How to be invisible, p.3
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       How To Be Invisible, p.3

           Tim Lott
 
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  He had started making my life difficult as soon as I arrived at Whitecross Court. Until the day when I learned how to be invisible, I had no idea what I could do about it.

  I suppose I have to admit I was prime meat for a bully. I was an outsider. I was from London. I had a silly name. I was shy, which some people interpret as being arrogant or aloof.

  On top of all that, I was black. I am black. That is to say, I have skin that is conventionally described as “black” even though in actual fact it is dark brown.

  I’m not culturally black. Other black children in London sometimes called me a “coconut”: black on the outside and white on the inside. My parents don’t eat West Indian food. I don’t listen to music by black people any more often than any other kind of music. I don’t use black street slang either (though a lot of white kids I knew in London did). The only thing “black” about me is that I just happen to have skin that is darker than that of Caucasians.

  “Caucasian”, incidentally, is a technical term for “white people”.

  I prefer the word “Caucasian” to “white” because, obviously, white people aren’t actually white – their skin doesn’t reflect all colours of the spectrum – any more than “black” people are actually black – their skin doesn’t absorb all colours of the spectrum.

  Peaches is “black” too, but you can hardly tell at all from the way she looks, since her skin is almost the same colour as my father’s, and he is just an everyday English Caucasian. The term other black people used to describe her skin in the old country – that’s what she calls the United States – was “high yeller”. She straightens her hair, so that conceals her ethnicity even more.

  But my skin is dark enough for some people to think I am going to assault them just because I happen to have my hood up, and my nostrils are slightly flared and I have somewhat nappy hair.

  I just wanted to be who I was. I just felt ordinary. Or I had done until I came to Hedgecombe.

  Being ordinary stopped being possible as soon as we came to live here, partly because I appeared to be the only black child in the town whereas in South London everyone was mixed up together – black, Asian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, you name it.

  As a consequence, people here sometimes looked at me in a peculiar manner when I walked into a shop or when I was out with my mother and father. It was as if they believed I was adopted, or had somehow forcibly abducted my parents.

  Peaches really is my blood mother. She is very pretty, with eyes the size and colour of pale-purple grapes. She stands very tall, and has a puzzled, quizzical expression much of the time, as if she is trying to work something important out. My father sometimes says she’s “away with the fairies” and I think I know what this means. I think this means that she’s a flake.

  Bullies can be quite clever. Not all of them – the ones that just smack you round the head because they don’t like the look of your face are not clever at all. But Lloyd Archibald Turnbull had a special talent for bullying.

  I had never seen him hit anybody – although he was easily capable of it since he had built up his good arm to the extent that it was taut and muscled like a weightlifter’s and could clearly pack a hefty punch.

  If you were not watching closely you might think that he was not a bully at all. He had a nice face really – open, with a slight smile always playing at the edge of his lips, and bright blue eyes set above cheeks as red as crab apples. But maybe faces can’t really tell you much about the way people are. Shakespeare said that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”, and he knew what he was talking about.

  This is an example of the way Lloyd Archibald Turnbull operated. Three days after starting at Whitecross Court, I had been sitting down to school lunch. The food was vegetarian lasagne, which was of indifferent quality but edible enough, although a little heavy on the salt. (I try to stay health conscious, and sodium chloride, over a lifetime, can raise your blood pressure to hazardous levels.)

  I was sitting on my own. I didn’t mind. I am the sort of person who quite likes his own company and nobody knew me yet, so why should they want to sit with me? I wouldn’t have wanted to if I’d been there for some time and somebody new suddenly arrived. I would have expected a newcomer to try and fit in and bide their time until people got used to them.

  That was what I’d been doing that lunchtime – biding my time, quite happily sitting there reading my copy of A Game of Thrones. I was loving it. It was better even than The Lord of the Rings, my previous all-time favourite book. It was more grown up – full of real full-on violence and also quite sexy.

  From time to time I tentatively glanced up at the other children, who more or less ignored me except for one girl of about my age with round pink-rimmed glasses, shiny black hair, translucent skin and a mole on her neck. She caught my eye for a moment, then looked away again.

  Lloyd Archibald Turnbull was sitting with some friends at the next table. I knew who he was because he was in my class and he often got himself into trouble by misbehaving. To my great surprise, he gestured as if to call me over. Then he called out. Nothing rude, just my name, “Strato – hey, Strato.” Although I would just as soon have sat by myself, I didn’t want to be impolite, so I went rather nervously over to join him.

  Lloyd Turnbull didn’t say anything. He just waved for me to sit down on the only empty chair. The other chairs around him were occupied by his friends, who were all talking loudly and laughing with one another. I didn’t know their names, but I sat down with them just as he had requested.

  I tried not to look at his damaged arm, which was not actually that spectacular, just a little skinny and slack-looking. I had heard that his nerves had been damaged in the car accident, but that there was hope they could be repaired in the not too distant future, since medical technology was moving so fast. His other arm – the big one, cabled with veins and sculpted with muscles – was much more interesting, since it was so out of proportion to the one on the other side of his body.

