15 – A Life Lived Through Stories: The Circle

The Church hall stands empty, dusty, unused except by the very few who crowd into the tiny room on a Sunday after squeezing into a church barely any bigger. Chairs are stacked to one side and it is completely silent bar the occasional squeak and a scuttle from a rat under the floorboards. All is dark.

Then – a burst of light and a roar of laughter; the rats in the floorboards scurry away as life invades their sanctuary. Three men burst into the hall, one with a key in his hand with which he has unlocked the front door only moments ago. He has just told a joke which the other two are loudly – and perhaps overly – appreciating. They are all around the same age – in their late forties perhaps – and similarly dressed. The man with the key is the Church Warden and so entrusted with securing the hall and church. The perk of such great responsibility is the use of the hall for his own private use and this is one such night. Tonight is the monthly meeting and it is as sacred to these men as the church services are to the old women who flock here on a Sunday morning.

The men set to with putting out the chairs in a semicircle. One of them carries a small table over to the side where chairs are absent creating a focal point for the attendees. Throughout this they banter: one minute telling an anecdote – you won’t believe what happened at work today – the next minute mocking one another in friendly jape. These are men who would not especially meet under normal conditions of their social class; they meet rarely at any other time than these monthly meetings. Yet these men are old friends.

As they finish there is a flurry of activity at the door and half a dozen more come into the hall. Greetings abound – there is no messing around ‘breaking ice’ or what-have-you not when you are so comfortable around each other. There will be no awkward silences here; no what nice weather we’re having today non-conversations to fill the gap – there are no gaps.

More men appear and soon the church hall is alive with loud and raucous conversation. Ev’nin George, how’s the missus? Aye, she’s alright thanks. Recovered from that accident now? Aye she has, worse luck. Laughter. You should push her harder next time. More laughter. No chance mate, she’d push back harder. She’s got the strength of an ox. She pissing well looks like one too. Loudest laughs of all.

There are words being used which wouldn’t be heard among those old churchgoers who share the hall with this strange assembly; words which won’t be found in the Bible. But if there is any incongruity with the choice of language and the setting, these men don’t notice it. They have always come here – and probably always will. This old hall is one of them and they couldn’t imagine being without it.

The church warden, of course, runs this group – whether or not he officially holds this role at the moment – and he calls them all to order and invites them to take their seats. This they do hurriedly; one or two have already taken a pack of cards or a couple of coins out of their pockets and are now flicking, shuffling, flinging or otherwise doing odd things with these objects with variable degrees of success. A few more men come into the hall from outside and the semicircle of about twenty chairs is swiftly filled. A couple of the stragglers have to grab new chairs from those still stacked against the wall and begin a second row of the semicircle. There is a warm buzz of happiness this place rarely knows other than when these men meet but it is not out of place. This hall welcomes their camaraderie.

The Warden clears his throat and begins. He welcomes all to the meeting, he’s glad so many could make it despite the bad weather they’ve been having recently and particularly welcomes those who are guests from other magic circles and hopes they enjoy their time here (there are a couple of appreciative nods), he reminds them all that there is a show on this weekend and has everyone got their acts sorted – yes, they have, good – this will be a good opportunity to create publicity for this circle and will raise money for a good cause at the same time. He then goes through a few housekeeping issues for the club: there will be a lecture by an American magician just after the Blackpool convention – very excited to have him on the back of his UK lecture tour so can we have good attendance please and remember to bring your cash as he’s sure to have plenty of tricks on sale afterwards; can we remember to turn all lights off when we leave as there have been complaints from the church knitting group that a bathroom light was left on last week (murmurs of for effing sakes it’s just an effing light, not gonna break the effing bank is it?); finally, can all club subs be paid to Benny Bilbo as soon as possible as some have still not paid their annual membership fee? (a bearded, wiry man flashes a grin with what’s left of his yellowed and misshapen teeth and interjects gimme yer cash yer tightarsed farts, to general guffaws and the disapproving glare of the Warden) . Then the Warden tells them, it is time to begin the evening’s theme: Sure-fire Openers and Closers. He sits down and waits for the first volunteer to stand up and begin.

Sure enough, the Comedian gets up; he’s always the first to go – not because he thinks he’s the best but because he gets depressed by how good everyone else and won’t show a damned thing if he’s last. He’s the man that makes them all laugh but he’s the worst sulky baby if he’s pissed about something. He has no idea that in most respects, he’s the best entertainer among them and is plagued constantly by self-doubt.

