I'm pretty sure my childhood ended the moment I noticed the bunny the magician held aloft was dead.
My mother showed me a local newspaper clipping years afterwards (Yes, it had made the local paper. Not much happened in my town) and apparently the magician had improperly forced the bunny in the compartment inside the top hat and it had suffocated. “Magican Kills Rabbit: Birthday Garden Party Ruined” the headline read. Reading it now, I feel like the rabbit dying is a bit more of a severe crime than ruining a child's birthday party but that's clearly not how this particular reporter felt.
Obviously in that moment, I didn't realise that's what had happened. All I had was a sneaking suspicion that my tenth birthday party had just been ruined.
It was a good idea of my parents to book a magician. I had recently really gotten into Penn & Teller and I unsuccessfully tried to fool my parents with card tricks every morning at the breakfast table. It's just a shame they didn't do a proper job of hiring a competent one. Or maybe they had and this guy was just having a spectacularly bad gig. In any case, what I still don't understand to this day was why the magician tried so hard to pass off the trick as if it had worked. He could have just gone “Ta-da” and immediately put the bunny away before anyone noticed what had happened to it. We only needed to see the bunny for a moment to be awed at how he got it out of nowhere. Maybe he would have received complaints from the parents but at least the children wouldn't have noticed.
Instead he held it aloft, nervously smiling and telling everyone that the bunny was asleep. His face was already turning red and, being on the front row, I could see the damp patches of flop sweat forming on the armpits of his white shirt.
I think he still would have kind of gotten away with it if it weren't for Beth. Beth was the youngest at the party at 8-years-old and was always pretty easily affected by things. She must have noticed the bunny was dead, or at least sensed that something was not right without understanding what in that way that children do, and began to cry. And once again, the magician chose the worst possible path in dealing with this situation.
Beth was sitting two children to the left of me, also on the front row, and the magician went right up to her and held the bunny in front of her face, repeatedly saying “It's asleep, it's asleep, it's asleep!” which only made her cry harder. This in turn caused the kids who were sitting around her to start crying in sympathy with her. They probably didn't know why they were crying but they did. The effect rippled throughout the audience and pretty soon, all 27 children in the crowd were bawling as the magician jumped up and down telling all the kids to stop crying and that everything was fine.
To this day, I can still perfectly conjure up the image of the flustered magician, shouting in a screeching, panicky voice as the dead rabbit shook about in his white-gloved hand.
It was at this point that one of the parents - it may have been mine - stormed the performance area and escorted the magician out of the garden and into the house whilst all the other parents waded into the sea of crying children to comfort them all.
They did eventually get us all to calm down but the vibe was well and truly dead and the party never really managed to get back on the rails. Most of the kids didn't want to leave their parents' side, traumatised by an event they did not understand, and those of us that didn't weren't exactly in a playful mood.
So the party fizzled out early and all the kids gradually left, with my parents systematically apologising to all the other parents as they went.
Eventually everyone was gone and my parents gave me my birthday gift, although they seemed a bit apprehensive to give it to me. When I opened the present I could see why: it was a magician's starter kit.
By that point in the day, I had sort of gone off magic. For good. I never opened the kit. I think my parents understood because they never asked me about it.