I've just returned from a blissful holiday on the Tuscan island of Elba. We stayed on a cape on the North shore, known as 'piccola isola nell'isola' - the little island within an island. It's a place where steep forests of pine and eucalyptus tumble towards the sea, and the snaking roads are hemmed with olive trees and monstrously beautiful cacti, bursting with strange fruit. For all the heart-stopping vistas, it's always been the sight of four walls that really captures my imagination; dusty-red roof tiles, a just-glimpsed wrought iron balcony, a crooked gateway, leading who knows where. Whenever I'm abroad I daydream, imagine myself upping sticks and living there, slipping sideways into a simpler, more picturesque existence. I've always been this way; as a child, seeing Hungary's Lake Balaton for the first time; as a student, living in the Swiss city of Lausanne; now, on our 'island within an island', thinking how would it be, to live here? Would my writing table face the hillside, or the sea?
The longing to 'arise and go now' runs deep. Yeats' 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is one of my favourite poems, and thanks to a piece in The Guardian I recently discovered the site Cabin Porn - I fear I should block it from my computer for I can see myself falling into its clutches, the hours rushing past and my wordcount stagnating. I wrote something of this desire into The Book of Summers. Villa Serena is the picture-book home from home, a sun-baked rural idyll. Between summers, memories of Marika, Zoltán and Tamás fill Erzsi's heart, but Villa Serena is ever present in her imagination. But before I wrote of Villa Serena, there was another villa. In 2003 I was living in London and had been granted a month-long sabbatical from my job in an advertising agency. My dad and had just retired from art teaching, and I had an art project I wanted to work on, so the two of us rented a house in Northern Mallorca for the month of October. Our plan was to install ourselves there, devote ourselves to our creative endeavours, and enjoy weekend visits from my mum, sister and friends.
When you're used to counting holiday days and prizing each and every one, the month-long stay felt like a perfect eternity. At Les Estemenyes, my dad played his guitar on the terrace, as I picked fresh lemons to slice into our late morning Gin and Tonics. We walked into town to drink coffee with the old boys at a café on the square, and bought buttery apple tarts and bottles of white Rioja. I swam lengths in the ice-cold, bug-dotted pool as my dad fired the barbeque for Merguez and skewered prawns. As dark fell he wrote verse and sketched, and I set to work on my collages. One I titled Les Estemenyes, after the villa. I just have a print of it now as I sold the original, but every so often I look at it and think of the days that inspired it. Outside of the odd childhood competition, it was the first time I'd earned any money from creative work. I spent my earnings on a glamorous pair of boots to trot around Soho in when I was back in the real world of my Ad Land job, but all the while I was planning and plotting my escape. Two years later, I was headed for the mountains - six months that would change everything.
While I'm freer now than I've ever been, the old desire for flight never goes; a house glimpsed on holiday still lights the fires of possibility. As I sit down at my writing desk, hemmed in by my Bristol street, I transport myself. As long as I'm writing, anywhere, and anything, is possible. A desire for travel will probably always be important to my stories; a ceaseless fascination for a different life, the allure of a home from home, the romance of the unfamiliar. I think of those words of Yeats and I believe in them now as much as ever: 'I will arise and go now, for always night and day/ I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/ While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey/ I hear it in the deep heart's core.'