by Matthew John Cook
This is one of the first ever short stories I wrote, and it won first prize in the now defunct Cool Dog Short Story Competition in 2009. Although it’s never been proven that the two events are connected – i.e. that the awesomeness of this story caused the publication to close and the organisers to move abroad and change their names – I will leave you to make your own mind up:
Making people not able to see me has always been a talent of mine. It sounds crazy I know, but it’s true. When I found myself stuck for dough a while back it seemed like the obvious solution. Not in a criminal enterprise you understand, as an entrepreneurial venture. I know what you’re thinking: what does a 12 year old girl need money for anyway? Well, a whole bunch of things actually. For starters my Neon fish, Gregor, has an illness which has made him really fat, so I need money for fish food and veterinary bills. Plus I need money for clothes and CD’s and things too. And I like to treat myself to a burger now and then thank you very much, I am human. Can’t you understand that a girl might like a burger once in a while? Can’t you understand that a girl with seven brothers and no mother might find herself without money now and then? So I needed money. So I went into business doing the only thing I was good at. Invisibility.
I took some paper from my brother Anthony’s secret stash (he thinks I don’t know about it, he’s wrong) and wrote an advertisement. It read ‘Teacher seeks pupils for invisibility lessons. If interested meet here at 12:30, any school day.’ As you might expect, there were a lot of time wasters initially. Most were expecting some kind of technological machine they could take away and use for themselves. ‘That’s not how this thing works’ I told them.
I stood there for four days straight before anyone came to see me. I was about ready to give up on the whole idea when I saw a boy in a blue jacket walking right up to me. He was in the year below me, but I didn’t know his name. He wasn’t attractive. He was small, with very straight, misshapen hair which looked like it was all stuck together, like you could lift it all off in one go, like lego hair. Like it had been placed there very carefully some time ago. His clothes smelled like our sofa. He was wearing one woolen glove. This bugged me more than I can say.
‘Hey’ he said. ‘Are you here for the invisibility class too?’
‘I am the class’ I replied.
‘Oh’ he said back.
After school I met him by the Coca-Cola machine, then took him to my house.
‘This is my office’ I said, pushing open the door. ‘You might want to keep your shoes on.’
‘It’s kind of dirty’ he replied, poking the carpet with his foot.
‘So is your shoe’ I said, kind of cool. ‘We won’t be spending much time here, so don’t worry about it.’
We went into my office and sat on the chairs I had brought in; a plastic kids chair (that used to be my brother Johnny’s favourite thing in the world) and a swivel chair with no padding any more. I had turned my underwear drawers on their side like a desk and put some imitation Ribena in a jug next to two empty glasses. I had also lined all of my least babyish books along the windowsill. The effect was pretty good and office-like I thought.
We sat down, I took the swivel. Then he asked the question everybody asks at some point.
‘What happened to your teeth?’
‘That’s none of your damn business.’
I said this kind of muffled because my lips were curling over of their own accord. They were embarrassed for me. I was embarrassed for me. Then he asked the other question I knew he would ask.
‘So do you have some kind of machine that makes you invisible?’
I gave my standard response.
‘Do I look like an inventor?’ He shook his head. ‘Do I look like a comic book character to you? Do I look like I even read comic books?’
‘That’s right. I don’t. I live in the real world. Do you read comics?’
He nodded. I stared at him some more, I wanted him to be a little scared. I don’t know why, it just felt necessary.
‘Now I have to ask you this’ I said. ‘Why do you want to be invisible?’
I was lying of course, I didn’t have to ask. To be perfectly honest, if I had looked like him, I’d want to be invisible too. His face always gave the impression something awful had just happened and he was only just getting the news right then. And his arms were all freckly. It looked like he was trying very hard to tell me. It looked like it might have absolutely nothing to do with his freckles. It looked like it might have something to do with the reason why he went around wearing one glove, even when it was too hot to wear gloves really.
‘It’s not for anything bad, is it? You need to promise me that.’
He said ‘I promise it’s not for anything bad.’
I gave him the eye a bit longer, for good measure, then started obsessing about his glove and forgot what I was going to say. Then I remembered.
‘You’re probably wondering about my credentials’.
‘You’ll find they’re second to none’.
We sat there for a while in my imitation office, drinking our imitation Ribena.
