I’ve just finished reading, for the second time, Penelope Fitzgerald’s, 'At Freddie’s' – a darkly comic novel about the Temple Theatre School for Children and its marvellous proprietor, Miss Wentworth, or
Freddie, who sits powerful and invincible in the centre of her decaying empire. The description of the
school building is wonderfully evocative, and it’s mostly this that I remember from last
reading over twenty years ago – the landing that must be tip-toed across by the children in case it collapses, the grand piano, with one leg sunk through the rotten floorboards, like a stranded ship. Theatre Schools could never be like this again!
The Little Theatre where I spent much of my childhood, was a similarly memorable place – though it was rising from decrepitude, rather than sinking. In post-war Britain, a few dedicated and serious-minded amateur actors, with time and money to spare, formed a Theatre Club, and eventually purchased an old Victorian School sometime in the early 1960s.
What a place it was. The tragic-comic masks leered at us from the foyer. There was a tiny auditorium, complete with green velvet upholstered chairs, acquired from an old cinema. An old lady called Marjorie sold fragments of rock-hard homemade toffee wrapped in greaseproof paper, and the rustle and crunch of toffee- eating accompanied the opening moments of all the productions. Before each performance the National Anthem was played. I remember the sound of the seats banging to upright as everyone stood to attention and my sense of gravitas, and the desire to giggle.
The Wardrobe, presided over by Betty and Joanna, was a room full of vintage clothing that could have filled the boutiques of London markets in the 1980s. There were beaded dresses, crinolines, tie-on lace bustles, real fur wraps, and drawers and hampers of feather boas, pearl handbags, hats and gloves. More terrifying was the props room, a dark sinister place located at the back of the Ladies Powder Room – where mirrors shocked us from dark corners, and we were watched by disembodied heads.
A strange collection of grand people were members of The Little Theatre. There was Noel, with the dark intense eyes, who came very close when he spoke. There was Joe, with his painful wooden leg, who managed the lighting, liked frisking the women as they waited in the wings, and frequently gave himself accidental electric shocks. Vera – a tiny, fussy, ex-ballet teacher, made teas for rehearsals and performances and insisted on matching the china cups to the correct saucer. Terence and Eileen worked in the set design rooms, where sometimes we children were allowed to prime the huge canvas flats. They quarrelled often, and the more heated the rows became, the more endearments were used.
There were the Grand Dames, Dorothy and Muriel, who’d both love to have gone on the stage professionally. They didn’t like each other at all. Then there was Fay, tiny and round, who aspired to greatness, always so elegantly dressed in black, and draped in fox furs and feathers. Fay was only given minor roles, or allowed to be part of the crowd, but acted her heart out to ensure she was noticed by everyone. They took themselves very seriously as grownups must do. I was impressed by them all.
As an antidote to all my recent posts about people who’ve died, I thought I should write about my cat, Domino.
Domino is a small black and white female cat. She’s lived with us for almost a year. Before that she lived with Ivor Sutton, in a 1930s bungalow in the wilds of Staffordshire, just below Biddulph Moor. She was Ivor’s sole companion. In those days she was very thin, as Ivor didn’t feed himself or his cat adequately.
I’ve never lived with a cat, and I think she’s exceptional – but then so was Ivor.
'What will I do if I die?' He used to ask me. 'What will happen to my Domino?'
'I’ll have her,' I said once, without a second thought.
In September 2012, Ivor collapsed in his house. He was found by his friend, Jacky, and taken to hospital. Domino was rescued by a neighbour, and spent the next seven weeks in a shed, because she mustn’t mix
with the other cats.
Ivor hated hospital. He tried to escape, and broke his hip. He had guards on his room. He didn’t get better, and was finally moved to a Care Home, where he died after a week.
Domino went to Home for Strays – a remarkable place in Leek, run by Pat Wood, who seems to have a kind of celebrity status. We found Domino in a cage in a back room, presided over by the marvellous Pat – who 'never lets an animal down.'
I was famous as a small child for being able to clear my grandmother’s farmyard of cats just because I loved them so much. They’d scarper as soon as I arrived – their eyes staring at me from the hawthorn hedge. The cat my parents bought me when my sister was born, also did a runner after a few weeks of being over-loved by a three year old.
Domino, unlike any cat I’ve met, tolerates all my attention, strokes, and cuddles as if she were a baby. She seems to like Derbyshire, and has grown plump and sleek. When the dog gets attention she stares at her intently, then reaches up and boxes her snout with soft paws. She comes to help me work, sitting beside me when I write.
What does she think about? What’s it like to be a cat? What could she tell me about Ivor, and her days in the bungalow? She had a litter of kittens but they all died. She slept on Ivor’s bed in the one room he lived in. She had acres of land to explore when he let her out. Whenever we visited she’d climb onto my knee and chew my hand. 'Don’t bite, Tricia,' Ivor would say. 'Don’t bite her, Domino.'
She’s always hungry. Sometimes I mistake her cupboard love for the real thing, but she’s always off once her bowl has been filled.
Searching for stories about Ivor, I put a letter in the Leek and Congleton newspapers this week. Already three old men have phoned, passing on fragments of story. Some details add up, some don’t – Ivor
told many more Tall Tales, than I realised. '
We know so little, and then they’ve gone, and it’s too late to ask,' said one of the old men.
Sometimes I see a flicker of Ivor's spirit in his cat. Or think I do.
If only Domino could speak, I wonder what she’d tell me of the long lonely nights she spent beside him?
A good aunt is a happy and wholesome relationship for a child – she’s distant enough to admire wholeheartedly, but close enough to love. I’m fortunate to have had two aunts. There was my mother’s sister, Auntie Joyce, who lived in rural Nottinghamshire, and on my father’s side, Auntie Muriel, from Carshalton in Surrey. Both were excellent in entirely different ways.
Auntie Muriel, has just died aged 92. She was mother of two splendid boys, grandmother to four girls and a boy, and great-grandmother to three boys and two girls – which seems pretty marvellous to me.
She was an elegant lady, always beautifully dressed, with impeccably neat hair, and startlingly blue eyes.
When I was a child we visited Surrey every August. Carshalton was a place of water and light and feathers – of ancient trees, and squirrels. In those days, grey squirrels were rare in the north, and they delighted us with their agility as they leapt around the tree tops of Carshalton Park.
Auntie Muriel lived in a house with a huge and wonderful garden. There were rows of runner beans, a terrace with a wall to balance along, and a mysterious air-raid shelter under a grassy mound. The annual visits were magical, from the moment we reached London Victoria and the suburban train, to the visits to Beddington Park, and the Ponds with the ducks – a world far removed from Chester.
But what seems most significant was the way Auntie Muriel always defended me. I remember once being doubly humiliated by parents and grandmother, and creeping off to hide in my grandmother’s bedroom.
It was Auntie Muriel who came to find me, ignoring the verdict of badly behaved child I’d been labelled with, and chatting as if nothing had happened.
She was the aunt who drove carefully round bends so we didn’t get car sick, who let us get down from the table rather than endure hours of tedious adult conversation. It was Auntie Muriel who insisted, with quiet authority, that I was just too sensitive, when I’d been accused of lack of feeling.
Remarkably she was still there for me years later when I went through a divorce, sending me the sweetest letter of support when I was at an all time low. Without knowing any detail, she insisted that she took my side. If ever I’d needed a gang to support me, I feel she’d have been first to sign up.
Now I am without aunt. I’m sorry that, as an adult, I didn’t see enough of her, and that I missed visiting her for the last time by a few days.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.