How to be invisible, p.16
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       How To Be Invisible, p.16

           Tim Lott
 
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  After another fifteen minutes’ quick marching – by now it was beginning to rain, converting snow into muddy sludge – he left the track, jumped a fence and started walking across a rutted field, in the corner of which there was an enormous, stocky-looking bull. The bull raised its head and began slowly pacing towards him.

  Then some kind of huge, black bird – a crow? A raven? – flapped down from a nearby tree, and came to perch on his shoulder. I noticed that it had a white mark on its wing, roughly in the shape of a figure eight. It was my old friend from the bookshop. What on earth was it doing there?

  Instead of shrieking and trying to dislodge the bird, as anyone else might have done, he took no notice of it. With the bird perched on his shoulder – it was almost as big as his head – he kept on striding towards a curtain of silver birch trees, pale and ghostly, on the far side of the field.

  This spectacle was undoubtedly Gothic, but I didn’t have too much time to think about it because, to my alarm, the bull started to trot, then actually charge, in our direction.

  “Gothic”, incidentally, is a movement of the nineteenth century which encompassed horror stories and ghost stories: for example, the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.

  The bull’s head was at the height of my shoulders, and its horns curved forwards, each ending in a sharp-looking point. It increased its pace. It was now maybe fifteen metres away. I somehow suppressed the urge to bolt and hoped it was coming for Dr Ojebande rather than me.

  When the bull was maybe ten metres away and I had decided that Dr Ojebande was definitely going to get flipped and probably gored to death, Dr Ojebande calmly turned and stared pointedly at the bull, before continuing through the field. To my amazement, at that exact moment, the bull stopped dead. It didn’t retreat or change direction. It just stopped, and didn’t move again until Dr Ojebande had left the field.

  The crow – or whatever it was – had flown from Dr Ojebande’s shoulder, and Dr Ojebande was climbing over another fence, making his way through a gap in the row of silver birch trees. I clambered over the fence as quietly as I could. It was topped with barbed wire – my trousers got caught and tore. It took me nearly a minute to free them. By the time I had done so and had burst through the silver birch trees, Dr Ojebande was nowhere to be seen.

  The fog was getting thicker and soon I could see practically nothing. I considered giving up and going home, but that would have meant going through the field with the bull in it again and I wasn’t sure that it was going to remain quite so accommodating without Dr Ojebande there to stop it.

  I decided to keep walking in the direction I thought Dr Ojebande had been heading in, but with each step I felt more and more nervous. I feared I was getting well and truly lost. I had no idea where I was, and now there were trees on every side. The rain was getting heavier, the light was fading and the fog was as impenetrable as soggy cotton wool. I just felt like sitting down and crying, but it was too cold and I had come too far. Besides, as I’ve said, I never cry.

  Just then I saw a shape rising out of the mist. An old grey cottage with a thatched roof in need of repair, and an overgrown, untidy garden. A chimney plumed smoke into the air and a very faint light gleamed in the windows.

  This had to be Dr Ojebande’s house. As I got closer, though, it seemed to bear very few signs of habitation. There was no noise coming from within.

  Then the oddest sound cut through the silence. It wasn’t a human voice – more like something my electric voice changer would have come up with. It spoke what I recognized as one word, again and again: “Beware. Beware. Beware.”

  It was the black bird again. Was it really saying “beware”? I wasn’t sure of anything right at that moment.

  The front door opened and Dr Ojebande, still in his black suit, emerged. There was a pile of logs to the right of the door, and he picked up an armful, presumably to throw on the fire.

  If I was going to get into his house at all – although I wasn’t sure that I wanted to – this was my chance. It was now or never, so when he bent down to pick up another log, I silently darted inside.

  What met my eyes – as Dr Ojebande followed me, shutting the door behind both of us – did nothing to reduce my anxiety.

  Instead of a carpet, the room had a bare stone floor. The roof was low and beamed. It was dark in there, and it smelled strange, like cloves and rotten apples. There were no electric lights on, only a number of candles lit around the room. The only other light came from a large stone fireplace. Dr Ojebande knelt down and carefully placed the logs on the flames.

