I had suspected it for some time.
People would shut doors in my face as I approached. In clothes stores, assistants approached younger or better-dressed women and left me unmolested. Once the minutes secretary of a meeting I had attended – at which I actually spoke – phoned to ask if I had been there as she hadn’t noted my name among the apologies.
So, inaudible as well as invisible, I thought as I put down the phone.
But it was the Golf Club New Year party that proved it.
I’d bought a new outfit for the occasion. A chocolate brown trouser suit in flowing viscose with palazzo pants – according to the label. None of the assistants came near me while I investigated the rails and hangers but the young lady at the counter said,
“ Lovely material this. And a really nice shade.”
Which pleased me more, I thought afterwards, than was entirely reasonable.
I hoped Ian might comment but he didn’t.
“ This is my new outfit,” I told him. “ Do you like it?”
“ Very nice,” he said, without looking. “ Vic says they’ll give us a lift. Jane doesn’t drink so that’s handy.”
It seemed that Jane didn’t talk either and she drove very badly.
It was raining when we arrived and she slewed the car more or less into a parking space some distance from the entrance. Vic sprang out and rushed round to her door with his vast, striped umbrella. “ Must protect the hairstyle. She’s spent all afternoon and a fortune on it,” he said and they sped off across the puddles.
Ian didn’t have an umbrella and hurried after them.
I took longer because of my heels. Even then, I managed to get one foot in a pothole.
The foyer was full of people shrieking and brushing rain off their shoulders. One man poured water down my neck as he furled his umbrella.
‘There you are!” Ian called, as though I’d deliberately hidden myself. “ Ladies’ cloaks over there. Jane’ll show you.”
Jane, however, didn’t and I spent a few minutes trying to check my face in the mirrors over the bare shoulders of women with long, blonde hair held back with velveteen hairbands and the slightly less bare shoulders of women with iron grey, well set curls.
In the end I gave up.
And the evening followed the usual course of such events.
I stood near Ian, who sometimes remembered to introduce me to people who talked at me briefly before seeing someone more interesting and going off saying it had been lovely to meet me. One woman moaned at length about the Ladies’ Vice Captain. A man who may have been her husband told me where the Prime Minister was going wrong. And I was able to watch the body language of the husband and wife of two separate couples who were obviously up to something.
I might have made a good detective, I thought, as I drank my martini on my own.
Chocolate brown, I realised, was not this year’s colour – it should have been black, or electric blue or, possibly, aubergine. Nor was viscose the right material – I should have worn lurex or large sequins or at least angora with built-in glitter. And my shoulders should have been on display – even if they were pale, spotty or bulging with fat.
Which, as a matter of fact, mine are not.
Not that anyone’s ever told me this.
There was nothing unusual about all this and I’m quite used to standing by, unnoticed, while Ian tells his funny stories and is generally the centre of attention.
It was what happened towards the end of the dinner that really startled me.
It was the usual, pretty dull fare. Leek and something soup. Salmon cutlets in pale orange sauce. Overdone roast beef and underdone potatoes. And we had just arrived at the Black Forest Gateau.
“ So Marion’s giving up work is she?” the man directly across the table bellowed at Ian. “ What’s she going to do with her time then?”
Now I’m Marion. Or rather, I’m Marianne, which is someone completely different. It’s an cheery, optimistic name, Marianne. With a lift at the end. Unlike Marion, which has a dying fall.
Whatever, it was me he meant and Ian who answered.
“ Oh she’ll keep herself busy,” he said. “ Meals on wheels… That sort of thing.”
And they started to talk about the new BMWs.
Which was when I realised I was invisible.
Incidentally, I’d never mentioned Meals on Wheels. Not that I’ve got anything against them. I suppose I’ll end up eating them some day. But I’d never even thought of delivering them.
I stopped work at the end of January. They were ‘Re-engineering’ the company, whatever that meant, and needed, according to the company newsletter to ‘hone down the workforce’. We must, apparently, become a ‘leaner, fitter enterprise, ready to take the lead in the new millennium’.
At fifty five it was suggested that my contribution might be to become redundant.
“ I’m sure there’s lots of things you’re longing to do,” Alastair, our Human Resources manager suggested. “Bungee- jumping. Formula One racing,” he said, grinning and tapping his fingers on my personal folder.
