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Eight Maria's Story

CHAPTER EIGHT MARIA'S STORY

 

Ramona

I grew up with my grandmother and for all of my childhood that I can remember just the two of us lived in that little house on the edge of Rio Tinto. She was eighty-five when she died, but I now know that she had been an old woman for many years before that, all the years that I knew her. Why she had moved close to the mines of Rio Tinto is a forgotten mystery, for she had lost interest in her life after the age of twenty-five by her later years, by the time I was mothered by her, when she would relate tales of those early days, constantly.

 

I suppose she brought me up as her mother had brought her up, which was the way she, in turn, had been brought up, maybe by her grandmother. This explains a lot about me, a living anachronism, I sometimes think I was. Many are inspired by the old gipsy way of life, flamenco in the woods, fierce women fighting with knives to win a man, castanets; but for them it is a charming fairy tale, while for me it is laced into the tapestry of my childhood, mixed in with the life of the peasantry, life on the land, again incongruous with my childhood reality among the urban (mining town) poor. Perhaps all these strands were plaited together in me, and if so, they all had one thing in common, nothing to do with the modern world in which we live.

 

Everyone else had family but we did not, and our isolation was probably made worse by my grandmother's interminable, repetitious stories, which grew worse with her disease. The greatest excitement in her life was when Sister Clara would bring sweets for me and we would share them. I think Sister Clara realised this and would leave me double rations. At that time the very idea that I should ever live with Clara was beyond my wildest imagination, but then I suppose that would never have happened if Ramona had not returned from Cambridge. Then, at that time, Ramona and I were so far apart in years - I was fifteen- now we are so close in years, less than three years apart. But much more than the years separated us then: Clara and Ramona descended to us from Mount Olympus. And it was Mount Olympus, compared to the life I had and the little I knew, but I had, of course, no conception of their little village in the Sierra Morena, of Seville, of London.

 

I have no doubt that Clara was motivated by charity and her natural kindness, but I also have no doubt that Clara brought me to live with them to solve the problem of Ramona, the post-Cambridge Ramona, who needed something more in her life than the village school, teaching, had to offer. The development of me and my talents, which I neither knew I had then nor now, was that something. It was like a role reversal from those very first days. I would relate to Ramona the tales from my grandmother, which I knew by heart, and Ramona would write them down as short stories to be read by Clara to Ramona and me in the evenings. Charming, for a couple of months, but then we were rescued by the move to Seville, where I for the first time learned the meaning of the word education, and that is why we moved to London, Ramona and I, just three years later, when she accompanied me "to look after me" as I commenced at London University, where I graduated two years ago. How much of life can be squeezed into a paragraph, a paragraph in which I too ascended to Mount Olympus, by now a fully paid up member of the demigods, looking for promotion.

 

I cannot say it was ever family life to me, but then I suppose that is something neither I nor Ramona have ever really had, in the conventional sense. Anyway, from the age of fourteen it was my interests which lead me on, and I suppose, with time, it is true to say that Ramona and I have become the best of friends. She encourages me in what I do, and I still give her the plots for all her stories. Knowing her as I do, I have never seen her as an artist, but more of a technician: she constructs the stories from the pieces I give her. She knows my point of view and accepts it because she knows it is true. She has taken down, virtually verbatim, whole texts I have spoken on the subject, and I have the suspicion that she may even include part of this in her new book, Ramona, simply to cock a snook at the world, now that she has won the prize.

 

So what is the problem you may wonder, when everything is hunky dory (note how I attempt, often unsuccessfully, to clad my anachronistic being with a modern veneer) and we live in clover? I think you may have guessed the problem: Ramona. Why can she not escape this past that has nothing to do with her past life, her present life, or her future? Forget it, Ramona, forget it, and leave them be, as they you, I tell her. What has it got to do with you, with me, with Clara, with anyone? They live in a different soap opera, not in ours, not even in a parallel universe, more distant than that not even tangential, forget! Forget!!! The concept of "forget it", of course, does not necessarily include the inheritance, which I would certainly not advise anyone to forget, if they had the remotest chance of getting their hands on it.

 

Ramona is not an emotional type by any stretch of the imagination. She is, in my view, and I think her own, a bit of a plodder, even if a talented one, although this is disguised by her engaging social manner and exceptional looks. So it was an extraordinary outburst, for her, when she learnt about her natural parents moving back together; Ramona rushing out into the park screaming! You must be joking, but she did; I am the athlete in our household but I could not catch her until she was halfway to Kensington Gardens. Bystanders must have assumed we were training for the Fun Run, but I am not sure what they thought about the hysterical shrieking.

