Hey, Presto!

Image of a pack of cards spread out on a table, with the joker at the top, as if preparing for a magic trick.
Photo by Jarosław Kwoczała on Unsplash

You pick a card, any card, and I watch you step back and look at me. You think this is lame, cheap, but I beg you to be patient. We’ve both had a few and you’re wondering whether this is me flirting … Don’t worry, you’re not my type.

You hold your chosen card close to your chest, and I tell you to get to know it. Then I fan the deck and tell you to insert the card wherever you please. Relax: go with whatever comes naturally. Or don’t relax and think it through. I’m easy; I’m indifferent. I’m happy to take your lead. No, I’m not cheating. I told you, I do this for a living. Well, at least part of my living. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

Okay, so I’m not a comedian. And to be honest, I’d rather not be a doctor either. But by taking part in this little thing here, you’re helping me step out of medicine and into magic. We’re learning from each other, you and I. It might not seem like it, but it’s true. You’re teaching me a lot: a helluva lot. For instance, I’m sensing that you want to get back to our little trick? You’re impatient – I understand. A magician must be sensitive.

You hesitate before returning your card. Maybe you feel a pressure to take your time? Maybe you feel a pressure to rush? But trust me: there’s no pressure. This is all up to you. Every trick is the same and every trick is different. The trick itself is for everybody, but this trick – the one that’s happening right now – this trick is just for you. You might say: this trick is yours – that you are just as responsible for making it. The real magic lies with you.

Anywhere will do, I say, refocusing your attention. Anywhere you like.

Leaning away rather than in, you hold your beer with a steady, confident tilt. You smoke a rollie and study me with sharp, intelligent eyes.

Attractive eyes, I’ll admit. But that doesn’t mean I’m flirting. Eyes can be attractive and not sexy. A person can be sexy and fail to arouse.

The music from inside is loud enough that we can feel it beneath us, feel it on our skin. We are all finally on holiday – summer is here – and this lavish house party is a way of inaugurating the long weekend. Friday has come and everybody has arrived straight from the office. But there are very few shirts and ties, watches and cufflinks – this isn’t the crowd for them. These people don’t work in those types of offices. They work in offices with beanbags and ping-pong tables, dart boards and drink cabinets.

I’m here as a distant friend of Mark’s and you’re here as a distant friend of Annie’s: they can afford parties where few of the guests know one another – they have the space, the location. They inherited a tonne and then made a tonne, and now they live in Highgate. In this big house with this big garden: where black branches reach toward the purple sky, and the moon and sun compete at opposite sides of the darkened lawn.

I look down at the cards I’ve fanned out for you, red-side up. I smile in a way that does not show my teeth.

Anywhere will do, I repeat. Anywhere you like.

You take time to avoid the obvious – the middle is out, and there’s no way you’re putting it anywhere near my thumb or forefinger. You’re no fool. You know very well how this works. You’re not stupid. You’re a creative, or somebody with a creative side to them. And I don’t mean to say that you’re a creative like these people either. You don’t design billboards or logos, packaging or flyers – and if you were to do those things, you’d do a much better job of it. Of course you would!

The middle, a good choice.

I give the deck a shuffle, a smoosh. I do what is called “a spring flourish,” letting the cards accordion between my hands, cascading like water. I perform a Mexican spiral shuffle, then a Faro shuffle, then a Corgi shuffle, calling them out each time.

The cards are randomised. Manipulation would’ve been impossible. Such shuffling techniques are tricks in themselves – craftsmanship that adds to the show. It is all about style and flair, quick-talking and grace. And timing – timing is important. Timing is key.

While I shuffle the cards, I tell you about somebody who called the surgery this week asking me to write them a prescription for paracetamol. Fifty pence in a pharmacy, I say, and this idiot called their GP so they could get it for free. Fifty pence, and they thought they’d give the surgery a ring!

Hello, I say in a parody of a phone call. No, I won’t write that for you. Goodbye. Please don’t call again.

Your brow furrows and you tell me that people are poor. And I tell you that it’s about the doctor’s time.

Sighing, you give the impression that you think you know better, but that you simply don’t have the energy to argue. Then you ask me if I have forgotten about the trick.

The trick!

Cards in my hand, I straighten up, switching roles as if possessed by a force beyond us. Flicking my hair back, I lick the tip of my index finger.

Hold on, I say. Is this your card?

I tell you that I’ve done it before, and this isn’t what happened. Yes, I understand you were paying attention. Look. You promise you’re not fucking with me? Promise?

