‘Mum, I’ve got this strange feeling in my throat.’ My youngest child tells me this without any doubt that I will explain it to him. ‘And also here.’ He rubs at the small of his back. If I told him I could take the pain away he would believe me.
I have been struck by his innocence several times these last few weeks and I wonder why I have been noticing it, his innocence, his inexperience. Is it me or is it him? And then I think, He is eight years old. Perhaps it is not his innocence I see, but its fading.
These days, my eldest boy lives in a time of recognised ignorance. The age of known unknowns.
‘Mum,’ he said some weeks ago. ‘What’s a version?’
I knew, because he was looking in a bag he had already emptied, he did not mean version.
‘It’s okay,’ he said without giving me time to reply. ‘Oscar told me.’
‘It’s a person,’ I tell him, because who knows what Oscar said, ‘who hasn’t had sex.’
‘Yes.’ His head is buried still in his empty bag.
‘But you know that’s not something you have to think about if you don’t want to.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ he said and looked at me. His voice is ten again, his skin is clear, his eyes are dark and wide. ‘I was thinking maybe people who are thirty. Or maybe eighteen. I was thinking eighteen at least.’
I have never heard him say ‘at least’ before.
I nodded, because the specific number doesn’t matter, he cares only that it is an age so far in the future that it cannot be imagined even if he has no doubt that it will come.
And now we are sitting, the three of us, strange feelings in our throat, aches in the smalls of our backs, waiting for time to pass, our energy to be restored. The loungeroom is overflowing with pillows and quilts, the floor is littered with lego and crumbs and drops of nurofen. We watch James and the Giant Peach, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Goodies. I hang loads of laundry which have been soaked in double doses of dettol. I make bread and butter puddings. I kiss burning foreheads and rub flushed cheeks. I tell them, ‘Tomorrow will be better. A long sleep always helps.’
It is as if they are preschoolers again, and my days are filled with them, finding their clothes, dressing them, feeding us all, feeding us all again, refilling their drinks and mopping up the ones that they didn’t mean to spill.
So strong are my memories of those days, that I could be reliving them. I could be in a three bedroom bungalow I haven’t left for days, a parquetry floor and those bloody cornice troughs. I would not be surprised to open my eyes and see a window framed by a Queensland frangipani. I would not be surprised to hear the phone ring and to hear my father say, ‘It’s me.’ I would not be surprised if he arrived with bags of chips and cans of cool lemonade and told me to go for a walk.
And on my walk, I would cry for my father and his liver arresting his song.
This virus, these aching bones, reminds me that we are all older than we were. My babies are not babies and I am not a child.
News from friends filters into our home, and there will be a farewell on Thursday afternoon. By Thursday night she will be gone. Another piece of unexpected news from home. Earthquakes, floods, cancer, coups. We come from Egypt, New Zealand, Pakistan. It could be any one of us. We all have plans in place. Just in case. I try to tell her I understand, that she is not alone. But of course, for now, she is.
Such strange days, inky and tinged as they’ve been. But I’m not ungrateful for them. My father did not ring of course. And yet, he called.
on a boat off the coast of Oman