primordial dwarfism (MOPD Type II)
Type of skeletal dysplasia resulting from a genetic defect. Body parts develop proportionally, appearing miniature. Adult height is typically less than thirty-three inches. The rarity of the condition is difficult to calculate; a rough estimate is one in three million.
Tall people have their own club, special like. Did you know that? They meet up in London, at The Mason’s Arms on Upper Berkeley Street. Tall people from all over come together to chill out, catch up, talk about the things that tall people talk about. In summertime they go for strolls out on Hampstead Heath, stop in for a pub lunch. Sometimes they go to an art show, or to the theatre to see a play. I wouldn’t like to be in the row behind them! They even have weekends away: a tall people road trip to the Surrey countryside, or Marazion, or Manchester. Imagine fifty tall people walking into Waterloo Station to set out, heads and shoulders above everyone else. I bet they never lose each other in crowds.
Leonid Stadnyk is the tallest man in the world—eight feet four inches. I got Mam to mark it on my bedroom wall. It’s still below the tallest man ever— Robert Wadlow from America, eight feet eleven inches. They say the richer the country, the taller the people. I don’t believe that, because Leonid Stadnyk is from the Ukraine. He can’t even afford to buy shoes for his enormous feet. For years, he wouldn’t let the Guinness Book of Records measure him. He just wanted to forget about his size. But they wouldn’t leave him alone.
Tall people are often shy. Reserved, Mam would say. It’s true—it took me ages to get to know one. And it was underwater, so it was even slower than normal. I swim down at the pier; it’s good for me, once the water’s calm enough. I have my own mask and snorkel, and fins—so I can move through the waves. I go up and down the half-moon cove, exploring. Sometimes I imagine I’m a little seal—it matches my name, Ronan.
Mam used stand knee-deep in the water with me, shivering and scared. After weeks of pleading and promising, she let me get in alone. Now she sits on the shale with an umbrella, pretending to read.
Underwater, I look out into the grey vastness. I imagine a huge sea monster appearing out of the gloom, or a tribe of Fomorians marching along the ocean floor, raising whirly mists of sand as they move. I smile, and water trickles into my mask because of the smiley-creases. I’m always doing that.
Above water, I hear Mam scuffle to her feet. It’s not my mask she’s worried about—the Kilbritten brothers are barrelling down the pier with their friends. She raises her purple umbrella in warning. ‘Boys! Careful going in!’
They don’t pay her a tack of notice. In seconds the water is like a washing machine, filled with gangly legs and arms splashing and kicking. I gulp seawater. I can see Mam looking out at me, wringing her hands. I wave so she knows I’m okay, and I move a bit away from the boys. That way she won’t worry. Once I stay between the pier and Low Rock, I’m fine. Past Low Rock, the sea floor falls away.
The boys’ muffled shouts echo underwater, sounding tinny. Last summer they let me spy things out for them to dive for, but this year they’re all sneers and bad names. They’re the ones missing out, that’s what Mam says. I used to think she was booing them, but she was calling them names. ‘Boors,’ I say into my snorkel. ‘Boors!’ The word sounds like a horn calling out.
That’s when I see the long legs below me. They’re coming from around the front of Low Rock, the side facing out to sea. I can’t help looking. I paddle around, and I stare down on the Tall Man.
He looks comfortable, as if he’s sitting in his own living room—if you had a throne in your living room. Fronds of bladderwrack waft all around him, faded, like old green velvet curtains. I’ve never seen so much sea life: strawberry anemones and sea slugs flank him, and above his head is an arch of orange sun stars. The water around him is filled with shoals of fry, and sucker fish gloop from point to point across the rock. Big crabs lurk behind the seaweed, the colour of pumpkins. I recognise them from my book: scorpion spider crabs. Low Rock is covered with purple sea urchins—the ones with the really long spines—but the Tall Man doesn’t look a bit worried. He’s holding a mermaid’s purse, bobbing it in the water before him. I’ve never seen a golden one before. Something inside it wiggles, something dark. My gaze drops downwards, and I gape at his long legs, dangling and swaying in the ocean currents.
