How to be invisible, p.11
How To Be Invisible, p.11Tim Lott
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is like magic.”
Susan Brown nodded again. “I’m a bit of a science nerd myself,” she said.
“I prefer to think of myself as a geek,” I said.
She laughed – a lovely tinkling sound – then she nodded as if she understood completely.
“I’m not as good at it as you are, but I think it’s really interesting. I’ve got some science programmes on the Sky+ box back at home. Did you see that documentary about chaos theory that was on last week?”
I hadn’t seen it. I had wanted to, but Melchior had forgotten to press the record button on our Sky+ box. I’d been meaning to watch it on iPlayer, but I hadn’t got round to it.
I couldn’t believe that Susan Brown had seen it. And if she was just pretending to be friendly, then she was an excellent actress who had done an awful lot of research.
“No,” I said. “It looked really interesting.”
She seemed to hesitate before saying, “Would you like to come to my house sometime and watch it?”
I gulped, took a deep breath and said, “Me?”
Which was a stupid thing to say, but she just smiled and said, “Yes, you. Who do you think?”
Then the bus arrived at the school and we all piled out.
I couldn’t concentrate on my lessons that day. I kept thinking about Susan Brown and how rude I’d been to her, and Lloyd Archibald Turnbull and the look of pain on his face when his mother had shaken his arm.
It hadn’t just been physical pain, I could tell that. It had been emotional hurt. He had lost his father, and he had a mother who was obviously abusive. It was no wonder that he behaved so aggressively. Sometimes, my father used to say, being angry is just another way of being sad. That night, I decided to do something about it.
At around midnight, when my parents were fast asleep, I put on my clothes, then I took the book and jumped into the mirror.
I had decided to take two things with me. I had them in my pockets when I jumped.
One of my favourite gifts from my thirteenth birthday was an electronic voice changer. When you spoke into it, it altered the sound waves of your voice so that you talked like a robot, or an alien, or a witch, or a demon.
It was fun, although both Melchior and Peaches had got irritated with it quite quickly, since I started using it almost all the time, sometimes waking them at six in the morning with a loud alien commentary on their laziness at remaining in bed. Eventually they took the batteries out and hid them. Then I bought some more batteries, so they hid the voice changer. But I found it.
The other thing I had in my pocket was an eight-ounce piece of prime rump steak.
I was worried about Chronic. I was hoping he would be asleep. If he wasn’t, I would just have to leg it and go back another night. With any luck, the steak might distract him long enough for me to get away.
It worked in Tom and Jerry cartoons, anyway.
The Turnbulls’ flat was only fifteen minutes’ walk away. I didn’t see a soul on the way there.
All the lights in their flat were out, and I made my way carefully and silently along the back alleyway.
I was gambling that the back door was going to be unlocked like before. It was. I crept in, picking my way through the debris. It seemed they had eaten fish and chips for supper, because the flat still smelled of salt and vinegar and there were discarded paper cones on the floor.
On the table was a letter addressed to “Mrs Amber Turnbull”. That gave me another useful piece of information – Mrs Turnbull’s Christian name. I made my way to what I assumed to be her bedroom. There was no sound from Chronic.
In her room, Mrs Amber Turnbull was snoring, loudly. Her dyed blonde hair was spread out on the pillow and her body moved up and down with her breathing. Her left arm protruded from the bedclothes and I could see that she was wearing pink pyjamas with little blue roses on. The room smelled of chemical air freshener and cigarettes, but unlike the other rooms in the flat, it was tidy. There were stuffed toys and teddy bears on the chair by the side of the bed.
I considered the problem of how to wake her up. There was a glass full of water next to her. I thought I would take the direct route.
I emptied it over her head.
She immediately sat up straight, her eyes trying to focus. She was mumbling swear words. I raised the voice changer to my mouth. I had adjusted it to the setting marked “Witch”. It made my voice seem high and cracked and terrifying.
“Amber,” I said. “This is Johnny.”
She actually screamed. Her eyes widened more than you would have imagined possible – they were completely round. She froze stock still. I could actually see goosebumps rise on her scrawny arms. I now saw that on her left arm she had a tattoo of a dagger behind a red heart. There was an arrow going through the heart and blood dripping from the dagger and arrow tips. The caption read “True Love”, but it looked more like it represented a threat.
“I saw you hit the boy,” I continued. “You shouldn’t have done it.”
Still Mrs Turnbull didn’t speak. She had gone very pale.
From downstairs, rather worryingly, I could hear the sound of frenetic barking.
Mrs Turnbull was shivering and looking around her wildly. I thought I could smell a sweet, sickly toilet smell in the air, which the air freshener was incapable of covering up.
“You leave him alone,” I said, now whispering into the mic, which gave my voice an even more sinister sound. “You treat him like a mother should.”
All that poor Mrs Turnbull could manage was a faint nod. I thought she was going to be sick on the floor. Her face was the colour of porridge.
I heard the sound of little feet pounding up the stairs. The barking became fiercer. I felt in my pocket for the piece of steak. Suddenly it seemed a very forlorn hope that it would distract Chronic if he was in full flood.
