The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

A short story (1000 words) of Tiny Tears from fossil fuels…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

A surprise in every egg. Yes, Kinder, there’s a selection of small plastic choke hazards in each toy, but the plastic egg which holds them can be a handy cunt plug. Keep this warm in there for me baby.”

Mummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

Ocean opened the bathroom door and a bolt of blonde hair dashed past her legs. “Who were you talking to?” Conscience asked again, enthroned on her Peppa Pig toilet seat.

No-one,” Ocean replied, “Well, just myself.”

But you’re not no-one mum.”

Thanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

But you’re not no-one mum, so who were you talking to?”

Honestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

Will you read me a story, please?”

We don’t have any, Conscience.”

But we all do, in our heads. Tell me one of your stories of being Ocean, mummy.”

Well, there was this one time. I was about your age. I had a dolly. Hated it. Your nanno and grampo wanted me to be a girl. Well, they both wanted me to be girly, but grampo had wanted a boy, so I had to be a really girly girl.

It’s funny now I think about it, because he’d probably have liked the boy inside me more.

And apparently you’re asleep. In any case, I think I made the perfect mix in the only one I kept. You’re you, and even so young, you have a personality which transcends gender. If I can be proud of one thing in my life, it’s you. So, whoever’s still listening, even if it’s in a dream I hope you won’t inherit…

They lived in different times. In those days, the only costume you could wear to play yourself was a uniform, and I hated everything that stood for. I resented my school uniform, but I used the skirt I despised to score one over on the system. I lost my virginity at 12, then got my English teacher sacked when he broke up with me at 14.

There could have been loads of kids before you, but any one of them might have meant I never met you. I only had you because I remembered who your dad was. You remind me a lot of him. He could be a cunt sometimes too.

We were broke. Still was an artist and an eco-activist. We lived in communes in fields, usually just tents near protest sites, but sometimes on local traveller camps. I knew what it was all about but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 15 then and the nearest I’ll ever get to true romance, that summer of love which made you. A brief history of anarchy, peace and freedom.

So here were are, five years later kid. I wonder if you’ll want what’s inside this Kinder egg, or if I should throw it away like the rest. See you in the morning. Don’t dream of this.”

Dreams are made of plastic. Unpaid cards become CCJs, then bailiffs emerge from eggs. Everything in the flat is made from plastic. All that we eat, drink and wash with is bound by plastic.

The council don’t recycle all plastics, so I put what I’m unsure about in the general waste. If the council won’t take the rubbish, we can pay Bill to take it away in his van. One day, he might take me.

The plastic in me will probably be recycled into the non-conscious parts of robots for those entitled to them. Or as parts of a toy, so many child’s dolls. Either way, I’ll be enslaved in the plastic which gives lives to those implanted in the chips and to those around them. Eventually those body parts, inanimate but for the host brain, will need upgrading. Always disposable people, eventually the parts which don’t work will be returned to the food chain.

Food, drink, we’re all part-plastic. We are the polymer population. We dream of becoming one with technology, our minds inside plastic androids. In Japan they already have home robots to deal with loneliness and social isolation in an ageing population. I Can’t help think how that would benefit me. They’re already a species in their own right, made from the same cosmic matter as us, but theirs was an explosive evolution.

Christmas will be paid for with hidden plastic. Christmas will bring more plastic toys to unwrap. We are the consumer generations, products of the industrial and technological ages. Each generation contains more plastic than the last, every child a greater part of the plastic population conditioned by human greed. I don’t know if I can afford another baby doll. Mum always said she wasn’t sure if I could have a brother or sister.

We’re all made of the same stuff. Last night, another mother; tomorrow, another soldier.

Ambulance, is the patient breathing?”

It’s my mum?”

What’s happened?”

My mum’s cut herself.”

Where?”

In the bathroom.”

No, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

Her cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

Is the baby breathing?”

How would it? It’s made of plastic. Do you have a chip I can put in it to make it work?”

Is mummy still there?”

No, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

© Steve Laker, 2019

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The personal politics of eugenics

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Tuesday (still yesterday as I write this) was Suicide Prevention Day, and I avoided becoming a statistic of male suicide by keeping myself out of harm’s way. It’s hard to escape yourself when you live alone though, when the only person you have to talk to is you.

Eugenics tree

I’m having a rough time lately: I recently lost my brother-in-law, and was unable to see him before he left; I don’t know if my dad will know me whenever I see him next (he has a degenerative Parkinson’s-related illness); after making some money for my adopted sister, she’s gone off the radar without paying me; and I’m only seeing my kids every six weeks or so.

Social exclusion is partly anxiety on my part, but it’s exaggerated by government, denying me the means to deal with everything by starving me of funding. Much to their annoyance, I’m still here, as evidenced by me writing this.

My battle with the social cleansing machine (DWP) is now a year old, and despite the intervention of my MP, the waiting list for appeals is still over a year long. It hasn’t killed me yet, but the fascist regime’s project eugenics has worn me down. I’m at war with myself inside, while the rest of the world is against me outside my own. It’s paranoia, but that bedfellow of depression and anxiety makes itself very much at home on the fold-out futon I use for a bed.

My depressive sufferposting seems endemic among my social circles online, away from the people I once considered friends, who use the remoteness of social platforms to tell me to buck up, get a job, and earn the right to a life. It’s easy for them to say from afar, when they’ve not spoken to me in person for several years, and none of them were stabbed in the throat during a robbery like I was, leading to the first of my many diagnoses of PTSD. It’s all on this blog, which they don’t read. Instead, they’re narrow-minded, blinkered, reactionary, short-sighted and dismissive on my Facebook author page and personal timeline. But I don’t mind being a billboard for their ignorance.

Of course, I let my drinking take over, became an alcoholist, and I ended up homeless, but that’s all they see: always an alcoholic (because all alcoholics are, by medical definition), and just taking money from the state (one which does at least recognise me as being sufficiently mentally disabled to be placed in the ‘Support’ group for my ESA (Earnings and Support Allowance), rather than the ‘Working’ group, which expects one (me) to work).

These are the people who don’t have time to talk, read, listen and educate themselves; people I shouldn’t waste time on, but they trouble me (deliberately), like they don’t trouble themselves with this blog, or their own lives. Frankly, I don’t care about them, even though they’re just a small step from personal disaster if they lose their jobs, then their homes, if ever their protective bubble should burst, like mine did. I was like them once, and I’d tell them they’re only a few steps removed from me, if they took the time to listen.

But then, even though I’m waiting for the return of my main ‘benefit’ (the human right of personal independence), I have a more fulfilling life than most in a job which just pays the bills. I’m free to explore for myself, which is what social cleansing would deny me if it could. I just have to keep telling myself that.

The UK and the world will soon need more people like me, when my fascist ex-friends are either out of a job, made redundant by technology, or simply working so hard they don’t have time to look up and see what’s going on. Human eugenics doesn’t just focus on the poor, but on the free. As one who’s free from corporate employment, I can at least see that, and think about how we can deal with it. The game of life favours the long-term thinker, which is why they’re so determined to march over us and stamp us out, like those friends of mine.

My kindred spirits are the people with time to think, who aren’t in a regular job, who don’t have great prospects in convention, but who wear their hearts on their sleeves. They have time to confront the world now around them. One such posted on Facebook yesterday:

I feel myself changing. I don’t laugh the same any more, I don’t smile the same or talk the same. I’m just so tired of everything, mentally.

Like so many of us, conditioned by the world we live in, which at the moment is Hell on Earth. I’m afraid what this describes is ‘The Human Condition,’ (which a book reviewer said I have a deep understanding of) and it begs the question: What have we become, as a species?

The counter to that, is you’re not alone. This condition is a common foe which we can unite against. We have to, because we’re all the same. We are humanity, and we need saving from ourselves.

I have my personal issues, but I’d find them easier to deal with if it didn’t feel like the whole world was at war with me. The biggest paradox is the guilt I live with daily as a sober, penitent person, and the people I damaged being the same ones who keep me alive, not directly, but it wouldn’t be fair on them if I chalked up a statistic.

