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Two Cambridge

CHAPTER TWO - CAMBRIDGE

 

Ramona

The next day was, of course, school as usual for Sister Clara. Ramona slept late, but in the middle of the morning she joined Clara to give the children a music lesson. Ramona played the piano and the children sang. Then Ramona sang to the children as she played the piano, and they clapped and banged their desks, laughing when she had finished. After that Clara continued with her lessons.

 

All afternoon Ramona went through prospectuses she had collected, scholarship application forms and books of advice, but still she drew a blank. What was right for her? She could combine the things she liked, but she knew it was better to choose, to focus, to concentrate. She remembered the advice of the German philosopher Hegel: that the young man does not wish to choose because of all the other things that the choice excludes. But you have to choose. I know that, she told herself. The luxury of choice is the misery of choice, she thought. If I could be like my friends who are good at just one thing. For them it's easy. Then she thought of the girl Carmen in the story, of how she had financed her way to her course in Cambridge, when even younger than Ramona now was. Incredible, but just a story. I suppose it does happen. Be practical, Ramona, be practical.

 

They ate late that evening, and relaxed, still weary from the travels of the previous day.

"Just one chapter tonight," Ramona said, and snuggled on the floor at Clara's feet. Clara began to read the third chapter.

 

A Melody of Sadness

It truly was a thunderbolt from the blue, unbelievable and indescribable. I have mentioned my family's wealth. It had all devolved to me, the last of the line, the only heir. I did not need it. I had my work in Cambridge. I had my aspirations. The wealth was simply locked away in trusts, in investments and in controlling stakes in the family businesses, long since professionally managed. This was not part of my life. It probably never would be. But it changed my life irreversibly. It destroyed my life through the mere fact of its existence.

 

It was a day you do not forget, a day you do not ever forget. Carmen called me from the house. She spoke clearly, she spoke rationally and to the point, but there was a depth of emotion in her voice, which I have never heard before or since in the voice of any man of woman. The maid had been bludgeoned into unconsciousness and our daughter was gone.

 

Three days later we received a ransom note with no amount specified and no instructions, just an indication of what was to come. That was the last we heard, never another whisper. We never saw our daughter again. The last birthday we celebrated was her fifth birthday, just a few months before, at our house with her little friends from kindergarten. I would have given everything we had to get her back, all that wealth of mine that was of no value to me. It was of value to someone, but that someone never came for the exchange. They never returned to us what was most valuable in the world.

 

For me the first chord of a melody had been struck which would run through me in the years to follow, the first jarring chord of the melody of which I write.

 

Ramona

Clara stopped and looked down at Ramona, on the ground by her feet. Ramona was expressionless. Then she said, " Has he given up already?"

"I don't think so," Clara replied. "Maybe it was not like that for him then. Maybe it just seems like it afterwards from what followed."

"How can it get worse?" Ramona asked.

"Not worse. Just how the emotions reverberate though him. What else is affected?"

"He has not lost everything," Ramona said.

"No, he has not lost everything," Clara agreed. She continued to read.

 

A Melody of Sadness

I will not dwell on me. I continued to work in college, my successes grew. I will not dwell on Carmen. She was tougher than me, and as to her singing, a young woman in her mid twenties, she was on the verge of fame. The first few months were agony, but agony can be borne: hope breathes life into you at the worst of times. It was what had changed in each of us that could not be borne. I now realise this, but I did not know then. I write this now to help with the understanding of what follows.

 

Carmen had always been spirited, lively, the fire of her soul reflected in her eyes. That is why she could sing the pieces of Bizet's Carmen: it was her own. In the depths of our loss, I could not tolerate her spirit, which to me was almost a betrayal, and as for Carmen, she could not live with my deep sadness, with my wounded spirit; she could not watch my blood spill out onto the floor everyday of our life. My grief devastated her as much as the loss of our daughter. She, our daughter, would not have wished this on you, Carmen would tell me. But what could I do?

 

Ramona

Clara stopped. "Grief affects them each differently," she said. "Carmen wants him to live to fight another day."

"He has everything he needs, except what he wants, Clara. She has had a life of having nothing, but what she made for herself. He had education, wealth. It fell into his lap."

"You're right," Clara agreed. "She suffers deeply, but must do something. She cannot sit and grieve, not for herself, not for him and not for the daughter, she would say."

 

Clara continued to read and the story unfolded as the seeds of dissent germinated between the author and Carmen. A deep sadness descended on the room as Clara's voice read on, and chapter three became chapter four as she read late into the night.

 

Ramona would normally miss breakfast, the sleep of the seventeen-year-old taking priority. This morning she was in the kitchen before Clara. She could not wait. She spoke as Clara entered the room.

