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The first time Caitlin laid eyes on me, I was swallowing razor blades. She told me afterwards my performance had been so convincing, she’d taken out her mobile phone, pressed 9 and 9 again, and in the event I started vomiting scarlet parabolas of blood from an inadvertent but no less lethal hole in my gullet, she would press the third and final 9. Needless to say, that was entirely unnecessary and the razor blades came out one by one from between my lips, all threaded upon the length of cotton I had also swallowed. The audience rose to their feet, I took my bow and Caitlin and I started dating the very next week. I remember the first time I took her home and showed her around. The living room, the kitchen, the bathroom. When I got to the bedroom, I said, ‘This is where the magic happens.’ She laughed and flung her arms around me. Within three months, she’d moved in.
[private]Three years later, I find myself standing outside our house, the one we bought together only a year ago, trying my utmost to open the front door. It won’t budge. It’s clear she’s finally followed through on her promise to kick me out and change the locks. I wiggle the key this way, that way, even try shoulder barging, but it won’t move. The lock doesn’t look different, but you know what locksmiths can do these days.
So, I think: it’s finally happened. The magic has died. Those blissful first few months when I would wake up with her sleeping peacefully by my side, and the sun would shine brighter through the curtains, and the first coffee of the day would have a deeper, earthier aroma than usual, and food would taste better, and the touch of her skin would send little electric shocks through my body. All of this. Dead.
All it took, it seems, was one late return home too many.
This evening, I swear, it was totally unplanned. For once, I wasn’t going to work overtime at the estate agents or perform another magic show. I was going to make a real effort. ‘Fed up of it only being me in this relationship,’ she’d repeatedly tell me. It was only going to be a very quick drink at Jimmy Bob’s Wine Bar after work with Brian and Gav, and only because it was Gav’s birthday. The last thing I expected was to bump into old Adam Cadabra.
Obviously, this was a stage name. To be quite honest, even as a twelve-year-old when I first met him, I was never convinced of it. Adam Cadabra? For a magician? Really? But I looked up to him all the same. He was, after all, one of the foremost conjurers in the country: a member of the Associated Wizards of Great Britain with Golden Wand Honours. Thanks to a very generous birthday gift from my father, he was to be my mentor and tutor, helping me prepare my audition into that society’s Southern Ring. As arranged, he arrived at our semi-detached house one Saturday morning. I answered the door and craned my neck up to him, a giant of a man, six foot six, with a craggy, Mount Rushmore face, black suit with red tie and an alluring briefcase containing who-knows-what magical wonders. I still remember his first words to me.
‘So, you’re the little Paul Daniels.’ He smiled, just a brief smirk, and offered his hand for me to shake. It was smooth and strong; typical of a skilled manipulator. I was in awe.
He followed me upstairs to my bedroom where I kept all my tricks. For my audition, I had plans. I was going to conjure silk scarves from thin air, and from those scarves, I would produce lightbulbs – all lit – and then three of them would go floating and dancing over the heads of the audience, all in time to the music which, I decided, would be ‘A Kind of Magic’ by Queen. Then the lightbulbs would go floating back to me, and I would put them in a bag, one of those silky cloth sacks that magicians use, and all of them would turn into one gigantic crystal ball. The image of the Queen of Hearts would appear within it, and from that I would pluck a playing card from thin air – the same card, obviously – then, with a flick of the wrist, since it was the flick of the wrist wot did the trick, the card would morph into a bigger Queen, then a bigger one, then an even bigger one, then the card would be so big I’d be able to fold it into a box, out of which – POW – a real, living, breathing Queen of Hearts would emerge (my nine year old sister, who’d tentatively agreed, only after I bribed her with my pudding one evening), and I would take a huge bow, and I’d be the greatest magician who ever lived.
Quite how I was going to do all this was mere detail I would figure out in due course.
