FINDING ISOBEL

I have not changed a word of this short story, written many years ago and strangely topical this week.

Everything changed when I met Isobel.

I first saw at her at a barbecue on my father’s ranch: she had come with the children of the Alvarez family who were our nearest neighbours – she was their nanny for the summer months.    She was younger than me by about five years and they all seemed to like her – she was cheerful, pretty and good fun.    Even Mrs Alvarez seemed fond of her, which given the woman-chasing reputation of the old man, meant that the girl was virtuous as well as good-looking.      She wasn’t really my type at all – my girlfriends had tended to  be blonde and willowy Americans, as unlike the dark native beauty as I could find.     Isobel Campina with her blue black hair, her tiny waist, her dark eyes which could be laughing and teasing, or, when you caught her unawares, full of a brooding sadness that there seemed no explanation for, was the epitome of an South American  beauty.    But what first drew my attention to her was the hunger in her eyes: she looked at me, when she thought I wasn’t looking, as if she could never get enough of looking at me, as if the very look of me confirmed something important she had always suspected but could never prove, as if I mattered in her very soul.     Of course this was flattering.   She was young and pretty and gay spirited.    But I was, I thought, a sophisticated young man – 25 years old, of an important family, the youngest of three brothers – and if I wasn’t as tall as my brothers it was generally agreed by all the family that I was the most handsome.     My father, still a fine figure of a man although now nearly 80, was everything a rich and powerful parent should be: indulgent, vigilant, protective.     My apartment in the city was a penthouse in the most expensive sector of town, my cars were as flashy or as understated as my fancy dictated, I went to Italy for my suits, to London for my shirts, and to Scotland for the simple cashmere I wore on cool evenings.      In return I was attentive to my father’s wishes.   When the wide-mouthed Texan beauty I had installed in my penthouse became too strident in her demands for a white wedding my father began to frown over her and to introduce me pointedly to the ladylike daughters of friends of his: I took the hint and shipped Willa-May back to Texas.    I was affectionate with my mother, Theresa, my father’s second wife.   I was her only child, a miracle she told me, born as she approached 40 after a visit to Rome, and I was the apple of her eye.     I ran my father’s extensive stables and I made his name famous on the polo fields.    Life was good: I was one of fortune’s favourites and I saw no reason why the lovely Isobel, who devoured me in secret with her jealous glances, should not with a little coaxing unveil her mysteries to me.

Isobel was not exactly the usual kind of hired girl.    My father, an honourable man, had been quite frank with me when he spoke to me of women.     I was to behave like a gentleman.   A man such as myself, good-looking, rich, of an important family, would find no shortage of women.     When in due course I would marry it would be to some beautiful daughter of some of his rich friends: the choice would be mine, nothing I did not want would be forced on me.   In the meantime I was to behave with discretion, be circumspect about choosing healthy girls, take responsibility myself to get no-one pregnant, make it clear that marriage was out of the question, be generous but sensible with money.   Avoid other men’s wives: messy, he said, and do not have as a girlfriend young ladies whom one might reasonably be expected to marry.   Texan beauties on the whole, with their modern ideas and their lack of local connections were ideal.    I had slept with some of our own hired girls of course, though I had to make sure I didn’t offend my mother, and that had worked out well: girls had set up their dowries on the severance pay I gave them and I always managed to remain on good terms with them as well.

But Isobel somehow did not seem to fit into any category.    Her family lived in one of the poorer districts but she was studying politics at our university.     The Alvarez family had taken her to their hearts, pleased that their children were in the care of such a graceful girl.   She seemed religious in spite of her education and went frequently to church with Susan Alvarez.     I would upset both my parents if I caused trouble there.   It all seemed rather a lot  of bother, and perhaps I should look elsewhere.     But somehow, I couldn’t just put Isobel out of my mind.    There was something about her that I couldn’t put my finger on … something kept drawing me back to her dark face, her strong mouth, her stubborn chin and her mysterious eyes.    And Isobel though completely circumspect, kept turning up before me.    Wherever I went, there she would be, modestly going about her business, not looking at me.     Well, a man knows when a woman is placing herself in his path … Isobel’s modest, averted eyes, her dogged presence, and her fierce face were a conundrum that didn’t add up.      I asked Susan Alvarez if I might teach Isobel to ride on her day off, in order that she might ride with her charges.     I had not asked Isobel first, though I did so in her presence, and I saw a look flash from her eyes that registered my arrogance and impertinence, quickly followed by a look of hopeful eagerness, and then all fading into a blank patience.   With many admonitions and arch finger waggings, my mother and Susan Alvarez agreed.