"I cannot accept it," Ramona said.

"What?" Clara asked.

"That Carmen left him I can accept. It all seemed to lead to that. But without trace?"

"Was she being kind?" Clara asked.

"How?" This was not clear to Ramona.

"There was no remedy for the rift. If she killed all hope, would he recover?" Clara answered.

"I suppose that's true, Clara. Maybe he wouldn't recover, but certainly he would never recover as long as he had her, or I suppose even access to her, knew where she was."

"I think she felt the grief of each was feeding the grief of the other. So much time had elapsed, that she had given up hope of ever seeing the daughter. She went for the clean break."

"It's cruel to be kind," Ramona breathed. "She's a powerful woman."

"I think that's it."

"These last two chapters have rocked me. I've never read a book like it." Ramona looked at Clara, who nodded her assent. "Such a simple story, but the tension between them, the emotion dragged out of each of them in these last two chapters is killing me."

"Do you want me to stop reading?"

"I couldn't ask that. You must read. You must, tonight."

 

This was the last day of term for Clara's children. They finished at lunchtime. In the afternoon Clara planned to drive down to Rio Tinto, where she dispensed charity on behalf of the convent to support children in the mining communities that surrounded the copper mines. Ramona came with her. They would also take a fond farewell of the little green Seat and pick up the smart new car, which should not overheat and break down, and, the coup de grace, which had air conditioning. The last ride in their mobile oven would be down the hill, more breeze.

 

Clara's charity work had its inception years before Ramona appeared on the scene. Spain's wealth had grown, even during the last eleven years since Ramona had been involved. Many of the old public health issues had disappeared. The dire needs of children in miners' families racked by loss of breadwinners, through accident, prison or simply escape to a new life, was no longer a concern they handled. Particularly since Ramona came on the scene, Clara had sought to develop the talents of gifted children, to help raise them from their lot, for their own good, the good of their families, and for the benefit of the community. Clara had seen in Ramona's own spectacular talents, how these could so easily have been lost. What would have happened to Ramona, she thought, if it had not been Fernando who had been there in the Cathedral square?

 

In her early teens Ramona had taken to this work, because she loved to spend time with their charges. For her it was a world apart from the limited scope of their little village in the Sierra Morena and the games of the schoolyard. She was a child then, and she had her favourites, and she still had them now.

 

Maria's grandmother was eighty-three years old, and Maria was fourteen. She relied on her grandmother for everything, other family remaining.  For four years Ramona had brought music to Maria, and Maria sang from those sheets. As she entered the single room where they lived, Ramona could not help but think of Carmen in the story, a Melody of Sadness. Did little Carmen have a grandmother to look after her when she was thirteen? Did she have a child like Ramona to bring her music? Ramona thought not. Today she had brought sweets as well as music. It was hard to know who was more thrilled by the sweets, the child or the grandmother. This is hardship, Ramona thought, but so much less than it used to be, and again she thought of the fictitious Carmen, of how she would have lived. Clara came into the room, greeted and hugged the grandmother and the child, and then, taking Ramona with her, moved on, to work their way through the town. Clara distributed books these days in the hope that they would be read and passed on. The sight of one of her books in another person's house would give her great satisfaction. She was also glad that her job here was no longer the grave necessity it used to be, that she was now ever more a luxury item as the community's welfare grew.

 

In their smart new air-conditioned car, driving back up into the hills, Ramona talked about Maria.

"You know," she said to Clara, "when I look at Maria, I think of how much harder it was for Carmen."

"For who?" Clara asked.

"For Carmen in a Melody of Sadness."

"But she's a story, Ramona."

"It doesn't matter. Think of Carmen. As Maria, how could she have live with him, with Alistair. The wrong person wrote the book, Clara: it should have been written by Carmen."

"By the character rather than the author," Clara laughed.

"He thought he could give everything to get his daughter back, but in the same breath he claimed his wealth was worth nothing, so what was he giving? She knew worth, Clara. She came from nothing and knew worth. Did he know the worth of his daughter? The worth of Carmen?"

"I think we have to read further, Ramona. We must read further."

 

But chapter five was the story of a vain search for Carmen, interviews, appeals, newspaper advertisements, money was no object, money was there: Carmen was not. They languished over chapter six and began to build their own fantasies about how chapter seven should continue. By then it was the end of the week, and Ramona returned to Seville and the summer job she had arranged. Clara planned to take her September visit to Seville a couple of months early. She knew that the days she would be spending with Ramona would grow less from now on. She was prepared for this but wanted to abstract herself gradually. In some ways she thought it would be harder for her to lose her niece or younger sister, as she thought of Ramona, than to lose a daughter- she thought of the book, a Melody of Sadness - but not an infant.