 

And then within a month the real news: they are to have a child. This has had a powerful effect on Ramona that I do not really understand, and I am worried for her. What do I do?

 

***

 

If the scene at the Anchor had led you to believe that both Carmen and Alistair lived in a world dedicated to first impressions, you would not be wrong. Maybe that is why she was a performer, who made her living by creating illusion on stage, in her appearances during a performance, those minutes when she would be on stage, and why she and Caroline used to practise their entries into the cafes of Paris. Maybe that was why Alistair was a professor of literature, for reasons that a professor of literature may be better qualified to answer.

 

Whether it was really a first impression, or came alive later, Carmen saw Maria step through the garden gate of their Cambridgeshire home as a figure from Maria's grandmother's tales, stepping into the clearing from the dark forest to shout her defiance at the soldiers guarding her imprisoned lover. In fact, Maria had come to see Alistair and Carmen with the principal intention of having them invite Ramona to be a godmother when the time came. Maria thought that "inclusion" was the solution for Ramona, but then she had not met Carmen before today.

 

Ramona was never intended to be a book about singers, and certainly not opera singers, but both the real world and fate (if the two are compatible) conspire against the best of intentions. As he drove into the driveway Alistair could hear a familiar female duet echoing across the lawns, but it was unfamiliar in that it contained the familiar voice of Carmen who had no partner for duets.

 

Alistair walked across the lawn from his redbrick garage, shorter than taking the serpentine stone path. The privacy of the house would be afforded in due course by a beech hedge he had planted, but now he could see his neighbours who had stopped their game of croquet to stroll up to the border and listen to the impromptu concert. Alistair walked across to them, a painter and his flamboyant wife, a daughter and son-in-law, both Cambridge academics. Jules, the painter was laughing as he spoke to Alistair.

"I wouldn't like to be in your shoes, old boy," he said. "Whoever she is, from what we've heard this afternoon, she's at least as good as Carmen."

"Are you suggesting my wife's a bitch?" Alistair grinned. The two of them had an understanding about how to keep their respective wives under control.

"Just a woman, Alistair."

"Well to the extent that any woman could be a bitch, Carmen would not wish to be considered less able than any other, but no, one thing I will say for her is that she just loves the music and will do anything to improve it. There's no spirit of competition in that department. I believe she would give up a role if she thought there were a better singer. So, no, I think, if this girl's so good, I'm a lucky man, for a change." The painter's wife was surprised by his tone.

"I have to give it to you, Alistair," she said, "you do rank at the top of the smarmy bastard league table."

"If both of us weren't married, I'd take that as an invitation to dance," Alistair said, "but come in anyway and join us for a drink."

They parted the beech hedge, stepped through and the five of them strolled across the lawn to the house.

 

Alistair had built onto the west side of the house a conservatory the height of two storeys, and attached to the house at the upper level within the conservatory was a gallery. Carmen had chosen this as her stage for tonight, so the audience settled into rattan sofas of floral design, among the plants below, all very Alcazar in its way. They sipped chilled white Valdepenas wine to enhance the authenticity of the performance, but not a word was spoken among them, capable of being spoken among them, as the two women swayed and flowed above them with the music and their voices combined and then complemented in successive roles, breaking in waves across the conservatory.

 

Carmen staged three curtain calls for Maria to the applause from below and ushered her down the curving staircase to join the audience. As they stepped off the bottom step, the world of opera above retreated to wherever it is that it lives while the real world takes over. Carmen was in her gardening clothes and Maria was turned out for the occasion she had planned, not for an operatic dress rehearsal.

"Alistair," Carmen enthused, "Ramona's friend Maria has come to see us." Neither of them had the vaguest idea that Ramona had a friend called Maria. Alistair proceeded to introduce Maria to the painter and his wife, while the daughter and son-in-law took an overdue leave to meet their planned evening engagements.

 

The painter took pains to be honest in his opinions, and the opportunity to test Alistair's probity.

"Carmen, I have admired you more than any other singer and am honoured to be your neighbour, if I could just paint with your art, but today you have been surpassed by Maria."

Carmen beamed at him.