I shall remember those first innocent days with Isobel all of my life.   Her nervousness of the horses, my enjoyment of my role as instructor, calming both horse and girl flesh.     Her eagerness to learn, and her quick aptitude.    How small her waist was as I lifted her down, the firmness of her thigh if I allowed my hand to brush across it fleetingly as we settled her in the saddle, the shadow the brim of her hat threw across her dark face.    Other things – how her horse loved her and how jealous I was when she kissed him, the smell of herbs as we went up the mountain paths in the cool mornings, the smell of her, mixed with horse and a rose perfume that Susan Alvarez had given her, how capable and oddly familiar her hands looked on the reins.    We talked – how we talked, until it seemed there was nothing we did not know of one another.   I knew all Isobel’s family: her grandmother, her parents, how her parents had been taken away by the military police, how her mother had survived but her father had been lost, and how she as a baby had been smuggled to safety by her grandmother…   she talked of events in our country of which I had of course heard but had remained untouched by, whereas her life had been torn apart.   Her mother had remarried her dead husband’s cousin and there were two younger daughters.    And yet, for all we talked, I never came any nearer to uncovering that central mystery that was Isobel.     Isobel was all paradox: I couldn’t fathom the depths of her, but at the same time looking into her was like looking in a mirror and seeing my own soul there.

And for the first time in my life I seemed paralysed on the physical front.   I had decided on a softly, softly approach so initially I stayed my hand.   Isobel became less nervous of me as well as of the horse.    But I seemed unable to advance matters.      Mastering a woman is like mastering a horse: it is not best done with cruelty and violence, but calmly and gently, so that everyone knows who’s in charge and that the physical outcome is not only inevitable but right and proper and wholesome.        I’ve been described as a silver tongued lady’s man but when it comes to the assault on the target it’s not words that count, but action.   If you ask a woman if you can make love to her, she will refuse you (unless she’s one of those modern strumpets you have to restrain from indecent behaviour in public and hustle to a private place.)   But the well brought up young woman has had it dinned into her by mother, by the nuns, that she must refuse … so you don’t ask, you just gently take hold of her, movements all slow and sure as if you have every right, this is what she wants, and then in her reactions as you touch her you feel her true responses, whatever her words say to you.     In my mind I had done this with Isobel a hundred times.    I felt her, I could swear it, yearning and turning to me, and yet …

In the end it was Isobel who caused the incident.     She had been rebellious and spikily flirtatious, as nervously skittish as a filly, almost if I dared to think it deliberately provoking me, so that I dreamed as I rode behind her of seizing her off her horse and upending her across my knee and seeing where that took us – but as ever I couldn’t translate my thoughts into action and I was reluctant to begin with violence however well deserved.    We stopped for our lunch and Isobel was so unlike her usual self I was about to ask what was wrong with her.    She was playing with the sharp knife that was enclosed with the picnic for peeling the apples and I said to her, “Stop fooling about with the knife like that, you’ll hurt yourself” and reached over to take the knife and the apple and peel it for us when she made some sharp movement that I wasn’t expecting and she cut into my forearm.   It hurt, I yelped, and then of course there was the blood.   Isobel was instantly contrite, and dabbing at the scratch with her handkerchief and I was slightly annoyed for though it wasn’t of any import she had been careless – if I didn’t trust her as I did I’d have said she almost did it deliberately – and I suddenly thought what the hell, why am I pussyfooting around this girl and I put my uncut hand under her chin and raised her face up to mine and bent and kissed her.    Her mouth was sweet and yielding, I gathered her into my arms and explored her fragrant, unresisting mouth, my hands moving over her body.     I could feel her heart leap in response to me and her body moving to the rhythm that mine imposed  and then the cut-in of her mind and her attempted resistance, but she had drawn my blood and I was in no mood for lenience so I gathered her tighter so I could feel her breasts pressed against me and my legs pushed against her thighs and she was like heady wine and the feel of her was glorious and then I felt her go slack in my hands in a way that was not as it should be and I drew my head back to look at her and her face was diffused with shame and misery and confusion and she was crying.     This had never happened to me before and I was non-plussed.    She did not seem to be dissembling, her distress was genuine; yet I knew I was not mistaken for I knew womanflesh as I knew horseflesh and if ever a woman desired a man and was ready for the taking, so Isobel had been open for me.    I did my best to soothe her, attempting to wipe her tears with the bloody handkerchief but that seemed to agitate her and she put it away in her pocket and wiped her tears with the hem of her shirt.      I did not know what to make of it.   I thought perhaps  I had uncovered some trauma she had not told me of – for we live in violent times particularly for people of poor or dissident families such as hers.    Our country is not over-flowing with brotherly love.    I thought  that with time and patience I could unravel her pain and help her overcome her fear, I just assured her that she was safe with me, I would do nothing to hurt or distress her.   We packed up the picnic, I lifted her into the saddle – she did not flinch from my hands, we rode slowly home.   I held her hand as we parted – I no longer cared if anyone saw us – and made arrangements when I would next meet her – it would not be for a few days as I had polo matches to play in another city.     My mother fussed over the scratch as though it were a major wound but I did not tell her how I had got it.

