurst ex­ist or is it all an elab­o­rate joke by South­ern? It would have been eas­ier to find the Hog­warts Ex­press on Plat­form 9¾ at King’s Cross.

‘Does Pen­shurst ex­ist or is it all an elab­o­rate trick by South­ern?

Joe Gibbs lives at Bel­ladrum in the High­lands and is the founder of the Tar­tan Heart Fes­ti­val

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