Authors: Elly Griffiths
‘Three people are dead because of the Magic Men,’ said Max. ‘Don’t you feel any responsibility?’
‘No,’ said the Major. ‘I knew she was a spy. I didn’t know she was a killer.’
‘Bloody hell,’ said Max. ‘You make me sick.’
The Major looked at him curiously. ‘Why? I always thought you’d be the one to suspect. That’s why I said that you of all people should know. After all, it’s all illusion, isn’t it? Espionage, conjuring, whatever you like to call it. I thought that was what you were good at.’
‘It’s not that,’ said Max. He stood up, feeling slightly ashamed for losing his temper with the Major who was, after all, an old man with a sick wife. ‘It’s just … my life hasn’t been worth much. All I’ve ever done is stand on a
stage and play tricks on people. But I’d always thought that the war, the Magic Men, that it was worth something. You know, if I ever had a child, I could say …’ He stopped.
‘That girl,’ said the Major. ‘Ruby. She’s your daughter, isn’t she?’
Max wheeled round. ‘How did you know?’
‘At first I didn’t. I thought she was up to no good. That’s why I went to see Edgar. But then I looked at the photograph again and I realised. She looks just like you.’
‘She’s a lot prettier than me.’
‘Granted. But, when I met her that time, she reminded me of someone. I realised it was you.’
Max felt oddly proud to think that the Major had spotted some family resemblance between him and Ruby. He wondered if Ruby took after his mother, that far-off Italian beauty. Then he concluded that Ruby probably favoured her own mother, Emerald. He glanced at the Major, who was gazing out to sea. All things considered, it had been kind of the old boy to take his concerns about Ruby to Edgar.
‘Well, it’s all a long time ago now,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said the Major. ‘You and I won’t live to see the next war. More’s the pity.’
Edgar was waiting at Brighton station. The train wasn’t late, but it felt as if it was. From where he stood, he could see the flower stall and the red-faced woman handing out carnations and long-stemmed roses. In a funny way the whole case started here, at the station, the ultimate in-between place where an ex-showgirl could pass shoulder to shoulder with a woman dressed as a man and not know it. High up in the vaulted glass ceiling, the pigeons were calling to each other. Despite everything, Edgar felt that a railway station was still a hopeful place, full of possibilities. The Brighton Belle was at platform one, blue paint gleaming. Maybe he should climb aboard and leave his old life behind him. But he stood where he was, watching people track to and fro across the concourse, intent and purposeful. Where were they all going on a Saturday lunchtime in October? He would never know, and it was strange, but the thought made him feel quite benevolent towards the world.
A month had passed since the events in Hastings, and
already that night had acquired a distant, dreamlike quality. The case was closed and Max had enjoyed a triumphant week at the Chiswick Empire. Diablo was still living at Queenie’s and no doubt entertaining her guests by performing the coin in the bottle trick. Barney had been christened and Edgar was the proud possessor of a framed photograph of himself with his godson, both of them looking rather the worse for wear. Even in the background of the photograph, Edgar could see several women looking speculatively at Bill. It wouldn’t be long before young Barney had a stepmother. He just hoped she’d be kind to him.
The Major’s wife was dead; Edgar had been informed of the event by a black-edged card. ‘Peacefully in her sleep.’ He had sent flowers, though he couldn’t imagine what the Major would do with them. Well, at least he had his garden and the golf club. Edgar would drive out and visit him soon. He might even make Max go with him.
Alan Deacon had attended the christening, looking as solid as ever in his long policeman’s trench coat. His parting words to Edgar were: ‘Try to keep out of trouble, lad.’ Well, he was trying. He had filled in endless reports and endured long interviews with Frank Hodges and his superiors. He had recommended Bob for a pay rise and taken a box of chocolates to Desdemona. And now he had a visitor for the weekend.
Rose always looked worried when she got off the train. Even though she must have seen Edgar waving at the barrier,
she still clasped her handbag to her chest and looked around her as if fearful of abduction.
‘Hallo, Edgar. You look smart, I must say.’
‘Thanks, Mum.’ He didn’t tell her that this was because he had started going to Max’s tailor. ‘Shall we walk to the hotel? It’s a lovely day.’
‘I’ve got a suitcase.’ She had too, pale-blue leather. Edgar remembered his father buying a pair of them. Rose had a vanity case to match.
‘I can carry it. It’s downhill all the way.’
They passed the flower-seller and the Left Luggage office. As they headed out of the station, Edgar allowed himself one last look towards the Battle of Trafalgar. He imagined Ethel sitting there, nursing a port and lemon and boasting of her glory days with Max Mephisto. Rest in peace, Ethel.
They were part of a steady stream of day-trippers heading down towards the sea. Edgar enjoyed the feeling of being part of the crowd. He thought he’d had enough of centre stage for a lifetime.
