CHAPTER THREE - THE READING GROUP
The Reading Group
The reader closed the book and looked around at the group of ladies in the reading group. There was silence for a moment, as they released themselves from the world of make-believe, as the reader's voice trailed to a close and the real world resumed. Still no one spoke. They were lulled into the state the bedtime story intends to achieve, almost.
Vera spoke first, to comment on the reader's book. "Moving. Style. Sorry, I'm lost for words."
Gloria: " I loved it. But the plot!"
"The plot?" the reader asked.
"Yeah. Not credible for me. Change it. You know, coincidence. We don't like it."
"But it's me," the reader countered.
"Yeah, I know it's you, your style." Still Gloria speaking. "You wrote it, so I'm giving you editorial advice on Romana. It's what these groups are for."
The reader smiled. "Gloria, Ramona, "Ra", not Romana, "Ro". I'm Ramona. The book is Ramona. It's me, Gloria. Don't criticise the plot. It's me, Ramona."
The implication was obvious. The circle gasped, and Gloria felt for a moment very stupid, and then very privileged. She leant across and hugged Ramona, as liquid emotion expressed itself in her eyes.
This could have been the last session of the reading group for reasons that became apparent two days later. Did Ramona know? I think the answer is no. Why did it have to be so soon?
Gloria was dozing in bed when the telephone rang. She was always sleepy in the morning. She tried to cut down on the white wine after dinner, but there was always a reason. Who the hell was this? It was Vera.
"Have you seen?"
Gloria raised herself onto her pillow. "Seen what, Vera? Sorry, been out with the dog this morning. Just got back." Gloria sank down again, duty done for the moment.
"Shall I read it?" A buoyant, chuffed, sort of voice.
"Bla, bla, bla, I quote, Gloria, and the prize for literature goes to, Gloria, you know the prize, there is only one, goes to - are you listening, Gloria - Ramona Evans. Ramona's best-known work is a Melody of Sadness published under the nom de plume of Alistair Jamolla. The first part of her next work, Ramona, a trilogy, was released yesterday, and has been previewed to high acclaim. Ramona has been nominated as ... Gloria?"
"Vera, I am stunned, but I believe one hundred percent of what you say."
"Our Ramona, Gloria. Can you believe it? Our Ramona, who's reading us the first part of her new book, Ramona!"
"I just think about the other day, Vera. Is it true?"
It was some hours later in Buenos Aires, given the time difference, before the news came though, and some time more before it was disseminated.
She was eager and enthused for the forthcoming performance as she sat in the dressing room, just a few minutes to go. A knock on the door and an envelope placed before her. She opened it deliberately, as it was her manner to do everything. A press cutting. She put it down. She called the make-up girl over for a final check up. She looked at the cutting. Literature prize. Boring. She looked again. Nom de plume. She saw the confusion of names and glanced again, astonished. She wrote the book? My daughter wrote the book. So it wasn't him after all. A smart little vixen. The Prize for Literature! Maybe I will make contact after all. Time to go. She picked up her trademark rose. It was in her contract, part of her show; before she went out to play the principal part of Carmen, she would parade on stage with a rose in her teeth.
The Reading Group
"Gloria, Gloria, Gloria," she said, and the ladies in the circle blinked, "this is not the end of our circle, just because I win a prize, sorry, the prize. You have not read Ramona. This is not the end. I was seventeen in Cambridge. How old am I now?" Ramona was not seventeen by a long way.
Vera: "So what do you want to say?"
"Yes, I did write a Melody of Sadness, but I wrote it for my father, and so I pretended he wrote it. And he would have written it. Do you understand? All those years he lived his own melody, the sadness of the years of loss, first me, and then Carmen. That's why I gave the book the name. But there's also the story of Ramona, the story you don't know, yet, the story I am still writing. I have never seen my mother, well, not after the initial phase."
Gloria: "Thank you, Ramona. We will all read your book. Just let me say," she looked around for agreement, "we are a literary society, not a self-help psychiatric group. I think I speak for us all."
Ramona was not intimidated. "I'm sure you do, since none of the rest of them speak. The next meeting's at my place on Wednesday the sixteenth. Come who will. But I'd like to see all of you." Ramona stood up and left.