 

Whether it was a Melody of Sadness that influenced Ramona, or the natural choice of her research, she decided that she would like to consider reading literature at Cambridge. Her background and academic record did not match the standard requirements, but she was given a personal recommendation that compensated for that. She was invited to visit Cambridge in September and discuss the mechanics of competing for a place with her background, for entry in the following year. When Clara realised that the book had influenced Ramona was when she saw that Ramona would meet Alistair Jamolla. With her on the journey, Ramona took a Melody of Sadness that Clara had read to her, up to chapter six.

 

Ramona had never travelled abroad. When she arrived at London Gatwick, she amused herself wondering which countries Carmen had seen before she had arrived in Cambridge at the very same age as Ramona, in the book. She could not imagine herself arriving to meet the man she would marry. She could not imagine herself having sung in restaurants and bars to finance a course in the city of Cambridge. To be honest, she was worried about how she was going to find her way there. She had never been anywhere unfamiliar on her own. These were her worries before she even disembarked from the plane.

 

In the corridors leading to immigration, milling with strange people, panic set in, and she found herself leaning against a pillar sobbing her heart out, wishing she had stayed at home. An elderly German lady helped her through passport control and to find her luggage, after which her confidence grew. The instructions she had with her came into focus. She was able to find the train to London Victoria, to find her way to the underground station, to make the interminable journey across to the other side of London to Liverpool Street Station, to find the Cambridge train with one change at Audley End, and finally to join a taxi of four people from Cambridge station to the Blue Boar Hotel, where she had a reservation.

 

Ramona had planned to read on from chapter six of a Melody of Sadness on the plane, and then on the train, and then in the evening at the hotel. Now it was breakfast of the next day. Tomorrow she was due at the college. She was bright, alert and excited. Today, I will retrace the steps of Carmen on my first day in Cambridge, she said. It was a Sunday. It was September not June, but both months were outside term time. White blouse, blue jeans and silver belt, she said, remembering Carmen in the book. Shoes? I don't know.

 

From her street plan she saw she should turn left from the hotel and walk down Trumpington Street. Reaching Silver Street, to her left she saw the cake shop. It is early, she thought, I will look into the college first, before I go to the Anchor. She walked through the entrance by the porters' lodge. Just as all those years ago when she had stepped into the paradise of the Alcazar gardens in Seville, she felt she had crossed a doorway into another world, the buildings, the gardens, the creepers, the rich green lawns that she had never seen in Seville. The book came alive to her as she stepped into a world that had been graced by the Carmen of the novel. She imagined herself as Carmen on the arm of her new husband, and suddenly, she could see how it might have happened, how the story could come true. One enchanted garden seemed to lead to the next, as she moved through archways and gates. She was oblivious to whether she was just walking in circles or travelled miles, as she lost herself in the experience.

 

Ramona found herself back at the porters' lodge, eleven thirty, scene one. She walked down Trumpington Street, crossed and went down Silver Street. I do not know which route Carmen took, but this will do, she said to herself, as she followed Silver Street. On the left was the Anchor and she experienced the magic of reliving a fairy tale. Ahead was the bridge; below was the river, all as she knew it to be.

 

She pushed open the door of the Anchor, no bar but stairs up and stairs down, where should she go? She went to the upper bar where she found a group of rowdy young men to the left and ahead some Japanese tourists. She flashed a smile to the assembled crowd and moved to the bar. She felt ignored and moved through the pub. She took a place further along the bar and ordered a mineral water, looking around nervously, surprised that the young man behind the bar asked for money straight away. She paid and sipped her water. Relax, she said, and forced a smile for herself, moving across to a table in the sun by the window. Outside she could see boats on the river, a group of kayaks racing up from under the bridge to land just upstream from the Anchor. She decided to stay for at least as long as it takes to drink a glass of mineral water.

 

As soon as she left the pub, strangely dressed men in stripy blazers with flat straw hats, boaters, on their heads surrounded her offering boat rides. She chose one of the young men and descended to a punt, the right direction, downstream, the backs. She closed her ears to the guided tour in a New Zealand accent, and eventually told him to shut up. It was all so familiar to her from the book, and yet so foreign. It was so much less real than in the book: the characters were not there. It was just her and a pole operator from New Zealand.

 

She did not go back to the college for tea and was not invited to a performance of Carmen at Earls Court. In fact, she had spoken to no one in a social capacity and wondered about the famous three to five seconds and the need for four trumps, but it had been fun, drinking in the atmosphere, as she wandered through the colleges. Back at the hotel, she was motivated to spend the evening reading the first six chapters of a Melody of Sadness that Clara had read to her, and was as moved by the story as the first time.

