Pulling a Houdini

An excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints

This is an edited excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, published by Splice on March 18 and available for pre-order now.

All I was left with were questions, the hazy ephemera of askance, a dizzying vortex of half-recalled facts and half-baked theories, without the gravity of an answer, without the voices of my wife and daughter for ballast, without the purpose, direction, focus and groundedness they had given to my existence; they were gone, and what’s more there was no evidence of where they had gone to, nothing tangible to tell us what had happened, no point on a map to say that this is where they came to rest, no letter from the pilot to explain what he’d done and why, no voice recording, no coded message, not even a hint on his face in the CCTV footage of his arrival at the departure gate that might tell us what was on his mind, nothing at all, I am lost in a fog. The last time I spoke with them they’d just returned to their hotel having visited Sabah the elephant for the third day in a row, not only on account of Beatrice’s enthusiasm but in order to see how Sabah responded to them as they became familiar with him; they were both excited, Alison was trying to negotiate a price because the Malaysians were asking a lot of money, but she was convinced they’d come to an agreement in the next few days; they were leaving Kuala Lumpur that night, there was a future, there was meaning, there was (apparent) certainty or at least a direction; they would call once settled in their next hotel; and then nothing, no explanation, no co-ordinates, no remains, no goodbyes, nothing; I reached out and grabbed only air, reached out for something solid but seized only questions. It’s bizarre that the phrase “to pull a Houdini” has come to mean “to disappear,” because that is not what the Great Harry, Ehrich Weiss, was known for; if anything, he became known for the exact opposite of disappearing, reappearing as he did after being locked up in all sorts of restraints such as handcuffs, ropes, chains and straightjackets, as well as being locked inside spaces like prison cells, water-filled tanks, packing crates, boilers that had been riveted shut, beer-filled barrels and even, on one occasion, the belly of a “freak sea monster” that had washed up on a Boston beach in 1911, which was remarkable not only because of the challenge’s novelty or bizarreness, nor because nearly all of his escapes were in themselves remarkable, but because of the monster itself (there was much debate about what it actually was: some thought it a seal, others a whale, while Houdini described it as a “mongrel breed of whale and octopus” — but from the surviving image it seems to have been a giant leatherback turtle), since after it was rolled out on stage at Boston’s B.F. Keith’s Theatre, and the cunning escapologist, with great difficulty, had climbed inside, the creature was sewn up and wrapped in chains looped through metal eyelets some three inches apart and held together by a series of padlocks that surely rattled and clanked as Houdini plied his trade, making the creature look like it was in the throes of giving birth, everyone must have been holding their breath — there are no accounts of any stench from the creature, probably due to the fact that one of the men behind the challenge (it was reported that ten “businessmen” conjured up the idea) was a taxidermist and thus versed in the preparation and preservation of corpses — and so the whole auditorium, “choked to the doors,” sat breathless out of fear and awe for fifteen minutes waiting for the emergence of the hero — there was always the threat of death back then, who deals in death these days, I wonder; hardly anyone; death as entertainment has shifted to another sphere — who did indeed, at last, appear, reappear, covered no doubt in all manner of viscera and sea-creature fluids, his hair slicked with it, gasping for air but still smiling and waving to his adoring fans — what no-one realised at the time, how could they?, was that the Great Illusionist had almost succumbed to arsenic poisoning from the embalming fluids, though even if they knew nothing of the arsenic, they nevertheless sensed that it was a death-defying stunt — not to mention the sheer visual spectacle of it all — the thrill of which reached its zenith with the reappearance on stage of Houdini, covered in muck, dizzy and nauseous, who in the days following, the press likened to Jonah freed from the innards of the whale, another great reappearer, but whereas Jonah took three days to come back (and some in turn liken Jonah to Jesus, and the whale story as a precursor to that of the return of God’s son; we are steeped in stories of reappearance) it only took Houdini fifteen minutes to complete a challenge that would go down, even to the famous escapologist himself, as one of his most significant efforts, the key to its success being, of course, his reappearance on stage, for that was the moment that brought the house down and added another chapter to the growing myth of the man from Hungary who held everyone in a state of disbelief. All of which is to say that to use the name Houdini to refer to a disappearing or vanishing act is misleading, for that was not what he did, that was only half the story; he returned; he came back, he escaped death, outwitted oblivion, and so when some commentator or other made the offhand and particularly hurtful remark that MH370 had “pulled a Houdini,” it was clear that they did not know what they were talking about, because if it had pulled a Houdini, which was what we were all praying for, it would have reappeared, it would have come back to us, Alison and Beatrice would