March 25th, 2003
In medieval Europe, March 25th (Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation) was regarded as the New Year. Those of us who gathered in Gardone on this day in 2003 were marking not the beginning of a year, but the ending of the years of Gigi Gatti-Doyle.
Although not entirely unexpected, the death of Terry Doyle's wife, Gigi, must have produced similar feelings in all who knew her: a sense of sad loss to themselves, and deep sympathy for Terry. Only a few years earlier they had moved from their cramped flat in Chelsea to a spacious old house in Gardone, on the shore of Lake Garda. The plan was for Gigi to give workshops there in Psychology and Psychotherapy, while Terry - who had retired from BBC television - would develop various projects related to language teaching. Sadly, their hopes of a new future for them both were dashed when Gigi fell ill from cancer.
There had been a few months of remission from this terrible disease, during which my partner Graham and I had visited Gigi and my ex-husband, Terry. We had met Gigi for the first time at my son Matt's wedding, the previous autumn, and on our brief visit to Gardone we grew to know her a little better. We had a wonderful couple of days and were both charmed by her, wishing that circumstances had allowed us to become acquainted sooner. Her death lent a poignancy to that wish.
Now there we were, almost exactly a year after our visit, travelling to attend her funeral. We arrived at Brescia airport on Monday evening and made our way to Terry's house where Matt was expecting us. He had flown in from Australia, arriving the day before. Gigi's cousin lived almost next door and Terry had moved into their house temporarily, unable to face the silent emptiness of his own.
Matt was staying in the comfortable guest apartment that bore signs everywhere of Gigi's good taste and thoughtfulness: here, a brightly-painted receptacle for toilet rolls; there a colourful mat or picture. We chatted with Matt for a while (I was very pleased to see him as this was our first reunion since he'd emigrated, eight months earlier) but he was jet-lagged and we were tired, so we soon made our way through the house to Gigi's studio where Graham and I were to sleep.
When we entered the studio strong emotions gripped me. This was Gigi's place of work and it seemed frozen in time, rather like the studies or libraries of authors or other celebrities that one sees preserved in their homes, or in museums. Gigi's easel, with its flip-charts, the tidy desk and shelves filled with reference books, the water bottles and glasses, the huge wall mirror covered by a lacy white cloth - all testified to this being the place where Gigi had held her workshops.
And not all that long ago, either. Gigi had been a strong fighter against her illness and had continued to work whenever she felt well enough. The weekend before our own visit she had held a workshop despite her general fatigue, and I believe she gave some more before the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy took hold, weakening her body if not her spirit.
Gigi's vibrant spirit lived on in her home and, as on all such sad occasions, bitter-sweet memories surfaced of wonderful meals eaten and the solid old table, and lively conversations shared while lounging on the comfortable sofa. It was easy to understand why Terry now found being in the house unbearable.
On the following morning, we assembled on the terrace outside the house to await Terry. Being a traditionalist in such matters I had decided to wear black, even though such gloomy attire seemed rather inappropriate for such a colourful woman. The prospect of a longish Catholic ceremony I found rather daunting, but at least I would feel appropriately dressed for the church setting.
Terry arrived to make sure the house was secure before we set off. Although he had been under great stress for months, he seemed calm and was very welcoming. We began our long slow ascent to the church in brilliant sunshine, walking through a peaceful olive grove where a stream trickled downhill. All around were the cries of birds and the spring blossom, giving splashes of yellow or pink from the surrounding gardens. I couldn't help feeling sad that Gigi had left such a beautiful place so soon yet, paradoxically, it also seemed the perfect place to spend one's last few years.
Such mixed emotions were to persist throughout the day. As we walked through the old town, Terry pointed to a pair of doves carved over an archway. 'That's what the locals used to call Gigi and me,' he remarked. 'The Doves.' We paused for coffee in garden of a café and soon Terry was being greeted by various people: their gardener came up to hug him and offer his condolences, then Gigi's cousin and other relatives appeared, on the way to the church.
Eventually we joined them, walking slowly up through the cobbled streets to the sound of tolling bells. In our sombre clothes there was no mistaking our destination and purpose. Villagers stood solemnly in their doorways, and a group of young schoolchildren was moved aside to let us pass, their dark eyes wide with wonder.
The white church stood atop the hill, surrounded by hillsides dotted with dark green cypresses, pointing to heaven. I remembered how we had walked all round the outside of the building with Terry and Gigi, the year before, enjoying the same spring sunshine and seeing the terraces behind the church where lemons were grown.
Fellow mourners were waiting at the top of the steps near the church door, and all greeted Terry as we entered the small square, tearful and sombre faces temporarily lightened by his presence. When we were all assembled we entered the church.
Many Catholic churches have had rather gloomy interiors so I was pleasantly surprised by the lightness of this one, brought about by the abundance of white marble. There was plenty of colour, too: as well as the paintings on walls and ceiling of the Assumption of the Virgin, there were two huge flower arrangements before the altar, one in shades of pink and white, the other in orange and red. Everyone's eyes were drawn to the coffin in the nave, however, which was completely covered by a huge spray of white orchids, delicately veined with pink, and surrounded by other white flowers and green foliage: Terry's last, beautiful gift to his wife.
