New Writing In Various Forms, edited by Michael Blackburn

The Review is now on permanent sabbatical.

Many thanks to those who contributed.

The rest, as the man said, is silence.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

The Vanishing Trick - Short Story by Neil Grimmett

We picked this quiet, out-of-the-way pub for a drink and a moment to ourselves; maybe also for a final taste of the area. The place is so dark we have to stop and allow our eyes to adjust. It must be the normal thing, because the old lady behind the bar watches the two of us blinking and swaying without stopping drying the glass in her hand or changing her expression of boredom. There are four men and a blonde woman at the bar. The men are seated and do not bother to notice us; the blonde is standing at one end and I catch her look before she turns away. She carries on a loud conversation with the barmaid, which is obviously meant for the men, and now us, as is the short skirt and high boots.

We buy two pints of lager and move to a corner table which at least has a semblance of natural light gracing its cigarette-burned surface. Larry tries to pour some of the beer onto his wound. He looks pathetic. "Is it bad?" I ask.

"Still too numb to tell," he mumbles.

I had to drive him to an emergency dental appointment or we wouldn’t have been passing this dump in the first place. His teeth have been decaying for years. Eat more fruit, I used to tell him. It was what my father always told me. Too late now, I guess, like so many things. Though at least my teeth have stayed strong.

I see one of the men at the bar staring over at us. He is slightly built, with badly cut, short black hair and a mean expression. I imagine he’s noticed the way Larry is performing with the beer - treating it like a mouthwash - and is just curious; or possibly he’s taking offence, spoiling for a fight. The blonde has given up her performance and is lolling against the bar scratching herself as though there is no one else present. The walls have running brown stains and the low ceiling sags and flakes. "Welcome home," I feel like saying. "Welcome fucking back!"

We used to live in this ‘dirty old town’ years ago, though this would never have been one of our haunts. You would not have caught us dead in a place like this; we were the local heroes: the best band in the whole area. If you wanted to find us off stage you had to seek out the ‘hot spot’ - wherever that might have been. Because I seem to recall these locations used to change, mysteriously and suddenly, leaving behind those unwilling to accept that it had occurred. Larry always said that it had something to do with the nearby beach and its treacherous landscape of ever-shifting mudbanks. "The mud dance," he called it, and liked to imagine that we took the lead - always stepping out of the morass before the wallowing began.

The man, who has continued staring, slides his way towards us. I see the blonde half wake-up and try to cling to his skinny arm in its shiny, Oxfam jacket as he passes her. She pleads for something and he spills coins onto the bar before shaking her off and whispering a few words that make her straighten and turn to look. He moves to our little table. "I know you two," he says. "My name is Ric; we were at school together. You might not remember, but I do."

I don't recognize him, and feel certain there was never anyone called Ric from back then. Larry’s up before the man has hardly finished speaking.

"I knew it was you,” he says, “as soon as we walked in.” He embraces Ric for too long. "Just been to the dentist," he tells him, opening his mouth and pointing in as though it’s the most important thing in the world.

Ric sits down at our table and keeps grinning at me. "My wife," he says as the blonde shifts herself in front of a fruit-machine close to us and begins to feed in the coins.

"Congratulations," says Larry without noticeably looking over at her. “A real stunner.”

Now it is true that I am not very good at names. And even worse, I sometimes get them wrong and then persist in calling the person what I first chose, often for years. Most people think it's deliberate and done for affect - so I get away with it. Truth is, I have no memory of certain things that have happened in my life. No names, maps, or descriptions that could give colour or adornment to anywhere or anyone. Instead, I have a series of untitled photographic plates of actions locked behind my eyes. Usually slipping or stumbled exits, quick vicious snatchings and blows, the soothing touch brushed away. And I have a mind full of recorded echoes, a whole soundbite library of pleas and tears, beggings and apologies, the crying out for another chance or one more deliberate put-down. What does someone's name or the colour of a sofa cushion matter anyway?

Larry insists that he can remember everyone and everything. But on what level? I always ask myself. And for what gain?

"Ric," he is now spieling, "it must be over twenty years."

"Twenty-five since I last spoke to you," says Ric. "Twenty-five years since we all walked out of the same school. It was another five before you two left here for good. And still everybody talks about you. Now you just stroll in here as if it were only yesterday. I can hardly believe it."

"Look," I interrupt, "were we in the same class or something?" I don't really want to say anything but I can see that Larry is beginning to feel pain because he is now covering his face with both hands and sagging onto the table. "It’s just that I’m having trouble placing you, exactly."