He sees me looking. He smiles at me, gives a slow wave. I move my hand in front of my face—it looks bigger underwater, whiter. I swish it at him. He nods. Then Declan Kilbritten kicks me in the face and I explode onto the surface, flailing.
Mam has me up on the kitchen table, pressing into my thin bones.
‘Those louts are so rough! Well, nothing’s broken, thank the Lord. You’re to stay away from them! When they get into the water, you get out. Do you hear me? They’re not safe. Those boors!’
She’d have me walled up in a cell, like an old monk. There’d be a single loose brick that you could wiggle out of the wall, ant lines of dust trickling down. That’s where she’d pass my meals through.
Mam pulls me in close, and then lets me go so she can marvel at me. She runs her fingers through my thin hair and kisses me softly. ‘My little angel.’
She calls me that ever since I had the halo, years ago. It was a metal ring. I wore a hard vest with titanium bars that went from my chest up over my head, holding the halo in place with four pins—two over my eyes, two behind my ears. It kept my head and spine statue-still, while the glue in my bones hardened. I was top-heavy, so when I fell over I couldn’t get up or roll over. I couldn’t even look down. Mam let me decorate it, but there’s only so far stickers and a windmill will get you. Talk about time dragging.
Different syndromes make you tall: it’s not just gigantism, like with Jaws from James Bond. Uncle Terry met Jaws on his seventh birthday, up in Dublin at the Boat Show. He couldn’t see why everyone was crowding around. ‘Look up,’ his dad told him. And he did, but he still couldn’t see. ‘Higher.’ Terry tilted his head right back, to look up at the ceiling. And there was all of Richard Kiel, seven feet two inches tall, leaning way down to shake hands. Uncle Terry thought he’d met a real live giant.
Maybe he did. Giants are everywhere, in fireside tales and in the written-down stories. All over the world there are caves and islands and mountain tops named for giants. That didn’t just come out of thin air. And they’re around us, in plain sight; it’s not like we’re talking unicorns or mermaids, which no-one hardly ever sees.
Gigantism isn’t the only cause; there are tall-making syndromes: Marfan, Klinefelter, Sotos. They mean you can’t ever have babies, or learn properly, or you’re really clumsy.
There are over two hundred different conditions that’ll keep you small.
School is rubbish. During break-time, Mam watches me from her classroom. She promised to let me alone unless I fall over and hurt myself. She shakes her head when the Kilbrittens run past, doing their high-pitched screeching. They don’t sound anything like me. ‘Wait till their voices start to break,’ Mam says. ‘See how willing they are to open their fat gobs then!’
This year has been harder, and her face is set funny with worry lines. She’s forever talking to the headmaster. He says not one of his teachers turns a blind eye to bullying, that slagging is normal for boys our age. He calls it part of socialisation. It’s different when you get to my age—different to the babies that Mam teaches. ‘This behaviour, it’s all part of how they become normal. Ronan is highly advanced for his age, and that’s only isolating him further. If he joined in more, he’d find it easier. The boy just needs to reach out.’
I kept a look out underwater after that first sighting. Each swim, first thing, I’d paddle out to Low Rock. It was always empty, just those seaweedy curtains wafting. The school holidays started, and I explored for new things to show my cousin Gerard; he always stays the last fortnight. The weather turned miserable and the water turned cold. Mam made me wear my long-sleeved wetsuit. Her beach bag doubled in size: she brought an extra set of clothes for me, fleecy hat, scarf and gloves, blanket, tubes of ointment in case of something or other. And a flask of hot broth. In August. You have to laugh. ‘It’s more in your line to worry about exploding balloons instead,’ I tell her, joking. I go to Cork to get brain tests, in case I get a blockage—a tiny balloon that explodes inside my head.
