From the archives (December 28, 2015):
By Jon Gresham
She was someone to trust with your loose change, your jewellery, your home entertainment system, your child, your husband. Of course, “everyone” told Julia you have to watch her. She is your responsibility. You only touch the surface and there is so much you don’t know about her. She could be a compulsive gambler or a moonlighting harlot. She could be making love to the Bangladeshi workers renovating the house at the end of the street. Be prudent. Above all, watch how your husband behaves around her.
Julia thought “everyone” was dumb. She knew Maria and trusted Peter. She liked having Maria around. When she was with her she felt in control of her life. They were a team. If she was forced to choose between Maria and her husband… Well, she knew whom she’d choose.
Julia and her husband, Peter, were Australian expatriates living in Singapore. They were thankful that their privilege allowed them to invite Maria into their home and take care of them and their son, Teddy. Maria had been with them for eight months and Julia believed Maria was content in this role, although she was far more intelligent and capable than Julia and Peter had given her credit for. Maria received a day off every fortnight and would get to go home after two years. Julia thought Maria was pleased to do what she was told for the sake of family. Not just Julia’s family, but hers too, because the salary she earned each month (equivalent to a single good night out for Julia and Peter) was remitted to Maria’s mother in the Philippines.
She often heard Maria on her mobile phone, talking softly into her earphone mic in Tagalog, running through prepaid cards as she went about her daily chores. Julia permitted Maria the latitude to use the phone about the house and wondered who was on the other end of the line. Perhaps one of Maria’s children, or her husband or mother. Of course, Maria might have a lover. Julia told her, look, it’s okay if you fall in love but you have to use a condom and never bring him here. He’s not allowed here.
Julia believed she always treated Maria kindly, like one of the family. She noticed how happy Maria seemed, which was good for everyone, especially Teddy. Sometimes she imagined kissing Maria full on the lips, believing this would make her happy too.
She trusted Maria completely, left her wallet around and allowed Maria to keep her IC and passport. On a Thursday afternoon in March, while making chicken and broccoli lasagna, Julia found out that was a mistake.
Earlier that day, Julia had sent Maria to the supermarket to buy groceries. Several hours had passed and Maria had yet to return. Julia’s phone beeped and she read the incoming text.
Mam I am back 2 Angeles City. Really sorry mam. Not my fault. I am with child
Julia was annoyed and put out. She would have to cancel her Pilates class and take care of Teddy herself. There was something in the text that did not quite make sense, so she messaged Peter, who was travelling on business in Hong Kong.
Just got odd sms from Maria? Ill forward 2 u. Can’t workout what it means?? Any idea?
She received her husband’s reply.
Shit I was drunk am really really sorry
Julia texted back.
Ur sorry? Sorry for what?
There was no reply from her husband. She tried to call but there was no response.
She chopped broccoli and cut a chicken breast into several slithers. She looked down at the dish and was ready to place a final layer of pasta and then sprinkle grated cheese on top.
She didn’t know why she bothered. She no longer expected anything from him. They’d grown apart until each had arrived at a separate destination with the common understanding they no longer loved each other.
Julia tried calling him a few more times but he didn’t answer.
At the door appeared a small boy with a round face and rectangular polycarbonate spectacles. He moonwalked across the ceramic tiles into the kitchen.
“Look. Look at me, Mum. I’m Michael Jackson.”
“Very good dear. Now listen. Maria’s not going to be around these next few days. She’s away and Mummy’s got to take care of things.”
“Do you know what to do?”
“Now don’t be smart, Teddy. That’s not funny. Promise me you’ll be good.”
“When am I ever not good?”
“Teddy, if you keep answering back… well, we’re not going to get along.”
“When’s Dad coming home?”
“Put that down. It’s not finished yet.”
“Well. I bet you’ve forgotten, haven’t you?”
Julia wasn’t really listening because she was preoccupied with her phone, re-examining the texts from Peter and Maria. Teddy stared at her and frowned. He sucked his bottom lip under his teeth and puffed his cheeks out. He was not angry. He just understood that he’d been let down. Again.
“I told you and Dad ages ago.”
Before she had a chance to reply, Teddy moonwalked out of the kitchen in disgust.
