The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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The Winner of the Short Story Competition 2018

Jason Jackson

1st Prize – Jason Jackson with:

Fingers

If you’re a man whose marriage is over, and if you’re lucky, you might meet one of those who’ve been through the amputation procedure. At first this man will tell you of an accident or a disease. But if you meet one of the originals, if the conditions are right for the man to divulge, and if you’re determined enough, he might tell you about the Doctor, and the truth about the fingers.

One of the things which interests his clients is the Doctor’s collection. Each amputated finger is preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, and the jars are kept on shelves in a large room. There are small, burnished plaques on the wall next to them all. The man will tell you that, once you have gone through with the operation, the Doctor will give you the guided tour. He’s proud of what he does. It’s a calling. The man will promise that - once the operation is over - you’ll see your finger in a jar on a shelf along with the others, with your name, the date, and your photograph.

The man will assure you that in these photographs, everyone is smiling.

If all goes well, you will in all likelihood meet the Doctor three times. The first is simply to explain the process, and also to sign the paperwork and complete the payment. You’ll find him trustworthy. He’s a small man, well-dressed, well-groomed, in his forties, perhaps. It’s hard to tell. He’s an unobtrusive man. He’ll tell you that he’s no longer a surgeon. If you ask him why he doesn’t carry out the more mainstream surgery, he’ll only smile, and hold up his left hand. If you’re having doubts, this moment is crucial. He’ll hold his hand in the air for three, four seconds. Enough for you to see that the cut is smooth, as unobtrusive as he is himself. To most people the space where the finger should be is incongruous but also aesthetically pleasing. It is beauty as absence, absence as meaning, and there’s a strange kind of poetry to it, a suggestion of liberty.

Some people won’t feel this way, and if that’s the case there’ll be no second meeting.

Weeks can pass. Sometimes months. He is, he says, a busy man. This is not the only kind of unusual operation in which he’s involved, and there is seemingly no end to the things that people are willing to do to themselves in search of some kind of happiness, many of which are not strictly legal. What he will not tell you is that the time between first and second meeting is a gift to you. An opportunity. A decision made in haste is one repented at leisure, but he won’t trouble you with such clichés, in spite of their inherent truth. He’ll let you discover for yourself whether the path you’ve chosen is the right one. Once you’ve seen his hand, things inevitably become more concrete. It’s something he allows you to consider. He gives you time to think.

He’ll also ask you to give some thought to how you might explain the loss of a finger.

And then the second meeting. He’ll phone, arrange a time, a public place. You’ll be well aware by now of the seriousness of what you’re planning to do as well as its dubious legality. If you attempt to engage him on this subject, he will feign disinterest. Whether or not a man should be able, in law, to pay for a finger to be surgically removed is, he says, of little interest to him. He’ll tell you of the insane things that people have asked of him in his previous more mainstream position, and he’ll laugh, shake his head. He passes no moral judgement on these things. People have a right to do what they wish to their own bodies. But the law may not be ready for this particular kind of personal choice. And certainly, the press would take a dim view. He doesn’t want any exposure. That’s the reason for the secrecy, the binding contract, its silence clause. No one can know. There are agents of his who work as his unofficial publicity team - you’ve met one, of course, he’ll say with a smile - but at present there’s no need of another.

So your silence is demanded contractually.

Sometimes, out of curiosity, a question of gender may arise: is it only men the Doctor works with?

He’ll smile, of course. He’ll mention rumours he’s heard: another Doctor, a woman. None of his business, he’ll suggest. And all things considered, he prefers to work exclusively with men,

There’ll be a need to talk to you about the procedure again, in less detail this time, but with more urgency. He won’t enter into any discussion about your background, about reasons. He doesn’t care about context, and he certainly doesn’t want to know about your ex-wife. If you attempt to engage him in this kind of conversation, he’ll merely hold up his own left hand once again.

We all have our own stories, he’ll say. And of course, one story is enough for any man.