He said much the same thing at my official send off – a low-key, lunch-time do in the office. “Off to fresh fields and pastures new”, he added, smugly, and went on to say he was amazed to find I’d been with the company fifteen years. As he’d only been with us five minutes I couldn’t see why it should surprise him but I accepted my fifty pounds worth of gardening tokens and made a short speech which I’d spent some time preparing.
I don’t think many people listened but several came up afterwards and said Well done Marianne – or, sometimes, Marion.
I got a ‘package’ of course, which I put in my building society account. It wasn’t vast; nor was my pension, as I’d only worked part time for most of the fifteen years and Ian said I might as well pay the reduced contributions. Which seemed a good idea at the time.
After all, as he also said, his pension would be more than enough for the two of us because he had a far higher salary.
I was sorry to leave the job, although I could understand why they no longer needed me. Firms need fewer admin assistants these days and there were plenty of people with more advanced computer skills than I had. I kept putting my name forward for training but it never seemed to happen and I didn’t like to make a fuss.
No-one likes a pushy person, my mother used to say.
So there I was, fifty five and free to seek out fresh fields and pastures new.
Which I quite fancied, as it happened.
For years I’d had this dream of a house in Brittany – one of those small, stone houses with a slate roof. Usually they have a kitchen and a big living room with a stone fireplace downstairs and two bedrooms and a bathroom above, with dormer windows and broad stone sills.
I could keep chickens. And ducks. Possible even goats, although I don’t think I could manage a cow. And there’d be plenty of space for growing herbs and vegetables.
I told Ian about my dream but he doesn’t like the French.
“ You go if you want to,” he said, in the smug way of men with big salaries and control of the bank account.
I went into London on the first Monday morning of the rest of my life.
Something told me that if I just started in on the housework and the washing that would be it. By mid-afternoon I’d be phoning the Meals on Wheels people and volunteering my help.
I went to the National Gallery first, to look at the Cezannes, and it was rather nice to be there on a working morning, with just a few tourists and students and some other invisible older people like myself. After a while I went down to the cafe for lunch, where I had a table to myself until these two women came and sat down with me.
Well, not exactly with me, but at my table. They ignored me and set about pulling apart some mutual acquaintance who was late – as usual, apparently – while I ate my prawn mayonnaise sandwich, drank my cappuccino and listened.
I didn’t like them much. They were about my age but, to my mind, overdressed – and certainly over made-up
One of them put her handbag on the bench seat beside me. Rather a nice bag. Brown, leather – the soft, squashy type that costs a great deal more than I’d ever pay.
Without thinking what I was doing, I put out my hand to touch it – just to see if it felt as soft as it looked.
“Oh! For heaven’s sake. There she is! At last!” the woman shrilled and they both turned towards the door as this other over-made-up, overdressed woman started to wave and shriek.
Which was when I realised that I could easily have picked up her bag as though it were mine, and gone.
Which was when I realised the advantage of invisibility.
I tried it out in our local supermarket on the Wednesday afternoon.
Oddly, I didn’t feel nervous. Just rather excited – and very focussed. The way you feel when you’re about to do a bungee jump, perhaps.
They don’t have cctv cameras there yet but there are strategically placed mirrors which I suppose someone watches, although they may just be a deterrent. Like having a burglar alarm box on the outside of a house.
In any case, I imagine they’re more worried about shop lifting – especially alcohol.
I walked around, collecting a few items in my basket – mixed salad, small wholemeal loaf, two boneless chicken breasts – and then I took up my position by the chilled meats and delicatessen.
It was a good place to stand, pretending to read the ingredients on the tubs of coleslaw and taramasalata.
And this woman turned up almost immediately. A tall, young woman wearing dark, slimline trousers with very expensive-looking leather boots, a cream-coloured silk blouse and a fitted tweed jacket. With very few adjustments she could have been going riding – except that she had these three little children with her, in the brown and yellow uniform of the local prep school.
“ Come along guys,” she was saying in this loud, jolly voice and in spite of the fact that at least two of the children were quite obviously female. “ What shall we have for tea, eh?”
