With Candida, you learned to expect the unexpected. She said she might make the charity sale at my house on Thursday, but not to rely on her. I didn’t. But on Friday, a bright red pick-up truck turned into the yard and out got Candida with a bagful of contributions. But she also brought a birthday present of a beautiful Alice Temperley skirt for my younger daughter. The red pick-up was a present for Candida’s own birthday, thrilling her as much as any red bike for a six-year-old.
‘I’m an old hippy,’ she once said. Perhaps. She was certainly a child of the Sixties, when half the aristocracy’s offspring were hippies. She was not an aristo herself, though you could be forgiven for thinking it, just a remarkable free spirit, and her generosity didn’t stop — or start — at clothes by posh designers, either.
I arrived at Uffington once to find several children at the kitchen table scoffing a huge pile of buttered toast. They were waifs and strays from the village, drawn to the house, its fields, animals and freedom, but even more to Candida. ‘I worry they don’t get enough to eat,’ she said, piling on more toast. They certainly ate it as if they were half-starved.
Something always happened when we met, nothing was ever straightforward or every-day, and whatever it was led to laughter-till-we-cried. We went to an Open Garden. I had my four-month-old border puppy but there were fierce notices about Strictly No Dogs, and an even fiercer gatekeeper. ‘She won’t set paw on your grass,’ Candida said airily, and sailed through. ‘I’ll hold you to that,’ gatekeeper growled, ‘and as for what my wife would say….’
So we walked all round the extensive gardens taking it in turns to carry the puppy, which then, inevitably, needed to pee, so Cand took her behind a bush while I kept guard, both of us in convulsions of laughter.
Her own beloved dogs were never unremarkable either, like Star, whom she taught to shut the door after you, but Spot, her last Jack Russell, was extra special. Even during the final few weeks of her illness, Candida emailed and tweeted dozens of photos featuring Spot being funny or adorable, the last of her sitting compliantly on a garage forecourt in front of a pump of Spot Petrol.
We met for a pub lunch a couple of years ago. The place had been recommended to me, but God knows by whom, because the food so bad we could only laugh at it, and then Spot took against a nearby black labrador, leapt off her bar stool and went for it. She was ordered to leave, but when Candida returned from dumping dog in car she was laughing so much and so loudly that we were ordered to leave too. Dumped in car ourselves, we howled. Who will ever forget her laugh? At my daughter’s wedding she laughed so much at the best man’s speech that she had to be given water.
When she got her invitation, Cand rang me up and said she was broke and didn’t know what to do about a wedding present. We were already wondering who might write the large table name-cards (of Shakespeare heroines), and small placement ones, so asked if she would do that as a present. ‘Perfect! Much better than a toaster from John Lewis.’ They were beautiful. People remarked.
Candida was beautiful. Everyone remarked.
If there is one word apart from ‘laughter’ and ‘beauty’ which I will always associate with her, it is ‘England’. It held her heart — she knew most miles of it and every unwrecked corner and wrote about it better than anyone, choosing her words with care and love. She inherited her eye and her devotion to the country from her father, John Betjeman, as she got her love of roaming free from her mother.
We shared one amazing moment in a small church, to which we had gone (with our dogs, who sat down quietly on the chancel step) to look at a John Piper window. (The Johns, Piper and Betjeman, were old friends and collaborators, and Candida and I first met at John Piper’s funeral.) It was an overcast, wet and gloomy afternoon, the church was dark and we could not find a light switch. But as we tried to make out the colours in the stained glass, quite suddenly the sun shone directly through the window, illuminating it in a blaze of glory. We stared, astounded.
‘The two Johns,’ I said, ‘saying hello.’
Outside, it was still overcast, wet and gloomy. We walked to the car in silence for once. Both amazed. Both believing.
With Candida, you learned to expect the unexpected.
Susan Hill’s books include The Woman in Black, Howard’s End is on the Landing, and the Simon Serrailler crime novels.