Teddy’s belligerent exit pushed thoughts of her husband and Maria away and brought Julia back to the present. She had forgotten so much about so many things but she remembered this one thing. Her Teddy: the precocious kid who’d only just stopped sucking his thumb, shy Teddy who didn’t laugh or laughed too much, her little chap who practised divination with wooden coat hangers and obsessed about celebrity street magicians. She remembered. Her Teddy was going to be ten years old that weekend.
She called after him. “Of course I haven’t forgotten. How could I? It’s your birthday on Saturday. How could I ever forget…?”
Julia left the half prepared lasagna uncovered in the kitchen and retreated to the bedroom. What do you get a child like Teddy? A child so peculiar. Thankfully, Teddy had given meticulous instructions regarding a gift. He was always quite precise on presents. Julia recalled the commands he’d given several weeks before. Can you get me something magical that I can perform at school? No false thumbs, definitely no coloured sponge balls. Perhaps hypnosis or levitation. Knives yes. Sword swallowing absolutely. Slicing someone in half would be terrific. Teddy said he’d leave it up to her to decide but his strong preference would be for something involving blood. Maria had laughed as she’d listened and dusted in the background. Later, she told Julia that she had a friend from Tacloban who had a cousin from Bohol who worked in a magic shop at Peninsula Shopping Centre. Maria offered to go and buy a suitable present, but Julia wanted to do this one thing for Teddy all by herself.
Julia sat on the edge of her bed and looked at her fingers. The folds of her skin were dry and off-white at the knuckles. Her nails were too long. She picked up a pair of tiny silver scissors from the bedside table and cut her nails so close that they reddened around the edges.
When Julia saw her hands and thought about Teddy’s desire for blood, she acknowledged to herself that Maria and her husband were probably never coming back.
Had she done enough in her relationship with Peter? Had she failed to be there for him when he’d needed her? On Saturday mornings he would lie in bed staring at the ceiling, staring into space, going over his week at work. Julia always believed he over- thought things, was over-sensitive and under-caring. It became normal for them never to speak of their unhappiness. He never talked to her about anything. She saw the tired expression on his face and imagined the petty slights, minor humiliations and meaningless accomplishments that sapped his esteem and vitality. She didn’t understand why he worked so hard at something he didn’t enjoy.
Had she trusted Maria too much? Julia remembered meeting Maria for the first time at the domestic agency and being taken aback by her strident laughter. She was confused how somebody with so little – separated from her home, children and family – could be so full of joy. She liked her and had no hesitation inviting her to work for them. They told her she was their “helper”, not their maid, and not to call them “Sir” or “Ma’am”. As she swept, mopped and ironed, she sang Sarah Geronimo songs.
Julia remembered the first time she met Peter. It was at a friend’s house party in Paddington. That was a long time ago. She wore an oversized, stripy, off-the-shoulder Picasso T-shirt and tight vinyl hot pants in emerald, with her dark brown hair frizzed up in a flurried, crazy bird’s-nest style. He wore a leather jacket and dark red plaid flannel shirt. She thought he was playful, lanky and insecure like a big kid.
She was going out with a dental student at the time. In fact, it was the dental student who introduced Peter to her. Julia told the dental student she needed to go to the toilet but instead wandered off to a quiet place with Peter. They talked to each other over plastic cups filled with a cheap Hunter Valley Shiraz. They talked about mosquitoes, the films of Nicolas Roeg, handlebar moustaches, Merv Hughes and the invasion of Kuwait. Peter shared a paper plate full of prunes wrapped in bacon and pineapple-and-cheese squares on cocktail sticks, and they both laughed at the lack of tabouli and hummus.
Peter was just completing his degree in finance at the University of Technology. The bank sponsoring his studies planned to send him overseas for work experience. Julia thought he was funny and tall, like a giraffe in platform soles. He waggled his index finger in front of his face when he wanted to make a point. She really liked him. His confidence, his assured play at appearing insecure. His sense of entitlement and loud laughter were full of promise. She was studying nursing and midwifery at the University of Western Sydney, but she never worked because six months after that party, off they went to London together. A few years after that they returned to Sydney, got married and had Teddy. Eventually Peter was posted overseas again; they ended up in Singapore and that was that. Julia didn’t mind as she thought he loved her and would always provide. She didn’t like bodily substances anyway.