Anyhow, once I’d told Adam Cadabra about my extravaganza extraordinaire, he shuffled uneasily upon my chair, raised a bushy eyebrow and did his little smirk again. He glanced quickly around my cupboards which were chock full with tricks and props my paper round money had been able to afford. Finally, he spoke. ‘Less is more,’ he said, as if that were all there was to it. ‘Less is more.’ He clicked open his briefcase; my heart sunk a little when all he retrieved was a sheet of A4 paper and a biro.
We decided on a routine where I would take a walking cane, make it float about a bit in time to ‘Oxygene’ by Jean Michel Jarre, morph it into two flowing red and white silk scarves, then take a blue one, magically blend those three silk scarves into the Union Flag, but ‘accidentally’ drop one beforehand so the flag ends up without any blue in it, so it looks like the trick went wrong. Then I would pretend to be confused (‘you need to learn to be an actor’, Adam told me), retrieve the blue silk from the floor, then conjure the flag as it should be. The end. The whole thing would take less than five minutes. ‘Less is more,’ he said once again as he handed me the notes he’d written. ‘Promise me you’ll practice that?’ I nodded. ‘And practice and practice some more?’ I nodded, not sure whether to be starstruck or disappointed. ‘Good lad.’ And then he left.
Anyway, I passed the audition – there were only eleven people in the audience – but it did the trick, no pun intended, since they admitted me as the youngest member of the society and twenty years later, I’m still there.
Adam Cadabra, however, must have had bigger fish to fry because I never saw him again. Until, that is, just a couple of hours ago, in Jimmy Bob’s, hunched over the bar, his large frame perched awkwardly on a barstool. I excused myself from Brian and Gav and sauntered over. ‘Hello?’
He slowly turned his head from his whiskey sour and looked up. Even after all these years, he was as physically imposing as ever, but now his face was more lined, little furrows through his forehead and jowls, and what had once been a Brylcreamed shock of brown hair was now dishevelled, dryer and grey.
‘Mr… er… Cadabra?’
His once-bushy eyebrows shot up. I froze, wondering if I’d said the wrong thing. After a few seconds he turned back to his whiskey sour, raised it to his lips, downed it, then looked back at me. His misty blue eyes met mine.
‘The little Paul Daniels,’ he murmured. I smiled, relieved. Adam hiccupped and raised his hand, not at me but the barman. Five seconds later another whiskey sour appeared, as if by magic. ‘Lightbulbs and the Queen of Hearts,’ he drawled, little pricks of sweat appearing on his brow. ‘Hocus Pocus, piff paff pouf!’
And he fell off his stool. It was one of those moments, those utterly unaccountable, unpredictable instances, where one thinks: I have no information about this. No life experience whatsoever about what to do or what to think in such a situation. Like the time I realised one of my magic tricks had gone so disastrously wrong it would inevitably end up with my willing audience volunteer getting soaked with warm, soapy water. Adam’s succumbing to gravity was one of those occasions. One of the foremost magicians in the country – or at least, at one time in the distant past – sprawled on the sticky tiles of a cocktail bar, his back on the floor, limbs pointing in the four directions of the compass.
It took me a second or two to respond. ‘Oh Jesus Christ, Adam, are you OK?’
From out of nowhere Brian and Gav appeared. ‘Blimey Mark, what did you do to him?’ The two of them bent down and took an arm each, raising Adam’s considerable frame to a more vertical position with surprising ease. Adam, for his part, didn’t seem to mind – he’d started singing a song about the birds and the bees.
‘Here,’ I said, guiding him towards a sofa. ‘Sit on something more comfortable.’
Adam stopped singing as he sat down. ‘Magic is real, you know,’ he said. ‘What YOU do,’ he slurred pointing a shaking finger at me, ‘and what I USED to do, is trickery. Magic is reeeeeeeeeel.’ He drew out the word like my razor blades on a length of thread.
‘Sure it is,’ I said.
