Who's Who 3: The Burden

I get it. I’m not an idiot. I’ve heard people talking behind my back for years. A few of them even said it to my face, thinking they’re clever. They come up to me, looking so pleased with themselves, and dare to ask the question everyone else politely ignores.

“How come you carry that backpack instead of wearing it on your shoulder?” they ask me. Or words to that effect.

I’ll make up some excuse. Bad back is a good one. Most people seem to sympathise with that. Or I say it’s an old injury. Although that leads to more questions and it’s not a million miles from the truth, which always puts me on edge.

I’ve been known to say it’s down to the bag. Which is harsh, really. It’s done nothing wrong. Hell, it’s lasted for years. Still, if I know I’m leaving soon, I blame the bag and make sure to point out I can’t afford a new one.

Turns out I must make a pretty decent actor, because one time my co-workers actually bought me a new bag. I left soon after. I can’t have people asking too many questions. In the same way that I can’t have them noticing about the seatbelts.

You’d be surprised just how many jobs revolve around having to travel in a company car at some point. It’s unavoidable, which is unfortunate for me. There always comes a day when there’s training to attend, or a trade show or even just a Christmas party.

If it’s not a long journey, I might be able to avoid wearing a seatbelt. But the minute we drive out of town or onto a motorway, I’m made to wear it. Then they all see. They see me turn pale. They notice me struggling to speak. They see the pain take over and I can’t tell them what’s wrong. I can’t tell anyone. My father made that clear to me, on his deathbed.

I’ll never forget that night. He’d been in hospital for weeks and he wasn’t recovering. As we all went to leave, he called me back.

“We need to talk.”

“About what?”

“About what you’re about to inherit from me.”

Everything changed after that.

Granted, at first, I just thought my dad had gone insane. Either that or his new drugs were having some unusual side effects. He’d always been a bit unusual, but that night he really took the biscuit, so to speak.

I had to sit and listen to him explain why he’d never worn a backpack or anything with a shoulder strap for years. Why he’d refused every seatbelt, refused every ride on a modern rollercoaster and never worn anything as revealing as a vest during the summer.

The reason he gave was truly bizarre. The fact he tied it back to my grandfather only baffled me more.

“You remember your granny’s funeral,” he’d said. “The priest putting his arm on your granddad’s shoulder. Your granddad screaming so hard all the birds flew out the trees.”

“Sure,” I told him. “I remember.”

Not that it meant anything. None of it did. Not until after he’d passed away. I never told my sisters what he’d said. I never told anyone. I mean, how could I? Who would’ve believed me? How’d you even bring it up in conversation?

“Why do I never wear my bag on my shoulder? It’s simple, really. I’m related to the man who carried the cross for the son of God and now every firstborn son of my family must bear that weight forever more. As proof of our ancestor’s faith.”

It’s just plain crazy, right?

Still, there is a mark on my shoulder. It appeared not a week after we put my father in the ground. It’s wide as a hand and pretty much straight edged, like a sturdy length of wood. It burns when water gets on it. It stings when I pull on a t shirt. I can’t lie on that side in bed anymore and I can’t wear a backpack.

So, if you ask me about it, I’ll just say it’s a bad back. Or an old injury. Trust me, it’s easier that way.