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Two Hearts are Better than One

Illustration: Wikimedia Commons

 In the end, I reluctantly agreed that my husband was probably right: not only was our daughter, Rina, doing a mitzvah in helping her friend, Irit, with her school work, but she was probably helping herself during these meetings, as they reinforced what she had been learning in school. But, I grumbled, driving Rina over to Irit's house three times a week is a bit much. "Just thank the powers-that-be that it isn't Rina who had an accident and is now laid up in bed", answered my husband, "Irit must be terribly bored during the day when all her friends are in school."

His words of wisdom were confirmed when I collected Rina later that evening. "She was so pleased to see me; you've no idea how boring it can be staying at home all day. She goes out only to the doctor and for physiotherapy. But it must give her a good feeling to know that her friends are ready to come over and help. By the way, Mum, do you know the meaning of Kol Israel Haverim?"

I knew it as the name of a street on the French Carmel – but did it mean anything else? Well, my daughter informed me, it is more than that: it is an organization founded about a hundred and fifty years ago. Its aim was to encourage a tolerant form of Judaism as well as a good general education and to feel respect for "the other". "So, Mum, this is us: Irit and her friends – we're helping with her education. And some of the girls are religious and some aren't religious at all."

She asked, "How was it when you were a student? Did you help one another?"

Trying to manoeuver the car into our very narrow parking space, I murmured something non-committal, but later, I thought about what my daughter had said.

Author Perez Galdos and Marion Lupu’s tattered copy of his book

I thought about those weeks at Manchester University when faced with the Spanish exams at the end of the first term. Although I enjoyed the courses, I was not happy at the thought of the exams: the works of the poets, Ruben Dario and Antonio Machado, were ultimately rewarding but only after a lot of hard work. However, it was a novel by Benito Perez Galdos, La de Bringas, once translated as That Bringas Woman and also as The Spendthrifts, that really had me worried. I could not make up my mind: did Galdos (who had been compared to Spain's greatest writer, Cervantes) intend the reader to judge his portrait of a woman, Rosalia Bringas, who had an obsession about buying new dresses for her wardrobe – or was the book really a social commentary, criticizing the behavior of the people at the time? Certainly Rosalia was not the only person on the road to ruin because of indulging her habits of personal extravagance. There were other aspects of the novel that also puzzled me, and remembering the old saying that two heads are better than one, I thought I would try and find another student in the group so that we could go over the material together. But apart from Helena Barlow, all the other students were hearty rugger-playing fellows. So it would have to be Helena.

I knew nothing at all about Helena Barlow (tall, blonde and slim – the exact opposite of me!) but I often thought that if she were in a film, she could easily play the part of a young aristocratic lady. When I suggested that we go over the novel together, she looked down at me as though I had just crawled out from under a stone. "You are so ridiculous, Sarah", she said, "here, it is each one for himself. Or, in our case, herself." And she turned on her heel and left me feeling snubbed as though I were a beggar, pleading for some small change. I went back to my rather cheerless room, feeling more than a little depressed.

The following morning found me feeling no better and shivery to boot. I realized that I had not brought suitable winter clothes with me to Manchester and so, after the last lecture of the day, I went into town to buy something against the rigors of a cold winter "up North". One hour later, equipped with what was called "thermal underwear" and a scratchy woollen sweater, I left the shop only to realize that this was not the way I had come in. Instead of coming out into Market Street, I found myself in a little square lined with some nondescript shops: some were selling fruit and vegetables, and there was also a dry cleaner as well as an office from which one could order a taxi. Wandering around, trying to get my bearings, I came across a shabby little shop which coyly informed the public that it stocked "Magazines for Adults". Outside the shop, however, on the pavement, was a box containing some second-hand books. Glancing through them quickly, I noticed that some of them were last year's textbooks which the students were doubtless glad to get rid of. One of them, in a rather faded, pale-blue cover, caught my eye: The Spendthrifts by P.B. Galdos – and it was in English! I had no idea whether it was a good translation but anything – just anything to help me with the novel – would be more than welcome. Talk about a drowning man grabbing at a straw … I think I paid two shillings for this rather tattered book, found my way back to Market Street and returned home. Now, fortified by some hot strong coffee and wearing my new winter woollies, I raced through the translation of The Spendthrifts and gradually the various pieces of the puzzle fell into place. If I understood it correctly, the novel could be read both as a portrait of the improvident Rosalia Bringas as well as a criticism of the society of the time. Later, reading it again in Spanish was so much easier than it had been before.

The day of the exam dawned, cold but clear. Going into the examination hall, I saw Helena Barlow and gave her a big grin – after all, I now had something to grin about. She answered with a rather wan smile. And the exam? In all fairness, it was not too bad. Now that I had the basic themes of the novel under my belt, so to speak, I was able to tackle the questions with a fair degree of confidence and did not feel rushed for time. In fact, I had a few minutes to spare and was able to polish the conclusion of one of the questions, to make it – I hoped – more convincing.

Afterwards, going into the students' coffee bar, I saw Helena Barlow again; she looked rather sick. "Well, it wasn't too bad, was it?" I asked. She gulped and then said something about not being able to answer the question about the aims – explicit and implicit – of the author. And then, almost inaudibly, she murmured something about it being a pity that we hadn't worked together on the novel.

Two weeks later, the results were published: I had passed – not brilliantly, but it was a pass, which meant an inter-semester break with no re-sits and no worries. Helena Barlow did not return for the second semester. 



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Monday, 17 June 2024

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