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Authors: Santa Montefiore

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BOOK: Meet Me Under The Ombu Tree
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‘You’d better not, or that sister of yours will be playing in your place,’ said Paco and watched Agustin scowl into his veal. Anna sighed loudly and shook her head, but Paco didn’t notice her. She pursed her lips and continued to eat in silence. She had accepted that Sofia played polo with her cousins, but that was a private thing within the family. Over my dead body will she play in a match in front of the Lobito family from La Paz, she thought angrily to herself.

Sofia meanwhile lolled in a warm bath filled with glittering white bubbles. She lay back and allowed her mind to focus on Santi. She knew she shouldn’t think of her cousin in that way. Padre Julio would give her twenty Hail Marys if he knew what lascivious thoughts gripped her loins with longing. Her mother

would cross herself and say that an infatuation of that sort wasn’t natural. To Sofia it was the most natural thing in the world.

She imagined him kissing her, and wondered what it would feel like. She had never kissed anyone. Well, she had kissed Nacho Estrada in the school playground because she had lost a bet, but that hadn’t been a proper kiss. Not the way two people who really loved each other kissed. She closed her eyes and pictured his hot honey face an inch away from hers, his full, smiling lips opening slightly before resting on her lips. She imagined his tourmaline-green eyes gazing into hers lovingly. When she couldn’t go any further than that because she wasn’t really sure what would happen next, she rewound the tape and started again until the bathwater had turned cold and the pads of her fingers resembled a wrinkled old iguana.

Chapter 3

Sofia awoke to the soft glimmer of dawn flickering through the gap in the curtains. She lay there a while listening to the first sounds of morning. The singing g
orriones
and
tordos
were a cheerful prelude to the day, hopping from branch to branch in the tall plane trees and poplars. She didn’t need to look at her watch to know that it was six o’clock; she always rose at six in the summer. Her favourite time of the day was early morning when the rest of the household were still asleep in their beds. She pulled on her jeans and T-shirt, tied her long dark plait with a red ribbon and slipped into her
alpargatas.

Outside, the sun was a hazy glow, emerging softly through the dawn mist. She skipped with a buoyant heart through the trees towards the
puesto
and polo field. Her feet barely touched the ground. Jose was already up and expecting her, traditionally clad in baggy
bombachas,
rich brown leather boots and his heavy
rastra,
decorated with large silver coins. Together with his son Pablo she would practise hitting the ball about, called stick and balling, for a couple of hours before breakfast under the experienced guidance of the old
gaucho.
Sofia was happiest on a pony; there she felt a freedom unmatched anywhere else in

her life, charging up and down the field while the rest of her family were far away and unaware.

At eight she gave the mare to Jose and made her way back through the trees towards home. As she went by, she glanced over at Santi’s house, half hidden behind an oak tree. Rosa and Encarnacion, their maids, in pristine white and pastel blue uniforms, were quietly laying out the breakfast table on the terrace but Santi was nowhere to be seen. He liked his sleep and rarely rose before eleven. Chiquita’s house was not like Anna’s; it was weathered pink with dusty-coloured roof tiles, bleached from the sun, and only had one floor. But Sofia loved her own house the best, with its gleaming bleached walls, dark green shutters somewhat obscured behind Virginia creeper and large round terracotta pots of geraniums and plumbago.

At home, Paco and Anna were already up and sipping coffee on the terrace, shaded from the sun under a large parasol. Grandpa O’Dwyer was practising card tricks on one of the skinny dogs who, hopeful for a scrap from the table, was unusually compliant. Paco, in a pink polo shirt and jeans, was sitting back in his chair reading the papers through the pair of glasses perched on the end of his hooked nose. As Sofia approached he put down the paper and poured

himself some more coffee.

‘Papa ...’ she began.

‘No.’

‘What? I haven’t even asked you yet,’ she laughed, bending down to kiss him.

‘I know what you’re going to ask me, Sofia, and the answer is no.’

