Excerpt: The Apple Tree
Copyright 2011 Lynette Sofras
“Ah yes,” Sonya cooed. “We hear you’ve already met our Nicko.”
Nicholas extended his hand to her for the second time that day. She noticed his well-manicured and scrubbed nails. Definitely an artist’s hands, she thought.
“Yes, Mr Masserman very kindly showed me around the garden center this afternoon...” She stopped suddenly, fearing she may have said the wrong thing and jeopardized his job. Nicholas only smiled.
“It’s Nicholas,” he corrected. “Nick, if you prefer.”
But not Nicko, thank goodness.
He helped himself to a drink before gracefully folding his lean frame into a rather low armchair placed at an angle to her chair. Robert began to fire questions about his garden center and whether Nicholas had omitted anything from his tour. She was able to reassure him unequivocally on both scores and Robert appeared satisfied at last while Nicholas laughed at the compliment.
“And I hear you’re a doctor like your sister and father. Genius must run in your family.” Sonya once again took the lead. Nicholas raised his eyebrows—it was his turn to be impressed—as Sonya continued. “What an exciting life you must lead.”
“Far from it, I assure you,” Julie said with a self-deprecating laugh that bore no trace of humor.
“And I don’t believe you. I mean, you’ve just returned from Saudi Arabia. How can that compare with our humdrum little lives?” Sonya persisted.
A sinking sensation dragged at her insides. She didn’t want to think about the past year, in fact, it was the last subject she wanted to discuss with anyone right now. From whichever angle she viewed it, it reminded her of her failure.
Saudi had been Simon’s idea. With his own future success guaranteed, a break in Saudi suited him and Julie had viewed it as an escape route and jumped at the move. Too quickly. She believed it would be a place with space to breathe, to recoup, to discover herself and re-evaluate her future. But it had been nothing like that. As much as Simon enjoyed his life there, she hated it. Yet another mistake.
She shifted her unhappy gaze to her hands, which still held her glass of vodka and tonic. A cube of ice cracked and splintered into smaller lumps, which proceeded to chase each other around the glass. How odd. It wasn’t until the liquid sloshed that she realized her hand shook. With surprisingly good timing, Nicholas pulled a small drinks table between their seats and set his own glass down, as if to demonstrate how it should be done. At the same time, he politely asked which part of Saudi, as if it was of no real consequence.
She looked straight into his eyes. “It was near Riyadh, and to tell the truth, I was pretty unhappy there. I’m very glad to be back in England.”
“Sonya comes from Australia, originally,” he said in reply before Sonya could speak again. “And like all Aussies who travel, she’s done the seven continents and seen all the wonders of the modern world.” His accent became more mock-antipodean with every word. Sonya was the first to convulse. “But you ask her and she’ll tell you what she’s always telling us. There’s nowhere like dear old England anywhere else in the world, possums.” This last was uttered in a perfect Dame Edna mimic and somehow, in the general merriment that followed, the subject of Saudi Arabia was sidelined and forgotten.
From that time on, it was an evening of almost undiluted hilarity and enjoyment. Julie finally stopped resisting the magnetic pull of Nicholas’s proximity when she realized with thrilling clarity at some point in the evening that the attraction was almost certainly mutual. Every time she moved her head, they made eye contact and with each fresh little smile they exchanged, another layer of resistance peeled away.
But the conversation over dinner left her feeling uncomfortable and guilty, threatening to spoil her pleasant evening. The topic was marriage—Sonya and Bob’s wedding in the autumn. And as sometimes happens, given the idiosyncrasies of human nature, the subject of marriage pretty soon turned to its opposite state—divorce, which drew from Nicholas such a powerful polemic as to render Julie breathless with surprise. Not so, Sonya, who was evidently familiar with Nicholas’s views on divorce.
“We all know your views on that subject, Nicko,” she said amid peals of laughter and then turned to Julie and said in an exaggerated stage whisper, “For such an enlightened, twenty-first century bloke, he’s more old-fashioned than my grandfather!” Then addressing the table in general, “But you need have no fears on my account, Nicko. When Roberto takes me for his wife, he’ll be stuck with me for the rest of his life.”
Julie looked down at her plate, experiencing a sudden stab of irrational dislike for Sonya. How could the woman be so gauche? And where did this irritating, seemingly-affectionate, pseudo-Italian habit of rounding off everyone’s name with an “o” fit in to things? Before the evening was out, she might have to respond to the name Julio! And why was Sonya so self-deprecating, as if she could barely believe her luck in finding a man to marry her? But as these thoughts coursed through her brain, Julie felt ashamed. The reason for her irritation stemmed from her own feelings and a vague, uneasy sensation of guilt.
She looked up and caught Nicholas’s eye, not too difficult to do by this stage! “As one in three marriages end in divorce, statistically that means if we all get married, then one of us around this table will end up divorced.”
“Not if you marry Nicky,” Sonya pointed out with a whoop of delight that almost crucified Julie with embarrassment. Robert and Sonya had to support each other through their mirth. When she was able to raise her eyes again, Julie saw Nicholas trying to hide his own amusement as he watched her struggle to justify her views. Dig, dig, dig. Will I ever get out of this hole?
“You seem to have very strong views on divorce,” she accused.
“I certainly do. The rising divorce statistics you referred to reflect all that’s bad about our disposable society, in my opinion. It’s the root of all the social and economic problems of our day...” A mock groan from Sonya interrupted his words.
“Not the rubber gloves brigade,” she teased.
“And the lowering of standards caused by cheap fashions which allow people to slip in and out of marriage like disposable knickers.” Robert put in.
Shocked and mystified by the banter, Julie looked on silently. Nicholas sat back watching the little charade unfold as though he had heard it all before.
“People shouldn’t be allowed just to slip in and out of marriage,” Sonya said.
“As they do a set of clothes,” added Robert.
“Like rubber gloves.”
“Or disposable knickers.”
“Such people ought never to be allowed to marry in the first place,” they chorused in unison.
Nicholas clapped, halting the performance. To Julie’s relief, he did not appear annoyed by this friendly mockery of his beliefs. If someone had attacked Simon’s views in such a way...here the speculation broke off, for she was unable to imagine how Simon might have responded. She turned to Nicholas. “Surely you allow for human error? Sometimes people simply make mistakes.”
Nicholas shook his head. “One should never make mistakes ‘simply’. But most people are too shallow and impatient to give sufficient consideration to the real meaning of the marriage contract and as soon as they encounter difficulties, off they run to consult their solicitors. Which accounts for the appalling divorce statistics in this country, the breakdown of family life and decline in moral values.”
“Nick hates solicitors.” Sonya gave a wink. “And not just because they are all so filthy rich.”
“Nick’s friends have to consult the Masserman Marriage Manifesto before contemplating wedlock,” Robert added. “I don’t recommend it. By the time you’re through reading it, you’re too old for marriage anyway. He keeps adding clauses, you see, so it’s impossible to finish it.”
“Then really it’s marriage itself that you’re against?” Julie asked.