By Sarah Norman
After a while, it began to get her in trouble at work. Her colleagues thought that she was getting lazy, arriving late, or disappearing in the middle of the day for hours at a time. She bought a headscarf and a long coat, and took to walking into the office with her face turned towards the wall. Once, Gareth from Purchasing bumped into her. She dropped her bag he bent down to pick it up, and then looked her straight in the face. There was nothing there, of course. Her head scarf was empty. But he did not flinch; just handed her the bag and went on down the corridor.
Tendi was getting used to this reaction. As it was impossible that she not have a face, peoples’ brains just put one in for her. Children were different though. They saw what was actually there, whether it was possible or not, and Tendi came to quite enjoy frightening a whiny child on the bus into silence by lifting her scarf, just for a moment.
Her first big visibility loss had happened just as the riots were beginning at home. Her mother had phoned and confessed that she’d been lying, and that actually she did not have enough to eat. She had not liked to ask before, because she knew how hard London was for the undocumented, but she was very hungry now – and would Tendi go on the internet for her and order something?
As Tendi ordered the maize and the meat, her fingers on the keyboard slowly disappeared. At first she thought her eyes were failing, or her mind. She ran away from the mirrors in her flat, down to the corner store, and it was there, at the Pick’n’Go, that she realised that no one else could see her either. While putting out the Pringles, Mrs. Patel picked her nose right in front of her. She thought next about phoning for an ambulance, but she knew that with ambulances came police. She went back up to her flat, and – ever the student, even after all this failure and discouragement – thought of books. She found The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison on the internet and was thrilled when she saw the cover art, but then she read it and found it was just a strange story about some guy in a basement who never actually lost his visibility.
She was slow to it, but she did eventually think of movies. She had been brought up on a farm compound so had little idea of who the superheroes were, but she knew some of them had special powers and thought it might be in some way related to wearing underwear. She went down to the Blockbuster, not sure how she would rent a video while not visible; but once she got there, she realized that of course she did not need a formal rental process. No one could see her taking what she wanted. She took some movies and, this being the early days of her invisibility, actually did return them later.
She watched Spiderman and Superman and Ironman, the Hulk and Transformers and Indiana Jones. That night she got up to go to the toilet and realized she was visible again. Sitting down, she could actually see her thighs and not just her urine hitting the water. She gasped, put out her hands to touch her legs, and immediately disappeared again. She thought about how the Hulk got big and green when he got angry, and wondered if it was distress that was making her transparent. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror in her pyjamas, breathing deeply, talking comforting nonsense to herself. Slowly the outline of her head began to appear, and then her arms. This excited her so much she disappeared again.
She spent hours on the internet learning about managing her emotions. She tried mantras, and whale music, and white music, and breathing of all kinds. She found her special place, a patch of sun outside her grandfather’s house on the farm compound, and went there often. Yoga seemed to help too; she was almost always visible while the yoga DVD was on. She learnt that anything she touched with bare skin also became invisible, but if there was cloth between her and any object, it was not affected. She was very careful never to leave anything in her pockets, after an embarrassing incident in which she terrified an entire tube carriage with her house keys.
Over time, she needed the headscarf less and less, but she never got complete control of what she came to think of as her opticality. There were always embarrassing blips, like when she would disappear and reappear on a car backfiring or a door slamming. Gareth from Purchasing was also a problem. He had a very sweet smile, and sometimes when he stopped by her desk to talk procurement, her heart would pick up its pace and she would flash in and out to its beat.
The news from home also seemed to affect her particularly, often able to make her disappear for hours at a time. It’s not so easy to go to your special place when you hear it’s been burnt to the ground, and that gramps is now living in some city slum. She tried various mantras for it. ‘That’s not your home anymore,’ being often useful, though nothing worked all the time.
