I remember it vividly. There are some days that remain lodged in the mind no matter how many other dawns one may see. I may have only been ten at the time; I may have been so affected by the spectacle of the evening that my mind had become open to all the possibilities of the world, but I swear to you that the following tale is what I saw. It is what happened.
It all started with a visit to the theatre, a magic show no less. Now, when one sees a conjurer, one is coaxed and cajoled to accept what one sees as being the impossible becoming possible. One is convinced by the magician, depending on his skill of course, that he can accomplish any feat of impossibility; that he cannot lose in the battle against Mother Nature’s otherwise unshrinking laws. One may be fooled for a moment into believing that these stern rules have caught back up with him but, even when one is half expecting him to fail, deep down one is always waiting with anticipation for that moment when he flicks back his cape and the sequined woman steps from the box without a scratch on her overexposed flesh.
So, even if I were caught up in the moment; in the spectacle of the evening, I would not have seen what I saw. I believed in him. My ten year old eyes were ready to see another amazing display. As the crowd watched in hushed awe as the magician explained to us the reasons for performing his next trick, my hands were already sweating with anticipation. A drumbeat started off stage somewhere and I watched my new hero, the man of possibility, slowly start to climb a ladder.
I swear to you now, that I did not take my eyes off his shimmering coat, his out of style top-hat and his highly polished boots. I was transfixed to the stage as any young impressionable boy would be. So minutes later when, as all the shouting and screaming was dying down, the invincible demi-god of my fantasy was carried past on a short length of ladder, his cape desperately but inadequately draped over his body, I still did not believe, I could not believe, that the act was over.
The illusions profession is probably a dangerous one. I haven’t looked this up. Since that night, and the subsequent morning that followed, I haven’t attended, read about or even talked about magic. But I can imagine that an industry which thrives on the use of knives, saws, flaming torches and any number of other dangerous implements is bound to be littered with accidents. It is therefore not beyond anyone’s imagination that I was simply the witness too another one of those many incidents that night. Or the opposite could be true. Maybe I was witnessing a true master of the stage. Someone who not only wanted to amaze his audience but also wanted his show to plague their thoughts and nightmares for the rest of their living days. Both are adequate explanations of what I witnessed, but I have a third. One too unbelievable and shocking for me to tell you straightway. Let me first tell you what happened in detail. Let me show you through my eyes what I saw and then I shall let you decide which explanation fits the world that you know best.
It had been a wet spring day. One of those damp and dreary days which makes one bang their head upon the window glass in dismal dejection. However, as the evening drew in, the clouds floated off and left a crisp and cool breeze behind them. Everywhere glistened in the twilight. The forgotten raindrops becoming a thousand sequins or stage diamonds, adorning every tree, cart and shop front. The air was fresh and smelt of English spring.
No matter where I’ve gone in the Empire, and believe me I have seen the four corners of the globe in my long years, I am yet to find a country which can match the feeling of stepping out into an English spring. Everything seems new; washed of all its earthly sins. It was such a feeling that I experienced as my young hand took hold of my fathers, on my right, and my mothers, on the left, and we started the short stroll towards the theatre.
My father was dressed in a fine suit, complete with waistcoat, cravat, coattails, top hat and cane. The gold chain of his favoured pocket watch was visible from his breast pocket, and his boots were so highly polished that they almost glinted as much as the watch chain. (I would have remarked at the time that my father had the most polished boots of anyone in the city, but the conjuror we were on our way to see was about to show me what polished boots really were.)
My mother was in a discrete but elegant dress with an unostentatious but clearly expensive shawl. She had no make-up on save a soft shade of lipstick that set her apart from the other women bustling around in the evening light. Her shoes, which had been polished by my father before we had left that evening, also shone as she gracefully clipped over the damp cobbles.
