2015 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Joint Fourth Place



The Magician's Prestige by Chris Botha


 

Time stood still.

A cliché often overused.

But, as always, the darkest of moments felt like an eternity.

It had been a time coming. A long time in fact, and I suppose that had made the agony all the more worse; the knowing and the waiting.

But when it had come, guilty relief had followed.

To be relieved was to be human. To feel guilt was to be a son.

None-the-less here I was.

And time? There it was. Just standing there.

Standing still.

 
Twelve hours prior and the day had started like any other.

Nothing unusual. Nothing upset in the ways of daily routine.

But, as with a passing, things will always change.

The office phone had buzzed shortly before 12.15 pm, and a moody woman’s voice had barked out.

‘Jim, caller on line 6. Says it’s urgent, something about your father. I didn’t catch the rest’.

Not even a sorry on her part. She didn’t care. The receptionist got paid peanuts and in my mind that was probably too much.

‘Thanks’, I said and hung up on her. Couldn’t waste manners on the manner-less.

I clicked line six and a friendly, professional voice piped on the phone.

‘Hi Jim, Karen here. How you going? Listen, it’s about your father…’ her voice trailed off. As a nurse she was one of the cheerful with a strong sense of professionalism. But even in her tones I had noticed a waver soon after “hi”.

‘Yes…?’ I asked, allowing my voice to trail in return. If I didn’t I would have started to choke. She didn’t need to continue; I knew I needed to visit.

But she elaborated anyway, with a short statement that appropriated the urgency of the situation.

‘I think you should come down to Blakemore, soon as you possibly can. I’m not sure how much longer he can last…’.

Five minutes later I was in the car park. Another five and I was bustling through the lunchtime traffic.

Blakemore wasn’t far from my firm, which was a blessing during the lunch time rush. I had often shot down on my own accord, without the advice of the registered nurse, to visit my ailing father during a break.

Being summoned however… that was a first.

I parked my European luxury in a slot marked ‘visitor’, the parking metre directly in front. It bewildered me how little the hospital exterior had changed, how the years had seemed timeless. The same metres I now put money in were the exact same dad had fed when we had come to visit my mother all those years ago.

 

***
 

The 80’s hadn’t been good for our small family, and after a short battle with cancer my mother had made it even smaller. The visits during those years were dark and filled with uncertainty. I had only been seven at the time, my sister four.

It had been horrible pulling up in the car park, unsure if this was the last time. Or maybe it was next time? We never knew. My penniless father scrounging in the ashtray for a few cents to feed the metre, and each time we came, the scrounging became even more futile. Quite often there was nothing and he ended up taking his chances, holding my small hand while carrying my sister, smiling and cheering us up regardless.

‘Mom will be alright’, he often said to us, kissing our cheeks on those lonely nights, ‘She will, don’t you worry’.

It had quite often stilled my sister’s nightly tears, my dad’s kind-hearted lies. She couldn’t understand why mom wasn’t at home, why she couldn’t kiss her goodnight.

As I used to lie in the darkness of my room, blanket pulled up over my ears, I used to hear his soft voice float down the hall, hear him flip out his old silver coin and whisper in her ear, head softly against the pillow.

‘Now you see it’, he would say. He would then lean up and clap his hands together. ‘Now you don’t!’ It was gone. Coin disappeared. Pièce disparu.

It had always amazed her, calmed her nerves. Her eyes would light up as she was caught in belief and forgot her worries.

Having a magician for a father, at times, could be magic.

He was good too, used to have solid reputation and sold out shows. But, like all good things, that changed after mom died. He changed. Bills piled up and debt collectors came. His shows went from sold out to unsold, managers came and went, and his tricks got more and more mundane. Towards the end of his career, just before I moved out to law school, he was nothing more than a birthday party magician, his regular tricks slipping up and fooling no one but the school children.

During those early years I had struggled, walking down these cold and polished halls, to understand.

My father. He was magic. He could do anything. I had seen it often in the past. I used to listen as hundred plus crowds gasped in amazement as he disappeared in plain sight, scream as he sawed his assistants in half, and laugh as passed fire out his rear.

On one particular hospital visit to see mom I couldn’t stand it anymore. I tugged on his shirt, the question burning me up. The question I just needed to understand. He had bent down, my sister cradled in one arm and looked level at me.

‘Yes, Jimmy? You ok, my boy?’ he had asked. I noted that his eyes had started to become dark and sunken, quite often bloodshot. He probably thought he was quiet, really discrete late at nights, but I often heard him crying into his pillow.

‘Couldn’t you do it? I thought you could do anything…’ I had asked him, hands clasped and scuffing my shoes across the bleach-polished tiles.

He shifted my sister across to the other hip, her weight getting heavy on his angled knee. He had looked exhausted.

‘Do what, son?’ he had asked, eyebrows raised.

