How to be invisible, p.18
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       How To Be Invisible, p.18

           Tim Lott
 
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Adults, despite all their flaws, can be very cute.

  But Melchior and Peaches had one final surprise for me – as if I hadn’t had enough shocks for one day.

  “Strato. Can we ask you something?” said Melchior, as I was finishing my last spoonful of ice cream. “It’s all right if you say no. And I realize it will be difficult for you. Given your temperament.”

  “You see, it’s like this,” said Peaches. “Do you know what a ‘best man’ is?”

  “Of course,” I said, not quite getting it. “He holds the ring and makes speeches and stuff.”

  They smiled.

  “Well – we were hoping that you might be our best man,” said Peaches.

  “We’d be very honoured,” said Melchior.

  I swear I felt a cold sweat break out on my forehead.

  “You mean you want me to make a speech? In front of people? On my own?”

  The terror must have come through in my voice, because Peaches turned to Melchior.

  “I told you it was too much to ask,” she said, patting the back of his hand with hers.

  “I know. It was a crazy idea. Don’t worry about it, Strato,” said Melchior, turning to me. “We can always find someone who will—”

  “I’ll do it,” I said.

  “What?” they said in unison.

  “I’ll do it,” I repeated. “Somehow, I’ll do it.”

  Peaches and Melchior smiled.

  I was glad they were happy. Because I felt that I’d just been sentenced to a fate worse than death.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  THE GREAT TERROR

  The wedding took place at 2.00 p.m. in a fifteenth-century church in the town centre. To my amazement, about fifty of Melchior’s and Peaches’ friends had come down from London to join in the ceremony.

  I was dressed in a brand-new suit – ice blue, with sharp, narrow lapels. I’d had a haircut, and I’d even had a shave – the first one ever, but there had definitely been stubble appearing on my top lip and it made me look dirty so I razored it off.

  I watched the people walk into the church and turned the ring in my pocket round and round with my finger. A lot of the guests told me, as I greeted them at the entrance to the church, that I had grown up suddenly. I felt in some strange way that they were right.

  My father, dressed in a pale-grey suit with a rose in his buttonhole, waited at the altar for my mother to arrive, while I stood at the door, shifting from foot to foot. Since Peaches’ father was long dead, I was giving her away as well as being best man. I looked into the church. I could see Susan Brown, dressed in a plain dark-green dress, sitting off to the left. She was the only person of my age there, and I was very glad that she had come. I caught her eye, and she gave me a quiet smile. It made me feel a bit stronger, but I was still weak at the knees.

  I felt in my left-hand pocket, where there was a piece of paper. My speech was written on it, and every time I thought of standing up in front of fifty people and speaking it out loud it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Going into Dr Ojebande’s house had been a stroll in the park in comparison.

  I watched as an old dark-blue Morris Traveller, with its wooden beams and friendly snub face, turned into the end of the street and moved towards the church. It was polished to a bright sheen, and stretched out over the bonnet were two white ribbons.

  The car pulled up in front of the church and Peaches climbed out. She looked incredible. Her dress was cream rather than white, and it looked antique, with delicate bits of lace frilling everywhere. She was wearing a veil, but I could see her face behind it. It looked beatific.

  “Beatific”, incidentally, means “blissful” or “serene”.

  She smiled at me, and I smiled back. Then the organ started up, she took my arm and step by slow step we made our way down the aisle. When we reached the altar where the vicar was waiting to perform the ceremony, I saw Melchior turn to look at her. His face was a picture. It was as if his features melted. He didn’t smile exactly. It was more as if he was awestruck. He reached out and touched the veil with the tip of his finger, just as he used to touch my face. Then he turned to the vicar and the ceremony began.

  Twenty-two minutes later, my mother and father were married. I didn’t fumble or drop the ring. Nobody stood up to say that they objected to the two of them being married, not even Dorothea Beckwith-Hinds, whose dress was exquisitely awful. She looked like she had fallen into a giant yellow meringue and been unable to extricate herself.

  The vicar pronounced them man and wife, and the whole congregation burst into applause as Melchior kissed his bride. When the clapping began to die down, one person just kept going, unable to stop.

  But eventually Susan Brown shot me a friendly glance, and I put my hands in my pockets.

  About three hours later the moment I had been dreading came. No wonder public speaking was the thing that people feared most in the world. But I was determined to do it for my parents.

  We were in a room above an old pub, and I was sitting to the right of Melchior and Peaches. Thoughtfully, knowing how quiet my voice was, Melchior had set up a microphone for me. The guests had all finished their puddings and were looking towards our table, waiting for the speeches to begin. I had fidgeted with my piece of paper so much that it felt like a lump of putty in my pocket. I took the paper out and stared at it. It was so screwed up and sweaty I could barely read it.

  I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer. I stood up.

  I started to tap my wine glass with a spoon as my father had told me to do, to signal the beginning of the speeches.

  Instead of a clear ringing tone, there was a shattering tinkle. The glass broke. The Coca-Cola that I had filled my wine glass with spilled onto the white tablecloth, leaving a spreading dark stain.

