‘Disappearances’ by K J Orr

The story won the 2016 BBC National Short Story Award. It is a melancholic reflective story set in a Buenos Aires cafe. The narrator is a retired plastic surgeon with a distinguished career who one day feels compelled to visit a museum. His loneliness and lack of direction becomes apparent early on. 

What do you do when you stop? When you have been up and running for such a long time, what is it you do? When you’re used to a schedule that takes care of each second of the day? When there is no goal?

On finding the museum closed, he decides to have a coffee at a café in a nearby park where he notices the waitress. He is inexplicably drawn to her and begins to visit the cafe every morning. He is glad that his former career as a plastic surgeon is unknown to her. The story subtly alludes to the political disappearances in Argentina and the moral culpability of those who stood by and did not protest. 

I thrived. It didn’t matter who was in charge- throughout the decades, through all the ins and outs, the various shenanigans our country went through.

The story is an intricate play between the protagonist’s inner thoughts and the external world. Surprised by his own desire to create a new identity as a noble doctor helping the needy, and thus win over the waitress’s admiration, the surgeon’s identity is revealed when two rich society women who know him well visit the café and disrupt his newly invented persona. Caught off guard, the tension between the life he led and this desire to create a new identity forms a pivotal moment of the narrative. 

K J Orr writes in a nuanced, restrained style and the stories in this collection offer searing insights into the frailties of human nature. 

First published in Light Box, Daunt, 2016, and available to read here

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