My niece believes I've been imported solely for her edification so she's reluctant to let me out of the house. I ease her into it by letting her participate in the dressing process. She lays out my make-up and hands it to me like a chatty surgical assistant. She comments at length on my clothes and puts on my jewellery to see what it looks like. Then she picks out my shoes and dusts them with my powder brush. It adds at least half an hour to the process but it makes the day go so much better. And a one-person fan club who firmly believes you are “so pretty” is a relief when you’re seeing a new grey hair every day.
She has wondrous toys that we would have killed to get, but her favourite* consists of two jam jars full of ordinary glass stones of the decoration-in-flower-pot variety. They represent, variously or together, people, money, food, cars, houses, laptops, phones, groceries, luggage, furniture and, after she’s been spending some time with her father, aeroplane parts. She’s lately learned about the presence of mascara in the world, so it also becomes that sometimes. The stones form the jungle, the lions and the princess lost among them. There’s always a princess. It becomes Swiper, the thing he’s swiping and the chorus that says “Swiper, no swiping”.
She seems to learn a new polysyllabic word every day, though none of us knows how. One day she’s struggling to work out how to slant the lines of “A” and the next, she’s writing her name easily (according to my brother, the Indian government would now consider the household 100% literate). She came home from ballet class and taught me the “arabeck”. In return, I taught her the Surya Namaskar; she had fun doing it but couldn’t pronounce the name, so promptly rejected it.
It bothers her when I disappear into a book and she’s lately taken to hanging around the bookshelf and picking out “books without pictures” (which necessitated a hasty shifting of some books that do have pictures to higher shelves). She turns the pages, getting increasingly frustrated by the rows of black type that mean nothing to her, understanding even less why I prefer that to playing with her. Sometimes I suddenly remember that she will be sixteen one day with no time for tedious old aunts, so I shut the book and play anyway.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to do anything without a running commentary, I haven’t invented so many exhausting games at such short notice since I was that age myself, I can’t go out, work late or sleep in without feeling guilty, my reading has slowed to one often-missing book a month and my powder brush is permanently out of commission, but every time she’s happy to see me, I feel like I’ve won an award. And I’ve never won so many awards in my life.
Aunts and uncles – much like grandparents – have unshakeable belief in the unique glory of their nieces and nephews (I have several and I think they’re all geniuses, including the one that’s only 10 days old). So I could go on forever but will stop here.
*Favourite at the time of starting this. At the time of publishing, it was a pack of cards. By now it’s probably something else.
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