Julia imagined Peter in Hong Kong later that night, heading out to Wan Chai bars, pawing scrawny girls with shiny red lips and thick black hair. The next morning, he would be walking through Central to his first meeting of the day, thinking about tickets to the Sevens, trade ideas and movements in the VIX – CBOE Volatility Index, rationales and defence strategies. What should she have done differently? What could she have done?
Julia sat on the bed and cut her nails and watched her cuticles almost bleed and tried not to think about him anymore. She picked up a book of photographs from her bedside table, which she leafed through with little comprehension, and thought about Teddy.
Teddy kept asking her questions: why don’t people believe in magic? Why do we have four fingers? Why not six or five? Why are there so many shopping malls? Why do people blink?
Julia was sad, empty and bored while her son was so cheerful and curious. Where did he get all that joy? Her mad chap with his funny dancing, magic tricks and banjo playing. He made a banjo from cereal packets, rubber bands, bamboo sticks and toilet rolls and strummed it for hours with one finger, sticking his two front teeth out trying to look like Bugs Bunny. He told his friends at school that eucalyptus oil came from squeezing the teats of koalas. He was skinny for his age, like the little boy with the grenade in Diane Arbus’s Central Park photograph. When he laughed, he giggled, his shoulders shook, he threw his head back and opened his mouth to the sky. Teddy, her son. So full of life. Where did he get all that happiness? He had no right to be so happy with parents like us. Julia always worried she’d infect him with their sadness. She believed everyone started happy and then had it sucked, bashed or bullied out of them by the shit that happens. She hated thinking about Teddy growing up, wallowing in privilege, becoming stressed and distant, putting up shutters to survive.
Julia was blocked, in stasis, grieving at the loss of her husband and Maria. Especially Maria. She could not understand why she had chosen him over her. She did not want Maria’s explanation, she wanted to tell Maria that she didn’t blame her for anything. She couldn’t move from the end of the bed. Like an elaborate mechanical clock that suddenly falls apart, springs loose, tick-tock lost. She had no idea how to put it all back together again.
Julia collapsed onto the bed and fell into a deep, troubled sleep.
The next morning, after seeing Teddy off on the school bus, she set out to find a present for him to distract herself from thoughts of Peter’s infidelity and the fear that she’d never see Maria again. As Julia left the house, she remembered Maria had mentioned a magic shop in Peninsula Shopping Centre.
Julia entered the mall, walking past a watch shop, a tattoo parlour, and a place full of jade carvings, purple crystals and Buddhist amulets. The smell from the small food court rose to her nose. As she rode upwards on the escalator, she watched herself illuminated by the bright fluorescent light in the mirrors on the walls and on the underside of the flight above her. On the fourth floor she passed shops full of rollerblades, goth gear, Japanese sneakers and Premier League football shirts.
Julia nearly walked past Singh’s Magic Emporium. Then in a shop window she noticed flyers advertising magician’s assistants for hire, and a faded poster of a hairy-chested, glam rock magician appearing for one night only at Tanjong Pagar Community Centre. The shop appeared too poky and mundane to contain anything magical.
A little brass bell tinkled as she pushed open the door. A record played in the background: Billie Holiday sang soft and slow. Facing her in the cramped, musty shop was a small wooden counter with a green baize top; behind it hung a maroon curtain of heavy velour. On the wall above the curtain was a large portrait of an old Sikh wearing a gleaming brooch on a red turban. The Sikh had a small white goatee and a huge brow shrouding his dark eyes. There was no one about.
She looked around the shop and into cabinets displaying card tricks, strands of coloured silk handkerchiefs, a dull silver parang panjang, a porcelain dragon, whoopee cushions, fake plastic turds, inflatable turtles for hiding in the crotch and, hanging from the ceiling, a Navajo dream catcher. She heard someone cough.
A young man emerged from behind the curtain. He smiled and greeted her. He wore a dark blue polo shirt and houndstooth drainpipe trousers, neatly pressed; on his feet were lizard-skin loafers. His head was shaved close to the scalp; a few straggles of hair grew from his chin. He was drinking from a polystyrene cup, which he now placed on the countertop. Julia thought his eyebrows looked plucked. She was glad she had chosen to wear her favourite silk scarf decorated with green and gold butterflies.