  On the walls were mounted stuffed animal heads – a bear, a deer, and something with horns that I didn’t recognize. There were three chairs, each of them hard and upright, carved with strange figures and symbols. There were books, but they were very old and musty-looking, like the ones I had seen in the bookshop where the man with the ginger moustache had given me How To Be Invisible.

  I turned and saw Dr Ojebande standing beside an old-fashioned gramophone. At first I heard the sound of the needle passing over scratches and then a high, melancholy, beautiful voice filled the air:

  Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly,

  Blow the wind south o’er the bonnie blue sea.

  Dr Ojebande lit two more enormous candles. They smelled like moss and cast long, creepy shadows. My eyes were still trying to get used to the light.

  Dr Ojebande seated himself in one of the wooden chairs – the largest, with arms upholstered in dark-red velvet and a high back. There was an ancient floor-to-ceiling mirror next to him, in what looked like an ivory or bone frame.

  I looked up at the ceiling. There were scraps of paper hanging from it, old and yellowing, along with what looked like bunches of herbs of some sort. Dr Ojebande looked into the fire and although it must have been my imagination, it seemed to flare up in response to his gaze.

  Hanging on a coat hook were a pair of steel goggles. I couldn’t imagine what Dr Ojebande would want those for. There were two huge old spears leaning against a closed door, and on another wall were three African tribal masks. One was black, the size of two heads fused together, with rows of teeth and white slit eyes and two massive horns poking out the top. Another was round, orange like a pumpkin, with round eyes and a round mouth. It reminded me of that weird painting, The Scream by Edvard Munch.

  The third mask was the weirdest of all. It was shaped more like a potato than a head. It was massive and scarred with white markings in zigzags emanating from the centre. The eyes stared like they could see me. The mouth frowned as if it disapproved. The eyebrows pointed downwards angrily. It was a face full of hate.

  I became aware of shapes moving around my feet. Cats. Not one or two, but a dozen of them. They were like a sea of fur. None of them seemed to register my presence, although one briefly rubbed against my leg, purring, before curling up in front of the fire.

  I noticed other items on a shelf over the fireplace – old-fashioned ceramic bottles with labels on them. One read “Hair”. Another read “Nails”. A third read “Urine”. Above the shelf there was a five-pointed star held within a circle containing four Hebrew letters, a design that I knew was called a “Tetragrammaton”. It represented the biblical God, Yahweh, the Hebrew divinity of the Old Testament. There was also what seemed to be a mirror – but it was completely black.

  Dr Ojebande rose from his chair and went to a small kitchen that adjoined the main room. He came back holding a glass of frothing, bubbling liquid. It was so effervescent that the glass was overflowing. In the firelight it appeared a sickly orange. I assumed that it must be a potion of some sort. He stared at the glass for a few seconds, watching the bubbles subside, then knocked most of it back in one go.

  I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

  Bloody well beam me bloody up, Scotty.

  I had known that Dr Ojebande was peculiar, but I’d never thought that he was this weird. Dr Ojebande, meanwhile, was now sittin
g with his eyes closed on the straight-backed chair. He was sitting bolt upright, unmoving. He had not changed out of the black suit he wore, or the heavy shoes.

  The song continued:

  Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly,

  Blow, bonnie breeze, my lover to me.

  Treading as softly as I could, I started to walk back towards the door of the house, keeping my eyes on Dr Ojebande at all times, when, to my horror, his eyes flickered open and he stared right at me. I knew he couldn’t see me, but it felt as if I were illuminated in a spotlight.

  They told me last night there were ships in the offing,

  And I hurried down to the deep rolling sea;

  But my eye could not see it wherever might be it,

  The barque that is bearing my lover to me.

  My desire to get out of there redoubled. It was like being in that room with Mr Maurice Bailey the bus driver, but much, much worse. I kept walking.

