How to be invisible, p.13
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       How To Be Invisible, p.13

           Tim Lott
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  “It must be a sign,” said Susan.

  “Meaning what?” I said.

  “Who knows?” she whispered back. And then she said, “Strato Nyman, I’m going to teach you to swim.”

  I said right away that I was scared to try and swim, but she said it was simple.

  “All you have to do is trust the water,” she said. “And then swimming is easy.”

  I did. She was right.

  That afternoon, for the first time in my life, I swam six metres of simple breast stroke, in water that was too deep for me to stand up in. Susan guided me all the way. She held my hands, coaxed me through the green water, teased and cajoled me until I believed that swimming was no big thing. I felt safe around her, like nothing bad could happen.

  Afterwards, as we stretched out on the riverbank, it seemed like we were the only two people in the world. No boats came past. No planes flew overhead. The world was absolutely still.

  As the sun moved down in the sky, Susan reached for her bag and brought out two cheese-and-tomato sandwiches and a bottle of warm Coca-Cola. We ate and drank together, and I felt very happy.

  We never touched. We never kissed. We didn’t talk about my father again. All we discussed was science-geek stuff. Then we got dressed again and went straight home as if nothing special had really happened.

  All the same, I knew it had been one of those afternoons I was going to remember for the rest of my life.

  Because for those few hours, I no longer felt invisible. I felt I was there at last, and wanted to stay there. I was getting more filled in with colour, like crayons in the outline of a drawing, all the time.



  I said nothing to my father about having seen his office. I had still not made up my mind whether to challenge him on the matter or not. After discussing it with Susan, part of me felt sympathetic towards him, even though I didn’t understand why he had felt the need to pretend he was still a big-shot scientist when he was now just a low-ranked paper shuffler. Maybe he was trying to protect Peaches. After all, it was her who had made us move down here.

  Anyway, I didn’t feel in the mood for a confrontation. Perhaps I would let him keep his little secret. After all, it wasn’t only him who had something to hide, was it? Who was I to judge, when I was blatantly spying on him and Peaches?

  Meanwhile, at school, Lloyd Archibald Turnbull’s behaviour had improved. He had stopped bullying me and his attitude in class was markedly better. I suspected this was connected with my nocturnal visit to his mother. His relationship with Dr Ojebande had become reasonably civilized. But he was still capable of bad behaviour. I suppose old habits die hard.

  Two weeks after my visit to the river, we had a physics lesson. It was particularly uninteresting – mostly Dr Ojebande giving us the atomic weights of elements to learn off by heart – and the whole class was restless and bored. Everyone was fidgeting, and Lloyd Turnbull was picking at the cuticles of the fingers of his bad hand. I knew that to be a bad sign.

  Sure enough, while Dr Ojebande had his back turned and was writing on the board, a paper pellet hit Lloyd Turnbull in the face. I saw that Wayne Collingham, who was sitting two rows in front of him, facing Dr Ojebande, had flicked it. He grinned. Lloyd Turnbull looked back intently. It seemed that he took it as some kind of challenge.

  I watched as Lloyd Turnbull rolled up a piece of chewing-gum wrapper into a ball and toyed with it idly, tossing it up and down in his palm. His eyes darted from side to side and, in a single movement, he flicked the ball at Wayne Collingham. But Collingham ducked just in time. It missed him entirely, and bounced off Dr Ojebande’s head like a tiny ping-pong ball.

  Dr Ojebande stopped writing immediately and froze in position at the blackboard.

  Very slowly and deliberately, he turned to face the class. His green cat’s eyes now seemed to contain tiny licks of red flame. He furiously scanned the room for the culprit. Eventually, his gaze came to rest on Lloyd Turnbull, who was trying to look innocent, although those in the class who had seen what had happened were shooting conspiratorial glances at him.

  Lloyd Turnbull seemed to grow rather pale as Dr Ojebande’s eyes fell on him. I got the impression he regretted what he had just done, which perhaps he would not have done in the old days.

  “Was that you, Turnbull?” said Dr Ojebande sharply.

  “Was what me, Sir?” Lloyd Turnbull answered meekly.

