CHAPTER SIX - ABDUCTION?
What is fantasy? What is a dream? What would you do? Forget the last question: no one would do what I did, and yet it is so easy to do in these days of modern travel. You are in a small town in England, Cambridge, with your daughter, and you could both be in Andalusia, to meet her family she has never seen. Easy. You catch a plane.
If you ask me today why I never told Alistair about my family, I will tell you that he never asked, and that is true. Alistair was an orphan, a rich orphan, so when I told him that I had financed my own way to the Cambridge language school, he assumed I was an orphan. Why did I never contact my family? I did contact them, but I never told them what was really going on, and strange though it may seem, they never asked, but why would they? They had given me up anyway, at least until I saw sense and returned home from my strange foreign travels.
When I left Ramona with my brother Fernando in Seville, it was to me like going on holiday without your child, and then he told me that it was difficult for him and Clara was looking after her, so I did not worry about her. I never intended anything permanent, and then Alistair had never even noticed we were gone, engrossed as he was with some absurd literary project in his rooms in College. It was only after the accident with the maid, when he totally misinterpreted what I said to him on the telephone and called in the police, even before I knew, that everything spiralled out of control.
I am not telling the truth. Even now, as I tell the story, I cannot tell the truth, but I must. Yes, Alistair was right: there was kidnapping. So you want the truth? Perhaps I did embellish the story just now, but surely you can understand why I would do that. It is true that I came to Cambridge, as Caroline instructed me, as a gold digger, but I did love Alistair. The truth: I did love his position and money, and maybe him - let's say I did love him, and still do, if you like. But he wronged me: he had everything and gave me nothing. You must understand that I could have chosen anyone else, but he chose me. He chose me and gave me nothing. So what is a kidnapping? How can you kidnap your own daughter? Absurd. I was simply trying to prise from him what was my right, and the right of my daughter.
It took me little time to learn that however good a singer I may be, I was a hopeless kidnapper and extortionist. What to do? I hung on with Alistair, but I did not want to be with him, especially not since his descent into what I would describe as serial melancholia. I could not bring Ramona back without admitting what I had done, and quite frankly, I did not want her in this prison of Alistair's Cambridge life anyway. Clara loved Ramona and I missed Ramona, but I needed my new life. Why did you not go and start your new life, you may ask? Caroline could answer that for you better than I could, I think, but you want the answer from me, yet I do not wish to give you the answer. I do not wish to tell myself the answer, so I will not admit it, but I will say what the answer might be, or maybe again not. Suffice it to say, the trust funds and investments of Alistair, which he despised, were very, very large.
The Reading Group
It was Gloria who interrupted the flow of Ramona's words.
"I can't believe this. This cuts away the foundations of a Melody of Sadness. Alistair was her dupe. If you knew this, how could you have written the book?"
"I told you there would be another perspective," Ramona responded.
Pam: "That's life, Gloria."
Vera: "It's different, Gloria. They are different. Two cultures: poverty in Andalusia and the riches of the developed world. Ignorant of each other, poles apart."
"So you're not judging the gold digger, Vera?" Gloria asked.
"Aren't we all gold diggers? What should Carmen have done? She said she lived her life and I think that's what she did, and in the end she protected the child, as any mother would."
"I think," Pam said, demonstrating her familiarity with Cambridge, "that it's like Alistair's replete after a good meal, and he pushes the walnut cake from Fitzbillies to one side contemptuously, while his wife and daughter, restricted to a diet of bread and water, eye it with avarice from the other side of the table."
Ramona laughed. "Pam, I assure you that I won't steal your simile from you and use it in my next award winning novel, but yes, I would say you've got the point. Alistair's fixation on what-he-has-but-does-not-want blocks out his perception of what the others need."
"It's Stalinesque," Gloria added. She too had got the point and Ramona resumed.
That was all in my youth. It's different now. Would I behave differently today? Probably, but then today I have earned what I need in life, a successful performer, well off. I am still married to Alistair after all these years, I know, I have checked. It is not in his character to instruct his lawyers with regard to that wealth he despises, so I will still be his beneficiary, which means that one-day I may be very rich. People like me outlive them all.
My first thought, when I saw the news of the prize, was that she was a little vixen, just as I may have been described all those years ago, and she was after his money. Yes, I had read the book, but I had assumed that he had written it: after all, it was published under his name as author. I suppose I enjoyed the book: it expressed the sorrow, as was intended, but I missed the vibrancy - I would have described the Carmen performance at Earls Court, its life, its poignancy, but then I suppose that's me. The prize, you are asking, what prize? Well, the prize, the prize for literature of course.
The Reading Group
"Ramona," Vera exclaimed. "You cannot have known!"
"Ramona laughed again, brightly. "I didn't."
"You mean - Pam was lost for words, as always.
"You know I'm still writing the book. Think about it. Well, sorry, there's a section I have written, that I did not know where to insert, but I'm going to put it in earlier, in what we've already read." Ramona reached into her bag and took out a sheet of A4. "I'm putting this in:"
"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! 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."
