"Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?"
"I'm sorry? Oh, no, of course, please take a seat."
"Thanks. May I ask what you've been doing all afternoon?"
"Sorry, I don't mean to be forward. It's just that I have been sitting on the other side of the park and I've been watching you for a while now. You seem to be really engrossed in something. Like you're really concentrating. Thinking."
"I'm a writer. I'm working. Being creative."
"Writer's block?" Barry Stickleback's eyes joined those of the woman who had approached him on the blank sheet of paper on his lap.
"Just waiting for inspiration. Thinking, as you said."
"So, have you ever had anything published?"
"Why yes," Barry Stickleback raised his eyes to look at his inquisitor for the first time. He soaked up the glorious golden hair and brilliant blue eyes, and the luscious mouth, lips parted playfully, expectantly. She is beautiful, he thought simply and then continued, "Yes, I have recently had a collection of my writings published."
"Really? How wonderful. I'm Emily by the way."
"Bar...rington. I'm Barrington," he replied with a smile, taking the delicate soft hand that had been extended.
"Do you by any chance have any of your writings with you now? I'd love to read you."
"Why of course Emily, I happen to have a copy of my latest book right here," and without looking in his bag, Barry Stickleback's hand delved into the rucksack in near slow motion and produced a copy of a fairly thin paperback with a stylish cover.
"'Explaining Death to the Dog.' Great title. By... Susan Perabo?"
"Yes, it's my pen name," and, sensing scepticism, "I find intelligent readers respond better to women writers, so I've taken a female pseudonym to help me tap in to the right audience."
"Really. It's true. Look, turn to page 103"
"'Who I was supposed to be?'"
"Yes, read it. Go on," Barry Stickleback closed his eyes.
"Okay then. 'I was twelve the summer I watched four men beat up my father...'"
"... on a softball field at his company picnic. Full stop." Barry Stickleback continued and kept on reciting the story word for word, with the precise inflection, for long enough to convince that he had not simply memorised a passage of writing. He invited Emily to pick a page at random and again he knew every word, every comma.
"Wow, Barrington, that's amazing. Great writing too. Maybe I could buy you a coffee so we can discuss your work more?"
"Why Emily, that would be lovely, thank you."
With that Barry got to his feet and promptly woke up.
Barry could never quite distinguish whether this reverie was dream or nightmare. It always left him exhilarated, yet wistful and unfulfilled. Undoubtedly it was his dream to have his writing published and recognised. And he would be lying if he claimed he was not tickled by the prospect of his writing prowess being an aid to him in seducing beautiful women. Or even better, a catalyst to being seduced by them. Yet why was it always someone else's writing he benefited from? If not Susan Perabo's work he palmed off as his own, it was Thom Jones or even once George Orwell. Always writers he loved, but thankfully Emily had never read before. The nightmare consuming him, causing him to strangle the duvet, was his inability to even dream that he could get a piece of his own writing published. As he lay in bed now, he relinquished his hold on his bedclothes and prepared for another long night berating his lack of creativity.
It was difficult to remember anytime when Barry Stickleback had ever been truly happy. Or sufficiently accepted for others to consider his views with any seriousness. School years were inevitably blighted from the first day the register was called. "Stickleback, Barry?" The death knell sounded, audible to the young Barry, unschooled in dealing with derision, as a chorus of sniggers and snorts from around the 7E classroom. Even then Barry failed to be popular - or unpopular - enough to be the class or school's main focus of vilification. Instead his surname and the variations on it simply reminded the other pupils of Sticklebricks, the spiky construction blocks they would prefer to spend time playing with than Barry.
Barry Stickleback did not hate his name, though. The nicknames it attracted were thankfully obvious and hardly spiteful, self-propelled ammunition for your average bully. To Barry this was a godsend, preventing, as it did, his intimidators from spending any time looking at the rest of his body or character for further harassment fodder. Even as a boy, Barry existed as a hodgepodge of neuroses and self-doubts. The straw-like hair; myopia; imperfect teeth; appalling parental dress sense; body odour; the left-handedness. Why did he have to be in the minority? It was so unfair. 'But left-handed people are more intelligent than most right-handed people, and certainly more artistic,' his mother would assert in an attempt to buoy her son. 'You'll be a famous artist or musician or author one day Barry. You'll see.'