Over time she realized that just as she could maintain calm, she could maintain upset. This meant she could be invisible almost as she chose. That she did not start stealing immediately was testament to her Mission schooling. London is, however, a hungry city and will chew up even the strongest. So eventually she did start lifting a little here and there. Just chewing gum and fizzy drinks, at first .I’m illegal anyway, she thought. My every breath steals air from these British. So she began to take more than air.
It had always hurt her in the evenings as she left work to see friends in bars, families in restaurants, the whole happy whirl of people at home. All the wealthy English stepping off the cold streets into the theatres, golden doors opening onto grey pavement. Now she too entered those doors and just like the English she would wait until the lights began to dim, and take a seat. After a while she realised she might just as well sit on the stage. Once during Mama Mia, she started to enjoy the show so much that she lost her feeling of upset, and her outline started to appear, downstage centre. The conductor, whose brain was on the music, actually saw her and dropped his baton on the cymbals with a clash. That disappeared her quick enough.
She stole a lot of clothing. She’d read news from home for twenty minutes or so, just enough to upset herself, and then she’d go out to the shops. At first it was just H&M, but after a while, Selfridges, Harrods, Rigby & Peller. If the news from home was bad enough, she could keep going for entire afternoons. She did sometimes set off the door alarms as she would leave with her arms full of clothes, but staff always assumed it was a malfunction. If the alarm went off and she was not near it, Tendi would run over as quickly as she could, her arms spread out in the empty space, hoping one day to feel the warm body of another invisible.
She took time off work to go and sit for a few days at Her Majesty’s Passport Service. She had no trouble remaining invisible because she was furious all the time she was there. The workers acted as if their duties were just dull routine, and not what could change someone’s life. She followed around a guy called Derek, and learnt his passwords, and one night when the place was empty she sat down at his desk and entered herself in that great database, which separates those who are allowed, from those who are not allowed. She printed out an Indefinite Leave To Remain certificate, and pasted it carefully into her passport. She sat for a while under Derek’s desk lamp, marvelling at the hologram. Then she took all the workers’ family photos and knickknacks off their desks, and threw them in the skip outside. She had let herself stay upset for too long. But she was legal now.
She thought again about getting help from the authorities. She told herself that the movies had made her afraid of medical experimentation, but really she was enjoying what she had started to think of as her power. She often went over to Gareth’s desk, to listen to him talk on the phone, or to read his emails, or just to smell his aftershave. This came to an abrupt end when she heard him confessing to his sister that he had a crush on someone in the office. She walked back to her own desk, almost in tears. She sat down and kicked off her Jimmy Choos (good fakes, she’d told the girls in the office. African connections, you know. They had no idea).
She went to the bathroom, gave herself a firm lecture, and transitioned back into visible. She went to the lunch room. It was only then, as she sat watching her colleagues warm their sad leftovers, that she realized that the woman Gareth had a crush on was almost certainly herself. She went through each lady there: too old or too married, and had to bite hard on her lip to keep from laughing. It was almost as if she had been in the shadows of the semi-legal for so long she had forgotten she could be noticed.
Then she really did start to follow Gareth quite a lot, to secretly learn what he liked, so she could become it. However, on their first date at a cheap Italian restaurant in Soho, she found she could abandon all her pre-arranged comments about bands and Manchester City. It was strange, after all this time trying to pass as English, to be asked about Africa as it if mattered. There was an embarrassing part, where he thought her gramps owned the farm on which she grew up, and she had to explain that he was just a worker there. But a worker loves his home just as much as an owner does, she tried to explain. She was still a Mission girl, so she didn’t have sex with him for some time, and when she did, she insisted the lights be off. He thought she was nervous about her body, which of course she was.
She still paid for Starbucks, because she couldn’t figure out a way to steal it, and it was one day while waiting to order that the idea of assassination first came to her. She immediately put it out of her mind as obviously ridiculous. But it kept coming back, like a cat you should not have fed the first time. She found she could no longer upset herself over the news from home without a dark shadow of the solution rising in her mind.