  Then that bird started cawing again: “Beware. Beware. Beware.”

  I didn’t care if it was really speaking or not. It was freaking me out. I almost broke into a run for the door.

  A cat was blocking my way. I tried to inch past it, but it suddenly raked its claws viciously across my ankle. I gasped in pain, then suppressed it. All the same, Dr Ojebande’s head whipped round to look in my direction.

  I was just reaching for the door handle when, for the first time, Dr Ojebande spoke. His voice was low and sonorous, as if he was praying. I could just about make the words out. They sent a chill down my spine.

  “‘Everything is space, within and without. The mirror is a wall that reflects all your doubt.’”

  I stared back at Dr Ojebande in a state of panic. Then I shifted my gaze to the full-length mirror on the wall to his right.

  It showed my reflection plainly. I looked cold, wet and very scared. There was a large rip at the bottom of my trousers where the barbed wire had torn them.

  I had been discovered. The spell was broken.

  Dr Ojebande was smiling. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. My feet felt rooted to the spot.

  “Beware. Beware. Beware.”

  My terrified eyes turned to where the sound was coming from. In the gloom in the corner of the room I saw an enormous birdcage. The black bird was sitting on a perch inside it, squawking. The door to the cage was open.

  The music stopped, and the bird grew quiet. There was a long silence, with Dr Ojebande sitting on his chair and me standing, mid-stride, on my way to the door.

  Dr Ojebande spoke first. He nodded towards the bird.

  “He’s trying to warn me, not you.”

  “Beware. Beware. Beware,” said the bird again.

  Dr Ojebande waved a hand in its direction, and it fell silent.

  “Why don’t you sit down, Nyman?”

  His voice was not steely and authoritative like it was in the classroom. It was, to my surprise, pleasant and warm, even welcoming.

  “Don’t be afraid, Strato. There’s nothing to be afraid of here.”

  I remained standing. I heard my voice creaking out of my throat, as if it was being forcibly dragged through the air.

  “How…?”

  My voice dried up, but Dr Ojebande answered anyway.

  “I had a strong instinct I was being followed. I knew that whatever it was would reveal itself once it got inside the house. The forces in here are too potent to resist.”

  Dr Ojebande shrugged, still smiling. Then he spoke, in a low, hypnotic monotone:

  “‘A warning must be clearly took

  By those that wish to use this book.

  Do not be seen, or discovered, or let

  The secret be known lest thy power be forfeit.’”

  He looked up again.

  “How do you know about the book?” I stuttered. My voice was as fragile as a leaf skeleton.

  “I did some research.”

  I looked up nervously at the masks on the wall.

  Dr Ojebande followed my gaze and then started laughing uproariously. He didn’t stop for about a minute. Then he indicated for me to sit down in the chair next to him.

  “Those are souvenirs from a beach holiday I took in Mombasa a few years ago. They’re all fakes. I bought them from a hawker. I was cheated, of course. Paid three times what they were worth.”

  I still didn’t move. I decided to risk another question.

  “So you’re not some kind of—”

  Dr Ojebande interrupted before I could finish.

  “Sangoma? African witch doctor? I am no more a sangoma than you are. Less. My family has been in this part of the country for twenty generations. I am British, Strato, just as you are. Now, enough of this silly talk. Would you like a glass of lemonade or something?”

  Dr Ojebande swallowed the seething, bubbling drink I had seen him carry in from the kitchen.

  “What … what was that?” I asked.

  “Andrews Liver Salts,” he replied blithely. “For indigestion. I suffer from it terribly. Bad diet, I’m afraid. Too many ready meals. Sit down, sit down.”

  I was tentatively moving towards the chair when something made me jump half out of my skin. A small white shape darted across the floor, only to disappear on the other side of the room. I froze again, but Dr Ojebande just started laughing again.

  “It’s only a mouse. A pet I keep. I call him ‘Old Familiar’. He has a few friends around here too. Cats like him. Don’t be nervous. He’s perfectly friendly and perfectly clean. Now, what about that drink?”

