CHAPTER SEVEN - NOM DE PLUME
The Reading Group
The restaurant was conservatory style, built into the courtyard at the back of the hotel, Scandinavian tables, space and light. Gloria was sipping a white onion soup, while Vera daintily carved her pate wishing she had ordered the soup; Pam had abstained for the first course and was greedily eyeing both, but still proud of her decision.
Gloria had thought out her game plan, which was to launch the subject after once again chatting about their favourite book for the moment, a Melody of Sadness. They each had their different opinions, but shared the view that the book struck deep to the core. It was time to strike.
"I've been thinking," Gloria said. "and bear with me. This is going to take a bit of explaining."
"Shoot," instructed Pam.
"Just a couple of weeks ago we thought that Melody was written by the father, right?" The other two nodded confirmation. "Then we learn that it was written by the daughter, our very own Ramona. In fact, she points it out to us, when I tell her the plot of Ramona is unrealistic."
"Very moving," Vera chipped in.
"Moving, yes, but does it change our perception of the book, I mean it's all about the father telling his sad story? Now we learn he didn't write it." Gloria waited for their response.
"Not for me really," Pam replied. "The book's the book."
"OK, hold off on that for the moment, but the next thing is, and she points it out to us, that in Ramona there's a logical impossibility, a circularity let's say: Clara reads Melody to Ramona, which leads Ramona to Cambridge to the unexpected reunion with the writer who turns out to be her father, but then it's Ramona who writes Melody so it can't have happened. It's like the Escher picture where the water flows down four stories in the mill and ends up where it started." Gloria raised her hand to stop interruption, sipping another spoon of soup. "Let me continue. She says, I mean what Ramona tells us, is that you wouldn't know, unless you read both books, but that's not true. You would know if you had written both books." Gloria looked around triumphantly, only to see blank return stares.
"OK, you don't get it, so let me tell you the next thing. The next thing is we discover that the little girl was never really kidnapped to start with. I admit the father didn't know this, but consider the following: one, it was her uncle who picked her up in Seville; two, she was brought up by her aunt; and three, there was never a problem for her to find her father. How does that compare to the opening scene in Seville when Ramona sits under the orange trees, that beautiful, moving scene of the poor little girl? Now let me spell it out. In books and in the real world, things happen in the past and in the present and these things that have happened or are happening determine the course of the future. Do you see what Ramona's doing? She's turning this on its head. As we go forward into the future in the book Ramona, the past changes to conform to the future, when the future happens. It's all the wrong way round."
Vera laughed, and choked on her pate. "Gloria I think I have got it now. You're amazing." Pam still looked blank, so Vera continued, "It's like me, when I'm twenty-five years old, introducing my mother to my father, because they've never met before and I think they'd make a good match, but then how come I was born? That can only happen after I've prompted the coupling of father and mother."
"Exactly," Gloria affirmed. "Like I spend all afternoon burning the autumn leaves I've raked up in my garden, and then I notice that I don't have any trees, so I can't have had any leaves, so I might as well have not bothered, and that's what I'm beginning to think about a Melody of Sadness."
"Gloria! A book's a book," Pam repeated. Don't get so uptight."
"I'm not uptight, and it's not that simple. Why's she reading this book to us?"
"Because she's a member of the group," Pam responded.
"No, Pam. It's more than that. I think she's manipulating us, but I'm not quite sure how. It's sinister. Is she playing at being god or something?"
"Why would she do that? Gloria, come on." Vera did not like this tone, and Gloria, realising this, backtracked.
"Sorry, that's not quite the word. Somehow I feel experimented on, the laboratory mouse, you know, the way she picked her moment to let us know she was Ramona and all that. And she got the prize, so someone knew she wrote Melody, but she hadn't let on to us. Anyway, enough for today. But think about it. Let's see what happens."
The main course, a mackerel delicacy, chose just the right moment to arrive at the table, and for the time being literary discussion was relegated to a subservient position. As the mackerel retreated from the foreground, it was replaced by the subject of ex-husbands, Gloria's favourite, as it allowed her to employ language not normally appropriate in polite circles. After they paid the bill, Gloria played her trump card.
