Lisa spent quite some time patting her cousin's back to make her stop crying, but only a few minutes after that to convince her that, really, there was no need to fret about the food for Jemmy's birthday party; she and Nina would take care of it.
Somehow, she sounded much less convincing to her own ears when she told Nina.
"Hamburgers," Nina said, distaste dripping through the word like rancid grease.
"Yes. Apparently they're having a cowboy theme, so I suggested beans on toast, but Mary wouldn't hear of it. Which I can understand, though I do think her little group of preschooler parents seems very competitive."
Though Nina didn't answer, her face spoke so clearly that Lisa squirmed a little and asked, ”What's wrong?”
”What's wrong? Oh, you know what is, don't act it! You agreed for both of us without asking me. You assumed I wanted to cook on my day off. And it's bloody hamburgers!”
”Children like hamburgers.”
”Children like a lot of things! Korma, tandoori, chicken tikka masala! I could have made any one of those.”
”I'm sorry, I...” Lisa paused. ”Wait, it's the hamburgers you're upset about? Not that I didn't ask you?”
”I'm perfectly capable of being upset about all of it at once,” Nina said. ”Although, yes, mostly the hamburgers.”
”Why? You grilled hamburgers for three years.”
”Which is why I hate them and swore never to return to them.”
Lisa stuck the nail of her thumb in her mouth and chewed on it. ”Then, perhaps, I could make the hamburgers, and you could make some dressing? Unless you have a vow to cover dressings.”
Nina pondered in silence for a moment, her lips pursed but starting to curve upwards.
”I am very sorry for not asking you first,” Lisa said meekly.
”You owe me,” Nina said. ”So very, very much.”
”I know. I could... make it up to you.”
Nina smiled at the suggestive note in Lisa's voice, but shook her head. ”Oh, no. It won't be that easy. I need a proper favour. Something like...” She hesitated a moment, then mimicked holding a telephone and said, ”Kary? Of course, I'd love to babysit! I completely understand, colic is rough on the parents. One thing, though, Nina's busy that night, so it'll just be me. That's fine, right?”
Lisa groaned, but relented. ”All right. God, you're tough!”
Nina smiled, and leaned in to tap Lisa on the nose. ”Better remember that, for next time!”
They agreed to take turns to use the kitchen for preparations. It wasn't that Nina found hamburgers so abhorrent she couldn't stand even being near them – it would have caused quite some problems for the party, had that been the case – she was just afraid that if she saw what Lisa was doing, she might be tempted to help out or, God forbid, take over.
So instead she paced herself, read some books, watched some movies, marvelled at how both Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Jerusalem solved their love triangles the same way, made some changes to the restaurant's menu, and called some of her London friends.
Only when Lisa went off to quarrel with the accountant did Nina return to the kitchen, with ingredients both for her dressings and her contingency plans.
She hadn't expected to fret so much over silly old Worchester sauces and Thousand Island dressings. The kids wouldn't mind if things weren't perfect. Kids ate their own snot, for crying out loud. Still, she kept comparing recipes, smoothing their surfaces and trying out different measures of spices.
Bobbi came knocking when she was on her third Thousand Island, and she was quite grateful to let him in and take some pressure off her spinning mind.
”Working on your day off?” he said, blowing her an admiring kiss when he saw what she'd been doing. ”You're such a dedicated girl! But what's this? It's so... pink.”
”Thousand Island dressing,” she said with a sigh.
His hand stopped mid-gesture, and he slowly raised his gaze from the bowl to her. ”Why on earth would you make such a thing?”
That was one of the reasons she loved Bobbi – he had the right perspective of things.
She told him about the party and watched his shifting expressions upon hearing the tale.
”Can't you just tell them you're the wrong kind of Indian for a cowboy party?” he suggested lightly.
”Very funny.” There was a smudge of paprika powder on the table, and she used her thumb to brush it into a little square and then wipe it off. ”Lisa has to be there, I might as well join her. For support and all that. And I don't want her cousins to think I'm some rubbish girlfriend who'd put her in a bind.”
”Aww, you're giving up your principles for love! The nice!”