He puts a large manila envelope on the table gets someone to pick a card – no, use the clean hand – they swap hands – Oh it was the clean one! Small titters from the men. He cracks more jokes – all lame but he knows it and they know it and that’s what makes them funny. He has the card put back in the deck and shuffled. Now, he says, I will now take your card and tear it into pieces. The man who chose the card points out the card is now lost in the pack the comedian asked him to shuffle. What? I didn’t tell you to do that! You did. I didn’t! You idiot – you’ve ruined me trick! General laughs. A few wise owls nod knowingly – they know what’s coming. They’ve seen this trick or its equivalent many times.

The Comedian feigns annoyance then luckily I knew you were going to do that and so I had a back-up plan. Here he picks up the envelope from the table. I have here a prediction what I made earlier like, coz I knew what you were going to pick beforehand what with me magic powers I have. He opens the envelope and prepares to remove whatever is inside. Can you, fer the first time, tell the audience what yer card were? Three of Clubs. I knew it! He removes a large playing card; on it is printed all fifty-two cards, in miniature size. General laughter and not a few groans as he says there yer go – pointing at a small three of clubs in a row of other clubs – the Three of Clubs! Ta Dah! The man who picked the card groans and laughs as he realises he’s been had – so typical of the Comedian. What? He says pretending upset that no one likes his trick, I thought it were a good trick! As he says this, he turns as though finished and lifts the prediction card nonchalantly to reveal the other side. Filling the whole card is a large size Three of Clubs. Roars of laughter and heartfelt applause from all; ah, the double-whammy trick – fooling them into thinking it’s a joke then hitting them hard with the revelation at the end. Classic.

The Comedian sits down, grinning. He’s pleased the trick worked and went down well but tomorrow he will remember the time and cringe seeing fault in every aspect of his performance and self-doubt will creep into every crack.

Next it’s the turn of the Illusionist.

The Illusionist is a huge giant of a man. He’s been performing magic, like most of them, since he was a boy. His love of tricks began when he received a Paul Daniels box of tricks for a Christmas present. But the Illusionist grew big soon after and, before long, his hands were too big to handle the small props. He was clumsy with cards, dropped coins, couldn’t grip ropes correctly and generally couldn’t do any manipulations. Today, if he was a boy again, he would give up on magic as every new would-be prestidigitator wants to be a David Blaine or a Dynamo. Card and coins are in and he would be out. But back when he was young cards and coins were for hobbyists, amateurs, those who couldn’t command a stage; everyone wanted to be a cabaret performer and that was just perfect for his bulky frame. The Illusionist almost literally filled the stage.

The Illusionist stands up with a gory-looking head guillotine which he stands on the table. He asks the Comedian to be his victim – sorry – he means volunteer, of course. The Comedian stands up willingly; this trick is well-known and he has no fear. After the blade is shown to be real and solid and a few carrots are place in the hole where a head should go and sliced mercilessly in half by the blade, the blade is raised and the Comedian places his head into the slot. Numerous jokes are fired out, including some from the Comedian don’t go to pieces, don’t lose your head over this, could I put my arm in this instead coz then if it goes wrong there’s no ‘arm innit, just a bit off the side if that’s ok?

Bang goes the blade! The Comedian screams falsetto. The carrots placed in accompanying holes clatter to the floor in pieces and a few of the group give high-pitched child-like cries of horror for comic effect. The Comedian lifts himself from the hole, his head still very firmly attached to his body but his hands check to make sure. The Illusionist takes his bow to thunderous applause. It may be an old, old trick but it’s a classic and he does it so well.

The Showoff goes next. There’s a few stifled groans and ‘ere we go’s from one or two. Every club has its rivalries and petty politics and this one is no different. The Showoff is a wealthy man and one of the few who didn’t take up magic as a boy (which makes him not kosher in the eyes of a few – he’ simply not a real magician). Instead, he took it up when he had already made it as a business man and money could make up for the lack of years of faithful loyalty. He’d had lessons with the best and could buy the most expensive tricks. Thinking money equals power he came into the club and immediately tried to take over; it was time this place had some new ideas, new creativity. He snubbed some, belittled others and generally made a nuisance of himself. Seemingly, he was completely unaware of his effect on others and was probably one of the most regular attenders – much to the chagrin of some.

Sure enough, he shows off his latest buy – a gadget the others can only dream of affording. To an audience it’s a simple trick – a spectator draws the picture on a small whiteboard which only he and the audience can see and the blindfolded magician (blindfolded and checked by another spectator) ‘reads his mind’, describing the picture which he can’t possibly see. In reality, there’s a horrifying amount of electronic gadgetry involved (he has to wear specially wired up clothes and is a virtual walking fire hazard) and the trick costs thousands of pounds. The Showoff makes his first mistake. He asks the Illusionist to draw the picture. Big hands don’t just make fiddly magic tricks impossible; they make drawings hopeless too. When he shows the picture to the semicircle there are muffled laughs. They can just make out what might look like a boat. Maybe.

