How to be invisible, p.12
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       How To Be Invisible, p.12

           Tim Lott
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  When nine o’clock came, I said I thought I ought to be getting home, although I didn’t really want to go at all, but I thought my mother and father might be worrying about me. So I put my jacket on, and all three of them saw me to the door, and just as I was leaving, Susan Brown leaned over and gave me a little kiss on the cheek.

  I felt that must be what it was like to drink champagne. I blushed, and went home feeling happier than I had done for years.

  A few weeks later, we had a day off school – it was a teacher training day. Although it was now mid-October, the weather was bizarrely warm – 25 degrees Celsius. It wasn’t a record but it was pretty hot for late autumn.

  It would turn out to be the last summery day of the year. My mother was working on her book, squirrelled away in her study, but my father, as usual, had to go to work. I could never understand why he didn’t want me coming to his laboratory. He always blamed health and safety regulations.

  So, on impulse, I decided to join him. Not that he was going to know anything about it.

  I told Melchior and Peaches I was going into Hedgecombe to tour the bookshops. Then I slipped upstairs, got hold of the book, took a running jump at the mirror and hurried outside, just in time to climb into the back of my dad’s car before he headed off to work.

  I was looking forward to seeing his new laboratory. The old one, which had been at a university, had been full of exciting technology – a scintillation detector, a particle accelerator and electron microscopes, and there had been rumours of quantum computers hidden away in secret rooms. I wasn’t sure what all these machines were for, but they had certainly looked exciting, and the fact that Melchior knew how they worked and was in charge of them had made me feel proud of him and proud that I was his son.

  Now I was going to see his new laboratory. I wondered why Melchior did not want me to visit his workplace. I didn’t believe his health and safety regulations excuse for a moment, but I had no idea what the real reason was. Perhaps he was involved in secret government projects and had signed the Official Secrets Act. Whatever the reason, I thought that so long as I kept out of the way, and so long as they didn’t have an invisible-boy detector set up, I would be fine.

  After about ten minutes in the car, we drew to a stop. I was surprised at the building we parked outside. My father’s old laboratory had been on a university campus, surrounded by fine and elegant buildings, and his office had been capacious and well-furnished. This building looked not all that dissimilar to the block of flats that Lloyd Archibald Turnbull lived in. It was grey and ugly, with small windows and an ordinary-sized front door. I followed Melchior as he exited the car and made his way towards it. A plastic sign outside read: “Department of Science and Technology”.

  Melchior let himself in with a card key, and I followed him into a hall, then a corridor, where he paused to buy a cup of coffee from a machine, and finally into a small, cupboard-like room with no natural light in it. I wondered why he was going in there, until I realized, with a shock, that it was his office. It was half the size of the old one and much uglier.

  He unpacked his papers. He sat down in the chair. He switched on his computer. And then he just stayed there, staring at the screen and sipping his grey-looking coffee.

  After a while, I decided to wander around the building looking for the laboratory, but it wasn’t that big a building, and after about twenty minutes I was absolutely sure that there was nothing of the kind. On the way back to Melchior’s office, I saw the sign: “Clerical Staff This Way”.

  And then, slowly but irrevocably, the awful truth dawned on me.

  My father’s new job didn’t involve him being a scientist at all. He was simply an administrative worker in a government department now. He shuffled paper. He rearranged paper clips.

  He was a bloody drone.

  This was what Peaches had done to him by forcing him to move away from London.

  Stunned, I ran out of the building at top speed. I very nearly bumped into a party of young people waiting for a bus outside the building, I was so distracted.

  I felt empty and confused. I didn’t know who to turn to. I needed to share this with someone. But who?

  I summoned up my courage and decided to call Susan Brown. She had said we could go swimming if the weather was good. But she wasn’t answering her phone.

  I wandered purposelessly, not knowing what else to do with myself. Of all the things I had learned since I started to become invisible, this was the hardest to bear. I was angry but not sure who to be angry with and why. Peaches for making Melchior leave his job? Melchior for sleeping with someone else and bringing this situation about? Melchior for lying to me? The blaming business was a very complicated one, I was discovering.

  I was so caught up in my thoughts, I nearly bumped into someone else, but just skipped out of the way in time. I needed to get visible again, or I was in danger of being found out.

  I glanced up to see who I had nearly collided with. To my surprise, it was Mr Maurice Bailey the bus driver. It was a small town, Hedgecombe. He had clearly just been shopping as he was carrying two bulging plastic supermarket bags.

  He was heading out of town, where there were no crowds to put me in danger. I decided to follow him home. Susan Brown had suggested that Mr Bailey was perhaps not quite as friendly as he seemed. He clearly needed investigating. Also, it would keep my mind occupied as it snapped and snarled around the discovery that my father wasn’t who I thought he was.

  Many things, I was learning, were not what they seemed. It appeared that it wasn’t only me who was invisible. Everybody was invisible, since no one could see inside anybody else’s head, and everybody used that invisibility to store up secrets, layer upon layer.