I, myself, was dressed like a miniature of my father. I lacked the gold chain and the silver topped cane but other than that we were dressed pretty much identically. I had been given the suit not two months before for my birthday. As soon as I had turned ten my father had insisted that I had become my own man and I therefore needed a fine suit. He took me to a tailor that very afternoon and we spent a lengthy amount of time picking out fabrics and getting measured. I, who had always looked up to my father and knew him only as an exemplar of masculinity, could think of nothing that would declare my manhood more than a suit like my father’s. I had therefore picked out an almost identical suit to his and had worn it with pride everyday for the following week.
Anyway, to the night in question, it didn’t take us long, even at my mother’s ladylike pace, to arrive at the theatre. It had only recently been opened as a theatre and had used to be some kind of warehouse for the old docks before the shipping companies had moved to cheaper residence down river. The building was larger than the average theatre and lacked the fine craftsmanship you would usually expect to find adorning such a building. My mother muttered something to my father which I only half heard but I was sure it had contained the words ‘grisly’ and ‘decor’. I, being ten and therefore slightly more used to the grimier side of life, felt the building had a sort of simple charm. It towered over me; its huge functional doors seemed almost like a gaping mouth ready to swallow all that entered. The strong structural beams imposed their will on the surroundings and reminded me, in strength of character rather than in actual look, of the strong and daunting stonework of the olden-days castle my father had taken me to visit the previous summer.
A crowd was already hanging around the huge open doors, a line of ushers quietly trying to keep them back until the manager of the theatre said they could allow the first customers in. The crowd was made up mostly of middle class couples dressed in their finery. None of them looked quite as smart as my parents or I as we walked slowly passed the gaggle of spectators and round to a smaller but more expansively decorated door. It had just one usher standing next to it and as he saw my father approach he doffed his hat, gave a slight bow to my mother and offered me his hand to shake. My father glowered down at me and I doffed my hat but kept my hands firmly away from the usher’s outstretched paw.
My father and the usher spoke for a few moments, allowing me time to take in my surroundings but there was little that interested me. While the establishment had made an effort to smarten this entrance up with some plaster moulds and gold paint, it was strikingly at odds with the functional robustness of the rest of the structure and only seemed to emphasises the starkness of the rest of the building rather than glamorise the entrance itself.
I had no time to dwell on these reflections, however, as my father once again took a firm hold of my hand and we marched, with a little more purpose than before, into the theatre. It was like walking into another world. If my father had not had such a tight grip on my hand my life may have turned out very different. The lobby, which had a small bar and a few highly decorated tables, was the most glamorous room I had ever seen and my young eyes opened in wide-eyed fascination at the silks and satins, the velvet, and the jewels. I was a young boy lost in a wonderland of decadence and I think I would have stayed in that room all night if my father’s strong hand had not pulled me through and into our box. If only I had been allowed to spend the two hours entertaining myself amidst the lobby’s finery, then I may not have spent my days in the dark corners of this world fighting for a cause I did not believe in because fighting was the only thing which would block my memories out. Just two hours sat at a gold, jewel encrusted, table and I may have lived a very different life.
Even after my father had pulled me through the exquisite room I may have been saved but for my foolish ignorance of the things to come. My mother had deposited herself on a velvet chair, sipping a glass of something strong smelling demurely while my father tried to explain, to the waiter who had just brought the drinks, the virtue of a good single malt and how one day it shall be considered above brandy as the drink of a gentleman. I, already stimulated by the occasion, couldn’t sit down and was leaning against the low rail of our box looking over the stage and the swarms of people now making their way to the seats below us.
As I said before, this building was far bigger than the usual size of a theatre and, as such, could hold far more spectators. As I watched them pour into their aisles I couldn’t help think that something amazing was going to happen. I remember thinking that ‘this amount of people seeing one thing must mean that that thing is important’. I am ashamed to say it now, but at the time I did not attribute much thought to the lower classes and so while I had seen large collections of people in the markets and on festival days, the majority of those people were of the lower class. That night, at the theatre, it was the largest collection of middle and upper class people, although my father, mother and I were in the minority, I had seen in one location. That gave it importance to me, a deep almost unnerving but definitely exciting sense of anticipation. I wanted to see it properly and I turned to my father, who was still in a detailed conversation with the poor waiter, and announced as such to him.