The Showoff does his best but all the expensive gadgetry in the world isn’t going to help him with this one. Is it a house? No? A Car? No? A Bridge? A Box? A Church? A Washing Machine? No? Well what the effing ‘ell is the bugger then?! The biggest guffaw of the night and the Showoff concedes defeat. He removes his blindfold to look at the whiteboard. What the ‘ell is that? You call that a boat? My three-year-old daughter could draw better than that! More laughter. Most know this trick will now be consigned to ‘the bottom drawer’ and never be seen in public again. They all have them – the ‘bottom drawers’ – often whole cabinets full of them, in fact, much to the despair of their wives who see yet more holidays frittered away on tricks which will never see the light of day but were, when bought, a ‘must-have’ trick, essential to have in the collection.

The Showoff sits down, disgusted by the ineptitude of others. Most of the rest consider they’ve seen the best – or at least most satisfying – trick of the night.

Next up is the Teenager. This kid is new, in all senses. He is what most of them were: the boy magician. He joined the club recently and having performed his first show (at his school assembly) he is, of course, now the club expert on magic. In his mind, he is Dynamo – full of street cred with fingers which can deftly manipulate any deck of cards and perform wonders with coins, pens, rings or even polo mints. To the older magicians, he’s a bit geeky and fumbles a lot but he’s getting there and at least he’s trying stuff they don’t have time or ability to have a go at any longer.

He performs a card trick. It’s long and involves lots of counting and making piles and turning some cards over and doing some mental sums and…generally leaves most of the men baffled over what he’s doing or even why. Openers and Closers, he’s reminded (once he’s done and there’s silence – no one has realised he’d concluded the trick because they were well and truly lost about what the hell was going on) is about tricks which are stunning to the audience, leaving them gaping and wondering just how you did it. The opener needs to be fast and snappy so that people want to see more from you. The Closer needs to play well to as many people as possible to leave the greatest impression on the maximum number of people watching. This trick, it is generally agreed, is a ‘bottom drawer’ kind of trick. The Teenager disagrees. It’s a brilliant trick and he’s shown it to lots of his mates so he knows it blows audiences’ minds (it blew my mind, murmurs Benny Bilbo, I haven’t a clue what happened!).

The Manipulator stands up and everyone pays attention. He’s young, he’s witty and he’s the only one making money from magic by doing restaurants and bars. He’s the closest thing to a David Blaine the club has. Openers and Closers, as well as packing a punch for the audience are also meant to be easy for the magician to do so he can concentrate completely on performing, spinning a yarn, pulling the audience into the whole performance, rather than concentrating on getting the trick right. The Manipulator breaks this rule by performing breath-taking stunts with cards and coins combined into one flowing routine which stuns them all. Aces appear from impossible locations, coins fly invisibly from one hand to the other, merge and change into completely different coins while the pack changes colour and finally turns into a giant-sized version of the coins he was just using. The magicians, envious of his skill and panache, applaud and congratulate him before some ask him questions about the mechanics – which palming technique do you use? Was that a Downs that you did there? Did you use double-facers/ No? Well, how did you manage that top change so slickly?

A few more take their turn at the front. Some tricks go well, some don’t. Some are entertaining, others are old and hackneyed; but no one minds and everyone is encouraging. It’s not about whether you’re good or bad at magic – it’s about sharing the experience, the love. They come each month to demonstrate their latest tricks, exchange ideas, swap gossip and spend a couple of hours together in mutual appreciation of an art which few are interested in beyond the brief attempts to unlock the mysteries of that childhood Christmas box.

The final one to stand up this night is Benny Bilbo. He flashes his yellowed teeth again as he rises. He’s an alcoholic, a chain-smoker and swears like an ex-con so, of course, he’s a children’s entertainer. Somehow, he’s eked out a living as Benny Bilbo the Clown for nearly thirty years. He lives with his wife in a two-roomed council flat and one of those rooms is filled with magic tricks, books, ropes, rings, balloons, juggling gear and his clown outfits. Most of it is tatty and faded from years of overuse. He’s the last of a dying generation of magicians – ones who used to be all the rage at the holiday camps and ocean liners thirty years ago and now have to make do rehashing the same old kiddies routines to the few schools who still book magicians to perform in their assemblies once a year.