It’s these beers, I say, making excuses – they’re like six percent. I fumble with the cards – look at my bottle, as if to ask how it could be so cruel. Probably fucked it up with all that shuffling, too, I say. I had to use the Corgi. Couldn’t have just stuck with the Faro.

Then I’m off on another tangent …

The amount of harm alcohol does this country, I say. There’s not a soul in England who doesn’t know at least one alcoholic. We should all be doing ecstasy – it’d be far better for us. Less addictive. Not so bad on the kidneys, the liver, the intestine.

There is a pause. You’re thinking: crank.

You tell me that you better get going, and I beg you to stay.

Then you turn to face the party, the pounding music – and I touch your shoulder with the touch of a doctor, the touch of a magician. Something tingles and we are connected. They call it “electricity,” and that’s how it feels.

Come on, I say. Give me a chance. I think I’ve still got something for you. Yes, there’s something … (I look down) … there’s something in my shoe.

I act surprised you didn’t see it coming. You honestly thought I’d messed up. Botched it. You tell me that I was actually starting to annoy you – and somehow you say this in a way that’s neither upsetting nor malicious. It’s almost as if you’re being reasonable.

You owe me a drink, I say, and I ask for something less strong. I have work in the morning – yes, my real job. Colds and flus, haemorrhoids and infected toenails. The old and lame, the young and unlucky.

Haemorrhoids a big thing for you? you say, and I say, You don’t want to hear about it.

But it all sounds so interesting, you say. Infected toenails, especially.

Yeah, I say. Fascinating.

You ask if I have ever used any hocus pocus on my patients, and I smile: what else can I do? I don’t tell you about the thirty-two-year-old who had stage-four bowel cancer, or the twenty-three-year-old who overdosed on her mother’s lenalidomide. That stuff isn’t banter. And good patter is a magician’s stock-and-trade. Our talk must be light, carefree. You must feel comfortable around me: there must be respect, but not too much respect.

Avada Kedavra, you say, but I don’t get the reference.

The subject changes and the air clears. My bedside manner is second-to-none, my agreeableness unrivalled. Sure, I’ll disagree with you, but only in an agreeable way. Put it this way, when I disagree with you, you’ll know that you’re right.

A man comes outside and stands next to us for a while. He is clearly wasted, and smiling, but not quite at us, and swaying even when stationary. He is wearing a navy blue shirt that is buttoned all the way to the neck, with sleeve cuffs that extend almost to the knuckles of his hands. We don’t say a further word and eventually he walks on and goes back inside, tripping slightly on the doorstep, palpating the walls on his way in.

Neither of us know him. And just because I’m a doctor, doesn’t mean I’m obliged to follow sick people about. Perhaps somebody will order him a taxi.

If I’m honest, I never wanted to be a medic. I wanted to be a historian, but besides being a historian, where are the jobs in that? Still, I like the daily contact I have with patients. Dozens a week – hundreds if not thousands a year.

And it’s intimate contact, too. We’re talking about things most of them would probably never tell their friends. They trust me, they believe in me, to perform what are essentially miracles. And isn’t it interesting to use that word, “perform.” The doctor showed up and performed an examination. An appendectomy was performed and a full recovery was made.

You tell me about a surgery you had, and I agree with you: yes, there’s a science to it; of course there’s a science to it. But that doesn’t mean we know everything. All the diseases out there – billions, more than billions – and the patient always expects a cure. A cough could mean anything, but you want me to know what your cough means. A cold, cancer, acid reflux? What is it to find trust there but magic?

You tell me that I was right earlier: about England and its alcoholics. You say that you don’t drink much anymore. Not since your step-dad passed away.

I look down at the ground granting your disclosure a moment’s silence. I have no idea about your step-dad or what he meant to you and I don’t want to presume.

I’m sorry, I say, and those two words bring us closer.

We get to chatting about other things. The jokey side of medicine. The finger-up-the-bum, palm-cupping-bollocks side. It’s an old angle and one I’ve grown tired of, but you make it new and I can’t help but laugh.

I say my bit about counsellors. How it takes over a decade before they’ll let you anywhere near a bowel – but two years in a community college and you can dive straight into people’s brains. As usual, it gets nothing.

I don’t get it, you say. Doesn’t it take a long time to train as a psychologist?

You should be a comedian, I say. And it’s the first time I’ve really heard you laugh.

Maybe I do fancy you, I think. Maybe – just maybe – we could be good together.

You ask me how I did it, the trick, but I simply say that magicians never reveal their secrets. It’s part of the code, I say. A pact among the initiated. Indocilis privata loqui: not apt to disclose secrets.