How he wished her prophecies would come true. From as early as he can remember Barry wanted to write, bewitched by the thought of being read. His secondary school education passed in a blur of solitary breaktimes wandering the school grounds or sat under trees with a pad and pen; lunch breaks in the library, accompanied only by a thesaurus and English usage guide, right thumb sucked in deepest concentration, left gripping the pen as it spidered across the page. After school, after homework, Barry would experiment with poetry, collect his attempts in the wastepaper bin and move on to essay at a novella or grope with some adult fiction. Prolific he undeniably became, content with his output he most certainly was not. No-one had told him his work did not stimulate or engage - he did not give anyone the opportunity. Except his mother, and her reaction could at best be described as tepid. "Gosh, isn't it long - very impressive!" "Wow, did you swallow a dictionary, Barry? I don't know what half these words mean." But did she like his writing? "I'm sure it is very good, I don't really know about these things." Do you like it? "You'll be a famous writer when you're older, I'm sure." Great, but what did she know - the stolid, insensate right-hander.
To Barry's mind only one way forward presented itself and that required complete submersion in his chosen medium. Despite all round good exam grades, save for art and design, Barry elected to take just one higher level academic course: English Language. The rest of his time he committed to working as a junior assistant at Furzedown's, a local publishing company. He needed life experience beyond the classroom and where better to learn the things he needed than an office dedicated to the promotion of all things literary? It was a considered plan, drafted, revised and implemented with diligence, solely geared toward getting a book by Barry Stickleback on the shelves of the world's libraries and booksellers.
On one level, the project progressed exactly to order. Exams were passed with distinction and added irresistible weight to the case for his promotion at Furzedown's. Whilst the steps were being taken in turn and with aplomb, Barry failed to reach the next level. Throughout this period Barry continued to produce a high volume of writing which he began to submit to Furzedown's competitors, desperately seeking recognition for his endeavour from someone other than his employers or examiners.
Despite believing he had the upper hand in terms of qualifications and exposure, everything Barry presented for consideration was declined. His manuscripts were retained by the publishers, filed no doubt in a paper shredder identical to the one in Barry's own office. In their place Barry received a crisply folded and unavoidably cutting rejection letter, a physical reminder of his failure, a mirror to his inadequacies. Without exception every publisher gave the same rebuff, thinly disguised behind a different selection of words. His writing, apparently, was clear and grammatically excellent, but the content was somewhat flat, lacked substance, bordered on the plainly uninteresting. Some publishers were even less verbose, not bothering to waste precious words on Barry, "Great syntax, no plot." Others saw fit to pour salt into the wounds by insisting on creative explanations for Barry's rejection "Barry, let's say you are an articulated lorry, you're just carrying a load that no-one wants or needs. Go pick up some interesting cargo."
Through every refusal, the unfailing support of a mother tried to pull Barry back up, brush him down and set him up for another assault. 'Nevermind love, back to the drawing board.' Had she forgotten that he had failed art and design? A return to the drawing board was hardly likely to lead to success. Was she deliberately mocking him? She had never liked his writing.
The publishers rebuke and even the barbed compliment were the worst an aspirant author could read about themselves. An ignorant oaf who did not know his apostrophe from his colon could get a book published if he had a story to tell. Christ, sportsmen have been doing it for years. But a punctual writer with nothing to say? That was the worst kind of censure. Such a writer lived lower on the food chain than the sub who penned the television guide or the copywriter responsible for an advertising campaign's eight word strapline.
What pained Barry most about the snub was a self-held belief that maybe the publishers were on to something. For heaven's sake, even his dreams were staid and predictable. An attractive woman approaches - corny blonde hair and blue eyes - wearing white to give an image of purity to the seduction. Her name is Emily, the same as the only woman in his age range in his office. And what does she do in the dream? Invite him for, wait for it, coffee. All that was absent was the soft focus and saxophone soundtrack. Inspired Shakespeare, bloody inspired. Shakespeare? Even his personal attacks were trite and hackneyed. He was no lorry - he was undeniably pedestrian.
