Part 4—An Evening’s Embarrassment
Continued from Part 3—A Propitious Return
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Mary gave him excellent directions. From the Tube, John found the call box (one of those Dr. Who thingies) marking a street (it’s more like an alley) that passed into a pocket neighborhood more bohemian than the rest of Farringdon (kind of a dump, but safe). He crossed the modest park (purple, plastic horses on giant springs) and found the row of shops—the Afrikaner Grocer (Mondo’s Fresh), the second-hand clothing store (Vintage Togs) and, at last the curry house—which was, in fact, The Curry House.
He stood outside a moment in the growing dark, touching his tie and inhaling the aroma of roasted meats in pungent spice. Then he took a bracing breath and opened the door.
An old-fashioned bell tinkled, announcing him. Immediately, a stunning woman hurried from the back. Her gilded sari whispered and shimmered in the dimming light.
“Welcome, Dr. Watson,” she smiled, her voice lilting and low. “Please follow me.”
Blinking back his surprise, John remembered that the owners were Mary’s friends. Of course they would be expecting him. This wasn’t Mycroft showing off his intelligence network, just friendly anticipation.
As he followed the woman, he noted the simple elegance of the place—and the full house. Waitresses balanced enormous trays on their shoulders filled with colorful and aromatic platters. He passed diners eagerly digging in. At least that part of the evening offered promise.
The woman guided him to the very back of the restaurant, to a table next to the pass-through to the kitchen. The light changed from exotic and romantic to practical. It wasn’t the mood he was hoping for.
The woman eyed him, then stepped away.
“Oh,” John breathed, reaching out reflexively.
Mary sat in the light of the kitchen, smiling at him tentatively, the flesh around her eyes the color of eggplants. An angry burgundy blazed across her forehead, melting into a sickly citrine. Now he understood why they sat in the back. Patrons would either stare all night or call the police to drag him away for a wife-beater.
“Don’t say anything doctorly,” she warned him. “And don’t you dare apologize again.”
John sat next to her and took her poor face in his hands, inspecting. “Does it hurt?”
“Not as much.”
He tsked, then met her eyes. “I have to say it. Just this once.”
“Oh, all right.”
She cupped his hands when he didn’t move them from her face. When he still didn’t release her, she pulled them down. “Maybe you should sit on this side of the table with me. I don’t think I can eat if I have to look at your sad and sorry face all through dinner.”
“Good idea,” he agreed, pulling across the table setting. But he thought she was sparing him more than herself.
The woman in the sari returned with a platter of steaming samosas. John could smell the spicy stuffing in the patties.
“John,” Mary said, “this is my friend, Devia Sarswat. Devia, John Watson.”
John pushed his chair back to stand, but Devia stopped him.
“Oh, no, no, Dr. John. Be seated. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance. Anything you require tonight, please tell me.” She beamed at Mary and hurried off.
“She’s friendly,” he said innocuously, stabbing a samosa.
Mary speared one as well. “Devia and her husband are what you might call traditional. I call it pushy.”
“Hmm.” He chewed, swallowed. “Have you known them long?”
“Devia is Dr. Bashir’s sister. When I came to London to work with him, they offered to take me in. The three of us share the apartment upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” John pointed. “There’s a flat above the restaurant?”
“Oh.” John stabbed a different patty. They were excellent. “You’re part of the family, then.”
Mary grimaced. “Sort of the unmarried younger sister.”
“Oh, dear,” he said quietly.
A robust, gristled man in cook’s whites appeared at the table with bowls of naan bread and chutney. He scowled at John and dropped the bowls on the table with a clatter.
“So. This is the face-smashing doctor.”
“Rajen!” Mary cried.
“No, no.” John touched Mary’s arm. “He’s quite right.”
Swallowing the last of the samosa, he stood face to face with the angry man. “I take full responsibility for what happened. It was absolutely my fault, and I am deeply sorry for it.”
“John…” Mary tried.
Rajen’s dark eyes narrowed. “One dinner cannot possibly make up for that.” He waved in Mary’s direction.
