Sleight of Hand By Tracy Fells

MagicThe parcel waited, sullen and brooding, on the hall window seat where I’d let it sulk all day. I flinched as Jake let the wind snatch the front door to slam shut, cracking like a starting pistol. He bounded through to the kitchen tossing the package on to the breakfast bar towards me.
“Why haven’t you opened this yet, Mum?”
I shrugged. “Because I know what it is.”
Thankfully the interrogation stopped there, as Jake was already heading out with a packet of crisps and a fizzy drink. I called out the obligatory maternal plea: “Don’t ruin your tea!” The parcel was wrapped in brown paper with a handwritten address. Tracing my name on the paper I decided to leave its contents contained for a little longer. Instead I picked some flowers from the garden, an occupation that never failed to calm me.
The roses, flushed pink like geishas, dripped from the earlier rain shower. Ignoring their flirtatious blushes, knowing that once plucked they wantonly shed their petals at the slightest glance; I headed for the Michaelmas daisies, Granddad’s favourites, wide-eyed and welcoming.


Nan had been the head gardener of our family. Granddad didn’t know the proper names of plants, but he recognised daisies and would help me select the most cheerful, then stand well back as I snipped at their stems with Nan’s kitchen scissors. That summer holiday over thirty years ago, the year of the drought, I spent a lot of time with Granddad.
“We can take these into Mummy,” Granddad chatted as I gathered together my fresh flowers, “would you like that Alison?”
“When’s Mummy coming home?” I asked this question daily.
His answer was a constant. “Mummy needs to stay in hospital a bit longer.” Grandad lifted up his round glasses to wipe under his eyes. The sun seemed to blaze right above us like the giant golden ball from a child’s drawing.
“Can’t you do some magic and bring her home soon?”
Granddad had dabbled as an amateur conjurer. He’d perfected a series of card tricks, could make shiny fifty-pence pieces appear from behind grubby ears and developed quite a repertoire of other illusions using only his hands. But that sweltering summer I believed my Granddad was a magician, a weaver of spells, and that he would bring my mother home.
He pushed a hand through snow-white hair, sighing. “Well, there is a spell we could try, but I’d need your help.”
In this memory Granddad was tall with sun-browned arms, had thick hair that shone like satin, and yellow tipped fingers stained from rolling his own cigarettes. He must have started his retirement that summer, as he was with me every day without fail.
I nodded and spoke in a serious grown-up voice, “I can help you, Granddad”.
“Good girl. The flowers are a start and important to the execution of the spell. You must choose only the prettiest, fullest blooms.” Again I nodded, it all made perfect sense to me. He tugged out a green one-pound note from his trouser back pocket. “This is my contribution to the spell. Now I just need you to fetch the final ingredient.”
I bounced on heels scrunching bare toes into the scorched grass. “What do you need?”
Granddad’s caterpillar eyebrows bristled, arching into a frown. “Are you sure about this, Ali? This is a powerful spell. And sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.”  His warning didn’t make any sense. What harm could come of wishing my mother home again? She’d been at the hospital for weeks, months possibly.
He crouched down. “What is the most powerful piece on the chess board?”
Each evening after tea Granddad had been teaching me to play chess. Setting up the board on the dining room table, while Nan pottered in the kitchen clanking dishes. I knew all the pieces by name; learned their special moves and we’d started playing proper games.
“The White Queen,” I said with confidence, proud of my new knowledge.
“You must wrap her in this.” Granddad held out the crumpled green note. “Then you must hide her. Find a safe, secret place and tuck her away safely.” Granddad straightened up again, almost blocking out the sun.

    Dutifully, I followed his instructions. Retrieved the ivory queen, smelling of lemon polish, from her wooden box and fixed the one-pound note around her with an elastic band. I thought carefully about her hiding place and chose my jewellery box with the dancing ballerina tucked inside. With the lid open the pink ballerina sprang up onto her satin points, to pirouette as the twinkling music played on. I placed the chess piece beside the rabbit’s foot with its single claw on the crimson base of the box, believing that even Granddad’s spell could use some extra luck.
The next morning I sprang out of bed, before Nan called me down for breakfast, to check on the white queen. Overnight the pond-green one-pound had transformed into a crisp new five-pound note. Granddad’s magic was already working.
We didn’t take the daisies into Mum, there was no longer any need. Granddad said I could spend the money on whatever I wanted, but I can’t remember the treat I chose, if any.

