The Blue Phantom
The weight. Weight of stacked cards in my left hand. The slow. Time dilation. Paper edges against epidermal ridges. Curved vertices nestled in fingers, touching the gentle radius of card corners. The lacquered pack moves in my hand with almost no friction. My thumb creates hidden bevels, wedging both ends to create another illicit angle, one that smooths the passage of cards from left hand to right – through the double lift. From pack to fleshy thumb-base, to a velvet bag of casino dice.
His voice is deep and resonant, almost subsonic. As he addresses me I feel a rush of nausea, a migrainous flash behind both eyes. Emptiness rumbles through my guts, a motion sickness with tremors. Like many people public performance of any kind induces a systemic flush of unease. But I continue to shuffle the pack. Keep coming back to my magic lessons.
‘If dice and cards are combined Edwina, I can’t answer for the consequences. Time might bend. Seconds implode. Anything could happen.’
I never know if Douglas is addressing me as his stage persona, The Blue Phantom, or as Douglas Eastling – the fat white bloke, as he sometimes describes himself.
‘Should I leave out the dice then?’
‘I’m just saying, you’ve got to build up some mystique, draw the audience in. Sell the vanish. Without a story you’ve got nothing. It doesn’t matter how clever you are, how quick or skilled, you’ve got to develop the patter.’
I abandon my dice and card disappearing trick and start showing Douglas a double lift, lightly selecting two cards instead of one, which, along with the put and take, I’ve practiced every day for three weeks. Each evening after work, with tiny sponge balls and packs of cards, over and over again, repeating the same small arcs of transfer.
‘Ok, Edwina,’ says Douglas, before I’ve even moved my hands. ‘This is several stages too far ahead. You have to start with the basics. The Hindu Shuffle. TheBraue Force.’ As Douglas speaks I notice he breathes with difficulty, with snorting effort. The immense weight of his chest must press on his lungs. ‘I’m going to recommend a book for you. It’s called the Royal Road to Card Magic by Jean Hugard. It takes you through everything you need to know.’ I write down the title in my notebook. As ever, I’m a good student, practicing and reading, but I never reach a stage where Douglas praises me. Instead his slate grey eyes look right through me, as if he’s searching for something significant on the wall behind my right shoulder. It’s a familiar feeling, but I let it go.
We sit opposite each other in the darkened theatre. Douglas’s huge torso and head block my view of the black stage behind him. Above us a set of LED lights illuminate a square table, upon which Douglas has placed a black plastic disc.
‘This is a Chinese compass.’ He picks up the shiny octagon. It has a white arrow etched onto it. The arrow is pointing right. His freckled fingers hold the disc at its edges; his touch delicate despite the immense freckled hand. ‘You can see the arrow, but which way is it pointing?’ I point to the right. ‘Correct,’ says Douglas. ‘Now, if I spin it round which way is it pointing?’
‘Straight up. To the North.’
‘Excellent,’ he says robotically, like an overworked dentist. ‘So if I spin it round again in the opposite direction which way will the arrow be pointing?’
‘The sides are at right angles, so it will be pointing East.’
‘Sure?’ Douglas flicks the thin black disc. ‘No, it’s pointing to two o’clock.’
On the theatre walls, all around us, there are posters of Harry Kellar and Charles Joseph Carter, historical magicians. Behind me there’s a framed print of The Conjuror by Hieronymus Bosch, as well as hieroglyphic images of a magic trick invented by the ancient Egyptians. The hieroglyphs depict a snake and a headless duck being brought back to life. Douglas says the trick is still performed all over the World, that one day he’ll reveal to me how it’s done. Later, in the middle of showing me another illusion, he shines a laser light at the picture. I don’t look. I suspect it’s a distraction or a double bluff.
I’m alert around Douglas, drawn to his magic skills but distrustful of his presence. I’ve been vigilant right from the start, when he first sealed me into his magic parlour.
‘I like to lock my students in,’ he announced within seconds of our first meeting. I felt my old panic return, the desiccated mouth, hammering forehead. All the feelings I’ve spent hundreds of hours in therapy trying to erode. I was going to say ‘eradicate’, but therapy doesn’t work like that. It works by facing what we fear and chipping away at it. Slowly. Repeatedly. Through exposure.