And she parked her trolley, sideways on in front of the chiller cabinet, where it would have blocked my way if I’d been wanting to reach anything, and started to root about among the sliced ham and potato salads.
One of the children lisped something about salami and they started to discuss thicknesses and whether she preferred Polish or Italian.
Then the smallest child wanted to be lifted up to see the fish pictures on the smoked trout spreads.
The woman had a tiny shoulder bag hanging across her front, with her car keys attached to it, but she was holding a wallet, which was obviously too large for such a fashionably small bag and, as she went to lift the child, she put this down on the trolley seat.
I reached across for a packet of sliced tongue and picked up the wallet as I brought it back.
Then I went on round the shop, stopping at the cheese counter for Ian’s Caerphilly, where I transferred the wallet to my Bag for Life carrier and remembered we were almost out of Bran Flakes.
Then I queued at the One Basket Only checkout.
There was a bit of a disturbance at the back of the shop I noticed but I didn’t stop.
When I got home I put away the shopping and made a cup of coffee.
Then I got out the wallet and had a look inside.
There were several credit cards, a library card, a health club pass, a book of first class stamps, several receipts, appointment cards for the dentist and the hairdresser, sixty five pounds in notes and seventy four pence in change.
I felt quite pleased.
The woman’s name was Lucy Walsingham but there was nothing in the wallet with her address on so I put the cards in an envelope and addressed it to the dentist, who would probably have the common sense – and the decency – to send them back to her. She would have stopped her credit cards by now but it would be a nuisance to lose the other things. I put two of her stamps on the envelope and put it in my bag for the time being.
I put the notes and the rest of the stamps in my own purse and the coins into my Barnardos box. Then I drank my coffee.
On Friday morning I went into London again, stopping at the building society to pay in forty five pounds. The rest would pay for my day out, I thought.
I dropped the wallet into the council’s bottle bank, along with an empty Beaujolais bottle.
When I got to Kings Cross I posted the envelope containing the cards to Lucy Walsingham’s dentist.
I didn’t intend taking anything that day. I’d told myself it was important not to get greedy. I would just walk up Euston Road to the British Library and spend an hour or so looking at the Magna Carta and the Casement Diaries.
But then, as I waited at the traffic lights, this man jostled me, pushing to get to the edge of the pavement. Just for a moment, I thought he might be a pickpocket. That’s how they’re supposed to operate, after all. But as he stood in front of me – the line of traffic was more or less continuous – I could see, quite clearly, the corner of his wallet sticking out of his overcoat pocket.
As the lights changed, I moved forwards with him and extracted it. Then I walked on with the crowd.
He was lucky, really. To have been robbed by me.
When I looked inside the wallet, in the Ladies loo at the library, he had seven credit cards, including a gold AMEX and Diner’s Club, as well as his driver’s licence and insurance cards, membership cards for several clubs and as a Friend of the Royal Academy. If he’d had his wallet taken by a real thief he’d have been in trouble.
There was also almost a hundred and fifty pounds in notes.
His name was William Spinks and there was a letter addressed to him in Crouch End so I was able to re-use the envelope to send back his cards.
I put his wallet into the sanitary towel disposal bin and had a look at the exhibitions. Then I allowed him to stand me a much more expensive lunch than I’d intended to have on Lucy Walsingham and walked back to Kings Cross, posting his cards on the way.
The building society was closed by the time I got back but I paid in a hundred and thirty pounds via the machine.
We had dinner that weekend with George, Ian’s golfing partner, his wife, Carol, and another couple I hadn’t met before – John and Maureen.
Maureen had recently started her own business – a shop selling ethnic crafts and jewellery – and she spent most of the meal telling us about it, which made a change from golf. She and John hadn’t long been married, I discovered, and she’d set up the business when her ex-husband had bought her out of their house.
“ It’s early days,” she said, poking around in her insalata tricolore and waving her fork, “ but I really think it’s going to take off. This woman came in yesterday and bought so much stuff. And she’s going to tell all her friends. You have no idea how marvellous it feels,” she said, forking up a piece of mozzarella and waving that as well, “ to be told you’ve got something right! You know, when she complimented me on my taste… Well, I could have kissed her! It was such a boost to my confidence!”