Celebrity has an attraction, sufficient attraction that Ramona was forgiven her withering comment on the reading group's powers of self-expression. Even the self-appointed spokesman, Gloria, turned up to the next week's meeting. There was embarrassment and tension, covered by enthused discussion of Ramona, and then they sat down for the next stage of Ramona's reading of the new book, or as they now knew, that part which had been written to date.
"Before I start," Ramona opened, "let me just ask. You do understand why, in the book, Ramona, Ramona could only have read up to chapter six of a Melody of Sadness, by the time she met her father?"
Vera: "Thank you, Ramona. In the absence of time travel, it is abundantly clear. If you, sorry she, wrote a Melody of Sadness, then all those chapters we love so well, about the father and daughter, had not yet happened."
Ramona laughed. "I'm sure you have as much a problem with that as I do. It cannot be. But remember, you have to have read both books to spot the logical flaw. So what? This is Art, ladies, Art. The fact is that the book is why Ramona went to Cambridge (even if she did write it afterwards), she did meet Jamolla, she did reenact Carmen's first day in Cambridge and Clara did read the book to her. OK, the historical sequence may be wrong, but that's the way it seems in those few months looking back, and guess what? It's closer to the truth than the simple sequence of events. As I said, Art."
"How did you get into Cambridge?" The first question ever from the elegant, silk clad lady on the right.
"We'll come back to that." Ramona did not know how to answer that one at this stage, and continued to read them the book, Ramona.
Few candidates have secured a place at Cambridge as rapidly as Ramona, deserving as the others may have been. The "interview" was in mid September, and she started there just three weeks later together with the year's intake of freshers for the Michaelmass term. It may have been hard for Clara, or maybe not; Ramona did not know, wrapped up in her new life as a Cambridge undergraduate. It was a strange life for a young girl from a village in the Sierra Morena, briefly baptised in Seville to city life. As to family life, well, how can you call it family life? a father she had never known, a mother she still did not know, a mother who had disappeared without trace, just as the daughter had, all those years ago. She called him "Alistair", just as she had called Clara "Clara". Familiar terms of address were limited in her life to just one, "uncle" as in Uncle Fernando.
Ramona took therapy in the early weeks of Cambridge life from a skilled psychiatrist. Gradually, he released the memories of the abduction, of life before that square where she had sat under the fragrant orange trees in Seville. The little girl, Ramona, had liked her kidnappers, who in the few days they held her treated her as their little princess. On that fateful day, the three of them had just arrived in Seville. Before seeking accommodation, they went to the centre of the city, to the Cathedral, as Ramona remembered. She recalled running away and believed that this had caused the accident. Whether she was to blame or not did not concern the therapist. What was clear to him was that the little girl's feelings of guilt had caused her to block off her earlier memories. Perhaps she had pretended not to remember what had happened at first. Be that as it may, the fact was that her earlier memories had been pushed down below the surface of consciousness. In his opinion, these memories could now progressively be released. Ramona's early life in Cambridge to the age of five would come back into focus, to the extent early memories are retained in any child. With the help of photographs of her life up to the age of five the effects of the therapy were dramatic, and this helped Ramona settle into the situation with Alistair.
On Sundays Ramona would visit Alistair at his house outside Cambridge. He would spend the morning recounting tales from her early life, but mostly he would relive the sadness of the lost years, and she bathed in his sorrow, at first. During the week they were around college and it was different. The academics in Cambridge colleges are like furniture, the traditional kind, not the sort you buy in Ikea. They are there forever, seldom thrown out, until, rickety beyond repair, they collapse. Many had known Carmen from when she was Ramona's age, and here she was, back, or so it seemed with the physical resemblance. Just as in the old days, they would see her walk through college, occasionally beside Alistair. They knew her but she did not know them.
The mystery of who Carmen had been began to grow in Ramona. This young girl, as young as she was, seventeen years old, had come to Cambridge on her own. Within months she was married to Alistair: a life so different so foreign to Ramona, who could not imagine herself in that situation. She thought of the little girl, her friend Maria to whom she gave music, in Rio Tinto, with her beautiful voice. Was this a young Carmen? What was it about Carmen? They all say I look like her, but I've been in Cambridge for weeks and nothing has happened to me like to Carmen in the Anchor: no one has played those four aces for me.