by Stephen Glascoe
It would be fair to say the magistrate was horrified when he woke in the middle of the night to find his hands were missing. Unable to turn on his bedside lamp, he got up and went out onto the landing where a light was still burning. Under its tungsten glow he could now see it was true: the ends of his arms terminated, not in bloody stumps but a strange, pixelated blur. He staggered back to bed and lay down. Perhaps he was not fully awake, but still dreaming; he had eaten rather a lot of cheese the previous evening. He closed his eyes and quickly went back to sleep. And when he awoke in the morning, his hands had returned to their rightful position. What a strange dream!
He examined his hands closely. They seemed exactly as before, and yet... The magistrate soon forgot his peculiar dream in the flow of cases that passed through his court that day: drunk drivers, every one swearing their offence was a one-off, even though it was clear they were hopeless alcoholics; road rage incidents, young men in sharp suits who always swore it was the other driver's fault; pathetic shoplifting girls risking prison for their fifth offence. He loved his job; indeed, he only felt truly alive when sitting on the bench. He considered himself fair, possessing deep knowledge of the law and confident in his ability to apply it with justice and compassion. On going to bed that night, however, the strange incident of the previous night came back to him. Lying first on one side, then the other, then on his back, it took hours to fall asleep.
Then, at sixteen minutes past four in the morning (he knew this because he checked the time on his bedside alarm clock), it happened again. He was fully awake in an instant. Once again, he stepped out onto the landing; once again his hands were no longer in their familiar places. This time the magistrate went back into the bedroom, struggled into his dressing-gown (how difficult is even the most basic task without hands!) and sat, terrified, on the edge of his bed until dawn broke. He was aware of a kind of fluttering sound at the window, perhaps a bird. And then, squeezing through a small gap which he always left to allow a little air to circulate, the hands flew in and re-attached themselves to his arms. Surely, he thought, this cannot be.
It became a nightly occurrence. He set his alarm for four-fifteen a.m., and watched as the hands detached themselves. There was no pain, he noted, no pain at all. Then they swished out of the window like a pair of falcon's wings.
Then the day came when they did not return with the light. Unable to go to work, unable to do anything at all, he mooched around his house until, well into the afternoon, they finally returned.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
"Out" they replied.
He could see there was little to be gained from pursuing the point. At least they were back. He noticed there were some scuffs on the right knuckle that hadn't been there when he'd gone to bed. And the bones of the knuckles were aching.
Before all this, the magistrate had always admired his hands with their long, elegant fingers: a pianist's hands. He had indeed played in his youth, advancing through the grades, though since leaving school his interest in making music had faded.
The hands began to stay away for increasing periods of time. The magistrate was forced, during a brief period when they had returned, to phone in sick. He could not say, even when pressed, when he would be able to return to work again.
Then strange reports began appearing in the press. Disembodied hands were spotted in the underground, cupping the breasts of Swedish exchange students or goosing elderly gentlemen. Flying hands had been seen winging away from jewellery shops wearing expensive rings and bracelets. At first all this was put down to mass hallucination.
One day his hands announced they intended learning the piano, without the magistrate's assistance of course, beyond his purchasing a piano for their purpose. When he protested about the cost, they balled themselves into fists and beat him about the face and neck. The hands flew into a rage again when it was delivered: a perfectly serviceable Yamaha upright. Threatening him with a meat cleaver, his hands yelled at him:
"We need a grand piano, you idiot. What is wrong with you? And make sure it's a Blüthner. Its richer tone will compliment our style of playing."
How could they know that at this early stage? the magistrate wondered. But he dared not question them. When a Boudoir Grand piano was delivered and the upright taken away, the hands made no protest, much to the relief of the magistrate. Somehow, they must have known that none of the rooms in the magistrate's house were large enough to accommodate a Concert Grand. For that at least, the magistrate was grateful. He had already drained all the funds in his savings accounts, and to accommodate the latter would have required pushing through walls, which for all he knew might be supporting the whole house.
Within weeks the hands were dancing across the keys, producing the most divine improvised melodies which, moreover, were executed to a superlative standard. The magistrate, handless, looked on agog from a corner of the room.
After just a few more practice sessions the hands demanded the magistrate arrange a public recital. The performance, played before a packed house, was received with rapturous applause. Vladimir Ashkenazy, a member of the audience, announced that their playing far surpassed his own even at his height, and expressed a desire to conduct the hands in a series of performances of the great concertos. Lang Lang, also present that night, said he was giving up the piano forthwith and devoting his life to a study of the hands' work. Interestingly, their earlier indiscretions were overlooked, despite persisting reports about celebrities being groped outside their Mayfair residences, or city businessmen accosted and divested of their valuables.
