Traffic flowed steadily past Sam as he got closer to the centre of town and Farmers Department Store, where the Young Magicians' Club was meeting. Hard on his heels he suddenly heard the whirring of other bikes. As he moved nearer to the curb to let them past two boys, older than Sam, rode up on either side of him.
'What’s in the case?'
Sam tried ignoring them. He pedalled faster. The battered suitcase on the rack behind him rattled as his old bike dipped in and out of the potholes along the margin of the road. The suitcase was bound to have attracted unwanted attention one day. It had belonged to Grandad, it was the one he'd used for years when he'd been a professional magician. Sam knew he wouldn’t replace it, not until it fell apart completely.
'Not very friendly is he?'
'He’s hiding something from us.'
One of the boys made a grab for the suitcase, but managed to yank it only halfway out of the resistant grip of the carrier, whose springs were so rusted that even Sam had trouble prising it open.
'Push off!' Sam yelled, putting on a brave spurt. He enjoyed cycling, challenging the head wind, but he wasn’t a sprinter even if the bike had been built for quick getaways, which it wasn't.
He turned into a side street realising, as soon as he did so, that he'd made a bad mistake. It was a quiet lane, between two main roads. The whirring soon caught up with him; he wasn’t going to escape them.
But then there was a sudden silence and Sam turned to see what had happened. For some reason the boys had spun their bikes around and were heading back the way they'd some, even faster than they'd chased him!
Sam could only guess that they'd had their bit of fun at his expense. Nearly winded, he contemplated going home, but what would Grandad say to that? He'd said to Sam just the other day. 'you’re ready to join the Young Magicians' Club now. I've told them you’re coming this Saturday. They'll be expecting you.'
The question was, why hadn’t Grandad ever mentioned the Club before? It had come as a complete surprise to Sam, who hadn’t heard of its existence even though he'd been an amateur magician since primary school.
So, instead of going home and disappointing Grandad, Sam crossed over into the next main street and stopped beside a bus shelter, desperate for a breather.
He hadn’t seen her. It was Sarah somebody-or-other from school, a person he'd never taken particular notice of except to form the impression that she was a fairly quiet, self-contained type, much like him. But the way she'd just greeted him was like an old friend. Sam was confused.
He glanced at his watch. Quarter to two already. It was touch and go now to make the meeting in time.
'I'd better motor,' he told Sarah, 'else I'll be late.'
'No worries,' said Sarah. 'It wasn’t your fault. See you.'
'Yeah, see you at school tomorrow.'
Summoning a reserve of energy, Sam hurried on, as fast as the bike would let him. At one point a bus passed him and after it had gone it vaguely occurred to him that it was probably the one Sarah had been waiting for. It occurred to him, too, that the bus stop had faced the side street down which he'd fled, and that she might have seen everything that had happened.
There wasn’t time to worry about it though. By the time he reached Farmers it was already two o'clock. The meeting of the Young Magicians' Club would be starting.
When Sam stepped through Farmers' old fashioned, heavy swing doors, he was instantly lost. He hadn’t been here for years, not since he was very little and had come with Mum and Dad on shopping trips. Nothing was very familiar. He'd entered the store at women’s lingerie but there wasn’t time to hunt for another entrance. He negotiated isles hung with bras, underpants and petticoats, all of which seemed to leap out at him. Sam was certain that the shop assistants were watching him, the suitcase banging against his legs, wondering what he was up to.
He looked anxiously for the lift that would take him to the rooftop, the meeting place of the Young Magicians' Club. He did remember that the rooftop space was where Farmers used to put on its popular Christmas mini-fair: a swing, a slide, popcorn, candy floss, dioramas, and a small merry-go-round which spun to the tune of Good King Wenceslas.
Just as he was about to ask for help he heard someone call his name. 'Sam! Over here.'
He couldn’t believe it. There was Sarah again, waving to him from the entrance of the narrow lift.
'What are you doing here?' he asked.
Sarah smiled. 'Same as you I expect.'
