Even his breath is stuck, frozen by what he sees.
The boy cannot move. The rod seems to seep its rigidity through flesh right into his veins.
One pendulum is all that moves. Impossibly autonomous, it swings from the rod in his hands. Back and forth, back and forth. The other two - one on either side - hang still. The boy looks for extra hidden threads. There are none.
“Now the one nearest the door,” says the magician.
The pendulum in the centre slows to a halt. The end one starts to move. Is this man doing magic? Real magic?
The boy has seen miracles before; sick people healed, the unsick speaking in tongues. But that’s all over, and anyway he has spoken in tongues himself. It felt like cheating.
He was never let near anything like this before. Trickery was the tool of the devil, he was told, and he is still feeling shocked that a church organisation would allow a magician to entertain its children.
“Thank you,” says the magician, and he nods at the swinging weight. It stops, just as it started, all by itself. The boy holds the rod, is apparently in charge, but he knows it was not he that made the ropes swing.
The man turns away to his audience. “My name is Gandalf,” he says. “Gandalf the Great. Because I am a man of great wisdom, great age, and great magic. But nobody believes in magic. It’s for babies, isn’t it?”
“Do you believe in magic?” says Gandalf the Great.
All the children shout, apart from one. The boy has been chosen by Gandalf, picked out from the rest and invited onto this stage, this makeshift space amongst bales of straw. In his head, the boy is already The Magician’s Assistant.
“Is this boy magic?” says Gandalf.
“No!” say the children.
The boy is suddenly aware of his heart. He thought it had stopped, but it thumps right now like a rabbit’s foot, beating a warning that something, something is happening.
The magician puts his head on one side, places his hands on the boy’s shoulders and stares at him.
The boy’s throat is dry.
“Are you sure?” says Gandalf. “Look at his aura.” He turns to the other children. “If you focus, you’ll see it. Look at his nose... that’s it ... keep looking ... Now, stare at his forehead... and what do you see round his head?”
“Wow!” they say.
Has he been taken by the devil? Is this what it feels like, to be possessed?
He is terrified.
The magician reaches out to take the rod. The boy’s hands are still locked by wooden veins, as though he were an extension of the rod itself. But as the man’s hands touch his, the boy’s limbs are fluid again - and the pendulums are taken away.
So now he can look at this Gandalf, this smiling magician in a rundown shed, this jobbing playscheme entertainer who wears an old black cloak and smiles right into the boy’s left eye (his right is shut; he is squinting to see), and he knows there is no evil here.
This is good. This is magic, and real, and it has to be good.
The boy’s face will not stop grinning.
Gandalf is facing the audience now. “What about you? How strong are your minds? Can you make these pendulums move?”
There’s a shaking of heads and some murmur, “No.”
“Try,” says the magician.
The boy lets out an involuntary squeal of excitement, but Gandalf waves a hand in his face. “Not you,” he says. “Not yet.”
The boy twists his body about and can’t keep still. He wants to try too.
“Focus on this one in the middle,” says Gandalf to the other children. “Try your best.”
They stare hard at the rod in Gandalf’s hand. Their faces are red. Nothing happens.
“Your go,” says Gandalf, turning to the boy, who has barely begun thinking when one pendulum, with no apparent intervention from the man who holds them, starts to swing. The boy jumps back slightly.
He did it.
Gandalf smiles. “I thought so,” he says.
The boy wipes his sweat-stuck hands on his trousers.
“Choose another one,” says Gandalf. “Don’t tell me which.”
The boy stares hard at the one nearest the window and it moves, instantly.
There is a gasp, from the boy’s own mouth or the seated children; he can’t tell.
“You have talent,” says Gandalf, kneeling down. Very close, he warms the boy’s face as he nearly whispers, “Let’s try something special.”
The man has a blindfold, and is wrapping it around his own head.
The boy has an army of ants, marching under his skin.
“Lift your hands,” says Gandalf. “Raise them as I raise mine. Think of the tiny threads which join us. Ancient links, drawing us close. Now concentrate, and move your hands. Make mine follow. Just like the pendulums, you can make me move.”
The blindfold is black, and thick. Gandalf can’t see.
The boy moves his hands, and watches the magician for an answering movement. Any minute now...
As the giggling begins from the audience, the boy waves his hands frantically above his head as though trying to catch Gandalf’s attention. But the magician remains motionless - a frown on his face - and the children at their feet are now breathless with laughter.
The boy is already retreating, his cheeks scorched hot with the heat of defeat, when Gandalf calls him back.
