Andreas needed to tidy his workroom. It was a small, wood-panelled room, just big enough for a desk, a chair, a set of shelves, two supply cupboards, and a small one-burner camp-stove. There was a large pot simmering on the camp-stove, and the desk, aside from being covered in a haphazard pile of papers, a tea-kettle, and three used tea mugs, was cluttered with all sorts of strange-looking vials filled with stranger-looking substances. About a good third of the vials were uncorked. Not one of them was labelled. Two lay empty on their sides, only a shiny green residue in one and a sticky blue residue in the other showing that they had ever been full. An inkwell stood upright in one corner of the desk beside a jumbled pile of quill pens and an ink blotter with a dragon carved into the handle. Two of the drawers of the desk were open, stuffed with not only papers but inkwells and all sorts of lumpy brown-paper parcels. These, unlike the vials, were labelled- but not in handwriting that anyone could read, not even Andreas himself. The third desk drawer was jammed shut. It had been for years. Andreas could not even remember when the last time he opened it was.
The supply cupboards were worse than the desk. Their doors were stuck permanently open. If Andreas hadn’t put a containment spell on them long ago, their contents would have long since burst forth, covering the small room with seven-league-boots, amulets of protection, the pewter scales Andreas used for weighing ingredients, and an invisible cloak, among countless other things. The cloak had been something of a mistake. Andreas had thought it was an invisibility cloak when he’d ordered it from the mail-order catalogue, but it turned out it was just invisible. Andreas only thought it was in one of the supply cupboards. He could not be sure, as he had not seen it since he took it out of the box.
The neatest corner of the room was the set of shelves. It was double shelved with books, and they were all standing up. That was about as far as the neatness went. The books were shelved in no particular order, with giant books next to really small ones, and spiral-bound notebooks stuffed in among the lot. More than half the books had papers covered in Andreas’s messy scrawl sticking out from between their pages, and the shelf in front of them was cluttered with more quills, vials (both empty and full) and colourful stones, as well as a box of tea-leaves and a fork.
If it would have been up to Andreas, he wouldn’t have needed to tidy his room at all. Sure, it looked like a cyclone had just had a birthday party inside it, but he thought it was rather cosy like that. And Andreas did have a system for finding everything. He knew just where everything was, despite what Mrs Sharp said.
No, you don’t. A small, black cat – scarcely more than a kitten – with white paws and a white nose came sauntering around the desk and leapt onto Andreas’s lap. The cat was named Napoleon, but Andreas called him Nibbles. You don’t know where a single thing here is. So.
Andreas looked at Nibbles appraisingly. “What makes you say that?”
Nibbles looked back at him piteously. You’ve forgotten to feed me. For three days now.
Andreas laughed, stroking Nibbles’s head. “We both know Mrs Sharp gives you more than enough to eat. If anything, you’re overfed.”
Mrs Sharp was Andreas’s landlady. In addition to renting him the flat, Mrs Sharp cooked and cleaned for Andreas, for an extra fee. She was a small woman whose face and personality matched her name. She was the one who made sure that Andreas ate regular meals. If not for her the rest of Andreas’s flat would be as chaotic as his workroom. The state of his workroom did not please her. This morning, she had given him an ultimatum. “Either you clean that room of yours or I’ll do it, young man! I mean it. That mess has been allowed to accumulate for far too long. I don’t see how you manage in there!”
It had brought Andreas straight back fifteen years. His mother had used to lecture at him about his bedroom in the exact same way.
“I don’t see why you let her bother you so much,” said the dragon carved into the ink blotter. His name was Sylvester. Andreas didn’t know why, but one day he had just started talking. Perhaps it had something to do with one of the spilt vials. Andreas didn’t mind. He rather liked it. It made someone besides Nibbles to bounce ideas off of when he was trying to figure things out. “If you don’t like her, just sack her,” Sylvester suggested.
No! Then I shall never get any dinner!
“I can’t do that! It wouldn’t be right,” Andreas explained. “She’s my landlady. Besides, she does look after us. I don’t know where I’d be without her cooking.” He raked a hand through his wild chestnut-coloured hair. It was getting a bit long, he mused. He’d have to cut it soon, or Mrs Sharp would be after him about that, too.
“I don’t suppose you can work a spell to keep her out of here, then?” Sylvester suggested.
Andreas considered this for a minute. “No, I don’t think that’ll work. She’d never stop pestering me; she’d have me evicted, or at the very least she’d threaten to quit. And I can’t do without her.”
“Save you the trouble of having to sack her,” Sylvester mumbled, but Andreas shook his head.
“There’s no help for it,” he said after a moment. “I’m going to have to clean up.” He looked around the small room, not even sure where to begin.
