A certain celebrity, tired of her reputation as a hanger-on and cocktail-circuit accessory, decided to improve her public image by unveiling a hitherto undiscovered talent. She went to her agent, who immediately saw merit in the idea; after all, the first rule of being in the public eye is to be constantly changing your image, generating new aspects to your personality in the same way that magicians used to pull rabbits from hats. The successful magicians of today are illusionists of a different order; far from creating something out of nothing, like the rabbit from the apparently empty hat, they specialise in making nothing out of something, such as David Copperfield’s famous contraption for making the statue of liberty disappear. Once it was a prerequisite of celebrity to die young and present a vision of eternal, unchanging youth to the world, but today’s enduring figures are those whose public persona is in a constant state of flux. So to our celebrity’s agent, engineering an aura of accomplishment from a non-existent talent seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Our celebrity fretted and worried for months over what direction to take. As her agent pointed out, there was any number of pitfalls to be avoided: she could alienate her admirers by showing an aptitude for public oratory, thus courting political controversy, while disclosing a natural business acumen would distance her from younger fans and invite accusations of over-ambition. The worst thing of all would be to go into acting: the model-turned-actress road was so well-trodden it had become a ditch. It was then that she remembered her piano lessons. She remembered showing some promise as a child, so she could surely pick it up again and the price of a Steinway was no obstacle to someone in her position. Her agent, after some consideration, eventually agreed on the grounds that her career was approaching the critical Classic FM stage. As he saw it, it was an opportunity to portray a necessary transition as an act of spontaneous choice.
For six months she practised assiduously night and day at her gleaming new Steinway. She took lessons from a talented and witty teacher who had had some modest success as a concert pianist in the early 1980s, and fell effortlessly in love with him. For professional reasons it was a love which could never be consummated, but it fuelled the appearance of serene contentment which she needed to present to the world.
Eventually the moment of truth arrived. Her debut performance was to take place on a well-known late-night chat show hosted by a presenter whose opinions were as sharp as his suits. She was introduced to an enraptured crowd, smiled serenely and stepped up to the piano. She caressed the keys with all the distilled love that she had drained from her teacher and imagined that she was holding the audience spellbound by her sheer dexterity. She was wrapped in a warm, rich, generous blanket of sound which calmed her nerves and reassured her of the rightness of her decision. At last she had something to hold up against the jibes and backhand remarks which had obstructed her path to happiness.
It was just at this moment, as she felt absolution tingling in her fingertips, that she glanced into the wings and saw a familiar face moving and swaying in time to the music. It was her teacher. But her pleasure had barely time to register before it was overtaken by horror as she realised he, too, was sitting behind a grand piano. He was sitting sideways on to her, just out of view of the audience but able to see the stage. The gentle movements of his slender body and the delicate twitching of his fingers left no doubt that he was playing the piece. In her heart she was outraged: she was at once the victim and the perpetrator of a terrible deception. The piano she was playing was generating no sound at all except for the hollow rattle of the keys beneath her fingers. If she removed her hands and placed them on her head the music would carry on, perhaps only for a few seconds but long enough for everyone in the audience to share her enlightenment. But to stop would be the ruin of her. Even though it had been arranged and carried out by others without her knowledge, she was the pivotal figure on which the entire illusory enterprise depended, like the planted audience member called forward to tap on the magician’s hat. To expose the lie would be as unthinkable as to pick up the hat and reveal the hidden compartment from which the rabbit emerged. So she played on, doubling her concentration and investing every drop of her unfulfilled passion in those silent ivory sentinels. Eventually the piece came to an end, the audience rose and the celebrity, blushing and smiling, brushed the hair from her face and waved in triumph. Three days later she sacked her agent and checked in to her favourite rehabilitation clinic.
This latest development in her career was met with a chorus of sympathy. In particular the word “tragic” was universally deployed, even though the one truly tragic element of the whole episode was never made public. As we all know, a true illusionist never reveals his methods.