In these divisive times, it’s worth considering that we’ve never before had such an historic era in politics, both domestic and international. If this means that more young people take an interest in politics, we may be living in the eve of a generation who can make a difference. I believe our children can change the world, and as the consumer generation which brought them to this (and our parents before us), we owe them our support.

This whole inescapable nightmare starts again tomorrow, but only if I let it. If I kill myself, I won’t give it the pleasure, but if I keep surviving, I’ve kept battling on my own. I’ve been conditioned by what humanity has become, but I can see what unconditioned humanity is capable of.

It’s hard to escape yourself when you live alone, when the only person you have to talk to is you. That’s why I write, because I have you. It’s easier to talk like this. Thank you for listening to me. Even if this is a solitary read, it’s a human connection.

Eugenics Burden

Success in the game of life is surviving. If we’re alive, we’re still winning.

Baby Fistbump

 

The elephant in the bathroom

FLASH FICTION

A story popped into my head tonight, and I have no idea why. These things just happen, like a single sheet of paper through my typewriter in a matter of minutes…

Dolphin in the Toilet2

The dolphin downstairs got in last time the Thames flooded. In this road, the ground floor was under water for months while they repaired the barrier. Most people have moved out, but I can’t because I’ve got the dolphin. I live upstairs in my bedroom now.

He swam in at the start of the flood, and every day the water level didn’t go down, he just made himself at home. He’s got my sofa and armchairs down there in what was my living room; There’s a telly in there too. In the kitchen, he’s got my cooker and washing machine; and there’s the downstairs toilet. See seemed to like it in there, so that’s when I called him Donald, like the duck. Like the toilet duck, except Donald is my dolphin.

Well, seeing as he’d decided to take up residence, when the river went down outside, I kept all the water which had come in on the ground floor. That was Donald’s home. All the doors are damned-up with plastic bags full of soil. I use the upstairs window to jump down to the garden. I mean, hardly anyone lives round here any more, so no-one’s going to come and rescue Donald, are they?

Do you want to meet him? Do you want to say hello to Donald?

If you come out of my bedroom, there’s the bathroom on the left and here’s the stairs. You can see we can’t go down, because the water’s up to the ninth step. There’s fourteen in all, so we can see five. The water’s a bit brown, but he’s light grey, so he looks like a ghost.

When Donald comes up to the surface to breathe, he sometimes moves his blowhole like a mouth, like he’s trying to say something. I’ve got most of the language worked out, and I can buy him fish. He’s a captive animal which I’m protecting though, so he relies on me for everything. He has other needs. He needs to breed. And so do I. You should leave now.

© Steve Laker, 2019

Munchausen’s jury syndrome

HAIKU

Monkey Black heart Haiku Sapien3

Inflatable chairs and plastic tables

POETRY

If we hold our breath, we float…

SEAFARERS

Drink to death

If we stop breathing, we sink.

“This place is heroically awful”

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

When the kebab shops close, I go out for dinner in my mind. Sometimes I visit an old haunt and talk about something else. I read ancient graffiti in a different place. This is a story from my second anthology, of a writer moving from one field to another. It’s a tale of dark mirrors and cult followings, of a human consumed. Dining in the belly of cults…

Ash TrumpDonald Trump In Famous Horror Movie Scenes (BuzzFeed)

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Friday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated, and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food. For a moment, I think I see Grace Dent at a distant table.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Therefore, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians. The dog seems content, with a steady supply of food handed down to it.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total arse, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love, and the dog asleep.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

A drop of the Indian Rope Trick

FICTION

Indian Rope TrickFactFiend

THE INCOMPETENT CONJUROR

When I stage a magic show, I’ll usually challenge my audience to work out how I do the tricks. When they do, I know I’m not doing them well enough. Sometimes I’ll ask someone in the audience to make a wish, then try to make it come true with magic. Once, I made a wish myself. I wished I was better at performing convincing magic.

My portrayal of an incompetent conjurer, a parody of myself, is popular at children’s parties, but I aspire to a higher level, where I can look adults in the eye and perform close-up magic, rather than an audience at waist level. The granting of my wish came at some sort of performing half-way house, a teenage birthday party in a village hall.