Cheer up! said Nibbles. He jumped onto the desk and started pawing at one of the vials. It held a translucent purple liquid. It won’t be that bad. I’ll help. Oops! The vial fell off the desk, landing on the floor. Andreas bent to pick it up. Nibbles sauntered over to one of the tea mugs and poked his nose inside. Mmm. Mrs Sharp sure knows how to make good tea!
“I say, you have the most peculiar tastes of any cat I ever met. Who ever heard of a cat liking tea?” Andreas held the vial up to the light. “I wonder what this one is?” He pulled the cork out to sniff.
“If you’d label them all, you’d know,” Sylvester told him.
“You sound like Mrs Sharp.”
Mrs Sharp banged on the closed wooden door.
Andreas jumped, a little guiltily. The purple substance spilled on his white linen shirt, but it did not make a mark. It dried instantly and smoked a little as it did so. Andreas frowned. “Curious.” If only he knew what it was!
“Who are you talking to in there? You’re not summoning demons or anything, are you?” Mrs Sharp rattled the doorknob.
Andreas leapt out of his chair and went to open the door.
“No. No demons.” He raked a hand distractedly through his hair again.
“You’d better cut that,” Mrs Sharp told him, eyeing the hair. Her own dark hair was kept in a tidy bun.
Mrs Sharp did not notice. She never seemed to notice when Sylvester spoke. “I’ve brought you a box,” she told Andreas, thumping an empty carton down at his feet. “I want you to fill it with things to get rid of. You’ve got far too much junk in that room, and don’t tell me you need it all for your work. You haven’t touched most of it in ages, judging by the dust lining those doors.” She gestured at a supply cupboard. “And I want you to have made significant progress by the time I come back with lunch, understand?”
Andreas managed a nod, and Mrs Sharp nudged the carton closer to him with her foot and went out, pulling the door shut behind her.
“She makes me feel like a little kid,” Andreas complained to Sylvester. “Telling me to clean up. Setting deadlines. Ugh.”
“She’s just being motherly,” Sylvester pointed out. “And if you don’t want her to tell you to clean up, don’t make a mess.”
Think of it as a treasure hunt, Nibbles suggested. Who knows what we’ll find in here! He leapt from the desk into one of the supply cupboards and bounced off the containment spell. Wheee!
“I suppose.” Andreas took his hand out of his hair and started sorting through the papers on the desk. They were covered in his messy writing and thus it was difficult to determine if they were important. Sylvester helped here. He turned out to be remarkable at reading messy handwriting, including the parts that were too messy even for Andreas to read.
“I’m an ink blotter,” he explained. “I know ink.”
Most of the papers Andreas kept, shoving them into the cover of a random book and stuffing it back on the shelf. A few he crumpled up and threw onto the floor for later disposal. Nibbles immediately jumped off the supply cupboard he was prancing along the top of and started playing with these.
Next, Andreas tackled the vials. He lined them up along the bookshelves, telling himself he’d get back to them later. He carried the tea mugs out to his kitchen and left them in the sink. He was halfway back to his workroom when he stopped himself. No. He was going to wash them properly. Back at the sink, Andreas located the dish soap, poured a generous amount into each mug, and began scrubbing them. He sang while he worked.
Stop that! Nibbles batted at Andreas’s feet. Stop that awful noise!
“It’s not awful. I was singing.”
“Oh, is that what you call it?” Sylvester joked from the other room. “The cat’s right. It’s awful.”
Andreas grinned and sang louder. He was starting to enjoy himself.
When the mugs were clean, Andreas left them on the counter to dry and went back to working on his workroom. He dumped out the two drawers that were stuck open and went through more papers. Here he realised that he needed access to his books, if only to stuff more papers into them, so he moved the vials to the top edge of one of the supply cupboards. Andreas got rid of his empty inkwells, tidied his quills, and organised the brown-paper parcels with spell ingredients. Andreas was just clearing the last things off of the top of the desk when Nibbles, back up on the supply cupboard, knocked a vial off into the pot on the camp-stove.
Clumsy cat! Andreas had forgotten about the pot. He’d been working on inventing a spell in it. It was a long sort of spell that needs to simmer for a while, but the vial Nibbles had knocked into it – Andreas could not be sure which one it was – must have done something to it. In any case he would have to start again. The pot had no liquid in it and was scorched white. Perhaps it had been some more of that purple liquid. He really had to find out what it was. Perhaps there was something in his notes. Andreas absentmindedly swept the last few things on his desk into the top drawer and shut it. Imagine being able to do that! He hadn’t for quite a while. He took two steps towards his shelves.
“Hey!” Sylvester protested. His voice was oddly muffled.
Oh- right. “Fool,” Andreas told himself. “You shut him in a drawer.” He went back to the desk and tried to open the drawer. It would not budge.
Wrong drawer, Nibbles told him, and Andreas saw that he was right. He opened the right drawer and put Sylvester back on the desk. Sylvester began a lecture about not shutting friends in drawers, but Andreas wasn’t attending.