  “Someone threw a pellet at the back of my head.”

  “Why do you think it was me, Sir?”

  “It always is you, Turnbull.”

  “No, Sir,” said Lloyd Turnbull, his voice wavering unconvincingly. “I never did it.”

  Now Dr Ojebande’s head swivelled to Wayne Collingham.

  “Was it you, Collingham?”

  “No, sir,” said Collingham immediately.

  “Was it Turnbull?”

  Collingham hesitated. “Don’t know, Sir.”

  “Fleet, did you flick something at me?”

  “No, Sir.”

  “Then who did?”

  Nobody spoke. Dr Ojebande began scanning the floor by the blackboard. He leaned over and picked something up. It was the pellet. He nodded to himself, as if he had just made an important discovery. Then he turned back to Lloyd Turnbull.

  “I thought you were showing a marked improvement in your behaviour. I was just starting to have a little bit of faith in you, Turnbull. Just goes to show that a leopard can’t change its spots.”

  “But, Sir…”

  “Let me ask you again, Turnbull. Was it you who threw this wrapper?”

  Lloyd Turnbull looked confused and a little bit panicky. It seemed important to him in a way it had never been before that Dr Ojebande thought he was innocent – even though he clearly wasn’t. He shook his head mutely. Dr Ojebande unfolded the crumpled ball of paper and held it up for the class to see. It was a wrapper from a stick of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

  “Turn out your pockets, Turnbull.”

  Reluctantly, Lloyd Turnbull emptied out his pockets. A pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, with wrappers identical to the one flicked at the back of Dr Ojebande’s head, appeared on the desk. Dr Ojebande picked up the pack between his thumb and finger and examined it.

  “I would say this was fairly conclusive evidence. Good enough for me, in any case. So it is proven again. You are a vandal and a liar. Tonight you are going to have to stay after school again. I will call your mother and let her know that you are going to be late. From what I know of Mrs Turnbull, I don’t think she’ll be too pleased, but then you should have thought of that before you began misbehaving.”

  Lloyd Turnbull turned paler still. He looked like he had done when I’d seen him at home, just about ready to cry.

  I put my hand up. Dr Ojebande’s eye swivelled and fell on me.

  “What is it, Nyman? Want to rub his face in it, do you, boy?”

  “No, Sir,” I said.

  “What, then?” said Dr Ojebande. “Don’t waste my time.”

  “It was me, sir.”

  “What was you? What are you talking about?”

  “I flicked the pellet.”

  Dr Ojebande laughed out loud. Lloyd Turnbull turned and stared at me in amazement.

  “You?” said Dr Ojebande. “Since when did you flick pellets? For that matter, I’ve never even seen you chew gum.”

  I felt in my pocket for the stick of gum Lloyd Turnbull had given me before the detention. I took it out and showed it to Dr Ojebande, who examined it, looking very puzzled.

  Then he turned, faced me and snorted.

  “You’re pathetic, Nyman. Trying to be like the bad boys so you can fit in. I’d have thought you would have left all that behind you in the urban jungle from whence you came.”

  He paused, and picked up his Bible, as if he was considering something.

  “I suppose at least you had the decency not to let someone else take the bla
me for your misbehaviour. That must count for something. Still, you must be punished for this. See me for an hour after school. Count yourself lucky I am not referring you to the head teacher.”

  Now he turned towards Lloyd Turnbull.

  “Turnbull, I have no choice but to apologize. It’s clear that you really have changed after all, and I have not done you justice. Please forgive me for jumping to conclusions. It was inappropriate and unprofessional.”

  Lloyd Turnbull said nothing, but just stared at me. I looked away into the middle distance, careful not to make eye contact.

  After class, in the playground, the two Waynes sidled up to me.

  “Hey, Dark Matter. What’s de matter?” said Wayne Fleet, in a faux-West Indian accent, while Wayne Collingham laughed and scratched his armpits.

  The two Waynes weren’t as clever as Lloyd Archibald Turnbull. They were old-school bullies, nasty and physical. One jostled me from one side and one from the other, pushing me with their shoulders.