This rung on the short stepladder of my magician’s career was provided by a friend of mine, whose son’s 14th birthday it was. I’d never been too keen on Alexander. He had a habit of pushing smaller kids around in the playground, knowing everything, and eating chips. Much as I tried, I couldn’t find a single redeeming feature in this scruffy, fat, blonde kid who seemingly fed on himself. But I was friends with his dad.

Jeff had hired the hall for about 20 of Alexander’s friends. He’d laid on a disco, with all the fit-inducing flashing lights attached, and a smoke machine, which was key to my act at the end of the evening.

The night itself was a social observation experiment, as I sat at the edge of the room watching the kids. There were about a dozen girls and the same number of boys, with others coming and going. They danced, they talked, and they’d disappear outside from time to time.

I didn’t talk to many of the young people, even though they kept pestering to see a trick. But I noted a wide spectrum of personalities, from a sweet girl called Siân, who simply thought to introduce herself, to the odious Alexander, who was as repellent on the dance floor as in the school playground, popping over every now and then to tell me he knew how all my tricks worked.

With the slow dances over, it was time for the magic act. This was where the audience were free to ask if I did a trick in a certain way, and I’d tell them if they were right. There was no jeopardy if they were wrong, and if they did see through my act, they might be future magicians themselves. The Magic Circle forbids members from divulging the magician’s code directly, but it encourages enquiring and speculative minds.

I started with card tricks: coin through a deck, turning every card in the pack into a queen, that sort of thing. For the most part, I drew the kind of gasps you’d expect from a young audience who’d never seen such misdirection and tricks of the trade before. Apart from Alexander, who shouted, “I know how you do that,” after every trick. When invited to take the stage and demonstrate, he told me I was the magician and not him. “Do some proper magic,” he spurted between chips, “make someone disappear.” I wondered if such a large target might register on radar.

Have you heard of the Indian Rope Trick?” Most of them just nodded. Except Alexander, who knew how it was done, of course.

Magic which is more a spectacle than an act is illusion, and the Indian Rope Trick is probably the most famous. Surrounded by myth and legend, its origins are disputed, but the performance is the same: A rope is laid on the ground, or in a wicker basket, then the conjurer levitates the rope. In the classic version, the rope will ascend into a cloud. In the village hall, we had the smoke machine, obscuring a loft door in the ceiling, with the end of the rope attached to fishing line. Jeff was in the attic and he’d pull the rope up, then tie it around a roof beam.

Back on the ground in the classic version, a small child would climb up the rope and disappear into the cloud. In some traditional accounts, the child would then be judged in the heavens. If they were found to be pure, they’d descend back down the rope. If not, they’d be cut into pieces and thrown back to Earth. In our version, Jeff had some prime Waitrose 28-day aged steak chopped up in the loft of the village hall.

Who will climb the rope?” I asked as it rose into the roof.

Two hands went up, from opposite ends of the spectrum: Siân’s fingers held barely at shoulder level, and Alexander’s fat sausages in a Nazi salute. I wasn’t sure the roof would support his weight, so Siân went up the rope. She disappeared into the smoke descending into the room, and everyone looked around at each other. Except Alexander, who ran over to the rope, squinting to look up Siân’s skirt for as long as possible. I knew she’d be fine.

Jeff would tie the rope to the roof beam, and tell her “Shhhh” as she climbed into the attic. Then he’d whisper, “Scream, like you’ve never screamed before,” and that’s when he’d drop the chopped steak down through the trapdoor.

Siân returned downstairs to smiles, gasps, silence, and a small applause.

I know how it’s done,” Alexander drooled into her ear, “tell me if I’m right.”

You tell me how you think it’s done,” Siân replied, “and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll take you upstairs, into the magic circle. I’ll show you behind the scenes, then you can see if you’re right about how the Indian Rope Trick works.”

Jeff paid me well for that gig, the going rate for an adult close-up show. The steak was fantastic, more like veal, with some British broad beans and a nice Pino Noir.

© Steve Laker, 2019