Ramona did not know where she came from: she knew neither her parents nor her precise age. It was early spring in the square beside the Cathedral of Seville, the air heavy with the soft scent of orange blossom. The little girl sat among the orange trees as if daydreaming in the afternoon sun, when the uniformed police officer approached her. He had seen her earlier, too young to be alone, waiting for her parents in the Cathedral? No, too long a time by now.
She told him her name was Ramona. He guessed she was five or six years old, but she could not say where her parents were, or who was with her. He asked if she was with her older sister, her aunt, her nursemaid, only to elicit the same blank response. When he asked where she came from, she simply said it was a long way away, but she spoke with the timbre of the local Spanish. Fernando was taken with the pretty child. He held her hand as he walked with her around the square, hoping to find the desperate parents. No one. They entered the Cathedral. No one. They walked around the square again. No one. She remained quiet and dreamy, unresponsive to his questions.
Back at the police station with his new charge, this was the report that Fernando was filing, when he learnt that there had been a tragic accident earlier in the afternoon near the Cathedral square. A young man and woman had been run down, fatally. They had no identification on them. Was there a connection to the young girl? While photographs were arranged to show to Ramona, Fernando took it upon himself to take her to his home to offer her the comfort of his wife and family, with this dreadful prospect looming before her.
Ramona remained withdrawn, dreamy not sullen. If she knew the man and the woman in the photographs she would not tell, but the police decided they were not the parents. Nor was there any clue to the identity of these two unfortunates. What to do now? Fernando's sister Clara was staying with him for a few days. Sister Clara was the principal of a village school in the Sierra Morena to the north of Seville. She suggested to the officials that she take Ramona up there with her, while the search for Ramona's identity went on. She asked little Ramona, if she would like to come with her into the mountains, and for the first time the little girl smiled as she shook her dark curls and asked if there would be snow.
And the paperwork? Fernando had asked, but they knew the state's bureaucracy would be benign to them, even today: their elder brother had been one of the many personal physicians who attended General Franco. The family joke was that with the scale of resources of the Spanish health service devoted to this one client, he should remain as healthy as any president of the United States. By the time Ronald Reagan tested this proposition some years later, absorbing lead bullets into his personal body space, Franco had long since a(de)scended to wherever it is that late dictators go.
Andalusia and Seville were beautiful but poor in those days, long before the World Exposition brought its glitz to the city. Sister Clara's little green Seat left the suburbs of Seville, passing vast mounds of the city's waste in open fields. Their journey took them north across the plains of the Quadalquivir River, before they ascended towards the west. Passing the town of Nerva, the green Seat chugged behind great trucks of ore through the bleak terrain of the open cast mines surrounding Rio Tinto, where copper had been extracted for thousands of years. From there they turned north again, into the western tip of the Sierra Morena near the border with Portugal. The road was narrow and potholed, twisting left and right as it climbed into the hills. They passed through villages, deserted for the Siesta, and eventually reached Sister Clara's village. Stone built houses lined the street, their fronts decorated with bright ceramic tiles. Sparsely wooded hills rose around the village, and the afternoon sun filtered through the trees with the welcoming glow of home for Sister Clara, her home and her school.
Clara's upbringing in a convent had equipped her for the life of a schoolteacher, but it had not trained her for marriage, and that meant, in rural Spain, sacrificing the opportunity of motherhood. Though she did not know it as they drove into the village, the little girl beside her in the car would take on the role of daughter. The days of search for Ramona's identity became weeks and then months. Finally, with the help of Franco's personal physician, little Ramona was officially assigned to the care of Sister Clara, who by this time wished for nothing more than that, the fulfilment of a dream that had grown these past months. As for Ramona, she now had an identity and a home.
The schoolhouse was a white stone building with arched windows that gave onto a courtyard, planted with three orange trees. For the village children, this was their playground after school and where they would meet to play at weekends. In the corner of the courtyard, Sister Clara had a desk where she would mark work and prepare for the next day, as she supervised the children at play. Often she would gaze wistfully at Ramona. How could it be that this beautiful little girl could be abandoned or lost in the middle of Seville? Who could lose this jewel? How could they lose it? Who could bear to lose it? Try as they may, her brother Fernando told her that there was still no trace, no sign, nothing. And the girl? She was less dreamy now, but it was as if time before the Cathedral square was lost to her. Was it amnesia? She was very good at her schoolwork and showed no signs of trauma. Was the memory blocked off to guard against some dreadful secret? That seemed impossible to Sister Clara as she watched the little girl gaily play with her friends. With her long dark tresses, her brown eyes and dark complexion, she certainly looked local, and spoke in the local manner, although in a rather adult way. In medieval times, we would have called it a miracle, Clara said to herself, a miracle for me.
However hard she tried, Sister Clara could not stop the thought from surfacing, again and again, that she had stolen something that did not belong to her. But I have not, she would tell herself, to no avail. Twice a year it was her custom to go to Seville, in the cool of early spring and in September once the heat of the summer had passed. The first trip, September, since Ramona had arrived came due, and Ramona would come with her. Clara would extend her trip by two days and she would do her duty: she would enquire about the search for Ramona's real identity.
Sister Clara felt that they must go back to the "beginning", to the Cathedral Square, but she was worried lest some hidden trauma be released? Should she take this risk? How else could she jog a hidden memory? She asked Fernando to meet them by the Cathedral, as she was afraid to do this alone: she wanted his stability for the girl, and perhaps for her too. Clara need not have worried. As they got out of the car, Ramona saw Fernando across the square, twenty metres distant. With a scream of delight, she launched herself towards him. Clara followed behind, unable to contain her tears, joy and relief mingling with the immense sadness that this little girl's affection, so keen for Fernando, was lost to her real parents.
As Clara walked next to Fernando, Ramona skipped and danced in front of them, delighted by the memory of the place, perhaps? But no sign of stirrings of earlier memory. They visited the Alcazar, the great Moorish palace of Seville, pillars supporting delicate vaults, a splendour of colour, and passed through into the gardens behind. The paradise these gardens symbolised all those hundreds of years ago is still a paradise of verdant green in the parched landscape of Andalusia. Like a newly born foal, Ramona danced through the gardens, chatting to the visitors smiling at the tourists, and disappeared ahead of them. As Clara and Fernando turned onto a new path, they stopped dead in disbelief: Ramona was chatting to two young tourists, but what was unimaginable to them was that she was speaking fluent English. To Fernando it was a foreign language, but Clara's English was passable: she could recognise the clear accent, the sound of a native. This dark haired, dark skinned Spanish girl? English? After six months, how could she, Clara, not know of her English? But then why would she know, except by chance? Was this the solution to the mystery?
Such was Clara's report later at the police station, but it became clear that this was not the solution to the mystery, rather it just served to deepen it. What could they in Seville practically do? As a practical matter the brother who was the physician had seen to it that Ramona now belonged to Clara. Did Clara not want her? She did. Then what should they, the police, do? The case was closed. Was it not better so? It was better so. Was it not best for the girl who had been abandoned? It was best. Should we open old wounds? We should not. Is she not happy? She is. The solution: Clara would learn to live with her "guilt". Surely that was best for them all. The concession to her conscience? From then on Clara read to Ramona for one hour every evening, in English.