Despite no further sleep, it was a refreshed Barry that rose from his latest plagiaristic fancy. Although it was another long night, Barry almost needed longer beneath his sweaty quilt. For whilst others escaped into the realms of dream and imagination, Barry seized the opportunity to refocus his reality and redraft his life plan. It came to him so clearly, as obvious as a clichÈ. Deep down he only really craved one thing. Two if you counted sleeping with Emily. At the very top of Barry's wish list sat a simple desire to see his name on the spine of a book. It did not fundamentally matter what book. Maybe he did lack the imagination and inventiveness to be a novelist. It had been acknowledged, though, that he possessed top quality writing skills and in addition he had gained a breadth of useful knowledge. All Barry required was to harness his talents more precisely to the pursuit of his goal.
It was a small connection for Barry to make. His life had been so narrowly focussed for such a long time. He had spent all his days outside the school gates dedicated to the creation of books. Nine years he had been a Furzedown employee. It was the only thing he knew, so it followed that Plan A became a switch to writing reference material. Specifically, Barry began work that morning on his latest title, 'How to get your writing published.'
He had the ideal credentials, it seemed lunacy that he had not considered it before. What made it so perfect, however, was the very fact that he had not only gained inside experience from Furzedown's, but also, looking back now on the verge of accomplishing his lifetime goal, he had to admit that the outside experience, the rejections, gave him an even better view of the publishing process. He had received feedback that could prove invaluable to other would-be novelists. He did not need any imaginative ideas, he just had to instruct other people to make sure they did.
Taking his first ever sick days from Furzedown's, Barry worked feverishly for the next five straight days. Zealously, he engaged his energies on completing the latest chapter of his mission. The impressive speed with which Barry Stickleback produced his guidebook was matched by the response from the publishers.
"Thank you for your latest approach, Mr Stickleback. Unfortunately, we will not be progressing with your book 'How to get your writing published' as quite simply it fails to do what it sets out to achieve. To publish it would be to mislead any potential buyer. Great use of tenses, though. Yours..."
The moment had arrived. So immense and terminal that even Barry could identify that he had reached the bottom. His life could never be the same again. He still held the letter in his left hand, eyes scanning the words but not reading. Not only did he have nothing creative to say, his professional life was now revealed as being founded on inability and incompetence. Quite simply it fails.
Gradually Barry's eyes wandered to the left of the page and fixed on the thumb holding the decision letter. Thirty minutes passed without his eyes straying from the two inches of thumb. He stared at the rough skin above the nail; the wrinkles around the one joint, semi-circular furrows above and below the knot of bone suggesting the knuckle had been thrown into the thumb causing ripples of skin to wash outwards; the few deep hairs sprouting out of the lower half of the digit; the pale skin pulled tight across the bone frame beneath; back to the tufts of hair and up again to the white cuticle sitting like poorly applied glue holding the nail in place. Eventually he put the letter down on the kitchen table and continued to stare at his left hand, turning it over and round so he could see every millimetre. All day he just looked, observed every detail, moved his fingers, clenched a fist, stretched out the digits again. Later, becoming braver, he began touching it with his right hand. Poking at first, then dabbing, then rubbing, pulling, pinching.
As evening turned to night, a deep realisation set in. Barry knew without fear of contradiction that the left hand facing his stare now, was to blame for everything. All his failures and problems were the fault of the four fingers, thumb, palm and its back squatting at the end of his left arm. People had singled him out, laughed at him because his left hand was dominant. It was supposed to make him more creative, but was it not his left hand that had penned all his worthless stories? Even when he typed, the left fingers tapped most of the keys. There was no other conclusion to draw than that his left hand was the cause of everything that lead to his unhappiness. It was a cancer that had been eating away at his life since the day he was born.
