Sometimes the past prickles to the surface.


Sometimes it races by on a bike, waving joyfully and shouting cheerfully and it makes you smile as you remember, as you watch it weaving carelessly along.



The past bubbled up today. Sweetly. But uneasily too.  Sometimes the past jars and makes me want to cry. Bittersweet histories.


A cousin emails. She never does normally. She never has, come to think of it. She acknowledges that. We grew up together, on a farm that huddled in Kilimanjaro’s shade, the mountain delivered our drinking water. Another sweet, ice-cold, clear, clear memory. We were brown-skinned-bare-footed-blonde-haired peas in a pod. Until tragedy and life and death ripped our sweet little young green shell open and flung us carelessly to opposite ends of the earth.


Her father shot a lion that had cornered a herdsman up a tree when he was only 14, my own stood in front of the skin, pegged out to dry to have his photograph taken (a tiny sepia print that sits beside a bowl of oranges in my dining room). He is grinning, pretending the trophy is his, not his big brother’s; all of brown-skinned-bare-footed-blonde-haired five year old his. 


My cousin wrote and I rejoiced. That’s something else that tastes sweet: reunions, especially unexpected one.


She told me that a friend of my dad’s was travelling up through Africa – from Botswana through Zambia to my small dusty corner of Tanzania. A friend of Jimmy’s, she said.  It always tugs at heartstrings. My dad’s friends. They’re still here. Some of them. But he’s not. Not Dad. Not Jimmy. He hasn’t been for a long time. But there’s still this big achey hole. Why? Why? He has been gone now for longer than I knew him; he died when I was 19 when I was immortal and was pretty certain everybody I loved was too. Such glorious naïve happy arrogance. Bumping crazy reckless through life. You bear the bruises, you don’t think about scars.


So he died. Suddenly. Stolen.


And later, much, much later, when I was all grown up and a big girl who ought – of course – to be quite over her daddy’s long-ago death, the loss grabbed me by the throat so tightly, so suddenly, that I was winded, could hardly breathe.


That’s when I spoke to a counsellor. A kind man with a Geordie accent. He worked for Cruse. He knew all about death stealing loved ones: it’s what he did, he said, helped to explain what was left to the rest of us.


He told me it wasn’t uncommon, when biting my lip and trying not to cry (again, so that my poor darling children had to explain my weeping away to one another, ‘why’s mummy crying?’, ‘cos her dad’s died, silly’. Dear sweet, sweet babies: only 19 years ago – how ridiculous I felt; how forgiving our children are). He told me it wasn’t unusual to suddenly miss this grownup who’d gone long ago because you were a grownup now too and you wanted to know them as just that. I wanted to know dad as the man he was, not just the father he’d been.


So that’s why this man, Jimmy’s friend, who has suddenly been dragged from a past into my present, so that’s why this man’s name is suddenly synonymous with dad and his going and his growing-up and mine so that there’s this whole tangled bitter-sweet sadness and longing and joy and missing and loving and lumps in throats and memories clamouring unexpectedly for attention. Grief is very, very complicated. That’s what Alan at Cruse said.


I sourced Dad’s friends you see. Those that I could. Those whose names I could find on websites. Because I needed to know. I needed to know him better, even though he was gone. I loved what they told me, I loved that they said ‘he side-stepped bullshit with the agility of a sword dancer’.  What an epitaph.


Old men’s names in my Inbox at Outlook Express, old men who look like the seventy year olds they are, not the 47 year old Dad was. (I can’t imagine my dad looking old: the Grim Reaper kept him young and vital forever). Old men who use computers, the stuff of fantasy and science fiction and James Bond movies when my dad died (he said Sean Connery was best, better than Roger Moore; I wonder what he’d have made of Daniel Craig?). The stuff of the future (mine of course, not his). Like cell phones. I’ve given my cell phone number to the old boy who’s on his way up to the outpost.


I hope he comes to stay.


I hope he talks about Jimmy.


I hope, I really hope, I don’t cry. (My kids are bigger now; they’ll be embarrassed).


But I think I might.



