‘The Jester only makes us laugh to distract us from the great darkness in his soul.”
(4800 words – Strong Language)
Roman Fletcher had a way of getting under people’s skin. He never said anything unless he really believed it, but some things he just chose to believe because he was too drunk to remember if he did or didn’t. Some things he believed because he’d seen a documentary which made a bloody good case for it. Sometimes he just got a laugh from getting under people’s skin, but he always knew when to stop before he crossed the line. Wherever the line is.
In fairness, the same people were probably getting under Roman’s skin, too. People who swung with whatever was popular on social media. People who watched too much of one television channel or didn’t watch television at all. It wasn’t like he was any sort of genius or anything. No heightened social conscience to speak of. It was just that he always got the feeling other people could only see what suited themselves. Roman saw what was best for everyone. He got that from his Dad.
It was Monday morning and the workshop at Dangham’s- where Roman had worked for three years since finishing his apprenticeship as a wood machinist- was shut because his good mate, Bernie, lost a finger in the spindle moulder on Friday. Messed it up pretty badly so they were never going to be able to put it back on. Just a few bits of flesh, bone and blood were spread through the sawdust, really. It was pretty bad news when it happened, but all the boys had a laugh about it the next day because his brand-new engagement ring was absolutely buggered. It was his own fault. He should have known better than to wear it at work but the bloody idiot forgot all about it. Everyone got a paid day off while Occ Health and Safety did inspections on all the machines. They wouldn’t find anything dodgy. Sometimes shit like that just happens.
Roman had a win on the dogs on Saturday. Big win, actually. He won 5 grand at 25 to 1 on a bitch called Sammy’s Jester. Just as well, because he stood to lose $200 on anything else but a win. He never would‘ve bet that much on one race normally, but his mates were egging him on and he was too drunk to use his brains. And the name was too good to be true. The same as his ex-girlfriend, Samantha. Bossy as any bitch you could ever meet. That was how much thinking he put into it. Nothing at all.
So, Roman decided to buy a momento of the occasion. Something that would always remind him of the big win, and more to the point, remind himself not to be the Jester to any more Queen Sammies. There was a jeweller not far from where he lived, and the boys thought it would be funny if he bought a ring as a bit of a dig at Bernie and his stumpy finger. Roman was only going to buy something if he liked it, though. Not just any old ring.
The shop had been there since before Roman was born. He went past it in the toy car he had as a toddler, then on his scooter, his bike, his motorbike and both of his cars. But he’d never stepped foot inside. There’d never been any reason to because the longest he ever had a girlfriend was for about 2 months. He laughed at seeing his own reflection in the glass front door. What an idiot. It looked so strange seeing his tanktop and shorts as he was walking into a jeweller’s shop. He ran his fingers through the week-old growth of hair on his face and thought about whether to shave it off or grow a beard. Then, he remembered it was glass, not a mirror. There was probably some old, bald prick inside wearing suspenders and a cardigan, watching him the whole time.
The sign on the glass door was starting to peel off but Roman could still read it. Phoenix Jewellers. Designs that last forever. Hardly the most original slogan but it was a pretty old shop. The whole idea was starting to seem as stupid as his bet on Sammy’s Jester. He couldn’t even wear jewellery at work, but he’d always thought about getting a ring for weekends, and if there was nothing decent, he could always leave. He’d also walked all the way down there with a bit of a hangover and it was bloody hot, so in hope of finding some airconditioning, Roman pushed the door open and stepped inside.
After the bells stopped clanging when the door shut, it was like being in the funeral home before Grandma Fletcher’s funeral. Shitty old carpet and a bunch of glass cabinets, and there was hardly anything on display to pick from. It almost seemed like the place was going out of business. Even the walls looked like they belonged in the seventies with the cheap arse sheets of brown wood panelling. The downlights were nearly all turned off except for two really bright ones over the central counter by the cash register. Roman decided to leave. The place was an absolute shit-hole.
As he reached the door handle, a voice called out from behind the counter.
“Sorry, sir. I was caught taking a delivery at the back door. I hope you weren’t waiting here for too long?”
Roman turned around but kept his hand on the door, still intending to get straight out of the place. “Nah. It’s just that I changed my mind. There’s nothin’ here like what I was lookin’ for. Thanks though, mate.”
“Oh. We don’t keep stock really, sir. We’re a made to design serice, unlike most other jewellers. Every item that has ever left this shop has been personalised to match the customer. Could I ask what you had in mind?”