‘This is how it’s going to work’ I said suddenly. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say next. I could mainly only think about what his glove would feel like if it touched the back of my neck. ‘You get ten lessons. Each lesson lasts as long as I say so. No comebacks. I can’t say how good you’ll be at the end. But you will be able to do something invisibility wise, I can promise you that. Any questions?’
‘Yes’ he said. ‘How much does it cost?’
As it turned out, the boy didn’t have any money whatsoever. He didn’t get any pocket money and was too chicken to steal from his mother. He said his father owned a hardware shop and he was allowed to take whatever he wanted for projects, as long as they were useful, not destructive. I got kind of mad and told him I needed food for Gregor and that fish can’t eat bolts or any kind of metal for that matter. ‘You can sell them’ he said, and I was bored so I said ‘OK’ and made him sign the contract I had made. It was a fake, an imitation of one my brother Stuart, who works for a car showroom, lent me. His glove was awkward around the curly pencil, which seemingly made his name curly too. I checked it over.
‘Your signature is illegible. What’s your name even?’
‘Raymond’ he replied.
It had taken a long while to get through the formalities and Raymond had to go and meet his mother. They were going shopping for clothes.
His mother didn’t seem to mind that I was there. She took us to British Home Stores and began stuffing her arms into great piles of shirts, in search of the ‘perfect size for my Ray’. The first thing I wrote in my note book that my brother David bought me for Christmas was that Raymond did not like shopping with his mother. He sweated constantly, and made this strange high pitched noise every time his mother found something she wanted him to try on. Apparently they did this twice a week and it occurred to me that she had made it her personal mission to find him an outfit that would make him look normal. But no such outfit existed. Then she told me they were going for an ice cream derby at Starburger so I had better go home. Raymond just stood there in his new Farah trousers while his mother totally ditched me in the middle of the damn store. Just before I went I made him give me his old trousers, ‘for research’. I told him to wait for me outside my house the next morning, which was Saturday, and he said he would.
I stood in the street and watched through the window of Starburger as the two of them ate ice cream derbys for about 10 minutes. I wanted to run inside and slap Raymond’s mother for ditching me and kiss Raymond and tear off his glove and understand why he wanted to be invisible but I didn’t. I went to The Animal Kingdom to ask Hussein whether he would trade high-quality bolts and screws for medium-quality diet fish food. He said he’d think about it. Then I went home, put Raymond’s trouser’s under my pillow and went to sleep.
When I woke up he was sat on our garden swing reading a comic book. I went down and stood nearby.
‘What’s that about?’ I said.
‘It’s about a wrestler.’ The page was open on a picture of a big muscular guy with blonde hair holding a little bald guy above his head.
‘I wanted to be a wrestler before’ he said.
‘Before invisibility. I wanted to get beaten to a bloody pulp in front of everybody and then, just when they thought I couldn’t possibly take any more, I would get up and beat the other guy to a bloody pulp until we were both exactly as bloody and exhausted as each other and then I would stop and it would be a draw. That’s how each match would end.’
‘How about being an invisible wrestler?’ I said.
‘I’m not sure that would work’ he replied. ‘People would just think it was a natural force, like wind. You couldn’t take the credit.’
He closed the comic book and looked up.
‘I like your dress’.
‘Let’s go to the park’ I said.
I chose a spot for us to sit, on a hillock with lots of daisies, then told Raymond to kneel. I placed my right hand on his left shoulder and told him the secret I had never told anybody. I whispered it straight into his ear. I was so close, his lego hair was tickling my lips as I spoke.
‘Firstly, a rule. Start with just one person. Don’t try to be invisible to too many people at once. It won’t work. OK?’
‘Good. Now, you know how it feels when you like someone, and by like I mean love?’
My lips seemed to not want to do as they were told all of a sudden.
‘Well think about that feeling. Think about how when you look at that person there’s a part of you that leaks out. The part that says ‘look at me, please look at me’. Focus on that part of you, then suck it in. Suck it in hard. Suck it all back, till there’s nothing of you left at all. That’s how you do it.’
I squeezed his shoulder.
‘Try it. You won’t be invisible to me, but I’ll know if it’s working or not.’
He scrunched his eyes up tight. I rubbed his shoulder encouragingly.
‘What’s happening?’ he said.
He continued to try for a while longer. Then he opened his eyes.
‘I think maybe I lied a little’ said Raymond.
‘You did? When?’
‘When you asked if I knew how it feels when you like someone. I think, when I said yes, it was a lie.’
I let go of his shoulder.