“Of course not,” John said. “I will continue to make amends to Mary as long as she will tolerate me.”
“Oh, my god,” Mary muttered into her hands.
“What would you suggest, Mr. Sarswat?”
Rajen tucked his chin. “A good bottle of wine for dinner would be a start.”
Sarswat nodded, mollified, and left. John returned to his chair and tore off a piece of naan.
“I’m so embarrassed,” Mary said painfully.
“Don’t be,” he smiled, helping himself to the chutney. “He’s the patriarch of your family. It’s his duty to challenge me, just as it’s my place to show him the proper respect.”
Mary studied him. “How on earth do you know that?”
“Well.” He took a bite of the fluffy naan and sweet-spicy chutney. “I was stationed in Afghanistan…”
Maybe it was the wine. Or the unending supply of incredible food. Or maybe it was that they sat side by side. All John knew was that he’d never felt quite so comfortable on a first date. On any date, for that matter. He would look up at the bright light pouring through the pass-through, his mouth burning from chilies and ginger, laughing at one of Mary’s quirky comments, and wish he could always live in that exact moment. Or he would catch himself talking about Afghanistan like he never had before, not to his CO, not to his therapist, but openly and without reservation to the light of the pass-through and the woman beside him who listened so carefully.
Of course he looked at her. He couldn’t help it. She wore a pretty rust-colored dress with a cashmere cardigan. The nap brushed against his hand when she reached across the table, soft as a kitten’s fur, and sent shivers through him. He would turn to watch her mouth take a bite from her fork and end up holding his breath. Then his focus would shift, and he’d see the rest of her face and the violence in evidence there. Each time the bruises surprised him. Each time he wanted to lean over and kiss them.
She would catch him looking and smile, her eyes glowing in the bright light like topaz, then nudge him with her shoulder to get him to stop.
By the time Devia brought coffees, he didn’t think he could be any more content. Or smitten.
“I’m so full,” Mary groaned, leaning back in her chair.
“Every nerve ending in my mouth is destroyed.” He leaned back with her. “Glorious.”
“Should we take a walk? Maybe that will help.”
“Excellent idea. Just let me take care of the bill.”
Devia had set the tab envelope on the table with their coffees. John opened it and scowled. “This isn’t right.”
Mary looked over his shoulder. “It’s a bill for the Shiraz.”
“Where’s the rest? We’ve eaten enough for six people.”
“I told you they’d take good care of us.”
“Still. This is… I can’t…” John scratched his head.
“Don’t try to argue with them.” Mary warned. “You’ll never win.”
“All right,” he conceded, placing his credit card in the envelope. “But I don’t feel right about it.”
One of the waitresses swooped in and gathered up the envelope. She gave them a knowing smile.
“You probably understand the social nuances better than I do. I’ve lived with them for almost a year, and I still don’t get it.”
“Well…” John sifted through his knowledge of sub-continent protocol. “They honor me, so in spite of what Rajen said, I must have some value in their estimation.”
The waitress returned, and John pocketed his card. He noticed that Mary had gone quite still.
“Something?” he asked.
She pushed back from the table. “Let’s walk.”
As they stood up, John hesitated. He looked at the pass-through, thinking.
“Er… Just a moment. Will you wait for me up front?”
“It’s fine. Really. I won’t be a moment.”
He went to the pass-through and peered in. Rajen and his assistants bent over the grills, scraping them clean.
He looked up, saw John, and waved the steel brush at him. “You enjoyed your meal?”
“Yes, very much. Thank you. I’m honored.”
Rajen waved the brush in the air in negation. He came to the pass-through and pointed it at John. “You will be good to our Mary?”
“That is enough. Good-night.” He raised both hands in the air and turned back to the grill.
Deep in thought, John grabbed his jacket from the chair and headed up front. Mary waited by the hostess counter.
“Okay?” she asked, concerned.
“Okay,” he smiled, opening the door.
The night was mild and clear after a week of cold rain. Even in the middle of the city, the sky was full of stars. John and Mary angled across the street to the park, the hobby horses and swings just shadows among shadows.
