Several years ago, thinking up the plot of a novel, I wrote a paragraph about a man walking through a gate into a convent garden. All I knew was his name was Liam, it was 1963. I had a sense of his wife, Connie, a doctor; she was somehow dark and dangerous and would be the focus of the story. That was it for a while. I wrote other things but Liam’s character kept popping up, standing inside that gate. I knew that the convent garden was under threat and he would try to restore it, but not why.
Liam’s gate, and the garden he was walking into, were both links to my life from 4 to 17. I went to a convent school, was taught by nuns. My convent and its garden were demolished a few years after I’d left. I was terrified of the building, dreamt about it regularly. The original garden has never cropped up in any nightmare; I’ve invented it instead into an overgrown sanctuary.
Today, from my window, I can see the cupola on the local church in a village in Central Bohemia where I spend half of the year. The church is rarely used, stucco is peeling off. Visitors to it are few. That view brings memories of a Catholic world I once knew and wanted to write about. I wanted to meet Connie, to see how she dealt with issues that had fascinated me all my early life but now felt far away: the whole business of believing in something so illogical, and why at fourteen I was anti-abortion, yet a couple of years later fiercely pro-choice, joining protests heckled by terrifying people from SPUC. But, above all, I wanted to see how both Liam and Connie dealt with grief. Throughout my childhood nothing had ever been mentioned about close family members who had died.
Characters from previous fiction projects that I’d finished – especially two women from a second novel – kept visiting. I liked them, they had lives, were getting on with their own stories. Liam had been a niggle at the back of my head for ages; he was left walking through a gate all those years ago and I had to find out what happened to him and Connie.
Having finished writing the book, at the very least, Liam has closed the gate behind him, started the rest of his life.