How to be invisible, p.17
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       How To Be Invisible, p.17

           Tim Lott
 
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  “So it is witchcraft…?”

  “You can call it that. I wouldn’t. On the contrary. The cunning folk stand against black magic, on the side of good. We’ve always fought against the demons, the spirits, the faeries, the old ways. It’s cost us dearly, but the battle is more or less won. That old, dark world of witches and monsters has almost passed away. Those few of us who are left just indulge in a bit of casual do-gooding nowadays. Keep moving about, helping where we can.”

  “Who are the cunning folk?” My head suddenly felt like it was about to short-circuit. Who was Dr Ojebande? How could my physics teacher be sitting there talking about all this weirdness, so completely unperturbed?

  “The dyn hysbys, the pellars, the wise men and women,” said Dr Ojebande, matter-of-factly. “‘Cunnan’ means ‘to know’. We are people who know. Nowadays, scientists are the cunning folk, but once it was different. We go way back. Mostly forgotten now. Just a few old families left.”

  Dr Ojebande took another sip of tea and told me more about the cunning folk – how they had existed since medieval times, how they had sometimes used sorcery to achieve their ends – herbs, potions, prayers, spells. Some of them had been Christians who fought against black magic, others were simply people with a “special talent” that they used for good. Some were gypsies, and a few, like Dr Ojebande, managed to live something like a normal life.

  “But most of that has gone now,” said Dr Ojebande. “Science holds all the cards nowadays. It thinks it knows everything.”

  “But it doesn’t,” I said.

  “That’s right,” said Dr Ojebande. He looked pointedly at his watch.“Now then, what time is it? I really ought to be—”

  “If you were praying, what were you praying for?” I asked.

  Dr Ojebande grinned. I noticed that his back teeth glinted with gold caps.

  “You’re a very nosy young man. If you must know, I was praying for young Mr Turnbull – I could tell that he needed help. I find that people who cause others to suffer are usually suffering themselves. And you know what?”

  “What?”

  “I think the prayer worked. Thanks to you.”

  He gave me a kind smile, and then looked at his watch again. Clearly he had better things to do than chat with an invisible boy. Or an ex-invisible boy. But I was rooted there – I was desperate to find out more.

  “Did you get the book on witchcraft from the man with the ginger moustache?” I asked

  “Ah, Old Berewold,” said Dr Ojebande ruminatively. “Is that who gave you the grimoire? Not a bad old chap, in his way, for a dyn hysbys. Do you know he’s one hundred and seven years old? You wouldn’t think it, would you? Anyway, he’s not the sharpest tool in the box. Doesn’t always think things through. Smells bad too. Like liver and onions. Did you notice that?”

  I shook my head. Dr Ojebande continued.

  “Don’t know that it was very sensible to put a grimoire into the hands of a troubled thirteen-year-old boy, however clever that boy happens to be. Still, folk like us aren’t always wise, even though our intentions are usually good. Now then, what do you think? Of your experience, I mean.”

  He looked at me, with his eyes no longer lazy but piercing and bright.

  “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “It’s been painful. But I think it’s helped me, in a strange way.”

  “Good,” said Dr Ojebande. “I’m pleased. Though you really never know for sure, do you?”

  I drained my glass of lemonade. The pervading sense of weirdness was wearing off. I was vaguely relieved to be rid of my “gift”. It felt as if it might have become addictive.

  Talking to Dr Ojebande now was more like talking to a friendly uncle than to a teacher or some kind of warlock. Without really thinking, I blurted out some of my own mysteries. How I needed to know how to kiss Susan Brown, how to save Peaches’ and Melchior’s relationship, and how to deal with Mr Maurice Bailey – how I needed to sort everything out somehow, and how I wished magic could help me.

  Dr Ojebande stared deeply into the fire for ten seconds, and then he looked at me.

  “If I have any advice for you, it comes down to this: never imagine you know more than you do. Because the truth is, you almost certainly know less than you think.”