Over the next couple of days, Barry Stickleback never left his house. He spent his time further exploring this left hand. Barry could not believe he had failed to notice how grotesque the left hand was. Looking at it now that he knew, it so obviously differed from the rest of his body. It was out of proportion for one thing. It looked and felt enormous. Comparing thumbs to make sure he was not imagining things, it was startling how much bigger the troublesome left was from the normal right. The left hand was so ugly, too. Bony knuckles on long thin fingers like knots on a rope. Thick blue veins bulged beneath sallow skin like cement powder in a fine hessian sack; and the nails were so dishevelled, sprouting untended like an unruly hedge, neglected by an uncaring house-owner. Compared with the right hand with its smooth, tanned skin and well-trimmed nails, the left was disgusting. Aesthetically unsightly and with no practical use, the only purpose the left hand served, Barry concluded, was to keep his watch from falling off. It was simply some variation of unsightly five digited book-end. Something had to be done. This hand had blighted his entire life - he could now see - and he would never be happy whilst the entity guilty of ruining his life remained attached to him. He had to cut the tumour out.
Barry soon discovered, however, that doctors were none too keen on organising operations to cut off healthy hands. Protestations as to the rottenness of the appendage were rejected and only earned an appointment with a psychologist. Hours spent discussing the reasons for his apparent urge to self-harm and assessments leading to conclusions that he was suffering from some so-called body dysmorphia disorder were not what Barry needed. He was not sick in the head; he was sick at the end of his left wrist. Talking would not rid him of his antagonist. He needed a shiny blade and ideally someone to wield it.
"Er, hello... Hi. I... Sorry. I saw your ad."
"Yeah echo-meister, which one? Man and a van? Goffer? General dogsbody? You don't sound like the usual Gent for Rent caller."
"Any job considered. Whatever the task..."
"...just ask! It's a belter of an advert isn't it! So what's the task? No reasonable request refused, funds permitting."
"I need someone to cut my hand off." The static on the telephone line became audible, accompanied by scratchy breaths like a cymbal being played by wire wool. "Are you still there?"
"Yes. Which hand?"
"The left." More static.
"Job like that is gonna cost, mind."
"Not an issue. How much?" A long bristly breath.
"One thousand. Cash in hand."
"Sorry? Oh, right, yes. Where?"
"You'd best come here," and with an address exchanged and a time agreed, two receivers clicked snugly back into the frame of two telephones, whilst one hand dangled ever closer to detachment from its body.
With only two days from hanging up after the telephone consultation until the planned surgery, Barry set about getting his affairs in order with his customary orderliness. It seemed to Barry that there was actually very little preparation necessary. At their last appointment, his general practitioner had given Barry a two week sick note, prescribing some serious rest and relaxation. In response to Barry's explanation that he was facing the possibility of some acute treatment, his employers had encouraged him to take as much time as he required to 'get himself together'. All that then remained was a trip to see his mother to buy himself a few weeks grace from visiting duty, and a provisions run to the supermarket and chemist. Then Barry had nothing to do, but wait. It was somehow vulgar how little he had to do to get ready for such a monumental event. Mingled in with all the excitement and anticipation, a small part of Barry's thinking did stray to the movements of his surgeon and a hope that forty-eight hours gave him sufficient time to get all the equipment and supplies he would need. Barry did not doubt, though, that he knew what he was doing, he certainly sounded confident enough.
"What's your name?"
"Is it important?"
"Yeah, it helps identify you, buddy. Look if I am going to cut your hand off, I feel I should at least know your name."
"Barry. Barry Stickleback."
"Like the fish, right?"
"No, like the plastic building blocks."
"What? Whatever. So what's the deal with the hand then? This some kind of kidnap ransom scam, gonna send it to your wife?"
"I'm not married. Do people do that, cut bits off themselves to get ransom money, I mean?"
"No idea, Mr S, I just made that up."
"Well let's leave it at me saying I just don't need my hand anymore."
"Sure thing Sticky, if you don't want to talk about it, that's fine with me. I presume you've got the money, though. No cash, no slash."
"Slash? I thought you were going to saw it off?"
"Heh, calm it Baz, just a figure of speech. You got the grand or not?"
"Yeah, look I wanted to talk about that. One thousand pounds seems like a lot of money to amputate one hand."
"Well it's like tickling Mr Stickleback, you cannot do it to yourself, you would pass out before you were halfway through the bone. Plus you're a lefty if I'm not mistaken, so it won't be easy to control a blade with your weaker right..."