“You hit him again, and I’ll be back. Then you’ll be sorry. I promise.”
Now it was time to get to the point.
“Something else. He’s been bullying other boys. Particularly one called Strato Nyman. N. Y. M. A. N. Nyman. You’ve got to stop him picking on that boy or I’m coming back.”
I switched the voice distorter to “Demon” for greater effect. It got lower and creepier.
“He’s bullying other kids because you’re bullying him. Both of you had better stop.”
She nodded, wide-eyed.
I raised the voice changer to my mouth again. I could hear Chronic scratching at the door. I looked at the window to see if I would have a chance of jumping out of it. There probably wouldn’t be time – it was secured tight with a window lock.
“Amber. Listen to me. What’s the name of the boy that our Lloyd has been bullying?”
“S … S … Strato. Strato N … Norman.”
“Strato Nyman, you muppet.”
“Don’t you forget it.”
She shook her head desperately.
At that moment, the door swung open. I reached for the steak in my left-hand pocket, as Chronic’s barking reached hysterical proportions.
To my relief, Lloyd Turnbull was standing there, holding him by the collar.
“Mum,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
Then I watched with pleasure as Mrs Amber Turnbull fainted, flat out on her bed. She didn’t look peaceful either. She looked absolutely terrified.
While Lloyd Turnbull held the dog, I rushed out of the open door. Chronic barked worse than ever, but Lloyd held him tightly. I was through the back door in a flash.
As I made my way home, I imagined that Lloyd Turnbull’s life was about to take a turn for the better. Mine too, with any luck.
Back indoors, I returned the steak to the fridge. It would have been a shame to waste it, even if Melchior only ended up burning it.
A DRONE, A GNOME AND A VICTORIA SPONGE
The next morning, I woke up with the first verse of a song by T
Shyness is nice and
Shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life
You’d like to
The song seemed to be speaking to me. So when I saw Susan Brown on the bus again, I plucked up my courage and told her I could come over that night to watch the TV programme, if she still wanted me to.
She smiled, and said that was fine and should we travel home on the bus together? I felt myself blushing again – this was beginning to feel like a “date” rather than two people arranging to watch a science programme together.
Perhaps if it was a date, that wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe Susan Brown would try and kiss me. I had never kissed a girl before, and it seemed like it would be an intellectually interesting experience.
I was probably getting carried away. She was just being friendly – actually, she was the only person who had been friendly to me in all the time I’d been at Whitecross.
I rang Peaches at lunchtime and told her I was going to a friend’s house after school. She seemed a little surprised, but quite pleased.
“You’re going where?”
“To Susan Brown’s house.”
“Who’s Susan Brown?”
“A girl at school.”
“Well – you’ve been a busy bee, haven’t you, genius?” She cackled when she said this. My mother has a nice cackle, like a good witch. “You sly fox. Is she pretty?”
“I don’t really want to discuss this any more, Mother. I will be home at about nine o’clock I expect.”
“She is, isn’t she? I bet she is. I’d love to meet her. Why don’t you bring her back to our house sometime?”
“I think that would be premature.”
She started cackling again.
“Premature, eh? That’s a good one. OK, fine, dahlin’. Whatever you say. Have a good time. And don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
“What does that mean?”
“Never mind, never mind. Tell me all about it later. Tell me everything.”
“Goodbye, Strato. But aren’t you a dark horse.”
“Well, which am I? A horse, a fox or a bee? Or some other species?”
“Maybe you’re a love cat.”
Then she made a noise like a cat purring – “Rrrrr.”
She gave one final cackle and then put the phone down, leaving me considerably discomfited and determined never to mention anything to my mother about me and Susan Brown again. The way she went on about it, it was as if we were about to get married or something. She was being typically immature.
Nothing much happened at school that afternoon. I kept a careful eye on Lloyd Turnbull. He was unusually well-behaved. I was struggling to carry on disliking him after visiting his home again the previous night. I felt sorry for him. Clearly having an abusive mother and a dead father wasn’t much fun.
The journey home with Susan Brown was quite enjoyable. We got talking at last, properly. She had this knack for drawing me out of my shell. It turned out she really was a science geek. She was actually more into biology than physics and she told me some amazing things about the human body that I had never realized.
One of the oddest things she told me was that cells in the body are renewing themselves all the time, and at the end of seven years, or thereabouts, you do not have a single cell in your body that was the same as it was before that time. Physically, you are a completely newly grown person every seven years. Yet you are the same – same build, same hair colour, same face, same personality. It struck me as utterly bizarre.
I had to counter that. I couldn’t let her come up with more interesting facts than me. So I told her about the conservation of matter, which is sort of the reverse of the fact that a body changes every seven years. Because although the stuff that makes up a body changes, the stuff that makes up the universe does not – ever.
In fact, the universe has not changed since the microsecond in which it was born.
This is what the conservation of matter means. It’s another boring name for an incredible thing – the fact that not a single atom has been destroyed or created since the universe began fifteen billion years ago.
The atoms that make up you and me and your supper and everything else were forged in the Big Bang. Those atoms that are in your table and your computer and your hamster were, at other times, people fighting battles in ancient Greece, buildings in Rome, sandals in Egypt.
