As ever, he was in the main square. Doing Houdini. The famous performance, the one they all wanted to see. Yards of chain tight around his body, a dozen heavy locks, gaping kids touching him with their fingers just to make sure. Then a thick screen to hide him, twenty-eight record breaking seconds – and he was free. Chain in his hands. Smiling.
This time the crowd was much the same. A couple of scoffing teenagers, adults dragged here by their kids, a few easily amused tourists and an old woman who had nothing to do on a sunny day.
And it was her, this old woman with sloppy hair and a huge bag of groceries, who made him feel uneasy for the first time in years of doing this. He suddenly realised the most astonishing thing: she had always there. Standing in the back row, eyeing his every move. And then applauding and throwing money into his hat – like everyone else. Except they changed and she never did.
He was going through his routine, forgetting a few words here and there but mostly doing okay: he had done the show too many times now. But as a kid tried the lock for one last time, as he made his solemn promise to get free, as his assistant put the screen over him – he knew he would fail. This time, he would not do it.
“47 seconds!” scoffed a teenager, looking at his mobile phone.
He looked around, chain in his hands like a flaccid snake meaning shame, loss, disgrace. He looked around, trying to find her. Stretching his neck, bulging his eyes. But the old woman wasn’t there. The old woman was gone.