Manchester Fiction Prize Winner 2014: Our Disorder by Martin MacInnes
It started when he was three. We thought it was hilarious, then endearing. He brought soft things to our bedroom during the night – newspapers, packaging – then dropped them at the sides and end of the bed and left quietly, so we'd only find them in the morning. When we moved them too high to reach he brought cushions from our living room and one time even his own duvet.
We'd imagined he wasn't awake as he did this, that he was sleepwalking, but he wasn't a great talker anyway so it was hard to tell. We'd tell him everything's ok and he should go back to his room, his bed, and sleep, and then he did.
We locked the door.
He put soft things around us as we sat at the table or watched television or worked in the study. He never said why he did this. The psychologist said it was a passing state, and he was right. Our son started collecting tiny pieces of dirt and hair from the carpets and laying everything on a pile by his bed each evening. When we asked why he said so there will be another of me in the morning. My wife asked him what he meant - we had laughed uncertainly - and he said pieces are falling off every day and more will be needed to keep me going.
The psychologist told us this all started because he cut his knee one day. We were really grateful to find the source of his behaviour and the means of correcting it. We reassured our son that it was normal to get an injury every now and then, that the body knows how to repair itself. I am just helping it, he said, especially at night because then I'm not there and I'll need to be made again.
We found other things. He left checking devices. Sets of numbers written down according to an obscure code. Only he would know how to decode them. So when he woke and understood them it was proof that he was himself, the real person, our son, and not a stand-in, not a counterfeit who had been produced falsely overnight, supplanting him. That's what he said. He was seven-years old. He made a nest out of stories in the garden so that wounded things could shelter there.
Obviously there was something troubling him, but it was easy to forget it. It's not like he did these things all the time. He did well at school and he made some friends and he didn't complain too much. He just did and said these weird things sometimes. It could be awkward when we had strangers over, professionals, tradespeople. A plumber was fixing a block in the sink. Our son watched him, and the plumber was used to it, part of the job, minding these young apprentices.
He said please don't destroy our house.
I'm fixing it! the plumber said, a good sport.
The walls are thin and you could break the house with that hammer, it would be easy, please don't.
He began walking with his eyes closed. It was to stop him running out from there. He thought he could spill himself through the eyes. He said he fortified against this by keeping them closed.
I was beginning to dislike him. I might have thought hate. Why did he have to go around determined to invent eccentric trouble? He said he sees the colour of the fortifications and he sees the other way too, from the back of the eye inwards through the centre of the head. When his eyes were open he carried parts of the world into him through his bloodstream including insects, air, and trauma.
I don't know what we have done wrong. I don't know what he did to get this.
He learned to walk on his hands, his feet extended in the air, and he went this way in the house and in the garden, said it was because he wanted to go backwards, back to the place he had come from.
It's so funny when I eat like this, he said.
He didn't like that he was growing. Naturally, his solution was to reverse the direction of his life. At midday Wednesday he started walking backwards and undoing the things he'd done previously, leading himself to bed, sleeping for eight hours and then having the previous night's dinner, etc. He was talking again at this point, though only in the small statements he had learned to express backwards. He must have been planning this one a while. He weighed and measured himself daily, pleased that he appeared to be getting smaller, though this was likely from the disrupted diet caused by the new regime. At this stage, of course, he was being home schooled. Now I wasn't prepared to learn words backwards for him, but I couldn't help going along with him just a little – you should have seen how happy it made him – so for a while at least I would reverse history, teaching him war through the establishing of a babbling peace-treaty that split into rubble, self-assembling buildings, bombs exploding, shrinking, curling up into containers, aeroplanes and the arms of men. Finally there were factories and the ground. He liked detail. He would always stop me if I didn't go into the details of things so I began giving them unprompted.
When we get back to the start, dad, he said, we can begin again.
As he wished we changed the seasons, dressing according to previous weather and sticking plastic leaves onto the trees in the garden. Night was day so we had our meals then and got used to the weird television playing and we would walk the empty street, my son and I, with no-one else around, no lights, and we didn't say anything.