"You know what we're going to do one day. We're going to ask her to sing to us." She laughed. "And that's before we reach the point in the story where her father turns out to be Placido Domingo and he was doing the singing all along and not Carmen after all."
"Well, we'll have to wait for that," Vera said, to defuse Gloria's attempted pyrotechnics. "She told me she was withdrawing to concentrate on Ramona for as long as it takes."
"Hello, Alistair." She had chosen her position in the college, so that she was silhouetted in the archway against the evening light behind. He could see a shape before him, lost in his thoughts, leaving his rooms for the week, to spend the next two days at his house just outside Cambridge. For a moment he did not react, and then he recognised her. Long gone were the days of the Anchor, the days of sadness recorded in his daughter's book.
"Hello, Carmen," he said, after more than fifteen years. "How's Ramona?"
"You wouldn't be here, if you had not seen Ramona. Come on, Carmen."
Carmen laughed and started to sing. It echoed over the college lawns and then she stopped.
"If only you had known me then, Alistair, and I had known you."
"Then we would have had nothing, Carmen. I have no regrets. We had everything. In the book it says, we had it all. You're not going to tell me you don't believe the book, Carmen."
"The book never interested me, Alistair. Yes, I read it in English, and then again in Spanish, after the prize. It was boring, for me."
"The truth, the beauty, the sorrow, boring?" Alistair looked at her in mock horror.
"That's the book, but you just had to pick up the phone, Alistair. You were too proud."
"And my daughter?" He asked.
"Yes, too proud for that. I thought you would fall down at my feet this evening, Alistair."
"An ageing superstar, opera singer, yes, many would."
"Do old people still go to the pub, Alistair?"
"To live nostalgia?" He asked.
"To have a drink and talk. The Anchor?" Her invitation.
She moved to his side and took his arm, hoping he would acquiesce and he did. As they reached the Anchor, Carmen said she would prefer to walk along the river to Grantchester. They walked down Laundress Lane, crossed the river and set out on the opposite bank to the Garden House Hotel.
"Whose idea was it to publish under your name," she asked, to break the silence. "It fooled me."
"It's a long story, Carmen, so I won't tell it. What I will say, is that my actions were more in your character than in mine. She wouldn't show me the book, well, not beyond chapter six, so I stole it, published it (not difficult for a professor of English literature), and thought, sue me if you dare, Ramona."
Carmen laughed her deep laugh. " And she did? I mean, sue you."
"We reached an accommodation. My name became her nom de plume. And I signed an agreement to keep this secret. It was only when they came to award the prize, that I insisted the truth be known."
"Your career could not afford fraud on that scale?" She asked, even though she knew the answer. He knew and did not answer. She asked him to put an arm around her and he acquiesced for the second time that evening.
"I can say it in one sentence, Alistair. I should not admit this, not to you, but you are the only person I'll admit it to, the last to hear this, but the only one. Do you want to hear?"
"Fire away, Carmen, fire away," Alistair said in a false, resigned tone with a sigh, by now desperate to hear what she had to say.
"It is true that I was in love, Alistair, and it's true that I loved the child, but I was a teenager, a singer who needed her life, and I left to find that life, knowing Clara would be a better mother - pregnant pause - and that is all behind me."
"Is that all?" He asked, his tone signifying his full understanding of the proposition.
Carmen stopped, turning to face him, and very gently said, "That is everything. I hope you listened to me. I am still a young woman, little more than forty."
Alistair had easily maintained his distance, emotionally detached, up until that point. Now she pierced his calloused shell, hardened by those years of whatever he may have felt, whether as recorded in the book or otherwise.
I have always known that my natural parents were still married and over all those years of separation had never divorced. I had not minded: my family was Clara, Uncle Fernando and all the rest of my cousins, as defined in the widest sense. I suppose it was the Carmen in me that made me contact my father, a rich man, I knew, and also influential - I wanted to do the best for myself. It worked, in that he arranged for me to come to Cambridge, but I was incensed when he stole my book and published it before it was even finished. That crippled an already stunted relationship between father and daughter. I felt cheated, duped, a laughing stock, and rushed - I now think foolishly - home, turning my back on both him and Cambridge; I was simply too young to deal with this. Today I question if, without him, the book would have ever been published.
