The Pinnacle

Before the show there was a time when everything stilled, the day’s activity, the chatter of his mind – it all calmed like a snowstorm at rest, the flurries slowing, the scene resolving to an eerie hush. At these times Keith coiled into his true power, feeling unnaturally alert, a part of everything and everything a part of him. In this expansive state his nerve endings sharpened and spread out around him, sensing things he’d never usually pick up on. On this fateful night they strayed to Anita, his manager, pacing the room, the gold buttons of her pink jacket deflecting backstage light. It suddenly struck him that her ambition was indistinguishable from illness. It was the outlet for the tension within her but heightened that tension. His senses spread out further, sidled beyond the dressing room, to the neon streets, the rain starred taxis, to the people, the punters, out for thrills, diversion, out to redeem their working weeks. He sensed their approach as he would soon sense the auditorium filling, the thrum of anticipation, a thread of nervousness on the air. His senses encompassed it all and in these moments Keith felt he really could do anything, that anything really was possible, not merely the boast on the gold sign outside the venue. He just had to push himself one step further and he’d be there.

Anita paced past him.

“You’re making me nervous,” he observed, “all that movement.”

“You’re making me nervous, being so static. You’ll be on before long.”

Keith glanced at his watch: “An hour and ten minutes. I’ll be up for it when I need to be. Don’t worry a…”

Don’t worry about me,” Anita cut in. She smiled wryly and sat facing a mirror margined by light bulbs, like a boarder of illuminated flowers. He watched her image in the mirror, the ironical eyes, the dyed black hair falling across pink lapels. She plucked a stray strand from her sleeve, silvered in the stark light.

“Of course I worry about you,” she muttered. “The way you sell yourself short.”

“We’ve had this conversation before.”

“Don’t get comfortable.”

“Who’s comfortable?”

“Comfort is death to an artist,” she trained her eyes on him in the mirror. “What artist worth his salt ever settled into the… into the elasticated waist-band of comfort and said this is good enough?” She was on her feet again. “This suits me?” She was pacing, enforcing her words with sweeping movements of hands and forearms. “Name one. Name one who bucks the trend. There isn’t one.” She fixed her eyes on him: “Learn from the best. Onward, always in motion, always in motion.”

He watched her marshal her thoughts for the next onslaught. “Houdini – did he settle for comfort? He suffered ruptures, sprains, broken bones to become the best he could, to find the new ground. And that commitment is why his name endures, has carried down the decades. Onward. Always in motion, always in motion. Learn from the best – never get comfortable.”

Fifteen years of this, he thought.

“…As soon as you get comfortable it’s over. No artist is more vulnerable than one who’s reached the top, because it’s so easy to settle there. To be become comfortable, complacent. And an audience can smell complacency. Pretty soon they’ll turn to those who have the hunger, and you’ll be yesterday’s thing. Over. Finished. Slain the second you became self-satisfied, cut down by a bullet of your own devising.”

The familiar phrases, the stock arguments.

“Respect the best, admire the best, learn from the best. Never get comfortable.”

“I’m not comfortable.”

“You look comfortable.”

“I’m not comfortable. I’m uncomfortable.”


She paced away. The clack of high-heels on parquet flooring. The gleam of polished leather. That brittle sheen she had about her.

Watching Anita he hallucinated a younger version of her expressing the same message. Take fifteen years off her, airbrush lines around eyes and forehead, dim the lighting to that of the dingy pub where they’d met – he a struggling magician, she the rep of a roster of wannabes – and the scene was the same. She’d just seen him third on the bill at a cabaret night and was not effusive in her praise. “You have raw talent but you need to evolve. Attempt things at the limit of your ability, that’s my advice to you. Push it to the brink. You might falter but you’ll move forward. And you have to change your name.”

“What’s wrong with Keith Budgeon?”

“Keith Budgeon is a butcher’s assistant from Solihull. He is not a practitioner of the impossible. Practitioner of the Impossible,” she remarked: “I like it. It has a ring to it.”

“I’m not even sure what it means. And it sounds a bit old school.”

“Old school is the new new school sweetie. Haven’t you heard?”


Muqtada!” she said.


“It has mystery. It has allure.”

“That’s a Middle Eastern name isn’t it?”

“You could pass for Middle Eastern.”

“Never been further east then Margate Pier,” he muttered, already feeling somehow defeated.

“Look at the error of your thinking – so we have to be strictly factual then do we?”


“…We have to stick to some boring personal biog, for the sake of journalistic accuracy?” She paused as though this was necessary to take in the full scale of his absurdity. “Do you want success or don’t you? This is the question you need to ask yourself. If you do we have to start laying the building blocks towards that success. And get rid of anything in the way. Slavishly sticking to your personal biog is in the way. Keith Budgeon is in the way.” She sketched inverted commas around “Keith Budgeon” as though this was the fictional name.