He asked me why I wasn't going backwards too. He tried to correct me saying I was copying him and getting smaller but that that was wrong, I should be reaching the fullness I used to be. He said it was my hair and the way I walked. I wasn't full and tall like I used to be. I walked slowly and I was a clumsy reverse-expresser. I taught him metal and woodwork and we looked at putting things together and at how they come apart. What is this house made of, he said? How long did it take to build it? We went on excursions, field-trips to timber-yards and forests, quarries and the sea; it had been decided that we should visit all the places our house was made of. He felt guilty about all this stuff having just been taken, for our own use. Consider it a short-term loan, I said.
He was ok with that. We filled our bags with the outdoors. Gathered rubble and broken branches. He said they would be used as fittings to restore the house to how it was before. We were our only friends. We didn't claim to understand each other, but that was ok. I should have taken him back to the psychologist earlier, I know that. Especially when it happened, I should have done it right then, the loss was bound to have exacerbated his condition, I don't know what I was thinking. I guess I just didn't want to lose my son too. And he was not unhappy. He wasn't emotional. So long as you went along with his solutions, moving around objects to comply with how he wanted things to be, everything was ok.
He was very persuasive. I hadn't worked in some time; looking after him was a full-time job. He was enthralled by the beach because sand, shells and limestone made concrete. We swam together. He was happy because this was before buildings. The stuff made our bones and blood. We had reached a much earlier time. He carried me away. We never spoke about the reason for all this, for our attempts at restoration. We just acted. It was enough to see him smile.
It wasn't like we only lived extremely. Much of what we did, by this stage, was mediated by his obsessions but then we also ate together regularly, we sometimes watched TV, we slept for average amounts of time.
He sometimes slipped, said do you think it's working? and I didn't have the heart to answer.
I think every time he woke up he wondered, for a moment, if we had been successful, if our plan had worked, but then he would see the date on the newspaper laid on the kitchen table and we would eat cereal together and he would walk away.
One of our days at the beach I thought I'd lost him. I'd nodded off and my reflex was to scan the water to see how far he'd gone. This time there was nothing, he'd pushed past the horizon, I went running in and just as I kicked through the water I heard him yell dad, what are you doing? from behind me. He had this barely suppressed smile, like he was proud of something he'd done and was just dying to tell me, but he couldn't.
The latest fad was salt which was an interesting thing, apparently, because it both preserves and corrodes. It keeps meat and it takes in the land. When things were going well, and we were having a good time, he would coat the scene in salt, to keep it. People who live by the sea, he said, are better storytellers, they remember everything that happens because they're dusted by salt. Things decayed slowly on the beach. I'd been drinking and I almost said out loud, how it was obvious now, we should have kept her here, laid her body out on the sand, just beyond the water's reach.
We were there at the table covered in salt, as if fresh out the sea. When I'm feeling good, he said, or when I'm feeling bad, when I'm feeling just anything, this is what it is, isn't it, dad?
I wasn't sure I understood him.
Well no, I said. Table salt never felt good or bad, did it?
It was the stuff with a voltage that lit us when we woke. It was an acid inside us sourced from the sea.
The really small things that you can hardly see, barely there against air or water, wisps of a nervous system and a heart and gone in a day or two – if they have any feeling of duration then they live long as we do, they beat more quickly and if they see someone falling on the beach it would be a very gradual thing, a long process, and there would be no obvious point at which one becomes zero.
I replaced his clothes when I deemed it necessary and I never let him know, I bought the same style and colour and I always cut the labels. Fortnightly I cut his hair in the dark while he feigned sleep. I clipped his nails every three days. He might've thought he never grew and we both dreaded maturity. I couldn't stand the thought of him orating like a giant through an artificial bass, tearing off his lower face each morning, marching out like a little imperialist. How had I let it get like this.
Did he really think that things would've been different if he'd wrapped and cushioned the house more thoroughly, those years ago? If we arrived there now I bet he'd flood the building so the three of us would be weightless and couldn't fall, the three of us, in the water, could grow and grow and grow with nothing to impede us. His lunacy was full of good intentions. Our bones would get as big as walls, we'd outgrow the house, together, soon we'd be the size of whales, then islands, continents, and then we'd be the world.
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