Dear Parmesan

Homely people, who are unlikely to overcome rough times and adventures, don’t usually rush into drastic changes in their lives until it greatly disturbs them. That happened to Tetiana, a middle-aged marketing manager from a district city, who came to the capital with all her luggage consisting of a backpack and a suitcase. Her previous life had been broken into pieces together with her illusions about ‘till death do we part’. Though, we are going to talk not about her previous life but about a new one, which she jumped at as if it were her best chance of salvation from a burning house.

She arrived in Kyiv one warm September day. The autumn seemed to be deceptive but gentle with just appearing yellow leaves, it wasn’t raining and the sun was giving everyone a tender touch: a taxi driver with a cigarette in his mouth, a gypsy with a child, a drunkard searching something in the garbage cans, adventure seekers in a big city, and escapees from a gritty life in a native place.

While at the railway station Tetiana looked around and decided not to trust any women offering low-cost rooms to let. She sat on her luggage, took her Smartphone, and spent her time surfing the Net for “cheap hostels”. It would be definitely better to rent a room or even a flat at relatively inexpensive prices for longer periods, she had some money on her, but it would also take a bit more effort to find accommodation.

She didn’t want to weep anymore. Her initial nervousness passed and she had another burning and, in a way, angrier desire to become a different, strong and successful person who no one would ever even dare to offend…

She paid for her hostel accommodation, entered a room for three people, got into bed, lay down and dived in with the Internet search for vacancies in the capital. To her surprise, she found the job easily.

The company, involved in tea retailing, was looking for a smart marketing manager. She went there, got acquainted with the staff and was hired on one month trial basis. But she didn’t have anywhere to live. The following evening a hostel receptionist heard her calling various real estate agencies.

‘My acquaintances have accommodation, though not very chic, just an ordinary one-room flat, and the fee is reasonable, but…’ she said.

‘What’s wrong with that flat?’

‘They can let that flat…. But they don’t know on how long. In other words, you can live there for a month, half a year, but you may be asked to leave it at their request.’

‘Well, it’s something unstable,’ Tetiana sighed distrustfully.

‘They are decent people and will give your money back in this case. But due to this instability, the payment is so reasonable for Kyiv. How long are you going to stay there?’

‘I don’t know for sure, maybe it’s just for a long time.’

‘Look, you yourself don’t know yet. Well, think a little, I go in the night shift in the hostel and will be free tomorrow morning. So I can show you the flat.’

Tetiana stayed in that flat. Even though, she knew nothing about the rent duration and didn’t get any explanations of the situation. She liked the flat owners, an intelligent old couple, who seemed to be fallen in love with each other. She thought or maybe wanted to think impressed on how elegantly the owner opened the door to his wife and let her in, drew up a chair for her as nice as could be, hugged her with one arm, leaning on a cane with his other.

‘Well, true love must really exist!’ she sighed, closing the door after them. She paid in advance per a month. The payment was really reasonable and the owners were pleasant people. They said to her that they were staying in the flat of their daughter who lived with her family abroad. They watered flowers, took care of a dog and a cat and looked after a big apartment. They let their own one-room flat to the locals.

There were no certain conditions for living there. She had to keep order, pay utility bills and avoid annoying neighbours. They only asked her not to use one of the cupboards where someone’s stuff was kept. And they also left her a nice, well-equipped with various devices, cage with a hamster. But it didn’t make things difficult for Tetiana. Can you show me a person who doesn’t have a hamster in their childhood? These are the smallest creatures that parents eagerly agree to buy for their children so that they wouldn’t ask for a cat or a dog to be kept as a pet in a small flat.

She was even happy that a cute, unpretentious, small animal would keep her company. At least she would have someone to talk to and take care of.

When asked, what the name of the hamster, sleeping peacefully in a net made of toilet paper and hay, was, the couple looked at each other and answered hesitantly ‘Parmesan’.

The owners even left some food for the hamster: an apple, a carrot, sunflower seeds, some pumpkin, nuts and… a piece of Parmesan.