  Not knowing what else to do, I sat down. Dr Ojebande disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a cup of tea for himself and a glass of lemonade for me. On the glass was a picture of Mickey Mouse.

  “It’s a bit childish, but it’s the only one I have. I keep it for when my nephew comes to visit. He’s five.”

  He also held out a Curly Wurly bar.

  “I know you like them. I’ve seen them in your lunchbox. So I picked some up from the supermarket a while ago.”

  “But how did you know…?”

  He shrugged. “I didn’t. Not for sure. But it’s best to be prepared for visitors.”

  Dr Ojebande settled down in the chair next to me and regarded me mildly. My feelings of anxiety were slowly dissipating, but I still felt that I was in a very weird situation. I sipped at the lemonade. The little Mickey Mouse picture somehow made me feel better, more at ease. My throat felt slightly less parched.

  A black-and-white cat – the one that had scratched me – came and sat on Dr Ojebande’s lap and started purring. Dr Ojebande stroked him with a single, bony finger.

  “What were you doing following me home?” he said quietly. “I would call that a violation of privacy, wouldn’t you?”

  I nodded, feeling suddenly ashamed.

  “After all, if you are given a very special power, using it simply to satisfy idle curiosity is rather abusing that power, don’t you think?”

  Dr Ojebande seemed entirely matter-of-fact about this, as if thirteen-year-old boys with the power to be invisible were the most commonplace things in the world.

  “Anyway, why on earth would you want to follow me home? I’m not so interesting, am I? Just a dry, dusty old Tartar of a teacher.”

  A “Tartar”, incidentally, is “someone who is unduly harsh or fierce”.

  “I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I just saw you walking home and felt an … impulse to follow you. I don’t know what I was expecting to find out.”

  “It was probably the grimoire,” said Dr Ojebande. “It almost certainly picked up the energy coming from me and led you in my direction.”

  “What’s a grimoire?”

  “The spell book. Do you have it with you?”

  I fumbled in my bag. It wasn’t there. I emptied the bag on the stone floor: exercise books, sweets, a compass, a comic, tissues, a few stickers. No book.

  “But I know that I put it in…”

  “It’s gone,” said Dr Ojebande, mildly. “As soo
n as I realized what you were – what you had become – it returned to wherever it came from. You knew that when someone found out you were invisible, the power would disappear? The book went with it.”

  I felt sad – but somehow not sad at the same time. Being invisible had been good fun, but it had been hard, too. The truth wasn’t as great as everybody said it was. I thought I now understood a little more why grown-ups lied so much.

  “How did you come by it?” asked Dr Ojebande, sipping at his cup of tea. “Although I think I can guess.”

  “I got it from the bookshop where you got the—”

  I stopped myself, too late. For the first time, Dr Ojebande seemed surprised.

  “Go on,” he said.

  “Where you got the book about witchcraft,” I said, looking at my feet.

  A look of understanding came over his face. “So you followed me there, too. And that was you making that ridiculous quacking noise in the old church.”

  “Yes.”

  “You’d make a good private eye. I didn’t know I was being followed. I thought that noise came from some kind of mischievous spirit playing a trick on me.”

  “What were you doing there? In that old church.”

  Mr Ojebande looked at me as if I was an idiot. “What do people usually do in a church?”

  “Pray.”

  “Exactly.”

  “But why would you pray with a book about witchcraft?”

  “I wish you showed this much curiosity at school.”

  “School isn’t so interesting.”

  Mr Ojebande sighed.

  “The book is not a book of witchcraft. It is a book disproving witchcraft. Reginald Scot, the writer, thought it didn’t exist and set out to destroy the myth. The book is full of spells and conjuring tricks and incantations. Most of them, as the writer suggested, are nonsense. But not all of them. Mixed in with all the fakery and flummery are words that have real power, verses that are enchantments. Or so I believe. The late Mr Scot would no doubt disagree with me.”

 
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