“Our yard is on fire!” I yelled into the phone, over the sound of the helicopter swooping down to the swimming pool to fill its bucket.
“Does that mean you’ll be late for lunch?”
It did. A week earlier I had written to my neighbors, old English aristocrats, about their garden. Or about my garden, to be more accurate, with which I wanted their help. Their garden, open to the public and well known from coffee-table books, was reputedly a marvel of Italian Renaissance design, maniacally tended by four full-time gardeners, one of whose sister-in-law was my cleaning woman. Through her, I had sent them a note explaining my project—a redesign of our front lawn using only the flowers, herbs and shrubs found in Italy in the Middle Ages. I wanted their help and advice, but I was also secretly hoping to be offered a private tour of their grounds.
A few days after I sent the note, I heard the doorbell and looked out the window to see a young woman standing beside a large, beat-up maroon sedan. I went down to open the gate. There was a stooped, grey-haired man in the back seat wearing Wayfarers so that I couldn’t really see his face. Elsie, as the young woman who turned out to be his secretary was called, told me that Lord D thanked me for my note and wondered if I would come to lunch. I had my invitation! But on the appointed day, as I was driving home from the supermarket, I came around a bend and saw a flume of smoke rising from what looked to be our house. When I got home, I was somewhat relieved to discover that it was not our property but a neglected field behind us that had caught fire. The pompieri were already on the scene and had the blaze well-under control, but it seemed awkward, reckless even, to dash off to lunch, although I was desperate to see the garden.
I showed up two hours late at the neighbors’ for a thoroughly English meal of prawns and cream, roast chicken and treacle tart, though Lady D announced at the beginning that there would be no bread as she was “on Atkins.” It was the first of a number of wonderful meals in the glassed-in loggia of that marvelous house. “Il Lord” as the Italians all referred to him, had the charming habit of telling you continuously how perfectly lovely you were and what a delight it was to know you. His wife carried the conversation, consistently invited illustrious or at least beautiful guests, and fed her troupe of Jack Russells bits of whatever was best from the table.
On another occasion, I brought my six-year-old daughter to lunch with me. Every few minutes, Lord D pulled out a ten-Euro note and held it behind his chair, encouraging her to jump down from her seat and run around the table to grab it. When I half-heartedly scolded her for not sitting still, he scoffed, “Manners—they’re for the bourgeoisie.”
Sometimes I’d go for tea, which in the winter was served in a salon that cut through the center of the villa so that the floor-to-ceiling windows on one side looked up into the hills and on the other out over the valley. Sitting there on the chintz sofas among the silver bowls of flowers, in a luxurious informality that was utterly un-Italian, I felt like I was suspended in the sky.
We often walked the grounds after lunch. The front garden, which pre-dated Lord D’s acquisition of the house, was a maze of gravel paths, sculpted box hedge and potted lemon trees, like the gardens of so many other Tuscan villas. The back garden, which extended from the terraces at the rear of the house about 800 yards up the hillside to the edge of the forest, consisted of a berry and flower raised-bed section that looked very English to me in its disorder, the biggest wisteria I have ever seen, innumerable rose arbors, rings of pleached miniature fruit trees the Lord had planted and of which he was exceedingly proud, a Japanese shrub feature his wife was working on, and a “spine” of centuries-old cypresses that Lord D was forever threatening to have removed on account of their spoiling the view. In short, the back garden was hardly Italian at all. But by the time I got to know it, my own project had been long abandoned in favor of a vineyard, and Lord and Lady D had become much dearer to me than their plants.
Lord D eventually died, his wife moved back to England and his children converted the house into an agriturismo. Shortly after construction began, one of the gardeners came to my house with some of Lord D’s raspberries, for me to plant in my garden. It seemed the back garden was being overhauled and made into something more authentically Italian.