Civilizations have risen and fallen, people have lived and died – but it’s all exactly the same stuff that’s doing it and that it’s happening to. Nothing is ever destroyed and nothing is ever created.
That’s what the conservation of matter means – that the universe is immortal and, in a way, so are we. All atoms do is rearrange themselves into different forms over and over again as the universe moves through time. They might become mud, then a leaf, then a knife, then a person, then mud again, then a dragonfly. This endless reshuffling goes on forever.
The bus pulled up at the bus stop past mine, and we got out at Susan Brown’s house.
Her house was lovely. It was an old stone cottage with ivy covering the front wall. Susan said it was eighteenth century. It actually had a real thatched roof and leaded windows. The door was old, gnarled, plain wood, and even though it was autumn, the front garden was full of colour and life. Instead of being tidy and geometrical like our garden, it was beautifully chaotic, with flowers, vines and bushes fighting one another for space.
Susan let herself in the front door. I heard a woman’s voice say, “Hello,” and Susan say, “Hello, Mum – I’ve got a friend with me.”
The front room, like the outside of the house, was highly appealing. My father and mother have never had a great deal of aesthetic sensibility, shopping largely at IKEA and pound shops, but this was something else. Everything looked old, but not old and worn out, just lived in and shiny, warm and comfortable. There was a huge overstuffed sofa, oil paintings and watercolours on the walls – I think they were real, and not just prints – nice oriental rugs and polished walnutty tables and chests of drawers. Two of the walls were entirely covered with books from floor to ceiling.
Then Susan’s mother walked in. Usually, in Hedgecombe, when people met me for the first time, I could tell that they were slightly taken aback by the fact that I am black, if only for a moment. They flinched slightly, or their eyes darted momentarily off to the side. It didn’t mean that they were racially prejudiced. I think they were just taken by surprise.
Mrs Brown didn’t do that. She didn’t give any sign of noticing that I was different at all. She simply gave me a lovely smile and welcomed me, and said, “So you’re the famous Strato Nyman!” as if Susan was always talking about me. Then she introduced herself as Xanthe – pronounced Zan-thee – and asked me if I would like some fresh lemonade and Victoria sponge cake. I did not demur.
She was a handsome woman, maybe 1.75 metres with grey hair tied back behind her head, and she wore blue jeans and a sloppy T-shirt that read: “The Sports Team from My Area is Superior to the Sports Team from Your Area”. I think this was meant to be satirical. Then she said, “My, you’re a handsome boy, aren’t you?” and Susan told her to shut up, but in a nice way, and she laughed and went off to get our lemonade and cake.
Susan and I sat down and carried on chatting about science. She told me she was particularly interested in biology because she loved animals. At that moment, a small cocker spaniel ran in from a side door and jumped up and licked her face. I said I liked dogs, but my parents would not let me have one.
She said animals were lovely, but then we were just animals too. Then she said, did I know that we shared most of our genes with fruit flies and about half of them with tomatoes? I laughed because it seemed funny somehow. Geek humour, I suppose. She laughed too – that lovely, soft, tinkling sound. It was what I imagined a cloud of butterflies tak
Mrs Brown brought in the lemonade and the cake, both of which were home-made and delicious. Then we watched the documentary on chaos theory, something I had read about but did not really understand.
I’m not sure I understood it much more after watching the programme either. It described how chaos theory grew out of the study of stuff like mayonnaise, i.e. molecules that stick together in an almost jelly-like way.
The presenter talked about the great scientist Alan Turing, who came up with the idea that organisms might be governed by mathematical regularities in the same way that crystals and rocks are.
Things as wobbly and strange and uneven as people, hamsters and goldfish could have been made through a random accident over billions of years, becoming ordered without anyone in control. The fundamental mathematical structure of the universe organized everything to its own “plan”.
That is chaos theory. It is not about chaos at all, but the opposite, in a way – how an incredible level of organization emerges automatically out of disorder, simply because of certain mathematical rules that take on the role of God, making everything happen in a certain way. Like I said, I didn’t understand it, really – but I did enjoy trying to understand it.
After the documentary, Susan’s father arrived home and he was quite as nice as Mrs Xanthe Brown – tall, broad-shouldered, good-looking and with a gleaming smile. His name was Euan and he had an Irish accent. We all ate dinner together and I felt like I was part of their family – they were so nice and friendly and intelligent. The food was something sweet and meaty and ricey and fruity called a tagine. It certainly beat Melchior’s burnt lamb chops and death-mushroom omelettes.
After dinner, me and Susan decided to stop being science nerds. We got some popcorn and went to Susan’s room and watched a completely non-scientific movie – one that I’d seen before and really loved, called Rat Race. The story is about six teams of people given the task of racing 563 miles (918 kilometres) from a Las Vegas casino to a train station in Silver City, New Mexico, trying to be the first to reach a storage locker containing two million dollars. It had John Cleese in it and Rowan Atkinson and Whoopi Goldberg. I had really never had such a lovely time. We laughed so much at one point we could barely speak, and I thought I might die because I couldn’t catch my breath.
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