CHAPTER ONE - SIERRA MORENA
The little green Seat wound its way up the road into the Sienna Morena, the last time it would make this journey before being consigned, several years overdue, to the great graveyard of little green Seats. For the whole journey Ramona's enthusiasm for the events of the last school term in Seville drew Clara into a world so different from her life at the village school, and held at bay the June heat and the dust of the road. For two years Ramona had been schooled in Seville, staying with her uncle Fernando during term time. Life would change yet again: at the age of seventeen she was planning for her future. She had finished school and it was the summer vacation.
The familiarity of home beckoned Ramona as they drew up beside the schoolhouse. The heat up here in the hills was less than down below on the plains, but it was still the time of siesta. First, they would rest and then she would meet her friends, the few of her age who remained in the village. Mostly work in the big city had by now beckoned, or for some of the boys, the copper mines. Clara had her new youngsters in the school, but the numbers had dwindled each year in line with the reduced opportunities for adults of working age.
Restless, Ramona walked out into the hills, knowing that this place was soon to be in the past for her, but what should she do? Where should she go? She had looked at university courses but remained undecided. Her singing teacher wanted her to follow her talents into music. Her other choice was foreign literature. In Spain or abroad, she wondered, as she ran through the list of scholarships she could apply for. What would Clara think? She would find out.
Clara's practice of reading to Ramona had survived into adolescence: the idea of a television in the household would have been anathema to Clara. That evening Ramona brought out a new book that had just been published to great acclaim. It is the work of an English professor in Cambridge, Ramona told Clara. Clara reached across to take the book and read the title page: The Melody of Sadness by Alistair Jamolla. Clara flicked open the book, looked back up at Ramona, and then started to read.
A Melody of Sadness
I curse the wealth of my family: the cause of my misfortune. What does wealth bring us but convenience: what can it take away? Everything, believe me, everything. That is my story. The story starts right here in Cambridge, where I have completed my first year as a research fellow, aged twenty-two. It starts on a Sunday morning, and to be more precise it starts in the Anchor pub in Silver Street, just a few hundred yards from my college, where I have rooms in addition to my house just outside town, and just a few hundred yards from the Graduate Centre, what we call the Grad Pad, where I have parked my car.
It is one of those Cambridge days we will always remember. The sun shines in a clear blue sky, the few students who remain will also be gone for the summer in a couple of days, and the first of the language students, many female, are arriving for their summer language courses. The adverse ratio in this university town of several men to each woman is about to reverse for the summer months, or at least to achieve a happy equilibrium as the language students pour in. Serious types like me, graduates, remain behind, for our work of course, research.
I would not embarrass myself by saying that I was humming to myself as I stepped out of the porters' lodge onto Trumpington Street, but the fact is that I was. I crossed the road and turned down Silver Street, as another one bit the dust. I walked the couple of hundred yards to the Anchor. Ahead of me was the bridge over the river Cam. Below were punts available for hire. Upstream to the left would take you out to the village of Grantchester through the meadows. Downstream took you past the backs of the colleges, under the bridges out to Magdalene Bridge. Later maybe: for now the Greene King beckoned, if not Tolly Cobold, or both - the local breweries. I turned left and entered the Anchor.
Even in those days you could find Australians behind the bar. This one brought me the requested pint of bitter and I relaxed against the bar. No one I knew was there, but it was still early and the pub was about two thirds full. Later it would spill out through the doors on a fine day like this.
A magnifying glass concentrates sunlight to a point of focus, a bright spot of heat and light. Maybe this is just how I see it in retrospect, but as she came through the entrance of the bar, it was as if the whole place fell silent and focused on her. In a hand of three cards, I drew three aces from serendipity that day. Ace number one: I was alone at the bar. Ace number two: I was in her direct line of entry. Ace number three: this was her first day in Cambridge, so no one else had got to her yet. I guessed I had between three and five seconds to play my three aces, as she flashed a smile to the room at large. How is it that deep brown eyes can simultaneously spark with fire? Or combine indifference with invitation? Her complexion was southern, maybe Spanish; her wavy tresses of hair bounced on white clad shoulders as she moved towards me, white silk blouse, slim blue jeans, silver belt.