My mother was somewhat taken aback. She had spent her whole life watching from a box but my father, who was keen to make sure I understood the world from all angles, seemed almost delighted at the chance to take me amidst the “rabble” as he used to term them. A quick discussion with a senior usher, or perhaps the manager I could not be sure as the lines between those ranks were already starting to blur even in those days, and we were on our way to the centre of the audience. Some of the chairs had been cleared near two of the aisle seats and that was where we sat. A gap of three chairs at least between us and anyone of the “rabble” but still far closer than from up in our box.
I tried to wave to mother an excited hello but my father, without looking towards me caught my wrist and told me not to act like a child. So I sat firmly back in my seat, my heart momentarily deflated from having disappointed my father; my feet dragging on the ground a little, scuffing up my shoes slightly.
We must have sat in silence for about twenty minutes, the only sound coming as my father occasionally took out his pocket watch and grumbled that the “rabble” surely knew how to tell the time. I sat by the aisle staring at the stage, oblivious to my father’s mutterings and the middle class women who, while bustling to their seats, would knock my shoulder with their shawls.
Finally the show started. The deep red velvet curtain pulled slowly but smoothly back and revealed the conjurer standing in the centre of the stage. His boots sparkled with polish, his clothes sparkled with sequins and his teeth sparkled with what, at the time, I could only think was magic. He did some simple tricks, pulling handkerchiefs out of thin air, making his hat disappear, levitating an iron bar and then levitating himself. Although now I’m sure you could tell me a hundred ways in which he did each of those things but, at the time, they fascinated me. This man fascinated me. This man who could fly, even if it were only a hands-width off the ground; this man who could produce endless streams of handkerchiefs; this man who could make one thing appear out of thin air one second and make it vanish once more the next, instantly became my image of masculinity. Even his boots, the things which my father prized so highly, shone more ferociously than any boots I had seen before.
The next trick had him bring out a helper, a young lady in rather inappropriate clothing. I heard my father tut when she came out and in my mind I could see my mother looking away in disapproval, but I didn’t care. If that was the type of woman this man wanted to be by his side, I thought, than we should all have such a woman by our side. I watched the woman almost as closely as the man, her long legs disappearing under some loose tassels just before her bottom, her dress giving the illusion of a low cut cleavage and her deep red lipstick and red tipped fingers. I suppose it is possible that at that young age I had my first stirrings of sexual awakening but if anything, and I say this purely from my innocent ten year old perspective, that I was more attracted to the magician than his companion. Not in a sexual way, of course, but in that innocent idolisation that makes young boys copy older youths. My fascination in his companion was more of an interest in why he found her alluring rather than why I did. I couldn’t tell you now if, at the time, I wanted to be him or her. To be her would mean to be close to, as I had just placed him, the pinnacle of masculinity, putting me in the position to look up at him like I had previously looked up to my father.
Whatever, in particular, was coursing through my mind at that moment is irrelevant really. What is important is that I was captivated by every movement, every flick of his cape, every wave of his arms, every shimmy of her hips that went on on that stage, and I believed it all. Magic existed and this man could do things that common men (and I included my father within that bracket) could not.
The conjurer and his companion performed a few more tricks, mostly with knives, and he levitated her as her final goodbye. I was aware, if not vividly, that there had been some sort of theme running through the tricks. I was not consciously following the theme because I found myself, every time the conjurer spoke, staring at his masculine, if slender, jaw and his glinting eyes. However as his companion left he started to speak in a hushed tone, the background crowd noise drifted into silence and the whole theatre, including myself, started to hang on every word.
I could not tell you exactly what he said but it was something along these lines: His whole show had been following the life of a dock worker who had toiled in this very building. However the man had a sad end to his life. When the news had come that the shipping companies were finally closing down these docks, he had lost his mind. He had lost his whole life in one large faceless company’s decision and he couldn’t cope. The harsh reality that money was more important than his life; that capitalism was the driving force behind the world, not compassion, was too much. He broke into this building after it had been closed and had climbed up some of the old packing crates that used to fill the building up to its roof.
