Now You See Me

You have a secret superpower: the ability to appear and disappear at will. When and where will you use this new superpower? Tell us a story.

I recently did the prompt asking which I would choose, a Time Machine, an Invisibility Helmet or an Anywhere Door – and this appearing/disappearing superpower is a little like the Invisibility Helmet. I think at the time I rejected the Helmet in favour of the Anywhere Door, on the grounds that you’d still have to do a lot of tedious travelling to take advantage of the Helmet. No point in being invisible in your own house – unless you have kids, of course. But spying on your own kids – that would be cruel. Unethical, even.

But being able to disappear and reappear at will. That would be cooler, and would avoid the embarrassment of having to find a phone booth or lurk behind a bush to don the helmet unobserved. Helmet – clunky. Old-style. Integrated (trans-human) technology – now that’s more like it.

But maybe you just naturally possess this power. You wake up one morning and realise you can vanish if you want to. Simple – and cooler still.

You could write an entire novel around invisibility. In fact surely somebody has?

The Invisible Man is a science fiction novella by H. G. Wells. Originally serialized in Pearson’s Weekly in 1897, it was published as a novel the same year. The Invisible Man of the title is Griffin, a scientist who has devoted himself to research into optics and invents a way to change a body’s refractive index to that of air so that it absorbs and reflects no light and thus becomes invisible. He successfully carries out this procedure on himself, but fails in his attempt to reverse it. (Wikipedia)

However – if I was invisible. How would I handle my superpower? What uses might I put it to?

Reappearing – the bit poor Griffin failed to do – is no more than the ability to return to normal. I’d guess that to maintain invisibility would eat up quite a bit of power – electrical, chemical or psychic – so visibility would be a person’s normal or ‘resting’ state. Disappearing is the useful bit.

How useful it would be to disappear when you had just done or said something awful.

When I was twenty-one or so, and newly married, I was forced to use a launderette for the first time in my life. We had just moved into a flat which had no washing machine. No (usable) cooker, carpets or shower either. I was not a worldly person – more into poetry than laundry. Somewhat dozy. I got to the laundrette and… argh! Machines everywhere, humming and spinning. People staring at me. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring washing powder, or money of the right denomination to feed the machine. To be honest, it didn’t occur to me that they ran on money. I assumed there would be a woman there, in some kind of overall and turban like Dot Cotton, who would sort of deal with matters.

Somebody pointed me towards a slot machine on the wall. Omo, it said. I put what money I did have in and an avalanche of Omo washing powder cascaded into the shopping bag of some other woman, who had left it on the floor beneath. It just went on and on and on pouring. I had never used a vending machine either. Nobody had explained about cups. I can’t remember how I got out of there. Maybe I just turned round and walked, clutching my bag of washing. Invisibility would have been good.

Sinking backwards in time, still. When I was eight, or thereabouts, I was told I had to recite a poem at the Methodist. Told – not asked whether I wanted to. Terrified, I learned the poem. On the dreaded Sunday I trembled my way up Station Road in a state of utter petrification. All those people staring at me. Half way between home and Chapel I realised I had forgotten the last of the three verses. Up in the pulpit, barely visible over the polished wooden ledge and the dusty purple curtains, I whispered my way through verses one and two, then started on verse one again. Then verse two. Then verse one.

Eventually I got removed – by someone. Or maybe they hooked me down with a crozier. Invisibility would have been good. On the same lines, I once watched a children’s talent show in which some poor little girl was singing Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. Except she couldn’t stop. Every time she got to the day-ay-ay-ay…bit she felt compelled to start again: Yesterday… She was in tears, and still singing.

Life is cruel, particularly to children.

And now? It would be useful to be able to eavesdrop on conversations without being seen. I have this ‘writer’s radar’ anyway – in restaurants and such. I can’t hear a word my companions are saying yet I’m picking up phrases from tables away:

That’s the trouble with housework…

And then she said, put them back on, this instant

He had a tattoo where?

But what if, at a party, you could sidle right up to some interesting group and just listen? Make notes, even? For the forthcoming novel.

Another thing – if you spotted someone coming towards you in the street, and you didn’t feel up to meeting them, you could vanish.

I will tell you one more story – this time a sad one. I had left my husband some time before, but I used to go back to the village sometimes to get my hair done at my old hairdressers. He used to let me park my car on his driveway. We were kind of friends, still. One morning, I hadn’t told him I was going. When I arrived there was a kind of procession going on – lots of little kids in fancy dress, some floats – upshot, no parking spaces. So I parked on his drive and set off down the lane to walk the half a mile to the High Street, and my hair appointment.

As I walked down the lane I saw him, a long way ahead, coming towards me. Hand in hand with a lady. I knew who she was, and I knew they had both already seen me. There was no possible detour that didn’t look like a detour, so the three of us kept on walking towards. He didn’t – and couldn’t very well have – let go of her hand. I don’t know how to describe that pain, I really don’t. I had left him and yet he was my husband. My husband. With her.

So, after what seemed like an hour but was probably only a few minutes, we drew level in the lane. They said something embarrassed. I said something embarrassed and stupid like Oh, hi there – hope you don’t mind – parked on the driveway – didn’t realise about the procession – must go – appointment – bye! How very convenient it would have been for all three of us, if invisibility had been an option.