My natural, relaxed courtesy must have rescued me within the window of those few seconds, because she was accepting my offer of a drink. She asked for white wine, so I ordered her a Pimms. She made a heavily accented formal introduction of herself, Carmen followed by a succession of names that meant nothing to me then. The initial stiffness was a relief: no need to pretend to be cool.
Sharp as she may have looked, Carmen was young and naive, a combination we may deride in the lecture theatre, but that we consider attractive in the situation of the bar of the Anchor on a fine June day: so young and naive that I knew her life story by the time I was on my second pint of bitter. Like me, she had been orphaned at a young age and had no family to speak of. Unlike me, she had no inherited money but lived in institutions until she set out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen. She was now seventeen and had earned money in bars and restaurants (I later found out as a singer) to finance her language studies here in Cambridge. She had arrived yesterday evening and taken digs out on the Hills Road.
Pimms is conducive to acceptance of punting invitations. We walked out of the Anchor and strolled upriver to the wooden hut where they hire out punts by the hour, determining we should go downstream through the colleges. We walked down the steps and boarded one of the punts moored to the wooden landing jetty. I grasped the pole and expertly manoeuvred the punt out into midstream, under the bridge, and we were on our way. It was still early enough for punt traffic to be light. The river gleamed green as we slipped past Queen's College and could shortly make out the familiar sculpted features of King's College Chapel. Carmen sat back in the seat facing aft, with me in her field of view, as with a flick of the wrist I propelled the pole to the riverbed, thrust down and caught the pole on the rebound, driving the punt smoothly forward through the still waters, gently rippling behind us.
New passengers see how easy it is, before requesting their turn to punt; to power and direct the boat by means of the pole, dropped to the river bed to push the boat forward, and steer. As they assume their position on the wooden platform at the stern, the world seems to change, as in a dream where control of events slips away and the simplest actions lead to strange consequences. The chance of their staying dry approximates to zero, and the chance of their staying in the boat, and not the river, is not that much higher. Carmen battled the odds, as the punt circled, rammed and ostentatiously ignored her instructions transmitted to it via the pole. She stayed out of the river: not bad for a first time Spanish seventeen-year-old after a couple of glasses of Pimms.
I took over, and we moved on beneath the overhanging willows, beneath the Bridge of Sighs, past St John's College and on to Magdalene Bridge. We turned and lazily retraced our course, drifting slowly past the colleges beneath bridges lined with tourists, deftly avoiding the growing fleet of first time punters.
I said I had three aces. Well, it was the fourth ace, the last in the pack that clinched it. After dropping the punt, we wandered the short distance back to my college. My college has the advantage of being situated near a cake shop, so I picked up a creamy walnut cake and suggested we take tea in my rooms. The fourth ace simply popped out of the colour supplement of the Sunday paper lying on my table: they were selling tickets to a special rendition of Bizet's Carmen in the Earls Court Exhibition Hall in London. I did not consult Carmen. I simply excused myself while I made a phone call. Tickets were available for Thursday and I took two.
Ramona interrupted Clara's reading.
"Clara, I don't see the melody of sadness in this, the title."
"Patience, Ramona. Perhaps this is setting the scene of what will be lost. Maybe those first of the book words are a clue, the curse on his wealth."
"But I'm enjoying it anyway, Clara. Carry on."
A Melody of Sadness
After tea we strolled down to the Grad Pad and picked up the car. It was as I dropped Carmen off at her digs that I asked her to come with me to London on Thursday. I did not know, but I thought she was thrilled, and I hoped so.
I had seen the Royal Tournament, staged by the military at Earls Court. It is a stadium rather than an opera house or theatre, but it had been specially set up for the production of Carmen. As I entered the building with my Carmen, I imagined her as fitting the bill for the central role, and the many heads turning towards us, and looking rapidly away again, confirmed me in this belief.