At this moment I broke my eyes from the stage for the first time since the show had started and looked up to the towering ceiling. It was a long way up and suddenly made me feel very small. As I looked up I noticed a small platform lodged onto some of the rafters. I looked at it curiously as the magician continued his tale.
The man had attached a rope to one of the rafters and had looped the end around his neck. No one was around to see him die.
These last words caused me to look back to the stage from the platform and I saw the conjurer holding a length of thick shipping rope, the type used for hauling the crates onto the boat deck. I stared right into his eyes and at that moment it felt like he was looking directly at me.
Tonight, he said in a dramatic voice, losing some of the hush which he had delivered the rest of the story, finally people shall witness this man’s death. I shall re-enact it for you, in honour of the poor dock worker. We shall all pay our respects. He paused at that moment, I remember the pause distinctly, it seemed to go on forever, almost to the extent that I thought he wasn’t going to say anything else but something about his posture kept me, and the rest of the audience, silent and captivated. Finally he spoke. Prepare yourselves as I string myself up by my neck and let the life drain from my body just like that poor dock worker did. Join me in the ultimate homage to a lonely forgotten man.
I found myself holding my breath as from the wings of the stage came a slow steady drumbeat, the only other thing that I can think is comparable is the slow steady drumming of spear on shield that have preceded bloody attempts to stop our Empire spreading it’s so called civilisation. I watched as the conjuror took off his hat, stroking his fingers across the brim before replacing it and putting his right foot on the first rung of the ladder. He looked up for a moment, and my eyes followed up the length of the ladder to the platform suspended in the rafters. The rope was thrown casually, or at least as casually as the magician did anything, over his shoulder as he slowly started climbing the ladder. One rung at a time.
Although I felt a pang of anxiousness in the pit of my stomach as my newly pronounced hero started up the long slanted ladder, I also had this strong feeling of assurance that the conjuror would be fine. He knew what he was doing, and if this man could fly, hanging wasn’t really a serious problem for him. If he could stick various sized knives into his assistant and keep her alive, one little length of rope wasn’t going to be a challenge.
My young expectant eyes kept trained on the conjuror’s ascent. I could still see his boots sparkling even as he reached the murkier heights of the hall, and his cape still flicked and flashed with each of his steps, but his smile was gone, his face becoming a blank shadow as he got higher. I kept my eyes on him all the way. I could hear people muttering between themselves as he climbed and I think my father might even have said something to me, but I didn’t reply I just followed the dark silhouette.
He was almost at the top when it happened. I felt a slight breeze drift passed me down the aisle and, as I watched the conjuror climb the last few rungs of the ladder, I saw what looked like a cloud of smoke from a pipe drift up passed his shoes, round his cape and then finally across the dark shadow of his face. It seemed to pool around his features, like water collecting on an uneven road. A mask of smoke, with two dark eye holes and a gaping black mouth stared down at me and then all of a sudden, as if the mask was swallowing itself the smoke rushed and gathered to the mouth and finally vanished.
I was shocked but still captivated and I found myself having to gasp for air as my breathing no long seemed to be regulated by my body. Seconds after the mask had disappeared in upon itself the sparkling silhouette of the magician passed a roof beam on the final stage up onto the platform. I lost sight of him for the briefest of moments at that point. My whole body ached suddenly, my eyes scouring for the slightest movement. I’ve later come to realise the same response when a lover disappears from you in a crowd for a moment as she walks away and your eyes scour for one last glimpse of her supple body or silken hair before she is gone. At the time, however, it was a novel feeling and a feeling that only heightened my anticipation for the moment, the event.
