“My daughter is home for Christmas,” said Milady Natalie. She waved a powdered white hand languorously in the direction of a chubby girl with red cheeks and straggly blonde hair that looked both dyed and dead. “She will be determining the menus for lunch for the two weeks that she is here. You may assume that she has my authority in all culinary decisions.”
“My name’s Jenna,” said the chubby girl and smiled. I blanched a little, because I’d been likening her head to a beetroot and beetroot don’t (normally) have teeth, then rallied and smiled back. “And mummy, you said I’d be in charge!”
“One thing at a time, dear,” said Milady Natalie, her eyes rolling slowly upwards in her head, a sure sign that she’d started on the laudanum early today. “Let us see how you fare with the lunch menu before you take over duties as head of the household. Don’t forget, you have one more year at university to complete in… what is your course is again?” Her voice grew gradually more stretched out and quieter as the length of the sentence wore her out, but Jenna seemed neither to notice nor to care.
“I’m studying Business Politics,” she snapped, her jowls quivering a little and reminding me that I had a pork cheek in brine waiting for use. I licked my lips involuntarily. “I’ll be specialising in Mergers and Take-aways next year.”
“How delightful,” droned Milady Natalie, her eyelids now drooping as well. “Indian or Chinese?”
“What?” Jenna looked stonily at her mother, her lips pressed together and going almost cross-eyed in her attempts to look down her nose.
“You said Takeaways, dear. Indian or Chinese? I remember you can’t eat Thai because you get that rash all over your pubis–“
“Pas devant les enfants!” said Jenna, staring at me intently. I half-smiled, and tried to look puzzled, as though a master chef would have no idea at all about French. “I meant take-overs, obviously mummy. Why must you be so silly about these things?”
“Silly?” breathed Milady Natalie, and fell asleep.
“I’m experimenting with veganism,” said Jenna. The kitchen was in full swing: the butler was in the corner mixing up fresh laudanum for Milady Natalie and the boot-boy was helping him, learning how to extract the opium from the poppies using alcohol. I grew the poppies amongst the edible garden flowers on the grounds that Milady Natalie would never notice if they got a little mixed up. My sous-chef was removing the pork-cheek from the tub of brine, and his sous-chef (the line-chef, but we gave him the better title because he was only 19, spotty and nervous around everything but insects) was making egg pasta.
“Isn’t that illegal?” I said, setting down the pen I was using to calligraph today’s menu. Luckily I’d only planned out tea and supper so far.
“Experimenting on Vegans? My understanding was that they’re actually human too, just a little bit different to the rest of us. Like… oh I don’t know, Republicans or Human Resource Managers.”
“What’s a republican? And how are Human Resource Managers not human?” There was a note of frustration in her voice that I found irresistible.
“I thought you were doing Business Politics at an American college? I assumed that both of those roles would be frequent topics of conversation.”
“I’m at Brown,” she said, aggression flaring up like an oil field struck by lightning. “And that means I’m cleverer than you, Mister cooking-man.” She punctuated her words by jabbing her finger into my chest. I looked down at the finger, and she whipped it up to flick my nose. “No man cooks unless he’s gay,” she sneered. “So you’re not even a real man, are you?” Behind her, my sous-chef (who's had more boyfriends than he’s prepared hot meals if I believe his stories) picked up a filleting knife and the line-cook (who’s easily led) gripped the large pot of boiling pasta water. I shook my head, and she thought I was I talking to her.
“I thought not,” she said. “Now, for lunch we will be eating vegan food. So no meat. Got that?”
“No meat,” I repeated, shaking my head again as neither my sous-chef nor the line-cook looked any less murderous. “Perhaps then just tête de veau avec saucissons?”
“Perfect!” she said, a sudden smile appearing on her face. I smiled, very faintly, and wondered if she ever washed her face properly: it was a playground for blackheads and other blemishes. She made the line-cook look handsome, and although he tried, he clearly had a face he needed to grow into. “Write that down, and I shall give it to mummy, so you’d better serve exactly what you’ve just said.”
“It’ll be a pleasure,” I said, knowing full well that Milady Natalie hated waste and would insist on her daughter eating the food she’d requested. “I’ll get the largest tête de veau I can find.”