Tag Archives: illness

The Backwards Child

By Matthew Cook


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 hand grenades 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.

Matthew Cook has been a hospital porter, a script consultant and a retail snoop but is currently a freelance writer based in Liverpool. His fiction and reviews have appeared in Number Eleven, Small Doggies, PANK, Tusk, Imbroglio and Cooldog. You can sometimes find him on Twitter @mattjohncook.

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The Heart of It


by Laura Baber



There were twelve robins on the roof today. I saw them outside my window, huddled against each other with orange colored breasts still bundled in winter’s down feathers. Fluffed up in defense of their tender heads and alert, hopping feet; pecking at berries hidden in the black flaps and folds of the roof tiles. I did not know that robins flocked. I think usually they do not, but were together this morning only to protect themselves against the bitter wind. Or the loneliness of a sudden springtime birthing.


I turn my head to ask you, but you are not there. The fact of it was 15 years ago, but I still forget and turn my head to talk to you. To tell you stories. To ask you questions about the daytime habits of robins.





It was your fingernails that first told us something was wrong. Where we were, deep in the jungle, no one was whole. There were always stomach revulsions, skin lesions, something that grew red and itchy against the crook of an elbow. We did not pay attention to these minor annoyances. We put up with them for faith, you and I. For belief in the work that we did.


The days were long and hot and wet. Even before the rainy season, before the floods, my hair grew mold in it. My belt, the one with the copper buckle that I’d brought from back home, turned a green patina that would never turn back again. I felt the same way, being there. Patinaed with a hue that wouldn’t turn back again.


Sometimes I’d complain. ‘There’s no aid work in Paris,’ you’d say then, wiping sweat from your face with the red bandana you kept shoved in your back pocket. ‘These are the conditions. This is the work.’


I believed you because I believed in you, in the work we did. I trusted your face, whole and proud, shining in the dying light of a jungle afternoon.





We called them tube wells. Long, six-inch pipes inserted deep into the heart of the earth, bringing up fresh, clean water to those who’d never had it before. For those who had lost child after child to diarrhea, to waterborne pathogens, to poverty. Thinking back on it, I should have seen that nothing was so easy. Nothing, all the way good. But youth has no room for pragmatism.


Almost ready,’ I said to the experts, come in to evaluate. On the first day their large-boned white skin shone bright against the dark smallness of the population. By the second, they’d turned red and puffy, burned uncomfortable by a long day in the sun. Still, we pressed on. We measured and scienced, clipboards clutched in hands. These were the conditions, this was the work.


The rainy season will come soon,’ they said to me though I knew this. I knew it better than they. I was no stranger with red puffy skin.


We’ll be ready.’ I pointed to dates on my clipboard. Calendar rows marked in red. Monsoons that could swing in and out of dates and time, ruining everything. ‘They’ll be dug,’ I said.


Every village.’


The diesel engines, the ones that create the long holes down to the heart of the earth, they don’t work in the rain. They get clogged and rusted, sometimes carried away by rising water. With the monsoon threat barreling down on us, circled in red just weeks away, perhaps we went too quickly. Did not do all the sciencing we should have done. I can look back now and ask: Did we go too fast? Now that I have the luxury of pragmatism, but not of you.





All day I listened to the sounds of that diesel engine, fitting and drilling. The electricity of it took something precious away from my days, blanketed them with a constant buzzing and whirring. I tried not to mind that I could no longer hear the wind ruffling thatched roofs or clanking tin tops. That I lost the rustle of the giant palm fronds waving their old, primeval arms. But I noted it, this sign that something was not right.


Too much was still good. I could feel the wind blow cool against my skin. I could taste fresh coconut from shoreline trees and drink beer smuggled in on military ships. I could lose myself in the endless varieties of green or nap under a bright white mosquito net. I could stand against you, shoulders together, doing the work.





Fingernails do not lie. Their ridges and lumps and colored marks indicate very specific traumas. This is where that drawer closed on my ring finger. This is where I cut into my thumb bed too deeply. This is where I hit myself with that hammer, turning the index fingernail a blue-black-purple before I lost it altogether.


Back in Connecticut, we noticed your fingernails had gone wrong. There had been other signs of course: headaches, stomach aches, dizziness. Days spent in sterile rooms where doctors spoke of Lyme disease and vertigo. One said that sometimes people don’t adjust to coming home. Sometimes it’s in your mind. You laughed at him, that one.


Because it wasn’t in your mind. It was in your fingernails. Long white streaks, small round dots. Classic signs of arsenic, they’d say later. But not classic enough to catch the cancer before it spread.


The clipboards measured and scienced. ‘Mass poisoning,’ they said. ‘Whole villages succumbed.’ Arsenic from deep in the earth brought up by tube wells.





I cried when I heard it. Cried for you, and your fallen-out hair and your pancreas that had turned against you. Cried for the fingernail streaks and the skin lesions and the day your shoulders slumped against the world and I knew you had given up hope.


I sat by your bedside and I held your hand.


We killed them,’ you whispered and I shushed you. I had no answer for that.


Laura Baber is a humanitarian aid worker and writer who has lived and worked in Central America, Eastern Europe and Asia. She currently resides in New York City and has just finished work on her first novel.



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