“Boy,” he says. “Come here.”
The boy shambles softly to his side, embarrassed and ashamed.
“Your shoes,” says the man. “Are you wearing trainers?”
The boy nods, forgetting the old man’s temporary blindness.
“I can’t hear you.”
“Yes,” says the boy.
“Take them off, and try again.”
The boy has smelly feet, and the children are still laughing but he does as he’s told. And now...
And now, he’s waving his hands...
And so is Gandalf.
Slowly their limbs drift through the air, in tandem as though they were one.
Everything the boy does, the man does too. The boy tries moving further, out to one side, up above, full of amazement at the power he holds, giggles of delight escaping unnoticed from his own lips as he moves faster and faster until suddenly...
Gandalf pulls away, with a twang like a snapped rubber band.
The bond is broken, and the boy’s palms are tingling. The magician removes his blindfold.
“And now we swap,” he says.
The boy looks warily at the strip of cloth.
“You don’t need this,” says Gandalf. “Relax. Let your hands hover. Feel how they tingle and float, then let them be pulled by mine.”
Despite what he’s seen so far, the boy is doubtful.
But his hands are no longer his.
“They’re moving,” he says. “All by themselves, I’m not doing anything!”
Gandalf describes circles, lines and spiral loops, and the boy is bewitched by his own hands. He can barely feel them move; they are like puppets’ limbs.
Finally Gandalf stops, with the same faint snap as before, and they lower their arms.
“That’s enough,” says the magician. “Well done. Sit down.”
The boy is dazed, and stumbles as he leaves the stage.
“Give him a round of applause.”
The children are clapping as the boy sits down, and Gandalf’s eyes are radiating approval.
A wizard. A genuine wizard, who can really do magic, and so can the boy.
He gazes happily, at twinkling eyes below a cone black cardboard hat.
Kind eyes, grandfather eyes.
The boy doesn’t have a grandad.
He wishes he did.
Henrietta wishes for an empty lift. Her wish is granted, which is just as well. She hates sharing boxes with strangers.
She is propping Patrick’s viola between her feet and leaning back with a sigh, when she sees the woman outside. But the doors are closing, so she’s safe. Or she would be, if the woman didn’t prise herself in with the tip of her umbrella.
The woman is in her thirties, oddly-dressed, breathing too loudly and smelling of garlic. “Phew,” she says, looking straight at Henrietta, who fails to avoid eye contact. “Nearly missed it.”
Henrietta looks at the floor.
Some people can make casual conversation without feeling as though their insides are dissolving in battery acid, but not Henrietta. She’s afraid. Of unexpected contact and other people’s smiles.
She says nothing.
“Where are you going?” says the woman, her Lancashire accent soft with polite dilution, but harsh with rude intent.
Henrietta stays silent.
“Are you a magician?” says the woman.
Henrietta twitches and frowns, but doesn’t raise her head.
“Haha, no, I’m always doing that,” says the woman. “It’s my boyfriend. He’s a magician, you see. But no, what I meant to say was, are you a musician?”
They’ve arrived at track level. Henrietta barges past the woman and out onto the platform.
“You are in a hurry. I was only asking...”
Henrietta hurries away.
She shouldn’t feel guilty. She’s done nothing wrong. Why does she feel so awful? It’s not fair.
On the train, she carries the viola awkwardly as she looks for a seat. Several heads, shoulders, knees and toes are at risk, but people pull them in when they hear her huffing. So when she sees two hands sticking out into the aisle, she huffs a little louder and assumes they’ll disappear. They don’t. She clears her throat instead.
They belong to two men sitting opposite each other, who are waving their arms in some kind of odd synchronised semaphore. Two limbs pointing straight up, and two barring Henrietta’s way.
“Excuse me,” she says.
The man facing her smiles. He lifts the offending arm over his head. His companion follows suit in perfect reflection, his eyes fixed in a trancelike gaze. Henrietta frowns and moves on.
There’s a spare table near the door of the next carriage. Its neighbours are also empty. Good. She removes some estate agents’ papers and places them on the surface in front of her. She adjusts them slightly, their bottom edges aligned and parallel with the table. With a pen either side and a bottle of water dead centre above, the effect should be complete. But her throat is constricting as she takes in the subtly tapered shape of the table. Her symmetry is reflecting in the wrong axis, and everything is tilted to one side.
