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The day I fell off the top of a mountain

Plunging down the side of a mountain today, incapacitating both my right leg and my bike as I did so, my mind was driven back to what might have been my first lie.

In the years before I became a teenager, I would have a recurring dream. It was both bland and vivid, and it entrenched itself to the point that I was never sure if it was real memory — something that actually happened to me — or if it was simply a bad dream.

However the scene was created, it’s clear now that it was fantasy, but as a child I was convinced of the opposite. I remember on more than one occasion, earnestly regaling the story of the day I fell “off the top of a mountain”, and to this day I’m not sure if I was lying or delusional.

The mountain was Cape Town’s Signal Hill, although, as in dreams, it wasn’t really. My reference point as a child was upper Strand Street and the steep slopes plunging from Bo-Kaap and the Noon Gun, down toward Green Point. We used to drive that route from the southern suburbs to my grandmother Mavis’s house in Sea Point where we would eat fried fish and fish cakes on a Friday, or devour roast lamb with mint jelly on Sunday.

Driving up Strand Street toward High Level Road, I’d sit in the back of my dad’s VW Microbus and stare with inexplicable horror at the almost vertical, brown, shale slopes. Somehow I mixed this experience with another distant memory of hanging about with my dad, bored out of my skull, as he peered through a small box on top of a tripod, surveying pieces of land for some or other adult reason.

In the dream scene, we were standing on top of a desolate Signal Hill. It wasn’t rounded and pleasant to potter about on as it is in reality. Its crest was a severe ridge, so sharp it was almost impossible to balance on. On each side of the ridge, the soft, silty substrate plunged menacingly away from me.

My dad was measuring levels with his strange contraption, and I’d been dragged along for the day and was miserable. I think my mom was there too, helping out. Being parents — they were immortal and perfect as far as I was concerned — they had no problem balancing up there, but I promptly slipped off the ridge and plunged down to the bottom of the slope, small body flailing.

I survived, and nothing much else happened. A boring story, but a horrible imprint on my mind, which I recounted as fact, perhaps in an effort to show the other children I was a brave explorer — and on one occasion to counter another friend’s lie that the radio mast on top of Constantiaberg in Tokai was a gigantic red and white drinking straw, and he knew because he had seen it up close once.

This morning, I found myself riding my bike along a narrow trail across that very shale slope. At one point my front wheel edged of the path and I started to slip. I managed to hop off just in time, gripping the handle bar with one hand as the bike swung out precariously. I hauled the bike back onto the path and pushed past that narrow point, hopped back on, rounded a gum tree and hurtled down a steep gully.

A little too fast and a little too steep as it turned out.

Trying to slow down I started slipping on the loose rocks. I pulled too hard on the front brake, nicked a big rock and sailed over the front of the bike, crashing with my thigh on a rock before slipping, bouncing and rolling down the hill. My bike turned cartwheels alongside me, all but ripping complicated and expensive pieces of equipment from its frame.

And there I lay on that forsaken shale, grimacing, glaring at my bike, waiting for the pain to go away and thinking, for the first time in years, of that strange vivid memory.