Knocking on Heaven’s door
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