She sat down and grabbed an apple, then noticing his mouth curve into a small smile she fixed him with her chestnut eyes and grinned back with a smile she reserved for him or her grandfather, childish and mischievous, but utterly charming.

‘Dale
Papa, I never get the chance to play, it’s so unfair! After all, Papito, you taught me how to play.’

‘Sofia, enough is enough!’ scolded her mother in exasperation. She couldn’t understand why her husband fell for it every time. ‘Papa has said no, now leave him alone and eat your breakfast decently - with a knife!’

Irritated, Sofia stabbed sulkily at her apple. Anna ignored her and leafed through a magazine. She could feel her daughter watching her out of the corner of her eye and her expression hardened with resolve.

‘Why don’t you let me play polo, Mama?’ she asked in English.

‘It’s just not ladylike, Sofia. You are a young woman, not a tomboy,’ she replied steadily.

‘Just because you don’t like horses ...’ Sofia mumbled petulantly.

‘That’s has got nothing to do with it.’

‘Yes it has. You want me to be like you, but I’m not like you - I’m like Papa.
No es cierto, Papa?
1

‘What were you talking about?’ asked Paco, who hadn’t been listening to their conversation. He tended to lose interest when they spoke English. At that moment Rafael and Agustin staggered out into the light like a couple of vampires, squinting uncomfortably into the sunshine. They had spent the best part of the dawn at the small nightclub in town. Anna put down the magazine and watched tenderly as they approached.

‘Definitely too bright,’ groaned Agustin. ‘My head is killing me.’

‘What time did you two get back last night?’ she asked sympathetically.

‘About five a.m. Mama. I could have slept all morning,’ replied Rafael, kissing her unsteadily. ‘What’s up, Sofia?’

‘Nothing,’ she snapped, narrowing her eyes. ‘I’m going to the pool.’ And off she flounced. Once she had gone, Anna picked up her magazine again and smiled wearily at her sons in a manner they were both familiar with.

Today is going to be a bad day,’ she sighed. ‘Sofia is very upset that she isn’t allowed to play in the match.’

l
Por Dios
, Papa - no way is she going to play!’

‘Papa, you’re not seriously considering it, are you?’ choked Agustin.

Anna was thrilled that for once her capricious daughter hadn’t managed to manipulate her father and she smiled at him gratefully, placing her hand briefly on his.

‘For the moment I’m only thinking about whether to have butter on my
media luna,
to have toast with
membrillo
or to have nothing but coffee. That is the only decision I feel like making this morning,’ he replied and picking up the paper disappeared behind it once more.

‘What was all that about, Anna Melody?’ asked Grandpa O’Dwyer who didn’t understand a word of Spanish. He belonged to the generation that expected everyone to speak English. Having lived in Argentina for sixteen years he had never even attempted to learn the language. Instead of picking up the essential phrases, the staff at Santa Catalina had found themselves having to interpret

his gestures or the few words of Spanish that he would attempt in a very slow, very loud voice. When they raised their hands and shrugged in despair he would mutter irritably, ‘You’d have thought they’d have picked it up by now!’ and shuffle off to find someone who could translate for him.

‘She wants to play in the polo match,’ replied Anna, humouring him.

‘Bloody good idea. Show those boys a thing or two.’

The water was cold against her skin as Sofia cut through the surface. Furiously she carved her way up and down the pool until she sensed she was being watched. Rising to the surface she noticed Maria.


Hold
.' ’ she spluttered, catching her breath.

‘What’s up with you?’

‘Don’t ask, I’m completely
loca
with irritation!’

‘The match? Your father won’t let you play?’ she said, stepping out of her white cotton shorts and stretching out on the sunbed.

‘How did you guess?’

‘Call it intuition - you’re easy to read, Sofia.’

‘Sometimes, Maria, I could quite happily throttle my mother.’

‘Couldn’t we all,’ replied Maria, pulling her lotions out of her tidy floral bag. ‘Oh no, you have no idea, your mother is a saint - a goddess from heaven. Chiquita is the sweetest person alive - I wish she were my mother.’

