How to be invisible, p.5
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       How To Be Invisible, p.5

           Tim Lott
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  I could hear footsteps thundering up the stairs, so I assumed I must have made a noise when I dropped out of the mirror. I couldn’t move. I just lay there, on my back, staring at the ceiling. I felt very calm. I could still feel the book pressed against my heart.

  The door burst open and Peaches stumbled in, looking panicked. She looked straight at me – then looked away again.

  “What the hell was that noise?” she said out loud. I thought she must be talking to me, and I was about to answer when she spoke again.

  She said, “Strato?” Then she opened the door and shouted out of it, “Strato, where are you?” Then she left again as quickly as she had arrived.

  I lay there feeling completely peaceful. It was obvious to me, right at that moment and without any doubt, that I had somehow become invisible, and I accepted it as completely normal. It didn’t feel odd. It was just that nobody could see me. It was one of those miracles that science couldn’t explain, and I was positioned right at the heart of it.

  I lay there a few minutes more, words and questions lazily drifting through my mind. There was a game, Poohsticks, that I used to play with Melchior at the canal bridge near our home in London. We would each drop a stick into the water on one side of the bridge and see which one emerged from the other side of the bridge first. My thoughts were like that – slow, lazy, barely moving.

  So – I had become invisible. That was highly interesting. How long would I stay invisible for? How would I be able to become visible again? It was going to be a peculiar life if I wasn’t able to return to my proper form. I might end up as a circus freak – the Amazing Vanishing Geek.

  I eventually worked out that the answers were probably somewhere in the book that I was holding.

  I raised my head and looked down at my own body. I appeared to be fully visible, which was surprising since, given Peaches’ reaction, I wasn’t. I cautiously stood up, feeling a bit dizzy, and looked in the mirror which I had presumably emerged from a few minutes earlier.

  There was no reflection of me. I could see myself – but the mirror couldn’t see me.

  Again – interesting. I was determined to start making scientific observations about this curious thing that had happened immediately. It should not have happened – it was impossible in fact – but it had happened, and a good scientist has to accept data at face value. You can’t prejudge – evidence is evidence.

  If I was invisible, then how was it that my clothes were invisible too? Was it because I was touching them? But my skin wasn’t touching all of them – I was wearing a sweater over my shirt. Also, that suggested that anything I touched would become invisible. I tried touching the wall, the table, the bed. Nothing happened – they were all still reflected in the mirror. It was clear that only what had gone into the mirror had been rendered invisible – me and my clothes and the book.

  By now, I would have expected to become scared or panicky and scream for Peaches to come and help me. But I think my scientific training stepped in and kept things in perspective. Also, the transformation process itself seemed to have had some kind of calming effect.

  Instead of panicking, I decided to ask myself a simple question: What might I do, now that no one could see me? Immediately, the obvious, if childish, answer came to me: I could become a superhero.


  The Amazing Invisible Boy.

  The Vanisher.

  They all had a nice ring. But I dismissed the idea immediately. I’m not really that way inclined. I’m a bit dull and domestic. I couldn’t really imagine fighting crime, not even petty crime like shoplifting or littering or parking on double yellow lines.

  What else could I do? It was shameful, no doubt, but the next thing I thought of was the chance I would have to sneak into the girls’ changing rooms and see them without any clothes on.

  Again, I tried to put that to one side. This experience was about science, not pleasure. I had to do some objective research on the world around me. The fun could be postponed till later.

  I decided that as soon as Melchior came back to the house, I would show him what had happened to me and we would be able to investigate together – something I’d always wanted to do with my father.

  I wasn’t going to tell Peaches, though. She had a nervous disposition. She would probably drop dead of a heart attack there and then, or worse, call the police or an ambulance. She would certainly make a terrible fuss.

  It then occurred to me that I was in a unique position. At a stroke I had outmanoeuvred the uncomfortable reality conjured by the double-slit.

  Which reminds me. I haven’t finished telling the story of the Mystery of the Magic Atom.

  I had got up to the bit where the experiment revealed that if atoms went through one slit they behaved like bullets and if they went through two slits they behaved like water bombs, and no one could explain why. I told you it gets weirder still – and it does.

  When the double-slit experiment was first performed, scientists were astonished to discover that atoms could a) be two things at once and b) somehow “know” whether there was a second slit in a screen or not. Being scientists, they took the shortest route to trying to find out how it happened.

  They pointed a camera at the two slits as the atoms went through them, to see what occurred at the exact moment they changed from bullets to water bombs.

  (It wasn’t actually a camera. It was a different sort of recording device. But the principle is exactly the same, and so is the purpose – to observe what was going on.)

  They pointed the camera at the two slits and waited for the bullet-like atoms to somehow turn into water bombs, as they had done in all the previous experiments.

  But something amazing happened.

  When they had a camera pointed at the slits – the atoms didn’t change.

