How we met: Elizabeth Chatwin; &; Kevin Volans

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The Independent Culture
Elizabeth Chatwin, 60, shepherd and gardener, was born in California, the daughter of a naval officer. She is the widow of Bruce Chatwin, the novelist and travel writer, who died in 1988. She has no children and lives partly in rural Oxfordshire and partly in her London flat

Composer, Kevin Volans, 49, was born in South Africa. Best known for his string quartet, `White Man Sleeps', he has no children and travels constantly. Though he rarely spends more than 10 consecutive days in any one city, he has a flat in Dublin and one in London, which he shares with Elizabeth Chatwin

KEVIN VOLANS: I met Elizabeth in early spring 1987. I had written to Bruce asking him if I could set his novel Song Lines as an opera. I had just got a new answering machine and the first message on it was from Bruce, saying, "Come immediately." So I did.

I flew over from Belfast and took a train to Reading station, to be met by Elizabeth. I was nervous and all dressed up in black and she was in her car, with her dog. It was very much a farm car and she was very friendly and relaxed. As a result, I felt both put at ease and ridiculously inappropriately dressed. I arrived at the house covered in dog hairs. It still happens; I'm always forgetting not to wear black when I see her.

The first thing that strikes you is that she talks continuously. When we got back, Bruce was already ill and in bed and he said: "Elizabeth, fetch Kevin some Champagne" - which I thought very stylish. She went away and he began to talk. When she came back, she was talking too. I discovered that the two of them held simultaneous conversations with you all the time, on completely different topics, totally disregarding each other. It was quite difficult to respond to both politely.

Over the weekend, I realised that Bruce had turned down offers from all kinds of people - Paul Simon, MGM etc. I'd written thinking I was the only one to have had this idea, and the world had been beating a path to his door.

We worked out a plan and I went back there in the summer. Bruce was getting more and more ill and I became very attached to him. His illness really created a bond, a deep affection between Elizabeth and myself. I was working on the opera, but spending more and more time helping to look after Bruce. Sometimes I found myself doing nothing but answering the phone to everyone, from the hospital cleaning staff to Jackie Onassis.

Elizabeth and I have little in common. She likes clutter and my taste is minimal - she'd say that I'm anal-retentively tidy. But I regard untidiness as visual pollution. It's like the sound-pollution of her environment. She has music playing continuously, whereas I live in total silence. When I was composing at their house, I'd have to get my breakfast and get out into the library, away from the kitchen, before she'd arrive and turn on Radio 3.

Elizabeth has a phenomenal memory. When it comes to geography, history, botany, she knows all the names; I find it hard to remember the names of my best friends.

She may describe herself as a shepherd but really she's a globetrotter, that's what her passport should say. We made a deal that if she took me to the Himalayas I'd show her South Africa. Both trips were a great success - but in South Africa, when I was driving, she went straight to sleep and missed the scenery. When it was her turn to drive, she'd light a cigarette, switch on the radio and pull out into traffic, all at once: frightened the life out of me.

Elizabeth is one of those people you don't need to see often. You know you could take up your relationship just where you left it. She's a friend for life.

ELIZABETH CHATWIN: Bruce used to get masses of fan letters all the time. One day this letter from Kevin arrived and it really appealed to him. It was terribly well-written. He said, "Look at this; it sounds rather good. Let's ask him over." And we did.

I must have picked him up at the station, but I don't really remember. I do remember that when he got to the house he and Bruce got on terribly well and that was so nice. He had red hair - it's completely grey now - and he was probably wearing black.

He was a lovely guest, very appreciative and he loves his food. He was the kind you really want to see again. He has a terribly attractive personality - gentle, funny, witty, knowledgeable. And he got on with Bruce so well.

At Easter, Bruce's legs gave up. He was full of energy but he just couldn't walk. The idea was that Kevin would come back in the summer to work on his opera but Bruce was getting iller and iller and Kevin got very discouraged. He was doing more and more nurse-maiding and that worried him a lot. I felt sorry for him because it just wasn't working out the way he'd wanted.

Bruce loved having people around and Kevin took him out, sometimes to London, where they had a riotous time. Kevin was with me in France when Bruce died. The Mellys were there, and Shirley Conran - we were staying in her house. It was very nice having Kevin there, even though he's a terrific worrier. He worries and worries but he's got a very strong character and you feel he's very steady. And he's very funny. He makes me laugh a lot and, for me, that's the criterion.

It was his idea to share a flat. I had Bruce's pied-a-terre in Belgravia but it was up four flights of stairs, in the maids' rooms. Kevin said: "I need something in London and we could do it if we pooled our resources." So we did.

He doesn't have any nasty personal habits and he's a nice person, so it couldn't be better. For him, it's more of a home than it is for me - it's almost a fantasy for me. We both love music and I learn from him. But he never listens to the radio and I've listened to Radio 3 for ever, so I know about things that he's never even heard of.

The only thing we've ever fallen out about is me having too many friends to stay. We've never argued about it being too tidy. It's all airy and open - we agreed on the colours, nothing but cream and indigo. I love it.

My real home is in the country. I hate the thought that I might not always have my sheep - I think he finds them kind of amusing. Bruce never got involved with them and neither does Kevin, but then neither of them have - had - any instincts about animals.

I'm looking forward to Kevin's 50th birthday concert. A new Kevin piece is always exciting.I like seeing how his music changes and yet is still definitely Kevin.

I suppose what I love about him is all the music, all the giggles. It means a lot to me. We'll always be friends.

Kevin Volans' 50th birthday concert will take place in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 14 July, 0171 960 4242

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