 

Everyone is nervous when their heart is set on something they want and their own performance is what counts for them to get it. Ramona was no exception as she took the familiar route down Trumpington Street the next morning. Running through her head were the literary topics she had chosen to discuss, should she have the opportunity, or create the opportunity. Her literature teachers in Seville had given her no guidance, but her music teacher had explained how to twist the conversation and had conducted role-plays with her. Ramona was dressed in a knee length black skirt and a white blouse, adequate for the warm weather, and in her case setting off well her dark wavy hair, hanging almost to her waist, while maintaining a serious, formal, Spanish air.

 

Not a student was in sight: tourism ruled on Trumpington Street today. She was still early, so she looked into the courtyard and onto the green lawns of a college called Corpus Christi. She wondered if this was a special religious sect. On the right was the magnificent chapel, which she recognised and had seen from the punt the day before, of Kings College.

 

"I am me. I will be early," she said, marching to the porters' lodge, and added a few Spanish swear words to herself to boost her confidence. She was surprised by the deference and cordiality with which she was greeted, she a mere supplicant. Unusually Mr Jamolla will not be able to come down to receive you, she was told, by reason of a knee injury. She was led through the grounds she had visited the day before, through an entrance and up a staircase. The porter knocked on the door and she was invited to enter. She thanked him profusely, and wondered whether she should give him a tip, before deciding not.

 

Alistair Jamolla was expecting the Spanish girl, an excellent prospect judging by her file before him. He looked forward to meeting her, out of the ordinary, clearly exceptionally talented. We should get photographs of the female candidates, he thought, displaying a politically incorrect attitude unusual for him, but then they did not get many Spanish girls for English Literature. He heard the knock on the door and mechanically invited entry.

 

He started involuntarily as she thanked the porter, the sound of her voice. Then the door swung open. She was framed in the doorway. He froze as he saw Carmen the first time she visited these rooms. Ramona stopped similarly frozen. A sensation welled up from deep within her, and she spoke one word.

"Papa."

 

The feeling was mutual, momentous, and instantaneous -  and then it was gone. He was stiff. She was formal. She did not know why she had spoken that word. He knew it was not Carmen. Neither knew what to say. They had to say something. Each was unaware of the other's confusion. He started the interview. It went nowhere. She raised the subjects she had rehearsed. He had not asked for them. He looked bland. She stuttered. She aborted. He tried to say something but could say nothing.

 

Ramona pulled his book from her bag and placed it on the table, a gesture that just seemed right. Again he looked at the face of Carmen, the figure of Carmen, the voice of Carmen and the movements of Carmen. This must be a trick. The age. The age was right, but it would be for a trick. What should he say, something non-committal?

"Has your mother told you about me?" he asked.

"My mother?" she was confused. "I have never known my mother." Should she say this?

"Everyone knows their mother." It came out unasked, and Carmen's child would know her mother - the child was five at the time.

"Sir, this is a literature interview."

"You produced my book. It is about a mother, a father, a child."

Her enthusiasm took over from what she had read, the second time, the previous night. "The early years of the child - so beautiful - missing for me."

"Missing?"

"Sir, I cannot say this in an interview..."

"Let's halt the interview, talk about the book, a Melody of Sadness."

"My ... my aunt read it to me. The first six chapters."

"The first six chapters!" Exasperation.

"I read them again last night. The book rocked me then, and it does now."

"Then?" Accusatory

 "Six months ago. It was more real than punting on the River Cam was yesterday."

"More real?"

"The characters were there in the book. Not yesterday. Only me, and some creep from New Zealand."

"Who is Carmen?"

"I did not know." She reached deep inside herself to what she knew was there, but did not know where. She found feeling but no fact. "Sir, I am the first interview candidate to ask this, probably in the history of the university."

"Ask."

"May we do a DNA test?"

The interview did not end with this request. After he complied, Ramona chose to sing a piece from Carmen that she rendered without music.

 

He had not listened to Bizet's Carmen, since his Carmen had left; he could not, but he still owned all her recordings. He played them on low volume to achieve the instrumental accompaniment, as she sang several pieces faultlessly from memory. Below the window a group of tourists and college staff gathered as the afternoon progressed. Without knowing it, Ramona was giving a concert to a group of fifty by three o'clock and more than twice that by four o'clock. They stood in silence, hearing just the voice, not the music. Only as the final refrain died away did the applause draw their attention to the open window. As he looked out at the courtyard below, he knew that the DNA test was irrelevant. But he would do it anyway, for the trust fund.

Ramona Contents

Prologue Seville

One Sierra Morena

Two Cambridge

Three The Reading Group

Four The Gospel

Five Carmen's Story

Six Abduction

Seven Nom de Plume

Eight Maria's Story

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