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Apples Never Fall, Page 2

Liane Moriarty

  Joy had changed the subject.

  Now she looked up from the dishwasher and remembered Troy, as a young boy, standing right here in this very kitchen, racquet gripped like a weapon, face rosy with rage, his beautiful brown eyes full of blame and tears he would not let himself cry, shouting, “I hate tennis!”

  “Ooh, sacrilege!” Amy had said, because her role as the oldest child was to narrate every family argument and use big words the other kids didn’t understand, while Brooke, still little and adorable, had burst into inevitable tears, and Logan’s face became blank and moronic.

  “You don’t hate tennis,” Joy had told him. It was an order. She had meant: You can’t hate tennis, Troy. She’d meant: I don’t have the time or the strength to let you hate tennis.

  Joy gave her head a little shake to dislodge the memory, and tried to return her attention to the podcast.

  “… zigzag lines that float across your field of vision, shimmering spots or stars, people who have migraine aura symptoms say that…”

  Troy hadn’t really hated tennis. Some of their happiest family memories were on the court. Most of their happiest memories. Some of their worst memories were on the court too, but come on now, Troy still played. If he’d really hated tennis he wouldn’t still be playing in his thirties.

  Was tennis her life’s theme?

  Maybe Caro was right. She and Stan might never have met if not for tennis.

  More than half a century ago now. A birthday party in a small, crowded house. Heads bounced in time to “Popcorn” by Hot Butter. Eighteen-year-old Joy gripped the chunky green stem of her wineglass, which was filled to the brim with warm Moselle.

  “Where’s Joy? You should meet Joy. She just won some big tournament.”

  Those were the words that unfastened the tight semicircle of people surrounding the boy with his back against the wall. He was a giant, freakishly tall and big-shouldered, with a mass of long curly black hair tied back in a ponytail, a cigarette in one hand, a can of beer in the other. Athletic boys could still smoke like chimneys in the seventies. He had a dimple that only made an appearance when he saw Joy.

  “We should have a hit sometime,” he said. She’d never heard a voice like it, not from a boy of her own generation. It was a voice so deep and slow, people made fun of it and tried to imitate it. They said Stan sounded like Johnny Cash. He didn’t do it on purpose. It was just the way he spoke. He didn’t speak much, but everything he said sounded important.

  They weren’t the only tennis players at that party, just the only champions. It was destiny, as inevitable as a fairy tale. If they hadn’t met that night they would have met eventually. Tennis was a small world.

  They played their first match that weekend. She lost 6–4, 6–4, and then went right ahead and lost her virginity to him, even though her mother had warned her about the importance of withholding sex if she ever liked a boy: “Why buy a cow when you can get the milk for free?” (Her daughters shrieked when they heard that phrase.)

  Joy told Stan she only went to bed with him because of his serve. It was a magnificent serve. She still admired it, waiting for that split second when time stopped and Stan became a sculpture of a tennis player: back arched, ball suspended, racquet behind his head, and then … wham.

  Stan said he only went to bed with her because of her decisive volley, and then he said, that deep, slow voice in her ear, No, that’s not true, your volley needs work, you crowd the net, I went to bed with you because as soon as I saw those legs I knew I wanted them wrapped around my back, and Joy swooned, she thought that was so wicked and poetic, although she did not appreciate the criticism of her volley.

  “… this causes the release of neurotransmitters…”

  She looked at the grater. It was covered in carrot, which the dishwasher wouldn’t wash off. She rinsed it in the sink. “Why am I doing your job for you?” she said to the dishwasher, and thought of herself in pre-dishwasher days, standing at this sink, rubber gloves in hot dishwater, a skyscraper of dirty plates by her side.

  Her past kept bumping up against her present lately. Yesterday she’d woken from a nap in a panic, thinking she’d forgotten to pick up one of the children from school. It took her a good minute to remember that all of her children were adults now: adults with wrinkles and mortgages, degrees and travel plans.