Why was she having him on? Sam pressed 'R' for rooftop, watching for her reaction. Sarah stood calmly waiting for the doors to close and made no effort to pick another floor. The doors refused to shut. Sam pressed the button a second time and still nothing happened.
'Stupid lift, it’s stuffed.'
'Let me have a go.'
Of course, when Sarah touched the button the doors obediently folded together. The lift began to rise. It was one of those ultra slow ones that made you feel as if you were going to be trapped forever.
'What did you do that was different?' he asked.
Sarah shrugged. 'Magic,' she said.
The penny dropped. 'Are you …' he began.
'There’s meant to be a meeting of this group called the Young Magicians' Club up in the rooftop. My grandfather told me it was happening. That’s why I’m here. That’s what this is for.' He lifted his suitcase. 'Magic.'
Sarah nodded. 'Well, I’m going there too.'
'I never knew you were a magician. Didn’t you bring any effects?'
'Tricks,' Sam explained, feeling foolish. 'It’s just a better word. At least, I think it is.'
'It’s a good word,' she agreed. 'I have brought a few effects.'
'Close up magic I suppose?' guessed Sam, because Sarah wasn’t carrying anything.
'Rooftop now,' said Sarah, as the doors opened at last and Sam moved forward. She put her arm out to stop him. 'This isn’t what you think,' she said. 'Don’t be too surprised.'
'Is there a test?' asked Sam. 'I thought there might be.'
He didn’t hear her reply, because he had stopped concentrating entirely. The lift had worked like a time machine. Stepping out into the rooftop was like falling back into his past. The mini-fair still existed. In front of him were all the things he remembered loving as a little kid.
Here was the curve of the slippery slide, in the shape of a dinosaur, down which he'd plummeted so fast screaming with joy and delicious terror that he'd nearly believed he was going to fly off into space; there was the candy-striped puppet theatre and the wonderful merry-go-round or, at least, the familiar shape of it covered by a heavy, green tarpaulin. The only unfamiliar objects were the metal boxes concealing the machinery which controlled the lifts and the shop’s air conditioning system, and the small office, lit up inside, which Sarah was making for, expecting Sam to follow.
He would have hesitated anyway, because new involvements always made him insecure and this set up was definitely new and unusual, but he held back now also because the memories that were flooding his brain were such powerful, heart-stopping, things.
He managed to say, 'I think I've changed my mind.'
Sarah turned to face him. 'Don’t be silly,' she said, 'It’s your turn. you’re on. We've all been waiting.'
As she spoke more figures, just shadows in the office, stepped out from its doorway. At the same time Sam noticed, through the rooftop windows that faced towards town, that it was dark outside.
'But it’s only just after two!' he cried.
Sarah raised one hand, up towards the roof. There was no ceiling, only bare struts and building paper and the corrugated iron of the old rooftop. As he watched, the roof dissolved, replaced by the universe of stars.
Sam couldn’t have stopped looking, even if he'd wanted to.
Sarah lowered her hand, angling it towards the merry-go-round. The tarp blew away in an invisible, un-felt wind and the machine began to turn, slowly at first, then faster, the twinkling lights on its central axis reflecting the stars. Music softly chimed and tinkled Good King Wenceslas, wooden horses rose and spun and sank, fireworks broke loose from the hub and exploded silently above their heads. Sam could only watch, open-mouthed like the toddler who had come here many years before and had seen and remembered quite a different kind of magic. He blinked and when he opened his eyes the miracle was over and everything had returned to normal, except he knew inside himself that nothing could ever be normal again.
'You knew, didn’t you?' he said, slowly, to Sarah. 'About those boys who were chasing me. You said it wasn’t my fault I was late. What did you do to make them turn around.'
Sarah put her hand lightly on his shoulder. 'Magic,' she said. 'Come on, we'll tell you everything. And you’ll be pleased to know that there was only one test, which you’ve already passed. Only a true magician could have seen what I just did.'
She paused, then said: 'A true magician, like your grandfather. Like us. Welcome to the Young Magicians' Club Sam.'
© Bill Nagelkerke
Read our interview with Bill Nagelkerke.