  It wasn’t far to Mr Maurice Bailey’s house, but it was a slow walk. He was a rather overweight man, with a large belly that stuck out above his belt like a pregnant lady’s. He moved at a leisurely pace, occasionally stopping to say hello to this or that person on the street. Mr Bailey seemed quite popular in Hedgecombe.

  After about twenty minutes, we arrived at a tidy-looking detached house in a small cul-de-sac.

  It had an imitation carriage lamp over the door and there was a gnome in the well-kept front garden, fishing and smoking a pipe. Parked on the drive was Mr Bailey’s Land Rover, crouched there like a rusting hulk of history. Oil was dripping from underneath it onto the concrete below. He stopped to inspect it, stroking it with the tips of his fingers like he was in love with the thing. He stopped and wiped a blob of dirt from the wing, although the chassis was clogged with grime, so it seemed pointless.

  Then Mr Bailey left his beloved Land Rover, opened his front door and took his shopping into the house. It wasn’t difficult to follow him in since he left the door wide open. I wasn’t sure whether he lived on his own or if he had a wife, but there weren’t any obvious feminine touches like flowers or family photographs on the mantelpiece. His house was well-kept and nice, though – there was thick carpet and furniture with floral patterns on it. The surfaces all seemed polished and the windows clean. I liked it. There was a flag I didn’t recognize on the wall – a white cross on a black background – and lots of pictures of English country scenes.

  I decided to take a look upstairs while Mr Bailey unpacked his shopping. There were only two bedrooms. The first one I went into appeared to be Mr Bailey’s – the wardrobe door was open and I could see his clothes hung up inside. Opposite the wardrobe was a single bed. The other bedroom, presumably the spare room, had twin beds, and a third room seemed to serve as an office.

  I went into the third room. Here there was a desktop computer and a tray of papers and stationery. There was also a pile of leaflets, face down on the desk. I flipped them over. They featured a picture of a nice-looking, quite handsome family – three children and a mother and father. They were all smiling happily. The words printed in red across their chests read: “People Like You Voting WCDL”.

  Then I heard footsteps on the stairs. I pre
ssed myself against the wall. Before I knew it, Mr Bailey had entered and closed the door firmly behind him. The room was very small. There was nowhere to hide. He was holding a cup of tea which he put down on the desk only centimetres away from where I was standing. I tried to keep my breathing as quiet as possible.

  Mr Bailey sat down at his desk and switched on his big, old-fashioned computer. As soon as the screen cleared, he went to his browser and typed in an address. A chatroom appeared on the screen.

  I could see the screen quite clearly from where I stood. It appeared to be some kind of debate about how to “solve” the problem of mass immigration. The WCDL, it turned out, was the West Country Defence League. I assumed that Mr Bailey came from the west of England. The blog was headed with a large picture of the white-and-black flag I had seen downstairs, which I assumed now was some kind of West Country regional flag. I assumed the WCDL was some kind of offshoot of the English Defence League who had demonstrated in our part of London sometimes, not against black people, usually, but Muslims.

  People were posting their suggestions. Most had put up more or less the same thing – that they had “nothing against” people of different races, but that their customs and traditions were different and that they should be allowed to develop separately from traditional British culture.

  A few others said that “ethnic minorities” – so it wasn’t just black people and Muslims – should be tolerated, but forced to learn English and adopt “English customs”. I wondered what that meant – that they should be forced to eat crumpets and drink tea? And how did you force someone to learn the English language?

  Then I found myself shivering – I hoped shivering didn’t make a noise. Because Mr Bailey was now writing a comment himself. When I read what he had written, I had to blink twice to believe it.

  Mr Bailey’s post began: “Voluntary repatriation is not a complete solution.”

  Voluntary repatriation means that people who want to go back to the country that their family originally came from should be given the funds to do so by the government. So if your family is Jamaican, you could get money for returning to Jamaica. Or presumably, if you’re Anglo Saxon, you could get money for returning to Saxony in Germany.

  “Those who were not born here and are from a foreign, non-European culture,” continued Mr Bailey, “should be sent back to their home countries – voluntarily ideally, forcibly if necessary.”

  This took a moment to sink in. I was deeply shocked and frightened. I had never met a real dyed-in-the-wool racist. I would never have dreamed they looked like Mr Bailey. I thought people like that were all skinheads and football hooligans. But Mr Bailey had always been pleasant to me, and he looked completely respectable.

  I didn’t like to think what Mr Bailey’s reaction might be if he bumped into me, thus breaking whatever enchantment it was that kept me invisible, and revealing a thirteen-year-old, black, non-West Country child in his private sanctum. I doubted that it would involve him serving me Victoria sponge cake and lemonade.

  I didn’t manage to get out of that room for a terrifying half an hour, during which time Mr Bailey wrote horrible things on the forum about how “people from other countries and races” were “diluting our blood stock” and “destroying a proud, ancient race and a noble culture”.

  Then he went downstairs to make himself another cup of tea and watch Countdown like an ordinary person.

  He had left the chatroom open. Now that he had gone, my fear was replaced with anger. I couldn’t resist adding to Mr Bailey’s comments in my own words.