"It still sounds like a lot of money."
"There ain't much call for this sort of work around here. You're my first customer in fact and it may be some time before my next paying job. So let's call it a severance payment, shall we."
"Very well, here. Now can we just get on with the operation?"
"Certainly, sir. Now you've stumped up the cash, we can stump..."
"Please... Spare me the wit you are really making me impatient."
"Right you are. Let's get cracking."
Barry Stickleback's hatred of his left hand had become so intense that he wanted to retain consciousness during the amputation. His surgeon had offered him as much whiskey as it would take to knock him out - no extra charge, all part of the service. Barry declined. He wanted to see this. Had to see that the left hand was removed. Needed to witness the blood, the soreness, the pain the hand would feel. Revenge was due.
The saw-man did insist on alcohol being liberally doused on the left wrist as a cursory antiseptic. As the teeth of the saw initially nicked the surface on the left wrist and as the bourbon seeped under the skin and mixed with the blood, the pain generated was excruciating, almost knocking out all Barry's senses immediately. Hearing the first full-blooded swipe of the saw blade sent a wave of nausea surging through him, strong enough to punch him fully into unconsciousness. He slept more deeply than he had done for years, dreaming of the old days when his father designed and manufactured wooden furniture in their family shed.
As light began to pierce Barry's gummy eyes, he made an effort to rub the sleep away to enable him to focus sufficiently to ascertain where it was that he was waking up. The activity awakened two distinct sensations. Firstly, his left arm made it to his face far quicker than the right which had a fair amount more weight to pick up. As he looked at the dried blood stains on the bandages on his left wrist he was struck at how much lighter it felt, or rather how heavy the right hand felt. He had never thought of his hand as weighing any great amount at all. Secondly, an amazing smell of bacon had pervaded the house he had woken up in.
"Bacon?" he said aloud to himself, then to the almost familiar man who appeared in the doorway on hearing his voice, "Is it breakfast already?"
"Err.. no, sir, it's actually about three in the afternoon. It is a funny thing, though. You see I couldn't stitch your wound closed, so I had to cauterise it, Mr S. Sear it shut, like."
"Ahh, right. Well, it smells like bacon."
"It is rather a distinctive smell isn't it. It's a smoked bacon smell, I believe."
"No. No, it isn't."
"Are you sure?"
"Joke my good butcher. Just a joke."
"Right. I get it. A joke. So you are feeling alright then?"
"Better than you'll ever know."
Since identifying the source of his strife, Barry had not thought beyond freeing himself from the clutches of his left hand. Sitting on the bus, right hand tightly clasping the plastic bag containing what looked like a portion of fish and chips or a sizeable cut of meat, he had for the first time in a long while no further plan, no grand design. In the short term for sure he would have to complete his recuperation and learn to live with one functioning hand, but beyond that nothing was determined, the future for once was a blank sheet. The difference immediately apparent to Barry was that he felt quite comfortable with the situation. Feeling relaxed about the unknown outlook, Barry was satisfied just being freed from his tormentor.
As it transpired, things developed better than Barry could ever have imagined. With his physical ailment well and truly healed, Barry made his return to society, content to leave the previous sanctity of his house and return after his period of extended sick leave to his Furzedown desk.
Doctor's notes explained his absence as psychiatric, but few in the office doubted the rumour circulating that Barry had contracted the thankfully rare cancer of the hand and that his life had been saved by a drastic operation. After all, clear evidence existed for all to see, or not to see, of a hand condition, whereas mentally, colleagues had to admit they had never known Barry so stable, so sociable, so happy.
Indeed, the reconstituted Barry had good reason to smile. As popularity grew out of the pity of his workmates, even Emily paid him some attention. There was no romance and she certainly was not inviting him round to her place to play with his stump - his life was not a Kurt Andersen novel - but she had now at least noticed that he existed. They had spoken, not the meaningless platitudes of the pre-operation days, but a proper conversation. He knew now that she still lived with her mother and father, had a boyfriend (nothing too serious) and did not drink coffee. His dreams would have to adapt, maybe to incorporate a victorious tug of love and a stolen clinch with parents sleeping next door. Uninspired perhaps, at least he could now imagine being the architect of his own fortune.
