Today's Reading

"I have to go," she tells him.

"You're not staying to eat?"

"I can't, but you should. This place won't be here for much longer. I'm redeveloping most of the street. Restaurants like this are quaint, but they aren't profitable."

The man looks at her as a disappointed teacher might look at a wayward pupil. He asks her what he should order.

"The escargots are excellent."

She gets up, knocking the wobbly table. She says goodbye and makes her way to the end of the street where her driver is waiting for her in a blue Rolls Royce.

Just along from the French restaurant, there is a grate in the pavement, and along from the grate there is a hatch. Beneath the hatch, which opens and shuts on rusty hinges, there is a dark cellar, and inside the dark cellar there are a number of people. Two of the people come out of the hatch, and race each other down the street. They are making their way to an old pub: the Aphra Behn.


The Aphra Behn

Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee walk into a bar. The man they call Paul Daniels and the woman they call Debbie McGee walk into the Aphra Behn of Soho. They enter through an open back door then stand in a hot, poorly lit kitchen. On the counter, there is a second-hand feast: a plate of chips; a ramekin of tartar sauce; a gravy-sodden pie crust; an unfinished Greek salad with feta and pomegranate seeds.

The man they call Paul Daniels and the woman they call Debbie McGee pass through the kitchen without touching the food, and enter the main public room. The bartender looks up from his phone to see them pour the remaining liquid from discarded drinks into an empty plastic bottle. Gin, tonic water, lager, rum, cola, sparkling wine, Pimm's, a strawberry, a slice of cucumber and a novelty cocktail umbrella. Paul Daniels screws the lid onto the bottle and hides it in his coat, which he wears even on hot days. The mixture is an insurance policy. He will consume it later if something better cannot be begged or stolen.

The bartender returns to his phone. He swipes right on all the pictures of women, 18 to 35, who have placed their profiles online for his perusal. He stopped following his employers' instructions to keep the riffraff at bay several weeks ago, when he decided bar work wasn't for him.

They call the man Paul Daniels because he performs magic tricks for tips and the woman Debbie McGee because she is always by his side, but unlike their glamorous namesakes, they have neither expertise, talent, wealth, nor much of an audience.

Paul Daniels is making his rounds of the tables and standing patrons. He inserts thin, purpled fingers into his pockets and pulls out a cup and three red sponge balls. They are lighter than their size should allow; a small-scale optical illusion. They stick to his fingers like marshmallows. He begins at the first table with the Three Cup Trick, even though in this he rarely succeeds. He knows how it should be done but loses concentration and forgets where he's put the ball. The man in front of him correctly guesses its location, and flips the cup with a satisfied smile.

"There you go, mate," he says. He is wearing a baby-pink polo shirt with a logo embroidered on the chest. "Now pay up." He holds out a hand.

It is well known in the Aphra Behn that Paul Daniels is not allowed to lose. For all the occasions on which grubby playing cards slip from the frayed sleeves of his coat, or silk handkerchiefs reveal their secrets too soon, the loyal patrons of the Aphra Behn feign astonishment and hand over their pennies willingly.

The man in the polo shirt insists on collecting his winnings. He is not a regular at the pub but a tourist. He intends to spend the evening watching women with silicone breast implants and the hair of Russian prisoners (severed, imported, bleached, glued to the new scalp) remove their clothes and dance for him while he slips crisp twenty-pound notes into their garters. He is a man who knows the price of everything. He likes to win and on this occasion he has won. He wants his 40p: 20p for his stake and 20p for his winnings.

Paul Daniels is unwilling to part with his cash. He hesitates.

"What's your game?" the man asks the magician. "If you win you take the money and if you lose you take the money? That's no way to run a business. Who's going to play your cup game if it's not properly competitive?"

Paul Daniels's hands tremble as he searches for copper coins. His ribcage convulses with incoherent apologies.

The woman they call Debbie McGee remains calm. It's a calmness derived from rehearsed apathy.
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