“I loathed myself again. My heart pounded beneath my stupid blousy gay shirt, and as ever, I found it absurd that I had done this a thousand times yet still battled with the same weary desire to be veiled in the shadows of a corner, to keep out of everyone’s way and let them enjoy themselves in peace.
I was conscious that the grey eyes of the French barman, who had now seen me emerge from the disabled toilet three times in the last fifteen minutes, were resting on me with an appropriately mixed signal of curiosity, admonishment and condescension.
This glance, on reflection, may have simply been the natural look of a Frenchman abroad, but it struck me at the time as a recognition of my ludicrously transparent capacity for procrastination, and my self-hatred ratcheted up another notch, making it even more difficult to shake myself from the immobilising stupor.
For all he knows, I have to prepare mentally and take time to choose my spectators with care and precision. So with a serious expression I surveyed the restaurant for the hundredth time and flipped over the deck of cards in my hand.
The new deck of red-backed Bicycle-brand poker cards had that afternoon been worn in for the gig through bending and riffling and springing until the deck’s spirit had been broken; in the way that a puppy, made to walk to heel, piss on the newspaper and not eat the roast, loses its bungling vigour and learns to behave.
A brand-new Bike deck is, for a short while, wanton and precarious. For those first few minutes it may simply spread effortlessly in the hands, the cards riding the frictionless slivers of oily space that lie between each virgin surface and gliding on their own advertised ‘air-cushioned finish’; absorbing and re-directing the pressure of the fingers into a beautiful, even spread at the slightest touch; each pasteboard fluidly moving along with its one-higher/one-lower neighbour.
But as marvellous as this evenness of movement is, and as satisfying as it feels to see a ribbon of fifty-four perfectly spaced and ordered indices appear almost instantaneously between the hands with an apparent mastery of controlled pressure that could not likely be wielded upon grubbier cards after a career of practice, the new deck is at other times reckless and prone to belching itself without warning from the hand, leaving usually just two cards held: a circumstance caused by the natural moisture from the thumb and forefinger pads adhering to the back of the top card and face of the bottom respectively and holding them back while the others issue defiantly from one’s grip towards the floor.
Idiot. In my velvet frock suit and ruffled cuffs, like some ludicrous hybrid of J. S. Bach and Martin Kemp back in the day. Around the bottom of my face a goatee like a seventies pubic bush, untouched by clippers since its first appearance as a student years before and which would remain so for another year still, reaching madly in all directions, until one morning, standing at the mirror in my freezing mezzanine bathroom just down the stairs from my flat, I would eventually cut into its sides with the bacon scissors with a view to divesting myself of it completely, and a pleasing Mephistophelean point would emerge.
I held the deck level in my hands and played at tilting and squeezing the slippery pile, almost but not quite enough to discharge it on to the flagstone tiles in the manner I found myself considering.
I pictured them tumbling to the floor, myself bending over to gather them up, and the embarrassed derision of the silent diners as they watched me carry out the apologetic, uncomfortable process.
I caught myself being distracted again, and tried to heave my attention back towards these covers I was being paid to entertain. Tried, but within seconds my focus returned obsessively to the shifting fifty-two pasteboards in my hands and the further preoccupation they offered.
Following the unstoppable spillage caused by the combination of pinching pressure and the merest accidental misalignment, the finger and thumb will instinctively continue their trajectory towards each other following the sudden disappearance of the remainder of the deck, and the top and bottom cards (in the case of a newly opened and unshuffled set of Bikes, these will always be the Joker and an advertising card offering a discount of fifty cents against further purchases from the US Playing Card Company) will be brought together in an action not unlike that of a belly-dancer’s finger-cymbals, while the balance of the cards lie scattered on the floor in a face-up/face-down slop.
Here you are faced with two sources of annoyance, the greater being the anticipation of having to kneel down and begrudgingly assemble the cards into a disordered pile of single orientation, which involves not only upturning all the downturned cards (or vice versa, whichever set is smaller), but also the trickier task of neatly squaring up a near-deck of chaotically strewn playing cards into a single satisfying block.
This is easier said than done, and is most easily achieved through a manoeuvre known to experienced card-players and magicians: grabbing the entire set of misaligned cards into one cluster and holding them perpendicular to the floor (or table), then rolling the messy stack back and forth along its side until all the corners have been brought into alliance.
The secondary, lesser source of displeasure is the niggling sense that the deck has been soiled: it may never again be seen in manufacturer’s order, and the patented air-cushion finish has most likely been forever lost following the intrusion of hairs, skin-flakes and other carpet debris into the spaces between the cards.
The barman was now busy dealing uninterestedly with a fat man wearing a thin, loose tie who was peering at the whiskies over the counter. The bar was pushing into the man’s stomach as he heaved himself high enough to read the labels on the Glenmorangies, Laphroaigs and Macallans that authoritatively lined the raised shelf behind the brandies and cognacs.
He was pushing up on to the balls of his feet and grasping with both hands a brass rail that ran along the front of the bar perhaps a foot below its edge. I wondered what he was feeling at that moment: the tension in his hamstrings, the cool brass, the push of the counter into his middle section, the straining of his eyes and jutting forward of his slack neck to recognise the labels on the bottles.
I tried to recreate these sensations mentally, and considered, as I tensed and shifted in microcosm, that that was what he was feeling right now; that for him the experience of all life revolved in this instant around those sensations, and that I was (with my annoyance and self-hatred and reluctance to work) at most a blur in the corner of his vision.
As he pointed to a bottle and then, a beat later, happy that the barman knew which he required, hauled himself back to standing straight, I tried to lose myself in what I imagined his world to be.
I tried to picture the bar and barman straight-on, to hear the buzz of the restaurant behind me rather than to one side, to imagine the feel of his meal inside me, his weight on my bones, the faint sensation of comfort following the loosening of shoe leather from across the bridge of my toes as he lowered himself back to the floor.
I wondered whether he had picked a whisky he knew well – I imagined so, as the range was not especially adventurous and he seemed to care about which one he was given – and whether, in that case, he was at that moment imagining the walloping peaty taste he knew he was soon to enjoy.
There was something in the showy ease of the barman and the assured way in which he set the glass upon the counter that had about it a hint of performance, a suggestion of the ‘flair’ that sometimes flamboyantly attends the preparation of cocktails; I presumed that the man was noticing this affectation too, with mild irritation at its pointlessness, and making quiet judgements accordingly.
I did the same, following my own references: a blurry memory of a poster for the film Cocktail, and a repeated film-loop of a chess player planting a knight upon a square and firmly twisting it into place with that same defiance.
A woman passed by, having emerged from the ladies’ toilet behind me, and the game ended. The sound of the refilling cistern within was bright and loud, and then abruptly muted as the door bumped closed. The fat man wobbled away from the bar and from me, a little inebriated, and my empathy with his thoughts and sensations was lost under the high ceilings of the wide, noisy lounge.
The restaurant was again before me, and my hand again noted its grasp of the cards. I resented the severing of the connection, and wondered whether being privy to a person’s meandering thoughts and gently tracing their dreamy associations was to really know them, at a level far deeper than answers provided by personality tests, school reports or the selective, retrospective narratives of traditional biography.”
Confessions of a Conjuror is out now and available on Amazon (click here)