I sat in the hairdressers while the girl snipped and snapped at my hair with her sharp little scissors, and I stared out of the big glass window at whoever or whatever might be walking up and down the High Street. This was what, until recently, had been my home village. Now I was a visitor. Henceforward I would park in the public car park like everyone else. Or maybe I wouldn’t come back. Everything outside my head had disappeared. All I could see was the inside of my skull.

Invisibility in reverse, maybe.

Witches’ Knickers and Other Weirdness

I suppose this one’s a bit of a cheat. After all, I did promise a whole month-ful of articles and/or short stories on a richly ghosty-halloweeny theme, and all I can come up with (let’s face it, we all have our scraping-the-barrel days) is Witches’ Knickers. I heard a lady use this expression in TV yesterday morning, and it moderately amused me. It was an Irish phrase, originally, for those plastic bags that get caught in the branches of trees and go on waggling about there for all eternity. And the reason the lady was on TV was to comment sagely upon – you guessed it – plastic bags.

As from yesterday, England joined Wales and Scotland in charging 5p for every supermarket bag used, except that England has made it more complicated by factoring in all manner of confusing Exceptions To The Rule. In case you are interested per se in English plastic bags, here a useful link:

My own thoughts are:

  • Why don’t they ban them altogether? My cats get their heads through the handles then run about the house like mad things, half throttled and unable to shake them off, so that I now have to cut through the handles of, or tie a bow in, any plastic bag that enters the house, including any that visitors have carelessly left lying about. This sometimes annoys the visitors. Quite apart from spooking cats, plastic harms wildlife and will ultimately harm us. Over time, in the oceans, they dissolve into a cloud of little plasticky globules, which then get eaten by the fishy inhabitants of the oceans, which go on to get eaten by us. It is not yet known how bad all this dietary plastic is for us. The thing is, the plastic bag is a new(ish) phenomenon anyway, one that we can manage without, and always could have. Believe it or not, plastic or single-use bags hadn’t even been invented when I was small.
  • When I was a child I used to go shopping with my Nan. She took with her either her string bag – a multicoloured item that started off small and scrunchy but kind of elongated the more she put in it – or some other sort of permanent shopping bag. She kept it on the hook on the door underneath her coat.
  • We walked up to the shop, which took about twenty minutes. If we asked for tea the grocer would take a metal measuring scoop and shoot it into a cone of paper, which he had made just by twisting it in on itself – something like the cone chips or popcorn might come in now. When the cone was full he would twist the top closed. Coffee, sugar – virtually anything could be scooped into a paper twist. When we got home, Nan would refill her own jar – marked Coffee, Sugar, Tea or whatever – from the paper twist. If we asked for ham it was sliced in front of us, sandwiched between two sheets of greaseproof and slid into a white paper bag. Sweets also came in paper bags, tipped out of big glass jars. Plastic bags are ugly, dangerous, and with one tiny change to our habits we can manage without them.
  • Life has changed, of course, and the majority of shoppers (being careful not to specify women) aren’t “housewives” as my Nan was. We have less time for our shopping and, now that there are supermarkets, we tend not to shop daily but to drive somewhere for a weekly, fortnightly or even monthly shop, which means carrying away a lot of stuff at once. Nan’s string bag wouldn’t be adequate.
  • However, we could still manage without either plastic bags or plastic packaging. Plastic packaging is less about containing the food than about attracting you to it and convincing you to buy it. Plastic bags are less about convenient carrying than about free advertising for the shop they came from.
  • On the rare occasions when I actually do a main shop in a supermarket as opposed to ordering online, I’d be satisfied with paper bags for small items, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to remember to take along two, three or four of the ten or so giant, unwieldy, indestructible Bags For Life that are currently having babies under my kitchen sink.
  • Is 5p of itself going to put anyone off buying a plastic bag? If a person is given one plastic bag for every £10 worth of shopping, and spends £100 on their supermarket visit, that’s ten plastic bags – 50 pence. It seems to me that if you are lucky enough to be able to afford £100 all in one go, 50p is neither hither not thither. What can you get for 50p?
  • The charge itself isn’t going to make a difference, unless you are very poor, in which case you will be recycling and repurposing everything already out of sheer necessity. If there is a decline in plastic bag use and pollution from now on it will be down to a more subtle combination of factors: social stigma – which in Britain means being made to feel conspicuous, which means being embarrassed, which is awful  – and being identified as a member of a lower social class, which in Britain is mortifying. Look, she’s one of those lower class people who still have plastic bags. Similar to being one of those common old slappers who smoke or one of those uneducated plebs, chavs or whatever the current word is – who drop litter in the street or fail to fasten their seat-belts when they get in the car.

Goodness, what a rant! And do I even care about plastic bags? Apparently, temporarily, I do – or did. Maybe I’m cross about something else and the plastic bags are gonna get it in the neck. Or would, if they had necks.

Maybe a cup of coffee and a sandwich might help to rid me entirely of witches knickers and environmental concerns. Perhaps half a wasted hour watching Loose Women on TV. Caffeine, calories and chatter, then on to that short story.