I check Low Rock again. Empty. I gaze out into the murkiness. I think I can see things moving out there, but I can’t really tell. Passing clouds play tricks on you, changing the colour of the sea. A long dead fish floats past me in the water. Ling, I think, or maybe an eel. Its body is frayed along the edges; I can see the white thin bones inside. Little creatures dart around it, feeding.
I turn back, and the Tall Man looks up at me.
He’s stretched out, his shoulders leaning against the grey-green stone of the pier, all speckled with barnacles and periwinkles. The rocks look soft, covered with dahlia anemones and seaweed in grass-greens and reds and pinks, and dabberlocks so thick that they almost hide the rubbish that people dump off the pier. There’s a Tesco plastic bag caught in the stones beside him. It flaps in the current and inflates like a jellyfish, struggling. A shoal of minnows flickers around his beard, moving in and out of the white fronds. Three moon snails make their way along his arm, single file. Crabs scuttle across his chest, their claws held up in the air. I imagine them holding up little umbrellas over their pointy-stalk eyes, and just in time I remember not to smile.
His lower half floats a little above the sea floor, tickled by swathes of Neptune grass that pipe fish are slinking through. His legs seem endless, with big knobbly knees—like those elephants that that man paints, teetering across desert landscapes with melting clocks and strange figures. When I finally get to his ankles, I see that the Tall Man has long fins. They’re silvery-grey, just like his legs.
His eyes are round and black and shiny under the water. There’s no emotion in his face. Impassive, Mam would say. Just looking. Then his face breaks, and a wide smile appears. He floats up one of his long paddle hands and beckons me over. He smiles at me again. I’m closer to him now. This time I can see that his teeth are like mine, only a bit pointier.
My teeth are small, and they have big gaps in between. It’s normal. The first official person with primordial dwarfism was Caroline Crachami, born in Italy in 1815. She was less than twenty inches tall. They called her the Sicilian Fairy. A man named Dr Gilligan used to show her off, in London. Everyone came to stare at her, even the royal family. A journalist wrote about her in a newspaper:
‘Only imagine a creature about half as large as a newborn infant; perfect in all its parts and lineaments, uttering words in a strange, unearthly voice, understanding what you say and replying to your questions. Imagine I say, this figure of about nineteen and a half inches in height and five pounds in weight, and you will have some idea of this most extraordinary phenomenon.’
I ask Mam what a phenomenon is. ‘You are, kitten,’ she tells me.
She calls me kitten as well as angel. When I was born she was worried because I was so tiny. She watched me, waiting. If I made a sound, that’s how she’d know I was really alive.
I meowed. She says I meowed, and she flooded with happiness.
Caroline Crachami died when she was nine years old. Dr Gilligan stole her body to sell on. You can see her today—she’s in London, in the museum at The Royal College of Surgeons. The skeleton of the ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne is with her—he was over seven and a half feet tall. He died in 1783. He didn’t want to be cut up and put on display; he begged to be buried at sea. They wouldn’t let him. They sold his body as well. Today, Charles Byrne is one of the top attractions at the museum.
It’s nearly time to go back to school. We bought books and copies and folders the other day. Mam says when I’m thirteen, maybe I can go to the big school in Cork. I could stay with Aunty Rosie and Uncle Terry for a while. I’d be two years behind her Gerard. They live in Douglas, so I could still go swimming.
Thirteen is four years away. It’s twelve times longer than the halo was pinned into me. That’s forever.
I’m swimming twice a day now, because soon the water will be too cold for me, even with a wetsuit. The pier’s been nice and quiet—the Kilbrittens are away in Portugal for two weeks. Mam walks down with me in the evening. Gerard lopes down in the mornings; he says there’s nothing better to do here. He’s different this year: his hair, clothes, music… and he’s grown three inches. He doesn’t like swimming any more, so he goes round to the side of the rocks. I think he smokes.