  Immediately, to my consternation, the room fell silent. I looked down at Peaches and Melchior, who were staring up at me expectantly. As was every single person in the room.

  Nobody laughed at the fact that I had just broken the glass, which made me doubly nervous.

  I glanced across at Susan Brown. She looked as anxious as I felt. I could tell that she was having doubts about whether I was going to be able to carry this off.

  I picked up the microphone, switched it on and tapped it, hoping that the sheen of sweat on my finger wouldn’t mean I would be electrocuted.

  Nothing happened.

  I tapped it again. The mic was dead.

  The silence had grown deeper. If it went on much longer, awkwardness and embarrassment were going to creep into the room like uninvited guests.

  My mind went blank. A wave of pure panic swept over me. The words on the piece of paper swam in front of my eyes. I looked desperately around the room for inspiration, but there were just eyes, eyes, dozens of eyes, all trained on me and waiting for me to make a fool of myself.

  I gulped. More seconds passed. Susan Brown shifted uncomfortably in her seat. I glanced down at Melchior and Peaches. Their grins were beginning to look a bit starched into place.

  I looked over to the window, now wishing that the ground would swallow me entirely. My throat burned, a dry heat.

  I saw a black shape in the window. I squinted, and focused.

  It was a bird.

  It was Dr Ojebande’s bird.

  It looked at me, and then I swear it did something impossible.

  It winked.

  And at that moment, for some reason, my face stretched into a broad smile and the spell broke. Putting down my microphone and casting aside my piece of paper with the speech written on it, I turned to the crowd and spoke, in a loud, clear voice.

  “There’s a thing I read about in science called quantum entanglement.”

  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my father putting his head into his hands. He clearly thought I had lost my mojo completely. Not that I had any mojo to lose. He knew that I wasn’t following the speech I’d written.

  I wasn’t saying any of the stuff on the piece of paper – welcom
ing the guests, thanking them for coming, telling a few jokes etc. This was completely different. The words were just arriving in my head as I stood there.

  Among the faces in the crowd there was simply puzzlement and anxiety.

  I pressed on, my voice still loud and clear.

  “It’s very hard to explain, but the thing is, two particles are sometimes so closely entangled that if one of them changes, the other one changes too. So if you had two photons … or … well, you know, if a nucleus ejects two particles, they must have opposite spin … one spins clockwise and one spins anticlockwise…”

  I could sense a deepening unease in the crowd. I was losing them and I had hardly even started. I looked up for my friend, the bird. It had disappeared. I was on my own.

  When I started speaking again, I could hear my own voice faltering slightly.

  “Forget about the photons. It doesn’t matter what you call them.”

  It occurred to me, with astonishment, that I was no longer shy – not today, anyway. The fear had gone. I didn’t know where it had gone, but it had.

  I felt my voice growing stronger again.

  “The thing is, these two tiny things are so tangled together, that if you separate them and put them millions or even billions of miles apart, they still know about each other. They still relate to each other.

  “If one of them changes, the other one changes – immediately, in the same millisecond. They each know what is happening to the other one, even though they may be light years apart. That’s how intimate they are. That’s how entwined their destinies are.”

  I paused. A lot of furrowed brows. My father still had his head in his hands.

  “I think that this is like love. I feel that two people who really love one another are connected that closely. Peaches and Melchior are connected that closely. However far they drift away, they are always right there with each other, even if sometimes they seem far apart.

  “If one changes, the other one changes. Just like two particles. They know each other. They are each other. They are entangled, forever together. That’s what marriage is. Isn’t it?”

  I stared above the heads of the people in front of me, afraid to look in their faces for what I might see there.

  “I am entangled too. We are all entangled. Forever together. Wherever we travel, and whatever we are when we’re apart. That’s what love is, I suppose. Isn’t it? Whatever happens to them, happens to me. And what has happened to them today makes me the happiest particle in the universe.”

  My voice faded away. Complete silence. I didn’t know whether I had lost them or won them over. My father had at least taken his head out of his hands. And my mother was about to either smile or frown.

  I couldn’t stretch the thing out any longer. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

  So I latched on to an unbroken glass and held it up for the toast.

  I was just about to say the words my father had told me to say, when I was stopped in my tracks.

  Susan Brown started clapping.

  Then her mother, who was sitting with her, started clapping. Then a few more people at the next table. Then a few more.

  Then the whole room was clapping and cheering. It was twenty-one seconds before they were quiet enough for me to raise my glass and say what I wanted, desperately, to say. To set a seal on what would never be broken.

  “Ladies and gentlemen – the bride and groom.”

  Everything changes. Everything is happening all the time, my dad always says. Even a table is happening, if you look closely enough. It’s all change, and change hurts, but change is good.

  After that day, things definitely changed. They got better. The arguments between Peaches and Melchior dried up completely. My parents seemed to be drawn together like two poles of an electromagnetic force. Marriage suited them. Our Christmas Day together was the best I could remember. I got a Sky-Watcher EXPLORER-130EM telescope with 130 mm f/900 Newtonian Reflector with RA motor drive. I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s as good as it gets.