‘I know, I’m very lucky,’ conceded Maria who was the first to appreciate the good relationship she had with her mother.

‘I just wish Mama would leave me alone. It’s because I’m the youngest and the only girl,’ Sofia complained, climbing up the steps and taking her place alongside her cousin on one of the other sunbeds.

‘I suppose having Panchito takes up most of Mama’s attention.’

‘Wish I had a younger brother instead of those two oafs. Agustin is such a nightmare, he’s always getting at me. It’s the way he looks at me with that superior expression of his.’

‘Rafa’s kind to you.’

‘Rafa’s okay. No, Agustin’s got to go. I wish he’d leave and study abroad. I’d love to see the back of him, I really would.’

‘You never know, your wish might be granted.’

‘If you mean the tree, I’ve got more important wishes to ask for,’ Sofia told her, and smiled to herself. She didn’t want to waste one on Agustin.

‘So, what are you going to do about the match?’ Maria asked, smoothing oil onto her voluptuous thighs.
l
Quemada, no?
1

‘Yes, you’re black, you look like one of the Indians! Hey, give me some. Thank God I haven’t inherited Mama’s red hair and pale skin - poor Rafa, he just goes as pink as a monkey’s bottom.’

‘So, come on, what are you going to do?’

Sofia sighed deeply. ‘I surrender,’ she said dramatically, raising her arms in the air.

‘Sofia, that’s not like you.’ Maria was a little disappointed.

‘Well, I haven’t devised a plan yet - anyway, I don’t know if I can really be bothered. Though it would be worth it just to see Mama and Agustin’s faces.’

Just then she was swept up from the sunbed by two very strong arms and before she could work out what was happening, found herself at once in the air and then in the water, sunglasses and all, struggling to free herself.

‘Santi!’ she gasped happily, coming up for air.
‘Boludo!’
Lunging at him, she pushed his grinning head under the water. To her delight he grabbed her in a bear hug around her hips and pulled her down with him where they wrestled together until they were forced to shoot up to the surface to breathe. Sofia wished they could fight some more but found herself reluctantly following him to the edge.

Thanks a bunch. I was just beginning to cook.' she said at last when she had regained her breath.

‘You looked far too hot to me, like one of Jose’s sausages. I was doing you a favour.' he replied.

‘Some favour.’

‘So, Chofi, you’re not playing this afternoon?’ he goaded. ‘You’ve really wound your brothers up like two clockwork mice.’

‘Good, they needed their cages rattling a bit.'

‘You didn’t really think Paco would let you, did you?’

‘If you have to know - yes, I thought I could get around Papa.’

Santi smirked in amusement, the lines around his eyes and mouth creasing in a way that was particular only to him. He looks so handsome when he smiles, thought Sofia to herself.

‘If anyone can get around old Paco, then you can - what went wrong?’

‘Let me spell it for you: M-A-M-A.’

‘Oh, I see. No hope then?’

‘None.’

Santi climbed out and sat on the hot paving stones; his chest and arms were already covered in soft, sandy-coloured hair that the young Sofia found curiously intriguing.

‘Chofi, you have to prove to your father that you can play as well as Agustin,’ he suggested, pushing his dripping blond hair away from his eyes.

‘You know I can play as well as Agustin. Jose knows I can - ask him.’

‘It doesn’t matter what I think, or what Jose thinks - the only person you have to impress is your father... or mine.’

Sofia squinted thoughtfully for a moment.

‘What are you plotting now?’ he asked, amused.

‘Nothing,’ she replied coyly.

‘I know you, Chofi...’

‘Oh look, we’re being invaded,’ said Maria as Chiquita and her youngest, three-year-old Panchito, neared the pool surrounded by five or six of the other cousins.

‘Come on, Santi,’ said Sofia, making for the steps. ‘Let’s get out of here.’ Then as an afterthought she turned to her cousin. ‘Maria, are you coming?’

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