Dead on 5.30, Julia headed out of the office for the cinema where she and Simon were meeting to see The Graduate.
Simon belonged to a close-knit Jewish family of chocolatiers in the grand tradition of Franz Sacher (he of the torte) who’d fled from Vienna at the Anschluss. Comfortably off, theirs was an imposing house in an exclusive Manchester neighbourhood where they presided over a high-end confiserie empire, their surname eventually morphing into the neutral sounding Leigh.
Julia’s busy GP parents were nominally Anglican. Julia’s older brother had followed them into the medical profession and it was through him that Simon, a former classmate and keen cello player, came to know Julia, an indifferent violinist, now aged 23, secretary to a junior partner in a local law firm, and inveigled her into his amateur string quintet.
Not for the first time that evening, Simon nervously fingered the little red velvet covered box in his trouser pocket. He’d blown three month’s trust fund income on a whopping solitaire ring. Only the best would do for Julia – she was his diamond. Julia had met the Leighs on several occasions and was terrified of his mother. At the Passover meal after Julia had incautiously partaken of several helpings, served by a uniformed maid, of a divinely moist, flourless, voluptuous chocolate cake richly double glazed with the finest dark chocolate, Mrs Leigh had seized on that as licence to subject her to a fierce interrogation.
Whenever Simon visited Julia who lived with her parents in somewhat chaotic surroundings a medical emergency blew up. They’d welcome him warmly, wave him to a sagging armchair and turf off the dog, uncork a bottle of supermarket wine and disappear in a flurry of instructions to Julia to defrost a pizza and open a tin of rice pudding.
Will you marry me? didn’t come entirely as a surprise to Julia as Simon had been dropping heavy hints for weeks. Still, it was a dream come true. She loved Simon more than she thought possible. Just as important was his assured future in a business that, given the British predilection for chocolate, would never go bust, and, even better, she wouldn’t be expected to earn a living.
Simon was mad about Julia. Romances with a couple of girls in the accounts department of the family firm had been short-lived followed by an even briefer one with the Rabbi’s doe-eyed daughter who still regarded him reproachfully. And he was desperately lonely after close friends had joined the 1960s brain drain to the USA.
‘Mum, Dad, I’ve something to tell you.’ Simon announced one evening.
Mrs Leigh gazed indulgently at her son. She’d suspected love was in the air and had said as much to her husband a few days earlier. ‘If I’m not mistaken we’re going to have an addition to the family.’
‘Another grandchild, how nice! And whose is it?’
‘It’s not that – well, at least not yet. It’s our Simon who’s getting engaged.’
Mr Leigh felt like deflated soufflé. Simon was his favourite child; they had a strong bond and together had somehow found the nerve, not often, mind, to stand up to his wife. His Simon belonging to someone else. Things wouldn’t be the same. ‘Oh.’
‘Now pull yourself together. She can’t take Simon away from us. Things won’t change.’ Mrs Leigh would make sure they did not.
Mr Leigh didn’t let on he’d seen Julia and Simon kissing outside the cinema. Indeed it wasn’t the first time he’d seen them embracing but he wasn’t going to tell his wife. His motto was sufficient unto the day. ‘But isn’t it odd Simon has kept stumm?’ Give the old girl food for thought.
Mrs Leigh didn’t see the warning shot across the bows. ‘Well, he’s a reserved lad. We can’t expect our children to be like peas in a pod.’
Simon took a deep breath. ‘I’m engaged and we’re planning a summer wedding.’
Mrs Leigh gave a delighted screech and hugged him. ‘ Somehow I knew you and Rabbi Cohen’s daughter were courting. My, you’re a dark horse. She’ll make an ideal wife and mother.’ She bit back the word biddable. ‘This is the best news for a long time. I…’
‘Mum, wait.’ Simon raised his voice to cut off her burbling. ‘I’m talking about Julia.’
Mr Leigh cast his eyes down, too scared to look at his wife.
‘ Julia? That girl you brought to the Seder? You must be joking.’
