The Backwards Child
This is a flash fiction published in 2015 by Oblong Magazine. You can read it in its original home here.
From the moment my brother Jonathan was born it felt like everything he did was the wrong way round. He reached out for father’s bulbous nose with his left hand, not his right. All the lush black hair he arrived with slowly fell out and refused to grow back. I hardly remember seeing him eat, but I lost count of the times he was sick on me or someone near me or on the floor or on himself.
Other people noticed it too. When he started going to nursery he was loved by his carers for being so talkative, such a big grown up boy. But as the months passed they too became baffled and suspicious, complaining that he had failed to thrive. That he seemed to have forgotten so much.
It was all very distressing for our mother. Jonathan was her only son and she encouraged us to see him as she did, as the great hope for our family name. She talked brightly about what it would be like when he was fully grown, when he filled every available inch of whatever room he was in, and how we would all dance around and over his giant body like Lilliputians, serving him food, darning the spots where his muscles burst through his clothes and preparing him for the important tasks he had been born to do, on which subject she was frustratingly vague. I joined in with the cuddling and the cooing and the worship, keeping my distrust to myself. When he was handed to me I pinched his fat skin folds with my fingernails to hear the sharp little breaths that followed. I was nine years old, and there wasn’t a single book in our house I hadn’t read. Yet overnight I had been usurped by a ball of fat and wind.
We lived in a town called Bingford. Like Jonathan it was too small and backwards. The residents were sweet natured and kind, though we rarely had out of town visitors on account of Mr Hamaduri. Mr Hamaduri’s restaurant was the first building on the main road, and the manner he had of rushing out from the shadows to greet approaching cars with open arms scared most tourists away (and did them a favour really, as I now know things about Mr Hamaduri and his restaurant that I wish I did not).
Of my sisters, Olive and Faye thought Jonathan was the bee’s knees, but thankfully Carol disliked him almost as much as me, and we spent many pleasurable afternoons plotting against him. The only memory I have of us actually playing with him was a game we invented called Sliders. It involved placing him on a tea towel then spinning him across the dining room floor to one another, like a fat, giggling air hockey puck. The rules demanded that he be naked for some reason. (A revelation: was this why he was so often sick?)
There were a number of theories as to why Jonathan was so strange. The first was that father took his job in the chemical laboratory just before Jonathan was conceived and so his sperms may have gone peculiar (this is what mum believed). Another was that the fifth child is always wonky, or so said grandma Hattie. ‘The first is the champion, the second ignored, the third a comedian, the fourth sweet natured and the fifth as twisted as a monkey’s leg. It’s all there in the bible!’ she often declared, and even dug a yellowed St James’ out to prove it on one occasion but ended up entertaining us with lurid descriptions of the end of the world instead. There were other theories too: milk poisoning; exposure to cat faeces (Hattie owned seven); genetics (mother and father are third cousins, though we are not supposed to know); and evil radiation from the electricity pylon behind our house.
As the months passed and passed my fantasies of destroying Jonathan became ever more vivid and specific, and I dedicated countless pages of my diary to drawings and descriptions of my plans. I was working on them feverishly in my room one Sunday evening when I heard noises downstairs. Carol had noticed that Jonathan was very pale. Mother had called Dr Harris, who said there might be something wrong with Jonathan’s heart. There was no discussion. We simply ran for the car in our pyjamas and threw ourselves in. The surgeons went straight to work. For hours we sat in the hospital waiting room staring at the black and white checkerboard floor wondering what sort of game this was. Inside my head a single thought turned over and over like a washing machine; it was how in New Zealand water spins down sinks the wrong way and so maybe Jonathan’s heart pumped everything the wrong way and always had so perhaps we should just go there because Jonathan’s heart and possibly his whole body wanted to be a New Zealander and who were we to argue?
But I didn’t say anything. Nobody said anything. Time slowed to a trickle. Father handed out blackberries which we ate until we felt sick, succulent little handgrenades that exploded in our mouths and left their shrapnel wedged unbearably in our teeth.
When the doctor finally came out to speak to us I was almost blind from staring at the checkerboard. We all looked up as one and saw that he was walking fast towards us, the way you might walk to sneak up and attack someone, his trainers squeaking faintly on the tiles. Then he began to talk, and I couldn’t hear a word, because time had finally stopped and reversed itself and all that existed in the entire universe were the white laces of his trainers, one a neat little bow, the other unfurling, treacherous and wild and without end.