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Five Carmen's Story

CHAPTER FIVE CARMEN'S STORY

 

Ramona

I love Paris. I can walk to work from my hotel in the Marais, and then when all the tourists come into our tour office I tell them about what they can do, where they can go, and I change their money for them, and then at nine o'clock in the evening we are free, and we go down to the Latin Quarter and meet the students.

 

This is my only sad day, Sunday. I sit here on the tip of the Ile de la Cite and watch the waters of the Seine swirl past. In a moment I will walk over to Notre Dame, stand in front, observe the portals at its entrance, the gargoyles above, before I go into its dark insides where the candles burn. Then I will come back out into the bright light. I will walk to the Luxembourg gardens, see the statues, feel the gravel under my feet and the warmth of the sun above. I will walk back to the Louvre, where I like it inside because I can walk for miles, and then out into the gardens of the Tuileries, past the Orangerie on my right and on to the Place de la Concorde. I will look at my watch for the first time today, not yet lunchtime. What do I do before the evening? Roll on Monday.

 

I wander, I hate wandering, up the Champs-Elysees to the Etoile and branch right - I cannot believe I walk all these miles in one day - to take me right back down to the Place de la Republique, and just a few paces by my newly acquired Paris standards, back down to the Hotel de Ville and to my hotel. I can change, relax, i.e. get bored to death, and then make my way down to Saint Germain, where I will start this evening, where I will sing.

 

At home everyone knew who I was, they knew me as a child, they knew my mother, they knew my father, they knew the rest of my family. They would always say, hello Carmen, and they would laugh at my little jokes, smile, get angry, smile again, laugh. They were the sounding board of my guitar, of me, and would always react to whichever note I played, and always in the same way. Here in Paris, no one says, hello Carmen. When I say things I say at home in Spain, no one reacts as I expect. They do not react, or if they do, I do not understand them. Yes, I ask for a lemonade and the bartender gives it to me, but he does not see behind my smile, what I mean when I ask.

 

In three months I have learnt more than ever in my life before. I have practised being "not Carmen": I have practised being "someone else". It works. I have always loved my full long dark hair. My mother used to warn me that I looked like a prostitute and that is why men would follow me in the street. I knew she was not right, and here I am a goddess, but not if I behave like me, only if I behave like the new Carmen I have been practising. Caroline has helped me. She sits in a cafeand gauges reactions as I come in, and I do the same for her.

 

We have worked our way up the scale, as we have honed our movements, our pauses, our looks of vulnerability, our flashes of anger - we've tried them all, and it has been great fun, though in more successful moments escape has been difficult. In the end, I have a simple secret, and have left Caroline far behind: I enter with the background melody playing in my head, the melodies I sing to earn my living, and I move in tune to the feelings that arise from the melody. I let the melody flow over into my first reactions when I meet people. I would love to let it flow over into my life - no more drab Sundays on the banks of the Seine.

 

Another drab Sunday, but I sit outside in a cafe with Caroline on the Champs-Elysees, the most expensive one - we have long forgotten the economy of the price of drink, in favour of other economic advantage. The bright morning sun is diffused through the cafe blind above us. The crowd moves in both directions along the broad pavement beneath the canopy of trees, while traffic moves in spurts as the traffic lights change from red to green and back to red. Caroline has a friend who learnt English at a language school in Cambridge, a ratio of seven men to one woman, she tells me, men who come from the best families, men who are either rich or will be rich, but more important to us, the sort of men for us. We are mature women, Caroline says to me, both of us knowing that at sixteen she still has a couple of months to catch me up. She tells me we need money, but I have enough money from my singing. It is April. We leave in early June.

 

Is this the England of Empire, as I read in books? The train to Cambridge is decrepit, the same as I know from anywhere, from Andalusia, from Morocco. Caroline laughs at me and tells me that streets paved with gold are really sewers: the gold comes to those who seek it and know how to find it, not to those who look at the pavement. In later life I remember Caroline as a philosopher, and I learnt all her lessons, although I am sure she never knew she was giving any - she would have charged me, if she had known. She has long since risen to heights of social rank far beyond me, and I know from her philosophy lessons that I should never try to reach her, nor ever could, but I still hope we may meet one day (a vain hope of lost youth).

 

Cambridge, a small town in the English countryside, cold even in the summer, June, but I am here with Caroline. She knows where to find what they call "digs" and we are established in our new venture. I already miss Paris, which we left this morning, but Caroline is happy, so I am happy.

 

This is our first day, she tells me, so we must split up, or we will not meet people. Should we not register at the language school, I ask her, but she looks at me in a strange way, and tells me, only if we have to, as if I have not understood her. I have no idea of where to go, but I do know what to do when I get there. The Anchor.

