The Apple Tree

‘Why have you brought me here?  Who are all of these people?’

She looks as though she is starting to panic.

‘It’s fine, Mum.  I’ve brought you here so that you can watch me, remember?  I’m doing a speech.’

‘I don’t want you to leave me here, Caroline.  Don’t leave me on my own.’

‘I have to, Mum.  I’m supposed to be up there.  You’ll be fine, just stay here.’

‘Hi Caz.’

Oh, thank God.  ‘Ben.  Just the person.  Could you sit with Mum, while I go up?  She’s a bit stressed.’

‘No problem, Caz.’  He smiles at Mum, all antipodean charm and warmth.  Surely even Mum couldn’t resist him.  ‘Hi Mrs Johnson.’

‘Who is this, Caroline?  Who is that man?’

‘Don’t be rude, Mum.  This is my colleague, Ben.  He’ll stay with you.  I really have to go.’

I begin to push through the crowd, ignoring Mum’s shouts.  Marilyn is next to the stage, holding a sheaf of papers.

‘Where have you been?  I’ve been calling you.’

‘Mum,’ I say, nodding towards her and Ben.

‘Well there’s a problem.  Can you go and see Peter?’

‘What, now?  I’m supposed to be speaking in ten minutes.’

‘He said it couldn’t wait.  Maybe you could call him?’

I place my fingertips on my temples.  ‘Alright.  Alright.’  There it is.  A tied up feeling in my stomach.   ‘I suppose I’ll have to.’

‘Just make it quick,’ says Marilyn.  I want to stick my tongue out at her.  I find an exit and make my way out into a green corridor.  A university corridor, weary and blank.  I stand by a window and notice that the paint has begun to crumble away from the frame.


His voice sounds a thousand miles away.

‘Hi Peter.  Did you need to speak to me?’

He doesn’t reply at first.  ‘Yes.  There’s a problem with the manuscript.’

‘What do you mean?’

The phone starts to crackle.  ‘Peter.  Are you there?’

I move along the corridor, trying to get a better signal.  I hear the word ‘plagiarism.’  Then the phone goes dead.

I stare at it for a moment.  Then I switch it off, my hand shaking.  I turn back towards the hall.

Marilyn is over the other side now, speaking to some students.  I look down at my notes.  I have to do the speech.  It would be worse not to at this point.  I try to see Mum and Ben but the lecture hall is too crowded.

Then Ben’s in front of me, running his hand through his black hair.

‘She’s gone, Caz.  I can’t find your Mum.’

‘What?  What happened?’

‘I was talking.  I turned away for a few seconds and she was gone.  I’m so sorry.’

I look up at the stage.  The Chancellor is still in full flow.

‘He always runs over,’ says Ben.  ‘You’ve probably got about fifteen minutes.  I can call you when he’s finishing up if you want.’

I look at my phone, feeling nauseous.  ‘Alright,’ I say, turning it back on.  Almost immediately it begins to ring.  I put it in my pocket.

Ben is looking at me.  ‘Are you alright, Caz?’ he asks.  I nod.  ‘I’m so sorry about your Mum,’ he repeats.

‘It’s okay,’ I say.  I go back out of the same exit and begin to follow the corridor.  The phone has stopped ringing.

‘Mum,’ I call.  The corridor is empty and my voice echoes.  It seems eerie; too empty.

I realise that I’m back where I started.  The corridor has led me right around the lecture theatre.  There are some chairs beneath a glass covered notice board.  I sit and cover my eyes with my hands.


There she is.  She is sitting in a classroom, in the dark.

‘Mum!  What are you doing?’

‘I didn’t like it in there.  Too many people.  And that man smells funny.  Is he an Indian?’

‘Mum, you can’t just wander off.  Don’t you want to hear me speak?’

‘I’m tired.  There are too many people in there.’

‘Well, we have to go back.  Come on.’

‘I’m not going.  I’m fine right here.’

‘But Mum, I want you to be there.  It’s important for me.  It might be the last chance I get, to…’ My voice disappears.

‘No, Caroline.  I don’t want to.’

She is pouting, like a petulant child.  I grab her hand but she pulls it away sharply.

‘No.  Now stop being selfish.  You always were a selfish person.  I’m staying here.’

I fight the urge to scream at her.  ‘Mum, can’t you just come and listen?  This might be the most important moment in my whole career.  Please?’

She doesn’t move.  I feel tears beginning to push their way out.  I sit back down.

‘I’m in trouble, Mum,’ I say.

She comes to sit beside me.  ‘What did you do?’ she asks.

It seems ridiculous now that I begin to tell her.  ‘Last year.  I was struggling to write anything.  I just couldn’t concentrate.  Dad was ill and everything was just a bit off.’

‘So.  What happened?’

‘Millbank had asked me to do this story for one of their anthologies and I had nothing.  But then we started going through Dad’s things, do you remember?’

‘Yes.  So what?’

‘I found a story he’d written.  It was such a good story but I knew he would never have published it.  I thought it was safe.’

‘So you used it.’

I nodded.  ‘It wouldn’t have mattered except that it won an award.  And on the strength of that award I got my job.’

‘But now they’ve found out?’

I nod.  ‘I don’t know how.  But they know.  So really this speech is probably the last important thing I’ll ever do.’

Mum goes quiet.  ‘Was it the one about the apple tree?’ she asks.  I nod.  Then she starts laughing, a strange wheezing sound.

‘Well, thanks Mum.  That’s wonderfully supportive of you.’

She’s still laughing.  ‘I’m sorry, Caroline,’ she says.  ‘It’s just that – well, I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from that apple tree.’

I stare at her.  ‘What do you mean?’

‘He sent that story in to a competition and got a runner up prize.  But he stole it from one of my magazines.  Almost word for word.  He never got found out.  But it looks like you weren’t as lucky.’  She gives me an amused look.  ‘You always looked down on my magazines, didn’t you, with all of your qualifications?  It must really annoy you to think that you’ve based your whole career on one of them.’

I glare at her.  ‘You’re having fun, aren’t you?’

‘Oh, a little bit.  I’m sure you’ll see the funny side too eventually.’

‘I doubt that.’

My phone begins to ring.  Ben.

‘He’s nearly finished.  It’s time for the fat lady to sing.’  He waits for me to retort but I’m not in the mood.

‘Alright,’ I sigh.  ‘Wish me luck.’

I hang up and look back at Mum.  ‘Come on, Mum,’ I say.  To my surprise she stands up.

‘Well, let’s get this over with, shall we?’ she says.

We walk into the lecture hall.  The Chancellor has finished and Marilyn is looking around for me, frantically.  I wave to her and walk up to the podium.

I look down at my notes and then back at the audience.  I think about Mum’s magazines, the ones with recipes for coffee cake and letters from grandmothers about the funny things their grandchildren did.  I look at all of the faces in front of me, academic and expectant.

I start to laugh.  And then it won’t stop; the laughter squeezes out of me until tears are running down my face.  And still I keep laughing.


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