She shifts everything to line up with the aisle-side table edge instead. But the space above and below is not equal, and if she adjusts her things accordingly she’ll no longer be able to reach them comfortably. And the bottle. It’s laughing at her now, highlighting her symmetrical errors. It could go on one side instead of at the top of the sheet of paper, but it would get in the way of one of her pens and create an unsatisfactory weighting of objects on the right hand side.
She wants to balance the bottle on her head, its pressure drilling down into her core and keeping her balanced, but she can’t do that either.
She puts it back in the bag. She takes a sheet of paper and places it on the other side of the table. She puts both pens in the middle of the table, one either side of an imaginary dividing line. It would appear that she now has an imaginary friend, working opposite, but that’s no bad thing. It might deter invaders.
And now she can look outside, where the red majesty of Mancunian brick lifts her shoulders tall. A dignified city.
She isn’t sitting by the window. She never does, she can’t. The heat and the light would fall on one side only and age her unevenly, creating a banana-like curl in her core.
If she could, she’d sit on the floor in the aisle.
If she had a car she would want to sit between the two front seats and drive down the middle of the road. It would all be too uneven. But in her previous life cars were not allowed, and traffic scares her silly. It goes too fast.
It’s a shame about the people though. Trains are so full of people.
There’s one of them now, standing next to her. She doesn’t look up but she can feel them, watching, too close. She waits as long as she can bear, but the person doesn’t move. She turns to look, and finds the woman from the lift.
That whole episode was bad enough, but to have ended up on the same train? What are the odds? Of course, it would depend how many trains there were, how frequent, how many were about to leave, how many passengers arrive early for their trains... but once you nailed all the variables, converted them into constants... a relatively simple sum...
The woman from the lift wears a red skirt - long and full and clashing with both her bushy auburn hair and the stripy hat which holds it down. In her hands she carries an enormous bag, which she clutches in front of her as though restraining a recalcitrant child.
“Hello!” she says, her eyes radiating mischief along crow’s-foot lines.
Henrietta is terrified. “Can I help you?” she says.
The woman recoils. “Yes miss, sorry to bother you miss.”
Henrietta feels guilty again. The woman gestures at the papers. “Moving house?”
Henrietta covers them with one arm and then feels silly. “Well, I...”
The woman’s smile brims with either saintliness or evil. She leans in close, making Henrietta grimace at the proximity of their two female bodies, the other one stinking of sweat.
“I’m so nosy,” says the woman. “It’s terrible.”
And now she’s moving Patrick’s viola and sitting opposite, putting her bag down on Henrietta’s table, on her papers, in her way.
Henrietta has to move her arm and sit back. She’s never seen a carpet bag before. She’s never even wondered what one might be, but it’s a bag made from carpet between them both now. Over its top is the woman’s eye, winking. Henrietta looks down into her lap and refuses to raise her head. The front of her neck is contracted, the rear taut. She wants to bend it back the other way. She wants to move the bag and straighten her papers. The woman sends out waves of discomfort like a too-hot sun, and Henrietta sweats.
It’s a Monday in mid July. After only one year of hunching nightly over her computer on a bare-legged council estate, she’s saved enough for a good solid house. She’s heading there now, to a shiny new future. She has the summer for settling in, then her new job - with a reputable IT firm - starts at the beginning of September.
But this woman is shoving the bag to one side, disturbing Henrietta’s papers, leaning forward and slapping the back of Henrietta’s hand while saying “Now now, don’t be shy, people should talk to each other when they can, shouldn’t they?”
Henrietta raises her head, her enraged look the one which would reduce dear Patrick to a quivering jelly and have him disarmed in an instant. But with this combination of a slap, a crazy smile and an odour of incense... somehow this woman takes the bite from Henrietta’s teeth before she can even speak.
“I’m with The Spirit, you know,” she says, leaning in with her many smells and smiling a manic smile.
“Oh,” says Henrietta.
She doesn’t understand, and she doesn’t want to.
She tries to resist, but she can’t. She has to tidy the table. She pulls the sheets of A4 free, pushes the bag towards the window. She has to lean over to retrieve the paper from the other side. The woman sits back with an expression of mock surprise and Henrietta breathes heavily. She will pretend the rest of the table doesn’t exist. She will create an island of symmetry. She taps the papers together with smart little raps before placing them carefully, and straightening the pens. She breathes a little easier.
“I’m Tawny,” says the woman. “Who are you?”
“What were you doing in Manchester?”
Henrietta looks over at Patrick’s viola, which she has just had restrung, but she has no intention of telling this woman her business.