‘You know…bring your hat and things down here, to the hospital. Maybe then you could… make mom’s too-mer disappear too?’

My father’s brow sunk and his eyes started to glisten. His lip trembled, but he forced a smile. My sister sucked on her fingers, little eyes darting from father to brother. He stood up quickly again, rubbing my hair, but not before I noticed a lone tear trickling down his cheek.

‘My boy, some tricks... .’ He had shaken his head, smile faltering slightly.


 

***
 

A nurse greeted me at the front desk, the same nurse I met every time. Not Karen, but another friendly one. She was still an intern, but she was keen and good at her job.

‘Hey Jim,’ she waved at me, ‘Your father is in room sixteen today. Strange... it was at his request.’

Sixteen, I thought. Appropriate.

Mom had been in 17, directly opposite the hall. Nothing strange about it.

 I nodded and forced a smile, choking on the lump in my throat.

The smell of bleach was still the same, but the beeps had become quieter. Technology had changed and evolved. But even with modern technology some conditions were just incurable, some tragedies repeatable.
I stopped outside the door to seventeen, wondering if I should call my sister. She was out of town on business last I heard, and wouldn’t be back until next week. I decided not to. She shouldn’t worry. Especially over what we could not control.

I opened the door and stepped inside.

‘Hi Dad.’

The frail husk of a man turned his head towards me. He resembled a corpse. His cancer-ravaged body had no meat, his hands were just bone and his hair had all but fallen out. As I looked on, I even saw long grey tufts of it stuck to his pillow.

It brought back memories. My eyes started welling up as old wounds tore open; Mom had been the same. The only difference had been the type. Dad had lung cancer, mom had liver. Neither smoked, neither drank. Dad even refused to use smoke during his shows for fear of affecting his audience. Ironic.

‘Hey Jimmy, how’re you my b-,’ he broke into a wretched cough, bony fist up against his mouth. I rushed over to him, and he waved me down. This was his routine. He reached over and plucked a tissue off the bedside table, wiping his hand and throwing it in the bin beside him, the blood-soaked tissue joining the others.

‘Fine Dad, just fine’, I reached over and gave him a hug, his bony shoulder stabbing me in the chest.

‘Sue many people lately?’ he chuckled, fighting back another coughing bout. I smiled back, shaking my head. He believed lawyers only lived to sue.

He nodded back, squinting one eye at me.

‘Glad you came, Jim. I’m sorry my boy, but… you remember all this, don’t you?’

I once again nodded. Every time I saw dad, the knife twisted. A sick déjà vu. How could I ever forget? It was mom all over again.

It had been this very room the doctor had stepped into with my dad for a private discussion, leaving my sister and I seated in the hall. Through the glass panel I had watched as the doctor spoke. He comforted Dad by grabbing his shoulder when he broke down in a sob. He had semi-recovered, the doctor giving him a handful of tissues, when he came outside to collect us kids. The newest family of three.

‘Why are you crying Daddy?’ my sister had asked, her little hands hugging him around the neck. He had shaken his head as he took my hand.

‘Come you two, we should be going home now. Tell me, what shall we have for dinner? Your pick.’ My sister had squealed in delight at the prospect of takeaways.

‘Is mommy coming home too?’ she had asked as we got in the car.

‘No, my –…No… my girl, mommy is sleeping,’ he had said to her, looking at us in the rear-view mirror.

‘When will she wake up…?’ she had asked innocently.

My dad had lowered his façade. Couldn’t lie anymore.

‘She won’t.’

I looked at that man now. The man who had lost everything but his two children. His fame. His career. His wife. His life.

The man who I remember had argued with social services on our doorstep when they attempted to take us away, forcefully shutting the door on them. Taken on meaningless second jobs, with even worse pay, so we could afford to keep the house. Debt collectors became a regular sight.

He had forfeit his magic tours, cancelled his sold out shows, so he could be there to take us to school. A man who had never remarried. A man who had given me and my sister everything. A man who had nothing to show.

I now held his hand between my own.

He looked up at me with weak, tired eyes.

‘Want to see a magic…. trick?’ he gasped, every breath causing him agony.

‘Sure, Dad.’

He pulled the coin out of his pocket. It was his one tie in, the thing which had distracted us kids during a very dark time. He had it on him. Always.

He forced a weak smile at me, closing his eyes.

‘Now…you see…it...’ his voice trailed off as his hand clasped the coin, blocking it from my sight.

His hand went limp in mine, fingers trailing the edge of the bedspread. The time had come.

I bent down and kissed him on the forehead.

Love you lots, dad, more than you know, I thought. We wouldn’t have made it through life without you.

‘Now you don’t…’ I finished for him.

The coin rolled out from his clenched palm and into mine.

In the same hospital twenty years later, I once more started to cry.



 



 

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