Every time Bernard walks onto a stage, the crowds seem thinner and less readily impressed. They think they’ve seen it before: white rabbits, top hats and sequins. Old-school stuff. He could tell them that they’re wrong, that – think what they like – they’ve never seen this. He could tell them this is real. But, of course, that in itself would be old-school.
There’s a blond-haired boy in his dressing-room one night, after the show, holding a pocket-watch and levitating.
“How did you get in here?” Bernard says.
“I can show you,” the boy says, lowering himself to the floor. Bernard pulls a dove from beneath his cloak, strokes its back and lifts it gently into a cage that dangles by the door.
“I know what this is,” Bernard says, “and I have to tell you, I haven’t changed my repertoire in thirty-nine years.”
“I know. I’ve been following you since I was five years old. What you do can’t be improved.”
Bernard smiles: “Please tell that to my agent.”
“I’m Simon,” says the boy. “I want to be your apprentice.”
“I don’t need an apprentice. I’m fine on my own, thank you.”
“You’re older than my granddad was when he died,” says Simon. “Who are you going to pass your secrets onto?”
Bernard pulls off his wig and places it on a bust that sits on his dressing table. “I’ll take them with me. Now, I’m tired and I have a long drive. So, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Give me a chance to amaze you!”
The boy sighs. As he walks towards the door, he reaches into his pocket and throws something into the air. There is a flash, and a small thunderclap that makes Bernard’s heart crumple in his chest. The boy is gone. The only sign that he was ever in the room is a faint smell of ozone.
“That was a bit harsh,” says the dove.
Bernard opens the cage door and the dove hops onto the back of his hand. He throws the bird fluttering into the centre of the room where, in the span of a heartbeat, its legs grow to the floor, its feathers shrink to nothing and its wings become arms with long-fingered hands. The woman who now stands where the dove had been grabs a silk gown from the dressing-room door and wraps it around herself.
“It’s freezing,” she says. “It wasn’t so long ago we were playing theatres with heated dressing-rooms.”
“Here,” says Bernard, and he throws a pair of pink slippers at her feet.
“That boy might have been able to teach you some things,” says the woman, stepping into the slippers. She sits in front of the dresser and ties back her blonde hair.
“We don’t need to be taught by some street artist. We are in the magic business.”
“I am in the magic business,” says the woman. “You are in showbusiness. Or were. You were barely conscious out there tonight.”
“You’re right,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’ll do better. I’m tired is all.”
“I think you’ve forgotten why I do this,” says the woman.
“I wonder -” he starts. Then he stops and stands behind her in his grey underpants, staring at her in the mirror. If anything, she looks younger than she did on the day she came to him. The primetime years, Las Vegas, the piers and the clubs. None of it has left a mark on her, while the weight of all the days of their long career together seems to have dragged the skin away from his bones.
“Yes?” she says.
“I wonder if we could take a break. Just a month or two. Just long enough for me to find my energy again.”
She slides herself away from the dresser and pats her lap: “Sit here.”
“If I thought it would help – if I thought that a rest was what you really wanted – I would tell you to take as much time as you need.” She cradles his face in her hands. “You’re not just tired, Bernard. You’re slow. You’re arrogant. You’re finished. When you pulled my head off tonight, you did it wrong. I wasn’t ready.”
“I’ll do better,” he says, his voice cracking.
She slides her fingers through his thin hair, across the back of his head. Her thumbs come to rest on his jawline. He feels her thumbnails press into the soft flesh of his neck. The tips of her fingers break the skin of his scalp. Warm blood runs down his back.
“It really hurts when you do it wrong.”
In a single room on the first floor of a suburban house, the boy, Simon, sits on his bed, false-shuffling a deck, when he realises that the intermittent tapping he can hear at the window is not rain or hail, but something else. He pulls back the curtains. A white dove paces the windowsill.
He opens the window, there is a rush of cold air and a scent of lavender as something big and magical sweeps past him, over the bed and into the room. Fifty-two cards scatter across the floor.