Invisible by Marge Herman
Invisible by Marge Herman
Short Story Semi-Finalist, LISP 2nd Quarter 2020
On her way into town, the wind blows hair into Merle’s eyes. She squints at the path stretching ahead of her through the trees: she is playing her version of the ‘Where’ s Wally?’ game – only she has collected many more characters. They fascinate her. She knows that she is keeping track of them, not wanting them to disappear or be forgotten.
She has reached the age where she feels she has inexplicably become invisible in the world. It's been a few months, and she is still trying to pin this feeling down. A niggling sensation of not counting. Of something receding.
She first noticed this in shops: waiting to be served in a sports shop in the trainer section, while the assistants gravitate towards customers their own age. Or in phone shops where the sales assistants talk unnecessarily loudly in response to a valid technical query.
At the GP surgery, when requesting a follow-up test or an explanation for a blood test result. In consultations, when the doctor's eyes are riveted to the screen: they will move swiftly from her history and her name to a statistical algorithm, which will dictate a diagnosis – and whether there is a cost-effective course of action.
This cloak of invisibility, which she first loved the idea of when it featured in fairy tales of her childhood reading, surprises her in the workplace: men are handed authority here as a matter of course.
In the instances where she voices an opinion or idea, she has noted a nano-silence preceding their response: a moment of shock, and probably judgment – just enough time for a discreet personal adjustment, or a thinly disguised calculation of how the idea might be usurped.
Discussions with friends and in the media are unanimous: this sensation of invisibility affects women much earlier on than men. Do some men still expect to hold final sway in the corridors of power? And despite some improvements in the equalisation of women's rights, could it be that it is taking somewhat longer to shift our embedded perception of authority and its connection to the lower sound frequencies associated with masculine voices?
Merle reflects on the Internet, a visual bombardment of appearances, perpetual youth, illusions and fantasy jostling amid the frenzied sharings of the minutiae of everyday life; a space where our relentless hunger for success and power compounds our aspirations and fears.
Whatever the reason, there is a plus side to this invisibility from Merle’s point of view – it makes people watching so much easier.
She is left undisturbed to make mental notes, observations, or drawings.
She knows these people’s real-life stories would be full of surprises, but cannot help inventing ones of her own for these characters – this is what they always become. Her growing fondness for them drives her to fill in the spaces between the dots, should all the tangible facts not be revealed.
One of the best places for these observations is on trains, where unnoticed, she often draws people sleeping. Airports are exciting, a hive of intersecting departures, and arrivals. Platforms and waiting rooms are ideal for updates on other commuters. Taking buses can be fun, although usually too bumpy for any drawing.
On a bright day such as this, she might cross paths with characters that will reappear after months of absence, as well as those she sees almost daily.
The dog walkers, for a start: Merle can’t stop herself checking out the similarities and paradoxes in the looks of owners with their pets. Like that short-legged lady, her tight fists push the pockets out from her jacket as she stomps uphill, her eye fixed on a white and feather-like poodle, prancing in and out of the leafy shade under the distant chestnuts. Merle has resolved to get a whippet for herself, down the line, to counteract the jowliness of ageing.
Looking at faces is so fascinating that she must be careful not to stare, especially if reminded of a photograph or painting: Merle does scan for additional clues – a particular colour, hairstyle, or accessory, a possible flash of revelation about its wearer. She has always observed people.
Minnie is always telling her not to stare.
Merle has a fondness for quirky characters in general. Her specimens weave incomplete stories across town.
Merle passes a bench on her left shaded by the trees, which serves as a refuge for teenage girls who want to be alone. She knows one in particular, a girl with hair always dishevelled from illicit escapes from revision: she sits in the gloom, frantically drinking cans of Dr. Pepper and cramming in chocolate. The escapee lowers her eyes if she sees Merle. She wants to be invisible.
There’s the T-shirt lady, always on the move, a galleon cutting through the crowd of shoppers: her wide-open raincoat billowing either side of her bare suntanned thighs in knee-high boots below her oversize T-shirt; her black waist-length hair flapping freely behind her.
There’s the Raincoat lady who strides southwards towards the docks, her hair shaven, self-barbered and patchy. In her long grey raincoat with deep bulging pockets, heavy-looking plastic bags swing on the ends of her arms; her eyes are locked, intent on a destination only she knows.
For years, Merle was convinced this woman was an artist and had pondered what might be in those bags. Does she walk all day? Every single day?
Speaking to a friend working in social care, Merle discovers that the Raincoat Lady is known to their services and that, in a previous life, she was a Dinner Lady. She has been out and about for at least 20 years – in all weathers, by all accounts. Merle does, on occasions, worry that quite unawares, she might be turning into one of those elderly ladies encapsulated in a time capsule – still wearing styles she imagines must date back to their heyday, long after that fashion has moved on.
Merle might spot the Pompom Man, his frizz of white hair in irradiating kinks, even when it is tied back. She always sees him with different dogs. One evening, not very long ago, he got on the same bus as Merle’s. As he struggled down the aisle with a black tubular sports bags bulging with an inert lump in the centre. Perhaps because she had just heard that it is illegal to bring dogs on the bus, Merle somehow imagined he was carrying an old mongrel inside it, the fluffy grey one she had recently seen him walking in the park.
It turns out Merle’s friend Frances has known the Pompom Man for years: every week, he takes the bus to the seaside on a Thursday (nearly an hour each way) for a cooked dinner at the Pier Hotel; there might be the occasional visit his sister in Kent. He doesn't own a dog.
It’s been a while since the Flamboyant Man with the Wide Shoulder Pads has been seen sashaying down the high street in his yellow or checked trousers, worn under red and green moleskin coats with wide lapels, the cuffs trimmed with fur. An unmistakable figure, he strides through the centre of town, clearing the way ahead with his long umbrella, perhaps sporting Steam Punk goggles on top of a jaunty hat; or the panache of a red velvet Fedora.
Merle reaches the wooded area towards the exit of the park.
Just ahead, is the courteous Museum Attendant: in the past, Merle has often followed in the wake of the pleasant trail of perfume he leaves behind him. His hair is dyed and maybe permed; he keeps a golden tan throughout the year and, although Merle has seen him walk home up the hill after work, it has only been once with a woman on his arm. Merle is sure he lives alone.
She spotted him a few months ago, sitting outside the park café, basking in the autumn sun. A newspaper open on the table, he was staring into space, his hair a little faded. Was he reading the lonely hearts ads or planning trips to the sun?
Coming out of the lower park gates, she crosses the road, past the bus station benches where Merle sometimes has tuned in to the banter of waiting passengers, or to snatches of stories. This is a place where people often look for a good listener – Merle becoming visible again here, while hoping her curiosity is not.
Today, however, the queues have moved elsewhere.
Undisturbed, pigeons strut the empty road. Buses are few and far between.
In the darkened shop windows, there are no moving reflections, except her own. Merle wonders how long it will be before she sees ‘her characters’ again.
She turns left down a side street past the church gardens, where the trees crowned with frothy blossom shed confetti with every gust of wind. Invisible birds clamour in celebration of spring.
For them it is business as usual.