“I was actually lookin’ for something like a Jester. You know. Like the little clown guys from when the Kings had ‘em in England. It’s probably a stupid idea though.”
“Not at all. If it means something to you, it can’t be stupid in my opinion. You would be surprised by some of the requests I’ve had over the years. Do you have any pictures as a guide?”
“Nah. Somethin’ just happened a couple o’ days ago and it’s a bit spur o’ the moment. You know the drill.”
“Sure. How about I show you something on paper that I can already see in my head. Have a seat if you like.” He pointed to a high-backed stool on Roman’s side of the counter.
“Why not?” Roman muttered to himself and sat down. He had nothing to lose from seeing the guy’s ideas.
The jeweller was not what he expected. He was a bit bald, but not like a fat old bank manager. More like a butcher. He was wearing a brown cotton work apron over his black trousers and business shirt, and his fingers were stained, slightly blackish, and each one had a ring on it. He brought a pad and pencil up from beneath the counter and began to sketch.
“Jesus,” Roman blurted without thinking. “You’ve got a lot o’ rings, mate.”
“And each one means something to me. Probably not to anyone else though,” he laughed.
“What’s that one?” Roman pointed to the largest one on the ring finger of his right hand. There were no stones set in it. Just a large circular plate covered with intricate carvings.
“That’s the Aztec calendar. I’ve always been fascinated with their history and culture since I lived in Mexico a few years ago. You should visit there one day.”
“Yeah.” Roman saw that a picture was starting to come together on the paper. “Hey, that looks pretty good already, mate.”
“Good. It’s what I do, as they say.”
“Yeah. I thought this place was a bit of a shit-hole when I walked in, eh! But you really know what you’re doin’.” The jeweller’s focus seemed to be on the sketch, rather than Roman’s honest appraisal of his establishment. “What’s ya’ name, anyway. I’m Roman.”
“Sam. A pleasure to meet you, Roman.” Sam reached out and shook Roman’s hand, looking over the top of his glasses with a wry smile, then turned his attention quickly back to the sketch.
Great! Another fuckin’ Sammy, Roman thought to himself.
Moments later, Sam dropped his pen onto the table and spun the pad to face his client. “And that is what I can do for you, young man. The Jester.”
“Shit yeah!” Beyond those two wonderfully explicit words, Roman was almost speechless. Sam noted the reaction with a self-assurance that verged upon arrogance. Roman’s eyes had withdrawn, transfixed on the sketch as though he were looking into an image of his own soul. It was exactly the look Sam liked to see from a potential client.
“The grey shaded areas are silver and unshaded are gold,” Sam explained. “This central stone is an emerald, and I would use diamonds across the band.
“It looks really cool.” Roman was almost talking to himself. “And the way he’s got those weird shaped eyes. He’s a sly lookin’ prick, eh! Wouldn’t wan’t to mess with ‘im.”
“The Jester only makes us laugh to distract us from the great darkness in his soul, Roman. Never underestimate an obvious fool, in my opinion.”
“No. I guess not.” Sam encapsulated in minutes what Roman had been trying to define about himself for years. It sent a chill down his spine to see it magically transformed into the simple design of The Jester ring. “Shit!” He could barely take his eyes off it, and any leverage he might have had for bluffing over a price was completely obliterated. “So…how much would somethin’ like this cost, Sam?” He said Sam instead of mate because he thought it made him sound more astute with whatever bartering power he had left.
“Well, you couldn’t have chosen a better day to drop by, Roman. The gentleman I was dealing with when you arrived happened to be parting with a substantial quantity of jewellery from a deceased aunty’s estate. The materials, I can recycle for $100. That is an absolute bargain, my friend. And I will only charge you $400 for my labour. It truly would be an honour to make this ring for you, Roman. 500 bucks and the ring is yours.”
“Cool. That’s about how much I was thinkin’ it’d be.” Roman realised that he should have offered less, but it was too late. He couldn’t complain though, because Sam seemed like he was giving him a good deal. “So, if we do this, how long ‘til you finish it?”
“Well I have no other jobs on this week, so would Wednesday be okay.”
“Sure. Do ya’ want a deposit or anythin’?”
“Absolutely not. If I couldn’t trust you, I wouldn’t even take the job on, Roman. I just need to get a sizing on your finger, then I will see you again on Wednesday night.”
Roman didn’t tell the boys at work about the design because he thought it would have more of an effect to show them the finished product. He mainly didn’t want Dave from sales to see it. Dave would have crapped on about how Roman should have gone to his jeweller. He thought his own rings made him look like a bikie or something, but everyone could see he was just a loudmouth, overgrown pussy. The rings didn’t make his girly hands look any tougher. His soft skin just made the rings look stupid.