  When anyone tried to directly observe the screen to see what was happening, the atoms, when there were two slits, behaved exactly like bullets – the way they did when there was only one slit.

  The splodginess had suddenly disappeared – because somebody or something was trying to take a look at what was going on.

  When they took the camera away – water bombs. When they pointed the camera at the slits again – bullets.

  The scientists could draw only one conclusion – the atoms were somehow aware that they were being watched.

  (And also, presumably, the atoms didn’t want to let on how they switched from bullets to water bombs).

  This isn’t science fiction. This is everyday, routine science.

  The extraordinary conclusion one draws from this is that with atoms, the observer changes what is happening just by the act of looking. It becomes impossible to measure what is going on without affecting the result.

  This was a result that not only astonished scientists, but scared them too, since it meant that the idea of the objective observer – which is what scientists like to believe they are – had to be abandoned.

  “Objective”, incidentally, means “not affected by personal feelings or prejudices; fair, unbiased”.

  Now tell me it’s impossible that I could have turned invisible.

  It struck me that I was in a uniquely privileged position. I could observe things – people and events – without changing them by my presence. Because the influence of being observed applies to people as well as atoms.

  The moment you walk into a room, people start to behave differently simply because you are there. It is as if everyone has designed for themselves a series of different faces, and show different ones to different people, according to whether they are friends or enemies, strangers or family, powerful people or beggars.

  Incidentally, the word “person” comes from the Latin word persona, which means “mask”.

  It is just like the Mystery of the Magic Atom Experiment. You can never know what people are really like because they transform themselves the moment you are interacting with them. You alter the reality simply by being there.

  This is esp
ecially true of adults. I was just beginning to realize this – now that I was less of a child than I used to be. I was beginning to suspect very strongly that the faces adults showed to children were completely different from the way they actually were. That they were, in fact, acting, all the time, every day.

  And the reason teenagers find it so hard being teenagers is that they have to negotiate that transition – from being real to being fake.

  It was only a theory. But as I say, now I actually had a chance to test it, since I could observe people without influencing their behaviour. It was like having my own personal, portable two-way mirror.

  I couldn’t wait to tell Melchior. He was going to be so proud of me for this discovery.



  In common with most of the nerdy fraternity, I like lists. They make me feel in control and help me to get things organized. If there’s one thing better than an experiment, it’s a bloody good list.

  So I decided to write down a list of possibilities.

  I wrote a heading on a piece of paper:

  Useful Things To Do Now I Am Invisible

  I sat for a long time, with my pen poised over the paper (which would have looked very odd to anyone who walked into the room, since the pen wasn’t invisible, so it was just floating in the air, from the outsider’s point of view).

  My pen might have been poised over the paper, but my head was as empty as deep space (although, come to think of it, deep space actually isn’t empty at all – it’s full of fields and forces and potentialities).

  Then I finally worked out the first thing to put on the list, which was pretty straightforward.

  1. Tell Melchior.

  I needed to get his advice and I was sure this was my chance to visit his new laboratory.

  The next thing I wrote down on the piece of paper was:

  2. Find out how to become visible again.

  This was clearly vital. I didn’t want to end up a circus freak. It would be lonely being invisible. You would never get a girlfriend because girls wouldn’t know if you were ugly or not. Your friends would be unable to quite trust that you weren’t checking what they were saying behind your back.

  Apart from that, you would simply be too odd for anyone to want to socialize with in the first place. It would make any friend, actual or potential, profoundly uncomfortable.

  Imagine going to the cinema or a cafe with an invisible person. People would think you were mentally unstable for talking to the empty seat next to you, and would be terrified when a can of Coca-Cola rose up, hovered in mid-air and then emptied its contents into an invisible stomach.

  No, remaining invisible on a permanent basis was clearly untenable. I decided that I had to work out how to get visible again and I hoped Melchior would be able to help me.

  Coming up with a third useful thing to do was more difficult. I ran through the obvious ideas, some of them childishly trivial. I thought, for instance, that I could sneak into the cinema for free and watch 18-rated films. Again, the prospect of the girls’ changing rooms presented itself to me, but the idea began to seem increasingly sordid. I may have been a geek but I wasn’t a perv.

  Then I thought I might go to Buckingham Palace and look at the Queen when she was just watching telly or having her breakfast. Or I could make my way into the Doctor Who studio, or the set of the new Johnny Depp movie, so I could really get to see celebrities close up.

  The only trouble was, I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone I was there, since they wouldn’t be able to see me, and even if I did tell them – once I was visible again – they wouldn’t believe me. They’d just call Security and get me thrown out. And anyway, I didn’t know where the Doctor Who studio was, or where Johnny Depp was filming, or how to get to Buckingham Palace on my own.

