Christopher was born feet first on a humid August evening. Sara had held him in for the duration of her band’s set at the working men’s club, initially thinking he might just be wind. Somewhere around the halfway point of the show she realised she was having her baby, and skipped the encore, limping to the car park where her husband, the drummer, was waiting.
Davy flung open the rear doors of his van and helped Sara inside, planning to put his foot down and get them to the nearest hospital. But Christopher had other ideas, and Davy was forced to deliver his own son right there and then. Babies that come feet first are usually painful, troublesome births, but Sara would later describe the labour as thankfully short-lived. One moment she was grasping around the floor of the van for something to hold onto, the next there he was, as if he had waited long enough. No smack on the bottom for this infant; the moment he emerged, Christopher began to wriggle and scream.
From his very first day on earth, he was a restless child. He would squirm against his mother’s embrace and howl whenever either of them tried to settle him down, his little legs always kicking. It surprised nobody when he took his first steps just months later.
From then on, Christopher only became more of a handful. Wilful, rambunctious and seemingly a stranger to the notion of sitting still for more than five seconds at a time, his teachers despaired while at the same time other children flocked around him, seemingly drawn to his boundless energy and inquisitive nature.
With typical resolve, he marched into adolescence. Girls became his new curiosity, and they returned his interest with gusto. But as was symptomatic of Christopher, no girl lasted very long. There was no cruelty in the way he discarded them, or at least not consciously. It was just that his eyes were forever fixed on the horizon, certain that whatever lay just out of sight held more excitement, more adventure.
On his sixteenth birthday, he announced his plan to travel the world. Neither Davy nor Sara had ever imagined he would learn a steady trade or attend university, and as a pair of romantic former nomads themselves, their parental concern could not mask their pride. And so Christopher gave in to the itch in his feet, which he had felt as long as he could remember. He never had more than the cost of his next train ticket to his name, but would work as a bartender or delivery boy or labourer to make enough money for room and board, staying in one place only as long as the itch in his feet abated.
Years passed this way. Christopher traversed Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, and arrived in the United States just a couple of days after turning twenty-one. But the city that never sleeps was the coldest place Christopher had set foot in for years, and he soon headed west, to California.
Then an altogether odd thing happened. For the first time, Christopher did not reach his destination. In some vast, green state in the first flushes of spring, he met a girl called Lucy. He was entranced by her at first, with her dark curls and green eyes, and in particular by the single freckle at the base of her throat. But experience had taught him that his feet would always rule both his head and his heart, and so he fully expected to be gone in a matter of days.
By the end of the first fortnight, when the itch had not returned, Christopher decided he would stay until it did. The harvest came and went, and that winter Christopher married Lucy. They moved into a house that was small but all theirs, and Christopher settled into a life of working and chopping firewood and swimming with his bride in the nearby lake. The itch was never far from his mind; he feared that any day he would wake up and there it would be, demanding his obedience.
But as first one year passed, then two, then three, Christopher reached the tentative conclusion that his itchy feet had driven him around the world for a reason; that he had never made it to California because he had found what he wanted, that the horizon had finally yielded something worthwhile.
Twenty-six years after he was born in the back of a drummer’s van, Christopher held Lucy’s hand as she gave birth to their child; a girl, born headfirst. They named her Sara Jean, after both of their mothers. Christopher was happier than he had ever been, and would count his blessings daily. Or at least, he did to begin with. But as is true of so many things, bliss lost its shine in the everyday. Without even realising, Christopher ceased to fear the itch, eventually forgetting it entirely.
Until the morning he woke up with what felt, at first, like pins and needles. He thought nothing of it. The next day, the discomfort was slightly greater, and a lot more familiar. On the third day, Christopher admitted to himself that the accursed itch had returned. He started taking long walks, like when he was a boy, hoping to appease the restlessness, but deep down he knew it wouldn’t be enough. His feet would continue to burn from the inside until he left this town, this life, and set off in search of somewhere new.
He said nothing of this to Lucy, but she knew something was wrong. His easy manner became strained, he snapped at the littlest thing. She put it down to the pressures of fatherhood; her mother had told her long ago that all men are children, in desperate need of love and patience. And so Lucy was patient with Christopher, ignoring the seed of unease in her belly.
Weeks dragged on like this, Christopher growing more irritable and Lucy’s dutiful tolerance wearing thinner. They had the worst arguments of their young marriage; blazing exchanges over unpainted fences and burnt potatoes and other meaningless trifles.
This land, which had once seemed so sprawling and fertile to Christopher, now felt like a garden with high, invisible walls. What could he say? How could he tell the women he loved that his body was betraying him, that he didn’t want to leave her and their child but he feared he might not have a choice? He started a dozen letters, but each time the words he read back to himself sounded weak and selfish.
Christopher had never considered himself a coward — quite the opposite. But he knew he could never tell Lucy. So he waited, feet stinging inside his boots, for the right moment. It came soon enough, when Lucy took Sara Jean on her monthly visit to her see her great-aunt.
His bag had been packed and hidden in the woodshed for days prior. He kissed Lucy goodbye that day as he would on any other morning, holding onto her for just a second longer than usual. He covered his daughter’s chubby little face in kisses, not knowing how long it would be before he saw her again. In his entire life, Christopher had never returned anywhere. He didn’t even know if he could.
He waited for a full hour after they left, lest he pass them on the road. Then he exited the house and went into the woodshed. His feet felt like they were bleeding out; he had never resisted for so long before. Christopher retrieved his suitcase, and the itch abated a little, almost as if his feet knew they were about to commence another journey.
He stood in the doorway of the woodshed, bag in hand, and was about to take his first step when something glinted in the corner of his vision. He turned to find the hatchet he used for chopping firewood. A plan began to form in his mind. Doing his best to ignore the now searing pain in the soles of his feet, he set his bag down.
When Lucy retuned later that day, the anxious seed that had sat in her gut for weeks suddenly began to flower. She swiftly put Sara Jean down for her nap, and searched the house for Christopher. When she couldn’t find him, she stood on the porch and called his name. If there had been even the slightest breeze, she might not have heard the groan coming from the woodshed. Feeling sick to her stomach, Lucy raced across the yard.
Christopher smiled up at her from the ground. An axe lay at his side. His jeans were rolled up to the knee, and his shins, slick and red, ended just above the ankle. Lucy screamed. In her horror, she failed to notice that her husband’s feet were nowhere to be seen.