“You look very clever,” says Tawny. “I bet you’re clever. What do you do?”
“I really don’t think it’s any …”
Tawny cuts in. “Oh well, never mind. I’m a sex counsellor myself.”
Henrietta blushes. She can’t imagine wanting to do such a job, never mind announce it with no sign of embarrassment to a stranger on a train.
“Do you have anyone?” says Tawny, staring her in the eye. “Anyone at home?”
Henrietta feels accused, as though she has to defend herself.
“I’ve got Patrick,” she says.
“Oh, lovely,” says Tawny. “Where is he now?”
“Out. In the countryside.”
“And you weren’t invited?”
Henrietta feels slightly sick.
“Sorry,” says Tawny. “Ignore me. I can be a bit idiotic sometimes. You, though... You’re someone who would always get things right. Yes. You’re very intelligent, I can tell.”
Henrietta blushes again.
“In fact,” continues Tawny, “you seem just the right sort of... No, I shouldn’t.”
“You could have hidden talents... No, I’ve said enough.”
“Well,” says Tawny. “The human race is evolving. We don’t need our bodies so much any more, but our minds are different. If you use your brain on a daily basis...” She looks at Henrietta expectantly.
“Do you?” says Tawny.
She can’t ignore a direct question. And she’s proud of her career, pleased with her new job. “Yes,” she says. “I’m a software engineer. I design and implement complex IT systems. It’s very… brain intensive.”
Tawny looks thoughtful, and Henrietta holds her breath. Despite herself, she’s intrigued.
Finally Tawny speaks. “If you’re focused enough, you can make people move...” She pauses, changing her voice to a whisper. “...with only the power of your mind.”
Tawny is raising one hand in the air. Without thinking Henrietta raises her own, and Tawny smiles.
“You’re already connected,” she says. “You know what to do.”
Tawny wiggles her fingers slightly. “You can feel the tingling, can’t you?”
It’s true, she can.
“Now,” says Tawny. “Imagine tiny threads that join us together. Concentrate hard, and then start moving your hand. If you have the talent, mine will follow.”
She knows it’s ridiculous. She doesn’t want anything to do with this woman, but Henrietta finds herself moving slowly to the right.
“Yes,” says Tawny. “You can do it.” Her hand is moving too, in perfect synchronisation.
Henrietta describes a circle, as does Tawny. She tries a figure of eight. Tawny follows, and Henrietta smiles. It feels good.
But then she blinks, moving outside herself and the situation. This is silly. Tawny is just copying her. So she jerks her hand sharply up, but Tawny’s is pulled along too. And then Tawny speaks. Her eyes are wide, and Henrietta can see sweat on her brow. “It’s a little scary,” she says. “Maybe we should...”
Tawny’s awe reflects Henrietta’s own shock, and her doubts disappear. “It’s OK,” she says. “It’s fine. It feels... right. Can we try a little more?”
“OK,” says Tawny.
As Henrietta’s confidence increases, the movements become faster and more complicated, but remain together. It’s mesmerising, and Henrietta doesn’t want to stop. It’s like playing an instrument.
After a while, Tawny laughs and pulls her hand quickly towards her as though snapping it free from its bonds. Henrietta feels a sharp tug, and then lowers her own arm disappointedly.
“How did that feel?” says Tawny.
“Um. Surprising,” says Henrietta. “Rather incredible.”
“You’re talented,” says Tawny. “I knew you would be.”
“But... I mean, how...?”
Tawny raises a finger to her lips. “I’ll answer all your questions. But first... well, no, maybe not.”
“What? What is it?”
“The next stage. It’s a bit soon, but... you’ve done the hard part. Reception should be trivial for someone like you.”
“Reception?” says Henrietta. Her voice is breathy and awed, and she blushes.
“We turn it around,” says Tawny. “I transmit and you receive.”
“You can do it too?” Henrietta is disappointed.
“Yes, but I didn’t pick it up so quickly,” says Tawny.
Henrietta knows she is clever, that her brain is capable of more than most. Why not this?
“Shall we give it a go?” says Tawny.
“You just need to focus on the force between us,” says Tawny. “Imagine me pulling you along. And remember...”
“People only stare because they’re impressed.”
A woman across the aisle - the neighbouring tables have filled up - looks sharply away. But Henrietta feels the kind of excitement she used to in class, waiting for her A++. When she knows she can shine, she’s happy to have an audience.
“Shut everything out,” says Tawny. “Feel my influence and feel your hand. Happy, warm and light.”