  It made her wonder if she had dementia. Her friend Linda, who worked at a nursing home, said a wave of restlessness swept through the place at school pickup time each day as the elderly ladies became agitated, convinced they should be rushing to collect long-since-grown children. Hearing that had made Joy teary, and now the exact same thing had kind of happened to her.

  “It’s possible my superior intellect is masking my dementia symptoms,” Joy had told Stan.

  “Can’t say I’ve noticed,” said Stan.

  “My dementia symptoms? Or my superior intellect?”

  “Well, you’ve always been demented,” he’d said, and then wandered off, probably to climb a ladder, because his sons had informed him that seventy was too old to climb ladders, so he liked to find excuses to climb them as often as possible.

  Last night she’d listened to a very informative podcast called This Dementia Life.

  The cheese grater refused to join the frying pan in the dishwasher. She studied the two items. It felt like a puzzle she should be able to solve.

  “… trigger a change in the size of the blood vessels…” said the Migraine Guy.

  What? She was going to have to rewind this podcast and start again.

  She’d heard that retirement caused a rapid decline in brain function. Maybe that’s what was going on here. Her frontal lobe was atrophying.

  They had thought they were ready to retire. Selling the tennis school had seemed like the obvious next step in their lives. They couldn’t keep coaching forever and none of their children were interested in taking on the business. In fact, they were insultingly disinterested. For years Stan had nursed a wild hope that Logan might buy into Delaneys: that old-fashioned idea of the eldest son becoming his proud successor. “Logan was a great coach,” he’d mutter. “He got it. He really got it.”

  Poor Logan had looked completely aghast when Stan had diffidently suggested he might like to buy the business. “He’s not very driven, is he?” Stan had remarked to Joy, and Joy had snapped at him because she couldn’t bear to hear criticism of her children, especially when that criticism was valid.

  So they sold up. To good people for a good price. She hadn’t anticipated this sense of loss. She hadn’t realized how much they were defined by Delaneys Tennis Academy. Who were they now? Just another pair of boomers.

  Thank God for their own tennis. Their most recent trophy sat, heavy and proud, on the sideboard, ready to show off when everyone was together on Father’s Day. Stan’s knees were paying for it now, but it had been a good, solid win over two technically excellent players: she and Stan had held the net, attacked the middle, and never lost their cool. They still had it.

  In addition to tournaments, they still played in the Monday-night social comp that Joy had established years ago, although that had recently got depressing because people kept dying. Six months ago, Dennis Christos had died on the court while he and his wife, Debbie, played against Joy and Stan, which had been terribly traumatic. Joy believed poor Dennis’s heart couldn’t take the excitement of thinking he was going to break Stan’s serve. She secretly blamed Stan for making Dennis think it was a possibility. He’d deliberately let the game get to 40–love for his own pleasure. It was taking a lot of willpower for her not to say, “You killed Dennis Christos, Stan.”

  The truth was, she and Stan weren’t suited to retirement. Their six-week dream holiday to Europe had been a disaster. Even Wimbledon. Especially Wimbledon. When the plane landed back in Sydney they’d both been giddy with relief, and they’d admitted that to no one, not to their friends or their children, not even to each other.

  Sometimes they tried to do things that
their other retired friends did, like “a lovely day at the beach,” for example. Joy cut her foot to shreds standing on an oyster shell and they got a parking ticket. It had reminded her of those occasions when she had got it into her head that she and Stan would take the children on a lovely picnic, and she’d tried so hard to pretend they were a lovely picnicking family, but something inevitably went wrong, there was always someone in a bad mood, or they got lost, or it rained just as they arrived, and the drive home was silent and resentful, except for the regular sniffles of whichever child felt he or she had been unjustifiably admonished.

  “We’ve actually become quite romantic since retirement,” one annoyingly chipper friend told her, which made Joy want to gag, but the other week she bought two banana milkshakes at the food court, as a kind of fun gesture because she and Stan used to buy them for breakfast at small-town milk bars when they used to travel together for regional tournaments in the early years of their marriage. They’d save on motels by sleeping in the car. They had sex in the back seat.