Within an instant, most likely not even a second, he was back into sight. His hat was the first thing I saw and then a glimmer from his shoulders where his cape rested upon them. He seemed to have a little difficulty pulling himself onto the platform, as if the ladder were not quite long enough but soon he was pulling himself slowly to his feet. He walked slowly, almost with a stoop, to the edge of the platform and uneasily reached out for a hook that was hanging from a beam over the edge of the platform, looping the length of rope he had over his shoulder onto the hook. I could hear some mutterings of excitement ripple through the crowd but I felt the pit in my stomach get slightly larger and my confidence in my hero wane, or rather the confidence in the man stood at the edge of the platform, holding one hand on his back as he slowly straightened himself upright, started to wane. Slowly and deliberately the figure looped the other end of the rope round his neck. The mutterings of excitement kept building in the crowd; my fingernails started to dig into my hands.
In a sudden movement that lacked any flair, the figure flopped off the platform. The body jerked hard as the rope pulled tort and the body swung violently for a few moments. Silence echoed noiselessly around the room before a wail emanated from the stage. The sequined assistant had started to scream. Suddenly everything was commotion. Ladders were hoisted up to the platform and a pole with a hook on the end, like a larger version of those high window hooks that get used in manor houses, was used to pull the body back to the platform.
The audience didn’t know what to do. No one was sure if it was part of the act or an accident, so everyone just sat in their seats muttering in hushed whispers to each other. I guess it was about fifteen minutes until the body had been got down from the platform and lain upon a short ladder so two strong ushers could carry him out of the building. The body looked stiff and lacking in life and apparently his face was too grim for public viewing because one of the ushers had tried to drape the magicians cloak over it. Slowly and with a couple of ushers trying to keep the audience back, they carried the body towards the large doors. They were heading right passed me. I suppose some people’s parents might have tried to shield them from such a sight, but my father, being the man he was, probably thought it was character building to see a dead man at my age.
However it wasn’t the dead body that caused my blood to curdle. As the ushers carried the magician passed me, I couldn’t help but try to peak under his cloak. I could just make out the thin jaw line poking out beneath part of the cloak. A little more purple than it had looked before but unmistakably his. I watched as my morbid curiosity turned to horror. Just as he was carried beyond me a stream of smoke, like smoke shooting out of a thin chimney servicing a large fire, started to spout out of the dead conjurer’s mouth. It might have had a slight blue tinge, I’m not sure, but what I am sure is that as it rushed out and started to snake away under the chairs of the spectators I could hear an old and slightly wheezing laugh.
I did not tell my father or mother of my sighting as we walked home and I was sent to bed straight away by my mother who seemed to feel the dark solitude of bed was exactly what a scared young child needed. The next day my senses had cleared slightly and I decided to go look at the theatre. It had been, unsurprisingly, closed for a month or so and while the big doors were locked tight, a quick little foray around the side where the more privileged entrance was, gained me admittance. The plush lobby no longer held any joy for me as I quickly trotted through it and down a few winding corridors till I found myself backstage. The theatre looked very different in the dim sunlight that had managed to find its way into the building. It looked dirtier; less magical. It was still littered with the confusion of last night’s apparent accident.
The ladder that the magician had used to climb to the platform was still in place. With the brave heartedness that only the innocent can posses I clambered up onto the ladder and started the long climb. It was dizzying but I kept my gaze on the ladder rungs and soon I was at the top. I had to haul myself over the edge onto the platform. The platform was not as it seemed from the ground. It was far thicker allowing two levels on it. The ladder rungs finished at the lower of the two levels but the arms of the ladder continued up to the second. A person could crouch fairly easily on the lower level, even with a top hat, and would be free from fear of getting spotted by the audience. The lower level bisected the upper level all the way down the middle to the far edge of the platform, allowing someone to crawl right to the end, out of sight. Also on the lower platform was a dummy, made from straw and sacks and dressed in clothes just like the magician had worn. The dummy also had two sticks along its back down to its legs, presumably to keep it upright. I guessed that the magician would pull himself up to the first level and then, without magic, would lift the dummy up pretending it to be him, and walk the dummy to the edge of the platform. How he would attach the rope I did not know, but sleight of hand was this man’s art, as I was slowly becoming aware, and so I doubt it would have been difficult for him to manage it somehow.