We took our places, the lights dimmed and the orchestra struck the first tones. We were transported to Spain, to a flamenco world, and I could not help but wonder at its effect on the girl by my side. Each time I turned to look at my Carmen during the performance, I saw a reflection of the Carmen on the stage. I saw the fire in her eyes as the stage Carmen sparked with fury. I saw tears glisten on her long dark lashes as the stage Carmen was consumed by grief. The whole opera was alive beside me. It was as we left that she told me she could sing all Carmen's roles in that opera. I laughed in half belief. But there was something more. As we drove back to Cambridge that evening I could not help but believe that our lives were about to change, and I could not help but believe that she felt the same.
Again Ramona interrupted. "That bit's too short, Clara, if this is a romance. Also, he's too smug. He tells us how clever he is, but what about Carmen?" Clara continued to read.
A Melody of Sadness
I reflected with detachment the next day. What was I doing with a seventeen-year-old Spanish language student? How could she fit into my social life, the Cambridge dons, the academics? And this is my life. This is what I wish to do. She, a young girl with no formal training, how could she become part of this life I lead at Cambridge? All these years later, I wish I had asked her then about her own aspirations. I would have learned of her voice training from an early age, of her precocious musical talents, that she could have aspired to sing professionally in opera. Would it have helped? Would anything have changed? Probably not, but today I grasp at straws. Maybe if the best thing in our life had been delayed it would have been better, but I digress: what is done is done; she sang later and I still have all her recordings.
Suffice it to say, that my standing in both the college and the university rose rapidly. I know and I admit that having Carmen on my arm contributed more to my advancement than did my intellectual prowess in those days. We all have to make our way in life as we best can, and the truth is that Carmen, as I soon became aware, drew attention to me within the community. On Carmen's eighteenth birthday we were married, and before she was nineteen (I twenty-three) our daughter was born. A teenage mother? As far from it as you can imagine. Carmen loved our daughter, as I know she loved me. We took a maid to help, and this is when Carmen decided to take up where she had left off with her singing, her vocation, not at the expense of our daughter but to complement her. I always wanted her to sing the themes from Carmen to me, but she said they must be reserved for special occasions. I adored her Wagner and suffered her Verdi, in private. Her linguistic skill in song was never echoed in her spoken English that remained coloured by her mother tongue.
We had it all.
Clara stopped reading at the end to the first chapter.
"I think that's beautiful," she said.
"You're just a sentimental old lady who never had any kids," Ramona replied.
"No, Ramona. I mean the ability to sing as she does, and somehow I feel that is how she lives."
"That's what you feel when you sing, Clara."
"No, you do. I don't. That's the difference." Clara gave Ramona her wistful look.
Clara continued reading, starting on chapter two of a Melody of Sadness. Outside the light began to dim and the sounds of the night whispered to them through the open window. Clara's voice undulated with the text, and Ramona sat dreamily at her feet, letting the words of the book wash through her, living the story set so far away in the city of Cambridge.
"I'm sleepy," Clara said, as she closed the book at the end of the second chapter. "It's the long, hot drive back from Seville. Let's walk in the fresh night air."
The lady and the young girl stepped out into the cool of the late evening. The white arches of the schoolhouse gleamed in the moonlight. They crossed through the moonshade of the orange trees and out onto the village street. The ceramic faces of the houses glinted in the foreground, while darker shapes were set back among the shadows. The darkness of the hills loomed above them, but above that the blue-black sky was speckled with stars.
"I loved that chapter," Ramona said, "the story of the little girl. The life she had. I don't know it's" - she stopped and tears formed in her eyes - "what I didn't have."
Clara put her arm around Ramona, in the knowledge of the part of her life that she, Ramona, had lost, the life before the orange grove beside the Cathedral in Seville.
"It's what I sometimes feel, when I sing," Ramona whispered. "As if it's really there."
"Shall we stop the book, Ramona," Clara asked.
"No, please. Not that. I loved it. I love it now. The little girl." She brightened and laughed. "Just think, Clara, if we had never met." This thought no longer had a place in the conception of Clara's world.