by BRIAN MOORE
WHEN he bent down to open the cheap brown cardboard suitcase I turned off the main street into the lane and stood beside the audience of three small boys on the pavement. It was a Sunday afternoon in October, a harsh, Ulster Sunday with shops and offices shut and people wandering aimlessly in the streets of Belfast looking lor distraction.
He took a pair of large handcuffs out of the suitcase and laid them on the pavement. The small boys moved closer. A grotesque helmet, like a fencers mask, with a collar and a headpiece of brass, followed the handcuffs. Then a strait jacket, a set of chains, and a long thick piece of rope. Three more strollers joined the audience. He closed the suitcase and laid his dirty gray felt hat on top of it, bottom up. Then he removed his brown jacket with the campaign ribbons and stood there, shivering a little in the chill wind, a small man, about forty years old, with ropy muscles, wearing a cotton singlet, torn brown trousers, and stained white canvas shoes.
The strong man’s pitch was not far from the port and he must have counted on getting some of the people who like to go down to the docks on Sunday and watch the ships, He looked up and down the lane for a policeman and then, as though he had suddenly noticed us, turned and said, “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Only a few minutes until the performance begins.”
He looked past us at the main street and then picked up the set of chains and rattled them, holding them extended over his head. Half a, dozen people turned and looked down the lane. Four of them walked toward us.
“This way, lady. This way, gents,”he said in a loud whining voice with a Cockney twang. “See somefing you won’t see every day of the week. Make way there, sonny. Let the lady in. Don’t be shy, lady. I bark but I never bin known to bite. Gather rahnd, gather rahnd. No obligation, no admission fee. If you’re not satisfied afterwards there’s trams and taxis to take you away. Show your appreciation, after the performance.
He rattled the chains again and laid them down in the laneway. Somewhere above us the weak sun shone like a flashlight at dawn through the endless gray clouds. The strong man cocked a lighter’s eye at the sky and turned a handspring.
“Ex-service,” he said. “Served in the reggaler army before the war. India. There’s where I found out about mind over matter, ladies and gents. Like these ‘andcuffs.”
He picked them up and held them out before him like a bridesmaid showing a bouquet. “Reggaler Scotland Yard ‘andcuffs,” he said. “See for yerselves.” He pushed them under the face of a fattish man and then swung them above his head.
“Any time you think I’m faking, just step up here and try it yerself,”he said. “I’m an old soldier with a bag of tricks. But no trickery.”He laid the handcuffs on the pavement and turned another handspring. “Now, let’s get cracking,” he said.
Several more people had joined the group. Like children at a party the newcomers moved around the edges of the crowd, forming a wide, irregular circle round the dancing, pacing figure in the center. The slrong man picked up the strait jacket and looked at it for a moment.
“First time they ask you to try one of these on for size, you wonder if they’re barmy. But that’s usually because you’re barmy — see?” He laughed and rolled his bright blue eyes at a girl who stood on the inner rim of the crowd, holding her handbag to her stomach.
“Getting ‘em on’s easy,” the strong man said, putting his arms into the long sleeves, walking all the while, so that everyone should get a close look at the jacket. He hitched the heavy canvas up to his chin and shrugged his shoulders in.
“Now, I need doin’ up,” he said. “Any volunteers? Come on, sir. All you ‘ave to do is tighten up these leather straps as tight, as you can get ‘em.”
The man shook his head and the jacket was thrust in front of a couple of gangling corner boys. Egged on by their girls, they stepped self-consciously into the circle.
“Ooray! Now, let’s see if you can stop an old exserviceman,” the strong man shouted. “Let’s see if t hese blokes are as tough as they look.”
He muttered some instructions to the boys and they started tying the jacket, doubling his arms across his chest and tugging on the leather straps.
“Don’t mind me,” the strong man said, looking cheerfully at the crowd. “ Let’s see ‘ow ‘ard you can pull.”
The corner boys exchanged glances and then pulled together, without humor, straining, intent, Irishmen stuffing it into an English gaum. Veins stood out on the strong man’s neck and his weatherroughened face became turkey red.
“That’s the stuff. Coo! Ain’t they strong?” He winked at the audience, bouncing up and down on his heels, and said in a sergeant’s tones: “Tie ‘em tight, now. Okeydoke. Thank you very much.”
