I gave Nicky a magic set when he was five. It was the first Christmas with just the two of us - his father having walked out three months earlier - and I was worried that he wouldn’t like it. His Dad had always been better at finding the right gifts. The bits and pieces fascinated him, and during any otherwise unoccupied half-hour he could be found sitting on the floor, perfecting his technique. I loved to watch his brow crinkle as he tackled a new trick, and the way it straightened into a look of triumphal achievement when he mastered it. He learnt how to pass cards, how to conceal fuzzy balls under plastic cups, how to tie false knots, how to hide coins. His nimble fingers grew in confidence.
A year later he was given a more elaborate set by his Grandad. One glance at the instruction manual made me realize that only a child with a truly obsessive side to his character could master even half of it. Two weeks later he could do every trick with his eyes closed. The tendency to obsessiveness formed barriers too. When we spoke I could tell that a corner of his mind was elsewhere – turning cards, imagining hand movements.
At the age of seven he was performing forty-minute magic shows for friends and relatives. He took an even more advanced set (the third) into school and impressed the whole class. His teacher, a young lady called Miss Flint, took me aside and said he had a flair for performance. He was ‘self-assured and eloquent’. She encouraged me to enroll him in drama classes, and arranged for him to take a lead role in the next school play. He did well, but it wasn’t magic, so he didn’t give it his all.
His technique had long surpassed my understanding. My favorite tricks were those based on distraction, and I tried hard to determine how and where he was sending my attention while he made objects disappear. Cards, coins… knives, forks, spoons, books… then plates, garden tools, even a dustbin lid. Big things, objects that could not be slipped up a sleeve. And not everything reappeared. Somehow he had learned true sleight-of-hand, and he was not interested in explaining it to me. Our connection was elsewhere – in the quotidian necessities of childhood, and the unquestioning comfort I gave him when he grew uncomfortable with the power he had developed over things and people. He needed me, for all that.
When he was eight he asked to be entered into a national competition for young performers, and I found myself driving around the country as he passed smoothly through the early rounds into the high-tension finals, which were televised. He made a bicycle disappear effortlessly, but he came fourth and national fame was denied him. The judges marked him down for receiving adult help with the mechanics. But he received no help. He did it all on his own. He mystified them as he had long mystified me. Also, his flair for presentation had not developed; he did not become the all-round performer that Miss Flint had prophesied. On the contrary he became introverted.
Sometimes he looked burdened. I was relieved when he pursued other interests, like sport, or the violin. But those enthusiasms were short lived; he always came back to magic.
I observed a more worrying change during his final year at primary school. He was nearly ten, and had become excluded by playground allegiances and cliques. One boy, Jeremy, a stocky by-the-book bully, began to make his life hell. Nicky was too proud to come to me straightaway, but he seemed unhappy and fell behind in his subjects. Things reached a crisis over the summer, just before a planned school trip to the coast. Nicky didn’t want to go. He begged not to. Gradually the truth came out, and he revealed to me how afraid he was of Jeremy. Nicky feared that during the three-day trip there would be less supervision, less protection from the teachers. “I just wish Jeremy wasn’t there,” he said. I would not withdraw him from the trip. Instead I told him to avoid conflict, to stick close to his mates. I tipped off the teachers. But I made him go.
It sounds awful, but my feelings were genuinely mixed when news broke that Jeremy had dropped down dead while walking on a clifftop path. The poor boy was only ten himself, and I am sure he would have outgrown his vindictive nature. The trip was cancelled immediately, and all the children were bussed home. Our mobile phones sprang to life as urgent requests to pick the children up from the school came through.
Neither foul play nor neglect were proved; there had been no fights, no accidents, no food poisonings. Nicky told me what he had seen. He had been walking at the back of the group and saw Jeremy fall to the ground without warning, mid-sentence. His face was blue, his lips grey. The nearest teacher tried to resuscitate him, but nothing could be done. Two months later the details emerged. At post-mortem it was discovered that he had a rare form of congenital heart disease - a large hole in the heart - which, inexplicably, had gone unnoticed until that fateful day. His poor parents didn’t understand. He had been in such rude health, so rumbustious. It was as though the hole had suddenly appeared. It made no sense.
