She stands up in a huff. ‘Whatever,’ she says, and marches away.
Two more women talking loudly in Chinese come towards me, and I have no choice but to stuff my things into my bag and stand. Irritated that I missed the most important part of the conversation, I head in the direction of the Ladies. I stand in front of the mirror and look at my reflection for a minute, my brain working frantically. Have Lana and Jack fallen out? My heart bursts with joy at the thought. I check my teeth for lipstick and then I go back to the table.
Both of them turn smiling faces towards me.
‘We were just reminiscing about the past. About that time Billie didn’t want to do PE and she told her teacher that she didn’t want to change into her shorts because her legs were full of bruises where her mother had beat her.’
‘How was I to know that Social Services would turn up at my door that evening?’
‘Her mother made her take her trousers off and show the two women her legs.’
Billie makes a face. ‘They should have seen the backs of my legs after they left! Crimson and purple.’
‘We could hear the slaps and wallops from our flat,’ Lana adds, laughing gleefully with the memory.
I titter politely to show interest.
‘At least I wasn’t a vain crybaby like you.’ Billie looks at me. ‘Once she took a pair of scissors to her own hair, made a total mess, and her mother had to cut what was left real close to her head. That afternoon she goes to buy an ice cream and the ice cream van guy says to her, “Here you go, sonny.” What does madam do? She throws the ice cream on the ground in a hissy fit and runs home bawling, “He thought I was a boy.”’
‘I was only six then,’ Lana defends, and then… They both look at me. Obviously wanting me to share the highlights of my childhood with them. I blink. My stories. Oh no! Under no circumstances am I returning to my friendless state or the horror that my despicable fat self endured. I cover the fact that my lips are quivering by taking a drink. A question pops into my head.
‘You were in Iran for a year. What was it like?’
That sobers Lana up plenty.
‘Iran is very beautiful, but when I first went there I was very sad. At that time it felt like my life was ruined. I was crazy about a man I could never have and I was pregnant with his child. I hardly went out and I never mixed with our neighbors. I couldn’t speak Farsi anyway, so there was no real interaction, but they were always smiling at me, always nice—’
‘Nice! Aren’t they mostly terrorists?’
Lana’s eyes flash. ‘When you read the papers and listen to the news have a care. You are listening to that particular piece of news above all else that is happening in the world because somebody wants you to hear that. Have you ever wondered, Julie why we need to hear that Justin Bieber has been arrested for some minor infringement twenty times a day? Did nothing else important happen that day?’
I frown. Justin Bieber being arrested is important news—well, I want to know about it, anyway. And they repeat the news so that all his millions of fans get to hear about it. I glance quickly at Billie, but she is nodding in agreement. Seems I am the odd one out.
‘After my mother died,’ Lana continues, ‘I saw my neighbors, the ordinary Iranians, for what they really are. I thought I was sad before, but when she was suddenly taken away from me I became lost. I couldn’t do anything. I sat staring at a wall all day.
‘I know you won’t understand, but over the years our roles had changed. I was no longer the child, but the caregiver, the mother. I cried for her as a mother cries for her child. I could not bear to see her broken body, but neighbors, they were amazing. Though it was not their way—they are Muslims—they cleaned off the red polish on her toenails and painted them pale pink, powdered her face, colored her lips with her favorite lipstick, and placed her favorite rosary in her hand.’
The memory must still be very painful, because Lana’s eyes glisten with tears. She bends her head and stares at the tablecloth.
‘They shined my shoes for me, Julie! And the men, they arranged everything. The coffin—it had a brass nameplate and a satin and lace interior, the funeral in a sunny chapel, the Christian cemetery plot across town. Everything was done properly, with the greatest respect. They even laid one of Sorab’s toys inside the coffin.’
She shakes her head in admiration for the people that I had been persuaded to believe should have glass and sand pancakes for breakfast.
‘In the days after the funeral the women brought food three times a day, they took care of Sorab, they found a nurse to breast-feed him because my milk had dried up, they cleaned the house, they shopped, they cooked. They are the kindest, most beautiful people I have ever met and if ever you have the chance, you must go there and decide for you for yourself if they are terrorists or they are simply like you and me.’
The food arrives. There is too much, but nobody else seems to think so. Billie and Lana both know how to eat with chopsticks. I ask for a fork and spoon. I watch Billie dip her dim sum into soy sauce and put it whole into her mouth. I pick up a shiny white dumpling. Under its transparent skin I can see…stuff, well pork, prawns and crab to be precise, and I put it into my bowl. I am so hungry my mouth is running with saliva, but I cut a tiny piece and slip it between my lips. It is so delicious my eyes actually widen.
‘Good, isn’t it?’ Lana asks.
I nod and cut another tiny piece.
I chew slowly and watch Lana reach for the small plastic container and spoon she had taken out of her bag earlier.
‘Shall we have some lunch?’ she says, in that high sing-song voice that people put on when they are talking to babies and animals and ties a bib around her baby’s neck. He smiles up at her and she begins to spoon food into his face. ‘If you finish all your food you can have some of Auntie Billie’s fried ice cream.’
The rest of the lunch is a stressful, exhausting ordeal with me pretending to eat the same amount as them. Believe me, it is a feat considering the little baskets of dim sum arrive with exactly three pieces in them. Two I palm and they end up inside my handbag. Despite all their attempts to include and pull me into the conversation I feel excluded and jealous of their obviously tight bond. When the fried ice cream arrives I sigh with relief. From my seat I smell it, though. Freshly fried batter and vanilla. A tantalizing combination that makes me twitch in my seat. The baby gets some too. He seems to love it. As soon as it is all gone, Billie stands up.