  I’d imagined that, as he’d asked me over, he would talk to me. But, on the contrary – he completely ignored me. So did everyone else at the table. I just sat there, while he and his friends carried on talking about all the things they were doing and the people they knew, grinning as if to ingratiate myself. Frankly, it was humiliating.

  Sometimes I do that stupid Star Trek thing in my head. When I don’t want to be somewhere, I think to myself, Beam me up, Scotty. That’s what Captain Kirk used to say to the chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise, Montgomery Scott, when he was in a tight spot and wanted to escape. Scotty would then teleport Captain Kirk back to safety, unless the equipment wasn’t working or was overloaded or being sabotaged by Klingons, which it frequently was.

  My dad always used to use the phrase when he was a kid – he’s so old he used to watch the original TV series – and he still says it sometimes. It just kind of seeped into my mind and I can’t seem to get out of the habit of using it. And that’s what I’d thought when I was sitting with Lloyd Archibald Turnbull and his friends.

  When lunch was over, they all just got up and went away without a word. None of them had said anything to me at all, the whole time. It made me feel very stupid and embarrassed. But Lloyd Archibald Turnbull had smiled and waved as they left the table, as if it had been the most normal and friendly thing to do to invite me over.

  That’s the sort of thing he did – he pretended to be friendly, so you dropped your defences, and then he showed you up in some way or other or made you feel silly.

  The morning after Peaches and Melchior discovered that I was truanting, I headed out to Whitecross Court to face my first day back at school that week.

  I took the bus as usual. I caught the same bus at the same time every day, with the same driver. His name was Mr Maurice Bailey.

  The provision of public transport in Hedgecombe is quite different from London. In the metropolis, you would never know the bus driver’s name, and he, or she, would conventionally display
the signs of being acutely unhappy, to the point of being clinically depressed.

  In London, if you were running for the bus, I swear most bus drivers positively derived pleasure from waiting until you had almost got to the stop and then pulling away, leaving you on the pavement. It was as if their job description required them to be sour and mean-spirited.

  Mr Maurice Bailey wasn’t like that. Everybody knew his name and called him by it. He knew all the children’s names too. He was very friendly and cheerful, and didn’t seem like he was about to commit suicide like the drivers in London. He had bulgy cheeks, a crinkly neck and a thin layer of hair that he combed over the top of his head. He always wore a tie and a neatly pressed shirt. If you were late for the bus and he saw you running for it in the mirror, he’d wait for you and smile at you when you came on board.

  He was, nevertheless, somewhat odd in his habits and his appearance. Mr Bailey wore clothes that were always a bit too small for him – or perhaps he had simply grown out of them, since he was rather on the fat side. Also, when he wasn’t driving the bus, he was famous for driving around town in an old British Army World War II Land Rover that was noisy, rusting and pumped out great black clouds of lead-filled fumes into the air. Many of the locals objected to it, claiming it was an eyesore and an environmental hazard, but Mr Bailey practically lived for the thing. At weekends, he could be seen polishing it, or underneath it fixing up some piece of machinery that had failed or was falling off (it was always breaking down).

  Mr Bailey also behaved strangely towards me in a way that London bus drivers hadn’t. He asked me peculiar questions like, “Where you from then?” And when I told him that I was from London he would say, “Where you really from though?” I didn’t know what to say. I’m really from London.

  When I got to school, I tried to avoid Lloyd Archibald Turnbull, but at break time he saw me sitting in the playground reading the George R. R. Martin book. He came over and, friendly as anything, started talking to me.

  “Hello, Strato,” he said.

  “Hello,” I replied, trying to cloak my anxiety.

  “What’s that you’ve got there?” he asked.

  I held up the book so he could inspect the cover.

  “What’s that about?” he persisted.

  I couldn’t quite find the words to explain it. When I spoke, it all came out as a burble.

  “It’s a bit like The Lord of the Rings. Only without the magic. Except there is magic. But not much. And it’s quite violent. Swords and battles and kings.”

  Then I dried up. He nodded, as if he understood completely.

  “Do you think I could borrow it?” he said, to my surprise.

  “When I’ve finished it, do you mean?” I said.

  “No, I mean now.”

  He smiled. It seemed like a genuine smile as well.

  “Well…” I said.

  “I just want to have a look,” he said, “and then I’ll give it right back.”

  I hesitated. I should have realized by now that he wasn’t being friendly, but I was rather hoping that maybe he really did like books – from what I’d seen in the classroom he seemed cleverer than the average child – and again, I didn’t want to be rude. So in the end, I handed it over.

  “Thanks,” he said, cheerfully. “Nice of you.”

  Then as he was walking off, he said, “Strato. I’m very grateful. I’ll take good care of it.”

  Then I watched him as he walked over to join his friends – the same ones that he had been sitting with at the lunch table that day just after I’d started at Whitecross.

  When he got there, he just dropped the book in a litter bin.

  His friends laughed and stared in my direction. I couldn’t bear to look at them and I went to a different part of the playground.

  Beam me up, Scotty.