Then Ric's wife hits the jackpot and the machine starts coughing up coins like it’s rehearsing a death scene for the local drama society. Ric leaps out of his chair and goes straight at her and they begin fighting over the prize. He scoops a generous handful of coins out of the opening and she does the same. As they try for more their hands meet. I see her long thin nails claw into him and he crushes her hand - hard and slow - so that hidden within her grasp those gold tokens must indent their congratulations in a fading red calligraphy. She slaps him across the neck and they entangle. The machine rocks to their rhythm and keeps on regurgitating its bounty. The men at the bar continue drinking without bothering to take a look; the barmaid carries on shining the same empty glass as when we entered. I cannot help noticing that the blonde has weals and bruises around the tops of her thighs and she is wearing the brightest yellow knickers.

"What did you go and say that for?" Larry asks me through his fingers as they continue to tango. "You can never allow anyone their dignity, can you? This is our past; this place, these people were all important. Nothing or no one exists without purpose and meaning. You are someone who has never really belonged anywhere. Now you have got them fighting."

"I don’t know who he is," I state truthfully. "Or what the blue fucking yonder you are going on about. Yesterday, you stated that the whole place was a shit hole and everyone in it was drained worse than you remembered." I could go on and say again whose over-ambition created the void we now live in, and that it was only his guilt over something from our past that has brought us back at all. But I know too well where that trail leads and how it never ends, so I let it go. Larry picks up his glass and tries to drink some beer as if it might be the last he ever gets. Instead, the fighting couple crash into his back. The glass thumps against his tingling lips and spills down his front. He groans. For a moment, I see the familiar darkness enter his eyes as he looks around, searching, I imagine, for the usually present road crew that would normally, by now, be dragging this character outside for a good beating. Ric and his wife stop and stare in fear at him.

"Sorry, mate," says Ric. "I'll get you another. And one for Kenny," looking at me and getting my name right. He stands there for a second watching his wife who is now crawling around on all fours picking up the spilled coins. I can read it in his eyes that he would just love to kick her tight, skinny, little yellow butt right out of sight. He fetches drinks, including one for her, and sits down.

"I heard that you were still living in America," he says. “Though there hasn’t been a record for a time.”

"We are," I say.

"There is one due shortly," Larry says. “It will be something different and we know our fans will think it’s been worth waiting for.”

They could have knocked the rest of his teeth out and he’d still have managed to spit that bit of bullshit out with the fragments.

I ignore him. "We just came over for a funeral," I tell Ric. "One of our oldest friends passed away…" and before I get the chance to say his name or anymore, Ric blurts it out.

"Paul," he says. "Poor Paul; so young."

Larry raises his glass and both of them drink a bitter and slow toast to the memory.

"I didn't see you at the funeral," I say. "I know it was crowded but I'd definitely have spotted you and your wife."

Paul's funeral had lined and stretched along the gray streets towards the dismal seafront where even the clouds seemed unusually sombre. There had only been a handful of close friends and family allowed in the church, but outside in the cemetery every morbid eye had been glaring. Mostly, I felt, at us. I had looked into their blank hungry faces as we’d trailed the pallbearers. I might have seen every one of them before, or never.

"We were stood just outside the church wall," Ric says. "It was as close as we could get. I said to Judith," he nods at his wife still hoovering up the floor, " That’s Larry and Kenny who used to be in the group with Paul."

"That's right," Larry has to add. "The Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all..."

Judith gets to her feet and joins us at the table, shoving and shifting until she is virtually on top of Larry. She has a tatty black handbag stuffed full of her prize and is clutching it between her perky little breasts as Larry ogles her.

"You two are famous," she says after draining her glass and shoving it to Ric for refilling. “We have all your records. You are really great.”

Larry never gets tired of this stuff. And it does not matter who comes out with it any longer, if it ever did. Everyone is equally qualified so long as they know the shibboleth (Larry’s name) and keep intoning it. In return, they will be granted the comfort of never hearing a contradiction or one syllable of fact about anything that may damage their dreams. Anyway, he could no more utter a truth like that than grow another tooth for the one he's just had yanked out.

"Famous," Larry agrees, "but not so rich as you today." He fondles her bag of money with a genuine affection. She is smiling in triumph at her husband; he is smiling in some sort of misguided pride at Larry's attention. I have seen this sort of thing so many times before, dressed up in every mask, that it hardly registers. I can tell by his claw-like hand and hooded eyes that if his mouth were up to it he would have her out in the car and spend a good hour shagging himself limp, while I made small talk with her husband. And she is fully aware of the fact.

"Are all those stories I've heard about you true?" she teases. "Were you really that bad?"

"Worse," Larry exclaims, and a blast of anesthetic settles over the table.

"And I have only told you the half of it," says Ric. "Some of the things that these two used to get up to I still wouldn't dare tell."

"With you and Paul," she questions. "You’ve said lots of times that you and Paul were part of it."

Ric looks awkward and guilty and they are both silent waiting for Larry to confirm or deny. He’s lost interest and is probing inside his mouth with one of his fingers, which he then withdraws to stare at and sniff before having another go.

"So what do you do nowadays, Ric?" I ask, trying at least to divert them from watching Larry’s disgusting display too closely.