  I nodded. Dr Ojebande continued.

  “I don’t know about answers, though. But it’s OK not to know. If we knew everything, it would be dreadful. Life is all about mysteries. People who try to kill mysteries try to kill life. Fortunately, life is so strange we are unlikely ever to run out of them. As my great-great-grandfather used to say, ‘It’s amazing the number of things there are that ain’t.’”

  “But what about my parents?”

  Dr Ojebande shook his head sadly. “There’s no help for those kinds of things. Your mother and father will just have to sort it out themselves. Maybe everything will work out. I have a good feeling about it, for what it’s worth. As for Susan Brown, you don’t need magic – you just need courage. Maybe she’ll reject you. So what? There will be other girls. It’s the price you pay for trying. As for Maurice Bailey – well, I do have an idea about that. Nothing magical though.”

  He told me his idea – and it was a pretty good one, I had to admit.

  Then I said, “Is ‘Ojebande’ even your real name?”

  “No,” he said. “My real name is a secret. And don’t ask. You wouldn’t be able to pronounce it.”

  After I had been there for what seemed like hours, I realized I should go home. Almost reluctantly now, I rose to leave.

  “You’re going,” said Dr Ojebande. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.

  “My mother will be getting worried,” I said. “But to tell you the truth, I’m a bit afraid of that bull in the field on the way home.”

  “He won’t give you any trouble. He’s gone to sleep now.”

  “How do you know?”

  “A little bird told me.”

  He turned his gaze to the window. There, framed against the darkness, was the black bird with the white mark on its wing. It had left its cage and somehow made its way outside. The bird opened its beak once, let out a caw and flew away.

  I turned back to Dr Ojebande. He handed me a big torch and draped an old blanket over my shoulders. Then he gave me the rest of the Curly Wurlys.

  “I don’t really like them,” he said. “You might as well finish them off.”

  “Thank you, Dr Ojebande,” I said.

  “You’re welcome,” he replied.

  “I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to talk to you next term,” I said.

  Dr Ojebande – or whatever his real name was – looked sad.

  “You won’t have to,” he said. “I’m moving on.”

  “You’re leaving?” I was shocked.

  “Yes. We cunning folk never stay too long in one place. It doesn’t do. Scientists might find us and cut us open to learn what makes us tick. So this was the last day of my last term.”

  He smiled and reached a hand out to me.

  “Have a happy Christmas, Strato,” he said, shaking my hand.

  “You too, Dr Ojebande,” I said.

  And then I walked out of the door, unafraid, into the darkness.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  OUT OF THE SHADOW OF NONAGE

  So that’s how I lost my power of invisibility. Perhaps it was my fault for snooping once too often.

  Without my special gift, I could no longer eavesdrop in order to work out what the Big Gesture might be – the gesture that Melchior needed to make in order to win Peaches back.

  I had more or less given up on the two of them anyway. Admittedly their arguments had become less frequent, but I imagined that was simply because Melchior wasn’t there all the time. He still came around to the house often enough – I thought they were both being quite mature about the break-up, actually. Sometimes they had meals together, or even watched the TV side by side, before Melchior returned to his small, dingy hotel room with the sad chocolat
e on the pillow.

  I dreaded Christmas Day as it loomed ahead of us. All the normal families were going to be gathering happily by the tree. But for me, this Christmas would simply be the first of many when we were separate instead of together.

  Even if we were all in the same room, we would be separate.

  So I had a sense of deep foreboding when, a few days after the school holidays started, Melchior and Peaches called me down to the front room for an “important talk”.

  It was a Tuesday and Melchior had come home and cooked – or should I say overcooked? – a roast chicken for us. After lunch, I had gone back up to my room to watch TV and the two of them had stayed together in the front room talking to one another in hushed tones – too hushed for me to work out what they were saying by lurking outside the door. A few days earlier that wouldn’t have mattered, but now I had no way of knowing what was going on.

