I like being a landlord. I’ve got this rather nice little pub in Norfolk, overlooking the Yare. It’s called, not very originally, ‘The Ship.’ It’s an old building, lots of real beams, hanging baskets in the summer, a log fire in the winter months. I pride myself on my beers, too. There’s a little restaurant in the conservatory. Nothing fancy, but substantial simple food. Popular with tourists and holidaymakers. We get a lot of boats pull into the small landing stage and discharge hungry sailors. Lots of passing trade, but a lot of regulars too. I like to think it’s a cheerful place. People do seem to like it.
I have a bit of a sideline. I’m an amateur magician. Nothing too fancy. Card tricks, coin tricks, pulling eggs from the ears of customers. Nothing too hard, but it does amuse people, particularly when it’s cold and the fog rolls in off the river.
There is one rather special trick I have. On the bar, there’s a ship in a bottle. It’s in one of those gallon size whisky bottles, which stands in an elaborate metal cradle on a simple mahogany plinth. The ship itself is low and long, black, a three-master. It’s very very detailed; all the rigging is there, the sails neatly furled. The figurehead is a red dragon, and at the sternpost there’s a skull and crossbones.
To work the trick I need someone who’s never seen the ship in a bottle before. They must be new people for the trick to work. Here’s what I have them do. They can examine the bottle, the cradle, the plinth as much as the like, to see there are no strings or wires or hidden devices. Then they have to put their right hand on the stopper of the bottle, which is of the same intricate design as the cradle. The flat of their left hand goes on the cradle at the base of the bottle. Then I make a few incantations, move my hands gently in the air.
A most extraordinary thing happens. Suddenly the rigging starts to dance and move as if tiny crewmembers are climbing it. Slowly, ever so slowly, the sails unfurl, and fill as if the ship is running with the wind. The skull and crossbones flutters.
No prizes for guessing that the punter looks astonished. But always too, there’s something else in their expression. They’re not sure what, and nobody else sees it, but I’ve trained myself to observe this fleeting flash of vague disquiet, gone as suddenly as it arrives. It makes me smile every time.
Later, when the pub is shut, and everyone has gone, I put my hands on the bottle; right hand on the stopper, left hand on the base. The sails sag, then begin to furl again. Then the rigging shakes as the tiny phantom crew descend. The skull and crossbones hangs limp again. And the magic has worked.
The cradle and the stopper were made for me by a shaman. The delicate markings and symbols form a ‘soul stealer.’ They take a small part of a person’s soul, their life force, and drag it, reluctantly I imagine, into the bottle. The hapless customer has lost a bit of life. Not much, maybe a week or two. Anyone can afford a week can’t they? And then I take that week of soul, of life, from the bottle into me. I didn’t want to end up doing that, but I wasn’t ready to die back in 1890, and I’m not ready yet. I reckon there’s another hundred years of fun to be had, at least.
That’s why I like to see new faces. They really are the life and soul of the pub. They really are my life and soul.