  Without sitting down, I did a quick Google search, and then I posted this:

  “Everything I have written is rubbish. I have realized that I am a loony. I have just found out that 36,000 people of colour were killed fighting Hitler in the Second World War for Britain and that nearly three million wore a British uniform. I have decided that we owe these people and their descendants a great debt, and I am deeply ashamed of what I have written. Please don’t take anything I write after this seriously. Now the nurse says it is time for my medication so I must say goodbye.”

  I snuck downstairs. Mr Bailey had made another cup of tea and got some biscuits and he was taking them outside. I followed him. He let himself into the house next door. I carried on following.

  An old lady was sitting in the front room. She must have been a hundred. She seemed very pleased to see Mr Bailey, but barely able to talk. There were two crutches propped up against the wall. She was dribbling. He wiped the dribble away from her mouth, and then gently, slowly, fed her the tea and biscuits. He was still there, quietly feeding her, when I silently let myself out a few minutes later.

  It was still only early afternoon. It was hotter than ever – weirdly so. I found my mobile phone and rang Susan Brown again. This time she answered. I suggested she might like to go swimming in the river – even though I couldn’t swim. She agreed more readily than I expected and we set a time and place.

  Within an hour, I had made myself visible again, collected my swimming trunks and a towel, and followed Susan’s directions to a little spot on the River Hedge, maybe a mile outside the town centre. Susan met me by the roadside and then took me to her secret space. It was cut off from the rest of the riverbank, because you had to push through some heavy foliage to get there, but once you had made your way through, there was a bank overhung with willow trees. A little incline led down to the river where there was a small stretch of shore backed by head-height ferns, weeds and shrubs. It was like a hidden refuge. Sunlight pushed through a curtain of leaves and made the water seem a brilliant green, the colour of tree frogs.

  We just sat there on the riverbank for a while, staring out at the water. I was still, I think, in a state of shock, both from finding out the truth about my father and also from discovering Mr Maurice Bailey’s nasty secret. But somehow the water, the sunshine and the presence of Susan calmed and soothed me. I felt unexpectedly happy. I looked at Susan. The sunlight shining through the leaves was speckling on her cheeks.

  “You look – yellowy-brown,” I said. “Like you’re made of gold.”

  She smiled, and looked happy, then sad, and muttered something that I couldn’t quite make out. When I said I couldn’t hear her, she recited something:

  “‘Golden lads and girls all must,

  As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.’”

  When I looked puzzled, she said, “Shakespeare. I’m a literature nerd too.”

  Then, without warning and without embarrassment, she peeled off her clothes.

  Underneath, she was wearing a two-piece swimming suit with a rose pattern on it. It wasn’t sexy or anything. She just looked nice. But I noticed on her stomach a pale-red snaking scar. She saw me looking.

  “I was ill once,” she said. “But I’m all right now.”

  “How ill?” I said.

  “Very,” she said. “I nearly died, my mum and dad said. But the illness has gone away. Complete remission.”

  “That’s good,” I said, not knowing what else to say. I tried to cover up the awkwardness by going behind a tree and starting to get changed.

  “It makes you grow up fast,” she said, as I fumbled with my shoes and trunks and the towel.

  “Does it?” I said, falling over as I stood on one foot to get my trouser leg off, then righting myself and finishing the job.

  “It makes you realize you’re just like any other person,” she said. “Not that special at all.”

  It was then that I told her about my father – still standing behind the tree so I couldn’t be seen. Susan listened without saying a word. When I’d finished, I peered around the tree. She had picked a leaf off the ground and was picking at it, peeling the epidermis slowly off the skeleton.

  “I wonder why he would do that?” she said quietly.

  I shook my head, unable to answer.

  “I don’t suppose he meant any harm,” she continued. “Perhaps he just wanted you to look up to him. Perhaps he’s insecure. Paren
ts are people too, you know.”

  I finally emerged from behind the tree, slightly embarrassed but modestly attired, I hoped, in a large pair of swimming shorts tied with a cable at the waist.

  “Well?” she said.

  She clearly expected me to say something about my father, but I didn’t know what to say. I supposed she was right, but I didn’t really want to admit it.

  “I disagree about what you said before,” I said boldly.

  She looked puzzled. “What did I say before?”

  “You said you were not special. But I think you are very special.”

  I tried to hold her gaze, but hers was too steady. I looked away.

  Then she whooped and laughed and I heard a splash. She was in the river, flicking me with water. The river by the bank was shallow. It only reached her waist, but she ducked down and covered herself with water, then bobbed up again.

  “It’s warm,” she said. “Try it.”

  So I took a deep breath and jumped. The riverbed was muddy beneath my feet. The water was freezing. I screamed.

  “It’s BLOODY COLD!” I yelled.

  She laughed even more.

  “Like you always say – it’s relative,” she said, and ducked under again.

  When she came up, I shivered and tried to take another step into deeper water, but she turned to me and shhhed me.

  “Look,” she said, pointing her finger.

  I looked. Three swans were coming towards us in a perfect line. They were pure white and beautiful, and when they flapped their wings, a mist of water rose up and covered them, producing rainbows in the air. They stopped in front of us and seemed to be inspecting us. We stood still. They looked at us, and we looked at them.

  Then they lost interest and moved on, majestically.

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