"Riddell’s great strength is his positive view of human existence."
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Ron Riddell

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A Love Beyond PDF Print E-mail

Love_Beyond

 

While mainly known as a poet, Ron Riddell’s highly readable and thought-provoking novels are finding an increasing and interested following.

A Love Beyond is Ron Riddell’s second novel. In it he elaborates on aspects of the themes of love, destiny, displacement and the quest for fulfilment. A Love Beyond begins with the exploration of a secret, unrequited love that had been all-but-forgotten by the two main protagonists, Duncan McKenzie and Celia Debrett. However, as a chance meeting in an Edinburgh café twenty years on reveals, the hope and memory of this attraction has never been completely abandoned. In its psycho-political aspect this enthralling new novel also contains elements of the psychological thriller. In the cultural, historical and familial spheres, the novel further explores the many such links between Scotland and New Zealand.


ISBN: 978-958-8466-05-7
$NZ 30.00

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Twenty Years On

Duncan McKenzie was a man who lived by cheese. His business was the purveying of cheese, of New World origin, though much of it went by names that were borrowed from the great European traditions: Cheddar, Gruyere, Emmentaler, Feta, Havarti, Gouda and Blue Vein. He counted himself lucky to have a career that was also a passion. His devotion to cheese had carried him a long way.

Now, at last, he found himself walking the streets of a long-held dream, the streets of Edinburgh, Auld Reekie, Athens of the North, ancestral seat and original Dunedin. He, Duncan McKen­zie, born 1939 in Northland, New Zealand, was not just a tourist in town but a man with a mission. Cheese was in the air. As he strolled, light-footed from Princes Street up to the Royal Mile, Duncan was a man whose thoughts were centred on curds and whey and their multifarious derivatives.

However, while Duncan McKenzie had a natural, commodious love of cheese, his passion for cheesecake was sometimes wild, unpredictable. Not just any old cheesecake - nothing too sweet, nothing too gooey, but a flan with élan. His passion was occasio­ned by cheesecake with style, cheesecake with breeding. He could spot one a good city block or two distant.

And so it was, as he wended his way up through Canongate, he happened to spy just such a puddin' - a Scottish cheesecake of in­disputable class, distinction. There it was, in its plain and simple proof, sitting in the window of The Café Caledonia. He needed no further invitation, not even the fragrant aroma of cappuccino that came wafting through the cafe door. He was over the thres­hold in the twinkling of an eye, cappuccino and cheesecake soon in hand.

He guided himself to a table near the window. His desert fork plunged into the generous portion that quivered on his plate. He ate with abandon, with unreserved relish, that is, until he reali­sed he was being observed. Slowly he put his fork down, brought his napkin up to his lips, dabbing the corners of his mouth. He looked up.

His gaze met that of a woman who was sitting alone at a nearby table. A brunette in blue, she was staring straight at him. Those soft, dazzling eyes – where had he seen them before? She was wea­ring a blue that matched her eyes, a deep cerulean – utterly capti­vating. At the same time, he noticed a few crumbs of cheesecake had landed in his lap. He made a few half-hearted attempts to brush them away but her gaze was unavoidable, one that deman­ded a response. A smile of recognition hovered about her lips.

"You look as though you're enjoying that."

"Thank you, yes, I am," he spluttered. He paused for a moment, blushing.

"I'm pretty sure I know you?" he said, in a voice that might have trembled. Could she be who he thought she was?

"Yes," she replied. "I think you do."

"Victoria University – the late fifties?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Good heavens! It must be twenty years or more. Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all. Be my guest. It's not every day of the week that you meet an old classmate from the antipodes."

"True, too true. You're dead right there. I'm Duncan, Duncan McKenzie."

"Yes, I remember."

"And you're Celia, aren't you, Celia Debrett?"

"That's right. You've got a good memory."

"How could I forget? You were the Belle of the Ball. Miss Victo­ria University 1958, wasn't it? All the guys were crazy about you. You were the Queen Bee."

"Oh come now, you're exaggerating."

"No, no. I kid you not. Your name was up in lights. You were pre-eminent among the debutantes. Don't you remember? You were also voted University Rose of Tralee in '59, if I remember correctly."

"How can I ever forget?"

"It's not something to be ashamed of, surely?"

"Perhaps not but -"

"But what? Beauty is something that should be celebrated, don't you think?"

"You're very kind. I suppose I would have agreed with you when I was twenty but now I'm not so sure. For one thing, the persona of the beauty queen, la belle dame sans merci, isn't easy to live with."

