Nicky's Last Trick

I gave Nicky a magic set when he was five. It was the first Christmas with just the two of us - his father having walked out three months earlier - and I was worried that he wouldn’t like it. His Dad had always been better at finding the right gifts. The bits and pieces fascinated him, and during any otherwise unoccupied half-hour he could be found sitting on the floor, perfecting his technique.I loved to watch his brow crinkle as he tackled a new trick, and the way it straightened into a look of triumphal achievement when he mastered it. He learnt how to pass cards, how to conceal fuzzy balls under plastic cups, how to tie false knots, how to hide coins. His nimble fingers grew in confidence.

A year later he was given a more elaborate set by his Grandad. One glance at the instruction manual made me realize that only a child with a truly obsessive side to his character could master even half of it. Two weeks later he could do every trick with his eyes closed. The tendency to obsessiveness formed barriers too. When we spoke I could tell that a corner of his mind was elsewhere – turning cards, imagining hand movements.

At the age of seven he was performing forty-minute magic shows for friends and relatives. He took an even more advanced set (the third) into school and impressed the whole class. His teacher, a young lady called Miss Flint, took me aside and said he had a flair for performance. He was ‘self-assured and eloquent’. She encouraged me to enroll him in drama classes, and arranged for him to take a lead role in the next school play. He did well, but it wasn’t magic, so he didn’t give it his all.

His technique had long surpassed my understanding. My favorite tricks were those based on distraction, and I tried hard to determine how and where he was sending my attention while he made objects disappear. Cards, coins… knives, forks, spoons, books… then plates, garden tools, even a dustbin lid. Big things, objects that could not be slipped up a sleeve. And not everything reappeared. Somehow he had learned true sleight-of-hand, and he was not interested in explaining it to me. Our connection was elsewhere – in the quotidian necessities of childhood, and the unquestioning comfort I gave him when he grew uncomfortable with the power he had developed over things and people. He needed me, for all that.

When he was eight he asked to be entered into a national competition for young performers, and I found myself driving around the country as he passed smoothly through the early rounds into the high-tension finals, which were televised. He made a bicycle disappear effortlessly, but he came fourth and national fame was denied him. The judges marked him down for receiving adult help with the mechanics. But he received no help. He did it all on his own. He mystified them as he had long mystified me. Also, his flair for presentation had not developed; he did not become the all-round performer that Miss Flint had prophesied. On the contrary he became introverted.

Sometimes he looked burdened. I was relieved when he pursued other interests, like sport, or the violin. But those enthusiasms were short lived; he always came back to magic.

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