Art Pact 93


My mother was an actress first, a magician second. Although her stage act (The Mystical Nora) was billed as a magic show, it was considered to be something else by the other magicians that we came across on our tours. The Incredible Jones, for instance, sitting in the audience and paying more attention to the props than to my mother's spiel, pointed out to me that he had learnt every single trick in her show at the age of ten and that a most stage magicians would have been ashamed to be showing off such simple gimmicks to the crowd.

"There's nothing past a bit of card-forcing and some false-bottomed bags, see?" he said. I was not sure if he realised who he was talking to. He'd seen me backstage earlier on, when I'd been watching his own act from the wings, but I doubt he'd connected the spindly, unprepossessing young boy to the voluptuous Nora who swept around backstage like a tropical storm of drama and lust. "Mind you," he admitted, "the punters are lapping it up."

It was true - although my mother's tricks were of the cheapest variety you could purchase in any magic shop, her special genius was that she had spent a great deal of time (the time the other prestidigitators would have spent refining the tricks and adding twists that would distinguish them from their professional rivals) perfecting her stage presence, the intangible quality which could keep an audience mesmerised through even the most trite card trick.

"The secret," she'd once confided to me in her cups, forgetting that I was too young to talk to about these things (as she maintained when sober). "is to make people look where you want them to look, not where the trick is happening. Men are easy. As long as you have a low-enough top, they can't see anything to the left or right of your chest. Women are trickier, but quick movements distract them, and they'll believe anything you say. Ha!"

I had trouble accepting that - after all, my mother seemed to regard anything I said to her with intense skepticism, even the most innocuous of statements. If I told her that someone was waiting for her at the stage door, she would look at me as if I was asking her to believe that the king had flown over the theatre on a broomstick. If I let her know that dinner was ready she would be five minutes in coming, then act surprised that I had been telling the truth about such a simple matter.

"The reason is," she said, leaning forward conspiratorially so that her ample chest seemed poised to tumble free of the dress it had been barely contained in, "is that all our lives we're told to be nice. Nice! Listen, my boy, my baby, if you meet a nice girl, run a mile. Nice people have to agree with each other, to spare their feelings. That's all very well in day-to-day life, but when a girl's been taught to be nice to people, she gets it so in her head that she can't ever get rid of it. You tell her that the card isn't up your sleeve she'll agree, even if she watched you put it there. Worse, she won't just agree, she'll believe it. You can't rely on someone like that."

I do not know, all these years later, quite what to make of it. My first girlfriend, and my second, were both nice girls of the sort that my mother had so vehemently disapproved of that night. But she seemed to like them at the time, and she was polite and supportive and not the kind of domineering control-freak that her colleagues had warned me she would be. Was she talking rubbish that night, or was in a case of in vino veritas, and the later politeness merely the studied actress's mask?

She certainly seemed to practise what she preached in her own relationships. Her magnetic personality being even stronger than her undoubted bodily charms, she had no lack of suitors, but long-term relationships seemed to elude her (if indeed she was searching for one, upon which matter I could not honestly hazard a guess). Her penchant for honest disagreement, for pointing to cards that were held up her lover's sleeves even when they had told her that their sleeves were empty, did not apparently endear her to them. So through my early teenage years my mother kept no boyfriend for a period of longer than a few weeks before driving him, exasperated, to call the whole thing off. She did not seem unhappy, though. For her, it seemed, better to tell the truth and risk losing the man than lie and keep him.

I did not realise for close to a decade that she applied the opposite doctrine to her son.

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