20 Responses to “Pasts”

  1. aminah Says:

    and i think it is fine if you do…that feeling of loss is one that is not easily shaken off and if it creeps up on you, embrace it, cause it usually feels alot better getting it all instead of stiffling it with a stiff upper lip! Good luck ! aminah

  2. Tom Says:

    Don’t be shy. You need to get all the puzzle pieces you can.

  3. Roberta Says:

    Of course you will cry! And you will laugh! And you will remember! Your children will learn more about the grandfather they never had and what makes the mother they have – the way she is.

    This is all good, Mem. All good!

  4. Expatmum Says:

    My dad died when I was 20, he was 50. Very sudden, far too early. That was 26 years ago and it still breaks my heart. He never met my husband and never knew the kids. He would have been the best grandad. Like you, I would have given anything to be an adult child of his; to see how our relationship developed. Ah well; not to be. I can rejoice that I had such a great dad when so many people do not, but still…..

  5. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Aminah. Not not easily shaken, but still oddly suprising

  6. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    You’re right Tom, pieces of a puzzle, filling in gaps, stopping holes …

  7. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    I had not thougth of it like that Roberta, thank you. but i did show Hat the picture on the post, ”who’s that?” i asked. she couldn’t guess. she was sweetly shy when i told her, as if i was introducing her to my dad for the first time. dear hat.

  8. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    EM – oh i know what you mean. i so know. that dad doesn’t know my children. that i like red wine. that i try to write. but. but. perhaps he does? somehow.

  9. Maggie May Says:

    Its perfectly OK to cry no matter how old your kids are. Its natural.
    Hope you find the “meeting” therapeutic.

  10. Janelle Says:

    ah babes…that’s it. you did me in. here i sit with tears running down my cheeks for my mummy…you put it so aptly. so aptly. dear god….you know how to sew words together… you really do. BIG HUG DARLIN’ and i really hope Jimmy’s Friend comes to see you and I really hope its special..and fills in some of those sad gaps…BIG LOVE ANTHEA xxxx janelle

  11. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Maggie May. Yes. I suppose it is. It still strikes me as odd though that tears can seem so fresh so many years later

  12. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    janellabella; thank you. it’s a big hole. will it ever be filled. perhaps best not to, though, for then one might forget. and i think its better to remember. as for the words: you knit them so perfectly together that i can feel africa’s colourful texture everytime i encouter your beautiful writing. keep going. xxx

  13. Tam Says:

    such beautiful, real writing. you made me cry. I’m lucky to have both my parents still, but my love lost his dad when he was 17, and you’ve just made me understand him better, thank you so much for that.

  14. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you Tam. i never understood – until i spoke to counsellor – why the gap persisted for so long. he said that as we get older we develop a passionate need to understand, to know, our parents better (we grow out of the derision we dismissed them with as teenagers!). knowing them makes it easier to know ourselves. but you can’t do that if they’re not here .I think that’s why the hole is still there? x

  15. Mapesbury Mum Says:

    Hey – I was thinking of your Dad just this week as I explained to someone about the ‘sleepovers’ I had and nights sleeping in the car in Naivasha Club carpark, with the seats down and comfortable mattresses, whilst our parents partied inside….I was remembering the time I went to stay with you – he picked me up and drove back to your house in the pitch black African night, I remember this crate of beer on the carseat next to me, and he got a puncture. There was another man in the car and they shared a beer together whilst changing the wheel and I was freezing cold in the car so your dad lent me his jumper. Those days still feel like ‘the other day’ even though I was probably as old as my son….

  16. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    MM, thank you. that’s a really lovely story. i know: the other day in Africa … last week or 35 years ago. Good days. i hope our kids can share similarly quirky memories, i hope their world hasn’t been sterilized of them all? Glad he gave you his jersey. x

  17. lulu Says:

    That was too young to die. I’m sorry. Lx

  18. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    It was Lulu. It is. Thank you x

  19. Rob Says:

    I know how you feel. It’s good to have so many happy memories though, along with a few well worn photos.

  20. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    i know you do,Rob. and i agree with you about the memories. and the photos. they can be hugely sustaining x

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