CHAPTER FOUR - THE GOSPEL
Ramona spent Christmas back at home with Clara in the village in the Sierra Morena. Clara met her at Seville airport. On the journey up to the village, just as Ramona had recounted her school terms in Seville, she recounted her first term in Cambridge. It is the singing more that anything that I love, she told Clara. We have a group, seven of us, who sing in the different college chapels. Next term we will sing in the famous chapel of King's College, and I hope to do a solo. It will be recorded. And the literature is fun, but we do not work as hard as we did at school. The familiar route seemed very different in the new air-conditioned car. No longer were they stuck behind big lorries, the fumes streaming in at their windows. Now they sped past lorries, cars, buses, to reach the village in what seemed like no time. As they entered the village, Ramona saw that everything had shrunk in size: even the schoolhouse, so imposing, was smaller than Alistair's house. Clara laughed and told her that she now finally believed Ramona had grown into a woman.
That evening Clara suggested they read and Ramona chose the book.
"We reached chapter six," Ramona said, "where he was searching in vain for Carmen, spending the money, that meant nothing to him, on the search, but to no avail. Read on Clara."
Clara opened the book, a Melody of Sadness, and turned the pages until she reached the seventh chapter. She read in a low voice in the darkness of the winter evening, just a table light beside her to light the pages, crouched in the dim light at her feet the form of Ramona, head raised, eyes intent on Clara as she read. She reached the end of the chapter and closed the book.
"Just that one word Papa. I suppose that's all she needed to say to him, but how did she know?" Clara asked.
"An ancient memory, buried deep, a face not seen for twelve years, maybe." Ramona smiled up at Clara. "It's a moving reunion."
"It is, but what happens now? What can there be between them: for him just memories of sadness, and for her incomprehension of that sadness. Perhaps we should stop here, Ramona."
"Read on, Clara, read on." Once again Clara read late into the night, with the girl at her feet.
Ramona did not come to breakfast the next morning. She did not surface until lunchtime. She looked tired, but Clara looked worse, her face drawn, darkness beneath her eyes.
"Was it so bad, Ramona?"
"What he went through with my mother, that is what he wanted to relive with me, those years of sadness, those years when I was gone. Why would I do that? I looked to the future, to what we could do, now I was there. He lived his own melody, the sadness of the years behind him. That's why I gave the book the name. I could not live this. Forget it! is what I screamed at him in my nightmares, but I was more important to him vanished, than I was to him as the inadvertently prodigal daughter. I felt for my mother. I felt for her for that time she was with him, after I disappeared. If it was like this, I know why she disappeared."
"Are you going back?"
"The book is not finished. I am going back."
"It's a beautiful book, Ramona. It's just so hard for me. Hard for me because I know you. Any other reader would love those chapters."
"That's it. Those chapters are for him. They are not for me." Ramona fixed her gaze on Clara and continued. "I don't know whether he will ever read beyond chapter six, whether I shall let him. That depends on him."
Unlike Clara, Alistair did not collect Ramona at the airport, that was not his style. She arrived back in Cambridge by train. From the station she took a taxi, driving out over the flat landscape to Alistair's house. The east wind held a chill in the air: no high ground between here and the Urals, they say. The sky was a clear Cambridge blue. Her thin Spanish blood left her shivering in the taxi, soon to be warmed by Alistair's traditional blazing hearth. He greeted her in his deferential style. Just as it was hard for her to imagine Carmen in Cambridge at her age, seventeen, it was hard to imagine him in that scene at the Anchor pub, the scene when he met Carmen. They sat before the fire sipping a traditional Cambridge sherry. Maybe it is this place that has changed him, she thought, doused the fire of youth.
"Have you read my Christmas present?" she asked.
"Incredible. How did you know?"
"You told me," she replied.
"I told you all that?"
"All that and more, these last few months."
"Incredible," he repeated. "It comes alive just as it was."
"It's a warning."
"Alistair, exorcise the past. You relived it in me. I have written it down. The gospel according to Ramona, Saint Ramona."
"Life cannot be literature, Alistair. We have to change it."
"Does it continue?" Alistair stood and replenished the sherry. He did not want to look at her as he awaited her answer, feared the answer.
"The book is incomplete. That depends - it depends on you."
"That's as far as you've written, then?"
"I did not say that."
"Can I see?"
"No, Alistair. Maybe. Not yet. Maybe never."
"It's about you?"
"No. It's about me and you. That's different." As she said this, Alistair let out a sigh and returned to his seat.
"So for the moment how it ends is with that word, Papa." He said in a low tone.
"The word of encounter in this case, Alistair. You have to admit that's how it was. How will it be?"
The Reading Group
The reading session had stretched well beyond its allotted time. It seemed a good place to stop, and Ramona closed the book. She sat there with the book on her knees, and there was silence in the circle. No one spoke. Eventually Vera broke the silence.
"Next week seems so far away. Can we take some chapters with us?"