Don’t be like that, you say.

Like what? I say, and you say: Smug.

But isn’t this the line a magican always hopes to hear, the question they always want to be asked? How did you do it? How was it done?

You step back and look me up and down as if seeking clues. I raise my hands: palming innocence. My sleeves are short enough that they naturally fall when my arms are outstretched. Nothing there, nothing anywhere.

I turn out my pockets and pose like Charlie Chaplin.

And the back ones, you say, and I turn around and oblige.

Flat, you say.


Your arse is flat.

I step to the side so you can check where I stood. Nothing but decking. I rap my knuckles against the bannister. A solid sound – definitely not hollow. I am in my element: pointing out possibilities and explaining them away.

I know, you say. I think I’ve got it.

You look me in the eyes, expecting me to confess to you right there and then. I look you in yours, and begin to see somebody I have ignored up until now. Perhaps you do arouse.

I look away, unable to hold your gaze.

What? you say.

And I say: you’re the one with theory. You tell me.

You suggest I’d done something rather elaborate around switching cards. Perhaps I’d split the cards during the waterfall thingy, or removed a card during the Mexican-Corgi thingamajig? Heck, maybe I’d thrown the card when you weren’t looking. Maybe all that shuffling had a purpose after all.

Wiggling my fingers, I point out the sausage-like nature of my digits. Cardistry, I add, is more about the illusion of skill rather than actual talent. Maybe I just walked around with it in my shoe all day? Maybe magic is just hard work that you can’t see.

You wonder if the deck was rigged: if all of the cards were in fact your card. Or if the deck you took the card from was somehow different to the deck you put the card in. You’ve got lots of theories – lots and lots of theories – and I enjoy every one of them.

I watch your mind turn with the problem I have given it. I watch you seek explanations when every act of reason is a trap. All the thinking you are doing now, I have done tenfold. All the puzzlement has been paid for over and over again in tireless, eye-reddening preparation. Years of workshops, conferences, books, and videos. Years of sitting alone watching myself in the mirror: practising, practising, practising …

Have you heard of Occam’s Razor, I say, and you say: God, you really are a prick, aren’t you?

You keep asking, and I keep telling you that magicians never reveal their secrets. Then you increase your offer – or simply propose to uphold your original one: you’ll get me another beer if I tell you. Otherwise, you’re off, and I’m alone with my cards. What do I think of that for a disappearing act?

Come on, I say, and you say, That’s the deal. Necessitas non habet legem, you say, smugly. Yes, smugly. Necessity has no law.

It’s necessary for you to know, is it?

It’s necessary for you to get that drink.

The crowd inside cheers and the din of the speakers is matched by drunken bellows. An old favourite announces its baseline and there are squeals and barks, howls and yelling. The man we saw earlier is somehow dancing again. We can see him through the window, arms in the air, head down, watching his feet.

I am not of that world, and right now, neither are you. We are separated from it, as if by magic. Perhaps because of magic. United in suddenly finding ourselves miraculously and inexplicably cast out. Like that window, the border between us and them is so clear you can almost doubt its existence. But it’s there. You can feel it and so
can I.

Will you promise to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn? I say.


If I tell you, will you keep it a secret?

You tilt your head at me, and I shake mine at you. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe you’re getting me to do this! To even consider this!

You scrunch up your face in comic confusion. You scratch your brow and put a finger to your lips.

You mean, don’t go and tell all of my friends and family? you say.

I’m serious, I say. Do you promise?

You pause, dragging me along. Do you suspect I want to tell you how it was done? Do you think I’ll really tell you everything regardless?

Sure, you say, smirking. You can trust me – I’m not a doctor.

I look out at the garden: the vast lawn, the well-kept hedge, the towering trees. Highgate no longer seems hospitable alone. The moon has won its victory over the sun and the night’s purple has turned a luxurious shade of black.

Inside, everybody is shouting an awful chorus, and the instruments are all rushing in at once with no respect for anything but their own tiny, little parts. The DJ mumbles something into the mic and there is yet more cheering. A man falls over and everybody laughs.

I take a deep breath and look at you.

It’s gonna be a disappointment, I say. Magic is about creating something that refuses explanation. Magic is about …

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you say. Go on then, how did you do it?

About Alan Gray

Alan Gray is a writer and social psychologist. His stories have appeared in various print publications and online journals, including Litro and The Fiction Desk. He is from Horden, County Durham, and lives in London.

Alan Gray is a writer and social psychologist. His stories have appeared in various print publications and online journals, including Litro and The Fiction Desk. He is from Horden, County Durham, and lives in London.

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