  “He’s a black hole in space,” said Wayne Collingham, giggling in a high-pitched tone.

  They stopped suddenly when a single, big, powerful forearm appeared behind Wayne Fleet and brought his head sharply in contact with Wayne Collingham’s.

  It was the good arm of Lloyd Turnbull.

  The two Waynes looked puzzled, then furious.

  “What the eff is wrong with you, Bully?” said Wayne Fleet, rubbing the side of his head where it had hit Wayne Collingham.

  He didn’t really say “eff”, but something far worse beginning with F. I don’t like to write words like that down. They look ugly on the page, just as they sound ugly in the voice.

  The two Waynes, incidentally, always called Lloyd Turnbull “Bully”, a shortened version of his surname, as a kind of compliment.

  “Leave him alone,” said Lloyd Archibald Turnbull quietly, turning in my direction. “He’s all right.”

  They stared at him. Wayne Fleet actually looked like he was going to hit him, but then Lloyd Turnbull raised his super-muscled arm and made a fist, the blood vessels standing out like a weightlifter’s, and Wayne Fleet’s tensed body seemed to collapse slightly. He clearly was not prepared to risk getting into a fight with Lloyd Turnbull.

  Spitting on the ground and cursing loudly, the two Waynes shuffled off back towards the school. Lloyd Turnbull looked at me blankly, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he had just done. The school bell sounded for the end of break. I nodded, embarrassed, and wandered off in the direction of the school buildings. I was grateful to Lloyd Turnbull – but I really didn’t know what to say to him. I just couldn’t make up my mind whether he was my friend or my enemy. The evidence was too contradictory to form a reliable theory.

  During my hour’s detention with Dr Ojebande, he once again forbade me any distracting material. Instead, I sat and studied the top of Dr Ojebande’s head as he buried his nose in a textbook. There was a patch of baldness on top, revealing a leathered, slightly freckly crown of mottled skin. I found this oddly touching for some reason.

  For all my reservations about him, I thought Dr Ojebande was an intriguing character. He was unlike any of the other teachers at the school. He seemed to take his job, and his life, very seriously. I rarely saw him smile or talk to the other teachers. I couldn’t imagine him as a young man, or with a wife, or on holiday in his swimming trunks. I thought he must always wear his dark suit and tie, even in bed.

  After he dismissed me from the detention, I decided to follow him to gather more information so I could formulate a more comprehensive theory about him. I darted into the boys’ toilet, used the mirror, and emerged just in time to see Dr Ojebande leaving the school gates, his black Bible in one hand and a battered brown leather briefcase in the other.

  He walked fast. He was hard to keep up with, and I was soon breathing heavily. The day was cold, so my breath was turning to vapour in the air, but it was so misty that I hoped no one would notice the little puffs of steam that were appearing out of nowhere as I made my way down the high street. The warm weather had disappeared without trace and Christmas decorations were already appearing in the shop windows.

  At one point, I thought I had lost him, but then I glanced through the window of the SPAR supermarket and saw him in there, gazing at items on the confectionary shelves. I followed him in, being careful to avoid bumping into anyone. Fortunately, it wasn’t very crowded.

  I stood about a metre and a half away from him, watching. He had put his Bible in a shopping basket, and alongside it were the following: one packet of high-bran cereal, two 60-watt light bulbs, one small jar of Vaseline, three bread rolls, a tub of spreadable butter, an economy pack of bacon, a pair of nail clippers and a multipack of Curly Wurly chocolate bars. There was also a small value pack of Christmas cards with angels on the front of them.

  This told me nothing surprising about Dr Ojebande, although I was taken aback that he was such a fan of Curly Wurly chocolate bars. They happened to be my favourite, and this made him seem more human somehow. I also wondered who he might send Christmas cards to. He seemed such a loner.

  After leaving the supermarket, he headed off to the lanes in the centre of the town, carrying his Bible and his groceries in a plastic shopping bag. At no time did he acknowledge or speak to anyone else. Dr Ojebande always seemed to have an intense sense of purpose, as if he was on an urgent mission which no one could prevent him from fulfilling.