have returned home, but that’s not what happened because in reality after making its Immelmann-like turn towards the Indian Ocean followed by a couple of additional minor turns, it dropped off all radar and vanished without a trace, without a signal, without a call for help, a mayday, nothing, gone forever, Jonah swallowed by the whale and never making it out — of all the crazy theories, I’m yet to come across one arguing for the Leviathan, though doubtless it’s out there — vanished like the poor wife of the great promotor, vaudeville proprietor, comic baritone and theatre owner Harry Rickards, Kate Rickards (“Katie Angel” as she was known during her trapeze artist years, who soared against the blue, red and yellow of the bigtop and captured the hearts and minds not only of the audience, but of old Henry Leete, Harry Rickards, who must have stood agog at the Flying Woman and said to himself, “Yes, that’s the woman of my heart,” I know the feeling, Harry, I know it well, for I too have stood as you did, arms slack by my sides, gazing up at my own Flying Woman, though Alison went by The Amazing Aerialist Antoinette), poor Katie, who was buried somewhere in the Red Sea after succumbing to heatstroke in 1922, eleven years after the death of her husband, en route to Australia from England; vanished like her grandson, Harry Frank ‘Jim’ Broadbent, who in 1958, after a distinguished flying career including a record-breaking flight between England and Australia in 1938, together with his co-pilot, four crew and thirty passengers, vanished over the Atlantic Ocean one hundred and fifty miles southwest of Lisbon, never to be seen or heard from again; vanished like that national icon, barnstormer, face of the lobster-coloured twenty dollar note, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, ‘Smithy’ to his friends (and later the entire nation), first to conduct the transpacific flight from the USA to Australia in a Fokker F.VII named Lady Southern Cross, first to conduct a non-stop crossing of the Australian mainland, who in 1935, in an attempt to break the England-to-Australia record, during the India-to-Singapore leg of the flight, disappeared somewhere over the Andaman Sea, the same sea, so it happens, over which MH370 vanished from Malaysian military radar without a trace, a fact that seemed laden with promise when I first observed it — could the disappearance of both machines help provide an explanation for each? — but one that has, in the end, produced nothing but the silence of the wide-open and untrammelled seas. In fact, the term “without a trace” is not quite accurate in either circumstance, neither Smithy’s nor in the case of MH370, for some eighteen months after the disappearance of Kingsford Smith, a Burmese fisherman found a leg and wheel (still inflated) that washed up on the shore of Aye Island not far off the Burma coast and was later identified by experts as belonging to the Lady Southern Cross, Smithy’s doomed aircraft; likewise, some sixteen months after its disappearance, someone happened upon a part of a wing on a beach on the aptly-named and French-governed African island of Réunion, which experts identified “with certainty” as belonging to MH370 thanks to a concealed serial number and a skilled borescope operator; which is to say that there were indeed traces left behind, which had undoubtedly come as a relief to Kingsford Smith’s family (he left behind his second wife, Mary, and his son Charles Jr. — who incidentally went on to marry a Mary himself) just as it was a relief to me to know for sure that the aircraft had gone down; and in fact so great was the relief that when I first learned about the discovery on Réunion, it was as though Alison and Beatrice had indeed pulled a Houdini and reappeared before my very eyes, they’d managed to escape oblivion and come back to me as though they’d flown home on that broken piece of wing, a flaperon they called it, because a question, at least one of the hurricane of questions raging inside me, had been answered, for the machine had, without a doubt now, gone down somewhere in the Indian Ocean, broken apart, and the debris had been carried a vast distance via the Indian Ocean Gyre, along with the mountains of trash and plastic particles that form the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch (sister to the Pacific Trash Vortex), to wash up quietly on the rocky shore at Saint-André beach on Réunion, discovered by one Johnny Bègue, head of the island’s coastline management group, who was scouring the shoreline for a kalou, a stone to use as a pestle for crushing spices — which was like trying to find a needle in a huge pile of needles — when he saw, sticking out of the sand like partially buried treasure, the shredded end of the flaperon, which he and a few colleagues dragged up onto the grass (although it was a tiny section of the Boeing 777’s right wing, it was still, relative to a human, very big, practically the size of a coffin) and thus brought to a close a disorienting, stupefying time of uncertainty and anxiety, a time in which I did not know what to think or feel, in which I’d gone numb from a strange and very potent cocktail of despair and hope — there’s always been a part of me that believes things will work out for the best — a time in which it seemed as though I was the one who’d disappeared and was, when I did leave the house, eavesdropping on the entire planet.

About Adam Ouston

Adam Ouston is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award as well as the manuscript prize at the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. He holds a PhD and has worked as a copywriter, editor and bookseller. As a musician he performs as Costume. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania.