How to be invisible, p.6
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       How To Be Invisible, p.6

           Tim Lott
 
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  To become the way you were before,

  Muster courage, let faith be sure.

  Hold the volume to your chest –

  The silver’d wall will do the rest.

  Throw thyself to the other side.

  Falter not, lest worlds collide.

  Then the words disappeared as I’d thought they might the last time – but not before I had got them clear in my mind.

  It seemed pretty straightforward. To stop being invisible I simply had to do what I had done before – hold the book against my heart and run full pelt into the mirror (that must be what was meant by “silver’d wall” – a mirror is glass backed with silver).

  I turned the page to see if there were any other instructions. More words appeared, wavering and undulating as before.

  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.

  Then the writing disappeared. But the meaning was clear enough. The message was entirely unequivocal. If anyone found out about the book or what it could do, or discovered that I was capable of becoming invisible, then the power would be lost.

  So much, then, for telling Melchior. The moment someone found out, I would lose the power – presumably for good.

  This was a serious problem. But it was not my most immediate problem. I could still hear my mother weeping. Clearly something had to be done, and done right away.

  I stared at the mirror apprehensively. Oddly, it wasn’t so easy to run at it this time. I wasn’t angry now – so angry that I didn’t care what happened to me, so angry that I half wanted to smash the mirror to bits. This was different. To run cold-bloodedly into a sheet of glass – even if you’ve done it before – is not an easy thing to do. Furthermore, I couldn’t be sure that it would work in reverse, whatever the book said.

  After reasoning with myself for several minutes – which is to say, trying to get out of a state of panic – I realized that the more I thought about it, the more difficult I was going to find it to run into that mirror for a second time.

  All at once, I emptied my mind, held the book up against my chest and ran full pelt into the sheet of glass on my wall.

  There was no impact. The feeling was exactly the same as it had been the first time. The jelly feeling, the high-pitched whine, the sense, momentarily, of being inside looking out. The colours, the heat, the cold, the falling. Then I was back on the carpet again, flat on my face this time.

  At that very moment, my mother walked into the room. As I looked up, her eyes widened and she ran to me and threw her arms around me, squeezing me so hard I thought my eyes were going to pop out.

  “Strato! Where did you disappear to? Why are you lying on the floor like that? Are you sick? I thought you had run away. Don’t ever do that again, you bad, wicked genius. I was so worried. Do you have any idea the effect it had on me?”

  I mumbled something about going to post a letter, and she seemed to be satisfied with this, because after about five minutes she had recovered herself and was back tapping away at her computer, presumably working on her book. Peaches is not only very emotional, she is highly mercurial.

  “Mercurial”, incidentally, means “changeable” or “unpredictable”.

  My father turned up again thirty minutes later, carrying a bottle of wine, full of apologies. I heard him exchange a few words with Peaches, then rush up the stairs to my room. He burst in. The fact that I was in something of a state of shock did not appear to register with him.

  “Strato, what on earth did your mother tell you?”

  I told him that she’d said he was moving out. His lips went very thin.

  “She had no right saying that to you. Nothing has been decided yet. Nothing at all. If something like that ever happened, I wouldn’t just let Peaches tell you by herself.”

  I nodded. I let silence speak for me.

  My father, in the meantime, seemed to be having difficulty finding the right words.

  “Look, Strato, I won’t pretend to you that things are easy. We’re struggling. You know that. But we’re doing our best. It’s true that … well, me moving out for a while is one of the options that we’ve been looking at. But nothing is decided yet. We’re working one or two things through. That’s all.”

  He seemed to have more he wanted to say. But he had run out of words. So I decided to break the silence.

  “But you might break up.”

  He looked thoughtful, as if contemplating a mathematical formula.

  “Any couple might break up.”

  “But you’re more likely to break up than most couples.”

  He sighed from somewhere very deep inside himself.

  “It’s possible, Strato. I won’t deny it. But we’re not quite at that point yet. OK, boy? OK?”

  He tapped me on the end of my nose. Melchior doesn’t like to hug me too much – he’s not a very physical person. But I don’t take it as any kind of gauge of his affection for me. Melchior is as solid and reliable as titanium.

  I nodded and said I was OK. But I wasn’t OK. I was lying.

  Which meant that although I was only thirteen years old, I was already beginning to act like an adult.

  After he left, I returned to my list. My train of thought had been interrupted. I racked my brains. I found myself running out of ideas.

  You would imagine that once you knew how to become invisible there would be an endless list of things you could do, but it turned out actually not to be that simple. You are limited both by your imagination and your courage. As I have already said, I am not an imaginative person and I am not a particularly brave one either, which is probably why I seemed to attract bullies.

  Thinking of bullies, one more thing suddenly occurred to me. The next and final thing I wrote on the piece of paper was:

  6. Find out about Dr Nathan Walter Ojebande and why he is picking on me too.

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  DR NATHAN WALTER OJEBANDE

  Dr Nathan Walter Ojebande was the only other black person in Hedgecombe. But he wasn’t a child. He was a teacher.