The service commenced, leaving those of us who were not fluent in Italian - ancient or modern - time for our own thoughts. Graham, Matt and I were in the front row with Terry and Gigi's cousin, which meant that we had to watch out for cues as to when to stand, sit or kneel. We mostly relied on following the actions of two other female relatives of Gigi, seated to the left of the altar, who were going to read the lessons.
The progress of the Mass had a calming effect at first, and I recognised the moment when the priest began reading out the words that Terry had prepared about Gigi, making the service more personal to her. Then came the moment when the priest administered communion. It had been agreed that Graham would play his violin at this point and he rose to prepare his instrument then stood facing the congregation, to the left below the altar. We had debated about what he should play at this most solemn moment but, in the end, he decided that he would freely improvise.
As the first pure notes of his violin echoed round the church, Terry was overcome with emotion and I also had to blink back the tears. I guessed that he might be recalling the time when we had all gone up to a restaurant in the hills, and Gigi had been so enchanted by Graham playing in the open air, his notes reverberating round the hills. A happy memory but, now, clouded with sorrow. Even so, the sweet music lifted our hearts briefly and focused our minds on the joie de vivre that had been so much a part of Gigi's personality.
Graham ended his playing just as the priest replaced the lid on the pyx. Soon afterwards came an address, in English, that Alistair Beaton had prepared and which was simultaneously translated into Italian by a bi-lingual friend of Terry's. He spoke of Gigi as someone with whom he could not find fault, a 'paragon of virtue,' who managed - amongst her many other skills and talents - to conjure up delicious meals from the cupboard-sized kitchen in the London flat. He testified to her warmth and generosity, qualities which Graham and I had also benefited from, and described her paradoxical nature: her beauty without vanity; her sophistication and wisdom, combined with her girlish innocence and enthusiasm. It was a moving eulogy, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed Terry nodding in vigorous assent from time to time.
The priest then blessed the coffin, both with holy water and with incense, and the pall bearers prepared to lift it while Graham played again, this time at Terry's request: 'Love Me Tender,' a beautiful melody first sung by Elvis in the film of the same title. After that came the gradual exit of the congregation, behind the coffin.
Another slow procession followed, back through the same sunny, cobbled streets towards the cemetery. Here we were surrounded once again by white marble monuments. As well as graves set into the ground there were vaults in the surrounding walls and it was into one of these, high up in the wall, that the coffin was to go. First, Gigi's body was given a last blessing by the priest, then we watched the coffin being hauled up onto the scaffolding and eased into the cavity. The mason sealed the tomb with a cement and chalked Gigi's name and dates onto a stone slab. Every marble memorial bore a photograph of the deceased and I guessed that, some day, an image of Gigi would be added too. I thought it rather a splendid way to be buried, like being entombed in an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.
After the simple dignity of the burial, we slowly made our way up to a corner restaurant near the church, aptly named 'of the angels,' where Terry had arranged for drinks to be served. This was the first real chance for the mourners to get to know each other. I learnt that Alistair had worked with Terry on Russian Language and People back in the Seventies, so he was truly an old friend of both Terry and Gigi. Others, such as Pat and Shula, had met Gigi while training in psychotherapy and counselling. As well as other friends, David and Gay, Gigi's first husband, Bobby, was there; he had not visited Gardone for many years.
Eventually, some of the Italian party took their leave and those of us who remained decided to have lunch at the restaurant. Two long tables were quickly assembled, one for the English speakers and one for the Italians, with Terry presiding alternately. The meal that followed was splendid, a very worthy tribute to a woman who loved good food, and beautifully presented too. After all the solemnity and ceremony, all the feelings of grief and loss, it was time to celebrate life again with some delicious food and wine, and good company. With a sense of relief we threw ourselves into the occasion with gusto, as Gigi would have wished.
After our leisurely meal we wended our way back through the sleepy village, down through the olive grove with its gently murmuring stream, to Terry's house. Soon the place was transformed with the bustle of bodies and the hum or voices, bringing the spacious, beautifully furnished rooms back to life after a period when it had seemed as if the whole building, including its very stones, had been in mourning for the gracious lady of the house.
Graham's violin was pressed into service once again as he sat with others on the terrace, near a lemon tree bearing fruit. We later fell into conversation with Bobby, who regaled us with stories of Yehudi Menuhin's gambling habits. He had apparently stayed with Bobby after spending the night at the casino, and given him advice on improving his classical record collection!
Knowing our visit to that beautiful spot would be all too brief Graham, Matt and I set off for a short walk alongside Lake Garda in the late afternoon sun. Soon after we returned to the house Terry arrived from next door bearing his luggage and announcing that he was moving back in. Seeing the house so full of life once more seemed to have banished some ghosts for him and we were relieved to see that he felt able to return home.
We met up with some of the other English guests for a farewell drink in a bar near the lake. Then Graham and I said good-bye to all, including Terry and Matt, before setting off in a taxi, with Shula and Pat, on our way to the airport. It had been an extraordinary day, and one that had required some hasty last-minute travel arrangements for us, but we were both so very glad that we had managed to be there. It had proved an immensely satisfying and, I feel bound to say, enjoyable experience for us. It might seem strange to refer to a funeral in that way, but everything had gone so well, the people had been as warm as the weather, the place had been so beautiful and we had all been united in our desire to celebrate the life of such a life-loving woman as Gigi Gatti-Doyle.
Vivien Doyle, April 2003