Nicky kept his skills up. He continued to perform at local venues, and although I did not promote him his reputation grew. He put three minute tricks onto YouTube – not to give away the technique, he was too much of a purist for that, but to satisfy the need for display that continued to nag at him. A TV company approached us and suggested he star in his own show. They thought that the sight of him - a tousle haired eleven-year old - walking through busy streets, taking wallets from peoples’ pockets or making their mobile phones disappear and reappear in unexpected places, would attract viewers. They put together a pilot episode but it didn't fly; Nicky relied too much on what he was best at, making things disappear. No levitation, no mind-reading, no feats of strength. He disappeared a car as it went through a car-wash, but that didn’t cut it. Alice, the producer who had first contacted us, tried to explain. She was as upset as I. Nicky took it well. I’m not sure he cared actually. Well he did. He cared that I cared, and was disappointed for me.
When Nicky was thirteen he got sick; mystery bruises, bleeding gums and profound exhaustion. It was leukaemia. The consultant showed us pictures of abnormal blood cells and explained how they were proliferating through his body. She explained how the DNA had undergone a change, how it had eluded the internal ‘policemen’ that roamed Nicky’s arteries and veins looking for aberrations. It was normal, in some ways, said the doctor. As we get older and as our bodies age and tire such hiccups occur. Nicky was unlucky… for such an error to have gone unchecked. I stared past the doctor. Nicky was old, in many ways. Perhaps he had achieved too much. Nicky stared intently at the cell pictures as though trying to understand their mechanics. While he was being prepared for the first chemotherapy session his health unexpectedly improved. He appeared to have gone into spontaneous remission.
They took another bone marrow sample and asked us back to the clinic. The haematologist told us that the malignant cells had ‘evaporated’ – complete remission - and that she had never seen it happen before. Nicky’s leukaemia was an aggressive type, one that always led to death without treatment. She planned to look into Nicky’s genetic profile; she thought this might be an entirely new disease. Nicky grasped my hand as we left the clinic, something he rarely did. He was calm, unperturbed… and unsurprised. He smiled up at me, and I thought I glimpsed a wink. We didn’t talk about it much. I was afraid to ask. I didn’t want know the workings.
But, because the leukaemia was so fundamentally aggressive it returned. It took only one cell to escape and replicate. The same miracle could not occur twice. Nicky's energy waned, the skin around his eyes darkened, his cheeks sank in as he lost weight. He had to have chemotherapy this time, and the horrible toxins did not agree with him. The nausea was awful; he stopped smiling, stopped initiating conversation. But he did ask me to bring his current magic kit into the isolation room, so that he could keep his hands flexible and his movements swift. He reverted to a six or seven-year old version of himself. I saw a spark of enthusiasm in his eyes once more as he put on short shows just for me; he still loved to watch my genuine mystification. Then he grew tired, and slept.
The chemotherapy didn’t go work. His marrow did not respond as the consultant expected. It was as though, she explained, his physiology was somehow altered. She was still looking into whether Nicky represented a unique case. We didn't care if he was unique or not. We just wanted them to find a treatment that worked.
He had to have chemotherapy again, at an increased dose. There was no other option. They had to inject it into his spinal column to stop bad cells hiding around in the lining of his brain and coming back later. It hurt. The palliative care team had been involved from the beginning, and made sure he had adequate pain relief. They spoke to me in private, they spoke to us together, they tried to talk about mortality in ways that were accessible and acceptable to both of us.
The second course of chemotherapy did no more good than the first. The haematologist had more treatments up her sleeve, but her manner became lacklustre when she looked up from Nicky’s notes and began to describe what they would involve. Clearly, she did not believe they would work. In the isolation room Nicky detected the negativity. He talked less about the future. He was suffering now. Once he mumbled some words into my ear as I bent down to kiss him goodnight,
“I’m tired Mum, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
A few days after that low point I brought some new things into the hospital; DVDs, CDs, a couple of computer and film magazines. I filled the lengthening gaps in our conversation with treats, gadgets and entertainments. I’d been there an hour. I was reading quietly while he watched something on his laptop with earphones in. He looked across at me. His eyes were glistening. Usually it was my eyes that were moist, perpetually bathed in a shallow film of tears that could not be allowed to form into actual droplets. He didn't need to see that.
"Mum, can you get me the last X-men DVD from the cupboard over there, it's on the middle shelf."
I stood and turned to open the cupboard door. The DVD wasn’t visible, but I rummaged around anyway. When I turned back Nicky was gone. The bed clothes were flat. There was an impression in the pillow where his head had been resting.
Philip Berry is a doctor and writer based in London. His speculative, mystery and mainstream stories have been published with Nebula Rift, Metaphorosis, Daily Science Fiction, 365 Tomorrows, Liars’ League, Backhand Stories and Spinetingler among others. Current projects and links can be explored at philberrycreative.wordpress.com.