At smoko on Tuesday, Roman got a call from Sam about the ring.
“Hi, Roman,” he said cheerfully. “Sorry, but I’m having a bit of trouble with the ring. I thought I had enough diamonds for the band, but I’m unfortunately short by one, and I don’t think the design will hold up without all five. I was wondering if you could throw in an extra $50 so I could buy one to exactly match with the others. I’ve found a supplier that can get one to me today if you give me the go ahead.”
“Yeah, mate. No worries.” Roman hated how quotes didn’t seem to mean anything anymore, but there was no point making too much drama over $50. It was only a carton of beer. “Is it lookin’ good?”
“I think it’s turning out better than the sketch, myself. I’m quite sure you’re going to love it.”
“As long as it helps me with pickin’ up the ladies,” Roman joked. “Put a bit of extra tickle on me lovin’ finger, eh.” Even he thought that was close to crossing the line. Close, but not across it.
“Yes…well…” Sam was uncertain how to answer. It was such a strange thing for someone to say. “I’ll order that diamond right away and see you again tomorrow.”
As Roman turned off his phone, Dave from sales walked out into the smoking bay and sat beside him on the pallet stack.
“So, I hear you’re getting some blingage, Fletch old son. What design are going for?” No one else called Roman Fletch. Dave was big on Aussie slang to the point of making himself sound like an asswipe. It was no coincidence that Roman and the other boys from the factory called him Asswipe behind his back.
“I’m not really sayin’ yet, Dave. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
“You should’ve gone to my guy, mate. Did Bernie show ya’ the ones I got done for him and his missus.”
“Yeah.” Who gives a shit about engagement rings, Roman thought to himself. Bernie found out through a mate that Dave put $200 extra on top of the price for himself. He hadn’t said anything yet, but everyone knew Bernie was quietly waiting for the right time to set things straight about it. It was a waste of money either way after he cut his finger off. Roman just wanted Dave to piss off and leave him alone. “I’m not getting’ it for Bernie’s missus, anyway, Dave. She’s a bit skinny for my taste, mate.”
“Yeah. Ha ha. Good one Roman. You’re always crackin’ jokes, aren’t ya’ mate. But if ya’ change your mind… I’m just sayin’.” He clenched his fist and showed Roman the two rings that he thought looked so impressive on his girly hand.
“I’ll let ya’ know,” Roman chuckled. “Just put your wankin’ hand away, would ya’. Doesn’t Barb suck you off anymore, mate.” As he finished the question, Barb Dangham- the boss’s wife and office manager- walked out lighting a cigarette.
“What have I done, Roman?” she asked with bemused interest.
Dave grinned at Roman through clenched teeth and scurried back into the office as quickly as he could.
“Sorry, Barb. I didn’t realise you were there.”
“No. Obviously not. I gather you’ve been granted an extension to your usual break time. Aren’t you a lucky boy?”
“I was just heading back, actually.” Roman couldn’t get away fast enough, feeling Barb’s stare knifing into his back until he made it around the corner. If that last comment hadn’t crossed the line, then the line must have moved. He just had to hope she didn’t relay it back to the boss. Barb was pretty cool though, so she probably wouldn’t say anything.
Wednesday was yet another boring day at Dangham’s and Roman was as excited as he’d been for a long time to pick up his ring. The Jester. Even the name sounded good. Hopefully Sam made it look as good as the sketch because it would be hard to get him to redo it if it looked like shit. That kind of conversation was not one of Roman’s strong points. He was better with jokes.
The boys dropped in at the pub for a couple of pints after work and Roman set off alone from there, straight to Phoenix Jewellers. It was a stinking hot day and his hands were a bit swollen, so he could only hope there wouldn’t be any problems trying the ring on. Roman had an overwhelming feeling that he would be walking home with buyers regret, and he was working himself into a bit of a state without any reason. Something about when people ring you because things aren’t working out right kills off any trust, and it takes a bit of work to get it back.
The reflection of his filthy hi-viz shirt, navy shorts and steel cap boots standing in front of the glass door seemed even worse than when he was wearing shorts and a tank-top. It wouldn’t have been so bad if there was some romance attached to it, like a young man buying his first Valentine’s Day present. But Roman was buying himself a ring to celebrate winning some cash on a dog race.