***

The last time I visited Granddad at the nursing home I took in daisies with mauve petals, propping the vase on the bedside cabinet. He’d been blind for several years, so the flowers were primarily for the staff’s benefit – visible proof of a visitor. A breeze tangy with salt blew in through the open window, barely masking the background scent of disinfectant. Between the redbrick houses I could pick out the slate grey hue of the sea, vanishing into the darkening sky.
A variety of strokes and seizures had assaulted his declining body. He couldn’t get out of bed without the help of two care assistants and spent most of the daylight hours drifting in and out of sleep. Wisps of snowy white hair still clung to his pink scalp. Eileen, the only helper I knew by name, peered around the door. “Still dozing?” Her uniform was stained, dark spots splattered the pale blue cotton stretched taut across her lopsided bust.
“He hasn’t woken since I arrived,” I replied. The weariness in my voice betrayed my fear.
She spoke gently, as if I were still a child. “When he wakes he’ll need a drink. There’s a jug of water outside on the trolley, pet. Call for me if you need any help.” She meant well, but I was quite capable of giving my Granddad a drink of water. “How old is your grandfather?” Eileen continued. “Ninety odd?”
“Ninety-six.”
Her shoulders wobbled as she chuckled. “Bless him. We all love old Billy. Never moans or curses and when he’s awake he always has a joke to share. Still got-” Eileen tapped a plump finger against her head. “-All his marbles too.”
I sat for another hour with hands in my lap straining to listen for Granddad’s shallow breaths as they faded in and out, drowning beneath the occasional shriek of wheeling gulls. He woke just after four o’clock, in time for me to help him sip the milky, tepid tea that Eileen had brought. I propped him up as best I could and then perched on the bed, as close to him as possible, hoping nobody would catch me. ‘Granddad, I’m going to try some magic,” I whispered to him.
“Magic you say,” he croaked, a hint of a tease flashed in his bleary eyes.
“A spell you once taught me. I’ve brought daisies and here is the most powerful piece on the chessboard.” I pressed the White Queen into his hand. Long ago I’d lost the hand-carved pieces we used to play with and had borrowed the queen from Jake’s plastic set.
With both hands Granddad explored the chess piece. “What about payment?” he mumbled. “Spell won’t work without the appropriate offering.”
He couldn’t see it but I flicked a ten-pound note. “I’ve brought cash, and allowing for inflation in the magical universe here’s a tenner.” Reverently I wrapped the note around the White Queen.
Granddad nodded. “Perfect. But, Ali.” His papery fingers flexed on the lemon counterpane. “Be careful what you wish for.”
The top drawer of the cabinet contained Granddad’s socks, neatly balled. I slipped the chess piece inside a pair of plain brown socks, where I hoped she’d be safely hidden.
“Sorry love,” his voice seemed to echo from a long way off, “I’m very tired. Need to sleep.”
I leant to kiss his cheek, “That’s okay, Granddad.”
“Don’t waste that tenner on me, Ali. Take Jason down the prom for an ice cream.”
On autopilot, with thoughts already elsewhere, I corrected him. “It’s Jake, Granddad.”
Granddad’s eyes were closing down. He drifted back into the past. I sat and watched him sleep for another hour before I left. The mistake over Jake’s name burrowed into my head; sinking deeper towards the core like one of those probes they push through the earth. As it finally reached that blistering hot summer again warm tears snaked down my cheeks.

***

Granddad had stayed to help me slip each daisy into the silver holes. I tried not to stand on the dark, damp earth, scared of pushing my feet through. We were alone at the grave. Powerful magic indeed, our spell had worked too well. Mum came home the very next day after I’d hidden the White Queen in the music box. There was no longer any need for her to stay at the hospital. Fully immersed in the memory I squinted to focus on the name chiselled into fresh white marble.
Jason
Beloved son
Brother to Alison

My little brother Jason had died in hospital. A virus weakened his heart and he never came home again. The pain of his death had been unbearable, so I had chosen not to bear it. I chose instead to bury his memory so deep I’d almost forgotten his brief existence.
As a mother of a teenage son I understood the power of distraction. Distracting a fear filled little girl had been the real purpose of Granddad’s magic that summer, and it had worked.
Now the magic worked again. The power of the White Queen brought Granddad home to us. He passed away in his sleep some hours after I left the nursing home. We sprinkled his ashes amongst the beaming daisies in our garden.
Back inside the house Jake returned to the kitchen. He handed the parcel to me, urging softly. “Go on, Mum, you have to open it.”
The nursing home had collated Granddad’s last few possessions and posted them back to us. An oddly shaped ball of brown socks rolled from the paper. I laughed nervously, remembering my feeble attempt at magic. My laugh fell into giggles as I unwrapped the White Queen from a twenty-pound note. “How did you do that Granddad?” I squealed. “Could you really do magic after all?”
There was something else under the money. A stiff, square photograph with a wide white border and muted colours, as if someone has turned down the volume. I swallowed my giggles and gasped. I’m grinning out of the picture, gripping a trug basket laden with daffodils and painted eggs. My other hand holds the tiny fingers of my little brother. With spiky hair, yellow as ice cream, he looks as if he’s about to tumble backwards on toddling legs.
On the back of the photograph was beautiful looped writing in grey ink. Granddad’s handwriting: A & J (Easter ’76). I had never seen this photograph before. I didn’t know my family had kept any photographs of Jason. I assumed they’d conspired with my memories to keep him hidden. Granddad was the last link with my past, as Mum, Dad and Nan never saw the millennium. Up in the attic I’ve stashed Mum and Dad’s old papers, stuffed into several tea crates. Later, I promised myself, I would take Jake up there and together we could sort through them, in case there were any more lost photographs to resurrect.
Jake peered at the photograph. “Is that you, Mum?” I nodded, chewing my lip. “Who’s the little boy?”
Taking a long, deep breath I replied, “My little brother Jason. He died when I was eight years old. Would you like to hear about him?”
Jake made two mugs of tea and we took them out into the garden. We sat on damp grass, knees touching. The daisies drooped towards us, like white-haired ladies bowing to eavesdrop on their neighbours’ conversation as I began to tell my son about magic, Jason and the long, hot summer of the drought, when I first learned how to play chess.

***

About the Author

Correction: This post originally credited the author as ‘Tracey Fells’ as opposed to the correct name of ‘Tracy Fells’.

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