Looking oddly tough in her wife beater and a pair of her husband’s checked boxer shorts, Van comes to sit beside me on her sofa. “Dinner” she announces, and then pauses. “Now let me think”.
She glances over at the armoury of cookbooks sitting unassumingly on her coffee table and heaves them onto her lap. “How do I make mushrooms?” she muses to herself as she flips through them one by one. “Butter, garlic and fry ‘em in a pan?” I offer but she waves away this suggestion impatiently in her search for the perfect recipe.
I settle back meekly on the sofa and look on in amazement at this tiny girl’s energy. After a long, hard day at work all I want to do is kick off my clothes and shoes and collapse on the sofa for a good hour or two with milk and biscuits. Van, though, gets right to work, starting with her twilight brainstorming session on the couch as she decides what to cook for dinner each night.
I usually judge people’s ages against how old they seem compared to me. Tellingly, I have a tendency to think almost everyone is older than I am, but Van is a conundrum in this sense. Her tiny stature, unflagging optimism and ability to keep up a steady stream of chatter no matter what she is doing makes me sometimes feel older and thus very protective of her. Still, her endearing naïveté is offset by the fact that she is oddly street smart. I say ‘oddly’ because she is literally so tiny that one just assumes that she would get pushed around. But Van will have none of it. I commented on this to her one day. “Good things come in small packages” she replied with a big grin.
I hear a triumphant “Ah!” which signals to me that Van has chosen her mushroom recipe for the night. Caught up with inspiration, she hugs the cookbook to her and scurries to the kitchen to get started. I get up and follow her, shaking my head with an almost envious admiration. When I see Van at home like this, running a household on her own, taking care of her husband and readying herself emotionally and financially for the possibility of a child next year, she seems years older than me. In reality, we are the same age.
Still, there are momentary lapses:
One morning, when she was feeling particularly cheeky and had no one to take it out on, she ran to stand over her sleeping husband. “Dhanushakaaaaaa…” she crooned squeakily, ruffling his hair without remorse as she tried to annoy him out of sleep. Fortunately, because he only got home at 2.30 am after the graveyard shift at work, and possibly also because he’s used to her antics, Dhanushka slept on, undisturbed.
I usually have to coax her away from her husband, telling her it’s time to leave for work and then she’s all business again, shepherding me out the door and taking me on the shorter route towards the bus stand. Unused to bussing it to work, I am always slightly jumpy during this leg of the journey. Van knows this and is prepared to wait longer for a bus that is not hideously crowded so that we can travel in relative comfort. I breathe a sigh of relief every time when one of these come along and follow her gratefully up the steps and sit beside her, clutching my bags to my chest. She drowns out my nervousness with her chatter and soon I forget what I was stressing about so much.
At work, she is my pint-sized ally, always around to assist if I need it, ready to admit her failings and learn from someone who might be able to help. We work well together, she and I, because we can ask each other for help without feeling inadequate in some way, and because we respect what the other is good at. If I am good at writing, she is excellent at putting things in order so that when I settle down to write, I build on what she’s already put there.
Back at home, the two of us are housemates till her husband comes home late at night. And it works well. We are a funny mix, but we go together. When there’s a cockroach lurking about the place, I am a wreck, running helter skelter in all directions to avoid it, even when it’s no where near me. She calmly gets the baygon and sprays it within an inch of its life and gets rid of it for me. But when it’s a spider that’s doing the lurking, she runs behind the protective covering of her door and peeks out to watch with a sort of morbid fascination as I sweep it out into the garden (having solicited my boyfriend’s help to kill it first).
Van took me in at a moment’s notice when I literally had nowhere else to go. I have lived with her a full week now, and already know that my first 7 days out in the real world would have been impossible if not for my small but darling friend. As I write this, I try and think of anyone else I know who is so willingly giving of her time and space – and nutella! I remember coming to her house to visit some time ago and finishing her jarful of nutella in two sittings. When I apologised shamefacedly she cheerfully replied that it was just sitting around going to waste (when it was obviously not). Note to self: Replenish Vanna’s nutella.
It’s 8 am and she’s fast asleep still, exhausted after a busy weekend. I woke her up half and hour ago but when she grumbled and hid herself under the sheet next to her husband, I didn’t have the heart to force her to get up. I’ll try again now.
Van, if you read this, you are the maddest, cutest housemate a girl could ever ask for. Thank you for your incredible generosity towards me – something I will never be able to fully repay. This post is a (rather inadequate) tribute to you: you may be tiny but your heart is one of the biggest I’ve ever come across. I love you.