It turned out the hamster was crazy about it, just as a fat mouse named Roquefort was in Disney cartoons.

Tetiana had never tried that cheese in her life. She knew about it, but she had never cared about it and refused to pander to that exquisite European whim.

She smelled that hard cheese: nothing special. She touched it with her nail: solid as paraffin. She even tried to taste it, but she couldn’t: it was hard to eat.

She shrugged her shoulders and cut a piece of cheese with a knife, slipped it through the bars but suddenly cried and took her hand away.

The hamster, as if it were a hungry dog, grabbed the cheese and rushed with it into its nest in the corner of the cage. It was gnawing it so enthusiastically, murmuring and chewing, that Tetiana looked at it with a slight smile. She suddenly caught herself thinking of few reasons for smiling for the last time.

Tetiana plunged deeply into work to busy herself with a new activity. She had to learn a lot of things, to go to her office changing some means of transport, to communicate with dealers and clients endlessly… It was absolutely exhausting but healing at the same time. Her days were pretty hectic, so she didn’t have any time to pity herself and weep at her past. In the evening she came to that someone’s flat and didn’t want anything. She put her bag, removed her shoes, and went to the bathroom recovering a bit from big city’s life and then came back to the kitchen again to see a small red creature in the cage on the stool that just started its activity in the evening.

The hamster was jumping from one shelf to another, and then it was climbing along a transparent tube and moving through it skillfully, putting its paws amusingly. Moreover, it was spinning the wheel hanging on the cage wall enthusiastically; it was buzzing with hamster’s excitement, in a way burning its extra calories, for the hamster had an enormous appetite.

Tetiana carried some twigs of fruit trees or a handful of autumn grass to its cage. Once, when she was buying some sausages for herself at the supermarket, she remembered that the hamster’s delicatessen had been used up. She was surprised to see a great selection of that hard cheese from different makers. The cheapest domestic Parmesan cost 600 hryvnias per kilo, the most expensive, Italian, more than twice as much as Ukrainian.

‘Good heavens! The hamster had been used to eating delicatessen food! What food do they buy for their cat and dog, I wonder? Lobsters or nightingales’ tongues?’ Tetiana muttered to herself.

‘I’ll take ordinary Dutch cheese for the hamster. It’s not a big shot, indeed! It will eat this cheese anyway! If not, then I’ll eat it, for the cheese tastes well, not as that one….’

She chose a yellow slice of cheese from the cheapest, put it in a shopping bag and went to the cash desk.

But her domestic Parmesan’s wishing had no effect. He ate everything offered except that very cheese. To tell the truth, it wasn’t hungry without that whim. But it was Tetiana’s guilty conscience that reminded her about her promise to pamper the hamster with its favourite food. And one Friday she asked a shop assistant to weigh a little slice of cheese that cost the same price as a stick of promotional cervelat.

‘Dear Parmesan,’ Tetiana said solemnly in the evening, giving the hamster a piece of cheese through the bars.

‘Congratulations on my bonus! Thanks to my chief, who was generous enough to pay in cash for working hard, we can celebrate!’

The hamster seized the treatment happily and disappeared in its nest. So the feast failed to continue. But that day was an important landmark for Tetiana because she had a serious conversation with her boss during which he had analysed all her successes and failures and finally had offered her full-time employment. So except that slice of Parmesan for pet gourmet, she had also bought a bottle of dry wine that she poured in a crystal glass of a Soviet epoch found in a cupboard in the kitchen.

She was sipping the wine, looking through an unknown kitchen window at an unfamiliar dark city, listening to the drops of unhappy autumn rain, and summing up the results of her life.

She suddenly felt such pity for herself and ached with longing, she experienced a tingling sensation of insult, hidden inside her, against her former husband and other men in general. She poured the wine in the glass, took a slice of Parmesan, drank the wine and ate the cheese, sniffed miserably once, then again, and burst into tears: she thought what she had lived through at home, how tired she had been in the capital for the last month, how uncertain her prospects were in the city, and how difficult it was for a woman to survive in the hustle and bustle of modern life.

