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The Houdini Girl (Martyn Bedford)


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  The most important skill in a magician's repertoire? Misdirection. Without it, even the most adept sleight of hand or ingenious mechanical device will not create the illusion of 'real' magic. Conversely, with its aid the simplest method can be used to concoct a semblance of the miraculous. There are two essential elements to misdirection: first, divert attention away from the methodology--the secret--of an illusion; second, divert attention towards some point or aspect which seems crucial but isn't. The purpose is to militate against the spectator's faculties of observation, not against his understanding. Most people are familiar with the concept of misdirection in magic. Don't look at the hand that is active, watch the one apparently idle by the conjuror's side . . . Even so, a good illusionist will not only 'manage' the audience's gaze, but use their knowledge against them in a subtle series of visual bluffs and double bluffs.

Misdirection is another tactic common to illusionist and liar. The adulterous wife, for instance, caught in the act of talking on the phone to her lover, will ascribe her evident discomposure to her husband's sudden appearance. God, you made me jump! (If he asks who she was speaking to, she might deploy the 'honesty principle'--Oh, it was my lover--in the hope she will not be believed.) There's a stage illusion which incorporates both misdirection and the honesty principle. I display two large boxes, to demonstrate that they are empty, then 'nest' the bigger of the two over the other. The Lovely Kim bursts theatrically through the top as iffrom nowhere. Cue applause. The audience is now invited to imagine they are backstage, viewing from the rear as I repeat the same illusion to a fictitious audience portrayed on a painted backdrop which has been lowered. The premise is that the real audience is to be allowed the rare privilege of witnessing how a 'trick' is done. I follow the same procedure as before, displaying the first box to the make-believe spectators, then setting it back down. As I go over to the second box alongside it, Kim, by means of secret panels, sneaks out of this box and enters the first, in full view of the real audience but concealed from the pretend one. Once again, I nest the boxes. There is an air of amused enlightenment mingled with dissatisfaction as the spectators discover how disappointingly unmagical the methodology is. This, however, is transformed into astonishment as the top bursts open to reveal ... not Kim, but a male stage assistant. Kim has vanished.

The Backstage Illusion featured in my (so far) unique television appearance, as one ofthe finalists in a national contest for up-andcoming conjurors on the club and cabaret circuit. 'Up-and-coming' meaning under thirty; I snuck in with a few months to spare. I came third. My supporters in the studio audience were Rosa, Paul Fievre, Taaffe and his wife, Dympna and John. Paul obtained a recording of the broadcast for me, which contains the only action footage I have of Rosa.

For a week or so after she died I couldn't tolerate the thought of going through the scores of photographs of her, and of us, that filled two albums. Those prints pinned to the corkboard in the kitchen or displayed in clip-frames, I took down. But, coming across her passport photo among the items in her bag jolted my obsession into reverse, from total avoidance to compulsive gorging. I couldn't get enough of her. Within hours I'd festooned every room with all the pictures I could find, so that wherever I went I was accompanied by Rosa. Rosa laughing, Rosa pulling a face, Rosa riding her bike--Look, no hands--on the tow-path, Rosa and me kissing, Rosa's hair blowing in the wind, Rosa tossing a pancake, Rosa and Dympna drinking cocktails, Rosa hugging Merlin, Rosa dancing, Rosa in her dressing-gown, Rosa in bed with flu, Rosa naked through a translucent shower curtain, Rosa cooking, Rosa gardening, Rosa and me on a fairground ride, Rosa applying burgundy eyeshadow, Rosa crosslegged on the floor ripping open Christmas presents, Rosa smoking a cigarette. The one of her gardening, caught by surprise while pruning roses, was the last I took before she died. I didn't know it then, but I was already losing her.

It was during this phase of photo addiction that I looked out the video cassette. I slotted it into the machine, fast-forwarded to the appropriate sequence and watched it over and over. Rosa was in shot for only a few seconds, as the camera panned slowly across a section of the audience. My supporters, clapping enthusiastically. Rosa has her left thumb and middle finger in her mouth and you can make out a high-pitched wolf-whistle above the general applause. Still in shot, she lowers her hand and leans to say something into the ear of the woman sitting beside her, Dympna. Rosa can be seen from the chest up. She is wearing a bright lemon-coloured cotton shirt made silky by the studio lights, her hair is up and unnaturally black, her eyes and lips are daubed with streaks of yellow. Her ear-rings and bangles emit chips of reflection. Her lips are slightly parted. It is Rosa, and it is not Rosa, just some strange woman captured fleetingly on the telly--anyone's lover, daughter, sister, friend. Happy, crappy. She could've been an actress planted in the audience to make out she was having the time of her life; only if you know her can you tell this extremity of emotion isn't faked. After replaying the scene several times, I freeze-framed it with Rosa in centre-shot. She is captured fractionally out of focus. Fuzzy at the edges, the colours of her are bleeding. She's open-mouthed. She might be talking or about to sneeze, a moist tip of tongue discernible between parted teeth. Staring at her in that frozen moment, I was reminded of a head-and-shoulders picture, flashed up behind a newscaster, of the victim of some awful crime or accident. Always, in these snapshots or home-video stills, the person appears by their expression--their eyes--to be in prescient anticipation of death, as though the portrait captures an essence of impending tragedy in its subject. I wondered if it was me, with hindsight, reading something that wasn't there. Or Rosa, like all of us, containing at all times the blueprint of mortality. Every photograph of a person is the photograph of a person who will one day die. I released the freeze-frame, allowing Rosa to become animated again. She laughed, gave another wolf-whistle, then the camera cut to Peter Prestige and The Lovely Kim, on stage, bowing.