He stopped back into the center of the circle and started shouting again, walking up and down like a man in a prison cell, shrugging the upper part of his imprisoned body to get the feel of the jacket.
“I picked this up in India from a ‘eathen,” he cried. “It ain’t muscle wot counts, it’s control. Control can get you anywhere. Ever try it on your mother-in-law? Works wonders.”
A titter started somewhere and the crowd pushed forward, the people at the back straining to see into the circle.
“Now watch me closely,” the strong man said. “It requires control — see? Now watch closely, ladies and gents.” He stood quite still for a moment. Then, straining and shrugging, he brought his imprisoned arms up over his head in a swift, jerking movement.
“ Old it! ‘Old it!” he shouted as a murmur of admiration moved in the crowd. “ I’m not out yet!”
He fell on his back and writhed along the pavement, twisting and turning his wrists. Suddenly his hands were free and he was back on his feet, unbuckling the thongs behind his neck.
“ That’s only the beginning!” he roared, glaring out at the fringes of the crowd. He threw the strait jacket on the ground and skipped back into the center of the circle.
“Can I ‘ave your attention, ladies and gents,” he said, holding up his scrawny arms. “Before I continue with the performance, I want to tell you that my wife, my old missus, is sick. So I’m an exserviceman on my own today. I’ll ‘ave to ask your indulgence and your ‘elp, ladies and gents. I’ll ask you to wait until the performance is over and then I’ll be arahnd with the ‘at.”
At this mention of money, a few people began to drift back toward the main street. The strong man rolled his eyes round the circle, estimating the crowd. There were about sixty people.
“ ‘Old it! ‘Old it!" he cried. “I got two more tricks yet. Two feats of control you won’t see every day of the week. Now listen to me! If you like what you see, I’m going to ask each and every one of you to give me one penny. Which I shall collect af-ter the performance. My wife is sick today, so I shall ave to work without ‘er assistance. Now, anybody carn’t afford a penny better shove off. I’ll give you time. Anyone carn’t afford one penny?”
He stopped speaking and stood there, silent, his bright eyes on the crowd. The dour North Irish faces turned from his watchful stare. Some muttered to each other while others looked up at the sky for signs of the omnipresent rain. Nobody moved away.
“Rightio!” said the strong man in a soldier’s bark. “Everybody’s good for a penny. Right. Now, I’ll give you two tricks that are worth a pound of anybody’s money.”
HE PICKED up the handcuffs. I looked down at his faded brown jacket, folded on the ground beside the battered suitcase. A weather-worn rainbow of color stretched across the lapel. Eighth Army ribbon. He had been one of Montgomery’s Desert Rats. Italian and Normandy campaigns. A couple of others I couldn’t place. Meanwhile, someone had locked the handcuffs on his wrists and placed the ugly, heavy helmet on his head.
“It locks be’ind!” he shouted to the crowd. “Ever see that bloke on the pictures, The Man in the Iron Mask? Well, you’re looking at ‘im now, ladies and gents. In the old days they used to use this mask for mother-in-laws and politicians. Once you put this on ‘em they’ve ‘ad it. That’s right, sonny. I want that chain. Bring it ‘ere. Thanking you very much. Now, look at this chain, ladies and gents. Try it on for size. That’s it. Full steel link chain, the best that Britain can forge. Which means the best in the world.”
“Fake!” a hard, Irish voice yelled. The crowd shifted and stirred uneasily.
“Okay, sonny. Come up ‘ere and try it,” the strong man called back, his eyes rolling behind the grille of his helmet. “Now, let’s get on with the performance. I need some ‘elp with this girdle. ‘Oo’s to put this chain around me? Thank you, sir. That’s right. Don’t worry about me. Tie it tight. That’s it. Now, the padlock. Rightio. Now, watch me, ladies and gents. Oop-la!”
The handcuffs sprang open, dangling from his wrist. He hoisted his manacled hand aloft and looked at the sky. The clouds were blacker and a few spitting drops of rain had started falling. The strong man glared up at the sky and clasped his hands together. Muscles corded under his skin and the chain burst from around his chest and fell with a loud clatter on the pavement. His jaw sank into his neck, his face mottled, and his shoulders shook. The helmet flew open and he shook his head downward like a girl shaking out wet hair. The helmet crashed to the pavement and rolled away.