  He wasn’t exactly a bully. He was just strict. I suspected that his intentions were good. But the effect on me was the same.

  As it happened, he taught physics, my specialist subject.

  Dr Nathan Walter Ojebande was well-spoken, with a slight rural accent and a soft, yet somehow penetrating voice. He had a cloud of white hair on his head. He was also religious, which struck me as odd for a science teacher, and he always carried a black leather-bound Bible with him into class. He prayed to himself silently at the beginning and the end of each lesson. Most of the teachers wore smart-casual clothes, but he always dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a dark tie, like a funeral director. He almost never smiled.

  For some reason, he had embarked on a vendetta against me from the moment I walked into his classroom. He always asked me the most difficult questions, and if I couldn’t answer them properly then he got this look on his face like I was letting the side down, and he could be sarcastic to the point of rudeness. My supposition was that he thought that if he didn’t pick on me, the other children would think he was giving me preferential treatment on account of us both belonging to the same ethnic group.

  If you had set up a CCTV camera in the classroom, I don’t suppose you would have been able to detect that Dr Ojebande was singling me out, but I knew, I just knew. Dr Ojebande wanted me to be the smartest child in the class, and when I wasn’t, he got angry. But when I was the smartest child in the class, that seemed to make him angry too.

  As I have already observed, adults really don’t make a lot of sense, however much you study them.

  What he didn’t seem to realize was that although I probably was as bright as he believed me to be, it would not much contribute to my popularity if I was perceived by the other children to be showing off. So sometimes, even when I knew the ans
wer to a question, I gave the wrong one.

  Incidentally, Peaches had told me that it was Dr Ojebande who had told on me about playing truant. He had worked out that the sick notes I had forged were not in my parents’ handwriting. Clearly, I had underestimated Dr Ojebande. I hadn’t thought anyone would bother to check.

  Given what I knew about Dr Ojebande, this truanting incident – which had amounted to no more than three days in all – seemed unlikely to improve our teacher/pupil relationship.

  I assumed Dr Nathan Walter Ojebande felt that, by truanting, I had been guilty of a form of betrayal. I guessed that – relying on my intuition rather than any concrete evidence – he thought I had conformed to some kind of negative ethnic stereotype that reflected badly on him as well as myself.

  The day after I learned how to be invisible, I had a double period with Dr Ojebande, so I was bracing myself. Also, I had to get through lunchtime without Lloyd Archibald Turnbull finding me. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it seemed that running away to browse in the town’s bookshops during the day was no longer an option.

  On the way to school, Mr Maurice Bailey, the bus driver, was behaving strangely as usual. He was cheerful and chatty, but his line of conversation was disconcerting.

  “Morning, Stratters,” he said, giving me a big grin and showing his tea-stained teeth as I put 50p in the slot.

  I nodded, not sure what to say.

  “Tell me something, Stratters,” he said, holding up the bus until he’d finished talking to me. “Do you ever go sunbathing?”

  This was a bloody weird question to ask, but I thought I might as well answer it just so he would start the bus and we could all get to school on time.

  “Sometimes, yes.”

  “But why?” he said, still smiling. “What’s the point?”

  “It feels nice,” I said.

  “Do you use suntan lotion?” he said.

  “Yes.”

  Mr Bailey seemed to be waiting for me to say something else, so I scanned my brain for more details. I usually used my mother’s – she never bought special cream for me.

  “Ambre Solaire factor 12 coconut tanning oil,” I said.

  He looked puzzled and then he started laughing, as if the idea of me getting a suntan was the funniest thing in the world.

  “Go on, Stratters, you nutcase. Sling your hook.”

  Then he put the bus into gear and drove on, still laughing like a lunatic.

  The bus journey took the normal amount of time – seventeen minutes and twenty-four seconds, or thereabouts – and when we got to the school I exited the bus, keeping my eyes peeled for Lloyd Archibald Turnbull and his cohorts.

  “Cohort”, incidently, means “assistant” or “accomplice”.

  The school was a nice building – old, red brick – but it seemed quite large to me – there were maybe 600 pupils compared with the 200 at my school in London. I wasn’t even interesting for my skin colour any more – for the first week or so people had stared at me, but now I suppose I was “part of the furniture”.

  Dr Ojebande’s class came first. As usual, he was dressed in a black suit and dark tie. He quietly said his morning prayer to himself, gripping his Bible in his left hand, then he turned to the lesson. The subject was “the building blocks of matter”. We were learning about how everything is made of particles and that there are forces operating between them, and that these particles move about more vigorously the hotter they get, and so on.

  This was all pretty basic stuff to me. I was much more interested in what the particles were made of, and what the particles that made up the particles were made of. That’s where things get really weird, at the subatomic level.

  Melchior often talks about this subject. He is not just any kind of common-or-garden scientist, but a particle physicist.

  Or at least I believed he was at the time.

  I could never fully comprehend what Melchior told me about science, but what I did understand was that things that look ordinary are actually anything but.

  For instance, did you know that the universe is made almost entirely of nothing at all?

  I like to ask big questions like “Why did the universe begin?” and “How are stars born?” because I think the big questions are the most interesting. One day, I had asked Melchior one of the biggest questions of all.

