Apparently, Our Mum met The Irishman, who later told us the story of the silk boxers, in the hospital. The local hospital stood on the top of a steep hill capturing a vast panoramic view of the lagoon and the bay beyond. This day the bay shimmered like smashed chandeliers under a sun reserved only for a summer beach. Dad and us kids had left the house at the beach in our yellow VW Combi earlier that morning. We weaved around the beach roads then slowly drove up the almost vertical road to the hospital on the hill. My Dad was a marine engineer who did not believe in taxing a motor unduly, so we drove in a solemn fashion. Now we were parked in the hot carpark, waiting for Dad to come out of the hospital with Our Mum.
Soon, Our Mum was pushed in a wheelchair through the doors, Dad trailing along behind with her bag. There was a small melee as Mum was helped from the wheelchair just as The Irishman was discharged behind her. Her arm protecting her chest Mum straightened, turning as the Irishman rose from his wheelchair. We did not know he was The Irishman yet, but he was The Irishman from this day on. She reached to him for balance and he offered her his arm. We watched as he walked with her gently in our direction. His free hand flashed in round arcs as he talked. His white shirt shone. He had a full head of dark shiny curls to his shoulders, as did my mother (neither of them had started chemo yet). Mum the languid green-eyed beauty. The laughing Irishman. I could not see our father – he walked behind them, but I am sure his balding head was shiny with beads of sweat; he never did well in the full sun.
We gathered up The Littlies and stood by the van. The heat bouncing off the concrete carpark felt personal. They were closer now and we could hear his Irish brogue. Our Mums soft response. The sun picked out the silver of his watch. We shuffled, looking around them to Dad for direction.
I cannot remember our father helping us dress or anything like that – I know I must have pulled some old clothes on to The Littlies. There were three of them – this was not always an easy ask. Maybe I was in my worn out yellow flares with a halter top that my mother would never have let me wear if she had not been in hospital with the cancer. We were probably fed. But we definitely looked like a bunch of skinny, hand-me-down, windy-haired beach kids. I felt that – that day.
A beautiful dusty dark green car swung into the carpark and we saw the Irishman laugh out loud and wave to the car. We leaned into the sight. We saw a brief conversation between The Irishman and our father. Dad’s balding head shining, his pale legs sticking out from his brown Sunday shorts, Mum’s bag on the ends of his long arm. Our Mum looked across to us waiting by the van. Her blue summer dress swayed. Then we watched the Irishman hand our Mum into the passenger seat of the green car, gently shut the door, open the back door, snap his black dress trousers and step in. The door shut with a soft thud and the car purred like a long cat into a turn.
We were silent. There were six of us kids so our silence was formidable. Dad paused to let the car slide past then redirected himself to our van and his waiting children. The Jaguar passed us, Mum waving, mouthing through the closed window “See you at home”.
“Mum said she can get into a car easier than the Combi.” He had no more words. He motioned to his chest, miming pain, grimacing really. He tipped the bag into the back and rummaged for the keys.
So, we all climbed back up into our van, folded our long teenage legs into manageable formations, jammed the littlies into their seats and Dad drove home.
Naturally Mum offered the Irishman a cup of tea in the cool front room with the big window that faced the sea and we were introduced. With silent deliberation I forgot his name immediately. I served the tea and scones I made for Mum’s homecoming. They knew each other well from the hospital and smiled about being ‘let out’ on the same day. The Irishman piled cream and jam onto his scone and launched into a story about travelling across Europe in a train. He told us that a man in the carriage in front of his threw out a brand-new pair of silk boxers every evening. Just tossed his underwear out the window. The Irishman said he saw them flash past his window two evenings in a row before he started catching them. A good wash and they were good as new, he said. He laughed. Mum laughed with him which was something we had not little of lately. Her silent laugh.
I watched without expression. I found his stories dubious at best. There is no way a person can catch under-wear clean out of the air. I stomped out, relieved, when my Mum sent me to ready her bed. She was wilting gracefully as I left. My mother collected people; I was not going to bother making friends with The Irishman.
He died of his cancer before my mother died of hers, so I felt a bit bad about that later.
Maybe that is why I have always remembered this story. As an apology.