One day the hands said to the magistrate:
"Now see here. You are to cancel our upcoming concerts. We have decided to devote ourselves to writing. We shall need our own electronic writing machine. And none of your rubbish, like last time."
The magistrate smiled inwardly at the hands’ odd manner of speaking, but said nothing. He knew better by now. Once again, his hands showed an astonishing rate of advance in their newly chosen skill. As he pored over the early drafts, the magistrate, a discerning reader though no writer himself, had to admit that a work of exceptional literary quality was in the making. Taking the form of an autobiographical novel, it was immediately apparent that the writing was moving, sensitive, surely possessed of a master's touch. And sure enough, a publisher was found without difficulty, a huge advance paid and the book found itself at the top of the bestsellers list within weeks.
But then came an incident the authorities could no longer ignore. A motorist was attacked in Piccadilly, the driver lost control and the car veered onto the pavement where a number of pedestrians were killed. The hands, and, much to his amazement, the magistrate himself, were arrested. Fingerprint evidence proved conclusive. At the committal hearing he spoke out against this gross injustice; he himself was not to blame, he was nowhere near central London when the outrage was committed. He was ignored. His hands pleaded guilty. Later at the sentencing hearing, the judge stated:
"This was an appalling, despicable crime. The bereaved may have some sympathy for you, but I cannot afford that luxury. If I may speak personally, I don't care whether you, or your hands, go to prison. And as they seem to be firmly attached to your arms at the present, I think the fairest solution is to dispatch all three of you. Take him, or rather them, down."
Laughter echoed around the courtroom. The sentence was fifteen years. Previously, his hands had asked for seventy-nine other offences to be taken into consideration. No charges were laid, though the prosecution asked for them to remain on file.
"You'll pay for this!" hissed the magistrate as they were led away to the cells.
"Pay? We don't know what you mean," retorted the hands. "We are you; you are us; we cannot be separated; you are as responsible as we two. And look what we have given you! The fame. The money. And whose bank account did that go into? Yours, of course. How can hands have a bank account? The very idea is ridiculous. You couldn't achieve a thing until we freed ourselves from that stupid brain of yours."
"We'll see who is stupid", replied the magistrate.
"And what do you mean by that?"
But the magistrate refused to elaborate. He had a plan, but one he dared not think about too much. He suspected his hands were beginning to acquire the ability to read his mind.
Once in prison, the magistrate was placed in a special, hermetically sealed cell designed to forestall any escape attempt by the hands. He soon emerged as a model prisoner, and his hands, denied any opportunity to fly away to freedom, became submissive and compliant. Eventually he found work in the carpentry room, and then one day, in a move the hands never anticipated, he thrust them both into the path of a huge, screaming buzz-saw. The pain was unimaginable, but his cries were also those of exultation. Paying no attention to the gore hosing from his stumps, he watched his hands flapping feebly, turning deathly white as the blood flowed out of them and splashed onto the floor. With their last gasp they cried out:
"We shall be... avenged!”
Then they lay still. The magistrate murmured a final adieu, before leaning over and tenderly kissing the fingers of each hand. Naturally their last words to him were unsettling, but he knew now he was at last free of their tyranny. Later at the hospital they offered to re-attach the hands surgically, but he refused. Knowing his story, the surgeons did not try too hard to persuade him.
His conviction was set aside. Released from gaol, the magistrate had a pair of prosthetic hands fitted. It took him a long time to adjust to them, but eventually he adapted to his new life, and even returned to the bench where, out of sympathy, the exploits of his original hands were never mentioned by his colleagues.
The magistrate made an attempt to play the piano with his new hands. The Blüthner still stood in his front room, lid closed, silently gathering dust. But it was hopeless. True, his prostheses represented the acme of cybernetic engineering, but beyond a passable rendition of "Chopsticks" they lacked the dexterity required for this most exacting of skills. The magistrate had to admit it: despite everything that had happened, at times like these he missed his old hands.
He turned to writing, and here he had more luck. His artificial hands proved equal to the technical task of typing, but he was not able to replicate the success his original hands had achieved. He wrote draft after draft, often working long into the night. He even paid handsomely for the services of a professional editor, but when he finally sent his completed manuscript to a number of publishers, he received no replies. The magistrate, devastated by this complete lack of interest, never wrote another word. Dejected, he plunged his remaining energy into his work on the bench, where, his colleagues noted, he no longer applied the law quite so evenhandedly as he had in the past.
It was some months later when he awoke one night with a start, bathed in sweat. He went to turn on his bedside lamp, but found he was unable to do so.
Stephen Glascoe is a retired doctor living in Cardiff. In 2017 he took the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University.