“Mum rang,” Laura said, trying to sound as casual as she could with her jaws clenched.
“Oh. There’s nothing wrong is there?” Steve, her husband, said. Concern clouded his warm brown eyes. He’d been out working all day and she didn’t want to bother him, but still…
“Depends how you look at it,” she replied, biting her bottom lip. Her insides churned with anxiety.
Steve pulled her into his arms and sighed heavily. “Go on then, tell me.”
Laura nestled her head into his broad shoulders. She’d always found comfort there, no matter how serious the problem. Steve had a way of making even big difficulties appear trivial. She took a deep breath and said, “It’s Pops’ birthday next week. He’s planning a barbie.” Pops was Laura’s grandfather and famous in the family for his dire culinary skills.
“Oh,” he said nodding with understanding. “Well, it might not be so bad this time.” He hugged her tighter.
Not so bad? It could hardly be worse than the last one. It was a few years ago now but she’d never forget it. It was one of those days that lodged in your memory like a bad smell in a small room.
It had been her twenty-ninth birthday and was Laura dreading it. Not the birthday, although twenty-nine sounded almost middle-aged, but her grandfather’s insistence on having a barbie to celebrate. She hated barbecued food, burnt prawns and inedible kebabs moulded with meat of indeterminate origin seasoned to taste like minted lamb or the euphemistically called ranch house flavouring. The smoke always made her cough and her eyes water. Seeing her grandfather let loose with firelighters and matches set alarm bells clanging in her head. She recalled the beach party when he’d had to be restrained from setting light to the fire using petrol from the garage. The potatoes he’d pushed into the roaring flames were blackened and unappetising but he swore they were ‘Bonza -the best he’d ever tasted.’
She ‘d visualised cremated crayfish, sausages, burgers and chicken pieces charred to a cinder on the outside but a glutinous pink inside. It was her birthday and she’d have preferred a sophisticated dinner party with a tasty roast, delicious desert, and generous helpings of cool crisp Chardonnay, accompanied by clinking glasses, lively conversations and lots of laughter, but Pops was so enthusiastic she didn’t have the heart to refuse.
She didn’t want to disappoint Pops, so she invited all her friends and made a special effort to look her best. She bought a new dress and brushed her long dark hair to a glossy sheen. She spent hours over her make-up, painted her nails and sprayed on her most expensive perfume.
On the day the weather was gloriously hot, the garden blazed with colour, full blown Strelizia bowed in the breeze their heady scent mingling with the salt smell wafting in from the sea. Her dad had rigged up the stereo in the garden so she could play her favourite music, the beer and wine flowed and soon everyone was enjoying themselves. Perhaps having a barbie wasn’t such a bad idea after all, she thought.
Then Pops noticed the absence of anything cooked on Laura’s plate.
“You’ve nothing but salad,” he said. “No worries, I’ll give you a hand.” He picked up a couple of sooty chook legs with his tongs. Laura backed away. “No really, I’ve had plenty. I guess I’m just not that hungry.”
“Rubbish. Growing Shelia like you. Come on now, what’ll you have.” He glared at Laura.
“No, really, I’m off meat. Cholesterol you know.” She beamed him her best smile but he wasn’t to be defeated.
“I’ve got just the thing,” he said. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with an ice-covered, glassy-eyed, snapper out of the freezer. He placed it on the barbie next to the oozing-fat burgers and blackened sausages.
“Won’t take a minute” he called.
Laura watched in dismay as the melting ice sizzled onto the coals below, releasing clouds of smoke and turning the coals to grey ash. Pops’ face fell.
Not to be deterred he went to the garage to fetch a blow-lamp which he lit directing its flames onto the now smoke-blackened fish. Under the intense heat the fish’s skin blistered exposing pustules of pink flesh.
Encouraged by his success Pops tried to turn the fish over, wielding his tongs in one hand while wrestling with the blow-lamp in the other. The fish, its body all-but destroyed, fell apart; its head rested on the bars of the grill while its tail fell through to nestle on the coals. Half of its body remained in Pop’s tongs while the rest disintegrated in a flurry of black skin and pink flesh.
Pop’s jaw dropped. Holding the half fish in mid-air he attempted to put the blow-lamp on the nearby table. Perched precariously on the empty fire-lighter box, it toppled. As it fell the flames caught the leg of Pops’ trousers, then it lay on its side shrivelling the grass in a black line to the base of the fence.
Pop’s trousers smouldered. He felt a burning sensation, yelled, jumped backwards and flung the fish into the air. It spun in an arc and landed on the lawn in front of the barbie where it was pounced on by next door’s cat.
Pops continued dancing around in circles, hopping from foot to foot as his trousers gently smouldered until Ben, Laura’s brother, with a rare flash of inspiration, scooped a bucket of green water, teeming with garden insects, from the rainwater barrel and threw it over Pops. Reeling sideways from the shock of the cold smelly water, Pops careered into the Barbie sending it crashing to the ground, scattering still hot coals over the flowerbed and setting light to the parched herbaceous border. The cat, alarmed by the shower of sparks, screeched and jumped at Laura, plunging its claws into her new Stella McCartney frock.
Laura screamed. The cat’s weight gradually pulled it earthwards accompanied by the sound of ripping fabric.
By this time the fire had reached the fence. Laura shuddered at the memory.
“Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad,” Steve chuckled. “Anyway if it wasn’t for the barbie I’d never have met you.” He kissed the top of her head. “My loss,” he said.
Laura smiled, her face softened. How could she forget that was the day he walked into her life turning it upside down. Gut-wrenchingly handsome in his Fireman’s uniform, she’d fallen faster than a cat down a well. As soon as she gazed into his chocolate brown eyes, like deep pools she wanted to dive into, she was hooked and she’d never wanted to wriggle free since. Her heart swelled at the memory.
“Hmm,” she said, snuggling closer to him, “Perhaps a barbie’s not such a bad idea after all.
(First published in Take a Break Fiction Feast )
If you enjoyed this story there are 20 more in THE CAPPUCCINO COLLECTION available here.