Simon didn’t flinch. ‘We adore each other and she’s the best thing that has happened to me.’
Mrs Leigh clenched her fists feeling as if her world had fallen in. ‘You do know,’ she said slowly as if addressing a rather dim child, ‘that no one in this family has ever married out. You’re not going to be the first. ’
‘Dad!’ Simon bleated desperately.
Mr Leigh squirmed. ‘You know I must support your mother.’
‘That goes without saying.’ Mrs Leigh rounded on him.
‘We’ll marry with or without your blessing. We’ll elope if necessary,’ Simon said, surprising himself. He got to his feet.
‘Sit down. Do her parents know?’
‘She’s telling them tonight.’
‘Simon’s a dear,’ Julia’s mother beamed, highly relieved. She’d wondered whether her plain, decidedly average, although admittedly sweet natured, daughter would ever leave home given that young men hadn’t exactly beaten a path to her door. A sudden thought occurred to her, ‘Darling, are you preggers?’
Julia shook her head.
‘Well, not that would make any difference,’ her mother continued briskly. ‘We’d rally round. When do we meet his family?’
They never did. Somehow Simon was persuaded by Mrs Leigh to defer the wedding until he had completed an MBA at a prestigious business school in America where her promise of a permanent endowment got him enrolled at short notice. The day before he boarded the flight, he slipped out to see Julia and since it was Hanukah handed her a small mesh bag containing Hanukah gelt, coin shaped pieces of dark, sweet chocolate wrapped in gold foil that was traditionally presented to children. ‘You’re more precious to me than all the gold in the world.’
Julia and Simon exchanged passionate letters. They missed each other terribly. One weekend he and a pretty sophomore got utterly pissed and ended up in bed together. Ten weeks later she announced she was expecting. Simon never wrote to Julia again and she later learned that he’d wed and returned home with his bride, who hailed from a nice Jewish family in Atlanta, to run the new Edinburgh branch of the family business. They had a son and a daughter.
Julia was heartbroken. The dull solicitor to whom she was secretary was under pressure from his parents to tie the knot. Her friends were matching and hatching so she accepted his proposal and after several arid, loveless years, a precious daughter was born. Whenever Julia felt at the end of her tether she’d fish out the bag of Hanukah gelt and it consoled her to know she’d loved and been much loved.
‘He’s wonderful, Mum,’ Simone said.
Julia smiled. ‘He is.’ She was much taken with the dark haired, soulful eyed Julius Grantley who Simone, now twenty six, had met in Hong Kong at a wedding where guests had gorged on fortune choccis – an ingenious spin on the usual cookies – confected by the Chinese branch of Leigh Chocolatiers – dark roundels of the finest chocolate linked by scarlet ribbon and a tiny, edible scroll. Simone with her fair hair and blue eyes was an angelic contrast. ‘He’ll make you very happy. When do we met his family?’
‘Simone’s perfect for you,’ Julius’s father declared. ‘Thank God you’ve the sense to snap her up before anyone else.’
Simone drove Julia to the restaurant where Julius’s father was hosting the getting –to- know- you dinner. Julia’s husband, now senior partner and as tight fisted and tedious as ever was absent claiming he was advising an important client in a takeover bid but promised to swing by later. Julia was past caring.
Julia and Simon stared at each other and thirty years liquefied. But the evening belonged to the young ones so they said nothing. Simon’s American wife had soon tired of him and returned to the US with their children corrupting their surname to include her maiden name during a bitter custody battle. Julia’s husband had been cheating on her for ages with a succession of nubile assistants but he’d fought a divorce given she’d be entitled to share his pension.
Julia slipped home only to retrieve the Hanukah gelt. A few days later she and Simon flew off in first class to a game sanctuary in Kenya where’d they once planned to honeymoon, thereafter returning to Edinburgh where she made his house a place where love dwelled. Forced by his mistress to divorce Julia, what rankled more with Julia’s husband than her dumping him was that she’d no need of alimony.