“I’m kind of attached to him.”

“He’s gone. Forget him.” She’d turned to her tablet, the first he’d seen, and was making notes.

“You have potential,” she observed, “what you lack is something to separate you from the pack, the crowds of would-be stars.” She glanced up from her screen, its sheen illuminating her face. “Why should I want to see you? Specifically you? There are any number of acts I could see in this city. What do you have that I can’t find anywhere else? What do you have that I need, that anyone needs?” She fixed him with blue-grey eyes. “Well?”

“Well…” he struggled. He felt a ripple of disdain from Anita as she looked away. She gazed out the window, at pedestrians fleeing scatter-shots of rain-drops.

She met his eyes again: “Look Muqtada – life is boring, life is mundane. Look at these people,” she glanced at the scurrying pedestrians. “What are their lives like? Jarred from sleep by their alarms, tossed bleary-eyed into the morning rush, the afternoon rush, the evening rush. Deadlines, demands, exhausting, unending. Never with the time to properly wake, to really be present in this world. Too busy. Too busy to live is what it boils down to. Other things to do. They need something, Muqtada. They need something to snap them into the present, to give them life.”

“Which is where… I come in?” he speculated.

“Give them dread,” Anita stated. “Give them a jolt. Give them the sense they are poised on the edge of disaster, glimpsing the abyss, then pull back and take the applause.” She sipped her Bloody Mary. “What you did tonight had an element of that, I mean among the card tricks, the disappearing act and everything. The knives you threw at your assistant – very good. But still pretty pedestrian. Have you considered axes? Or other projectiles? We’ll brainstorm it.” She finished her drink, reflectively. “Give them dread,” she murmured.

Which is what he’d been doing for the last fifteen years. The act was old-school but with enough new twists to make it contemporary. And all delivered with bravura and purpose. Muqtada’s swathe of black hair above the distinguished pallor of his face, his Gothic cheekbones, the purple velvet extravagance of his stage-wear – all this had seeped into the consciousness of a new audience looking for something different. Steel wardrobes, metal containers, saws, knives, axes, meat-cleavers – these were the tools of Muqtada’s trade, which he handled, in the main, adroitly. In the interests of gender balance he would sometimes be the one fixed to a giant target board, the projectiles incoming and he – along with his audience – glimpsing the abyss, but mostly it was his glamorous assistants facing the risks.

Anita proved herself his implacable publicist. After an airborne dagger missed its target and stapled an assistant’s earlobe to a sheet of plywood she sprang into action – utilising the incident to increase ticket sales. The danger. The thrills. Book now to avoid disappointment.

She excelled further as a troubleshooter, calming the storms that rolled in – the tempests with insurance companies, the gales of media criticism. All just background noise to Muqtada as his career advanced. He moved from also-ran on cabaret nights to headliner, to star, into whose gravitational field ever increasing crowds were pulled. After he hit forty he started wondering how to top it all, if there was one more misty peak beyond those he’d already conquered. The pinnacle.

“Muqtada – Practitioner of the Impossible,” he said absently in the dressing room.

“He could be,” Anita observed, “if he pushed himself one step further.”

“You talk like I’m not in the room.”

“Like I’ve been saying – we can go up a level, take it further. Increase the sense of danger, the risks…”

“But you’re not the one facing the risks…”

“No I suppose that’s Sandra.”

“Sandra in A & E.”

“But the scars healed.”

“Mary,” Muqtada sighed.

“I was so fond of that girl,” Anita remarked. “Such a sweet temperament. Uncomplaining. I’ll never forget the eulogy at her funeral: ‘She died as she lived – with a sense of reckless adventure.’” Anita’s eyes misted as she recalled the tribute. “‘Her do-or-die spirit lit up the lives of those who knew her.’ Beautiful. It really captured her.” She stood in elegant repose, like a well-attired manikin. Muqtada was struck by how attractive she was when placid, and by how well chosen her clothing was, tonight the vivid pink of blouse and jacket juxtaposed with the sober black of skirt and stockings. The fabric encircled her flesh with tailored exactitude. For the hundredth time he wondered why they had never taken it further, why he had never peeled off those pink layers, or those other colours she favoured – the fuchsias, the azures, the sunshine yellows, radiating everything her soul wasn’t. Why he had never seen these colours pooled on some bedroom floor as they unravelled and mixed pleasure with business. But he sensed from the outset if their partnership had strayed into a relationship, had launched onto those unpredictable seas, facing the storms, the calms, the highs and lows, it would have ruined everything. But now everything was ruined, he reflected, he struggled to be in the same room as her, never mind want the same future.