‘It’s very busy, isn’t it?’ said Rose. ‘So many foreign-looking people.’
‘This is a quiet day, actually. You should see it in the summer.’
‘I wouldn’t like to. Millie White says the sea’s quite unsanitary.’
‘It looks good from a distance though,’ said Edgar. ‘Look, Mum. There it is, sparkling away.’
Rose agreed that the sea did look nice from a distance. She even conceded that it was a lovely day, ‘for autumn.’
‘I’ve booked you a nice hotel,’ said Edgar. ‘Very clean and quiet.’ He had taken Max’s advice and had asked Roy Coulter to recommend somewhere.
‘You shouldn’t go spending your money,’ said Rose. ‘I could have stayed with you.’
‘My place is very small. I’m thinking of moving anyway.’ Somehow Edgar’s flat seemed too full of memories of the case, of Ethel, Diablo and the Major. He couldn’t forget either that Charis must have seen the house, must have pushed the playbill through the letterbox. Had she been tempted to knock on the door?
‘Moving away from Brighton?’ Edgar heard the hopeful note in his mother’s voice.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I thought I might find a nicer flat, that’s all. You know, if I ever meet a girl, I want to have somewhere presentable to take her.’
He thought that would mollify his mother, and it did.
‘Oh, Ed, have you met a nice girl?’
Edgar had taken Ruby to the cinema once. They had talked only about the film and neither of them had mentioned Max. Edgar knew, though, that Max had offered to pay for Ruby to go to drama college and she had refused. ‘I want to be a magician, not an actress,’ she had said. ‘Anyway, I don’t want to go back to school. I want to go on the stage.’ Edgar foresaw fireworks ahead. He was planning to take Ruby ice-skating next week. He realised he was smiling.
‘I’ve met someone,’ he said, ‘but it’s early days.’
He was quite proud of this cliché. He thought it had a mature, considered feel. Certainly his mother seemed satisfied.
‘If only you could find a nice girl and settle down, then I’d die happy.’
‘Steady on, Mum. You’ve got quite a bit of living to do yet.’
Rose made a shushing gesture with her hand, but he could tell she was pleased. And there was quite a spring in her step as she walked down the hill at his side. In her good winter coat, with her hair freshly set, she looked spritely and attractive. She was only in her fifties, thought Edgar. She could get married again; she might even beat him to the altar.
‘I thought we’d have tea at the Grand,’ he said. ‘They do a good tea there.’
‘I’d like that,’ said Rose.
They walked past the clock tower and the cinema and Sherry’s nightclub. Outside Sherry’s there was a poster for Max’s old show at the Theatre Royal. ‘Max Mephisto, the Master of Illusion.’
‘Isn’t that your friend?’ said Rose.
‘Yes,’ said Edgar. ‘That’s my friend.’
‘Master of Illusion. What does that mean?’
‘It means that you never know when you’ll see him next,’ said Edgar.
After serving in the First World War, my grandfather, Frederick Goodwin, took the stage name Dennis Lawes and reinvented himself as a music hall comedian. I wish I’d asked him more about his life on the variety circuit, but such snippets as he did let fall I have included in the book. I’m also very grateful to my mother, Sheila de Rosa, for her memories of growing up in this world, living in different theatrical digs every week and having a succession of glamorous chorus girl ‘aunties’.
Max Mephisto and the Magic Men are entirely imaginary. There was, however, a real group of camouflage experts working in Egypt in the Second World War called the Magic Gang. Amongst other illusions, they are credited with making the Suez Canal disappear. The Magic Gang was led by the famous magician Jasper Maskelyne and for details of his war years I am indebted to a fascinating book called
The War Magician
by David Fisher (Cassell).
Granddad was on the bill with Jasper Maskelyne, but,
although he tried, he never managed to work out any of his tricks. I have tried too, but I’m not a magician so I apologise if any of my explanations are inadequate. I think The Zig Zag Girl was actually first performed in the 1960s, but I have taken the liberty of taking it backwards in time and attributing it to Max. For an insight into the mind of a magician, I found Derren Brown’s book,
Confessions of a Conjuror
(Transworld), absolutely invaluable. I have not, though, attempted to recreate any of Derren Brown’s tricks.
It has been a joy to write about my home town of Brighton. I am very grateful to Mike Laslett for showing me the old police cells below Brighton Town Hall. If you’d like to visit the cells and the accompanying museum, contact:
. It’s a wonderful tour and it’s free!
I’d like to thank Quercus, and especially my amazing editor Jane Wood, for encouraging me in this new venture and embracing a whole new cast of characters. I’m also very grateful to my agent, Rebecca Carter, and all at Janklow & Nesbit.
Love and thanks always to my husband Andrew and our children, Alex and Juliet. This book is for my wonderful mum from whom I have inherited any writing talents that I possess.
Elly Griffiths, 2014