Sam was waiting at the counter scrolling through his phone, but he looked up in time to see Roman standing hesitantly outside the door. It was fortuitous that he did, because his client was very close to doing a runner. Sam picked up a ring box from the counter and held it up, suggesting that Roman should come in to see the completed work. He was justifiably proud to show off his craftsmanship with such a fine piece.
Roman took a breath and stepped inside, trying to overcome a barrage of negative thoughts about whether he was getting ripped off. And what did he know about whether a ring looked cool or stupid. Most likely, the boys would laugh at it. They’d probably been laughing at him behind his back all along, calling him by some nickname that he could’ve invented himself. Asswipe v2. He steeled himself to tell Sam that it wasn’t good enough and he didn’t want it anymore.
“So, it came up even better than I’d planned,” Sam explained. “The extra diamond matched perfectly. All we can hope is that it fits comfortably. Are you ready to have a look?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Roman said, meaning that he would never be fully ready.
Sam opened the box and faced it forward, his eyes searching for Roman’s reaction even more than when he showed him the sketch, and he was amply rewarded. Roman was visibly gobsmacked as his mouth dropped open like a rotating sideshow clown. The expression was priceless.
“Wow!” Dave finally said. “That’s crazy, mate. You could get paid to make stuff like this if you keep practicing.” Sam took it for the joke that it was. Roman had shown a talent for being humorously offensive whilst appearing oblivious to his crimes, which clearly, he wasn’t. An aggressive defence mechanism of some sort.
“I see you work at Dangham’s,” Sam gestured to the logo in Roman’s shirt.
“Yeah. Why? Do ya’ know ‘em?”
“Yes, I have a friend there. Dave Shearman. I made some engagement rings for one the other boys there only last week. Bernie, I think?”
“Yeah?” Roman was astonished. “So, you’re Dave’s guy? I’ll be buggered. Did ya’ hear Bernie can’t even wear the bloody thing now? He cut his finger off on Friday.”
“Really? Poor guy. I hope he’s alright.”
“Bernie? He couldn’t care less, mate. We all reckon he did it on purpose ‘cause the whole life sentence thing was scarin’ the shit out of ‘im.”
“Ha!” Sam looked intensely into Roman’s eyes like he was waiting for something, and Roman flinched. It was a bit too weird for him.
“I guess I’ll try it on then.” Roman took the ring from the box and put it on his left ring finger, admiring it like a smitten young buck who’d finally found the love of his life. “That’s all the lovin’ this Gringo needs, Sammy. Try getting’ some chick to take that off and put a weddin’ ring on it, eh. I don’t think so!”
“Ha! Haleleujah brother.” Sam agreed. “Keep the faith.”
Roman started fiddling with the ring. “Actually, now it’s on, it feels a bit tight, mate.” He tried to slide it back off over his knuckle, but it seemed to have taken hold of his finger. “Can you help me get it off?”
Sam took hold of Roman’s hand and gave the ring a light tug. No luck. He brought out a small bottle of lubricant from beneath the counter and sprayed around the ring. After several minutes of twisting and pulling, the ring still wouldn’t come off. It was certainly stuck.
“I think The Jester has found a place to call home, Roman. You seemed quite taken with him on first impressions. Why don’t you just leave him on?”
“We can’t wear rings at work, Sam. Didn’t ya’ hear what I said about Bernie’s finger? It was messed up to fuck.”
“Well it seems you have a bit of a choice to make? I tell you what. I’ll offer you the same deal I gave to Bernie. I’ll give you until tomorrow to get it off, or you will have to pay for it as it is. That’s the best I can do.”
“You’re tryin’ to tell me that Bernie chose to do that shit to his own finger, so he wouldn’t have to pay for the ring? That doesn’t make sense. He was gettin’ married anyway.”
“Well, it’s never about the money, Roman. And why would I have let him return a mangled ring. More of a be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. Bernie wanted to get married, but his ring demonstrated the reality of such a permanent arrangement and it got the better of him. Ultimately, he chose to cut his finger off rather than be branded for the rest of his life, as you and your mates appear to have already guessed. So, what are you going to do, Roman?” Sam was genuinely waiting for an answer right there and then.
“How is that a deal? You make rings that won’t come off so we have to buy ‘em. What about I just beat the shit out o’ you right now and walk away? What about that deal?”
“Do you really think that’s going to happen? I have cameras on you right now, Roman, directly linked to my debt collector. Think before you decide. And trust me. We are better to sort this out before it becomes a debt scenario.”
“This is bullshit. All I wanted was something cool to wear to the pub. I didn’t want to get married or some shit. What has any of this got to do with me?”
