fiction origins

GRANDMOTHER’S FOOTSTEPS | In Anne Hamilton’s short story, her protagonist reflects on his family history, reenacting the journey his grandmother took from India to the UK.

Fiction

by Anne Hamilton

‘I wonder if the fireflies still dance on the river?’

Her voice echoes through the empty, pristine flat that still smells of fresh paint. The estate agent is hovering, reminding me it’s the last one remaining in this prestigious development in a sought-after area.

‘I wonder if the fireflies still dance on the river?’

They said she was going senile in the end – my grandmother; Alzheimers they said, to pretty it up. They were wrong. She was recalling her childhood, things that haunted her all her life. Nobody else would talk about it, you see, nobody wanted to listen. So she told me.

I run my hand over the space-age silver hob that’s replaced the Baby Belling where she used to stand, and stir and season; the pot never seemed to empty, always another willing mouth to feed. ‘When you’ve lost everything,’ she’d say, ‘what you have becomes precious. Remember that, Amal.’

“For years, the aunts and uncles, friends and neighbours, came and went, all doing their bit to tidy up the place. They made it into a home.”

She wasn’t quite ten in 1947, when Partition drove them from their house, their two shops. A Sikh family, living in what became Pakistan, they fled to the new India. Everyone was fleeing: Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, she said. And if not fleeing, they were fighting, neighbour turned on neighbour. She told it matter-of-factly, like a history lesson, and as a boy I was enthralled. Back then, I saw the adventure not the heartache.

They left home on a day’s notice, wearing mismatched layers of clothes, carrying only what they could cram in their pockets: she had two teacups in her jacket, and a dish – she described the intricate rose pattern. For days there was a caravan snaking across the border into the Punjab because the train was no longer safe. People went missing: two uncles, her older sister. ‘Lost’ was the word she always used, her lips thinning, her eyes far away. She wouldn’t say more; it wasn’t for the ears of a boy.

That walk started the long journey here, to England and this flat. I wander into the bathroom and smile at the bathroom tiles – dolphin mosaics in a midnight blue. A bold statement, the estate agent assures me, and I wonder what she’d have said. My great great grandfather came over on the boat, thirty odd days at sea. He worked and he saved and he sent money back home, so that one after the other, the rest of the family arrived. By the early sixties, sixteen – sixteen! – of them shared this one-bedroom basement where rats and mice ran across the floors, and they heated a pan of water to wash. For years, the aunts and uncles, friends and neighbours, came and went, all doing their bit to tidy up the place. They made it into a home.

‘Alright?’

I’m so far in the past, the estate agent makes me jump.

‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost, mate.’

‘I think I have,’ I say.

‘Oh?’ He follows me into the bedroom; the fireplace restored, the ceiling rose unblemished.

‘My dad was married here. I was born here.’

‘Cool. So you’re coming back?’ He’s chirpy, chatty, gauging the chances of a sale.

I shake my head. ‘Just this last time. Scotland’s my home now.’

‘Cool,’ he says again, but with less vigour, and I know it’s time for me to move on. Time for life to move on.

I’ve been on a long trip – thirty days. A pilgrimage if you like, for my grandmother. I’ve followed her steps from Pakistan, to India, to here. I’ve come back with my promise to tell the stories she wasn’t allowed to… but most of all to answer her question.

‘Yes, bibi,’ I whisper through the open front door. ‘The fireflies do still dance on the river.’

Inspired by the words of Galab Singh.


Anne Hamilton | @AnneHamilton7 | writerightediting.co.uk

Anne Hamilton is a writer, tutor and editor of fiction, and the editor of online magazine, Lothian Life. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and has been judge of the Tarbert Book Festival Writing Competition for the last three years. Anne’s stories are published in several journals and anthologies, and she has read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Her travelogue A Blonde Bengali Wife, inspired the charity, Bhola’s Children. Her first novel, Chasing Elena, is currently shortlisted for the Orion ‘Love Story’ competition, and she is now working on her second. Anne lives in Edinburgh, with her young son.


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