And then she wanted to sleep unbearably. The bottle was left unfinished, the dishes – unwashed, but she didn’t have any strength to clean up.

‘Sleep! Sleep!’ Tetiana murmured, leaving the kitchen.

But at that very moment, she noticed Parmesan rushing from the leg of the table under the stove.

‘Shit,’ she slapped on her hips just like her grandmother had done grumbling at some cattle in the village.

‘And what now? Should I catch you instead of sleeping? Go to hell! See if you can get out of that submarine. I’ll capture you tomorrow!’

The woman waved her hand and went out of the kitchen shutting the door tight behind her.

On Saturday Parmesan didn’t show up, and Tetiana didn’t want to move a refrigerator, a stove and tables to find it. She cleaned up the kitchen, then the living room remembering to shut the door tight, so that the runaway hamster would come no further ‘the submarine’, watched TV, and as soon as the sun appeared, decided to wander around the city streets till a cold autumn spoiled its beauty.

She took a walk along Hreshchatyk, had a meal at McDonald’s, went on up to St Sophia’s cathedral, circled around the Golden Gates, passed the Opera and Ballet Theatre on her way, strolled around the park next to the University, saw newly married couple who came to put flowers to Shevchenko monument. She sighed looking into their happy faces.

‘Go home! Go home!’ she muttered to herself and sighed again.

‘Home? Hm….It is more likely that home is Parmesan’s than mine.’

In the evening Tetiana noticed that a piece of carrot and a handful of sunflower seeds had disappeared from the open cage. So the hamster had come to eat or had taken food to another place while she was out.

On Sunday she got up late; let herself lie on the bed watching TV. A traveller spoke about some European countries where farmers had been keeping special ‘truffle’ pigs for some centuries because they had good nose and found truffles by smell to a depth of half a meter. The pig was kept on a leash and it indicated the place where the mushrooms were growing. So, such enterprising farmers had arrangements with restaurants and supplied them with an expensive delicacy.

‘Such a funny business! Our local farmers won’t think of it yet! Our pigs are kept for their lard-meat and …’

After that recollection, she swallowed hard, got out of bed and went to the kitchen. She made herself fried eggs with some sausages, poured a cup of coffee and sat in front of the stove. Her appetite was good, and she just started to drink her coffee when the cup was about to fall from her hands.

She caught a glimpse of some activity and turned her head; she saw Parmesan moving in the gap between the fridge and the stove. But its movement was unusual – it was taking a backward step along the wall from the fridge to the stove and dragging something away in its teeth. Tetiana looked carefully, and it was good that she had already put the cup on the table. For as soon as the hamster’s fat back disappeared from the view, she could catch sight of a familiar portrait of an American president on green paper, drifting after Parmesan’s face.

The woman was gasping for breath. She stamped her feet and shouted. The hamster left its catch and hid under the stove.

She recovered herself enough to get to the fridge, to push her hand into the gap, and to pull out one hundred dollar bill, bitten with sharp teeth.

‘Wow!’ she was spinning the banknote in her hand. ‘Where did it take it?’

And suddenly she burst into laughter. ‘They learn pigs how to gather mushrooms. Ha! Parmesan feels bucks by smell!’

Once the woman got over the first shock, she was still worrying about the situation. She had known since childhood how skillfully hamsters made their nests: from cotton, paper, hay, sunflower husks – everything they had at their disposal. They tear up any stuff, mix, and make a nest, where they intend to sleep.

‘Oh, my God! That little one must have been cold on the tiles! That’s why it had found the paper somewhere. Paper! That’s the problem! Whose stash was it? The owners couldn’t have hidden and forgotten about it!!’

Tetiana made the effort and pushed the fridge away from the corner of the kitchen. There was really a bundle of dollars put in a white envelope under it. The edge of the envelope was torn and the number of bills was disturbed. She took it in her hands and counted eight one-hundred dollar bills, which was out of order. All in all, those were nine with the saved one. One more bill was missing, judging from the point of view of making stash; it must have suffered a very sad fate.