“Hush,” he said. “Or I’ll put you back. I want to get this last drawer open.” He was nearly done with the desk. Just one more drawer, and that would be the whole thing. He’d have to leave the supply cupboards for after lunch. Besides, trying the drawer had reminded him that it had not been opened in years. He wanted to see what was inside.
Andreas pulled. He pushed. He lifted and then pulled. Nothing worked.
Let me try. Nibbles jumped onto the desk, then jumped off of it and bounced against the containment spell. He bounced back and hit the jammed drawer, knocking it open on his first try. Wheee!
“Clumsy cat,” Andreas said lovingly, then bent to see what was inside the drawer.
Inside the drawer was something Andreas had forgotten existed. He reached in and pulled out a string of silk scarves, purple, blue, green, all connected. He turned them inside out. Scarlet, orange, yellow. Under the scarves were a fake wand and a very smushed costume top-hat with a false end. There were two decks of cards – one real, one trick – a set of cups, a small red ball, and a fake coin for coin tricks. There was also an instruction manual, written not in Andreas’s crabbed script but in someone else’s round, clear print.
Andreas grinned. It was good to see this old set again. He picked up the coin and rolled it across his knuckles. This had been his first magic set, back when he was a boy. It was this set which had first gotten him interested in magic. It was all sleight of hand and parlour tricks, true, but it was what he had started on before he was old enough to be allowed to practise real magic. It was good to see it again.
Andreas made a pass with his hands, and the coin disappeared. Nibbles jumped onto the desk again and nosed at Andreas’s hands. Whoa. Magic!
Andreas had to laugh. “Not really.” He showed Nibbles the coin, which had been hidden inside his sleeve. Nibbles was still impressed. Next Andreas demonstrated a few card tricks. He hadn’t touched a deck of cards in ages, but his hands still remembered how to do false cuts and shuffles and how to force a card. Nibbles watched in amazement as Andreas performed card trick after card trick.
“You’re never this excited about real magic,” Andreas observed. “Why is this so much more exciting?”
I understand how that works, Nibbles explained. This is different!
“This is all very nice,” Sylvester interrupted, “but have you forgotten what you’re supposed to be doing? Mrs Sharp will be back any minute now, and you haven’t picked out a single thing to get rid of.”
Andreas looked guiltily at the empty box on the floor. “I can fill it with papers, maybe. The extra ones I don’t need.” He gestured to the small pile of papers and empty inkwells on the floor by his desk. “If I crumple them just right, maybe they’ll fill it.”
“That’s cheating,” Sylvester told him sternly.
Andreas grinned back at him, unperturbed. “Maybe so, but some people say magic is cheating. If I listened to them, I’d never have become who I am. It’s thanks to my uncle and this toy magic set that I found my current career. He taught me that nothing you have to really work at to learn for yourself is cheating, whether it’s stage magic or real magic.”
“And I suppose you had to really work at it to throw away old papers that you don’t need anyway, hmmm?”
“Stop trying to be my conscience, Sylvester! Mrs Sharp does that enough. Seriously, If I didn’t know better I’d think you two were in league or something!” Andreas shoved a hand through his hair, making parts of it stick up in half-curls. “I’ve been at this all day. It’s not my fault I still need most of the stuff in this room.”
“Most of it,” Sylvester repeated. He eyed the magic set in Andreas’s lap.
Andreas followed his gaze. “I need this! It was my inspiration. I need it to remind myself why I do what I do.”
Sylvester said nothing.
Don’t get rid of it! It’s so much fun! Nibbles nosed at the set of cups. What do these do?
Andreas was about to demonstrate when he heard Mrs Sharp’s footsteps on the stairs. He looked at the empty box. He looked around the room once more, hoping for something, anything else to put in it. It was possible there was something in one of the supply cupboards, but he didn’t have time to go through them now. “I guess… I guess I don’t really need this old set.” He placed it carefully in the box, then gestured around the room. “I have all this to remind me, after all. But I’m not just going to throw it away. I’ll give it to someone. Maybe it can inspire someone else the way it inspired me.”
Sylvester wobbled back and forth. If he hadn’t been an ink blotter, he would have nodded approvingly. Andreas hoisted the box up and opened the door of the workroom, going out to meet Mrs Sharp in the kitchen.
Food! Nibbles streaked out between his feet. Andreas leapt nimbly aside so as not to step on him.
“Have you picked anything to get rid of yet?” Mrs Sharp asked him as she began to put food on his table. She had made lasagna. It smelled delicious.
Andreas nodded. “The set in here is very special to me. I’d like to give it to your son.” She had a son, right?
Mrs Sharp’s face softened and her eyes crinkled as she smiled at him. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Andreas. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Andreas grinned back. It would serve her right if her son decided he wanted to be a magician.