Hand Job

It must have been about 2AM when I got to the pier. I steered my scooter off the pavement, and onto the wooden deck that stretched a quarter of a mile out into to the Ocean. The fog was so thick I could barely see the scooter’s speedometer, let alone the boards I was riding across, so I slid my goggles up onto my helmet, which didn’t really help, then trusted to luck as I eased the bike forwards.

It was an odd sensation. It almost seemed that I was standing still and the structures on the pier were moving past me. I breathed in the dank air as the soft silhouettes of the rides emerged out of the gloom, took vague shapes, and drifted past me like oddly shaped icebergs. The Carousel, the Haunted House of Horror, The Bumper Cars, the Dipper, The Hall of Mirrors, and finally, the Temple of Wax. That was it. The end of the pier. I was as far away from England as I was going to get without taking a plane or a ferry. If I couldn’t see things in perspective here, then it wasn’t going to happen anywhere.

I switched off the motor, put the bike on its stand, and slid the keys into my pocket over the top of my handkerchief, so the sharp edges wouldn’t dig into me. The place was deserted, which was just as well. I wasn’t sure how many laws I’d broken by riding my scooter onto the pier, but probably enough for a heavy fine, and a few nights in the slammer. 

I tightened the straps that held my bundle of crap on the back carrier, and made sure the spare helmet I’d brought for Nancy was secure, then I made my way along the narrow alley between the Temple of Wax and the Switcheroo, until I reached the safety rail. I rested my elbows on the top bar, and peered over the edge, and waited. The channel sloshed and slurped beneath my feet even though I couldn’t see it. Overhead the spooky shadows of seabirds swung in and out of the yellow vapor, occasionally letting out shrill cries like ringwraiths. They were probably herring gulls, or kittiwakes, or shearwaters. A couple of years earlier I would have known exactly what they were, but not any more. Maybe I’d be able to learn all of that stuff again.

There was a shuffle and a thud behind me.

Unbelievable! She’d actually come! “Nancy!” I called out as I took long strides back to the scooter. 

A silhouette separated itself from the bike and seemed to hover towards me. Something about it looked wrong. It was too big to be Nancy. Way too big. “Virgil?” it said. A male voice? I let out a long sigh of disappointment. Nancy had sent someone to tell me she wasn’t coming. No. That didn’t make sense. Nancy did her own dirty work. She would come to tell me herself.

The voice seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite pin a name or a face to it. “What’s up?” I said, as if I knew who it was.

“What’s up?” he said. He moved between me and the bike. The mist cleared for a moment, and the penny dropped. I knew the face. Probably not the very last person I wanted to see right now, but definitely in the bottom five of who I wanted to see.

“Cartisser,” I said.

“Virgil,” he said. “Fancy running into you of all people.”

“Fancy,” I said.

He took a couple of paces closer to me. He had something heavy in his right hand. A power tool. A chain saw. I didn’t really know Cartisser at all, but I knew some of the people he hung out with, and they weren’t on the up-and-up. There was probably a really good reason why he’d carried a chain saw all the way down to the end of the pier. It’s not the kind of thing you carry anywhere, unless you have a good reason. The silence was awkward so I thought I’d better say something.

“Bit late for tree-surgery,” I said, pointing at the tool. “Not many trees around here either.” This was true. The nearest tree was probably about a mile away in Pool Valley.

Cartisser swung the chainsaw back and forth a couple of times, as if he was trying to look casual with it, but he didn’t say anything, so I just kept babbling, as I do. “Anyway, nice to see you again.” I half-turned away from him. “I’m kind of busy, but be nice to see you again sometime.”

Then he said, “Actually this isn’t a coincidence.”

My fingertips tingled. It wasn’t a good feeling. It was like I knew everything all at once. Everything. It all made sense. I peered into the fog behind Cartisser. I wasn’t sure if I wanted Nancy to show up right now. I’d dragged her into this, and I wanted to drag both of us out. I didn’t want to drag her further in.

I’d played rugby with Cartisser. I couldn’t fight him, but I could easily out run him, but my father was right about one thing. I was a bloody idiot. I’d parked the scooter right across the entrance to the alley, blocking my escape. 

Cartisser swung the chainsaw upwards, balanced it on his hip, and yanked the starter cord. The tool sputtered a couple of times, then stopped. “Crap,” he said. He turned it over and examined it the way a home appliance repairman examines a faulty nuclear reactor. He pulled the cord again, with the same result.

I was no expert on chainsaws, but I knew exactly why it wouldn’t start. Obviously I wasn’t about to tell him though. “What exactly…?” I croaked, then my voice trailed off.

“Oh,” said Cartisser, and let the saw swing down by his knees again. “Yeah. I suppose it’s only fair that I tell you. Snowy wants you to give him a hand. Literally.”

“My hand,” I said. I wanted to sound unconcerned, but my voice came out as a kind of squeak. “What’s he want my hand for?”

Cartisser tried the starter again, but with no result. “I don’t know what he wants it for actually. It’s a good question. You should ask him. He might want it to use as an ashtray, although I don’t think he smokes.”

I took a couple of steps backwards, and felt the railing hard and damp through my jacket. “I meant, what have I done to him to make him want to cut my hand off?”

“I don’t know for certain, Virgil,” said Cartisser, moving closer to me,” but I think it’s something to do with the bloke in the drum.”

That made some kind of sense. Sort of. In an odd kind of way. “I can explain that,” I said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“That’s not how Snowy sees it,” said Cartisser, and anyway, I think he’s already heard your explanation, and I don’t think he bought it.” He pulled the starter again.

“Can’t we go and see him?” I said. I think at this point I was almost crying. Hopefully Cartisser would think my tears were condensation from the fog.

Cartisser shook his head. “If I don’t come back with your hand, then I’ll probably have to chop off my own hand.” Cartisser paused halfway through pulling the starter yet again. “I suppose he’d have someone else do it.”

“So let me get this right,” I said. “You’re going to chop off my right hand? Why don’t you just kill me? I won’t be able to work any more. I won’t be able to swim any more. I’ll never find another girlfriend. Speaking of which I won’t be able to jerk off any more.”

“He wants your left hand.”

“But you’re pointing it at my right!”

Cartisser laughed, and switched positions. “Bloody hell. Lucky you pointed that out. I was about to cut off your right.

Why didn’t he just kill me? Why cut off someone’s hand, and leave them alive? I’m sure at some point I must have said something like, “I’d rather be dead than have my hand cut off.” If I hadn’t then I thought it now. 

I had one final chance. I cleared my throat, but my voice still came out as a squeak. “How much is Snowy paying you for this?”

“How much?”

“Yeah. I presume you’re not doing it just for the fun of it.”

“Three hundred.” Cartisser rolled the words around in his mouth as if they had an unusal, but not completely unpleasant taste.

“You’re going to destroy my entire life for three hundred quid!?” I yelled.

“Like I said, a job’s a job, and times is hard.”

“You didn’t say either of those things.” 

Cartisser looked more puzzled than usual. “Getting forgetful in my old age.”

I said, “Did Snowy tell you to say that? Is that how he convinced you to do this?”

“No.”

“Oh, so you wanted to do it,” I said.

“No,” said Cartisser thoughtfully. “Not exactly.”

“You don’t want to do it now, either, do you?” I said.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” he said.

“You’re being swindled as well,” I said. “You know that don’t you?”

“I got the money up front,” he said. “Whole thing.”

“Yeah. I bet you did. Three hundred is like petty cash for Snowy. Small change. Peanuts. No, not even peanuts. Sesame seeds.”

Cartisser winced as if I’d swung at him, even though I hadn’t. “Three hundred’s a lot to me.”

“You remember that time Wadman broke my ribs?” I said.

“Yeah. That was a weird accident. Last year, right?”

“It wasn’t an accident,” I said. “Snowy paid him to do it.”

“I think you want to stop pissing Snowy off,” said Cartisser.

“Snowy gave Wadman five hundred.”

“Really!?”

“Yup. Five hundred to give me a minor injury,” I said. “No risk to himself.”

“I see where you’re going with this, but it’s not going to work,” said Cartisser. “If I don’t come back to base with your left hand then I’m up shit creek.” He pulled the starter again. This time the engine puttered a little more strongly before dying.

That was it. That was all I had. It was like trying to argue with a broken domestic appliance. I had one last chance, and it wasn’t a good one. I couldn’t squeeze past Cartisser and run away, but I could go in the other direction. Probably death, but but better than a handless life.

As for the chain saw, Cartisser was going to figure it out eventually. If Nancy wasn’t going to show up then he had about three hours before any other living being arrived at the pier. When Wadman had broken my ribs he’d needed a perfect combination of timing, skill, and luck, if he wasn’t going to get caught. Wadman would be useful again. Cartisser wouldn’t. I wondered how Snowy was going to get him out of the way. I almost felt bad for him.

 I said, “If you want the chain saw to start you have to push in the choke.” I pointed at the little red button next to where the starter cord joined the main body of the saw. “There. That one.”

“Duh,” said Cartisser. “I knew there was something I’d forgotten.” He pushed the button, pulled the cord, and the saw roared. The noise carved the silence in half, and then got louder. Cartisser almost dropped the saw, but not quite. It had a life of its own. In order to steady it, and stop it jumping around though, he had to grab it firmly with both hands.

And that was my last shot. I gripped the safety railing, bent my knees, and vaulted over the end of the pier. I slipped into whatever was below me in the yellow fog. Was I going to hit icy water, or crunch onto wet sand? I’d predicted that my last thoughts would be about Nancy, but they weren’t. They were about my sister, Tabitha.

 

Tabitha.

“Tell me a story with your words,” said Tabitha. She pulled her knees up to her chin, making herself look tiny in the big bed.

“I don’t know any stories,” I said. I stood up from her bed, and slid In the Night Kitchen back into a gap in the bookshelf. “I think it’s time you went to sleep.” In spite of that I sat back in the chair, leaned forwards, and pulled the covers up to her chin. 

“You do know stories,” she said, pulling Trunky the Elephant closer to her, and giving me an impish grin. “You know stories about birds. What’s your favorite bird?”

“I don’t know that I have a favorite.”

“Pretend you do. You like owls, don’t you?”

“I like owls, but they’re not my favorite.”

“Eagles?”

“I like them, but they’re not my favorite. Okay, I like cormorants. They’re my favorite.”

“What’s a cormorant?”

“They’re like a duck. They live on the ocean, and they dive under water to catch fish.”

“So, they’re like penguins.”

Tabitha never ceased to amaze me. I’d been consumed with studying birds since I was her age, and it had never once occurred to me how much cormorants were like penguins. “Yes,” I said. “”They’re exactly like penguins, except they can fly.”

“Wow! Flying penguins. That would make a good story.”

“Okay, so once up on a time there was a cormorant.”

“That’s a good beginning.”

“One day this cormorant said, ‘You know, I’m fed up with swimming, I hate eating fish, and I get really bored having to dry my feathers all the time. I want to be something else. The other cormorants said, ‘we all hate eating fish, we all hate swimming, and we all get fed up having to dry our feathers, but we’re cormorants, and there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

“Now there was a shark living nearby. He overheard this conversation, and naturally he liked what he heard, so he called the first cormorant aside. ‘You’re a very smart bird,’ he said to the first cormorant. ‘What kind of bird do you want to be? Do you want to be an owl?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said the cormorant. ‘Owls have to stay up late, and I get tired in the evenings.’

‘How about a parrot?’

‘Parrots are green and red. I don’t like bright colors.’

‘I know,’ said the fish. ‘You could become an eagle.’

‘Eagles have to be big,’ said the cormorant.

‘You are a very big cormorant,’ said the fish. ‘You’re the biggest cormorant I’ve seen. I bet you would make a really impressive eagle.’

“None of this was true, but the shark was a sly fish, and he just didn’t want the cormorant to eat him.”

Tabitha’s breaths were becoming slower and deeper. I slid the chair back across the carpet, tip-toed to the door, and opened it. It creaked, as doors always do.

“Did the cormorant become an eagle?” said Tabitha.

“He did,” I said. “He was a really second-rate eagle though.”

“Goodnight, Virgil.”

“Goodnight Tabitha.”

“I love you, Virgil.”

“I love you too.”

Nancy.

I grew up thinking that women didn’t like sex. From the time I realized there was such a thing as sex until about the age of fifteen I believed that women thought sex was a repulsive necessity they had to undergo if they wanted to get married and have children.

 Like most beliefs that you grow up with I had a hard time letting go it. Like a catholic suddenly finding out that Jesus was actually a druid, I had to let go of my belief in gradual stages. By the Wednesday I went to the Silent Cove with Nancy I had a sort of fifty-fifty relationship with it. Maybe some women actually didn’t mind the idea of sex, but they just didn’t like the idea of sex with me. 

The Silent Cove was every bit as amazing as Nancy had told me it would be. The surface was so smooth, that the two rocky headlands dividing the cove from the rest of the bay were reflected perfectly in the surface of the ocean. There were waves, but they were so puny they were like moving creases in a sheet of green silk. 

“It was as tranquil as the water in a forgotten bathtub,” I said.

“That’s a good one,” said Nancy. “The air was as still as the air in a cardboard box.” 

We had to write a sonnet for homework and we’d spent the journey out there trying to come up with cheesy metaphors and similes.

A cormorant scooted across the cove, above its perfect twin, and a seagull surfed on a little ripple. 

“Hah. Actually it reminds me of that painting you like,” I said, pointing at the reflections. “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus.”

“You’re right. One of the reasons I like the painting so much is that reminds me of here.” Nancy stretched her arms above her head. “You know the first time I took an art class the teacher told me that seawater didn’t make reflections.” She gestured at the cove. “As you can see. Bullshit.”

Nancy picked a spot about twenty yards from the shore and dropped her towel onto the sand. “It was as pretty as a picture by a really good artist,” she said then giggled. 

“Yeah. Makes you wonder how many other things we’ve been taught that are wrong.”

The cove wasn’t completely silent though. A mom sat by the tide line, supervising her little daughter as she splashed around and screamed in the glassy water. Then of course there were the boats. The burble of fishing boats drifted over the water towards us. But these were calm sounds that almost made the cove seem more peaceful. The only thing that jarred the peacefulness was a power boat towing a water skier, about half a mile out, and even that seemed a long way off.

“So. Wednesday,” I said. “Why did we have to do this on a Wednesday?”

“Yeah, your Wednesday-phobia,” said Nancy, as she pulled her fleece over her head, and stepped out her shoes at the same time.

“Can I ask you something?” I said. I turned towards her and tried not to stare at the swell of her swimsuit top, which wasn’t easy. Nancy probably wouldn’t have been thought of as beautiful, but for me she was perfect. She was about three or four inches taller than me, a little on the heavy side (which I really liked), and well-muscled (which I also really liked). She looked like a swim-team girl, which is exactly what she was when she wasn’t painting portraits, reading long novels, or listening to fantastic music by people I’d never heard of. 

“Are going to ask me why I won’t be your girlfriend?” she said. “Again?” She said this with such gentleness, and kindness that I wished I could think up something different to ask her on the spur of the moment, but I’m not a fast thinker.

“Er, yeah,” I said. “Kind of.”

“Virgil, you’re like my brother,” she said. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I don’t want to mess that up. If we started having a physical relationship then it would ruin our friendship.”

“I know. I just wondered if you’d changed your mind,” I said. “They say it’s woman’s privilege to change her mind.”

Nancy opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, opened it further as if she was outraged, then laughed.  She did this a lot. “Firstly,” she said, “that saying about women changing their minds is bullshit. It’s something men say to men in order to humiliate them. Secondly, I won’t change my mind. I wish you’d stop asking me, but if you feel you need to you can ask me as often as you like.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll stop, but it’s just that I feel so close to you, that sometimes I can’t help it. I’ve never felt so close to anyone else as I do to you.”

“Virgil, I really do love you in a platonic way, so I don’t mind you asking, but I think it just makes you sad every time I have to say ’no.’”

“Is it because of Nick?” I said.

“Yes, and no,” she said. “Sure. I’m in love with Nick, and I wouldn’t ever cheat on him.”

“But he treats you so badly,” I said. “I hate to watch it.”

“Nick has a lot of issues,” she said. “It’s true. I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a fixer-upper, but he has a really kind and tender side to him that not a lot of people see.”

“But he hits you,” I said.

“Not hard,” she said. “Not like he hits other guys. I mean if he hit me that hard he’d probably kill me, then he’d really be in trouble.”

“But why does he have to hit anyone?” I said.

“He’s in a gang,” she said. “Sometimes he has to do it. I don’t think he likes fighting, but it goes with what he does.”

“I shouldn’t have asked you on a Wednesday,” I said.

“It wouldn’t have made a difference if you’d asked me tomorrow,” she said. “I’m going to prove how much of a good friend I am to you. I’m going to help you get over your Wednesday thing. That’s why we’re here.”

“Um…you’re not going to make me swim are you?” I said.

“That’s exactly what’s going to happen,” she said.

“But it’s dangerous,” I said. “My Wednesday thing isn’t a phobia. People die in the ocean by the thousands. It’s a blood bath.”

“That’s a really bad metaphor.”

“Yeah, and it wasn’t even deliberate,” I said. “But seriously, there’s rip tides, jellyfish, cramp, not to mention sharks. Anyway twenty per cent of people die on the same day of the week they were born on. I was born on a Wednesday, so…” I shrugged.

“Twenty per cent?”

“Yup,” I said. “Give or take a couple of points.”

“Twenty percent isn’t much different from saying that most people die on a different day to the one they’re born on.” Nancy furrowed her brow. 

I had to think about that statement. Maybe she was right. 

“You know, Virgil. I wish there was some way I could cure you of all your superstitions,” she said.

“Well, make your mind up. Are they superstitions or phobias?” I kicked off my sneakers and ground my feet into the warm, soft sand.

“I don’t know,” said Nancy. “Probably a bit of both. I think you choose to believe in superstitions, but you have to overcome phobias. Mind over matter and all that.”

“Okay, so I’m afraid of sharks out there.” I pointed to the seagull bobbing about on the ripples. “I’m expecting to see that gull vanish into a huge set jaws at any moment.”

“That’s all those silly Shark-Week shows.” Nancy stepped out of her shorts, threw them onto her towel, then she did the thing I loved. She stuck her forefingers under the edges of her swimsuit leg-openings, then slid her fingers around, pulling the material away from her skin. It wasn’t a sexual thing for me. I just found it adorable. She did it without thinking, and she’d probably done it every time she went swimming since she was a toddler. If I found a genie who could grant me one wish, then I would wish to see Nancy slide her fingers around the hem of her swimsuit again. Just once. That would be all I would ask.

I studied the cove. To me every little ripple and wave looked like a shark’s fin.“Being afraid of moths is a phobia, because moths are completely harmless, but sharks really do kill people,” I said. “How can that make being scared of sharks a phobia?”

“Exactly my point,” said Nancy. “Your fear of being eating by a shark today because it’s a Wednesday is a superstition and a phobia all mixed up. All you’ve got to do is plunge in, swim around for five minutes with me, and you’ll cure yourself of both.”

“Like a kind of baptism?” I took my grandfather’s watch off, placed it carefully in my right shoe, then tightened the waist band of my trunks.

“A baptism of water?” Nancy laughed. “That’s the worst metaphor ever. I’ve swum here every summer since I was as old as that kid.” Nancy gestured to the little girl. “First with my dad, and then on my own. It’s completely safe. Believe me.”

 “It’s okay,” I said. “I believe you. Let’s get it over with.”

“Try not to worry,” she said. “It’s not something to ‘get over,’ it’s something to enjoy.”

Just a we started our walk down to the shore, and the power boat shot past the end of the cove with a reverberating roar. The outcrops bordering the cove must have prevented us from hearing it come up. The water skier somersaulted into the water just as the boat passed us. The boat was close enough that we could read the name, Whosyadaddy 5.

“God! That really pisses me off,” said Nancy.

“Yeah, that’s a really stupid name,” I said.

“Sure. The name is dumb,” said Nancy, “but I meant where he’s driving the boat. They’re not supposed to come into this cove. They have their own section of the beach to dick around in.”

The boat meandered out into the bay, obviously unaware that the water skier had fallen off.

“The arsehole’s probably drunk too. Look at him,” said Nancy. The boat finally came to a halt, then turned back to pick up the skier. Even though the sea was really calm the driver was staggering around as if the boat was being tossed about…