"How do you mean? The world was your oyster, wasn't it? You won a scholarship too, I think? You were the queen bee, make no mistake."

"There you go, you see. That's the kind of assumption people have always made about me. Nothing much has changed, twenty years on, except now I'm the ex-beauty queen, married into mo­ney and living the good life."

She smiled at him - a smile tinged with sadness. Momentarily he was at a loss for words, which was not a common thing in him. She had taken the wind out of his sails, the stuffing out of his cheesy rhetoric. This was something he had expected might happen. He was not surprised. After all, this was the first con­versation they had ever had. It was simple fact - she had heard it all before and wanted to set the record straight, nothing more, nothing less.

What a Charlie, what an ass – to blurt out the first piece of tommy-rot that came into his head, pure juvenilia it was, that she had suffered a thousand times before. And yet, in no way had it been his intention to embarrass her. Still less had he wished to make a fool of himself. After these many years of silence they had shared, wasn't that just what he was doing? For better or for wor­se, now was the time to speak. It was now or never.

His direct, warts-and-all style was something he had cultivated over the years. How could he apologise for it? He had changed – or so he persuaded himself.

From the first moment he laid eyes on Celia, had he not been be­mused, bewitched and bedazzled by her beauty, her loveliness? Had he not been spellbound, dumb-founded in her presence - unable to give her a sign, unable to utter a word? The very sight of her made him unsteady. Never in all his life, neither before nor since, had he known such a heartbeat, such a hammer in his breast.

Since the fifties, he had not seen her again, although once, some dozen years ago whilst on a return visit to Wellington, he thought he saw her, driving a pale green Peugeot up the hill to Brooklyn - a fleeting glimpse no more. Perhaps it had not been her? Perhaps he had only imagined it? He had no way of knowing whether it was her. And now, after all these years – how many had it been – twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three? How many exactly and did it matter? He had lost count. Now, in this enchanted city, half way round the world, he had met her quite by chance, had spoken to her at last.

What was it? This mysterious ache that had lingered all these years, unrequited, invisible, this flame that flickered in his heart, now fanned to sudden life? What was it, exactly – recognition, empathy, a secret, childish infatuation he had been unable to let go of? Whatever it was, he was determined to unmask the riddle, the meaning behind it.

It was an episode from a far-fetched invention. Out of the blue, a door had opened, and here she was, this gorgeous creature, sit­ting in front of him. Questions arose. There was no end of them. Which ones first? How many he wanted to ask. So many, he did not know where to begin. In order to break the ice, he had put his foot in it.

"I'm sorry," he offered sincerely. "I never was very good at see­ing someone else's point of view. I always jump to conclusions - invariably the wrong ones. My mind is a random machine. So, you'll forgive me, I hope, if I've offended you. My intention was quite the opposite, I can assure you."

"I've been flattered by a great many men, Duncan. Toady talk is cheap. I've learned to take it with a grain of salt."

Her smile faded as she folded up her serviette. Duncan's hearts­trings tightened, his pulse quickened. She wasn't leaving already was she? He prayed not.

"What brings you to Edinburgh, Duncan?"

"I could ask you the same question."

"You could."

"What brings me to Edinburgh? In a word, cheese. I'm here selling New Zealand's finest. I am the man from down on the farm; a peddler of cheddar, no less. I sell to wholesale outlets, supermarket chains, delicatessen suppliers. We're affiliated to the Trade Mission in London and the Dairy Board in Wellington - the usual arrangements. How about yourself?"

"Oh, I'm here visiting an old friend, that's all. Taking a break from the rigours of the international cocktail circuit."

"Cocktail circuit?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. My husband's a diplomat, among other things. We're currently stationed in Bonn but up for a change of posting soon, with any luck."

"Never been there – Germany, I mean, but look – and you'll forgive me for asking, I hope – do you ever think back to your student days?"

"Sometimes I do. I quite enjoyed myself as a student, didn't you?"

"It wasn't too bad, I suppose. I had a few good laughs. Do you remember Peter Blakely? The "Campus Clown Prince," he used to call himself. He was a lot of fun - the engineer of the most outrageous stunts during Capping Week. Never passed a single unit in the six years he was at varsity. He went on to become the Mayor of Otorohanga, so I'm told."

"No, I don't think I remember him. I used to bury myself in my work - didn't socialize much. Most of the men turned me off. They all wanted to jump me."

She paused. "I hope I haven't shocked you?"

"Of course not, no," he mumbled, trying to hide his embarrassment.