She began to feel guilty. It was like the time she had found a dead street kid back home. He wore a bright yellow T-shirt, and would hang about the area where she worked, so she knew him by sight. When she saw him lying on the pavement one morning, curled up in a foetal position, she thought he was just sleeping. But when she saw him again that evening, in the same position, she knew he was dead. She kept walking. He was gone by the next morning. The country was hip-deep in crisis by this point, far beyond where the police might have acted, so she wondered where his body might have gone. She had a horrible image of the other street kids taking him somewhere and some funeral ceremony devised by children. She knew there was a little one who wore a pink shirt and a bigger one in black shorts who often went around with the yellow shirt but she never did ask them what had happened because she did not know want to know the answer. All the times she had refused to give yellow shirt money – “a dollar, mama, please” – would come horribly to her mind for months after that. It only really stopped when she moved to the UK. This guilt now was like that guilt then. As of something she ought to have done, or should be doing.
On the one hand, there was the question of whether it was even a desirable outcome. Would assassination make things any better? On the other hand, there was the question of practicality. Would her invisibility actually make it possible? She had reason to think it would.
One afternoon after a boozy picnic with Gareth in St James Park, she had decided she’d like to see the Queen. It was easy; she just followed a truck through the palace gates. She wondered around for quite a while, feeling a bit deflated by the modern toilets and the standard office equipment. Then she entered a warm living room and there she was! She was wearing a nightie with a dressing gown over it. She looked just like a real grandmother. The corgis ran towards Tendi barking with the pointless enthusiasm of all little dogs. She knew how to deal with them; she just stood still and they lost interest. Then Tendi sat down carefully on the sofa to the Queen’s right and watched some TV with her. She thought she had never felt so welcome in England as she did then, though the old lady did love to channel surf. The living room was just exactly how she had imagined Europe would be before she came, all warm and golden-toned and safe with all the children tucked in their beds, and only on the streets if they were playing on their bikes till dinnertime. And if they did die, after lots of free medical care, they were buried with fluffy bunnies by weeping parents in green churchyards next to their dear old grannies.
So Tendi lay awake at night, trying to find good reasons for dismissing the ridiculous idea. There is little more painful than extended indecision. A line from one of those Blockbuster movies kept coming back to her, the one with the Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” She hadn’t even liked the movie, but the line troubled her.
Then one day on her way home from work she didn’t get off at her stop. She stayed on the line, which she knew ended at Heathrow. She gave up on being an adult and decided to let the oblivious universe decide for her. If there were free seats to home tonight she would go, and she would do it. If not, she would put all that dark country behind her and enter this new one with her Indefinite Leave and her Gareth, and her Jimmy Choos. She waited in the ticketing line, feeling sick. When she got to the front she asked and got her answer. There were seats.
She did not buy one, of course. She just walked on, invisible, and waited till the doors shut before she sat down. She made sure to be visible then as her countrymen were like rebellious rabbits on planes with no one staying in their own seat for longer than necessary. When they landed and she smelt that familiar smell of dust and hot rubber her body blinked out. She’d thought it might; she expected the stress of home to be too much for her fragile content.
What she didn’t expect was that she would not be able to reclaim visibility, even over days. Something about being there kept her unable to reflect the light. So she wandered the town alone, seeing what was left of her home. She went to see her mother, though of course her mother could not see her. Watching that old lady sit alone in her bare flat steeled her at last to go to where he was.
She slid into a taxi that was headed in the right direction, and slid out near his residence. She walked all the way around its high external walls. She stood at the main gate for a while, and then just as at Buckingham Palace, simply walked in behind a truck. She was sweating. She had a kitchen knife in her hand. The truck went to the kitchens and she followed it there. She was surprised to see normal people there, preparing normal food. She climbed out of the kitchens and found herself in a long hallway. It had a dark green carpet and old photographs on the walls. She stopped to look at some old white people she did not recognize. She opened each door along the hall, finding room after empty room, and then finally in one big sitting room, she found a woman watching TV. The Kardashians was on.