He looked at me, a wave of sobriety clouding his face. ‘It IS real, because once it’s GONE,’ he thumped his fist on the table as he raised his voice, ‘it’s gone.’ He put his large hand to his chest. ‘Annabel,’ he said. ‘I made her disappear. Now I want the pain to disappear too.’ He looked down at an empty cocktail glass. ‘And I can no longer be an actor…’
‘It’s always a woman,’ whispered either Brian or Gav to the other. I shushed at them to be quiet.
Adam turned back to me. ‘My lad. D’ya have a woman?’ I nodded. ‘Is she pretty?’ I nodded again. ‘Less is more,’ he said, shaking his head sadly. ‘Less of the gone time and more of the she time.’ He hiccupped again and scrunched his face.
Oddly, I understood his mangled attempts at communication. I had indeed been gone too often this past year. Working late at the office, putting in the occasional – oh, OK – frequent, cabaret show. We had a new mortgage to pay. Could Caitlin not understand this?
Adam obviously had taken my private musings for doubt at his words. ‘Watch this,’ he said. Somehow or another, he’d got hold of my house keys. They must have fallen out of my coat pocket. Either that, or he’d picked me. He held up a Chubb key, no more than two inches in front of his nose.
‘Hey fuckin’ PRESTO!’ he yelled, making the other three of us jump. The key did nothing as Adam’s face broke into hysterics. He fell back into the plump cushions of the armchair and yawned, showing two rows of yellow teeth.
‘That’s enough now,’ said the barman who’d appeared from thin air, like the shopkeeper from Mr Benn. ‘Come on Mr Fitzgerald. You’ve had enough for tonight.’
Adam didn’t complain. Clearly this rigmarole was routine. He rose to his feet, wobbling only slightly. He didn’t even turn back as he broke into song, Perry Como’s ‘Magic Moments’ this time, as he staggered across the lounge and out the door.
A few seconds silence passed, then I turned to Brian and Gav. ‘My mentor,’ I explained. ‘He taught me everything I know.’
I only stayed another thirty minutes and had one orange juice – I promise, that was all – and now I’m back home, and I can’t get in. I’ve tried calling Caitlin, but both her mobile and the landline just keep ringing. I really wish I’d learned David Copperfield’s ‘Walking Through Walls’ trick. Then I might be getting somewhere.
God damn it, I think. She really has locked me out for good. Just for luck, I barge the door one more time, when the world spins one-eighty degrees and I end up sprawled on the hallway floor, my face nestled between a pair of pink ladies’ slippers. Caitlin is looming over me, having opened the door the same moment as my shoulder barge, her hair wet and bedraggled down to her waist, a fluffy bath towel protecting her modesty.
She presses her slippered feet upwards into my chin. ‘So there you are,’ she mutters. ‘Pissed again, I see?’
I need to explain fast. ‘No no no. Not drunk, but I was held up, I promise…’ Caitlin puts her hands on her hips, waiting for the excuse this time. ‘I bumped into a very old friend, which was really bizarre, then came straight home but I couldn’t get in.’ I scramble to my feet. ‘Look, the door wouldn’t open.’
‘So I heard,’ she says. Maybe I’ve got away with it after all. Caitlin sidles past me to the door, now on its latch, and examines the lock. ‘Give me your keys.’
‘Here.’ I hand them over.
She tsks. ‘What have you been doing with them?’ She holds up the Chubb key. It’s bent along its shaft by at least thirty degrees. ‘No wonder it didn’t work. You clumsy clod. Now we’ll have to spend money we don’t have getting a new one cut…’ She shuffles off, back up the stairs, to the bathroom.
I examine the key. Adam, I think. You crafty old jester. I think of him, that towering, stone-faced old conjurer. My mentor.
Then I think of my lady. She’s still here. Still with me. The real Queen of Hearts. No sleight-of-hand, trickery or misdirection required. That’s the real miracle.
I click the front door shut and follow her upstairs.[/private]