  I was pretty sure I knew what was coming, though. Melchior had clearly failed to come up with the Big Gesture and Peaches had got tired of waiting. I felt very, very sad, and wished that I could be invisible once more so that no one could ever see me again as long as I lived – so that I could be like the air, or nothing at all.

  I sat down with a heart that felt like it was made of osmium or iridim, or some other heavy metal. I thought for a moment I was going to cry, and I never cry. Peaches and Melchior looked at me as if they were deeply concerned. They stared at me gravely, seated on either side of the table.

  Peaches spoke first. Her voice was softer than usual, and she glanced across to Melchior from time to time, as if seeking reassurance.

  “We know you’ve had a hard time of it lately,” she said. “We know it hasn’t been easy for you. And we’re both very, very sorry.”

  Melchior nodded. I said nothing and waited for the bombshell to drop once all the bloody flim-flam was out of the way.

  “We haven’t thought about you enough,” continued Peaches. “We’ve only thought about ourselves. Me and my book, and your father and his job and … what happened in London between him and—”

  Melchior interrupted.

  “Suffice to say, that time is now over. Today we are going to begin a new phase of our lives. An exciting new phase.”

  I was no fool – not any more. I had learned a bit over the last few weeks. I had found out, under experimental conditions, how adults behaved. “An exciting new phase” meant that a disaster was coming. I knew that in politics this is called “spin”, but I preferred to give it its real name – lies. They wanted to break the news to me now so that we wouldn’t all have to act out a complete lie of family happiness together on Christmas Day. They were splitting up once and for all. It was all over.

  I looked at Peaches and noticed that she was crying. This was awful. I just wanted to get out of there. But I kept myself fixed to the chair and stared at a spot on the wall as if it was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen.

  “You see, the thing is,” continued Melchior, “your mother and I—”

  “I’m not a complete bloody idiot,” I snapped.

  I was amazed at how loud my voice was – loud and bitter.

  “Calm down,” said Peaches, wiping her eyes and reaching to touch my arm.

  I shrugged her off.

  “Don’t tell me to calm down. You’re going to be apart for good. I know all about it. You didn’t even have the … decency to wait until after Christmas. Nice present, Santa! Thanks a lot. Oh yeah, I forgot. There isn’t any Santa. That was just another one of your stories.”

  My eyes stinging, I turned and ran up to my room, slamming the door behind me. I would have locked it. But I didn’t have a key. Or a lock, for that matter.

  Once I was in there I just wanted to throw myself at the mirror again, and smash it to pieces – smash myself to pieces. I knew I wouldn’t turn invisible this time. I would be all too solid, flesh and blood. But maybe physical pain would be some kind of escape from what I was feeling.

  So that’s exactly what I did. I fixed the mirror with a stare, then without allowing another thought to enter my head, I ran at it, full pelt, head first.

  This time – of course – I didn’t disappear into the other side of the glass. I smashed into it, and it shattered with a deafening crash. A piece of glass cut my arm and it began to bleed. Shards of mirror scattered all over the floor. I stamped on them with my shoe, breaking them into smaller pieces.

  Still I didn’t cry.

  At that point, my parents both rushed into the room.

  “Strato. Strato!”

  “GO AWAY!” I yelled. “What do you WANT?”

  I had never heard myself talk so wildly.

  Peaches saw the blood on my arm. It was only a tiny cut, but she started making an awful fuss.

  “Oh! You’ve hurt yourself. My poor Strato!”

  She rushed up and put her arms around me, then got a tissue from my desk and dabbed at the small, red stain. I let myself be held. Meanwhile, Melchior started picking up the glass from the floor. I shrugged Peaches off and wiped my eyes dry with the back of my sleeve.

  “I’m fine. Can you both leave me on my own, please. I want to be by myself.”

  I sat down on the bed, crossing my arms, my mouth fixed in a grimace. Melchior had stopped picking up pieces of glass and went to stand next to Peaches. To my surprise, he took her hand. For some reason, they both started smiling, which infuriated me even more. I was just considering throwing something at them when Melchior finally spoke.