Kim phoned to ask how I was coping. Her word: coping. She also asked, less directly, when I was likely to resume work. I said I didn't have any idea. I offered an assurance, unsolicited, that she'd continue to be paid her retainer. Red, it's not me I'm thinking of, it's you. Maybe you need to . . . I thanked her. If there was anything she could do--absolutely anything at all--I was to let her know. I thanked her again and hung up.

Kim possesses a flair for misdirection far exceeding the customary requirements of a magician's assistant. With her participation, I have been able to introduce more effects--and more elaborate ones, at that--into my act; it is, to quote Paul, as though there are two illusionists on stage. As I stared at the telephone, its cradled receiver still resinous with unevaporated condensation from my touch, I suppressed an urge to call her back. Instead, I phoned Dympna. It was the day after my visit to her bedsit; I'd come away burdened by so many unanswered questions that my resolve to respect her reticence gave way. I had to know what she knew. She hadn't told lies, but she had lied by concealment, by evasion. Don't tell any one anything about me. How many of us had been similarly primed? I was sure Dympna had also lied by misdirection, though with no great finesse. Her hostility towards me after so many months of, albeit shared, friendship had been in the guise of loyalty to her true friend, Rosa. Antagonism bolstered by suspicion. Even if she didn't know the reason why Rosa was leaving me, she had the fact of this desertion as a basis for her distrust. But I'd spied something else in her manner--not just anger or wariness or disdain, but fear. Reflecting on our meeting, I came to the interpretation that Dympna was literally afraid to talk to me. I rang her. Not to confront her, nor to rake over the previous day's conversation, but to pose a question I'd neglected to ask.

'Dymp, was Rosa seeing someone else?'

'No!'

'Be honest with me.'

'Red, she wasn't.'

'Was she ever? While she was with me, I mean?'

'No.'

I paused. 'OK.'

'She'd have told me if she was.'

'Yeah.'

'Red.'

'Yeah, I'm sorry, Dymp. I just . . . I needed to know.'

I told her the police had taken away the things she'd been asked by Rosa to collect. I'd been given a copy of an itemized receipt which they got me to sign; everything would be returned in due course along with those contents of her shoulder-bag which were no longer required for investigative purposes. They didn't take any of the photographs, though DI Strudwick had been visibly startled by the sight of so many of them about the house. Dympna sounded surprised too, when I informed her of what I'd done. She also softened towards me, I could tell. A little, but not enough.

I believed her when she said she didn't think Rosa was being unfaithful to me. Which isn't the same as saying I believed in Rosa's fidelity. There were so many puzzles surrounding her death, but one thing I did understand was that Rosa had been leading a double life of which I knew nothing. I've heard it said that when two lovers meet for the first time they have a subliminal premonition of what it is between them that will, ultimately, cause their division. With Rosa, I sensed from the outset it would be sex. She was so sexual, I couldn't believe I'd be enough for her. She had been so ready to fuck me, I couldn't believe myself to be the last man in her life to be so readily fucked. Even before she died, even before I began to decipher the mystery with which she'd enclosed half her life, I'd grown convinced that she was concealing something from me. And that something was the fact that I was in the throes of losing her to someone else. I tried to explain some of this on the phone to Dympna. The softness left her voice. Jesus, Red, Rosa's been killed and all you can think about is whether she was sleeping around. She didn't say 'Rosa's dead,' she said 'Rosa's been killed.' Her exact words: Rosa's been killed.

'Why, Dymp?'

'Why what?'

'Why was she killed?'

'I didn't say...I didn't mean killed. Look, don't twist...'

I began to interrupt, but there was a click and the line went dead.

 
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Use of this excerpt from The Houdini Girl by Martyn Bedford may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1998 by Martyn Bedford. All rights reserved.