  But it was clear that Stan didn’t even remember their banana milkshakes, and then on the way home he dramatically and unnecessarily slammed on the brakes when someone pulled out in front of them, and Joy’s milkshake went flying, so their car now permanently and disgustingly smelled of sour milk: the sour smell of failure. Stan said he couldn’t smell a thing.

  They needed different personalities to retire with grace and verve like their friends. They needed to be less grumpy (Stan did) and have a wider variety of interests and hobbies beyond tennis. They needed grandchildren.


  The word alone filled her with the kind of giant, complicated emotions reserved for the young: desire, fury, and worst of all, spiteful, bitter envy.

  She knew one tiny grandchild was all it would take to stop the silence roaring, to make her days splutter back to life again, but you could not ask your children for grandchildren. How demeaning. How ordinary. She believed herself to be more interesting and sophisticated than that. She was a feminist. An athlete. A very successful businesswoman. She refused to be that particular cliché.

  It would happen. She just had to be patient. She had four children. Four tickets in the raffle, although two of her four children were single, so perhaps they didn’t count as tickets just yet. But two were in solid, long-term relationships. Logan and his girlfriend, Indira, had been together for five years now. They weren’t married, but that didn’t matter. Indira was wonderful, and the last time Joy saw her, she definitely had a mysterious, secretive look about her, almost as if she wanted to tell Joy something but was holding off: maybe until she got to twelve weeks?

  Brooke and Grant were happily married, settled with a mortgage on a proper house and a family car, and Grant was older, so it could be on the cards soon. If only Brooke hadn’t opened up her own physiotherapy practice. It was admirable—Stan glowed with pride whenever anyone mentioned it—but running your own business was stressful, and migraine sufferers had to manage their stress. Brooke was too driven. But surely she’d want a baby soon. Brooke always knew the latest medical guidelines, so she would know you shouldn’t leave it too late.

  Joy secretly hoped her children might find a creative way to tell her about their pregnancies, like other people’s children were always doing on YouTube. They could, for example, wrap up an ultrasound picture, and then film Joy’s reaction as she opened it: bewilderment followed by understanding, hand clapped across her mouth, tears and hugs. They could post it on their social media! Joy finds out she’s going to be a grandma! It might go viral. Joy dressed extra nicely every time her children visited, just in case.

  (She would never share that fantasy with anyone. Not even the dog.)

  The Migraine Guy spoke seductively into Joy’s ears, “Let’s talk about magnesium.”

  “Good idea. Let’s do that,” said Joy.

  There was no way for the frying pan and grater to fit together. There was no solution. The grater would have to miss out. It was clean anyway. She straightened up from the dishwasher to discover her husband standing right in front of her, like he’d teleported himself.

  “Jesus—bloody—what the—?” she shrieked.

  She pushed her headphones down onto her neck and put her hand to her thumping heart. “Don’t creep up on me like that!”

  “Why is someone knocking on the door?” Stan’s lips were orange from the chili crackers. There were damp circles on the knees of his jeans from the melting ice packs. It was aggravating just to look up at him, especially because he was looking down at her with an accusing expression, as if the knock on the door was her fault.

  Steffi sat herself down next to Stan, ears pricked and alert, eyes shining with the glorious possibility of a walk.

  Joy’s eyes went to the clock on the kitchen wall. It was far too late for a delivery or a market researcher. Too late for a friend or family member to drop by, and no one really did that anymore, not without calling first.

  Joy considered her husband. Maybe he was the one with dementia. She knew from her research that the spouse must be patient and kind.

  “I didn’t hear anything,” she said, patiently and kindly. She would be an excellent carer, although she might waitlist him at a nice nursing home sooner rather than later.

  “I heard a knock,” insisted Stan, and his jaw shifted back and forth in that way that indicated annoyance.

  But then Joy heard it too: thump, thump, thump.

  Like someone banging a closed fist on their front door. Their doorbell had been broken for years and people often knocked impatiently after they gave up on the bell, but this had the quality of an emergency.