"It's strange you know, but when I look back now, I think of lost worlds, lost opportunities. I recall how vapid I was, how naïve, how dizzy. I think of all my petty ambitions, my foibles, fetishes, that narrowed my world down instead of opening it up. I feel I missed out on a lot – on the Clown Prince, for example."

They laughed and Duncan felt himself starting to relax.

"I know what you mean. Most of my higher education was a waste of time. Maybe I was too young? When I finished school, I should have gone out into the world, to work on farms or in factories in foreign countries."

She glanced briefly at her wristwatch, hoping that Duncan would not notice but he did.

"Do you have to go? Please don't let me hold you up."

"I'm alright for another hour or so. I'm meeting my friend later this afternoon. We're going to do some shopping together."

She looked past him into the street. They were still the same - those deep, dark, exquisite eyes. In them he saw reflections of the street outside, the colours of the plane trees in leaf, the dark, glinting shapes of passing traffic. What a wonderful world. He glanced down at the remains of his cheesecake: such a cornucopia overflowing, here on his plate. He smelt the brisk, oaty flavour of the street, as customers came and went and the doorbell tinkled - in a gentle, minor key, like everything in the city; refined, res­trained, yet poised on the verge of exuberance: beaded bubbles winking at the brim.

Once again he had her attention. Her hands lay folded on the table. There was a sparkle of light from her earrings. Duncan looked down at the ring on her left hand: a small gold band, with a diamond cluster beside it. How blessed to be the man who ma­rried her.

"I know what you're getting at," she said dreamily, not quite able to bring herself back to the present moment.

"So many worlds are impersonal - each in their own way. How did we get to know other people? We were all so shy, so reticent, so lacking in self confidence."

"What? You too? I can't believe it."

"Yes, indeed. Me too. All of us, well, with one or two exceptions – the Clown Prince, for instance."

"Despite all the appearances, eh? The beards, berets, duffle coats and protests, we all towed the line. We still had exams to pass and job tickets to earn, didn't we?"

"I was a Dizzy Lizzy. And when I woke up, my life was half over."

It's never too late. Look at us now, here today. Look at this beau­tiful city, this lovely café. We're lucky, so lucky. And finally we've broken our vow of silence, have we not?"

Celia was about to say something but didn't. She looked at Duncan as if she were seeing him for the very first time. Indeed, she was. She had never known him as someone to talk to - as a real, live human being. Now she looked at him with new eyes.

"Yes," she said slowly. "Twenty years on."

"Well, it's a start, isn't it?"

"Yes it is. But tell me Duncan, why couldn't we say something to each other twenty years ago? Something simple, harmless, like "Hello," "Hi," "How are you?" We couldn't manage the simplest greeting. Why?"

There was a strange tone in her voice, a note of special plea­ding.

"Do you really want me to tell you?"

"For goodness sake!"

"Maybe I shouldn't? We're both married now, after all. I should tell you something safe, like, I went to grammar school, I was shy or that my parents were strict - all of which were true - but these would be lame excuses. I'd be avoiding the real issue."

"Which is?"

"Quite simply, I was in love with you - wildly, passionately, in love with you. I couldn't sleep at night. I couldn't eat. I couldn't speak. I found it hard to do anything at all".

Quickly she turned her gaze away. Duncan looked into the bottom of his empty cup. He felt like another coffee, a hot shot of straight espresso yet was unable to move. It was done now - it was out of the bag. He had made his confession, for better or for worse. Celia remained silent, pensive. She pursed her lips and her eyes began to water.

"Please don't doubt me. Call it puppy love or youthful infatua­tion...how can I explain it? The very sight of you used to make me tremble," he continued.

"Do you remember? We used to work together in the old city li­brary. I loved it there: the gothic ceilings, the air full of light from the high, arched windows, the cooing of the doves, the bell of the clock-tower striking the quarter hour, the stirring of dust on the upper shelves and the angel at the table where you sat. I loved that place. I loved it all the more because of you - librarians gliding in and out of the shadows, the light, the old men of the city who came in from the cold, to warm themselves by the gas heaters and read the daily papers. It wasn't the same when you weren't there. I would hold my breath and listen – and could tell without looking whether you were there– or not."

"We sat on opposite sides of the main hall. I remember once though, when you came to sit on "my side" at the table where I worked. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I couldn't concentrate on any of my books for the hour or two that we sat there silent but together. Every now and again, I would steal a glance at you, at your beautiful face, so tantalisingly close. But every time I looked at you, your eyes were averted, absorbed in your studies. As for sa­ying anything, that was unthinkable, impossible. My knees knoc­ked, my heart thumped and my tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth. How does a mere mortal address a goddess? My ton­gue was swollen. I couldn't swallow."