"He's a magician," says Judith.

"Part-time," Ric adds. "Just setting out really; a new start. You have to learn to adapt these days if you want to survive. Well, you know that I was always the one for doing tricks, so I decided to go for it."

"So much talent," says Larry. "That's what I always recognized. Everyone of us had so much to offer. You, Paul, all of us winners in our own way."

"Especially Paul," I say, taking this chance to remind him.

"I could never understand Paul not staying with you," says Ric. "He was so lost and lonely after you went - walking up and down the street with his guitar case like he was always going somewhere himself. It was a bit of a joke, really. Even though he had the one hit."

Larry doesn't even flinch. "Tell them," I want to say, "how you sacked him. Or rather, as usual, how you got me to do it; me, breaking the news to him that he would not be coming with us after all."

"We never lost touch," says Larry. "We wrote most months. I was always listening out for him. I actually helped him on that song."

That much is true. Larry never lets go of anything or anyone. 'You can't win a prize if you don't buy a few tickets,' one of his great philosophies. It was me that Paul decided never to speak to again and blamed for abandoning him. The one who’d refused to dress up the truth in a load of flowery promises, letting him know instead the real reasons behind his being cut out of the group: mainly, the fact he was never going to become the ‘yes’ man Larry wanted and that his refusal to accept compromises were not part of the great future.

"He did a couple of shows with his new band," Ric tells us, "in the old club where you used to play. Hardly anyone bothered to turn up. It was quite sad. We thought he sounded great, though, and told him so."

Larry manages to look heartbroken for a second then begins to gargle again.

"I am going to be his assistant," says Judith. "I've got a little purple dress covered in sequins. I'm going to wear black fishnets and gold boots."

"Stunning," Larry exclaims, glad for the chance to re-inter Paul. "I would sure love to see you in that." Then, looking at Ric, "And your show, of course: rabbits out of thin air, sawing the lovely Jude in half, vanishing up your rope trick and all those magical illusions."

"It's mostly card tricks and sleight-of-hand," Ric explains.

"He rips up a lot of paper," Judith adds.

"Actually," says Ric, "I’m doing a show tonight, a short spot at the local British Legion Club."

"You could come," says Judith. "And see me in my outfit."

I see her shoulder move and know that her little hand is getting busy under the table.

"We'd love to," says Larry. "We’ll be a fair but critical audience, won’t we, Kenny?"

I give them my famous ‘coat hanger’ smile.

Ric looks stunned. I can see his mind working faster than his wife's boney and coin-stained fingers.

"I would really appreciate that," Ric says, it would mean so much to hear what you had to say; how far you think I could go. If there was any chance of...well, you know."

"Sure," Larry gasps.

Judith rushes off to the ladies keeping her back to her husband and almost skipping.

"She's pleased," I say. "Gone to slip into her stage gear, perhaps, and give us all a sneak preview. Or maybe she spilled her drink."

Ric looks at me as if he has suddenly remembered something nasty about me that he’d been hoping to forget. Larry looks as if he’s in pain again. He finishes the last of his beer with a slow swirl in his mouth. Ric immediately offers to fetch him another.

"No," says Larry. "We have to get going now. We'll have one tonight before the show. That is a promise."

Ric shakes my hand, "See you later," he says formally, then throws his arms around Larry. The men at the bar carry on sipping the flat-looking murk in their glasses and the barmaid has turned the empty one into a diamond that fills her eyes with its gleam.

As we are halfway across the car park the door to the pub swings open and Judith stands looking out. She has been putting on some make- up and tidying her hair. Her disappointment is clear. I see the smile fade and her mouth open as if trying to find something to offer. Ric comes out and, as I watch in the car mirror, he tries to place a hand on her shoulder. She shrugs him off, flicks her hair and fills the mirror with her form. I can see that she knows what is going to happen but stays proud and defiant, dismissing us as we truly deserve. Larry keeps his head down and dabs away with the huge wad of cotton-wool the dentist gave him.

Then he begins flicking away with his tongue into a space that is unfamiliar and his mind still insists is full of tooth. A bit like, I guess, trying to scratch a limb after it has been amputated, or praying that the dead hear regrets, or that ghosts would turn up to see you perform magic.

Neil Grimmett has had over fifty short stories published in the UK, Australia, South Africa, Singapore, India, and the USA, where he has appeared in Fiction, The Yale Review, DoubleTake, and The Southern Review. He has appeared online in Blackbird, Tatlin's Tower, Web Del Sol, In Posse Review, m.a.g., Word Riot, Blue Moon Review, 3AM, Gangway, segue, Eclectica and others, and he has made the storySouth Million Writers Notable Short Story list for the last two years. In addition, he has won the Write On poetry award, the Oppenheim John Downes Award three times, and two major British Arts Council bursaries. He is a member of the US branch of PEN, and his first novel, The Bestowing Sun, came out last year to strong reviews

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