Kizzy's Kitchen by Lucy Nankivell

‘I know!’ I snap at James, who hasn’t said a word. ‘I know she’s a wonderful hostess. And an amazing cook. But she’s so creepy.’ 

‘How do you mean?’ 

‘The way she fusses around all the time. The way she’s constantly pressing things on everyone – up and down from the table, nobody allowed to help themselves, never letting you forget all the trouble she’s taking … if she’s always like that it must drive Max insane.’ I stop, realising how unfair I’m being. 

‘Max looks comfortable enough to me.’ He doesn’t add that Max probably likes being fed on demand and waited on hand and foot. ‘Rachel, why can’t you just accept Kizzy the way she is? She likes looking after people, that’s all. You don’t, and that’s fine too.’ 

‘Yes, but I don’t think she does. Cooking, yes, but not people. She never looks as if she’s enjoying herself, does she? That’s why she spends nearly the whole evening in the kitchen. No, what Kizzy enjoys is making people feel guilty. She always seems to be playing the martyr. She—' 

But now we’ve arrived at Kizzy and Max’s, and James is focused on parking, so that’s the end of that. 

Kizzy greets us at the door. As usual she’s half hidden under a vast apron, her face smudged in a way that suggests she’s been pushing back hair from her brow with a weary, floury hand. 

‘Kizzy!’ I want to sound delighted but it comes out as a squawk. ‘How lovely to see you.’ I aim a kiss towards her cheek and thrust a bottle and a box of chocolates at her. She takes them with a downtrodden air, like an Edwardian housemaid taking a guest’s hat, and acknowledges me with a pale smile. James, just behind me, gives her a large hug, into which she wilts. Finally, when Kizzy has dealt with our gifts and coats, Max strolls into view with a handshake and backslap for James, an elegantly executed kiss for me and a smiling gesture to follow him. Soon we’re seated in the living room along with Max’s tedious friends, Bradley and Sandra. Max, his work apparently done for the evening, stretches his athletic limbs in the most comfortable chair and starts a conversation with James about cars. 

There’s perfectly chilled white wine, real martinis and a special grape-juice soft cocktail for the drivers. There are canap├ęs, each one home-made: tiny savoury biscuits spread with cream cheese and smoked salmon, avocado and Roquefort dip with flatbread, and miniature cherry tomato quiches. No crisps or pretzels here. Each guest has a little plate, with a cocktail stick for spearing the olives that are prettily scattered around the quiches. Everything is dainty and delicious. Kizzy bends over each of us in turn, proffering the laden tray. James and Max lean

across me to continue their argument about the new electric Jaguar; Bradley the Blob nods agreement with both from deep inside the sofa. Sandra shouts over the two men so she can give me instalment #231 of the Sandra Saga: My Perfect Life. This episode is all about their last holiday (in Batumi – they don’t do packages). I already know every detail from the two dozen or so photographs Sandra posted on Facebook. Yes, I murmur, the pictures were lovely and I saw them all, but it doesn’t save me from seeing them again on her phone. Kizzy is still creeping to and fro, the apron covering most of her baggy beige dress, her back bowed. She’s refilling glasses that are nearly full already, circling again with her tray and urging us to eat still more. I seem to be the only one who feels bad. I keep half rising, mumbling about the excellence of the food and suggesting help. Kizzy responds, each time, with a tiny smile and a headshake. When we’ve all had at least two of everything, she trudges out of the room and is seen no more. 

By the time Sandra has reached the middle of week two, I can’t stand the guilt any longer, so I excuse myself and head for the kitchen. The door is ajar; the air is rich with roasting meat and woody herbs. I push gently and peep inside. Kizzy is standing at right angles to the door, chopping spinach on a board. Her shoulders barely move, yet I can see how rapidly the heaps of shining leaves are being reduced to oozing green pulp. I’m just able to see the blur of her fingers as the knife whizzes up and down. 

It’s awkward. She’s concentrating so hard – you can feel the energy flowing from her hands through the knife, and the control. But I can’t just go back to the living room and leave her there. I take a step forward and cough slightly. ‘Kizzy? Is there anything … ?’ She spins round, holding the knife in front of her. I find myself taking a step backwards. 

‘ … I can do?’ 

‘No, thank you, Rachel.’ It’s clear she doesn’t want me in her domain. 

‘You’re working so hard, I feel … ’ 

She contemplates me for a moment, then says, ‘I’m fine, Rachel. Now if you’ll excuse me.’ She turns back to the mangled spinach. 

As I half expected, Max is lurking in the hall. He looks quickly both ways, takes me by the shoulders and kisses me. I was waiting, hoping for a moment alone with Max, but now I can’t get that toiling figure out of my mind. I step back, jerking my head towards the kitchen door. Max laughs under his breath and draws me down the hall until we’re almost at the front door. His hand gropes for my breast. I whisper, ‘No, not in her own house. Stop it.’ 

‘Rachel, sweetie, it’s all right. Don’t feel bad.’ I remember him telling me, when all this started, that Kizzy was so obsessed with the idea of being a 1950s housewife that she had no time to think about her actual husband. That evening when he took me out into the garden to look at the stars, leaving James to make laboured small talk with Kizzy. At the time I thought ‘poor Max’ with a smug thrill that he preferred modern, unobsessive me. Now his words seem callous, cruel even. I have a sudden surge of affection for James – big, kind, loyal James. I pull away and go back into the living room.

We sit round the oak table, glowing from years of Kizzy’s polish and covered with dish after steaming dish. Roasted peppers in traffic-light colours and dauphinoise potatoes and heaped greens and smooth, shimmering sauces. A lamb leg, faintly pink and studded with garlic and rosemary, is already carved into slices. Kizzy serves each of us, finally taking a little for herself. 

I raise my glass and say, ridiculously, ‘To the cook – Kizzy, thank you for this lovely meal!’ There’s a polite, indistinct echo of ‘cook’ and a movement of fingers reaching for knives and forks, which stops abruptly when Kizzy raises her own glass and says, ‘I’d like to propose a toast too.’ Kizzy? A toast? 

‘To change.’ We’re all staring. ‘There are going to be some changes … aren’t there, James?’ James goes white. He makes a choking sound and she beams at him. I’ve never seen her really smile before. ‘Don’t be shy! Everyone, James and I are in love. It’s been going on for some time – nearly as long as you and my husband, Rachel. Oh, did you think I didn’t know? Did I forget to tell you, James?’ 

Sandra looks avid, Bradley confused. Max is staring open-mouthed. James croaks, ‘Kizzy, we only … I never said … ’ He turns to me, his face running with sweat. ‘Rachel … ’ 

She turns her strange new smile on Max. ‘I hope you aren’t going to be difficult about which of us keeps the house, Max. You know how much my kitchen means to me. And it’s no use to Rachel, is it – that’s if you and she are planning to make a life together too? Not that I care either way. That’s how it started with James and me: he appreciated my cooking. He appreciates everything I do for him. You stopped noticing long ago.’ Her gaze reaches me. I’ve never noticed how pale her eyes are, or how tiny the pupils. ‘It was you who made me see it was time to tell everyone the truth, Rachel – coming into my kitchen to patronise me with your pity. That old saying about the way to a man’s heart – it’s true, you know.’ She turns back to James, and he writhes as if her eyes were skewers. ‘I’ll look after you, James. It’s time you had someone to look after you. You need proper home cooking, and I’m going to make sure you get it. All the time.’

Published in Issue #22

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