The woman made another attempt to move the stove a little away from the wall. Having been caught red-handed, the hamster moved further under the furniture; the picture before Tetiana’s eyes was almost comical – there was a comfortable funny nest made from torn pieces of a white envelope and painfully obvious greenish paper to her on a dirty tiled floor.

‘Oh, my goodness! Paper is paper! Only very expensive, my darling Parmesan…’ Tetiana collected her thoughts. ‘What are we going to do with all this?’

The woman pushed forward the hamster’s valuable nest to the centre of the messy kitchen, and started looking both at the nest and a bundle of money on the table…

And she suddenly realized that there was someone looking at her and turned cautiously her head to the kitchen door. She saw a young man on the crutches who seemed greatly surprised by the mess in a small kitchen.

Later on, they would remember more than once that epoch-making moment worthy of an action film. Tetiana was really scared to see an unknown man, to have found a bundle of someone’s bucks…. Roman was also surprised to encounter some woman moving furniture in a rented flat and having already uncovered his stash under the fridge….

They would remember how they finally started their conversation and found out who was who, how he told her about the accident happened to him, when he was coming back from a business trip. He had been taken unconscious to the hospital, had been staying there in a permanent coma for some time, and then came finally out of it. He had lost his mobile phone with all the contacts, then tried to bring back his memory, and remembered about that flat and his stash. He decided to leave the hospital illegally taking a taxi to his temporary accommodation. He badly needed money for rehabilitating his injuries because he didn’t have anyone to help him.

‘Did the owners know what had happened to you?’

‘Oh, no, they didn’t. I had occupied this flat only for a couple of months and then that accident happened… They must have called me on the day of payment and later on. They have been expecting me to arrive for a while. Thus they decided to find a better tenant,’ Roman smiled.

‘Yes, I rented a flat for a song, but I was warned about possible leaving a place. Your stuff was put into the separate cupboard. They also asked me to feed Parmesan, but it ran away. Sorry, I should have caught it on Friday.’

‘Don’t apologize, I owe you a lot, for if you didn’t disturb the hamster today, it would build a palace from all the money in a few days,’ Roman laughed.

‘But one banknote has been completely spoiled, and the other one has been bitten, anyway it may be changed at a lower rate,’ Tetiana handed him a saved one- hundred bill.

‘We’ll see. When you come to life again, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.’

‘You are right in a way. But now you must inform the owners that you have been found, and I have to look for another flat,’ the woman sighed.

‘There is no need to hurry! I am not likely to be discharged from the hospital, I am taking French leave,’ he winked at her.

When all the furniture had been already in place, and Tetiana and Roman were drinking tea with sandwiches, Parmesan appeared in the middle of the kitchen. It looked as if it were guilty or surprised, then it sat on its back paws looking in different directions.

‘You’re such a pig! I would name you a saboteur!’ Roman bent down and gave it a hand. ‘Come here! You did recognize me, little devil, didn’t you? It really has few brains, but anyway, there is something inside its head.’

And Tetiana surprisingly saw that the hamster neither ran away nor hid, but it climbed into the man’s palm.

‘Wow! It didn’t trust me so much. O-oo! Ааа! It had been used to eating expensive cheese by you, hadn’t it? Now I understand who is responsible for such hamster’s sophisticated taste and who involved me into extra expenses!’ she laughed. ‘Such dear Parmesan!”

‘Yeh, it really turned to be expensive,’ the man laughed too, coming to the stove. ‘I didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t like cheese at all, especially that one, super hard. But I was presented with a piece of cheese. I shouldn’t have thrown it away, should I? So I started to give it to the little one. And the hamster liked it! That’s why it was given such a call sign. All in all, its name is Ziuzia. Ziuzia Parmesan.’

‘Oh, my Gosh! Ziuzia Parmesan with a sophisticated taste!’ Tetiana laughed again and again, and what surprised her most was that she was feeling calm and comfortable with that man.

Mila Ivantsova

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