  “Melchior,” I’d said, “what is the universe made of?”

  He’d said molecules, and I’d asked what they were made of, and he’d said atoms, and I’d asked what they were made of and he’d said electrons, protons and neutrons, and I’d asked what they were made of and he’d said subatomic particles like quarks and gluons, and I’d asked what they were made of, and he’d said: “Actually, pretty much nothing at all. Space mainly. Space and the electromagnetic force.”

  Then Melchior told me that if you took all the space out of a person what was left would be far smaller than a grain of salt. The fact that we don’t all walk through walls and each other has more to do with the way forces repel or attract one another than the fact that objects are hard or solid.

  He also said that if you sit on a chair, you are in actuality hovering a very small distance above it. Which seems hard to believe, but he swore it was the truth.

  “Actually, at the very smallest level, right down where the subatomic particles are, things are constantly popping in and out of existence, which means that you,” he said, tapping me on the nose, “since you’re made of these particles, are constantly popping in and out of existence too. You’re there. Then you’re not there. And then you’re there again. They call it ‘Quantum Froth’. Like a sort of cosmic cappuccino.” He laughed.

  I said it sounded as if we were more like a dream, or a thought, than something solid.

  He said, “That’s a very grown-up thought. But then you do have very grown-up thoughts, don’t you? It’s easy to forget that you’re only twelve years old.”

  Melchior must sound like a real know-it-all, but he isn’t, actually. He often admits that scientists don’t really know anything like as much as they say they do.

  They don’t know how life began, or what made the Big Bang happen, or how lumps of meat like you or me can do things like think and see and imagine and remember.

  Science isn’t really as boring as they make it sound in school – Bunsen burners and periodic tables and properties of compounds and stuff like that. When you come down to it, science is extremely interesting and not dull at all. At least, it is the way Melchior explains it.

  Science is all about miracles, according to Melchior. Of course, scientists don’t believe in miracles. But my father does. He says that us simply being here is a miracle, that it would make far more sense if there was nothing at all forever. He thinks people like my mother make up miracles, like ley lines and spiritual auras, because they don’t understand the magic that is all around them all the time.

  What was on my mind that day in Dr Ojebande’s physics class was the fact that eighty-three per cent of the known universe is made up of material we can’t see or detect – dark matter and dark energy. This fascinated me, because apparently dark matter and dark energy are both there and not there, and that seemed to make no sense.

  Dr Ojebande was a stickler for the curriculum and he didn’t like going off-subject. All the same, after about five minutes of Dr Ojebande talking, I had a rush of blood to my head and, even though he hadn’t asked the class a question, I put my hand up. I really don’t know what came over me. I must have been very nervous to do such a bloody stupid thing. I think it was because Dr Ojebande always picked on me anyway. Perhaps I thought if I put my hand up it might pre-empt him asking me a difficult question which I would have to pretend not to know the answer to.

  I don’t think I’ve mentioned that Dr Ojebande is what is called “wall-eyed”. This means that his eyes point in slightly different directions. One of his eyes seems bigger than the other, and he shifts this one – the left one – around the class like a radar. His gaze
is very disconcerting – because of his multi-directional eyes, one gets the impression that he can see in two directions at once.

  Another odd thing about his eyes is that they are green, like a cat’s. And the eyeballs bulge out of their sockets somewhat. And when his gaze falls on you, it has the effect of rooting you to the spot.

  When Lloyd Archibald Turnbull had been talking under his breath earlier in the lesson, all Dr Ojebande had had to do was fix his eye on him, and he shut up –although usually with other teachers he takes no notice.

  After I put my hand up, that weird, green, roving left eye swung round in my direction. Two desks to my right, I could see Lloyd Turnbull and the two Waynes looking at me with slightly feral expressions on their faces.

  “Feral”, incidentally, means “wild” or “untamed”.

  Immediately to the right of me, Susan Brown was staring at me through her pink-rimmed spectacles and the curtain of hair that fell onto her face in a fashion that I had to admit I found bloody unsettling. Susan Brown was very pretty and innocent-looking – you would never have guessed that she could be one of Lloyd Turnbull’s gang.

  I glanced back at Lloyd Turnbull. I think he always enjoyed it when he saw Dr Ojebande about to pick on someone. Some people like going to comedy clubs to watch stand-up comedians. If there was a club for watching people being humiliated, I imagine Lloyd Turnbull would have paid to go to it.

  There I sat with my hand held up in the air, already wishing that I’d kept it down, while those eyes made me feel about 50 centimetres tall (I am in fact 1 metre 44.5 centimetres). All the same, it was too late to back down, so I kept my arm raised until Dr Ojebande finally spoke.

  “Mr Strato Nyman esquire. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you put your hand up before. You must be feeling positively effervescent today.”

  There were a few stifled laughs from Lloyd Turnbull and the two Waynes. I mumbled something like, “Not really, Sir,” and Dr Ojebande actually smiled quite kindly for once. Then I took a deep breath and began to speak. It was too late to stop now.

 
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