June 20 2005

The disappearing coin got me every time. When you reached for the sixpence it vapourised and you were left clutching thin air.
The patter, delivered in a gentle West Country burr, never varied.
“What have you done with it?”
“Well, I gave it to you and now you’ve lost it.”
Chuckles all round, then the routine would be repeated several times before the sixpence was eventually handed over.
Mr Thompson was the best conjuror ever.
He was also a chemist and a visit to his shop at the top end of Sidney Avenue was almost always a learning experience.
I went there often; usually to get him to do his trick, sometimes for advice.
The chemistry set I got one Christmas came with a booklet of experiments, one of which explained how to grow crystals by dangling a piece of cotton into a solution of copper sulphate. The set was short on chemicals, particularly copper sulphate.
Mr Thompson saved the day and threw in several sheets of litmus paper and a couple of test-tubes for good measure.
Sometimes I’d take along a volume of my Arthur Mee Encyclopaedia opened at the Things To Make And Do section. He’d measure out three drams of methyl-violet aniline, a couple of ounces of barium sulphate and a shot or two of glycerine and I’d go home to make something or other. Our greatest collaboration was the hectograph.
I thought you’d never ask. It’s a primitive sort of duplicator made from bits of the above mixed with gelatine and poured into a biscuit tin lid to set. Then you write on a sheet of paper using the methyl-violet wotsit as ink. Press the paper on to the hectograph and leave for a few minutes. The impression it leaves on the rubbery surface is powerful enough to make 40 or 50 copies, simply by pressing on and peeling off clean sheets of paper.
I became reporter, editor and publisher of the Daily Trumpet, which ran to three editions and carried the serialisation of Jules Verne’s life story, copied paintstakingly from the Great Authors Of Our Time Section of Arthur Mee.
Mr Thompson took out a subscription.
Once I showed him how to step through a postcard (no prizes for guessing where I learned how to do it) and he was so impressed he rewarded me by revealing the secret of the vanishing coin.
I’ve been baffling people with the trick ever since. I have a variation using winegums, which always went down well with my daughters.
It backfired once in Greengate Street when my eldest, two at the time, insisted on me producing a sweet from her ear (another variation). I was out of winegums and she threw a fit, the sort of Cecil B DeMille number that has passersby shaking their heads and whispering to each other what they’d do to her if she was theirs.
The only time she improved on that one was the day she discovered her shadow and screamed for me to take it off.
I couldn’t, of course. Mr Thompson never explained how to do that.



June 27 2005

Uncle Jim went to the trenches and came back with a sadness he never lost. He had a glass eye that as a child I imagined replaced the one he’d left somewhere in a foreign field during that war to end all wars.
He lived with my Gran, his sister, in her house in South Walls and, in spite of the gentle melancholy that always hung around him, a visit there was never gloomy.
That might have had something to do with the pocket-money he gave me every Saturday, a threepenny-bit usually, one of those umpteen-sided bronze ones, but sometimes a silver Joey that I was loath to spend.
The army shirts he wore almost matched his walrus moustache, stained a bright khaki by his combined habit of sniffing mountains of snuff and puffing on a stubby pipe which he filled with tobacco noxious enough to kill a German sniper at fifty yards.
The glass eye, several shades darker than his good brown one, was hypnotic and I couldn’t stop looking at it. It never moved and it didn’t blink when the other one did, but he could wink with it which he did each time he handed me my threepence.
He wore a cap which stayed on even indoors and I don’t remember ever seeing him without it or his pipe.
He spent most of the day sitting on a tiny wooden stool almost on top of the fire in the black-leaded grate, listening to the wireless and studying the racing pages, absently stroking Mawkin, one of two cats, mousers who ruled the house like dowager duchesses. The other, Girlie, never got close enough to anyone to let herself be stroked; she considered it common. Occasionally, Jim would refill his tin mug from the huge brown teapot that sat on the hob from morning till night.
Superstition played a big part in his life and inevitably some of it rubbed off on me. He made sure I threw spilled salt over my shoulder, warned against putting new shoes on the table, and if I was around when there was a new moon we had to go through a strange ritual which must have baffled his neighbours. It involved us stepping into the street where we would both chant, “Lady Moon, Lady Moon, bring me good luck” while clutching a half-crown apiece. We then had to turn around three times. He never explained why it was necessary, but I was happy to go along with it, even though I had to hand my half-crown back.
Superstition played a part in his death, too.
During a family trip to Milford one summer’s day my mother found a horse-shoe and picked a small bunch of heather, both symbols of luck for some. When we got home Uncle Jim was dead.
He’d put a cushion in the oven and turned on the gas. Then he lay down and quietly drifted back to No Man’s Land.
I was wrong about his eye. I was told years later that he lost it in a fishing accident.
A couple of years after he died I poked around in a drawer at Gran’s and found one of Uncle Jim’s tobacco tins. Inside were a set of false teeth and a glass eye.
I never opened the drawer again.
When I told my father he said it was probably a marble. But he was wrong.
Marbles don’t wink.