The fairytales were not restricted to Barry's mind, however. Three weeks after his introductory conversation with his surgeon, Barry's telephone rang with an invitation from local journalist Rebecca Connelly. She had heard from a 'proud friend' of his all about the terrible affliction he had suffered and the frightful consequence of the necessary treatment. Having clarified for Barry that she was referring to his tumour (the one in his hand?) and the resulting amputation, she informed him that, Mr Stickleback, Barry, readers of the Evening Post would love to read the heart-warming tale of his adaptation to a one-handed life and his fight to retain a normal existence in the face of extreme adversity. Would he be prepared for such publicity? Why Rebecca, that would be lovely, thank you.
Thus, following a rendez-vous in a suave cafe - courtesy of the Evening Post; long after the sympathies and concerns of Miss Connelly had turned to penetrative journalism; having guided the conversation away from the medical specifics and on to the far more important issues of surviving and flourishing in modern society as a one-handed person; not before negotiating to see and agree the final draft of the article before submission for copy; and having executed his right to make amendments to Rebecca Connelly's punctuation and lexicon; it came to pass that 'When being underhanded is no bad thing', the story of Barry Stickleback, was published in a centre spread in the Evening Post, circulation approximately 56,000.
Only then, when already it seemed that life had truly started for Barry Stickleback, did the dream fully become reality. Such was the flurry of interest and response generated by Rebecca Connelly's enthralling and grammatically perfect article, that people were demanding to hear more from this brave man speaking so eruditely and positively on conquering disability. Rebecca herself made the approach to Barry for him to contribute a regular column on his experiences as an amputee and comment on the reaction of society to his distinctive physicality.
Resisting an urge to weep or embrace Rebecca Connelly, Barry maintained an air of thorough professionalism in front of his, well, fellow writer. He invented the title for his monthly column then and there, and commenced the first article in the series that evening. Only after writing the first six words did Barry finally shed tears which ran into the upturned corners of his mouth, like rain around an inverted rainbow. Wiping away the tears reflexively with his left stump, he read the words on his computer screen: 'Caught One-Handed' by Barry Stickleback.
Whilst there was a significant upsurge in fortune for Barry Stickleback after he rid himself of his cancerous hand, not everything was perfect. For one thing, his watch did slip off his left wrist with irritating regularity. He would have switched to wearing the timepiece on his right arm if only he could physically fasten the strap with the digitless left arm. Perhaps more frustrating to Barry, though, was the deteriorating state of his right hand. Not much time had elapsed after the successful operation before Barry first noticed that the previously faultless right hand had started to let him down. Over the next few months the right hand was really beginning to cause consternation. The skin of the palm became thick and leathery, dead layers flaking off replaced by harder skin beneath. Cramp attacks hit the hand once a week; then daily; almost hourly. And the fingernails that once sat in well-manicured glory had become bedraggled, chipped; ripped by casual incisors.
These were trifling matters for Barry as he sat revitalised at his newly acquired writing bureau, a gift to himself paid for by his first payment from the Evening Post. Another in a succession of broad smiles welled up inside him and forced itself out onto his relaxed face as he considered his recent achievements. Leisurely, he picked up the latest copy of the local paper, placed it on his lap and thumbed automatically to page ten. After reading the title yet again, he proceeded to carefully cut out his article, thinking idly as he did so that he must let other amputees into his secret techniques with scissors. Holding the cutting for a moment to the window, Barry watched as the sun washed through the pulp, mixing the classified adverts on page nine with his own carefully crafted prose. Then refocusing on his cherished desk, Barry turned to the paperweight balancing grandly on its five knobbly legs atop a collection of papers on the leather surface. Lovingly, Barry moved the cold paperweight to one side, then, having placed the severed article on to the four other identically sized pieces of newsprint, returned to the paperweight and sat it proudly on top of his published writings.
Reclining in his chair, rubbing his right hand against his thigh, eyes equally soaking up the pile of paper and its guardian, Barry spoke one satisfied sentence quietly to himself: "Plenty more where that came from."