“You are a Jester, Roman. I saw it in your eyes from the minute you walked through that door. All the cryptic commentary and pushing of the boundaries. You never say what you think without trying to be smarter and funnier than everyone else. What are you hiding? I’ve waited to meet one of your kind longer than you can possibly imagine, so I would love to meet the guy whose hiding behind the jokes. Wear that ring, and I promise you the other guy will come out from wherever he is soon enough. I say, it’s time to let him out.” Sam stared into Roman’s eyes in that weird way again. “So, are you going to cut the ring off, or pay for it?”
Roman knew exactly who the other guy was that he was hiding. He’d locked him away through his entire adolescent and adult life, ever since Doylan- the weird kid who lived next door- broke his neck falling from their tree house. Roman pushed him, but Doylan could never tell anyone because he had some kind of severe brain injury and was never right after that. Roman never cared about what he did to Doylan. He’d even kill a man if he had to. It was just better to keep that guy hidden away in case he needed him. No one suspects an obvious fool.
“You know what, Sam,” he finally responded with uncharacteristic surety. “That guy’s not ready to come out just yet. You can take your fuckin’ ring and stick it up your arse.” Roman’s eyes had cleared themselves of the fool. He knew Sam could see through his mask, and it was actually a relief to finally speak with someone openly. “Have you got a decent knife?”
“Sure. How big?”
“Whatever you’ve got that’s big enough to cut through a chicken should do. Something tells me you’ve been through this before. Funny way to get your kicks, mate.”
“The real joy is in that moment when a man’s eyes let down his guard to reveal the truth of who he is. I guess I’m like a freedom fighter for the human soul.
“Whatever you say, Sam. Have you got any bandages?” Roman just shook his head, unsure whether to laugh or stab the guy in the face once he got the knife. He had to admit, there was a certain sense of power that came from being himself again. It had been so long since his true self was able to shine through that he almost forgot he was in there.
Sam rustled up everything Roman needed to remove his own finger and patch it up temporarily to get himself to a hospital. He even had a chicken boner in the kitchen which Roman found to be a little too convenient. It was the most excruciatingly painful experience of his life, but he figured it was worse for old Bernie. At least Roman got a clean cut so he could get it put back on.
After Roman had finished the deed and left with his finger- which Sam graciously packed on ice- Sam locked the front door and took the ring to his workshop for a polish. There was blood all over it, so he had to get into every crevice to clean it out. The emerald at the top and new diamond in the centre came up to their brilliant best, but Sam had other plans for the four along the side bands.
Red diamonds were hard to come by and far too expensive for the average customer to afford, so Sam had been working on a synthetic version, and strangely enough, the only medium he could find that showed any promise of penetrating the surface and holding its colour permanently was human blood. The four white synthetics he used on The Jester were coming up a beautiful, deep crimson as he buffed off the rest of the ring.
Sam removed his last wedding ring which had never felt right. He’d been searching for quite some time to find a suitable replacement since the departure of his most recent wife, and The Jester was one he designed well before he met Roman. But Sam preferred having a story to go with each one, so he had to wait for just the right client. He slid it on his finger which was slightly smaller than Roman’s. It was a perfect fit.
Roman took a couple of weeks off work to recover. The first month after going back, he was to remain on light duties while his finger reattached to his hand, and Bernie was doing well enough too, with his faster healing stump. The two lads caught up at smoko on Roman’s first day back, both trying to avoid a conversation with Asswipe. They weren’t going to be so lucky. He saw them from his office and wandered out for a cigarette.
“I can’t believe that was the best way you could come up with to get the bloody ring off, mate,” Roman said to Bernie, trying his best not to include Dave.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Bernie answered with a curious laugh. “Why the hell would I come up with something like that? Jesus, you say weird shit sometimes, Roman.”
“It’s alright Bernie. I know about how it wouldn’t come off. I went through the same bullshit.”
“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about. Where did you even get this ring you keep talking about?”
“The same guy as you. Dave’s mate. Sam from Phoenix Jewellers.”
“I don’t know anyone called Sam,” Dave butted in. “What did he look like?”
“Tallish, balding guy. Looks like a butcher with his apron and all that. Rings on every bloody finger.”
“Dunno, Roman.” Dave said as he racked his brain. “There’s only one guy who works down there, and he fits that description, but his name’s Andy. He’s been there for a few years now, ever since he got back from Mexico. He could’ve been takin’ the piss though, Fletch, because has been known to cross the line. They don’t call him The Jester for nothin’.”