“Hello. I’d like some magic. A present for my nine-year-old son. For his birthday. He wants something to impress his friends.”
The young man stroked the few whiskers on his chin. He turned and vanished behind the curtain. Julia heard a few bangs and the sound of scraping metal, then a crash and a loud obscenity.
He returned with his arms full. He dumped onto the counter a fake sword, metal rings, balls within balls, card and rope tricks, Groucho Marx glasses, flowers that could be compressed in an armpit and ejected from a sleeve, and an old-fashioned black top hat. He stood back and she touched the blade of the sword.
“The sword looks like it might do… but, it’s way too big and he doesn’t have a female assistant to chop up. Other than me. The rest look very ordinary. Is there anything else?”
The young man tapped his fingers on the countertop. Suddenly he perked up. “We may have just the thing. We don’t show this to many people. It’s antique and expensive.”
He reached beneath the counter and produced a red plastic bag. At first, she thought it was his lunch, because it smelt of sambal and sandalwood. From the bag he pulled out a box wrapped in old, weathered editions of a local Chinese-language newspaper. He tore away the newspaper and opened the box, extracting a few baby carrots and a smaller box, made of ebony and wound tight in a lattice of gold silk ribbons. It took him a while to untie the ribbons but he eventually lifted the lid of the ebony box, revealing a layer of light green tissue paper, which he folded back to reveal an elaborate, oblong elmwood contraption the size of a large fist. Several symbols were inscribed on the side of the object, which he picked up and placed on the counter. She saw an intricate arrangement of gears, grooves and little wooden pegs, and what appeared to be a shiny silver razor set diagonally over a small round hole at the centre of the elmwood object.
“This is a miniature guillotine from Hanoi. My boss told me it was made as an instrument of torture for the police commissioner when the French were in charge. His father was a photographer during the American War and brought it back here.”
He showed Julia how to hold the contraption, set the blade and move the right pegs. “You put an object in here. Bang down on the top of this wooden panel and it chops things off. Or not, if you’ve flicked over this peg here, then it sets the mechanism, so it only appears as though the blade has sliced through whatever you put in this hole here. Instead of cutting, it caresses. No, not that peg. This one.”
He stood the guillotine on the countertop, inserted a baby carrot into the hole, then banged the top of the guillotine hard so the blade fell fast and with force. Half a carrot fell to the shop floor.
“Now you try it.”
“Me? Oh I can’t. I don’t know how.”
He took her hands and guided her through each step, and another piece of carrot fell to the ground.
“Now put your finger in the hole. Which one are you willing to lose?”
Julia paused and thought about all the poking and scratching she did, all the finger licking, wagging and waving of small goodbyes. The picking of the nose, the dragging of her fingers through her hair, giving Peter the bird, holding him tight in her hands and squeezing and pumping it up and down. She remembered drawing a house on Teddy’s back and asking him to guess what it was. These things would never be the same again. She imagined life without an index, trigger or ring finger. Julia checked herself, laughed and thought: it’s only a trick, there is no risk.
Julia took the guillotine from him. Her fingers felt like sausages and she didn’t seem to be able to work the pegs.
He saw her hesitate and she let his hands guide her.
“It’s just a trick, isn’t it? Nobody has ever lost a finger… have they?”
She felt lightheaded. He took her left pinky and thrust it into the hole and slid the guillotine into position. Julia felt the edge of the blade delicately rest on top of her finger.
“Don’t worry. If anything happens, there’s a tattoo parlour downstairs. They can put it on ice and cauterise the wound.”
He made some adjustments and suddenly banged hard on top of the guillotine. The blade cut. Something fell to the ground.
She was overcome. She found it difficult to breathe. She swooned. He held her like a sparrow. She expected blood and to feel a cold, sweet tingle at the joint, a chill draught at the cleft where her finger used to be. She managed to hold her mutilated hand up in front of her face. A little blood dripped onto her butterfly scarf. She couldn’t see properly. Through tears of shock she saw a red blurry mess at the edge of her left hand. It struck her that a part of her had gone forever. All she desired was an elegant stump.
