Every year the village of East Sifin holds a Talent show, which people enter from all round the area. They rent out the little theatre and an hour before the start the room is packed with locals out for a good evening's entertainment. There will be musicians, dancers, acrobats and comedians with varying degrees of skill, but each one is applauded with gusto and no one ever feels they performed badly.
Everyone attending gets to vote for their favourite and so the winner is chosen, but a panel of four judges is also present to provide a few comments after each act. On the panel is Mr Flanagan, current director of the local amateur dramatic society and organiser of the whole event; Mrs Merribold, who years before sang in the London Symphony Chorus; Lucy Price, a teacher in the primary school and keen dancer; and Reverend Peters, the local vicar, known for being thoughtful and having a good sense of humour.
There are often more than twenty acts and the evening drags on, but no one seems to mind. On this particular occasion the audience were exceptionally keen, cheering each act more loudly than the one before. It was well after 9 o'clock when the final performer entered the stage.
"Welcome," said Mrs Merribold, beaming happily, "and what's your name?"
"Winquist," replied the man. He was dressed in a long, black topcoat and boots and seemed strangely serious.
"And where do you come from Mr Winquist?" went on Mrs Merribold, "I don't think I've seen you before."
"I have travelled some way to be here," was the vague answer.
"Okay, err," Mrs Merribold faltered slightly, "and what have you come to do?"
"I'm a magician," said Winquist.
"Oo, good," cut in Mr Flanagan, "we haven't had a magician yet this year. This should be an exciting end to the acts." This was met with a general cheer. The crowd were happy to cheer anything by now.
"When you're ready then Mr Winquist," said Mrs Merribold, leaning back in expectation.
Winquist nodded and then addressed the audience. "Thank you everyone." (Cheer) "If you'll just bear with me a moment." Quickly he whipped off his large coat and then, without blinking, drew an invisible hook in mid air and hung his coat on it.
There was silence for a split second as the audience tried to work out what had just happened and how the trick worked. Then there was a large round of applause and more cheering.
"Nice," said Lucy, while the vicar leaned forward.
"Now, I thought I'd start by doing some juggling," continued Winquist as if nothing had happened. "I know you might not think juggling especially magical, but I find it fascinating."
While he was talking Winquist reached inside his coat and pulled out three ordinary juggling balls and began rotating them through the air. The crowd watched and waited expectantly for the magic, but initially nothing seemed to happen.
After almost twenty seconds Winquist looked over to the judges and asked, "Mrs Merribold, I'm struggling to remember, how many balls did I start off with?"
"Three," she replied confidently.
"Ah yes, I thought one had slipped in there."
Lucy gasped as she caught on. "There's four now!"
The audience began to realise what had happened, but then someone called out, "No, there's five!"
"I can see six," said another.
The multiplying juggling balls engrossed the crowd as they tried to keep track. The vicar, though, was watching Winquist's hands, trying to work out where the new balls were appearing from.
The audience became increasingly excited as more and more balls appeared until someone was certain they'd counted ten.
Winquist suddenly shouted, "This has gone too far, I can't keep up," and in a flash all of the balls were launched into the air and vanished.
A large "ooo" swept round the room, followed by more clapping.
Winquist was digging in his coat again and emerged with a shiny, top hat. "I like traditions," he said, still completely serious. "You can't beat simply pulling rabbits out of a hat." To prove his point he reached in and picked up not one but two rabbits and stepping off the stage handed them to Lucy and Mrs Merribold, who were delighted. The magician reached into the hat again and this time pulled out a rubber duck, which he passed to the vicar, who took it and laughed.
"What do I get?" said Mr Flanagan indignantly, which brought on more shouts from the audience.
"You," said Winquist, "can have this," and he handed over the top hat. "Now if you wouldn't mind holding it upside down, I think it's time these rabbits went home." Then he clapped twice and the two rabbits sprung up, hopped along the desk and jumped back into the hat.
Mr Flanagan stared into the hat and then held it the right way up, but nothing fell out.
"Excuse me," said Winquist, now back on the stage, "how would you like it if someone turned your house upside down?"
Mr Flanagan looked abashed and apologised.
"You'll pay for that, you know. You will now have to take part in my final piece of magic."
The actor looked excited and began to rise from his seat.
"No, no," said Winquist, "stay where you are." Then to the audience he said, "I feel that my magic so far has been cute and simple, so now I will show you something truly spectacular."
The audience drew a breath in mutual excitement.
The magician took a few steps back so that he stood in the middle of the stage. Then without warning he burst into flames. This time the shouts from the onlookers were cries of fear, but the fire went out almost as quickly as it had started. At the same moment there was a loud crack and the stage was empty. No magician, not coat, nothing. Then from the wings appeared a very confused looking Mr Flanagan. Everyone stared, still stunned and confused about what had happened. Mrs Merribold, however, screamed and all eyes snapped to the judges desk. There on the end seat, where Mr Flanagan had been just moments before, sat a very relaxed Winquist, complete with topcoat and hat and applauding loudly.
"Take a bow then, Mr Flanagan," called the magician, "that was a wonderful act."
Some of the crowd began to clap too, but the poor director continued to look dazed.
The magician's act was easily the most talked about as the audience refilled their drinks and dropped their voting slips into the box. Most of them were happy enough with the act, although several seemed to think the final piece had been a little disturbing. There were many ideas as to how the coat and the juggling balls and a the hat with the rabbits were done, but no one had a clue how Winquist had vanished from the stage, while Mr Flanagan had ended up in the wings. Some suggested that Mr Flanagan must have been in on the act and just wanted a bit more stage time himself.
"He is a good actor," said one person.
"Well I think that's cheating," said another.
The magician himself, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen.
After the voting had been completed and the adding up done by the judges, everyone reassembled for the announcement of the winner. Normally this would have been done by Mr Flanagan, but he was still recovering from his part in the magician's act and so handed over the honour to the vicar.
"Thank you, again, everyone for coming," began the Reverend Peters, gripping a piece of paper tightly. The crowd, who had rediscovered their voice, cheered once more. "It has been another wonderful night. Magical, one might say," he added to a burst of laughter.
"But now it is time to announce the winner of tonight's contest." The vicar paused slightly. "I can reveal that the champion of East Sifin's talent competition this year is," (a longer pause this time) "Emily Harraday, with her performance of 'Mama Mia'!"
There was some surprise but it didn't stop the biggest cheer of the night as a blushing, twelve-year old, Emily tripped up to collect her prize.
Unnoticed at the back of the theatre a man in a black topcoat slipped out of the door, smiling slightly as he pocketed the results of the vote count.