 

It was still early and I was hungry, so I had breakfast at a hotel in the centre of town called the Blue Boar. It is expensive for me but that does not matter as I start my new life in this strange place. I step out of the hotel and turn left down the street. I notice many beautiful buildings on my route, one looks like a huge church with lawns before it. I walk further, and then stare into the window of a cake shop, and think I will come back later; breakfast protects me against such desires for the moment. I turn through an archway into what we in Andalusia might call paradise. I wander through this place that, unbeknown to me now, I will come to know so well. My thoughts turn to Caroline; like her I must do something. I leave paradise and move on.

 

The river is so beautiful, with the boats lined up ready to go. I want to take a boat, but I do not know how. They have big poles, but there is no one there by the boats, so I think I will wait for the boatmen to return, and look behind me at a building that might be a restaurant or hotel. The Anchor.

 

I step inside and flash my smile, the smile that I have learnt will even breathe warmth into hell - the place comes alive before me, and the melody rings in my head. It is a song from Andalusia, and the bar is blue but for one glowing red spot at the bar, glowing with the charm of Andalusian warmth, convention and courtesy, an older man, I think, but I move, gently, towards him. I meet Alistair, mature, twenty-two years old.

 

Caroline's philosophy deserted me that afternoon, as did my Parisian education - I just thought I was back at home, but better. I have no memory of that time on the river, six hours, one hour, ten hours, but of him. What did I see? Where did we go? The next thing I do remember that I can recollect is the cake shop - I saw it earlier and wanted cake - because it was like living a dream. It was Caroline's dream, but it was real and it was mine. I was just here for adventure and I had captured Caroline's dream, which I would never tell Caroline, and never did.

 

In the dim lights of the Paris clubs, I would swing my hips while I sang, throw back my head and let my hair flow over my shoulders, as the melody flowed from me to the audience. I would stiffen my hips and strike flamenco poses, charging the room with emotion, and I was their magnetic pole. I knew what I felt as I sang, but I could only guess at what they felt. Today I felt the electricity flow through me from him. When he dropped me at my digs, I felt the whole world of hope collapse around me, and then came the Carmen proposal: Carmen, me, and more than that, the Carmen I loved and sang.

 

I will not speak of the Carmen Opera in London. No, perhaps I should talk of the Carmen opera in London. My thoughts swirl through my head as they did then. My thoughts? Is that what it is? At home it was me, the Carmen they knew, the Carmen who lived, well, the life of Carmen. What is it when I magnetize a concert hall as that Carmen did on that day in London with Alistair at Earls Court? Is it Bizet, reincarnated from the dead? No, he wrote ink marks on pieces of paper, which I read. What is it when I sing his melody and captivate my audience, his audience? Caroline could tell me. As for me? I will never know. I may never know what it is, but I know what it is for me: it is living my life.

 

Alistair loved me and I loved Alistair. The logical consequence in those days? we married. You know why I came to Cambridge, so don't ask: he despised his wealth, but I loved it. He loved his academic life, worthier than a meal in the stomach: he did not come from Andalusia. The first problem was that he failed to instruct his lawyers correctly when we married. What belonged to Alistair belonged to Alistair, which was plenty. What belonged to me belonged to me, which was nothing. The second problem was that he was an academic in Cambridge and not a singer in Paris, so he had no idea of what I needed to spend. I earned nothing and had nothing to spend. Question: what do I spend my time doing in Cambridge?

 

The answer was the little girl and I loved that little girl. I loved that little girl in Cambridge more, I think, than I would ever have loved her in Andalusia, because - don't despise me - she was my choice and not my obligation, but I still would have loved her even then. I gave her everything, or she stole everything from me, whichever way you prefer to look at it. I only went back to my other love (apart from her and Alistair), singing, for the money, of which Alistair gave me none because it was unimportant, to him. I did not earn money from singing then in Cambridge: rather I trained, because I was the best and I knew it. One day I would use my talent for myself and my daughter. I knew that one day I would have to escape the prison of poverty (known to me from my childhood in Andalusia) imposed upon me in Cambridge by my rich husband through not ignorance but principle, belief, misguided belief, stupidity.

 

Carmen's autobiography: who wants to hear this? No matter. I will continue, because I want to, just as I sing because I want to sing, and if you don't like my melody, leave my bar (when I am poor), or my concert hall (when I am rich). I am Carmen. Shall we move on?

 

Alistair was impressed by my singing, or should I say astonished? I loved to sing to him and I know he loved it. At that level we were one. He would talk to me about the Opera, simply for aesthetic value, of course. What he failed, or rather refused, to recognise was the economic value of my singing, my release from a poverty he could never understand, because he had always had it all and still did. No, it was more than that: he saw wealth as a burden to be not discarded but thrust aside, and so he rejected what I could earn, because we (that is he) did not need it, nor want it.

 

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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