I clambered up, carefully, onto the higher level of the platform. I became dizzy for a second when I saw the height of the drop beneath me, but I steadied myself and looked around. It felt almost unnatural being so high; seeing the room from such a strange angle. The rows of chairs looked small, too small to hold a full sized person; the stage looked flat and insignificant, too dull to entertain the most poorly arranged performance; and even the ground itself seemed insubstantial, too slight to support anything more than the fluffiest of clouds. To my left, at the same level as the platform, was an old dirty window. It had clearly been boarded up when the building was transformed into the theatre, however, with it being so high and workmen being workmen the boarding was already curling away from the window pane, in a couple of places. A couple of streams of sunlight struck across the room, sloping through the window and down below me, illuminating a thousand specs of dancing dust. The dust swirled and spiralled around in a sickening ballet of motion.
Suddenly I felt something against my boot. I looked down to see a heavy rope with a noose tied to one end. I hadn’t remembered seeing it when I clambered up onto the top of the platform but it must have been there. Curiously, and I mean that in both senses of the word, I bent down to pick up the rope. I still don’t quite know what was going through my mind as I gazed down at the tight dirty coils in my hand but I remember that, as I looked up towards the hook ahead of me where the magician had hung himself, it looked slightly murky as if I were seeing it through a blue mist.
I stepped forward to the edge of the platform, my toes peaking out over the edge of the heavily varnished wood. My breathing was shallow and my lungs strained to coax enough oxygen out of the meagre portions they were being provided with and, because of this, my head instantly started to become light and the world seemed to rock and sway around me. I stretched my hands up, to loop the rope around the hook.
The blue mist still obscured my vision and I could feel my eyelids getting heavy, possibly due to lack of oxygen or maybe there was some other more sinister cause. Like the soft whisper of a leaking gas pipe a voice seeped up onto the platform with me. As soon as there was one, there were hundreds. All whispering, chattering in hushed tones, willing me on. The hook was just out of the reach of my young arms and my body strained as I reached toward it with no fear of toppling off the platform. The whispering was getting louder, like the rippling excitement of a crowd. It was all around me. A thousand voices were repeating the same few words over and over again. Privilege. Money. Wealth. Greed. Privilege. Money. Wealth. Greed. Privilege. Money. Wealth. Greed. The room was swirling; the sound was swirling; the mist was swirling.
A thud, like the sound of a thunderclap, suddenly echoed around the room. My senses immediately roused I turned sharply to the window on my left just in time to see a seagull or pigeon’s carcass slip from the window pane, its neck broken. Startled I glanced back to where I was standing and the sickening drop beneath me. A wave of panic coursed through every fibre of my body.
My heart got swallowed by fright and I dropped the rope instantly. I dashed to the far end of the platform and half climbed half fell down the ladder, running from the theatre. I didn’t stop till I was in the street, in the daylight. I stood in the golden warming glow, bent over double sucking in deep breaths of air. My heart beat inside my throat as two smartly dressed gentlemen, soldiers, walked passed me. I caught the thread of their conversation as they walked by; clearly provoked by the closed theatre they were passing.
He does it in every town, one of the men said, apparently he always uses a different name so as to keep up the pretence. I heard that on the continent he used a guillotine instead, I’ve seen better myself, but this was the first time he based his act on a true story, which was a nice touch, even if his tricks were a bit out of date and uninspired.
With the two army men walking on, their boots gleaming brighter than the sun itself, and my breath and demeanour coming back to me, I stood and watched them go. I did not think of what had just transpired inside the theatre, but I did wonder how the two men slowly disappearing from my sight could be so blasé about the whole incident. They had not been affected. A true man does not let these things affect them. I watched as they finally turned a corner and out of my view. The last thing I saw, as they stepped out of sight, was a final sparkle from a shiny leather boot. I stood silent for a further moment before I turned and started briskly back to my dwelling. Once home I packed a small travel bag, stole my father’s purse and left home for the local barracks, never to return.