The plot of A Villa in Portofino begins in the Second World War – with a love story between a young Welsh girl and an Italian POW. It’s not a time slip or a saga, the war is just where it begins, an explanation for how my heroine Megan comes to inherit a fabulous if neglected villa and a massively overgrown garden in Italy. And if you could see my garden at the moment you’d have an idea where the ‘inspiration’ for that came from.
I wanted to explore the idea of family secrets and this was helped along by the numerous stories of ordinary men, and some women, who were only revealed to have done extraordinary things in the war after their death. The book does not have that kind of revelation in it, but I was able to use the dislocation of war to kick the whole thing off.
The other inciting inspiration was something I came across in my PhD studies. A tiny fact that I knew I had to use somehow. As the war progressed and more and more men were either called to the services, or to war work making armaments, labour for other things became scarce, not least in the Cardiff city graveyards. They even allowed women to become grave diggers – for the duration – which gives you an idea of the scale of the problem. The tiny thing I found was a report from the Cemetery Superintendent in October 1944 that he had secured the services of some Prisoners of War to work in the cemeteries for a week and was hoping to renew this arrangement. Like so many fragments, that was it – no further record of what the men were doing and whether the Superintendent got his wish, but the idea stayed with me. And of course it bloomed into a way for a good looking Italian boy to meet and fall in love with a young Welsh girl while she tended her aunt’s grave.
This is where the author’s imagination steps in. I don’t know if the POWs would have had the chance to fraternise like this, although relations between Italian prisoners and the local people seem on the whole to have been fairly good – this area of Wales had a previous history of migration, as witnessed by numerous ice-cream parlours. Eduardo would probably have been grave digging, not gardening as I have envisaged – although there were frequent complaints about the state of the grounds, so the gardening could have been true. I’m claiming artistic licence though – it might have been possible – and that was enough to give me the starting point of my story.
Megan does not find out the details of her great-great aunt’s elopement until quite late in the book, so you are getting a sneak preview. And the love story between an Italian boy and a Welsh girl sets the scene for a brand new love story when Megan inherits and sets about restoring the villa and its garden.