Mornings and evenings are the best times to see the Tall People; that’s when they’re on the move. The Tall Man—the first man—is the only one who comes close; the others stay well clear of the shore. I understand. People would only stare at them. Doctors would be waiting to cut them up and put them on show in the museums.
I can hold my breath now for twenty-one seconds. I don’t try to keep in all the air; I let it trickle out in little bubbles. That way you don’t feel you’re going to explode. I take a deep slow breath and reach out my hand, and the Tall Man draws me down. He’s able to hold his breath for ever. He doesn’t have a snorkel or scuba gear; he doesn’t even wear a mask.
I can see the others moving in the distance. Sometimes they’re carrying things, things that trail after them, like fronds or ribbons. Even from afar, they look super tall. I can’t imagine them in The Mason’s Arms on Upper Berkeley Street. I don’t know how they get around London; they don’t take the Tube, that’s for sure.
One morning Gerard watches me as I change out of my togs. ‘You won’t get far with that little minnow,’ he says. I don’t ask. It’s not good, that much is clear. ‘Come on and hurry up,’ he says, ‘I’m starving’. He walks away, crackling against the shale. I quickly pull my clothes over my damp skin, shivering.
There’s a syndrome called deep-sea gigantism. Things that live at the bottom of the sea grow really big. That’s why there are giant squids and enormous prehistoric fish out there. Deep-sea gigantism.
You should see how the Tall People move, gliding through the water as smoothly as swans, or sharks. They give a little flick of a hand or a fin to change direction, weaving in and out of each other. Sometimes they salute each other as they’re passing. If you look
closely, you can see they form patterns as they move. Like bees.
When they’re ready to leave they turn towards us, shafts of sunlight streaming down on their heads. They slowly lift their paddle hands to say goodbye. Then their sea dance is over, and they turn from us and let the currents take them off towards the island.
Island gigantism is like the deep-sea syndrome, except it happens on islands. When animals have the place to themselves, they grow more. They can grow really big. Bigger than you would ever believe.
Even when I can’t see the others any more, I catch them glinting as they swim through sunlit waters, before they follow the slopes down to the cliff, down to the depths. And I can hear them, making long sounds that are at the same time both squeal high and boom low. I love to hear them singing.
I dreamed last night. Mam calls me into the kitchen. I stand on the lino and look up. Sheets of paper peek over the edge of the table; light shines through them, so I can see the wavey pattern inside the paper. She starts talking slowly and calmly, like she’s learned off words by heart. ‘There’s a thing called height restriction, to help you stop growing any taller. There are three main methods. Two are pharmaceutical, one is mechanical. Do you understand? With two you’d take medicine, to help your hormones: Pussy Willow pills or Anemone shots. One would be an operation.’
‘Am I sick, Mam?’
She looks away from the papers, down at me. ‘It’s about quality of life, my little angel. I want you to be happy in yourself. With yourself, Ronan.’ She looks back to the table. ‘The operation is called leg stapling.’
I count to twenty-one, and I wake up.
He’s said I can join them, their Tall Club. Even though I’m not tall like them. There are things they can do to me. I’ll be changed, he says.
Adam Rainer from Austria was both a dwarf and a giant. He’s the only one in recorded history. He’s in the Guinness Book of Records. In 1920, when he was twenty-one years of age, he measured less than four feet. Ten years later, he was over seven feet tall. What’s more, he kept growing.
Nobody knows why.
School is supposed to start tomorrow. I won’t be going. I’m meeting the Tall Man early, at the end of the pier, down by the jellyfish Tesco bag. He’ll take me out to the others. He’s given me a seashell, twirly-shaped like a whelk, but bigger and fancier. It looks dark under the water, but in daylight it sparkles — all peacock blues and greens and purples. There’s a golden circle inside, at the lip. I’m to leave it on the kitchen table for Mam, so she’ll know where I’ve gone.
So she won’t worry.