When I got back from the polo matches I was saddling my horse to ride over and see Isobel when my father came to tell me that she had left the Alvarez ranch at short notice and gone back to her family.     Susan Alvarez wasn’t hiring anyone else – it was almost time for the children to go back to school.     Isobel was needed at home, my father told me.   He eyed me cautiously.     He looked very old to me.    “She was a lovely girl, Antonio, but perhaps it is better …”    I got on my horse without answering and thought I had got to the age when I should conduct my own life with less reference to my father.

My enquiries after Isobel got nowhere.    The address she had left with Susan Alvarez I couldn’t find.    She was no longer staying at the address the university had for her.    My father refused to use his connections in the police to help me.    I hung around the university for a  while but never saw her.   Nubile beauties starting appearing at every party we gave at home.

And then one day she turned up at a bar I often used near my city apartment.     I saw her come in and she looked around and came straight towards me.     She was wearing a red dress and high heeled shoes and carrying a large bag with her study notes in it.    The men drinking with me made room for her curiously.    She kissed my cheek and let me hold on to her hand.     She had grown more beautiful and thinner.   I had never desired anyone so much.      I paid for all our drinks and pulled her out into the street.    I hailed a cab.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“To my apartment right now,” I replied grimly.    “We have some unfinished business.     And I want to hear your explanation for why you walked out on me.   Don’t you know I’ve hunted all over the city for you?”

“That wasn’t a long time to search,” she said.     The taxi was waiting.    “Darling,” she said to me, and I realised it was the first endearment she had used and that she never called me by my name.   “I will do whatever you want; I swear to you, whatever you decide I will do – but first I want you to come to my home and meet my family.”

“Now?”

“Right now.”

“Won’t they prefer to invite me?”

“You’ve always been invited.”

“And afterwards, you promise?”

“I will do whatever you decide.”    I nodded, she spoke rapidly to the driver who did not seem very enthusiastic about our destination.    I held her hand in the car and she permitted me, but no further embrace would she allow only repeating, “Afterwards.”

Eventually the taxi refused to venture further into the hinterland and I paid him and we set off on foot.     These weren’t the poorest of apartments – they were buildings, not shanty dwellings, but there were rank smells in the hot valleys of streets, which were noisy with street activities and children playing football barefoot among the traffic.   Dogs nosed in the gutters for rubbish and people lounging in passages stared at us as we passed.     Isobel pursued her way doggedly and I followed grimly behind, feeling conspicuous in my Italian suit and conscious of how much money there was lurking in my wallet.   Isobel turned in to a passageway and we climbed several flights of stairs.    The landing was crowded with excited strangers who were evidently awaiting our arrival.

“He’s here.    He’s come.”