"But I don't understand," Gloria said. "You've made contact with her, but you must have known where Carmen was all the time, if Clara was her sister."
"Gloria, let me remind you again that we should stick to the story in the book," Ramona replied. "I think I should read on."
It was only after hearing of the prize that the book, a Melody of Sadness, began to take on a new significance for me with my knowledge of its real author. I began to wonder why she had contacted him and not me. I admit I had not contacted her all these years - I thought it was better that way, no emotional struggle once the initial loss was borne, Clara loved her, replaced me - but she could have reached me anytime. Why did she go to him? Did she reveal where I was? No, Alistair would not have let that pass, Alistair would have been on the first plane to Buenos Aires, I was, I am, his life. Alistair, poor blinkered Alistair, I have not needed you for years.
Originally it had been hard to obtain a copy of the book in Buenos Aires, but today it was everywhere, only in Spanish, so I bought a Spanish version. I had no idea where my old copy had gone. Why did this girl, my daughter, live, suffer and write down his sorrow? I could think of two answers: one was that the book had made her rich, especially now that she had won the prize; the other, my first thought, was that she wanted his money. Well, I doubted she would have any greater success than I had. The idea that she might have loved her lost-and-found father did not for a moment occur to me. Why should she? She had Clara, Fernando and the rest of them, what would she want with Alistair? Well, other than his money?
I have never been known for long deliberation and soul searching. After my performance the next day, I stayed late at the club, and then as I guessed with the time difference that dawn was breaking in southern Spain, I called Clara and we spoke for hours. She loved the book, but she also told me how bad it had been for Ramona with Alistair, in the end, and that Ramona had broken with him years before. You ask too much of me to make me admit this, but yes, I admit it, I was relieved, and the weight of the last thirty-six hours lifted from my shoulders, relief. As soon as I finished with Clara, who gave me the number, I was on the line to Ramona, speaking to her for the first time in twenty years, my dark haired, brown eyed, glittering, fiery jewel.
The Reading Group
Vera cut in. "After all those years, Ramona. What was it like?"
Ramona smiled at Vera, looked at Gloria and said, "Let's see what Carmen says."
Some of you sentimental souls will have read a Melody of Sadness and have expectations of this telephone reunion from Buenos Aires to London after all those years; others of you, more inclined to current affairs and modern history, may expect us to discuss the Malvinas, the Falkland Islands. I jest, but it is to help you with the context, and remember I am Carmen, remember who I am. What struck me as, well almost hysterical, was that this famous authoress spoke her Spanish with a funny Andalusian intonation that came from me back in those Cambridge days, but that I had so long ago ditched on my route to stardom.
Perhaps I flatter myself, but I think she was pleased to hear from me. How do you assess someone over the phone? I thought she combined the equanimity of Alistair with the softness of Clara, and to tell the truth, I was beginning to find the platitudes a touch mind-numbing. She must be a better writer than conversationalist, I thought to myself, as she rambled on. Then I asked if she could sing. Well, I told her, it's my call, my cost, so sing to me, sing whatever you want. And then she sang a beautiful rendition of Carmen, which is when my tears came, so I told her I would call tomorrow for another song, and I hung up.
In London Ramona put the phone down in astonishment. Without further thought she called Clara.
"Can you guess who I just spoke to, Clara?"
"I don't need to guess. I gave her your number." Clara smiled to herself in her quiet way.
"Why did she call? She left you and the family years ago. Why call me?" Bewilderment.
"Didn't she tell you?" Clara was sure she would not have, but asked anyway.
"She didn't listen to what I was saying, at least that's what I thought, and then she asked me to sing, so I sang."
"I half wondered whether it was a hoax, by someone who had read the book," Clara said. "Now I know it wasn't. That's Carmen. Sing to her like I read to you all those years, Ramona. She'll love it."
The Reading Group
Again it was Gloria who cut in. "Are we supposed to think Carmen's some kind of musical prodigy who lives on UHF while we live on MW?"
"I think you're a bit out of date, Gloria," Pam said. "We're going digital."
"You know what I mean. Is this some kind of subplot, Ramona?" Gloria asked.
"I've thought long and hard about this, Gloria. If all Ramona did was sing to Carmen, how would she have managed to get Carmen's side of the story? You have just heard Carmen's side of the story, right? So there must be more to it." With her answer, Ramona smiled at the group.
Vera: "We await the next session with bated breath, Ramona."
"Don't hold your breath though," Ramona suggested.
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean is that I think our literary group here should take an extended break from Ramona, after all it is a trilogy. Let's look at something else. Gloria? Pam? Anyone?"
Gloria: "I vote we continue with Ramona for now." Nodding heads.
Ramona: "Not possible."
Vera: "Why ever not?"
Ramona: "I've read to you everything I have written so far." Deep gloom descended on the room, and the group decided to break for the summer. In fact, Ramona had read to them less than half of what she had written. She just did not know if she had the courage to go through with it, with them.