By Ross White
I’ve never met anyone who could do what my grandad could.
I don’t think I’m likely to either. He had what is normally referred to as a ‘family secret’. Not one of those grubby keep it in the loft style secrets but actually a rather joyous one.
The thing is, my grandad Donald could draw shapes in the air. Not the usual ones where you draw a circle or something and you have to imagine it; these were actual physical shapes. They hung in the air like gymnasts ribbons, and there they would stay until he rubbed them out with the palm of his hand.
Now, I wasn’t aware of this of course until I was old enough to understand that it wasn’t an everyday occurrence. Otherwise I would have thought everyone could do it except me. And even then I only knew about it when my grandad thought the time was right.
Let me tell you how it happened…
My grandad and I used to go for long walks in the summer, he liked to stretch his legs and get outdoors, ‘recharge the batteries’ as he would say. He would explain which tree was which, what was safe to eat and what was definitely not, show me how to make little boats from twigs and leaves, and how to appreciate what was around me before it was too late. His head was full of facts and figures, songs and prose, jokes and riddles. A man of great worth you might say, with a secret that he kept locked away until it was time for the key to turn.
It was a balmy July afternoon; I was 14 and he was 66, the sounds of summer hung in the air as if they had nowhere else to go, and I sat on a wooden chair in the back garden with him and wondered if this was how the Sahara desert must feel when you’re out of water and your camel has crept off in the night.
“Okay young man, let’s take a walk” he said, and stood bolt upright with great intent.
“But it’s too hot!” I replied with equal intent: “can’t we just go inside and cool down?”
“I have something to show you, it’s something you’ve never seen, I promise you that.”
There can’t be many 14 year olds who would say no to that, so we packed a snack and a drink and headed out with me somehow resisting the urge to insistently ask over and over what this ‘something’ was.
The walk to the woods was mercifully short; around eight minutes on a good day, ten if we had to circumvent the resident perpetually angry bullock who seemed intent on scaring the life out of anyone who dared to pass by. Although we had walked this same route many times, in light of my grandad’s comments I felt almost unaware of it; as if I was being taken somewhere new which would change things forever. Weirdly prophetic as it turned out.
After walking for around fifteen minutes we stopped in a small clearing, and my grandad looked around, nodding sagely whilst he peered through the trees as if looking for something. I, meanwhile had sat down on a short tree stump; the perfect dinner chair height for me to enjoy my snack of chopped apple and blueberries, washed down with a can of warm cola. Things were about to move very quickly from the ordinary to the incredible.
Standing around six feet away from me, my grandad turned towards me and smiled.
“So what’s this thing you were going to show me?” I asked, trying to appear cool and off-hand.
Again, he smiled. Then he turned away from me sideways on, and with his left hand in his pocket and his right held out in front of him, he pointed out towards the trees. Or at least that’s what he appeared to be doing. Instead he drew a perfect oval shape in the air, and wherever his finger traced he left behind a white, delicate, ethereal mark, as if he were drawing on an invisible blackboard with equally invisible chalk.
Once the line had closed he stopped and turned towards me. “You see?” he said, “what did I tell you?”
With that he then repeated the feat but drew a perfect square. Then a triangle, then a circle. In all of this I hadn’t spoken a word, just watched with my mouth open and my legs happy I was sitting down. After he had drawn a number of shapes, all of which still maintained their original opacity and showed no sign of fading, he removed his left hand from his trouser pocket and proceeded to rub them out. This was indeed something I had never seen before, and all I could do was sit and stare in awe with my warm cola and empty snack pot, and ask myself how it was possible.
That was my only encounter with his gift, and not long afterwards he passed away on a hospital bed, but not before delivering a final shared secret wink in my direction.
I have often wondered if he ever used his gift, or just kept it for his own amusement; either way I am often taken back to that warm summer afternoon in the woods as I watch my son draw shapes in the air with his tiny right index finger, then rub them out with the palm of his delicate left hand.