  Why was Lloyd Archibald Turnbull bullying me? One possibility was that losing the use of his arm in the crash had made him bitter, and he was taking it out on other children – or maybe he was showing that he could still be as tough as everybody else.

  But then it might just have been me. Because there was yet another reason I didn’t fit in with the crowd at Whitecross: I was a bit of a geek. To be specific, a science geek.

  Most teenagers have favourite singers or favourite films, whereas I have favourite experiments. I know that must sound peculiar. After all, what’s exciting about an experiment? But they can be more amazing and more surprising than anything made up.

  The best example I can think of is the “double-slit experiment”. It is a superdull name for what is actually a fascinating phenomenon. (Scientists like to keep things superdull because they’re frightened that, if they don’t, other scientists won’t take them seriously.) So, for the purposes of this explanation, I will call it the “Mystery of the Magic Atom Experiment”. It’s very famous in scientific circles. All the explanations of it I’ve read make it seem quite complicated, but it’s actually simple – simple to explain but hard to believe.

  This is what happens.

  The Mystery of the Magic Atom Experiment is performed by shooting atoms at a screen. Atoms are nothing more than tiny particles of matter, very small bits of stuff. (Although they’re actually mainly made of empty space, but that’s another story.) Scientists have invented an atom gun, just like in a science fiction novel, only real. This atom gun can fire atoms one at a time – slowly, like a pistol, or quickly, like a machine gun.

  Now try to imagine the atom gun – a gun that can fire atoms one at a time. In your head, make it look like a real gun – a revolver, a cannon, a Kalashnikov, a Thompson sub-machine gun, whatever feels right.

  Then imagine the mouth of that atom gun pointed at a wall (they don’t really use a wall, but the principle is exactly the same).

  If you fire a pistol at a wall, the bullet will leave a bullet hole – so you will know exactly where the bullet struck the wall.

  If you fire a single atom from the atom gun at a wall, the atom will strike the wall just like a bullet would if you were using a normal pistol.

  Scientists have a device that can detect exactly where the atom strikes the wall. It leaves an “atom hole” rather than a bullet hole, but it’s just as real and obvious and easy to detect.

  What happens in the Mystery of the Magic Atom Experiment is that the scientists put a bullet-proof (or in this case, atom-proof) screen in between the atom gun and the wall.

  Cut into the middle of this screen there is a single slit, like an arrow slit in a castle wall – a long, thin hole.

  The scientists point the atom gun in the direction of the screen (and the wall behind it), put it on to machine-gun setting, and…

  BAMABAMABAMA

  …let fly, spraying atoms in the direction of the screen with the slit in it and the wall.

  When the scientists have finished, they walk around the screen and look at the wall to see where the atoms have hit it.

  Since the only atoms to have made it as far as the wall would have had to travel through the slit (all the rest would bounce off the screen, ricocheting back in the direction of the atom gun), the scientists predictably discover that the atoms that got through the hole left a slit-shaped pattern in the wall behind the screen – a mirror image of the slit, punched out in atom holes.

  That’s exactly what you would expect. Things only start to get weird when you create a second slit in the screen between the atom gun and the wall.

  So now imagine two slits in the middle of the screen, both the same size and shape, a few centimetres apart.

  When the scientists load up the atom gun again, point it at the screen and wall and fire it once more…

  BAMABAMABAMA

  …something entirely impossible happens.

  You know what? I think I’ll come back to this later.

  I’m not trying to tease anyone. I’m just beginning to realize that even explaining something very simple can take a long time in science. It’s just that sort of subject.


  But what the Mystery of the Magic Atom Experiment really tells you – when I get round to explaining it properly – is that one thing can be two things at the same time. Which doesn’t make sense. But then a lot of the universe is like that. And everyday life, too.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  I THINK I’M GOING BLOODY MENTAL

  When I finally got home, I decided to investigate my Facebook page. I like to play Scrabble and chess on it, and keep in touch with some of my old friends from my school in London.

  There were no messages from my old school friends, but there was a request from Lloyd Archibald Turnbull to be my friend.

  I was still ready to be convinced that he was being sincere. Perhaps that’s why I was so attractive to bullies. Because I was willing to take people on trust.

  I didn’t want to stop trusting people. Then you become paranoid, and you end up twisted and bitter. Melchior always said you have to keep trusting people, even though they let you down, because a life without trust is a life only half lived. I believed he was right, but it’s very hard to keep trusting people when they use it against you.

  I didn’t want to offend Lloyd Archibald Turnbull by ignoring his request. Another possible theoretical model to explain his inconsistent behaviour was that he was acknowledging that he had behaved badly and he now wanted to make amends. There were some other people asking to be my friend, too. I didn’t know them, but I said yes to them as well. I supposed they might be friends of Lloyd Archibald Turnbull’s.

  One of them was the girl that I had seen looking at me in an odd way at the dinner table when I first started at the school – the one with the translucent skin and black hair and round pink-rimmed spectacles. I clicked on her page, and it turned out that her name was Susan, which was vaguely disappointing. She looked more exotic than a Susan. Susan Julia Brown. Names don’t come more unexotic than that. But it was nice that she had got in touch, anyway.

 
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