‘What? Well then this whole thing is a total waste of time. You can’t do it.’
Raymond began to pick at the stitching on his glove, which made me mad for some reason.
‘I went to a lot of trouble over you, Raymond’ I shouted. ‘I made a whole office in my mother’s old work-room even though my father forbade me. I came shopping with you and your stupid mother and didn’t even get an ice cream derby like everybody else did for some reason.’
‘That’s just this thing we do, we never…’
‘I don’t care! I don’t care about the derby! I wore this stupid dress, even though it makes my knees itch, so that you could like me and have that feeling and become invisible and you can’t even have the decency to do that? Why don’t you like me?’
Raymond blinked a lot and touched his glove.
‘By like, do you mean love?’
I don’t know why, but the next thing I did was slap Raymond hard on the face. It hurt my hand a lot and left a big red mark on his cheek. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there sweating and staring at the ground. I looked up and saw that quite a few people were watching us. We were kind of high up because of being on a hillock and I could see that all the way over on the other side of the park there were people looking over at the people who were looking at us. Some people had dogs. Even the dogs were looking at us. I never felt more conspicuous in my life. Raymond looked like he was going to cry. My lips began to curl over my teeth.
When Raymond arrived that evening, Gregor was already dead.
‘What’s that?’ Raymond said after my father showed him into my room. He was pointing at a wet parcel in my waste paper bin. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want him to know the stupid thing that I had done. I was still his teacher after all. I just lay there in my bed with the the covers over my face.
‘Are you alright?’ he said.
‘Not really’ I replied. I felt ashamed. I knew that none of it would ever happen. We would not move into a tiny apartment together or learn how to make stir fry the way the other likes it or walk into school holding hands for the first time or take each other’s tops off or anything.
‘I’m very sorry’ I said. ‘I apologise for hitting you. And I’m sorry that I am a bad teacher who broke a promise.’
‘That’s fine’ he said. ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to be invisible anyway.’ His voice was kind despite everything which made me feel even worse. ‘Are you invisible under there?’
‘No’ I said. Which was true.
‘I don’t want to see you again. Not in an invisibility way, just in a normal way. Is that OK? I don’t have a copy of my contract.’
I sat up and took the sheet off my face.
‘I want to see your hand’ I said. ‘Show me your hand and you’ll never see me again.’
His glove was resting on my bedsheet, next to my knee. It felt like it wasn’t attached to him, like it was an animal or a baby. Our baby. I started to cry.
‘I killed Gregor. I tried to make him love me but he fell and I couldn’t get him back in his water in time. I wrapped him in your trousers and put him in the bin. And I lied a lot to you when we first met. And I didn’t have a mother for most of my life, that’s what happened to my teeth.’
Raymond nodded. Then he placed his hand, the one with the glove, on my knee. Carefully I peeled the wool away to reveal his bare hand. The skin didn’t look too bad but was very knobbly and rough. I touched each of his bobbly fingertips with each of my soft fingertips. Then I kissed his palm with my lips. I looked at Raymond but he didn’t look at me. I put his glove back on and thought about how he didn’t deserve a hand that was rough and knobbly and that he hated. I thought about how much I wanted him to like me, to look at me and pretend all of it had never happened. I found the part of me that wanted to be forgiven, that wanted him to know my secrets and that didn’t care and wasn’t disappointed and that could love a man with a knobbly hand. Then I sucked it back in so hard that by the time he turned round I had faded away.
Raymond looked for me for a while, then left the room. I heard him close the door and walk down the hallway and go down the stairs and past the front room where I knew all my brothers and my father would be sat in a circle talking about mother and about me. I heard Raymond open the front door, then I heard someone leave the front room and stop him. I heard the words they said.
‘Hey.’ I think it was Albert. ‘So are you doing my sister or what?’
I would have died, but I was already dead.
‘No’ said Raymond. ‘She was teaching me to be invisible.’
‘She’s teaching you what?’
‘To be invisible. She was. She’s not any more.’
There was a pause.
‘Yes. Her credentials are second to none.’
I heard the door close and that was that.
I kept my word to Raymond, I never let him see me again. Every Monday for 9 weeks – as was stipulated in the contract that was just an imitation, written by a person who was just an imitation, in a romance that was just an imitation – there was a box of quality screws or bolts or picture hooks waiting for me when I got home. I took them all to Hussein and traded them for a new Neon fish. His name is Nicolai.