The woman was wearing a T-shirt and some old jogging bottoms. It was his wife. Tendi had never seen her in real life, and never without a hat, but here she was. Tendi stepped in and shut the door behind her. The television was on very loud. Tendi looked around the room, which was decorated in red satin with gold detail. She couldn’t believe how close it all was to caricature. There were even some Harrods bags on the bed. Suddenly the wife started yelling.
“Daddy, come!” she shouted. “Come and see!” There was a pause, and then “Da-ddy!”split into two long syllables. A door next to the TV opened and a bent little man shuffled in. He was wearing a white shirt buttoned to the neck and black trousers. Tendi felt all the blood run up into her face.
“I am not deaf, you know,” he said.
“Oh yes you are,” said his wife. “Anyway, come and see how modern this clinic is, where Kourtney is having her ultrasound.”
As he crossed over towards the sofa, towards where Tendi was standing, she had to control a very strong urge to run away. Here he was; the beginning and the end. He sat and she heard a little creak from the sofa. She was astonished that he had weight. She had imagined him to be only myth.
“It’s not so modern as in Asia,” he said. His wife said nothing to that.
He sat for a while, watching with her, and then got up from the sofa – not without a little difficulty – and shuffled back to the door. Tendi followed.
It was a small study, the walls covered in bookcases. He went over to a well-stuffed chair and sat down. He opened a book and started to read. The worst part was the room had the light, urine-tinged smell she associated with old age homes. She had often thought of all the things she would say to him. But now she wasn’t here to talk. She had looked up how to kill someone on the internet. What was needed was a quick, hard, ear-to-ear slice. She walked up behind him. She read his book over his shoulder. It seemed to be some kind of adventure story, set in England. She stopped reading as the book tilted forward onto his chest. He was already dozing.
This suddenly seemed like murder. But she thought about her grandfather and his life on the farm, about her mother and her pension, about that yellow shirt boy, and she lifted up the knife. With her blood screaming through her veins, she brought it down hard into his neck.
He gasped and his hands swung up to the knife he could not see. She pulled the knife sideways. His neck was thick, and it was very difficult to pull it across. He struggled and his struggling gave her strength. He was a powerful man and deserved no pity. His blood gushed over her hands as his feet thumped on the floor. The blood was warm and it kept pouring, but at some point she understood it was no longer being pumped.
She had been worried that after she did it she would feel remorse, or horror. She had done Macbeth at the Mission school; she knew what fate awaited murderers. But what she found as the blood dripped down was a sense of well-being, as if all her troubles had been removed. As if someone had gone backwards in time and wiped away all her difficult past. The university she could not afford to attend. The menial jobs. That time in Jo’burg when she had been treated like dirt by South Africans with welfare checks while she cleaned toilets. Every time it had rained in London.
He had broken up her life and that of tens of thousands of her generation, and now she had broken his. She felt the joy of justice done. As he grew still, a great peace came upon her. She removed her hands from his neck, and put the bloody knife in her pocket. She did not want to leave fingerprints. She looked at her hands, slick with his blood, red to the elbows. She smiled. It had, after all, been easy. Then she stopped smiling. She realized she could see her hands. She looked down her body. She was visible.
She sent her mind quickly to what she knew could upset her. She thought about that time in South Africa when she had cleaned the toilets. She thought about her mother’s pension. But somehow they were not as terrible to her now as they had been before. She was not just a small pebble ground down by an all-encompassing grinder, but the pebble that had stopped the machine. She had justice now. She was somebody now. She thought of other bad things, of hurricanes and famines, but still she could see herself. She looked for another door out of the study. There was just the one. Then she heard a voice:
She heard footsteps approaching. She looked for somewhere to hide and went over to the desk, thinking she could get underneath it. Then she stopped. She was not someone who needed to hide now. She went back towards the door and stood in front of it, knife in hand. She was somebody now. They would see.