“Can’t keep an old soldier down!" he roared triumphantly. “’Old it! Old it! That‘s only a warm-up. Now, this is what you come to see, ladies and gents, this is somefing no other man can do. I’m going to show you why they carn’t ‘ang me. Carn’t shoot me neither. Jerry found that out in Africa. Ex-service. Ex-British Army. Yes, ladies and gents, and trying to make an ‘onest living, if you’ll ‘elp me. Only one penny asked. Get your pennies ready. After this feat of strength, I will conclude my performance and then I’ll be arahnd to ask one penny from each and every one of you.”
A penny dropped in the center of the circle. '"Old it! ‘Old it!" shouted the strong man. “Not now. Lat-ER! Please don’t throw the pennies in, ladies and gents. My wife is sick, so I’ll come arahnd myself with the ‘at, immediately after this. Only one penny. Bight? Now, let’s get cracking!”
He picked up the thick rope and held it out. “I need four volunteers for this trick,”he said. “Four good strong blokes willing to use their muscles. Come on, now. I‘m the bloke that‘s getting ‘urt. Let’s not muck about. Let’s ‘ave four gentlemen. ‘Ow about you, sonny? Thank you very much. Now, these two gents who ‘elped me before. Thank you very much indeed. Now, another one? Ow about another one? Ow about you, sir? No? Don‘t be shy. That’s it. ‘Ooray! Now, let’s get weaving!”
He rubbed his grimy hands on his cotton singlet and held out the rope. It was about fourteen feet long. Prancing, he laid it across the lane, a diameter to the watching circle. Then he picked it up at the center and twisted it around his neck like a grotesque necktie.
“Now. I want silence for this trick. I want everybody quiet while these blokes strangle me. I’ve always come through until now but, if I don’t do it this time, I’d like my last moments peaceful. And wait till I finish. Afterwards, if you’re satisfied with my performance, I‘ll be rahnd for that penny. Thank you, one and all.”
“Now, you gents,” he turned to the four men. “Two of you take one end of the rope. That’s right. Now, you two take the other end. Rightio! Now, just pretend you’re playing tug of war except that my neck’s twisted in this rope in the middle. Now, I want you to start when I tell you and pull as ‘ard as you can until I snap my fingers for you to stop. No jerking. Just take a long steady pull and put all your weight, behind it. I’m not protected and insured, but don’t you worry. Nothing will ‘appen to you. All set? Now, let’s see what an ex-serviceman can do. . . . Pull! ”
The two teams of men started pulling on the rope, gently at first, then, leaning back, put their weight behind it. The strong man, his legs wide apart, braced himself and hunched his shoulders as the rope bit into his neck. Sweat bloomed on his face, which turned crimson, then a choking, blue-red color. A few women in the crowd turned their heads away. The men pulled harder and the strong man bobbed up and down in the center like a red and white handkerchief on a tug-of-war rope. A ripple of amazement spread out into the watching crowd, drawing them closer, narrowing the circle.
Suddenly, the sky darkened as though an invisible stage manager had lowered his house lights. Then, thick and steady, rain beat down on the laneway. The crowd turned their faces skyward, the circle of watchers wavered and broke. Hurrying for shelter they passed the tightly shut eyes and congested face of the conqueror, shaking under the pressure of the rope, holding his breath in his choking windpipe, unfeeling, counting his thirty seconds of resistance against death. Finally, his arms lifted. He snapped his fingers and the men released the rope.
The strong man staggered forward, pulling the rope over his head, massaging his chafed neck. The four men who had held the rope turned up their collars and reached in their pockets for some change. The strong man opened his eyes, in time to see his audience converge on the main street, running for open doorways, tramcars, and covered shop fronts.
“’Old it! ‘Old it!” he roared. “Don’t run away. Only cost you a bleeding penny. That’s all.”He swooped down and picked up his dirty felt hat.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, madam. That’s it, sonny. Thank you, sir.”
He quickly ran around the dozen people still standing in the downpour. Passing me, he picked up his jacket and slung it over his shoulders. The campaign ribbons were rain-sodden. I put a shilling in his hat.
“Thanking you, sir, he said. He reached in his hat and transferred the money to his trouser pocket. Then he looked up at his old, implacable enemy.
“Only a shower, he said. “Shouldn‘t think it will last.”
But the rain beat down steadily on his upturned face, blinding his lighter’s eyes. Persistent Irish rain.