They used to laugh about it before they went on. It was their warm-up and lucky routine.
She’d be contorting herself in some corner near the plug socket, coaxing her hair to twice its volume with a hot wand, and he’d take his wand out of its case and with a white, black, white wave over his baldness, command, ‘Abracadabra, give me a full head of curls.’
She’d wait a couple of beats before saying, ‘Not working, love. You tried putting a plug on it?’
She hadn’t minded how scruffy the dressing rooms were, although she didn’t like it so much when they had to share with other acts. Some of the men … well … you wouldn’t take your coat off in front of them. She kept hoping he’d tell everyone to get lost for half an hour while she changed, but it was always her heading to the loo with her frock and tiara.
‘You’ve been getting sawn in half for five years,’ he’d say. ‘How hard can it be to wrestle yourself into a dress in the toilet cubicle?’
Those were the glory days – she understands that now. She was in love with him and with standing on a stage and waiting for the curtains to draw back. She felt drunk on the sound of the applause; hugged by the warm lights.
She could read the signs of a shiny, bright future in the way the rhinestones on her bodice sparkled; how he seemed broader and taller in his suit.
‘Did you see that audience?’ he’d say, as they came off stage. ‘Had them in the palm of my hand – open mouthed, eyes out on stalks. And that ‘Ooh’ when I chopped open the apple and the diamond ring fell out. We can go all the way, I’m telling you. All the way.’
She didn’t mention the teenagers who looked bored; the old guy having a kip at the back of the stalls.
Now and again, she’d ask if she could do a couple of the tricks herself; she knew them well enough.
‘It’ll just confuse the punters,’ he said. ‘Let me do the magic. You do the pretty.’
Most of the time she didn’t mind. She loved to watch his hands when he was working; the graceful flourishes and spins. The shuffles and mis-direction. Funny really, because at home anything that called for dexterity, he struggled with – painting the skirting board without getting gloss on the wall; knocking in a nail.
Touching her exactly how she liked to be touched.
On stage though, like a fish in water or a bird in the sky, he was in his element. A Master of Illusion.
Rope tricks, coins pulled from amazed ears, levitation, the lady sawn in half, and, for the climax, two doves conjured out of a burning pan.
He loved those doves. He’d coax them from their cage to perch on his finger. Blew gently on their breast feathers. Insisted on feeding them by hand.
‘If I was the jealous type …’ she’d say and pretend it was a joke because it was easier than thinking about how hard he could be on her if she missed a cue, or put on a few extra pounds.
The venues got smaller and the digs, shoddier. Their names slid down the bill. They were beaten in TV-inspired talent shows by young kids with unreliable voices, but tear-inducing back stories.
One night they went on before a troupe of male strippers and he came off stage fuming at the stuff the women had shouted at him.
‘It’s just a bit of fun,’ she said in the dressing room and he pushed her so hard she stumbled and turned her ankle. In A&E he entertained the nurses by pulling cotton wool balls from their ears.
She went back to working full-time and he diversified into children’s parties. Gave it up after their own kids were born because he didn’t have the patience – it was only a matter of time before a birthday boy or girl got backhanded.
She realised it was curtain down, lights out when she found the dove cage out in the wheelie bin.
‘Where are the doves?’ she’d asked, but he didn’t answer.
Now she’s the one conjuring up illusions.
She holds his hand when they are out together. Smiles at her mother and tells her everything is fine.
Pulls the wand from the tube of concealer and dabs it on her bruises. Makes them disappear before the kids wake up.
An unusual take on the waning of love and the ugliness of domestic violence, conveyed using lucid language and a skilfully conceived voice. The setting is beautifully balanced, with delicious detail serving to heighten the plight of the main character.Catherine McNamara
Illusions and performance jostle against the crashing reality of domestic violence. Well wrought and realised.Adam Lowe
Trajectory of an abusive relationship well evoked and the deterioration delicately done. Characters and situation come across fully. Pace and interest kept up, and the psychology sound.Dr Clare Morgan