She had very short hair with blonde highlights and she wore a dramatically low-cut top and a great deal of what was, presumably, her ethnic jewellery. She didn’t look to me as if she had ever had a problem with confidence but appearances can be deceptive.
“ It’ll be simply ages before I break even,” she said, mopping up olive oil with a piece of wholemeal bread, “ but it’s my own little business and that’s the important thing.”
“ Good for you!” George said, energetically and probably, I thought, bored and wanting to get onto handicaps and the eternal problem of the bunker on the twelfth.
“ What about you Marion?” Maureen asked. “ Do you work?”
We’d finished the insalata and were well into the grilled halibut steaks and she’d dominated the conversation for the past ten minutes with the story of her first buying experience at a wholesale craft fair.
“ Oh she’s a lady of leisure, as of this week,” Ian told her. “ Doing the art galleries and that sort of thing.”
And as Maureen looked smug and said it must be wonderful to have time just to wind down and be myself it occurred to me that I too was running my own little business. And I’d done more than break even. I’d made a hundred and seventy five pounds profit in my first week.
And it was a boost to my confidence, I thought, to have found something I could succeed at.
I’ve never been particularly good at anything – ‘Average’ my reports used to say, subject after subject, year after year, as if none of the teachers could be bothered to think of anything else to say. Or couldn’t remember, perhaps, who I was.
But now I was doing something well.
I was calm.
I was organised.
And I was not going to get caught.
Later, while Ian snored in bed beside me, I worked out some groundrules.
No stealing from people I knew. No using credit cards. No keeping anything that might be evidence. And no conspicuous consumption.
So long as I was careful, I’d be safe.
On Monday and Tuesday I tidied the house, took the dining room curtains to the cleaners and cleaned out the frig. I also phoned the college about French classes and arranged to join one that met on Thursday evenings. It had only started in mid-January so I hadn’t missed much, the woman said.
On Wednesday there was a small item in the local paper about a woman having her purse stolen in Sainsburys. Two scruffy youths, the report stated, had been seen hanging about near the store. There was no mention of the cards being returned and I hoped the dentist hadn’t kept them.
I felt sorry for the two scruffy youths – assuming they really existed and weren’t figments of someone’s imagination.
That afternoon I went to the library. A well-dressed elderly woman using one of the computer indexes had her shopping bag on the floor beside her so I sat at the next machine and looked up the novels of George Eliot. I could see the woman’s purse at the top of her bag as I put mine down beside it and it was easy to simply slide it across.
Middlemarch was in stock, I noticed, and I went to find it on the shelf.
Then I walked across to the department store and went to the ladies’ loo.
It was a pretty disappointing haul – library card, kidney donor card, membership card in the name of Joan Smythe for something called the Eva Hayle group, the usual collection of receipts and a ten pound note.
I almost thought of not bothering to send back the cards – it was already a bit late for the library card after all – then I thought that the Eva Hayle group might be important so I put them in an envelope and addressed it to Joan Smythe care of the library. Fortunately I had one of Lucy Walsingham’s stamps left.
I put the purse in the sanitary disposal bin and went, rather crossly, to the pottery and glassware department.
For a moment I considered shop-lifting to cheer myself up – but that’s something for which they do suspect middle-aged ladies and I told myself very firmly to forget it.
I was only supposed, I reminded myself, to take money. What on earth, after all, would I do with things? I had no way of selling them and there was nothing much I wanted. And, if I started appearing in expensive new clothes, Ian might notice and ask questions.
Although he might not.
It seemed a wasted opportunity all the same. I was standing by a display of pottery rabbits and the two assistants were carefully ignoring the customers as they discussed someone’s wedding dress – a friend’s, I supposed. ‘Just like a meringue on legs’, one of them said and they fell about laughing.
But what would I do with a pottery rabbit?
I left the shop feeling annoyed all the same.
I had to pay £85 fees for my French classes, which was quite a lot.
I could pay the reduced rate of £60 as an ‘unwaged’ person but that seemed like cheating.
Friday made up for it.
I drove to our county town, which is full of the sort of antique shops where well-dressed couples investigate sideboards and drop-ended tables and turn chairs upside down to check the webbing and whether the corners have been reinforced.