  He was walking down one of the main alleyways when he swivelled on his heel and turned off to the right. The fog had risen and I almost lost him on several occasions, but I managed to track him down the passageway – which I now realized, with an eerie sense of foreboding, was the passageway that contained the bookshop where I had met the strange giant with the ginger moustache.

  As before, the passageway was deserted. Bizarrely, the black bird with the white patch on its wing I had seen the first time I visited was still there, perched on the sign. Was it some kind of pet? I swear it looked at me, like an angry father looking at a petulant child.

  Dr Ojebande disappeared into the half-lit shop, which was still stacked to the ceilings with mouldy old books. I felt very much that I wanted to follow him. Did he know the man with the ginger moustache? Or was it just a coincidence?

  Unfortunately, I was unable to find out. When I tried the door of the shop, I found it to be locked. I peered through the dirty glass, but there was no sign of Dr Ojebande anywhere, or the man with the ginger moustache. I could hardly knock on the window, since I was invisible, and anyway, I didn’t want Dr Ojebande to know I was following him. I had no choice but to wait. The bird stayed where it was, not moving or making a noise.

  After I’d been standing in the freezing fog for fifteen minutes, Dr Ojebande finally emerged. He was carrying a large, leather-bound book with yellow pages under his arm. It looked very old. I got close enough to see the title, but little else.

  It read, in big, Gothic, old-style type: “The Discoverie of Witchcraft Volume XV by Reginald Scot”.

  The dark was crowding in and the fog was getting thicker. Dr Ojebande kept marching at the same pace, though, and I rushed to keep up, although I didn’t feel that I really wanted to. The whole thing was too unsettling.

  After walking for ten minutes, Dr Ojebande cleared the outskirts of town where it falls away to the countryside. He made his way through a copse and over a trickling stream. His black shoes were caked with mud and the bottoms of his trousers were soaked, but he just kept walking.

  Eventually, a building came into sight through the mist. As the outline became clear, I realized that it was an old church. It looked abandoned. A lot of the roof tiles were missing, and the churchyard, full of gravestones sticking out like teeth, was overgrown. None of the stones looked less than one hundred years old. The doors to the church were secured with a rusting chain and a large padlock, and the windows were boarded up.

  I thought Dr Ojebande would certainly turn around and go back, since he clearly wouldn’t b
e able to get in. I had no idea what he was doing there in the first place.

  But then he reached inside his jacket pocket and produced a key, with which he unlocked the padlock. The big old doors opened, and he went inside.

  I stood out there among the gravestones in the fog and dark for several minutes, debating with myself whether to go in. By now I was frightened as well as cold and tired. The wood of the church door creaked, and the leaves blew about my feet like scuttling spiders.

  I took a gulp of air and decided that as I had come this far, I might as well continue. Very carefully, I made my way through the open doors.

  Inside, like in any church, there were pews and an aisle and an altar. It smelled of urine, tobacco and damp twigs. The stained-glass window above the altar was not boarded up like the rest. A few of the panes of glass were broken, but it was largely intact. It was not like a normal stained-glass window. Although there was a depiction of Christ, he was not dominant. There were primarily images of orbs and stars and planets, and what appeared to be mystical signs which I did not recognize. Above the top arch of the window, letters spelled out the word “Elohim”.

  Dr Ojebande was on his knees in front of the altar. He had taken out the book that he had got from the shop and appeared to be reading from it in a loud murmur. I inched closer to try and hear what he was saying. I could hear him breathing. His eyes were pressed closed. I couldn’t make out his words, but finally, creeping forward very slowly, I got close enough to see the page from which he was reading. This is what it said:

  I call upon thee, I beseech thee O Lord Jesus Christ, by the merits of thy blessed mother S. Marie, and of all thy saints, that thou give me grace and divine power over all the wicked spirits, so as they may come by and by from everie coast, and accomplish my will, that they neither be hurtfull or fearefull unto me, but rather obedient—

  And at that point my mobile phone went off.

  I have different ringtones for when different people call me. The tone for my father is a strumming guitar. The tone for Susan is a string quartet playing.

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