I can’t remember afterwards why he did it, why, moments after sitting down Douglas circled his fat index finger and thumb around my wrist, a flesh and bone handcuff. There was no resisting. I knew I wouldn’t be able to move my hand. He’s tall and obese, at least twice my weight. He locked the door behind us as we walked through the foyer, announced it pointedly. Then he sat down, took a flab laden breath, and said:
‘I want to show you a little mystery involving seven small sponge balls. You could use coins, or scrunched up paper or anything this size.’ As he speaks Douglas’s chair creaks beneath him. ‘The story goes like this: two notorious sheep thieves, represented by these two sponges, sneak out at night to steal five sheep – the other five sponges.’ Douglas holds them up for me to inspect. His voice drops pitch and volume. ‘By the way, Edwina, whenever a magician shows you a prop, you can be sure it’s innocuous or irrelevant.’ He revs up his voice again, almost shouting: ‘My hands will be the two barns, into which the thieves will creep.’
After a few minutes I realise I’ve been drifting off, another experience that resonates with therapy, a floaty dissociation. Douglas doesn’t seem to notice.
‘While the sheep herder is away each thief takes a sheep.’ Far from engaging me the story of the sheep and the thieves makes me feel lethargic. I look at the theatre walls as Douglas continues. There aren’t any pictures of female magicians, though I know they exist, women such as Dorothy Dietrich, ‘the Female Houdini’, and Adelaide Herrmann, both famous for catching bullets in their mouths. Not to mention the con artists, Mina “Margery” Crando and Madam Blavatsky, nineteenth century levitators of tables and chairs, disrupters of female space. Filling living rooms and parlours with luminous apparitions. Domestic ectoplasm.
‘This next trick is a good one, you’ll like this Edwina because it’s terrific. It’s called The Lady Vanishes.’ Douglas produces a miniature stage with three plastic sides. As he moves it towards the table top there’s a small thud. Something has fallen to the laminate floor. I look down and see a plastic model of the Statue of Liberty, stricken, as if in a sci-fi movie.
‘Oh bugger,’ says Douglas, reassembling the flimsy box. He turns away from me to adjust something then holds it up again.
‘Look, you can see the statue is disappearing, you can see the purple of my shirt, straight through the box.’ I don’t tell Douglas I can see a copper green blur that’s obviously the statue hidden behind a Fresnel lens. I don’t tell him the trick would be more effective if he wore a matching green shirt.
‘Oh Sod it.’ It’s not clear whether it’s part of the next trick, but Douglas has just dropped a card. ‘Excuse my French,’ he says, struggling to pick the card up. He slides it back into the pack, pursing his lips. ‘Hello, what’s going on here?’
‘Does that happen often, the cards getting mixed up?’
‘No, but how interesting, did you take the five spot?’ He sorts through his pack, frowning at each card, trying to find the five of spades. The pack looks small in his outsized hands.
‘I’m not clever enough to trick you,’ I say. But I’m flattered he thinks I could.
Douglas starts to fumble more tricks. Perhaps, like me, he’s fatigued? I’m enjoying this first lesson but my attention span is limited. It’s 2:30 pm. I would have guessed it was 4:30. It feels like I’ve learnt enough for one day, but I can’t leave yet.
‘Is it ok if we run over for a bit?’ Says Douglas.
‘Of course,’ I say, eyeing up his Gladstone bag of magic props, wondering how many more tricks he can possibly cram into one session.
After The Lady Vanishes trick Douglas hides himself behind a heavy curtain on the stage. He soon reappears wearing a black overcoat and bowler hat, like a Samuel Beckett character. He’s holding a wooden barrel. Douglas turns the house lights right down, starts to address not only me, but an imaginary audience behind and around me. Soon his hands move so rapidly I can’t keep track of them. Ball after ball appears from the barrel. A lemon. A baseball. More and more fruits are pulled out of it. Their volume is significantly larger than the container. It seems impossible. He tells the imaginary audience there’s a special tube hidden in the coat which transports balls and fruit from one hand to another. He pretends to nudge a lemon that’s stuck in the tube, twitching both shoulders.