"That's not how we do it. It's a reading session and discussion, not critique," Gloria objected.
"Then let's take a vote," Ramona suggested. "But if you read it, then the next session has to be for discussion only - I don't read." Heads in the circle nodded assent. Gloria wanted a secret ballot, for some reason, maybe to avoid tension in the group. Each of them marked, folded and deposited her ballot paper. The result was unanimous. Gloria?
"I'll copy the next three chapters and send a copy to each of you. Or email. Who's got email?" They all had email. As soon as they left, Ramona sent out the emails. The next session can be at my place, Ramona thought, but after that I am not so sure that will be safe, safe for me. Vera did not get to bed that night until 3 a.m., all three chapters consumed, left with a desire for more. She felt very adolescent as she cried herself to sleep that night, thinking of Ramona and what might have been. Another week.
But it was not another week, for Vera polled the group, who agreed, and they extracted another two chapters from Ramona before the next session.
The elegant lady, Pam, until now so silent, started the debate.
"I went to Cambridge, Newnham. I often used to think, you know, the strange people, the twisted minds with powerful intellects, the banks of windows in the colleges, all those little rooms. Where was I?" She was losing her confidence, unused to being at the focus. "Oh yes. I used to wonder what goes on behind those windows, the stories, the scandals, the passions, I suppose."
"So what struck you about the chapters?" Gloria asked.
"Exactly that, Gloria. The unbelievable. There we had the reunion, the world put to rights, but something completely different pops out." Pam was struggling to put her thoughts into words.
"Something completely different as in Monty Python?" Gloria asked to laughter.
"But that is it," Vera interjected. "The knight. The one who keeps on fighting as his limbs are lopped off. Finally, just a head is dancing around shouting its anger, Alistair and his sorrow."
"I don't think so," Gloria objected. "I liked Alistair. A victim. Ramona should have simply told him. Why didn't you, Ramona?"
"I think we'd better stick to what's in the chapters, Gloria," Ramona admonished her. "I think you might find the story develops differently from what you think."
"I take Gloria's point," Vera said. "I just wanted to step in and take control, all the time, change things. I could see what was happening, but I couldn't stop it. I wanted to throw the book down, tear it up, burn it, but I couldn't. I had to read it. I have to read on. And then I'll start again from the beginning, and just hope that this time it will be different. I know it won't."
Pam stepped back into action. "I think what I was trying to say is that there is something that's happening at the human level, something do different from what we expect, so unconventional, and all that in the conventional setting of Cambridge University life."
"It's so desperately sad, so sad when Ramona walks out on him," Vera said. "So sad, but so true. What else could she do? But that's why the books so good. What else would you expect from a book with that title, a Melody of Sadness? Why else would you buy it? That's what it is."
"We're talking about Ramona here," Gloria corrected her. Vera looked flustered and felt very silly. God help these women, Ramona thought to herself, when they get on to the real story. And god help me. They'll tar-and-feather me if this already gives them offence. I had better say something.
"Vera, I feel your point is valid," Ramona said, and relieved Vera's defences from the impending assault, lined up against her by Gloria, ready for combat. "There is an egocentricity to Alistair, as in us all. He is wallowing in his sadness. That made for a beautiful book in a Melody of Sadness, which I, if you like, wrote for him, through his eyes. In Ramona I'm telling the truth. That's why parts of a Melody of Sadness appear verbatim in Ramona. I'm not selling one book for the price of two, the same book twice. It's not a literary scam. I'm showing his world and then juxtaposing it against another perspective. Let's call it real life. You'll see yet another perspective later. Sorry, I shouldn't influence you. I'm only expanding on what Vera wanted to say." Vera thanked Ramona inwardly, and just wished that Ramona's words had been what she had wanted to say and had been able to say it. But then maybe she would have won the prize for literature.
Gloria was not to be outdone, and changed her tack.
"I accept that she had to leave him." Gloria glared at the assembly. "She welcomed him, she accepted him, she loved him, and all the time he just looked to the past. Sadness was his self-fulfilling prophecy, in modern jargon, a loser."
"But it was a huge sacrifice to herself." Pam was back on stage. "She gave up the chance of a Cambridge degree - unthinkable to Pam, a graduate - and became - well, I'm not sure. A writer? Well, let's read a bit further."
Now the serious literary criticism started, as they pulled out their notes and took it in turns to comment on the text, mostly on the first two of the five chapters, after which they had mostly given up note making, engrossed as they were in the story. Ramona sat listening, thinking never again, from now on I read at these sessions, or someone else reads her work. Gloria was right about the agenda for our reading group. Why did she join the others in voting for this? Gloria smiled to herself. It was clear to her what Ramona was thinking. She's manipulating us, she thought, and now she's suffering boredom, torture for her no doubt. Where does it go from here? Is our little group entering the danger zone? Her mind wandered: my ex-husband was a real bastard.