Once upon a time, there was a young woman who was reared as an only child by elderly parents in the hills of a remote region in China.
In the mornings, her father would do t’ai chi on the wooden balcony outside the house while his wife pottered about inside making tea and trying to remember where she left her knitting, or trying to find her glasses. She could never remember where her glasses were, and she needed them to find the chickens, although the strange thing was she didn’t need them to knit. And she needed them to see her husband, who was much bigger than a chicken, but she didn’t need them to thread a needle.
How the family ended up in a small wooden house with a balcony on the slopes of the hill beside a deep river is something their daughter never asked, in all the years that she went to the school in the local village, or even when she went away to secondary school in a far-off town. Home was always home. Until she finished school and realised she must go to the city to find work.
When she was a child, her father, who even then was old and as slender as a single bone, would often take the horse and cart down the dusty lane to the village, where he drank more tea and talked to other old men, and then the horse would take him home.
In the warm afternoons, he liked to doze in the cart as it trundled up the stony laneway, which reminded him of his childhood, and the horse was a reliable navigator because there were always oats at home.
It was the same nag that brought his daughter to the local bus station when she was leaving for Europe.
Her father was waiting in the cart and she was standing on the balcony, in a bright flower-patterned dress and bare shoulders, and he said: “Young girls are not fond of drapery at the best of times but you must wear a cardigan when you get on the bus, because it is six hours to the city and you will get cold when the sun goes down.”
So she went back into the house and lifted a navy blue cardigan from the chair, and her mother looked up from her book, wondering for a moment if the universe had conspired to stop her daughter from emigrating.
“I thought you were gone,” her mother said, full of sudden hope.
"I just came back for this," the daughter replied, picking up the blue cardigan, and in that moment her mother spoke her name and gave her a final hug.
A little extra
There is a hug that happens after all the hugs, which is more valuable than gold. It is the extra hug. It is the hug that happens when someone is leaving, when the goodbyes have been said, and the fussing over luggage has been done twice over, and when the tears have been avoided, and the manly, coherent hugs have all been delivered and the emigrant is about to step away and become a ghost forever.
And then something is remembered. The keys. A passport. Or a cardigan. And at that last moment the one who is about to leave turns again, and says, “I forgot something,” and suddenly there is time for one last enormous hug: the extra hug.
And it was that hug that the young woman remembered as she sat in the kitchen of a bungalow on the outskirts of a small town in Ireland, the navy blue cardigan lying draped across an empty chair, as she and I and her Irish boyfriend sat down to share a meal of rice and stir-fried vegetables.
“That’s a lovely cardigan,” I remarked. “Where did you get it?”
And so she told me the story.
I thought I saw tears gathering in her eyes and I felt there was something else she wasn’t telling me, though neither of them said much more as we ate the food. But when the meal was over, her boyfriend spoke.
“We’re expecting a child,” he explained.
“And my mother is coming to Ireland for the birth,” she added excitedly “if she gets a visa.” She could barely contain her joy and unconsciously she lifted the blue cardigan from the back of the chair, folded it lovingly and held it on her lap.
“I’m thinking of taking up t’ai chi,” her boyfriend said, changing the subject. “I’m told it’s good for the heart.”