Benny Bilbo holds out what looks like a thin black metal rod, about ten inches long, in his hand. There are sniggers immediately. Eh up, Bilbo’s getting his rod out again for the kiddies. Cor I thought you were exaggerating Benny when you said you had one like a black man’s cock. Is he Benny Bilbo or Benny Dildo? Benny listens, grinning and even joins in – nah this is my spare (he grabs at his crotch with his free hand and thrusts his hips forward), you should see the real thing!

Gentlemen – if I can call you faggots that – I’m not gonna show my opener (more laughter and shouts of too late Benny you already have. Aye that’s what he told the Police and so on) instead I’m gonna tell yer about a closer that went effing tits up on me a few year back (he holds the rod up) and its all thanks to this effing piece of shite.

Is that an Apollo’s Torch I see, says the Illusionist. Aye it is and I thought it would make the perfect impressive closer for me kid’s birthday shows. The Teenager asks what it is and Bilbo explains.

It’s a way of producing a flaming torch of fire from under a hanky. You soak this top part with lighter fuel (he points the part with cloth wound tightly around it) and at the bottom is a lighter which you use to ignite it once you’ve got it out of your secret hiding place. It looks from the front like a big ball of flame has appeared from nowhere.

Cool, says the Teenager.

Not cool, says Bilbo, effin bloody nightmare it was on me first go!

It was a kid’s show for a eight-year-old at ‘er ‘ouse, see. Thirty-odd kids in a posh place. They was made o’ money. I needed sommat special to finish with so I thought this bugger would be perfect. But I were worried that the fuel would evaporate before I got to the end of me act so I put loads of fuel onto the rag.

Well the show were good. They were nice brats – I mean darlin’s – and the parents looked pleased as they came in and out of the front room where I was doin’ me show. Yer know what parents are like – ‘appy if some bugger is keepin’ their ‘orrors from destroyin’ the place. Anyways, it came to me finale like. What an effin’ disaster!

Imagine, thirty kids all sat ont floor lookin’ up at me adorin’ly. I show ‘em the cloth. Completely empty, I says, nothing else in me ‘ands, I says. Then I throw it up, grab the torch from me secret place and light it as the cloth comes down and then whip it away to reveal a flaming ball in me hand.

The kids go ‘oooh’ and ‘eeeh’ and even some of the parents come in to see. It’s all very impressive right? But I needn’t ‘ave worried about the fuel evaporating. The effin’ stuff was now running down from the rag and onto me ‘and – on effin’ fire! Course, I couldn’t feel it coz like fuel burns cold until it runs out – THEN it burns you got n ‘ot! I’m lookin’ at the little buggers ain’t I and the first I realise somethin’ is wrong is when their amazed faces turn to ‘orror and I look and see me effin’ arm is on fire!

Well, now I goes ‘ARGH!’ like see and the kids begin to scream. Like a fool I waft me arm around to try n blow out the flames but I waft me effin’ arm INTO THE CURTAINS BEHIND ME! Well the buggers go WHOOSH! Up in flames in a second. Now the kids are screamin’ n running around in a panic. The Parents are shoutin’, one kid’s fainted, another one has thrown up the tea they ‘ad before the show and the birthday girl ‘erself ‘as wet ‘er knickers.

We got the fire put out fast enough but needless to say I didn’t collect my performing fee and I never ‘ad a bookin’ from that family or their mates again!

The group, suitably horrified but thoroughly entertained by the clown’s tale of woe laugh as he finishes – so you know where this bugger is goin? (He holds out the torch for all to see again. The men shake their heads) It’s goin’ in ‘the bottom drawer’. Mark my words, gentlemen – kids n fire don’t mix!

He sits down to great applause and the Warden gets up to thank them all for coming. Don’t forget the show coming up, he reminds them, but adds that perhaps no one should do any tricks involving fire – just to be safe.

The men arise from their seats and start stacking them away. There’s lots of conversation as Bilbo’s tale has inspired some of them to share their own stories of ‘when tricks go wrong’ and, inevitably, conversation comes to a well-known accident involving a metal spike and a spectator’s hand. With murmurs of that’s why I stick to card tricks followed by I bloody ‘ate card tricks, little by little the group diminishes as they make their way back to their homes and wives. The Warden is the last to leave, after he’s made sure every light is turned off and he shuts the door behind him.

There is the sound of metal against metal as he locks the door from outside and then silence falls again in the hall broken only by the smallest of tentative squeaks from beneath the floorboards.

Copyright © 2014 D K Powell

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