  Her eyes met Stan’s and without saying a word they both headed for the front door, not running but walking fast down the long hallway, quick, quick, quick. Steffi trotted along beside them, panting with excitement. Joy’s socks slipped on the floorboards, and she felt that all three of them, man, woman, and dog, shared an invigorating sense of urgency. They were needed. There must be a crisis of some sort. They would fix the crisis, because even though there were no children living at home, they still had that mindset: We are the grown-ups. We are The Fixers.

  Maybe there was even pleasure in that rapid walk to the door because it had been a while since any of the children had asked for money or advice, or even a lift to the airport.

  Bang, bang, bang.

  “Coming!” called out Stan.

  Fragments of memories flashed through Joy’s mind: Troy arriving home from school when he was around eight or nine, hammering on the door and hollering, “FBI! Open up!” He did this for years every time he came to a door, thought he was so funny. Amy frantically ringing the bell, back when it worked, because she’d lost her house key yet again and was always in a hurry to get to the bathroom.

  Stan got there ahead of her. He click-clacked the deadlock with an efficient twist of his wrist and threw open the door.

  A sobbing young woman lurched forward as though she’d been resting her forehead on the door and fell straight into Stan’s arms, like a daughter.

  Chapter 3

  “Hello there,” said Stan, stunned. He clumsily patted her shoulder.

  For the first fraction of a second Joy assumed it was one of their daughters, but this girl barely came up to Stan’s chest. Joy’s children were tall: the boys were six foot four, Amy was six foot, and Brooke was six foot one. They were all broad-shouldered, dark-haired, olive-skinned, scarlet-cheeked, and dimpled, like their father. (“Your children all look like giant Spanish matadors,” Joy’s mother used to say, chidingly, as if Joy had picked them off a shelf.)

  This girl was petite, with straggly dirty-blond hair and blue-veined mottled white skin.

  “I’m sorry.” The girl stood back, took a shuddery breath, sniffed, and tried to arrange her mouth into the shape of a smile. “I’m so sorry. How embarrassing.”

  She had a fresh, deep cut just beneath her right eyebrow. Trails of shiny wet blood trickled d
own her face.

  “It’s fine, darling.” Joy took a firm hold of the girl’s stick-thin upper arm in case she fainted.

  She would call her “darling” until she remembered her name. Stan would be no help. She could sense his eyes trying to meet hers: Who the heck is this?

  The girl had a tiny seedlike piercing in her nose and a tattoo of a green vine curled around her pale forearm. She wore a threadbare long-sleeved shirt with a spatter of old grease stains on the front and ripped blue jeans. There was a silver key on a chain around her neck. Her bare feet were purple with cold. She was vaguely, blurrily, not quite familiar.

  It would be helpful if the girl said her name, but young people always assumed that they’d be remembered. It happened all the time. A young stranger would make a beeline for them, waving delightedly: “Mr. and Mrs. Delaney! How are you? It’s been ages!” Joy would have to bluff her way through the conversation while simultaneously flicking through her mental database: A tennis kid? A club member’s grown-up child? One of the children’s friends?

  “What happened to you?” Stan gestured at the girl’s eye. He looked frightened, suddenly elderly. “Is someone out there?” He peered over her shoulder onto the street. It would never have occurred to Joy that there would be someone out there.

  “There’s no one out there,” said the girl. “I came in a cab.”

  “It’s okay, sweetheart, we’ll get you fixed up,” said Joy.

  This was very confusing, but it would all become clear. Stan always wanted everything instantly clarified.

  Joy guessed the girl to be in her late twenties, the same age as Brooke, but she didn’t look like one of Brooke’s friends, who were busy, polite young women with a lot on their minds. This girl had the grungy look that Amy favored, so it seemed most likely she was one of Amy’s friends. This made it difficult, because Amy moved in a variety of eclectic circles. Someone from that amateur theater group Amy had been so enthusiastic about for at least a week? A university friend? From her first abandoned degree? Second?