Isobel swept us through and closed the door of their quarters behind us, shutting the smell and excitement of them out.   The room was hot, clean and seemed to be where the family spent most of it’s life.    There was a sink and rudimentary kitchen area, a large table where they ate and where a sewing machine perched at one end like a permanent feature.    In the room, besides Isobel and myself were an older woman, grey haired, perhaps about 50, a man who reminded me of somebody I couldn’t quite place, and two attractive girls like Isobel only not quite as beautiful and younger.    I felt suffocated by the intensity of their interest.   They looked at me like I was the Messiah on the second coming.    Their faces were an extraordinary mixture of grief and joy.    The man crossed himself slowly and the woman began to weep.    The youngest girl said to Isobel, “Have you told him yet?”

I turned to Isobel.     Under her dark hair, her face was very white.    That sorrowful look I had often observed in her seemed to expand until it encompassed me as well.    I was afraid and angry at the same time.

“Francisco,” she said to me.   I am Antonio, I thought.    “You are Francisco Campino, my older brother, born of the same parents as me. “  She gestured at the weeping woman.    “This is your mother.    Your father died in the hands of the military.     Our grandmother was able to hide me when they came because I was a baby and asleep, but you were taken and … and given to the people you think of as your parents.    The woman you think of as your mother was childless and her husband was able to obtain you for her.”

“No.” I said.    “No.”   I am Antonio, rich and famous sportsman, beloved younger son of powerful parents.   I do not belong in this squalid apartment.  My mother is not this weeping, unfashionable woman, old before her time.   Isobel is not my sister.    I will hold her to her promise and take her back to my apartment, my expensive apartment, and show her the place of women who meddle with me.    I will do at my leisure all the things I should have done last summer and for some stupid reason did not.    This is a scam; they are in it for the money.   I will empty my wallet on their floor and leave.    But the sight of their extraordinary faces, flashing with joy and sorrow like an overloading computer, freezes me.    “There is some mistake, “ I say politely.

“There is no mistake,” says Isobel quietly.   “We had your blood tested for DNA.    There is a 99.9% certainty that you are the child of my parents and are my brother.”  My blood.   Isobel cut me for my blood.

I take her by the wrist.    “Come with me as you have promised.”   She stands quiescent but now that she has said her piece the spirit leaves her and she too begins to weep.     Her mother stands up.

“My son,” she says to me, and behind all my adult rage and fear I feel, to my impotent panic, a boy in me somewhere waken to the sound of her voice.    “Go in peace.     I see your – other  – family has loved you.     For all that they – “ her voice breaks and her husband puts his hand on her arm – “they stole you, I am grateful that they treated you so well.    We – we had to know what had happened to you.    I can see that poor as we are we are not – we cannot compete for you against your rich family.    We wanted to see you.”    She spreads her hands out and the tears fall down her face.    “I am sorry – it is embarrassing for a young man to see his mother cry.     You are so like your father, so handsome.”  She wipes her face on her apron and attempts a smile.   She does not look so old and done now, but like a courageous woman overflowing with love.    “We will always love you but we will not pursue you, and we will not embarrass you or harass those people who took you from us.    You love them, and you must treat them as you think best.”    I cannot bear it all, I turn to leave , my hand still on Isobel’s wrist and I suddenly confront a picture of myself but I don’t remember it being taken.

“It is your father,” says the man.   “I took this picture when he was about your age.”

The woman crosses the room and puts her arms briefly round me.    I feel like dissolving in her arms but it is not me who feels those things but some child who has hidden in the recesses of my heart all these years and who will now grow and destroy me.

“Go in peace, Francisco,” and my mother makes the sign of the cross over me.     My sister guides me out like a blind man on to the streets, leading me by the wrist that my fingers are still gripping.    I follow her, but I have no idea where we might be going.

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About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

2 Responses to FINDING ISOBEL

  1. Carolyn Hulatt says:

    Thanks for this story Anne, which is another reminder of how often all is not what it might seem. One of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed was seeing ‘the mothers of the disappeared’ when we were in Argentina. They were easily recognisable, as they were all older ladies who wore white headscarves to mark them out, standing together in the central square of Buenos Aires. They make the weekly vigil to be united in their grief and to have their loved ones remembered by others, who in time could forget. I later saw many of them having tea in the lounge bar of the hotel where we were staying. They each exuded an air of grief and I wondered how a mother might carry on living with such a life- long grief.

  2. adhocannie says:

    Yes, it is difficult to imagine how the young man would feel in these circumstances. I have my own idea what happened but that is another story!

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