It’ll be a short walk from the public meeting place to the room he’s rented to carry out the operation. He’ll tell you that he finds a different room each time, so that neighbours don’t get suspicious. A quiet street. A well-lit room. White paint on the walls. An operating table, a bed. A sink, a trolley, covered with a towel.

You will lie down.

He’ll administer a general anaesthetic. Some people ask for local, either through fear or through a wish to see the operation carried out. He always refuses. It’s a small amputation, but it’s still an amputation.

You’ll fall asleep on the operating table, and then you’ll wake up in the bed.

Your hand will be bandaged, and the Doctor will use these final minutes to discuss your story with you. Everyone has a different lie. You’ll already have discussed this, and you’ll already have given it some thought. The Doctor is experienced enough in these things to help you construct a plausible reason. There are a surprising number of ways in which a man can be said to have legitimately lost a finger.

Just before you leave, the Doctor will ask you to hold up your bandaged left hand, and then he’ll take your photograph.

The final time you meet will be to see your finger in its new home. It’s surprising how few men refuse the invitation to what the Doctor calls the guided tour. He’ll phone, and you’ll meet again in a public place. He’ll open the door of his car, and once inside he’ll ask you to wear a small, black, velvet blindfold.

It’ll be a short drive, and he’ll lead you out of the car and into the building by hand. Fingers in jars on shelves. Subdued lighting. Plaques, names, dates, photographs. And, in one jar, another finger, yours.

It will look almost exactly like all of the others.

Most people ask the same question before they put the blindfold back on for the drive back. Has anyone lapsed? After all, an amputated ring finger is not in itself an obstacle to marriage, and isn’t it the case that even in this day and age many men don’t indulge in the vanity of a band of silver?

He’ll tell you he doesn’t know, and he’ll also tell you that it’s not his calling to prevent a man following his heart. But if the feeling should ever overtake you - the feeling people refer to as love - and your thoughts begin to turn to remarriage, then all he can hope is that the service he has provided will give you pause for sober thought, a meditation on the value of true liberty, of true happiness.

At some point, as he drives you back into the city, the Doctor may ask if you still have your wedding ring. You’d be surprised, he’ll say, how many men whose marriages are over still keep their rings somewhere or other, gathering dust. If you do still have it, he’ll ask you if you would care to send it to a particular artist friend of his who is putting together an exhibition of sculptures using the melted down silver from men’s wedding bands. The original idea for these sculptures was, he says, very small-scale, but it seems now that there might be enough silver for some much, much larger pieces.

 

About the Author

Jason Jackson's prize-winning fiction has been published online and in print. In 2018 his work has featured at New Flash Fiction Review, shortlisted in the Leicester Writes short story competition and placed second in the Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2017. Jason performs his work at events in the south west of England. Jason is also a photographer whose work has appeared in print magazines and online. An updated blog is forthcoming at http://jjfiction.wordpress.com and Jason tweets @jj_fiction .


Comments from Competition Adjudicator,
Iain Pattison

It doesn’t happen often, perhaps once in every ten competitions, that I’ll encounter a story so unusual, so idiosyncratic, so clever, imaginative and daring that it leaps out from the crowd. And Fingers is one of those rare beasts.

On paper I should hate this entry. It has no dialogue, no character names, is all tell and no show, is recounted in a tense that should irritate, and is more monologue than prose. But I couldn’t help being beguiled by its originality, unexpectedness, dark sense of fun and strange, silky smooth allure.

One of its charms - and it has many - is how impossible it is to pigeon-hole. Horror story? Satire? Chiller? Rib-tickler? It’s all of those, and more. The wit and wickedness, morbidity and menace mix together in a cocktail that seems sweet but has an unsettling aftertaste.

The writing is fluid, pacy and assured. From the impossible-to-resist opening to the wry, icy punchline, the story grabs like an unwelcome panhandler and lures you down a path that is both exciting and deeply disturbing.

It had me at Hello - I’m just hoping it will let me go at Goodbye.

 

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