Afterwards, still breathless from the exertion of his performance, Douglas says,
‘If you can come up with a reasonable hypothesis I’ll tell you exactly how I did that trick.’ He pauses, ‘but now I have something important to say to you. We’re going up the ladder to another stage. You must realise people make a living from this stuff. So don’t tell anyone. Your friends or family or anyone – how this magic works.’ Later, I decide this is part of Douglas’s patter, because almost any trick you can think of is explained extensively on YouTube.
The lights are briefly turned right down again, leaving me in the dark – remembering that I once had a magic kit. It included a black and white wand with a length of elastic hidden inside it. I remember my hands pulling at the elasticated segment. I remember the yearning for special powers, the wish to magic everything away. I want to forget this memory as soon as it appears, like everything else about my childhood.
I hum loudly to block out the thoughts.
‘Did you say something?’ Asks Douglas from behind the curtain.
‘I always liked doing magic tricks.’ I want to convey a textureless normality. As if my upbringing was acceptable. Not feral. Not fucked.
‘And where did you perform these tricks?’ Says Douglas; But I don’t answer.
I practice my false transfer. I still do. Every day. Over and over. I pass a bright red ball of sponge from my right hand to my left, then take it back again. The gestures are odd. I pick the ball up with the ‘V’ formation of index and ring finger. If I don’t transfer it quickly people will notice what a strange way this is to handle something. I hold open my left hand and place the spongey sphere in its palm. As I curl my long fingers around the ball I begin the process of deception – the legerdemain – swift distracting moves – light handedness. I pull back the ball, first transferring it into the hiding crook of my thumb – instead of leaving it in the left hand.
In the first lesson I said to Douglas, ‘my hands aren’t as big as yours and I’m really clumsy.’ He looked like he’d heard this excuse a thousand times before, didn’t even pause before answering.
‘Some of the best magicians have terrible dexterity, look at Tommy Cooper. It’s the performance that makes it work.’ He’s said this several times, that the presentation is what makes magic and illusions convince audiences – the performance and the story telling, the other stuff is just props. My father, a doctor and poisonous know-it-all would have corrected him, I’m sure, saying something pompous like:
‘These are fine motor skills, the precise signalling of neurons to other cells. Not story-telling.’ He loved to debunk everything, except himself. Unlike my father, Douglas is open about his tricks, he’s generous with me – sharing the secrets of prestidigitation, keen to convey the performative and choreographic props and processes that make illusions work.
Back on the street, after that first lesson, my eyes took a while to adjust. I felt like I’d been back in time, to another era – somewhere between 1870 and 1970. By the locked front door Douglas gave me a paper bag. Inside it were some red sponge balls, paddles and a Chinese safe, a Perspex box that is impenetrable until you know it’s secrets. I texted my partner, Kay, to say I was ready to be collected. It started to sleet. The sky was an egg shell colour. The area is so affluent nowadays it feels alien to me. On the pavement by Douglas’s magic parlour there were lots of wealthy families; smart fathers rattling Audi estate keys, mothers who looked like ex-ballerinas. In the same terrace there’s a running shop with a treadmill in the window, a mindfulness centre, an organic coffee house and an incongruent evangelical dieting club. I felt invisible on this street, until I saw Kay, or rather the soft top of Kay’s 2CV rattling down Half Moon Lane towards me.
‘So how was it?’ She asked, ‘are you a magician now?’
‘It was good. Strange.’
‘Show us a trick.’
‘Right now, in the car?’
‘When we get home then.’
I’ve got used to that now. As soon as I mention my apprenticeship in magic – I know the words everyone will respond with. It’s as if I’m a real mind-reader – predicting the exact expression anyone will use:
‘Show us a trick.’
It took me a few hours of searching through magic books and YouTube videos to work out how Douglas made fruit and balls appear from nowhere. it’s a variation on the chop cup routine, using a magnetised container and balls. It’s a relief to have finally cracked it, to identify the techniques he deploys. I see the same kind of relief on Kay’s face when I tell her how some of my better illusions work. But I wonder what we lose when we understand how magic really unfolds – when we realise we can’t undo the past or reverse our actions? It’s a relief that comes with some disappointment, accepting no-one can bend time or implode the seconds. Still, I keep coming back to Douglas’s magic lessons. I practice my false transfer.
Sell the vanish.
Hum out loud.