  Me, Lloyd Archibald Turnbull and Susan Brown became good friends. One of the two Waynes was excluded from school, while the other was put down a class because his marks were so bad, so we didn’t really have to deal with them any more.

  Lloyd Archibald Turnbull still had a difficult time with his mother – she became neurotic and terrified of ghosts after I paid her that little visit – but she pretty much stopped hitting him. He remained both pleasant and industrious – I’m sure Dr Ojebande would have been proud of him. Also, he had an operation on his arm, and after a lot of hard work and perseverance, he was able to use it again.

  I never did anything about Dr Ojebande’s suggestion for dealing with Mr Maurice Bailey. On the other hand, I did tell Lloyd Turnbull about what he’d been doing to me. And I’ve got a theory he did do something about it.

  All I know is that a few days after I told Lloyd Turnbull, Mr Bailey’s precious Land Rover suffered a fatal seizure. It wouldn’t start, however much he coaxed it. And when he’d taken it to three different mechanics to try and find out what was the matter, the last one finally worked it out.

  It turned out that someone had put several jars of marmalade – presumably Robertson’s – into the petrol tank. Needless to say, this had not been all that healthy for the engine – to put it mildly. Fact is, Mr Bailey didn’t drive his Land Rover around town after that.

  I felt a little sorry for him. After all, not even Mr Bailey is all bad. I know that, because I saw him looking after the little old lady who lived next door to him. And maybe he was once just like Lloyd Turnbull – bullied by his mum or dad – and he just took all that anger out on other people.

  But I didn’t feel all that sorry for him.

  After all, he was a bloody nutcase.

  I did go back to the bookshop where I found How To Be Invisible to see if I could get another copy, but when I looked, the bookshop wasn’t there any more. It was now a cafe called Eatz. I suppose old Berewold, like Dr Ojebande – or whatever his real name was – had moved on, like cunning folk do.

  I don’t suppose I shall ever come across another cunning person, but it was a real privilege that I did. Now I am sure of what I knew all along – that science isn’t the end of the story, that there are mysteries everywhere, inside science and outside.

  Nobody knows all the secrets. And nobody ever will.

  Things are good. I don’t ask Scotty to beam me up much any more.

  You may be wondering what happened with me and Susan Brown – whether I ever plucked up the courage to kiss her.

  I did. It was easy after I’d made the speech. Nothing will be that hard again. I’m not going to tell you what happened after that. It’s something you shouldn’t know about. It’s too private.

  I’ll say this much. For a while we went to one another’s houses and chatted about physics and biology, and watched silly films together and had a great, geeky time. After she taught me to swim in the river, we went swimming there together on hot summer evenings the following year – but not the year after that. Eventually we grew apart.

  I suppose back then we were both living under the shadow of nonage.

  “Nonage”, incidentally, is an old-fashioned word meaning “the time just before adolescence”.

  Now I am moving out of the shadow of nonage. And into the sunlight, which sometimes warms and sometimes burns.

  So that is the story of how I learned how to be invisible. It’s absolutely true, but I can’t prove it. Then again, scientific proof isn’t everything. But there is circumstantial evidence of a sort, because if you met me face to face, you would know that I don’t have enough imagination to make this sort of thing up. All I am capable of doing is observing, and recording facts, and formulating theories. And remembering, of course. Remembering, and learning as much as I can from all I remember.

  For instance, I will never forget that day when Susan Brown taught me to swim. All you had to do, she said, was trust the water, then swimmin
g was easy.

  That lesson stuck in my mind because it occurred to me that the same thing applies to people.

  You have to trust people even though they let you down, and trust them again, and then again. I learned to trust that my mother and father would make things right for me and each other, and I trusted myself to trust them.

  Trust is invisible too, but it turns out that it’s the invisible things that matter most of all. Neutrinos, quarks, gravity, anti-matter, leptons, love, hope, dignity, courage, trust.

  I may not be invisible any more, but I still live in the invisible world. We all do. It’s much more important than the other one.

  To quote from my favourite book, which I shall never see again, but which I think about all the time:

  That which matters

  Is not of matter made.

  Words hide paper.

  Paper conceals space.

  All is emptiness.

  And all things forever

  From that emptiness

  Spring.

  ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  I would like to thank James le Fanu, Frank Close and Michael Marten for their contributions towards my rudimentary scientific understandings.

  Also thanks to Jessica Arah for her time and editorial insight and apologies to Kate Bush for stealing her title.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. All statements, activities, stunts, descriptions, information and material of any other kind contained herein are included for entertainment purposes only and should not be relied on for accuracy or replicated as they may result in injury.

  First published in Great Britain 2013 by Walker Books Ltd

  87 Vauxhall Walk, London SE11 5HJ

  Text © 2013 by Tim Lott

  Cover illustration © 2013 by Daniel Mountfield

  The right of Tim Lott to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, taping and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.

 
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