“Twenty minutes,” Anita glanced at the dressing room clock.

“The final countdown,” Muqtada muttered.


“You’re more nervous than I am.”

“Maybe so. Anyway – remember what I said.”

He looked blankly at her.

“Always in motion, always in motion.”

“I am in motion,” Muqtada replied. “I’m working on changes, big changes.”


“Sharpening the disappearing act at the end of the show.”


“Disappearing is my favourite thing in life,” Muqtada observed. “Visibility is over-rated. It’s too… obvious.”

She laughed, indulgently. He sensed she was filing away the quote in her mind, for future publicity work.

“But I’m going to refine the disappearing act, take it further.”

“How so?”

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

Sandra walked in, all stockings and sequins; a tsunami of perfume. “Having problems with my zip,” she said, turning the back of her costume to Anita.

Anita wrestled with the zip, brow knitted. Muqtada watched the tableau – Sandra still and hunched, Anita rapt with concentration as she tried to re-sync the fastener. It occurred to Muqtada that Anita owed all her success to him. None of her other charges had got far. They shared the fate of also-rans. Where are they now, he wondered, at which waysides could they be located? The songbirds, the funnymen, the oddballs. The people who’d just needed a break, just needed a foot in the door of showbiz, a glimmer and they’d be in. Perhaps they’d all been worn down by the sheer relentlessness of Anita’s nature, their enthusiasm pounded to dust. If she hadn’t hit pay-dirt with him what would have happened to her, he wondered. Though in truth – and this was the hard thing to acknowledge – he owed everything to her too. Where would he be now if their paths hadn’t crossed? Happy maybe, he thought drily, rising to his feet. He glanced at his watch: the house lights would dim before long. Muqtada reached for his jacket. He stared at his image in the mirror, a man more striking than handsome, down to his glinting tie-pin, the jagged points of his sideburns, the glitter of opals on ringed fingers, that whole “otherworldly thing” so often discussed. He could feel the auditorium begin to fill, a stirring in the air, raising that old apprehension in his gut. Soon he’d walk into the spotlight. A wave of warmth and anticipation would crash softly over him from the audience. They’d be that instant, almost imperceptible, when it was all a blank slate before him. When there was nothing but potential. Then he’d be away. The feats of daring. The inexplicable tricks. The bravura touches. At the end the usual finalé – Sandra ironically turning the tables as she ushered him into a metal cabinet from which he wouldn’t emerge. “Muqtada? Muqtada?” she’d shout in mock panic as she looked into the empty cabinet and then across the stage as his disembodied voice, thrown from the wings, rang out with crystal clarity.

But tonight would be different – the disappearance would be permanent, the panic genuine. He’d push it one step further, take it to another level. The disappearing act would involve an overnight stay in a guest house, fake ID, a ferry to the Hook of Holland, a new life nourished by funds deposited in his fake name. A complete change of appearance would be involved. He’d been crafting and honing the disappearing act for months, mapped it out to the last detail. For the Grand Finalé nothing would be left to chance.

Anita would lead the attempt to find him, initially calmly. She’d probe side-rooms, dressing rooms, prop-rooms; press his number on her phone, plunge the recesses of the building. “Muqtada? Muqtada?” her voice would reverberate across the unlit stage, the empty auditorium, even outside where the sign bled gold onto the slick pavement: “Muqtada – Practitioner of the Impossible.”

Social media would soon be ablaze. Websites would appear promulgating theories about the disappearance. The police became involved; pursuing leads, reaching dead ends.

But now he just stood backstage, waiting for it all to start.

The stage manager wandered in: “Ready?”

“As much as we’ll ever be,” Sandra said, adjusting her top.

Muqtada gave Anita a long look, taking her in one last time – her face, the strangely intense air, the curious taut quality she had about her, like something about to snap. He was aware this wasn’t the ending he would have wished for them. Puzzlement glinted in her eyes at the lingering look. “Give them dread,” she said, as though for old time’s sake.

“Don’t worry,” he replied with a pang of regret, “I will.”

And then he was gone.

About John Vale

John Vale lives in Hastings and has previously had fiction published in Dream Catcher and Stand Magazine. He works for an organisation which gives grants to people on low incomes and before that was employed by an organisation which helped Kurdish Refugees. He is a Reiki Master.

John Vale lives in Hastings and has previously had fiction published in Dream Catcher and Stand Magazine. He works for an organisation which gives grants to people on low incomes and before that was employed by an organisation which helped Kurdish Refugees. He is a Reiki Master.

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