She flicked the dressing-filled spoon at him, and he pulled off his scarf and caught her in it, pulling her close. ”Better take care, though, Nina-bina. Don't sacrifice too many of them.”
Nina leaned into the hug, and her face softened as she saw, through Bobbi's half-transparent scarf, Lisa step into the kitchen. The scarf falling down, Nina could also see that there was a black smudge of graphite on Lisa's lower lip, and several locks of hair had fallen down from her ponytail. Between her eyebrows, a wrinkle was slowly dissipating, and she was rubbing at her neck.
Even after all this time, the sight was enough for Nina's stomach to do a backflip, and she smiled.
”Don't worry,” she told Bobbi. ”I know where to draw the line.”
Mary's house was much too quiet, which made Lisa extra cautious when she stepped inside. She kept waiting for the other shoe – or child, as it might be – to drop. There were traces of them in the hallway: a plastic turtle on the floor, a blue handprint on the bathroom door. Yet there was no sight of the source.
Perhaps Nina sensed that something was wrong, because she squirmed and said, ”I'll unload the food, you go ahead.”
Lisa nodded, eyes fixed straight ahead. ”All right.”
”Thanks ever so much, love,” Mary said. ”Come on, Lisa, we're in the garden.”
Lisa followed her cousin into the back yard, 'garden' being a word she'd personally never use for the place. She pushed open the door and took the few steps down. At the sight of the people gathered, she involuntarily backed up the steps again, bumping into Mary.
”Oh! Take care, now!” Mary said and ushered her down.
”Right, yes,” Lisa said. Her first impression had been that there were about forty children there, but upon closer look she saw that there could be no more than ten at the most; it was just that they appeared to be in four places at once. They all gave off great hollers and shot at each other with their water or cap guns, and she couldn't help smiling.
The smile widened as she spotted a pair of round blue eyes in a teenage face that still had some signs of baby fat. ”Brian! Haven't you grown!”
He laughed and winced at the same time as he came up to hug her.
”I'm sorry,” she added. ”Am I a hopeless old relative?”
”A little bit. But I'm used to it. How is Auntie Roe?”
Nina came up to them while they chatted, arms full of boxes.Lisa took some of her load, put her free arm around Nina, and said, ”This is Brian, my youngest and most well-behaved cousin. Brian, this is my girl, Nina.”
”I know,” he said. ”I saw you on the telly.” Having said this, he blushed all the way up to his hairline.
”Oh?” Nina asked, the deadpan expression on her face a give-away to anyone who knew her as well as Lisa did. ”So what did you think?”
”It was good,” he assured them, blush deepening. ”You were very... uh... very... I think the grill's almost ready.”
With that, he rushed off, and Lisa choked down a snicker.
”Oh, dear,” said Nina. ”Well, I suppose it's not much more awkward than actually coming out.”
”And nowhere near as awkward as it'll be if my hamburgers aren't up to par,” Lisa said. She shifted the boxes and nodded towards the grill. ”Come on. I'm counting on you for moral support and redemption through dressing.”
The first few hamburgers were burned on the outside and raw on the inside, but once the coals had cooled some, the meat stopped sticking to the grid. Lisa flipped a dozen burgers or so, and all was well, until the children lined up to eat and one of the smallest bairns started hollering his lungs out.
”Don't want hambers!” he cried. ”Want beasa toes! Want beasa tooooooes!”
His mother tried to soothe him, to no avail, and finally looked up at Lisa in desperate apology. ”He's a fussy eater. I'm so sorry.”
”No problem,” said Lisa, and added with a grin to Mary, ”I knew we should have chosen the beans to begin with.”
”Oh, shush, you.” Mary hoisted the little boy up on her hip and said, ”Don't cry, duckie. Let's go into the kitchen, and Auntie Mary will make you some nice beans on toast.”
They disappeared into the house, the child's cries fading both with the distance and the attention. A few minutes later, Mary popped out her head again, alone, and asked, ”Lisa, what are those boxes in the fridge?”
Nina swallowed her mouthful of water, jumped up, and said, ”I'll handle it. Just... go on cooking.”