  “We’re not splitting up, Strato.”

  “Of course you’re splitting up,” I said. “You’ve already split up. Just have the guts to tell me the truth for once.”

  “We’re not splitting up – really,” said Peaches.

  At this point, Melchior held out my mother’s left hand for me to see. On her fourth finger was a ring I had never seen before, with a sparkling jewel that I presumed to be a diamond on it.

  “So you bought her a new ring. So what?”

  “It’s an engagement ring, Strato,” said Melchior quietly.

  “A what?” I said, not really understanding.

  “An engagement ring. Marie-France has agreed to be my wife.”

  I rocked back in astonishment. Was this some new joke, some freshly-minted falsehood? I looked at Peaches fiercely.

  She nodded silently, in confirmation. Then she said, “It’s true, Strato. Yesterday, your father asked me to marry him. Today, I said yes. Even though he doesn’t know how to cook a chicken properly.”

  They both laughed.

  “We’re getting married on Saturday, Strato. In four days’ time,” said Melchior.

  “But that’s Christmas Eve.”

  “There’s no law against getting married on Christmas Eve, you know,” said Peaches. “And then we can start our first day of married life on Christmas Day.”

  I was entirely lost for words.

  “What’s gone is gone, Strato,” said Peaches. “Forgiveness is tough, very tough indeed, but I think – finally – I’ve found a way to get to it. I’ve swallowed my pride and I’ve swallowed my hurt. Perhaps one day you’ll manage it too. Perhaps one day you’ll forgive me and your father for all that we’ve put you through.”

  I said nothing. I was still in a sulk, although the grounds of my sulking had fallen away from under me.

  “I’m very happy,” said Melchior. “We’re both very happy, Strato. Things are going to be OK. I’m sure of it, somehow.”

  “How do you know?” I said, trying to hold on to my anger. But it had almost entirely dissipated.

  “Call it instinct,” said Peaches.

  “It just makes sense,” said Melchior.

  “It wasn’t right for me to write the book – with or without your permission,” said Peaches, the ring flashing on her finger. “I’ve shelved it.”

  “Won’t you have to pay the advance back?” I muttered, still not quite believing what I was hearing.

  Melchior and Peaches exchange
d glances.

  “How did you know about that?” said Peaches suspiciously.

  I didn’t say anything.

  Peaches decided to let it go.

  “The thing is, I’ve started a new book – a novel this time – about moving from a London suburb to a weird little village in the country. It’s what everybody dreams of – to move to the country and become a novelist. It’s called The Grass Is Greener. Nothing about geeks. My publishers like it – they really like it, Strato. So I don’t have to pay the advance back, so long as I give them this book instead.”

  “So Welcome to the Geek Squad is…”

  “In the bottom drawer – for the time being at least. Perhaps when you are older you will look at it and feel differently about it. Maybe you’ll want it out there, in which case we’ll think about it again. But whatever happens, it will get a new title. Apart from anything else, you’re not a geek.”

  “What am I then?”

  “You’re simply the most interesting boy I know.”

  Melchior nodded. “I agree. One hundred per cent.”

  Then they both came across to my bed where I was sitting and hugged me. Finally believing that they were actually telling the truth – for once – I hugged them back.

  Then I did something I almost never do. I began to cry – tears of joy and relief. I couldn’t stop. It was only water and salt and a few trace elements, but it changed me somehow. When I’d finished, I somehow felt solid again, more there than I had been before, if you can understand that.

  I felt so full of love then, and I wondered what science had to say about love. And of course, it had nothing at all to say. Because love is just another kind of magic. You can’t see it and you can’t touch it but it is the most important thing in the world, perhaps the entire known universe.

  Then we all went to Mr Milkee’s in the town centre and had huge bowls of ice cream. I had a selection of brown – chestnut, hazelnut, toffee and cappuccino – and it was magnificent. But better still, Melchior and Peaches held hands as I made my way through every scoop.

 
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