If The Birdcage had proved a difficult book to write, this one was an even more daunting challenge. Once more the driving force was the desire to explore something rather extraordinary: how does one person live in another person’s personae?
Marcia was at that stage of the creative cycle when she needed to be moving – sometimes seemingly aimlessly – through the countryside and she had asked to be driven to the north coast. For no good reason that I can remember, we ended up dropping down to St Gennys where, at the end of the lane, you can look down on the church and a little manor house with the sea some way behind as a back drop. This almost hidden gem appealed and the idea of a house called ‘Paradise’ was born. Naturally it was not to be here, at St Gennys, and many months were to pass before we discovered the right location.
Gradually, the character of Mutt – Madelaine Uttworth – began to take shape and Marcia became intensely interested in India in the period running up to independence in 1947. She read (actually re-read) the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and anything else she could find that would help her to understand how it was to be in that country at that time. Meanwhile, I was working through all my history books working on a more factual, but probably less useful, way. That is how it has been since the beginning: I do all the boring bits and Marcia provides the creative talent.
She was lucky enough to know quite a few people who had been in India during the 1940’s. My father, who was in the Royal Engineers and served in India during the war, may have been in some part responsible for Marcia’s growing interest in that country at that time. They spent a great deal of time together after my mother died and he often talked about the war years. Then we discovered that a near neighbour of ours had also served in India when he, too, was in the Royal Engineers. He was a few years younger than my father and was still their at the time of partition and was able to give Marcia some insights into how it had been. For weeks we talked about little else but that terrible time when the country was torn apart with millions of people becoming displaced and thousands being killed. It was all very odd and, at times, deeply depressing in the way that all the major tragedies of the world become in retrospect. My job, as I have already mentioned, was to try to collect the hard facts that she would need on which to build her fictional world. As always, we read and learnt far more than was finally needed but that is usually the case.
By now Marcia has assembled some of the cast – but most would never appear on the page. Mutt and her best friend, Honor – both nurses – were working in India: in a hospital in a place called Multan. There is a double wedding, Mutt marries Jonathan, a business man; Honor marries Hubert, a doctor. Honor gives birth to a boy, Mutt to a girl and then, a couple of years later Honor has a baby girl. As independence day approaches, Hubert decides that his wife and children should return to the safety of England even though he will not be able to join them immediately. They leave Multan for Karachi, book the passage home, buy the tickets and are enjoying a short holiday together before the ship sails when disaster strikes.
Hubert becomes ill and dies within hours – probably as a result of botulism. Honor, feeling far from well herself, telephones the hospital at Mutan and persuades Mutt to travel down to Karachi to look after them. After a terrible train journey, Mutt and two-year old Charlotte arrive to find that Honor is seriously ill and her young daughter, Emma, has died.
The only doctor Mutt can find is young, inexperience and completely out of his depth. All he can do is to write out the death certificates and leave Mutt to sort out the mess. Before she dies, Honor implores Mutt to look after her son, Bruno, and, so that he may go back to Hubert’s family, to use the tickets she had bought.
So, Mutt leaves India, travelling on Honor’s passport and seemingly with Honor’s two children, a boy and a girl. Luckily Charlotte is too young to know what is happening and morphs into Emma on the journey home. It is harder for Bruno but he can see that their only hope of survival is to pretend to be Mutt’s son. What Mutt does not know is that Hubert has written to his father who has arranged for Mutt to be met at Liverpool. Exhausted, frightened and numb; having lost her best friends and witnessed some of the chaos that ruled India at that time, she finds she cannot confide in this man whom she has never met – and then she is at Paradise and . . .
Clearly the time had come for us to return to our travels and find out where this Paradise was situated. Marcia was drawn to Cornwall and I really did think we had been to every little cove and harbour until one day Susie came to see us. Susie is Marcia’s closest friend and, like Mutt, is a nurse.
‘Have you been down to Port Quinn?’ she asked.
‘Port Quinn? No, where is it?’
‘Very close to Port Isaac. You must have been there!’
She was wrong. We had driven through Port Gaverne, up the hill to Port Isaac, down to the harbour and up the narrow road on the other side but then we had always cut across to Polzealth not realising that there was a tiny cove between the two.
The next day we set out bound for Port Quinn. It was a lovely day and we were in holiday mood with high hopes. Most of the properties clustered around the cove (and there are probably no more than ten) are owned by the National Trust and let out as holiday cottages. There is nothing else there except a small car park where we stopped. One look at Marcia and I knew we were in the right place.
As you know, Marcia sets her fictional scenes within factual landscapes and so her cove is slightly to the west of Port Quinn. It still did not have a name. The house, it turned out, was not to be in the cove itself but in a fold in the hill behind. The north Cornish coast is exposed to everything that the North Atlantic can throw at it and yet, sometimes less than a mile inland, there can be a sheltered spot which feels like a different world: one in which spring comes early and many plants from generally warmer climes flourish. It was in such a place that Paradise had been built.
Marcia decided that the cove should be named after a virtually unknown but real Celtic saint and I had the job of finding a suitable candidate. Luckily, I was ‘introduced’ to St Meriodoc by the priest in our tiny village church, the Rev’d Prebendary John George and this problem was solved.
Soon the cove was to take a firmer shape, with a boatyard once busy but now deserted and, beside it, The Row, a terrace of cottages in which the boat builders once lived.
We had never properly considered the flora of this part of Cornwall and so we found ourselves travelling down to Port Quinn almost once a week to check on what was growing, where and at what stage. If Marcia states that a certain plant was in flower at a given time, you may be sure that she writes from her own observations (and I may well have a photograph to prove the point). The masses of valerian, both red and white, growing in huge clumps clinging to crevices in near vertical cliffs of rock were very memorable.
Incidentally, it is worth noting that ‘The Lark Ascending’ was an important backdrop to Marcia’s creativity while working on this book. When Marcia is actually writing, there is usually music. Sometimes she listens to the radio but she finds speech distracts and so it is more likely she will listen to a CD. I was beginning to realise that each book had a different musical theme and that the same piece of music would be played over and over again. For this book it was the works of Ralph Vaughan-Williams generally and ‘The Lark Ascending’ in particular.
From my point of view, this book had been the biggest challenge to date. We had spent more time travelling, had visited more putative (but rejected) locations and then there was the ongoing checking of the local fauna. The round trip every time was taking nearly three hours and we often set out to do it after a day’s work. I was beginning to feel my age