“I rang the ambulance service then went to the shed”: a new short story by a master of the form, Oamaru writer Owen Marshall.

Yes, quite a lot of people do ask me how I lost the little finger of my left hand. It’s not a large appendage, or a crucial one, people have prostates and kidneys out, wombs, whole lengths of bowel and aren’t asked for explanation by casual companions at a cafe table. But a finger’s absence is markedly obvious and enquiry as to the cause seems less a personal intrusion. The outcome of momentary carelessness perhaps, rather than concession to some grim disease.

My own case is I suppose more unusual than most, for I lost my finger as the consequence of a dream. I’m a practical sort of person and not especially imaginative. As is the case with so many people in the modern world, I put my faith in science, not religion. I’m an architect and deal in precise, physical things. The calculation of  failure risk and stress bearing as well as an appreciation of aesthetic elements. I’ve never been a great dreamer, either in the sense of envisaging extravagant success in life, or the involuntary paradoxes of the night. The usual dreams from time to time of course – those arising from anxiety, or the re-emergence of minor boyhood trauma. We all have the running late dream, the desperate need to pee dream, the nasty surprise dream, and all are explicable in origin, no matter how bizarre in their internal sequence.

The dream that led to the loss of my finger was different. It first came to me four months ago. Summer, and I’d been to a meeting of my share club group. No anxiety there. Our power company holdings were doing especially well. I hadn’t drunk much, just a glass of Central pinot noir. Natalie was asleep when I got home, and I was too, quite soon afterwards. In the dream I saw Gemma, our grand-daughter, riding with other children on what looked like one of those flat freight wagons, just the deck and iron wheels, but it seemed to be on a road not a track, and swooped around bends with city buildings and parks flowing by and a high, white concrete over pass ahead. Gemma was smiling. She has a beautiful smile. All the children were happy. The images were bright and quick. I didn’t realise there was no sound until there was a clear, male voice that said quietly, “Gemma’s turning nine on the twenty fifth of June isn’t she. I have to tell you that she’ll die on her birthday unless you cut off a finger before then. I’m pleased that I’m able to give you this warning. Glad for you both.” I woke up then.

In the morning I told Natalie about it. The oddity of it, as is often the case with dreams, but it didn’t bother me that first time. All sorts of stuff turns up in dreams. I read somewhere that scientists are realising the brain’s like a computer and spends the night sorting and reorganising material.  Masses of sensory data.  Neurologist Oliver Sacks said everything we’ve experienced is in there somewhere, even though we can’t consciously access it.

The dream recurred though. Not every night, but often several times a week. I’ve never had recurring dreams before, although I know they’re not uncommon. The details varied, different children around Gemma, different buildings – once I saw a flash of my old primary school – and sometimes the vehicle seemed more a bus, sometimes more train, but always it was silent, and the dream too, except for the pleasant, confiding voice that told me the same thing in slightly different form. `She’ll die on her birthday unless you cut a finger off before then.. You know that now.  I’m glad I’ve been able to warn you.’  And always ahead of Gemma and her friends was the clear outline of the high bulk of the over pass.

Natalie got upset about it.  She told me not to mention the dream to the family ever, and that I should see someone: a counsellor, doctor, psychologist. There must be something that’s triggering such an awful dream she said. I came round to that view myself and asked Wynton Green, who’s our doctor, and also a friend, to recommend someone to talk to.  That was Gwyn McNally, who had an office above the Rebel Sport Shop in Flyte Street. I didn’t especially take to Gwyn: he seemed a bit too conscious of his own urbanity and professional poise. When you faced him his expression was as if he were looking into a mirror – all self-awareness. A psychiatrist has medical qualifications and I respect that: I’m hazy on what gives psychologists their standing.

I had only a couple of sessions with Gwyn.  He said I shouldn’t be troubled by the dreams. That as Gemma was our only grand-child we had a powerful emotional focus on her and that could manifest itself in indulgence, over protectiveness, unreasonable expectation , and anxiety, of which dreams were an expression.  He said nature directs our love down the generations and that’s both necessary and just: we love our children and their children more than we love our parents. All of that was probably true enough, but I didn’t find it much help.

As Gemma’s birthday came closer, my concern shifted increasingly from my own welfare to hers.  What if something did happen and I had done nothing despite the opportunity?  She and her parents were unaware of the dream, but as they planned her party, as she danced and laughed in anticipation, increasingly I found it difficult to share their pleasure.

Three nights before the birthday party the dream came again. The flat deck held more children than before, all elated, and Gemma most excited and happy of all. It passed an expansive, empty park with swings, dinosaur slide and  a duck pond. It passed a merry-go-round on top of a super market with the empty chairs flared out because of  a menacingly accelerated rotation. It passed a polar bear sitting at a window seat in McDonald’s.  All of this without sound. “We are drawing close now,” the voice said. “I’m glad I have given you a warning. It’s up to you now.”

Gemma was to have her party at The Mystery House in Cleveton, out past the zoo, and before the main highway overpass. During the afternoon two days before the birthday, Natalie went to her book group and I made a decision. A rational choice after the consideration of probability elements and fail safe precautions.  I put on old clothes, but clean. I rang the ambulance service then went to the shed, where there was a small chopping block, and had an accident there. The para-medic was disappointed the severed  digit couldn’t be found in time for later re-attachment. I paid the minimum permissible price – the smallest finger on the less used hand – but would have given more. Most of our significant decisions in life are calculations of risk.

The birthday party was a great success. I was even able to be there and share the happiness, despite some discomfort. Gwyn McNally was concerned when he heard, and later told Natalie to keep an eye on me, but there’s no danger for any of us any more. I have only ordinary dreams now. So that’s it really. The answer to your query about no little finger. 

I have a question for you in turn though. What would you have done? 

Next week’s short story is by Emma Hislop, taken from the latest and dramatically good issue of literary magazine Sport.                                                



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