Spoiler warning, if that’s the right word: this post gives away the ending of some of York magician Craig Stephenson‘s tricks.
I’m doing an internship at a magazine at the moment. The people I work with are great, the work’s interesting (usually – yesterday was spent helping distribute heavy boxes of the new edition – with my name credited in it! – rather than writing, and today my arms feel like they’ve been crushed by a boa constrictor), and it’s a really cool place to work. The staff have fortnightly yoga sessions, and sometimes order pizza. I get to review exhibitions, with a free guided tour, and plays, with plus one press tickets. There’s little balcony outside the office where I can sit and eat my lunch among the potted plants, on a level with the rooftop if I ever wanted to climb on it. On Wednesday someone set up a hammock on the balcony, and I ate my lunch in there, and the little dog who also lives in the office climbed in with me and licked my face. And today a magician dropped by to do magic tricks for us.
I came in from my lunch on the balcony to find a strange man sitting at the table with the magazine staff and the other intern, who was doodling on a playing card in marker pen. When I came in, the magician asked if I wanted to draw on it too. I made a bad and smudgy shape that was supposed to be a butterfly. He took the card and put it back in the pack.
He said he had a wand, but one that wasn’t like other wands. He took out a blue towel and carefully unwrapped it until he uncovered a small hammer, and a block of ice.
He gave both of them to the other intern. She smashed the ice. Fragments flew all over the floor, trailing melted water in their wake. Inside the block was the card, with our doodles on it.
While we were still reeling from that, he started his next trick, which required two books. One was what seemed to be an old African travel book, which was lying about the office, and I offered Linda Mannheim’s excellent new book Above Sugar Hill, which I was reading at lunchtime because I’m hopefully going to be paid some money to review it. The point is, one book was obscure and one was very new, so it’s unlikely that he’d read or heard of them previously.
He flicked through Above Sugar Hill, telling me to tell him when to stop. When I did, he told me to open the African book at the correspondingly numbered page, and memorise the first sentence. I did so – it was about bees.
He told me to concentrate on communicating that sentence to him with my mind. So I did, chanting it in my head again and again, as hard as I could, like you do when you’re trying to memorise a poem. He stared into my eyes across the table. I wondered if my thoughts were beaming across to him like a radio signal, or if he was outright stepping inside my head. Part of me was reminding myself that I definitely do not believe in anything supernatural, including mind reading, and part of me was wondering if you can feel it happening to you. I began to get a shiver in the pit of my stomach. He scribbled something on a piece of paper with the same marker pen.
Then he said he was sorry, but he couldn’t get what I was thinking very clearly. I actually apologised.
“You said you do theatre reviews?” he said. “Maybe it’s because theatre, it’s very visual, so you don’t think in words.”
“I do, actually!” I was slightly offended. “The whole point of reviewing is to communicate what you think of a play in words!”
“Well, this is all I’ve got.” He held up the piece of paper, with a drawing of a bee on it.
“But the sentence was about bees!” I exclaimed, and he looked surprised. The others ooed and ahed.
We swapped the books around. He leafed through the African book as before, and found page 83. The same page in Above Sugar Hill began mid-sentence:
someone street-looking and scrappy, baseball cap and Bronx walk and B-Boy clothes, who says to the man in the driver’s seat, Just a minute, man. I’ll just be a minute. I just gotta get something.
Confused and flustered, I decided I should go for the first full sentence on the page, and that the dialogue counted as a separate sentence. I felt bad about my inability to telepathically communicate before, so now I stared into the magician’s eyes, and pictured myself typing the words, watching them appear on a white Microsoft document (incidentally, it’s a sign of the times we live in that I now picture a computer when I think of writing, rather than a pen and paper): Just a minute, man, I’ll just be a minute, I just gotta get something. I felt guilty about the grammatical heresy of turning full stops into commas for the sake of a longer – and, hopefully, for while I wanted to have my mind read, and be amazed, another part of me wanted to test him and see him fail – more difficult sentence.
“Sorry,” he said, “I still can’t hear anything. Your mind must be very complex. I was getting all sorts of confused thoughts – about fashion, and geography.” (I dropped geography as soon as I could at school, and buy all my clothes on sale in Next. These are two topics I almost never think about, and certainly not at that moment.) “What was the sentence?”
“Just a minute, man, I’ll – “
“Right, I was way off. All I could get was a baseball bat on the Bronx.” He showed us the piece of paper, with those words written on it.
“Well – there was something on the same page, about a baseball cap –“
“Really!” He looked genuinely surprised. “That’s amazing!”
It really was. I couldn’t see how he’d done it. I kept on wondering how. I do know that nothing he did was really magical, that it was all a trick, but it was a benign and incredibly clever trick, such that I couldn’t begin to work out what had happened. I never know whether it’s best, with magic – or anything else that seeks to be amaze you, which is perhaps pretty much everything – to just accept the wonder on the surface, or to strip it off and try to take a look at the gears turning underneath, and try to understand.
So, here are some cruel, cynical thoughts that occurred to me after the magician had left:
- The whole bumbling ‘I’m terribly sorry, I’m not reading your mind as clearly as I always can, it’s so complex’ act made the fact that he could read minds at all, was used to doing so, seem so obvious that it wasn’t worth convincing us it was true, and worked quite well to undermine all our usual cynicism that such a thing was possible.
- I took another look at the drawing of the bee (he took the markers with him because ‘they’re expensive’ but left the paper – there’s a photo included with this post) and thought that on second glance it looked more like a generic smiley-faced creature, which, in the speedy glimpse of it that was all he’d allowed, by a good-natured audience who wanted to be fooled and were primed to expect bees, looked like a bee. But if he’d seen the book was about Africa, it was a good guess there were some animals written about it in there, and a drawing that could have stood in for any of them would perhaps be read, Rorschach test style, as whatever the audience wanted to see.
- I remembered that he did ask at the beginning, when I produced my book for his trick, “Oh, what’s it about?”
“It’s a short story collection set in New York.”
“Good – literary writing is better than academic. I mean, I’m sure it’s very academic in its own way, but literary writing is better.”
So he could have picked on ‘baseball bat’ and ‘the Bronx’ as generic American and New York things, and taken the chance that they were in the sentence I’d read, or that we’d take something similar as proof that he’d read my mind – which we did, because baseball bat, baseball cap, close enough, right? But it was still quite a bluff – I don’t think he could have heard of the book, and it could equally have contained stories set in the Upper East Side from my description. Those exact words appear almost nowhere else in the book. If nothing else, it’s the coincidence that’s still sending shivers reverberating down my spine, hours later.
And I’m happy to still have no smart-aleck guesses whatsoever about how that card ended up in that block of ice.