"I could never have told Maria that, she wouldn't have believed me. I have never sung with anyone like Maria. Not because she's technically perfect, she isn't, how could she be without years of training? but the quality. Believe me, Maria, this man does know how to paint. You have just, deservedly, received the highest praise you could earn."

Maria accepted her demigod status with grace, but was for the moment more concerned about her mission, thought she had probably made a step in the right direction. If only the painter would go, she could get on with it. But the painter did not go before the second bottle of Valdepenas was finished, and Maria had to start worrying about train schedules. To hell with it, she said to herself, I am here for this, and if need be I'll walk the streets tonight until the first train tomorrow. Her concerns were set aside by Alistair.

"Stay here tonight, Maria. It's unpleasant to travel back to London so late, the tube at the other end and all that. I should have been home, much earlier; it's my turn to cook. I'm going to start now, so one extra is easy. Agreed?"

"Agreed."

"Then chat with Carmen while I disappear in the kitchen. It's not often we entertain Ramona's friends," i.e. never.

After a joint operatic performance small talk does not come naturally, and the impromptu performance had not generated a professional post mortem, so Maria came straight to the point.

"Ramona does not know I'm here," - Carmen did not appear surprised - "If she did, my ears would be burning, white hot."

"I think I understand," Carmen responded cautiously.

"I had one intention when I came here tonight, now I have two." Maria was clear about what she wanted.

"Tell me the first," Carmen proposed, uncorking a sorely needed Valdepenas.

"Make her a goddaughter."

"Absolutely, but why do you tell me?" Carmen looked at Maria with interest.

"Because she's burning up, Carmen, about the sister six months hence. It's absurd, but that's how it is. Include her." Maria had stated her demand. Carmen was impassive.

"And the second?"

"Again in the interests of inclusion, not exclusion, Alistair should make a financial settlement on Ramona, I only thought of his while we were singing up there, you know, for age twenty-five or whatever."

Carmen let out the deep belly laugh of the trained opera singer.

"Maria, none of this would ever have happened if it were not for Alistair's miserly possession of his hated wealth. I agree to demand number one, but you ask him about demand two over dinner, I want to be there Ãâ‚“ I can't miss this, not this." A repeat of the operatic belly laugh.

 

Alistair produced fried blood sausage, boiled turnips, chopped raw cabbage in olive oil, hot green chillies and boiled white rice. Maria enjoyed it, wondering nonetheless whether he might be making a point about the cooking, but then she did not know what it was that Carmen produced when she was on the rota. Alistair was enamoured of the godmother idea, especially once Maria had explained her rationale.

"So that's settled," Alistair declaimed, voluble and clearly pleased.

"I had another thought," Maria added. "You know, some sort of financial settlement to reflect her age."

Alistair turned serious.

"Maria," he said, looking very stern, "I went through so much. Ramona went through so much. It could never be paid for."

"That's not what I'm suggesting," Maria chipped in merrily.

"You don't understand. I could never do a pay-off like that. This was my daughter, my life, my daughter's life."

"That's not what I'm saying. I'm just saying, include her in the family, spread the wealth a bit, show she's part of the game-plan."

"Maria, I have never, never ever attached value to wealth, material wealth. I would not for one moment demean my daughter by assuming her opinion was any different. That is final."

Carmen smiled at Maria and asked, "Shall we talk about opera now?"

But Maria turned back to Alistair.

"You are absolutely wrong, Alistair. The money has no value, apart from convenience, other than the extreme value you give it, the extreme no-value value. Think about it Alistair, but let's not discuss it tonight. Let me just ask if the bartender in the Anchor, on that famous day when you met Carmen, would have accepted no payment for your three pints of bitter and two Pimms, in lieu of white wine, on the basis that material wealth had no value. Get real."

She would have stood up an left, except that Carmen was smiling and Alistair clearly had not the least idea of what she was talking about. She was beginning to understand what is was that Carmen had intimated to her earlier, and why Carmen wished to witness the discussion. Then she turned to Carmen with her sweetest of smiles.

"You know, this was the most wonderful evening, earlier. You were the most wonderful hosts, earlier. I was so glad to be here, earlier. But, you know what? It stinks, and I think I understand why. Maybe I can help Ramona after all."

"I hope you can. Alistair, are we having digestifs? Come on let's go back to the conservatory."

At this moment Maria realised she could not fault Carmen. Carmen had returned to Alistair and knew how to handle it, and she also realised that Carmen respected her, Maria, for more than her singing.

 


 

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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