Tommy was the cook. I was the entertainment. He made cookies by following the recipe on the back of the yellow sack of Nestle's chocolate chips. All these years later, I still know it by heart: cream 1/2 cup butter (we substituted Crisco), 1 egg, 1/2 tsp vanilla with 1/2 cup of white sugar and 1/4 cup of firmly packed light brown sugar... We always made a half-batch, which produced 24 chocolate-chip cookies: two apiece, and then they were gone.
While Tommy cracked the egg and scooped the flour from the copper-colored canister, I read aloud, sitting on the worn linoleum floor, my back to the warm white wall of the pre-heating oven. We all knew how to make chocolate chip cookies, every one of us, but I preferred reading and eating to baking. Every now and then, as I read, I'd reach up and take a quick scoop with my index finger of the cookie dough. "Yum."
I can't say that I understood everything that went on in these complicated books--there was H-bomb stuff, and corruption at high levels of government, and espionage, and lots of ins and outs of British law--but they were narrated by a 13-year-old girl named February Callendar who was bright and interested and funny, and the author's pen-and-ink illustrations reminded me so much of Edward Ardizzone's that I knew I would love the books before I even opened them. "February's Road" was a little more straightforward than the spy-intrigue of "Friday's Tunnel"; February wanted to stop a road being built through the downs where she rode her horse, Gorse ("Gorse, of course," she said), and it was in this book where I learned that pouring sand or sugar into a gas tank was a bad idea, unless you were trying to stop a bulldozer. (Information I never put into practice, myself.)
The international network of Ismo spies identified themselves by a gesture--the third finger of their left hand against their chin, I think it was. And sometimes at dinner, or during a tense family moment (Guv angry, Trish in despair, David defiant, someone crashed the car, or broke curfew, or missed dinner) Tommy would casually lift his left hand and rest his third finger against his chin and I would do the same and then snort with laughter, and, for me, anyway, the mood would lift.
One night when I was reading to him I stumbled across the simple phrase "the man with the gray hair," reading it as "the man with the gravy hair." I don't know now what it was about that night, what silly mood we had worked ourselves into, but that phrase struck us both as absolutely hilarious. We began to laugh, and laugh, and laugh, until I was doubled up in pain, my arms across my stomach, wheezing with delight, and Tommy dropped the cookie spoon and slid down the wall onto the floor, where he lay laughing until we both wept.
The fluorescent strip of light along the stove back-lit the room. Everyone else is upstairs, behind closed doors, as far away as they can be, but where we are the clock on the stove is tick-tick-ticking; a warm brown-sugar fragrance fills the kitchen; the cookies are almost ready. Tommy and I are members of Ismo, we are battling international wrongdoing, we are the only ones who know where the brown trousers are, and we are laughing.