“I know what they’re doing,” she said quietly.
“Yes, I think I do, too.”
“You’re single,” she said flatly. “Husband material.”
He laughed a little. “Tell that to my ex-girlfriends.”
The sound of their shoes on the sidewalk seemed very loud.
“I told you they were traditional. Oh…” Mary groaned. “They think they need to marry me off. God!” She stepped over a puddle. “We should have gone for fish and chips.”
“It’s fine. Really. It’s touching how they watch out for you. And, frankly, I’m flattered they consider me worthy.”
Mary laughed and pressed her hands to her face. “So,” she said after a time. “Lots of ex-girlfriends?”
“What seems to be the problem?”
John looked up at the night sky. The moon was half a coin in the dark. “I’m not exactly forthcoming.”
“Hmm. Most British men aren’t. I’m guessing there’s more.”
“We’re really having this conversation now?” He could hear his voice creeping up an octave. “On our first date?”
Mary shrugged. “After everything else that’s happened tonight, we might as well.”
“Right,” he muttered, shoring up his nerve. He cleared his throat and looked again at the moon. Maybe he could have this conversation. “The work Sherlock and I do—the schedule, the hours and… well… Sherlock himself—they interfere.”
“The girls feel neglected?” Mary offered.
“That’s…” John looked everywhere but at her. “… that’s putting it mildly.”
“They want more.”
“Girls are like that. Most of them expect to come first.”
“He’s so unpredictable. And demanding. And a bit of a danger to himself. I’m on call 24/7.”
“But you love the work.”
“And value your friendship with him.”
“Yes,” he sighed, “but all the girls can see is a horrid, insufferable bully who I choose over them.”
“Because they don’t understand.”
John looked at her, the sweet profile edged with moonlight. “They never understand.”
“So, you’re always trying to make it up to them.”
“And fail. Miserably.”
“Well, that just sounds awful.” She slipped her hand under his arm. “Seems to me, if a girl cared about you, she’d take you exactly as you are—Sherlock and all. That’s what I’d do.”
“Yes, right, hypothetically.” John tried to keep the grin off his face. And failed. Miserably.
Mary watched John pass under the cone of light from the street lamp, his clipped stride echoing back to her. She hesitated, following his progress into the narrow street, as if losing sight of him meant losing him. Then, she sighed and closed her eyes, knowing what had to come.
Instead of going up to the flat, she let herself into the closed restaurant. Lights still burned in the kitchen—Raj and Devia prepping for tomorrow. They liked to send the help home and do it themselves. Tradition, Raj had told her. She pushed through the swinging double doors and found them back to back—Raj cubing lamb on the chopping block, Devia stirring the marinade for it on the cooktop. Mary washed her hands and tied on an apron.
“So?” Devia asked, pointing to the garlic.
“Just what I suspected.” Mary smashed the bulb with the flat of a knife. “He’s wonderful.”
“The man was on his best behavior after doing that to your face,” Raj grumbled.
“But a doctor,” Devia countered, nodding with approval. “What did you talk about?”
“You know—we told our stories,” Mary rummaged through the utility drawer for the garlic press.
“What stories?” Devia asked, a little too sharply.
“I didn’t tell him.” Mary squeezed the press and watched the pearls of garlic pop out the other side. “But I’ll have to soon.”
The kitchen paused.
“Not right away,” Devia said.
“Yes, tell him,” Raj countered. “Let’s see what he’s made of—this face-smashing undoctor. Let’s find out before he can do more damage.”
For the millionth time, she almost told them to mind their own business. But, she knew it would only hurt them and, in the end, it wouldn’t make any difference.
“We’re going to the Islington Market tomorrow.”
“Wait a while.”
Mary handed the dish of garlic to Devia. She and Raj watched her, their faces full of worry and fierce love. How could she stay angry at that?
She tried to smile as she reached for the shallots. “The marsala was a little bitter tonight, Raj,” Mary said. “Better check the ghee. I think it’s gone over.”
To Read Part Five—The Apologetic Suitor, click here.