He looked up at her again. There had been a faraway look in her gaze, as she sat listening to him, but now in the silence that settled between them, her eyes met his once more. What could he read from her expression? Disbelief, pain, abandoned hope, sadness, indifference, warmth? Had he gone too far? Yet even if he could have done so, he would not have taken his confession back - he would not disown it or belittle it. Suddenly a new light appeared in her eyes and she began to recite: "What in the world most fair appears

Yea even laughter, turns to tears

And all the jewels which we prize

Melt in these pendants of the eyes." She spoke the line flawlessly, pausing only to brush the streak of a tear from her cheek.

"How silly of me! I don't know why I came out with that."

"No, no, not at all. That's marvellous. Marvell, isn't it? I wish I could remember lines that well. Professor Bird. The Metaphysi­cals. Do you remember his tutorials?"

She nodded.

"Wonderful, weren't they? He was completely wrapped up in a metaphysical world of his own: Marvell, Crashaw, Herbert, Don­ne and Vaughan. What a brotherhood."

"Yes, that was fun but I did wonder sometimes what he was on about. He had such a high, squeaky voice."

"Just like a bird."

"Yes, just like a yard bird. And his hands used to flutter like wings when he spoke."

She giggled. He realized it was the first time he had heard her laugh and it made him happy. How long had they been sitting, chatting? The time had gone nowhere. It didn't exist, or if it did, it had somehow expanded to include them in this serendipitous bubble. It was as if they were resuming the oldest friendship. No­thing mattered outside the moment. In the midst of the world's bustle, they had found a tiny oasis, an island of refuge, a precious bubble.

"Another coffee?"

She hesitated. The shadow of some unknown fear passed over her and then was gone.

"Yes please. Why not?"

"How do you like it?"

"Short, black, no milk, no sugar." She pressed the tip of her right forefinger against the lip of the table, as if to emphasise the point. He might have guessed. What was the appeal of women who took their coffee black? What rites of caffeine? What fatal attraction?

He brought the coffee back to the table. Never before had he carried coffee cups with such care, as if they contained the elixir of life itself. Given the undoubted quality of Edinburgh coffee, freshly ground, rich and aromatic – and in these remarkable cir­cumstances - it was as close as it gets, the next best thing.

Looking at her hands, as he put down the cup, he was seized with a sudden desire to hold them, but was reminded of her wedding ring and of his own. How strange life was: her husband – what was he like, he wondered – suave, successful, no doubt - a man of means and influence. She had said as much and more. Maybe someone he knew? For the time being though, he did not want to know.

Of all that was most remarkable in the world, there was little to compare with this beautiful woman, who sat with him now in this cosy Edinburgh café, reminiscing and speculating on what-might-have-been.

There was stillness in the air, in the soft limpid Edinburgh light. He saw that she was not yet ready to leave. There were fur­ther bridges to cross, as if both were questioning the meaning of Duncan's confession - as if he himself had not spoken the words - or that some unseen presence had swallowed them up and brea­thed them into the grey stone walls of the city.

"All these years I've wondered what you thought about me - if you ever thought of me?"

He looked up from his latté and smiled diffidently.

"I'm sorry. How presumptuous of me ask you these questions. They're so adolescent, so lost in the past. It's just that – , I suppose I'm a little taken aback, running into you like this ..."

His voice trailed off, as he gazed at the supple light playing on the stone facades of Canongate. She reached across the table and her hand on top of his. Placed so soft, warm, so gently reassuring. She squeezed his hand.

"Of course I remembered you. How could I forget? Come on. Let's go for a walk."

Outside the air was balmy, with the hint of summer, smelling of crusty loaves, hay, oatcakes and the old granite breweries of the city. An architectural enchantment – the tall, elegant spires, the steeples, banks of old apartment blocks; the stately museums, public buildings, and the earnest gothic monuments.

They strolled down Bank Street to The Mound. Duncan looked over to Waverley Bridge. He saw a man standing there, as he had done a few hours earlier, just after his arrival perhaps it was the same man? Incredulous then, incredulous now, he stood with Ce­lia, outside the doors of The National Museum.

No-one paid them any attention though they made a striking pair. No passer-by, no onlooker, not even the man on Waverley Bridge would have disavowed that there was between them, some strange unidentifiable bond. Few would have doubted these two were soul mates.

As they entered the museum, they stopped near the entrance to admire one of Celia's favourite pieces, El Greco's Saviour of the World. She had seen it many times before but never ceased to marvel at its power, its profundity. Every time she saw it, she drew something new from its contemplation, some fresh new thought, some new inspiration. On this occasion, there was an added bo­nus. She was seeing it with Duncan, through his eyes too.