Henrietta has seen it work. She believes in it now. She feels good. Tawny begins very slowly, and at first Henrietta is unsure. But with apparently no input from her, her hand starts to move.
It’s wonderful. It seems... like something familiar, but she can’t think what. There’s euphoria, and a feeling of connection as together they execute the strange slow movements. Henrietta is barely aware of time passing or of anything else - only that she is disappointed when Tawny stops and the dance ends.
“Wow,” says Henrietta.
Tawny looks her in the eye, and the discomfort starts to return.
Henrietta shakes her head.
“So,” she says. “What... I mean, how... What is this? I mean, what have we been doing?”
“Well...” says Tawny, and she reaches into a pocket, removing a small paperback with a shiny cover and the title, ‘That Book’.
“What we’ve been doing, it’s called Psychic Dancing. It’s about people connecting, tapping into the positive power of The Spirit and using it to heal each other.”
“The Spirit?” says Henrietta.
“Some people regard it as deeply religious.”
Henrietta snatches her hands and places them out of sight on her lap, as though using the table-top to shield herself from malignant rays. “I thought this was about intelligence.” She realises now what she was reminded of, and she’s scared.
“Intelligence, spirituality, whatever,” says Tawny. “They’re the same thing.”
“Rubbish,” says Henrietta. Now that the strange trance is broken, she’s disoriented. The dance changed Tawny from disconcerting crazy-lady to reassuring presence, but now Henrietta finds her more upsetting than ever.
“Hey, fear is a natural reaction. But you’ve found something incredible. Open up.”
How had Henrietta not spotted it before? The eyes. The look. Even the turn of phrase. Henrietta’s been here before, and she’s not going back. Trickery and brainwashing, all of it. “I’d rather be closed, thank you.”
Tawny shrugs. “OK.”
Henrietta stares out of the window. The view is bleak. The grass on the embankment is more dead than alive, and the few buildings that loom into sight are grey featureless boxes. But she snaps her head back when Tawny leans over and grabs a sheet of paper.
“Hebden Bridge,” says Tawny. “Factory Close. Is it a good property? I’ve heard...”
Not only is Tawny interfering with private property, she has knocked a pen out of line.
“It’s none of your business.”
“But it’s such a co...”
What Henrietta does next is so inappropriate and yet so deeply ingrained from daily interactions with Patrick that she doesn’t even pause to think. She places a finger to her lips and looks hard into Tawny’s eyes.
“Shh,” she says.
“No. Be quiet. That’s enough.”
She snatches the paper back, biting hard on her lip in a furious attempt to quell her blushes. The train is slowing to a stop.
“Have you considered anger management?” says Tawny.
Henrietta checks the name of the station. Hebden Bridge, finally.
“This is my stop,” she says, picking her things up and moving out into the aisle. “I have to leave.”
But why is Tawny rising too? And coming closer?
Henrietta has a trigger, a force field. When her defences are penetrated a string is pulled tight through all her joints, and nothing will bend. Instant plank.
You can’t hug an ironing board, but that doesn’t stop Tawny. Henrietta braces herself and stares over Tawny’s shoulder until her tormentor backs away and Henrietta can leave the train. Except that now the hug wall has been breached, Henrietta’s poise is leaking away. She’s reduced to one of those pathetic stumbling creatures from school. The kind who would drop all their books in the corridor, shedding pencils and sharpeners in their wake as they bent to pick things up.
They annoyed Henrietta, those girls, because she was one of them.
She pulls too hard when Tawny passes her the viola, and bangs it against the seat behind, and drops her briefcase, and bumps into the person queuing in front of her, and for the rest of the journey from carriage to platform she’s a shambling twitch-ridden wreck.
But finally she’s off the train, and watching it pull away.
She is shaking. But the vaulted ceiling of the station rises lofty above her head, reassuring her with solid iron. On the left as on the right. As it should be. As things will be from now on.
She sets off towards the exit, the viola case thumping against her right thigh. Without thinking, she bangs the heel of her other hand on her left leg. Balancing. Evening. Making good.
Now she can go home, make a cup of tea in her lovely new kitchen, sit down and enjoy some peace. It’s a sunny day in July and her future is lined up ahead, ordered and cool and neat. She has walls that are white and a lawn that is green. Everything will be fine.
But life trips you up. It waits around the corner giggling, ready to put your knickers on display for the world to see. And today’s life messenger? Who has been sent to stick a foot into Henrietta’s carefully chosen path?