Monday, May 8, 2017

Dame Catherine Cookson and the Ducks by June Gadsby

It all started with a phone call to my husband, Brian, from the world-famous author, Catherine Cookson. Brian, at that time, was the curator of Sir Peter Scott’s charity, the Washington Wildfowl Park [north-east England – where the ancestors of the American president hailed from]. We lived on site with 1200 rare wildfowl – ducks, geese, swans and many more beautiful, endangered birds.

Catherine said she had a problem and asked Brian if he could help her. She had two ducks on her pond that she was very fond of, but they couldn’t seem to produce any young, although they were a loving pair. Brian and his manager arranged to go up to Catherine’s home to see if they could sort things out for her. This was an opportunity I couldn’t miss, having been a fan of Catherine’s books from an early age. I took a day off work and went with Brian and Ken, thinking that I would, at the very least, get to meet this grand lady. It all turned out very much more than any of us were expecting.

The Cookson’s mansion house in Northumberland was surrounded by beautiful countryside and there was a large lake that was home to the afore-mentioned ducks.  Catherine and her husband, Tom, a lovely, gentle man, welcomed us warmly – no sign of a servant anywhere, despite their millionaire status. I expected to accompany Brian and Ken to the lake, but no…Brian mentioned that I was a aspiring writer and would love to spend a little time with Catherine. She was not only gracious enough to let me stay with her in her cosy sitting room, where we talked non-stop for two hours and found we had a lot in common. We had been born only a few miles apart, neither of us knew our fathers, neither of us had children, and we were both artists as well as writers. She took me to her studio to show me her paintings, which were big, beautiful floral studies. Then she asked me if I would like to see her office.  As the men had returned by then, they were also invited to join us up a winding iron staircase to her office – a huge room filled with her books and as yet unpublished manuscripts.

But the news about the ducks wasn’t good. They turned out to be two females, which made Catherine laugh heartily. “Trust me to have two lesbian ducks!” she said. Brian later provided the ducks with fertile eggs and a brood was happily hatched.

Job done, we expected no more than a thank-you, but instead were invited to take afternoon tea with Tom and Catherine – both tea and cake made by Tom himself. It was obvious throughout our meeting that Tom adored his famous wife. It was an unforgettable meeting and I left, totally inspired, with Catherine’s parting advice: “You don’t always have to have a happy ending as long as you leave your heroine with hope.”

As we left, my husband stopped to admire a large painting on the hall wall. “Is that a real Canaletto?” he asked and Catherine smiled and told him: “If it isn’t, I paid an awful lot of money for it!”

As a thank-you for Catherine’s hospitality on this occasion I painted a small portrait of a fluffy duckling and she sent me a lovely letter of thanks, which I treasure to this day. I later found out that my little duckling was hanging in her hall next to the Canaletto.

Catherine later donated rather a lot of money to the Washington Wildfowl Park which allowed them to build a flamingo house and I suggested that we name the flamingos after characters in Catherine’s books. She was delighted to hear this.

Coincidentally, some time later she phoned the Human Genetics Department in the hospital where I worked as a medical PA and donated even more money to the research that was going on there.