"Isn't it wonderful?"

"Yes, it is," he murmured.

Though this was the first time that Duncan had seen on the painting, he was no less struck by it. They stood before it, in silent awe. Divine work, no less: such sadness, compassion, such infinite depth, such agape in those far-reaching, all-seeing eyes.

"The eyes are glazed with tears," he said, "Such a fine glaze of tears."

"Yes, but they are clear tears, clear as mountain rills. They enable him to see. They enable us to see also."

'We can see Him and He can see us. It's amazing isn't it? I mean, it's only a painting, after all."

"Yes, but what a painting. This is Domenicos Theodotokos, a messenger from God, an icon-maker in the Greek tradition."

"You love this painting a great deal, I think?"

"I do."

"I can understand why. It's something very special." he said, as they walked on to another part of the gallery.

"Yes, it is. I make a habit of coming to see it every time I'm here in Edinburgh. It's like a touchstone for me, a living holy relic. I remember once, some years ago now, it wasn't here in its usual place. I asked one of the guards about it. He didn't know much himself – new to the job, he said – but he did eventually come back with an answer: the painting was undergoing some restora­tion work. What a relief that was, I can tell you.

The Gallery Director heard about my concern and took pity. He himself escorted me down to the Restoration Department. There I was introduced to the Senior Restorer, Dr Judy McAlister. I was able to watch her working on the painting. Such care she took, such painstaking care. She's an artist in her own right.

Anyhow, Judy and I became friends. Our love of painting – or should I say, this particular painting - brought us together. I wan­ted to uncover the painting's secrets. I had heard some rumours. Judy confided in me. I don't know why. She didn't have to. You could say she was unprofessional. In any event, she told me about an under painting which she had discovered, using a special sonic X-ray process. It appeared to be the portrait of a young woman of about thirty. Judy's theory is that the under painting represents a portrait of a female Christ figure, not his mother Mary, not Mary Magdelene but a fresh-faced and feminine-looking Christ, a Christ who represents the Eternal Feminine, the female mani­festation of the Eternal Christ."

"That's an interesting theory. I've never heard anything like that before. Blasphemous, heretical I daresay, but what do you think?"

"I think she's right. I've seen some of the photographs. They're astonishing. Would you like to see them?"

"What? Right now?"

"Yes, of course. Judy won't mind. I can say that you're an art lover, all the way from down under. She'll love you."

Would the real Celia stand up? - the Celia behind the mask? What he saw now had nothing to do with the little he knew of her as a student. In his rationalisation of inaction, he imagined he might be disappointed if he ever got to know her - the reality not living up to the expectation. At last the real world had come to awaken him - perhaps to prove him wrong?

He resisted again the sad little thought of it being too late. He was grateful, thrilled, as she opened the door of her life to him. He was inside the house, looking around in wonder. He wanted to know everything there was to know about her, even though he knew that wish was unrealistic, impossible even. And here lurked the slightly scary part. He wanted to know more, even if it led to unplumbed depths. He wanted to know her secrets, as her friend Judy sought to learn the secrets of old masters. Was it possible? Was it sensible? Were not a woman's secrets sacred? Should they not remain so?

Also, it occurred to him that the passing on of secrets could have damaging effects. Was it a form of self-torture, masochism? He did not care, driven as he was by forces beyond his ken.

However, he had to remind himself, Celia was not just taking on the aspect of the risen phoenix - just for his sake. She was a real, flesh-and-blood human being, not just a projection of his ima­gination. Hadn't she been so all along? Furthermore, they were no longer star-struck, tongue-tied teenagers but mature adults, each with their own world of relationships, affections and atta­chments.

He knew the need to keep a grip on himself. A great wave was breaking over him - of recklessness, abandon. What could he do to avoid it? He walked on in a daze, light-headed with all that came towards him: the banners, buildings, towers, flags; the crags, the turrets and the narrow stone passageway that led to Dr. Judy McAlister's offices.

What was happening? Something? Nothing? Certainly, nothing was predictable. He was lost in another world, a world familiar yet strange. Who had seen this possibility, had glimpsed this scene before? How many echoes were there in him that resounded also in her?

"Do you ever get the feeling that you're living the life of a cha­racter from some far-fetched post-modern novel?" he said, as they were ushered into the workshop.

"All the time," Celia replied.

"That's how I feel right now, as if I have just stepped into some highly improbable fiction - indeed, as if suddenly I'm living a life that's stranger than fiction."