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Short Stories Adult English Language Highly Commended ‘Choice, 2079’ By Brenda Anne Dominicy

“Let's say the 23rd March then?”

Carol looked from the doctor to the smiling nurse. The nurse stood by Dr. Patel's chair, tall, darkly beautiful. They always were; the male nurses equally so, and strong, with soothing voices. It was GHA policy: patients felt better with pretty people around them.

“What's the problem?” The nurse's voice was kind. Carol swallowed, her throat tight. “I wondered perhaps, whether we could delay it?” There, it was out now. Her heart pounded so loud in her ears, she was sure they must hear. The nurse could probably smell her fear. The smile was now a puzzled frown.

“You’re the right age for it, Carol,” the nurse said. “Most women want to get it done as soon as possible. Why wait?”

Carol tried to choose the right words. The silence grew. She glanced through the window behind the doctor where she glimpsed the Bay in little rags of blue threaded with wispy foam. She remembered that magical day, just hours after John was born, his tiny, warm body nestling on her shoulder, when she looked out from the window in the maternity ward, and saw a Bay dolphin at play. Exuberant. There weren’t many hospitals in the world where you could see dolphins from your bed. The drumming of fingers on the metal desk recalled her. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to have the operation just now. I thought I had a choice.”

The doctor's cool grey eyes measured her. “Of course you have a choice, Mrs. Thompson; we live in a free society. But delaying is not the healthiest option at this stage in your life. There could be long term implications, not least for your mental health. And if you postpone, social insurance may not cover the cost later. “The surgery is painless; the recovery time very short. You’ll be out and about in a week, better than new!”

The doctor was smiling now, but Carol caught a steely flash from his eyes. Was he one of them too, she suddenly wondered. You couldn’t tell these days. No, he wasn’t, she decided. Like the old hospital building and unlike the ever-youthful nurses, Dr. Patel was getting on; greying, a little shabby. Anyway, hadn't the Chief Minister herself denied that the GHA employed any of them as doctors?

Carol took a breath. “I was wondering whether I need the operation at all.” Dr. Patel checked the startled nurse with a small gesture. He laughed nervously. “Come now, Mrs. Thompson! You don't mean that. You are 36. Every woman needs the surgery.”

Carol fiddled with her wedding band. The nurse cut in. “Phil would be so disappointed. It's as important for him as for you, after all.” Carol looked away, annoyed at the nurse’s casual use of her husband’s name. As if she even knew him! These nurses were programmed to use the same patronising tone with all their patients, regardless of age: they might be addressing six-year olds. Behind the nurse's mask of concern, Carol could practically hear the cogs whirring and see the beautiful brown eyes blinking as she devised ways to get her to comply.

Uncertainty flooded her. “Phil supports me,” she whispered. “I’m sure he wants what every husband wants,” the nurse replied. “You're selfish”. Brutal.

“It’s my body after all.” She sounded firmer than she felt. The doctor scanned the medical notes on his screen. “How will your son feel on his graduation day if you don’t have it done?” he said. “You should be in the photos.” “I could still be in the photos,” Carol said. Her eyes brimmed with hot salt tears. This was more difficult than she had thought. If only Phil had accompanied her as he’d promised.

“I am obliged by the regulations to report non-compliance.”

“Why? If it's optional?”

“It can impact on other areas of your life. Instapics will cancel your account very soon.”

“I don't have an Instapics account.”

Dr Patel looked shocked. “Well,” he said, “your other media accounts.” Carol sighed. She was foreign to them: they could never understand her. She longed to pick up her bag and walk out of the surgery, but was certain this would cause mayhem in the long run. Dr. Patel's monotonous voice droned on as a whole landscape of blurry images, of her and Phil growing old together, of future grandchildren, passed before her like scenes from a speeding car. There was a knock on the door. “I've taken the liberty of phoning your husband,” said the nurse. Phil entered the room, nodding a general greeting. He would not meet Carol's eyes.

“I'm happy you were able to come, Mr Thompson. This is a serious matter. Your wife is a little nervous, understandably, but we mustn't let her nerves get in the way of doing the right thing, must we? Yes, it's the right thing. Sign here.” Through the blur of her tears, Carol saw Phil shrug as he swiped his finger over the screen. He still wouldn't look at Carol. Dr. Patel reached out and patted her hand. “You'll be very happy when it's done. My niece had the op a month ago. She's delighted.”

On the 23rd March Carol went into the pre-op clinic unaccompanied. The nurse was the blond male version this time. There were a few of those at St. Bernard's, probably a batch discount lot. He beamed.

“Good morning Carol, how are we today? We just need to go through the procedures. Let's start with your neck, make it nice and tight, then the crow's lines. The skin is stapled under the hairline, so there'll be no visible scars. Filler for your lips, cheeks, brow, and then we'll make a start on the liposuction on your thighs....”

He chattered on and on in his model's usual amiable manner. Carol ignored him. She was looking past him, through the window, to the patchy blue of the Bay, hoping that today, at least, she'd see a dolphin.

Adjudicators Comments:

‘This story has a distinctly dystopian flavour, exploring the issue of aging, social media and the pressure on women to preserve their youthful looks at any costs. There is a dichotomy created between the nurture we expect from health care professionals, and the insidious drive behind a new agenda rendering the protagonist helpless and with a frightening lack of autonomy. Skillfully structured to introduce important characters and familiar cultural elements at key moments, the story reveals the dilemma facing Carol at the end of the narrative.’

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