Tumbling down the hill, like your shadow

A Memory

The day, much like this one. Sun high. Sky bright.

At the top of the hill you watch your shadow trace an arc across the pavement, then move ahead of you and you try to kick it down the road, just to see if it will tumble, and wonder if you would fall after it.

All the details, so sharp still.

The warm breeze. The cherry-blossom. The dusty quiet of a mid-week, mid-afternoon at the city’s edge. The slow shuffle of soft-soled shoes on tarmac, your grandfather’s. Your sister somewhere, giggling, waving at her own shadow.

She is small still, four or thereabouts, and the promise of it all is almost too much for her. You feel it too, the tickle in your stomach, the adventure of it all. You are five.

‘Come, let’s show you the secret path.’

Your grandmother, smiling, though you can see the exhaustion there. Something about the eyes that wasn’t there a week ago.

Something is happening, you know that much. But you don’t understand. You are five and cannot know that death always comes sooner, rather than later. So, you note the details, and file them away, wait for the day when it will all make sense. Not knowing that this walk will become your most vivid memory of him.


A journey, the return, is thousands of miles, from Scotland back to the southern tip of Africa.  In your grandmother’s kitchen someone had told you, ‘This is your home, this place here. It is where you were born,’ and you had looked around, but the rain and the skies were too unfamiliar and not something you carried within you. And it made you wonder what it meant to them, when they said it. Home.

Back under familiar skies, back in the place you do call home, you discover the smells linger in your clothes, salty and claggy.

Sausage and black pudding, fried for breakfast, still coats your nostrils, trace elements of a Glasgow kitchen, come to land in a garden in Bulawayo. Who knew the world could be so vast, so different?

Days later, perhaps weeks, the first step towards understanding arrives with the ring of the doorbell. A gasp, your mother’s. The handing over of a letter, and a new word. You like the beat of the syllables and repeat it as you sit beside her on the edge of the bed. Telegram. Until she tells you to hush and you watch as she walks away. The rest of the day you don’t see her. And your grandfather will exist from now on, only in photographs.


It has travelled far, this memory. Decades and many, many miles. From Africa to Scotland then scattered across the family diaspora. To new words, new smells. Old memories.

And the sky you stand under today, this lowland sky, where the light falls straight to the edge, can make you believe time isn’t linear. It just dips, and curves and comes full circle. You can look ahead of you, or behind, no matter, the line remains unbroken, it travels straight and flat to the horizon.

The sky, this Dutch sky, can pull forth a moment long forgotten and have you remembering your grandfather’s smile – if that’s what it was. You know now, it could also have been pain, his smile, a grimace.

And the secret path?  It led nowhere, just a lane through the houses, down to the road, that looped back to where you started from. But the mystery of it lingers. The idea of it, that there is a secret path, a circle, and that it was only your grandparents who could take you there, is a comfor of sorts. The two of them, smiling and walking ahead, but you catch sight of them sometimes, tumbling down the hill, like your shadow.


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