I did not know what to do, and it was Clara (who else?) who arranged everything, with the result that I had a steady stream of income from the highly successful sales of the book under my nom de plume. I have written volumes of short stories, which I may publish one day, but it was only later that I undertook to write this book, Ramona. It has been so much more difficult to write than a Melody of Sadness, quite simply because the facts are wrong and I have to sculpt them into shape as the work progresses. Each time I seek to edit the earlier chapters, I find that I cannot unwrite what I have written, because I cannot destroy the aesthetic truth of those words.
The stupid singing programme with my mother in Buenos Aires over the phone lasted about three weeks, because she wasn't my type. I could see why she left home: she did not fit in with us. The truth is that people in Andalusia are not all flamenco dancing Carmens: they are people like me, Clara, Fernando and, of course, little Maria, who is now big Maria and my best friend. After I returned from Cambridge, her grandmother died and she moved in with me and Clara, and then with me when I moved to Seville and later London.
Maria could not understand my rage. She had never seen me like this and it frightened her when I flew out of the flat in Knightsbridge and ran screaming into Hyde Park. When she caught me up later, and I calmed down, I could not understand it either, but it was there, and I think it will be there forever, somewhere, this rage. They had not told me, they had not bothered to tell me, they had not cared to tell me: my mother and my father were living together again in Cambridge. They had moved together weeks before. Why should I worry? I never felt rejected before, but now I did, as if they had stolen something from me that belonged to me. How can they? How can these two people be family without me, without asking me, without telling me, without considering me, without - well, without? My rage resumed. I ranted and raved that I would never ever have anything to do with them again, that I would never see them again, that they would suffer for this insult. I was brought back to the park, the trees, the military horses riding round the perimeter by Maria's laughter, not hysterical, but the laughter that follows a good joke. But Ramona, she told me, you don't have anything to do with them anyway, so what's the difference? Cold logic can be a salve to emotional hysterics and in this case it was, to be taken once every four hours for as long I live I wondered, incredulous at my own rage.
Why have I introduced this subject, so private, so personal, so embarrassing? I can only guess that the flow of this text has a power of its own to draw this from me, and because of what comes later. Clara, please help me.
Contrary to Maria's statement that I had nothing to do with them, they did contact me just four weeks later. I was calm now, most of the time. My reaction to their news was also calm - well let us just say my first reaction - I simply told Maria their news, and then I added that my only hope was that they would not call her Ramona.
They had hardly started, but somehow the session came to a halt, the first meeting Ramona had joined after so many months. Vera looked across at Gloria and Gloria felt acutely embarrassed. She remained silent. It was practical Pam who moved in.
"I can understand why it has been so many months, Romana," and immediately Pam felt like an imbecile, with the possible interpretation of what she had said. Vera came to the rescue, deliberately, perhaps over-deliberately, staying with the text.
"I can see that Ramona may have experienced exclusion from her natural family situation - she did live with them for five years, early experience, you know, that kind of stuff."
"And she was an only child," Pam added, "in both situations, I mean, at home and then with Clara."
Ramona smiled at them. "No one needs exoneration. This is a story of relationships that derive from and are influenced by their own special circumstances. Let us remain humble before the power, the truth, of humankind. Shall I continue?"
Maria looked at me with the intensity of a sinner standing before the Devil himself, a sinner claiming it could all be explained, there was some mistake somewhere, it must have been someone else, a mix-up. Now I thought she would explode, but she dissolved in sadness. She told me to remember those days when I had visited her in Rio Tinto and many other things. Suddenly, this little girl Maria, the singer, whom I had pulled out of her misery, with my music sheets and sweets, was my mentor. This will be your sister, she told me, and in that instant I realised that this thought had not even occurred to me, my sister. I had never had a sister before. Now I would have a sister. My rage burnt white hot.