  So that was the silly part over with. I decided to take this matter more seriously. Somehow, I was sure I could use this to push forward the frontiers of scientific knowledge, although I couldn’t work out how.

  But all that could wait, I decided. Because at that point it occurred to me that the main thing I wanted to do was this:

  3. Find out why Lloyd Archibald Turnbull is picking on me and what I can do to stop it.

  I had come to the conclusion that the request to befriend me on Facebook was another ruse to humiliate me. I regretted accepting all the friend requests; I presumed the two Waynes – Fleet and Collingham – and Susan Julia Brown were friends of Lloyd Turnbull’s, and I knew perfectly well in my heart of hearts that he was out to get me.

  I sometimes fantasized about going on a body-building course, followed by a judo course, followed by a karate course, then confronting Lloyd Turnbull and giving him a good thrashing in front of all his friends – who would then all look at me in awe and terror – and then becoming the leader of all the toughest kids in the school so no one would ever pick on me again.

  However, now I had no need to go on a body-building course, or learn martial arts. Because being invisible was better.

  It meant I could find out about Lloyd Turnbull’s weak spots – and that was something he was going to find very discomfiting. Once I knew his weak spots, I could employ psychological torture, which I was sure was the most effective kind to receive and very enjoyable to administer. I would be able to give him a dose of his own medicine.

  For instance, perhaps he was secretly attracted to some girl and kept it deadly secret. Or perhaps he was a homosexual. (I had nothing against same-sex relationships, but if it would embarrass Lloyd Turnbull, then it was worth considering as a weapon.)

  Or he might be secretly afraid of the dark. Or of spiders, or of starlings – like my mad uncle. I could gather all this kind of material easily and use it against him. It could be that Lloyd Turnbull had an embarrassing habit that nobody knew about – sucking his thumb when he was asleep, perhaps. Then if he started to pick on me, I could just start sucking my thumb and look at him meaningfully. That would certainly give him pause for thought.

  I could go for a less subtle approach. Haunting would be an obvious option. If you were invisible, you had the perfect opportunity to impersonate a ghost. I would be able to make my way into his bedroom at night and, perhaps, start moving things about. Then I could let him know the next day at school that I knew about the moving things, and that would terrify him even more. I’d tell him that if he wanted it to stop, he’d have to stop bullying me – me and anyone else, because I was sure I was not the only one.

  So that was Lloyd Archibald Turnbull taken care of.

  Just then, another thing occurred to me. I needed to make sure that nobody – other than Melchior – found out that I could become invisible. Because that would be very bad, I realized. I’d seen E.T. enough times to know what happens when the scientific community makes some unsettling new discovery. I’d probably end up in a plastic bubble for the rest of my life, surrounded by men in white coats prodding at me. My parents wouldn’t be able to stop them – the government is too powerful when it comes to that sort of thing.

  I would have to guard my special power carefully. Melchior and I would be the sole keepers of the secret until we had worked out properly what to do with it, and understood its source and the properties of the book.

  So this was the next goal:

  4. Don’t let anyone know (apart from Melchior).

  I did not feel these four goals were unrealistic.

  For the first time in ages, I felt powerful, and in feeling powerful, I felt good.

  Then a further goal occurred to me. It was extraordinary that I hadn’t thought of it before, because it was the most important problem to solve of all, at least from a non-scientific, emotional perspective:

  5. Find out what has gone wrong between Melchior and Peaches and how I might fix it.

  I was just about to elaborate on the point when I heard my mother downstairs, talking on the phone. I took a deep breath, exited my room and walked carefully down the stairs. She
looked right at me, but she clearly still couldn’t see me.

  She seemed upset. It would have been unusual for me to leave the house without informing my parents. It would have been irresponsible. But she clearly thought the bad news she had given me had unhinged me in some way and that I had run away.

  She would have been even more upset if she had actually known the truth, but all the same, I didn’t like to see Peaches this distressed. She was actually crying.

  I suddenly wasn’t sure that I could wait for Melchior to come home before trying to work out how to become visible again. My mother was so worried about me – who knew what she might do? I turned round immediately and made my way back up to my room.

  When I got there, I picked up the book. If it could tell me how to become invisible, surely it could tell me how to bring myself back into the visible world again. And it was weird, but I felt like the book was in some strange way interactive. It seemed to respond to what I wanted from it.

  The book, as before, was blank when I looked at it directly. I stared at the cover where the tiny mirror was inset. It really was extraordinarily bright and sharp. But it didn’t give me any clues as to how to make myself reappear. And as I could hear that my mother was getting more distressed by the moment, it was a matter of some urgency.

  I was beginning to get slightly apprehensive that there might be no way back to visibility. So I held the book up to the mirror again – this time on the third page. And sure enough, once more, words appeared, looming and fading in the reflection as if they were made out of smoke. I had to look at them very carefully to see what it was they were saying, but after a while it was clear enough:

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