He picked up her fallen finger with his free hand and held it towards her. She recoiled.
“It’s okay. It’s only plastic with a dab of chilli sauce.”
Then he laughed and Julia opened her eyes and she saw that her little finger was still there. She felt like poking him in the eye.
When Julia came home, Peter had just arrived in a taxi from the airport and was in the kitchen chatting to Teddy. The dish of day old chicken and broccoli lasagna sat untouched and decaying on the kitchen sideboard. Peter stopped talking when she entered and he forced a smile as though nothing had happened, as though everything could continue as normal.
“What are you doing here?”
Taken aback, he pleaded, “I love you, Julia. I love you. Please forgive me.”
Julia didn’t reply. She didn’t want to look at him. She knew he could provide, and they could return to a life of comfort and security. She would tell herself it was for Teddy’s sake.
“I know I’ve wronged you. Let me stay and we’ll work on getting the magic back. What’s important is family. I know we can be happy together again.”
Teddy had no idea what was going on, but he’d seen the red plastic bag.
“Is that my present?”
“Don’t ask, Teddy. It’s not your birthday yet. Wait until tomorrow.”
“Julia, let me at least stay until then?” “Show me. Show me.”
“Teddy. It’s not your birthday yet and your father and I are talking. Can you leave us alone?”
“Mum, if you’re going to kick Dad out, show me before he goes. Go on. Please?”
Teddy begged her. She relented and took the present from the bag and set it up on the granite kitchen workbench. After rummaging around in the fridge, she showed them how to chop a carrot in half. Then she flicked a peg, reset the mechanism, inserted her little finger into the hole and banged down hard. Peter and Teddy flinched but when she showed them her hand remained intact they both relaxed. Teddy was ecstatic. He loved his present.
Peter was relieved that the mood had lightened and he joked, “What kind of mother are you?”
Julia challenged him. “You’re a man aren’t you? Why don’t you try it?”
“Sure. I’ll try it.” He thought he would just play along, do what she said, try and win her back with playful bravado.
Julia adjusted the guillotine and inserted Peter’s middle finger. It appeared vulnerable and helpless, alien and detached from the rest of him, so lost and lonely. Poking through the hole, the fingernail faced her in accusation. She began to press down. She saw the guillotine cut into the top of his finger. She thought she saw a little line of blood. Peter stood up straight and looked into Julia’s eyes. He placed one arm around her, looking for support. She stared right back at him and, without shifting her gaze, she whacked down hard on top of the guillotine. Julia didn’t feel anything. She stood back. Teddy and Peter watched as his finger fell slowly onto the kitchen top and rolled along the clean granite surface, leaving the barest trail of red until it reached the edge of the counter and dropped to the ceramic tiled floor.
Julia felt him sway against her and she thought about his pain. Her eyes were shining and she was majestic and triumphant. He pulled the stump of his finger away from the guillotine. He was not smiling. He began to scream.
Later that day, after Peter had been admitted to hospital and Teddy went to stay at a friend’s house, she found herself alone and sitting on the edge of her bed. She looked down at the bright shiny screen of her phone and called Maria.
“Hello Ma’am. It wasn’t my fault.”
“I know. I know. Please come back. It’s not your fault. It’s ours. Look, things are going to be different now. Peter’s gone and he’s not coming back. Please come back. Come back and let’s be happy.”
“No. Ma’am, you don’t get to tell me what to do anymore.”
“Maria. I forgive you.”
“No. Ma’am, it’s not yours to forgive.”
“Maria. I need you.”
“No. Ma’am, it’s not all about you.”
Then Maria hung up, leaving Julia staring down at the darkened screen. There was silence on the edge of the bed, in the bedroom and in the house.
With a finger, Julia scratched her nose.
Reprinted by the author’s and publisher’s permissions, “The Finger” is collected in We Rose Up Slowly by Jon Gresham (Math Paper Press, Singapore, 2015).
Jon Gresham was born in England, grew up in Australia and has lived in Singapore for the last thirteen years. His stories, flash fiction and prose poems have been published in anthologies and journals including A Luxury We Cannot Afford, From The Belly of the Cat, Eastern Heathens, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Twenty Four Flavours and Coast. He writes stories, takes photographs and blogs at http://www.igloomelts.com.