With that, she rushed inside, and Lisa remained where she was for a while longer, grilling some more burgers, frowning down on them as she thought. Eventually, she called, ”Brian, can you take over here for a while?” There were only a few raw hamburgers left, if he botched them there was no real harm done, and anyone could add the toppings.
The little boy didn't seem to be crying anymore, which was encouraging. In fact, there was no sound at all coming from the kitchen, no conversation or anything. She stepped inside just in time to see Nina take two steaming bowls of something red from the microwave.
”What's that?” Lisa asked. ”Is it...?”
Nina made a move as if to hide the bowls, but stopped and held them out instead. That particular nuance was unmistakeable.
”It's your chicken tikka masala?” Lisa asked.
”It's just... contingency plans.”
”Uh-huh. In case the hamburgers were inedible?” Lisa asked, amused. There was something in her own voice that rang wrong to her, yet somehow still familiar.
”No... well, it...” Nina squirmed a little. ”It could as well have been the dressings.”
”Oh, I'm sure you have complete confidence in your dressings.” It was with a bit of a start that she realized that the strange tone was her mother's. All those times, had mum only been joking?
Mary started eating, watching them both with a cynical expression. The child scrunched up his face, but didn't say anything.
”Yes, all right,” Nina admitted. ”In case the hamburgers were inedible. And in case I couldn't cope with them. Recent trauma and all that.”
Lisa snorted. ”Twit. Well, I suppose...” She thought about it, and said slowly, ”Does this make us even? I made plans without consulting you, and you showed no confidence in my abilities.”
”I suppose it does,” Nina said with a grimace. ”What a rubbish way to run a relationship!”
”Good thing we love each other madly, then!”
”Good thing,” Nina agreed and pulled her closer. Lisa bent in, enjoying the warm scent of skin and shampoo – and the masala, which even reheated in the microwave was mouth-watering. ”Oh! Can I have a bowl? Or do you just want to fatten up my cousin?”
”It's worth the weight,” said Mary around another mouthful.
Nina stuck a piece of chicken into Lisa's mouth and scooped some food into another bowl.
At this point, the child apparently came to the conclusion that the adults were deliberately excluding him, because he gave off a shriek: ”Want! Want! Want!”
”Oh, drat!” said Mary. ”The beans! I'll get right to them, love!”
”No! Want THAT!”
”You want some masala?” Nina asked, a victorious grin spreading over her face. She doled out another bowl and put them both in the microwave, before turning to Lisa. ”I told you children like it!”
”Mm.” Lisa pressed a kiss to the corner of Nina's mouth. ”I grovel at your feet, milady.”
”Oh? I don't see you doing it.”
Lisa sank down to her knees and bent her head down. ”Milady, your skills are unsurpassed...”
”Hey, Lisa,” a male voice said from the doorway, ”what happened to...”
The voice trailed off, and Lisa shook the hair from her face to peer up at Brian, who was staring at the scene as if they'd decided to throw a panto in the kitchen. Which was, perhaps, not so far from the truth.
”Is it some sort of game?” he asked. ”Because they're pretty rowdy outside, and...” He sniffed the air. ”What's that you're eating? And can I have some?”
”Chicken tikka masala, and of course,” said Nina. She gently backed away from Lisa and got another bowl ready.
”Brought enough for everyone, have you?” asked Lisa.
”As a matter of fact, I have. Pity about the microwaving.”
”Not at all. The microwaving is a godsend.” Lisa stood up and wrapped her arms around Nina. ”The microwaving means that Mary – properly bribed and all – is now in charge of further provisions.”
”Oh, am I?” asked Mary.
”You are. You can recruit Brian if you like. I will be celebrating the brilliance of my culinary goddess girlfriend.” Lisa started pulling Nina towards the stairs, but halted and came back for their bowls of food. ”Sorry, Mary.”
Mary shrugged. ”I suppose it's cheap payment for such brilliant caterers. Second door on the right, and don't drip on the sheets!”
Nina stopped at the foot of the staircase, holding on to Lisa's hands. She raised an eyebrow. ”Thinking what I'm thinking?”
”Drip on us? On the side not facing the sheets?”
”Oh, telepathy!” Nina fed her girlfriend another piece of chicken. ”Now, that's a good and healthy sign for a relationship. I think we just may last.”