I watched as one man worked his way round a dining table doing this and revealing, every time he bent forward, the crammed wallet in his back pocket.
His wife was quite obviously bored with the whole business and had wandered off but I could see a cctv camera in the corner of the shop.
I could also see a screen on the Georgian desk that was used for sales so I had to wait until the sales assistant spotted someone who looked as if they might be about to buy a grandmother clock and got up to talk to them.
“ Come and look at these darling,” the wife called and as darling put down his chair and went obediently towards her I extracted his wallet.
It really wasn’t difficult. I was always good at Spillikins as a child. I could easily pick up any number of those thin, coloured sticks without moving the others and it was rather satisfying to be able to make use of this skill at last.
“ My wallet’s gone!” I heard him gasp as I left the shop and his wife said Oh really, Gerald, as though it were his own fault, which it was really, but I didn’t hear any more because the door shut behind me and I ambled off down the busy street, window-shopping in my dark green jacket and pleated skirt of invisibility.
I went into a cafe for tea and afterwards I went to the loo to examine my haul. Which made up for my poor week. The usual cards plus a large number of business cards, a great wad of receipts – mostly from filling stations, although there were a couple from hotels – and ninety pounds in cash.
There were so many receipts – it was no wonder his wallet bulged out of his pocket – that I almost didn’t put them in the envelope with the cards. Then I thought he might be keeping them to claim expenses so I shoved them in and addressed it to Mr Gerald Howes at the address on six of the business cards.
There wasn’t a sanitary bin in the ladies, which was a bit poor but I didn’t feel I could complain, so I had to take the wallet with me and drop it into the rubbish bin in the car park.
“ How’s the retirement going?” George asked on Sunday morning, when Carol and I joined them for drinks at the nineteenth hole.
I said it was fine.
“ She’s getting herself educated,” said Ian, who was rather taken with the idea of my going to college. “ She’s started O level French.”
I wanted to tell him no-one did O levels these days. And that there’d be no point as I’d done A level at school, even if it was a long time ago. I started to say I was taking French for Business but no-one was listening. Carol was telling them about the holiday complex they were thinking of buying into – in Northern Spain, with three championship courses within easy reach.
“ Sounds like a good idea,” Ian said afterwards. “ You’re always on about wanting to live abroad.”
I started to explain that a smallholding in Brittany and a holiday complex in Spain were not the same but he wandered off to watch football on Sky.
I went back to my French translation – le bureau – the office, un immeuble de bureaux – an office block, un ordinateur – a computer, l’informaticien – the computer programmer…
It wasn’t difficult. I found the grammar coming back to me quite quickly and I was even coping with conversation, which I’d always found difficult at school.
In July I passed the exam with Merit and in September I enrolled on the Advanced course.
Meanwhile I carried on with my business.
Not locally – there’d been an article in the paper about a gang of pickpockets operating in our area, warning the public to be extra vigilant – so I went further afield. Antique shops were generally good. Also bookshops, where people tended to get absorbed in their browsing. And the sort of pubs that do bar meals were excellent – full of men talking business and showing off to each other or confident young business women trying to prove they could beat the men at their own game. It was easy enough to walk off with the bag that had been left carelessly hanging on the back of a chair or the wallet stuffed into the jacket pocket.
I didn’t like taking bags, which were harder to dispose of, but they were by far the easiest to pick up.
My little business was going very well. I was accumulating a lot of money in the building society and opened a new bank account.
“ You’re looking very chic tonight, Marianne,” John remarked at the next New Year party. “ I like the new hairstyle. Very becoming.”
Maureen, I have to say, was not looking too good.
“ Bloody exhausted,” was the way she described herself. “ People have no idea what a strain it is, running a shop,” she said. I had a feeling ‘people’ meant John. “ And the bloody council’s putting the rent up so I’ll be in the red again.”
“ That’s a shame,” I said and then George asked me to dance.
He wanted to know about my new French course – le notaire – the lawyer, avoir un contrat de trois ans – to have a three-year contract, la compagnie des eaux – the water board…. I told him it was going very well.
“ Can I have a dance with the lovely Marianne?” John interrupted us. “ Old Mo’s not up to dancing tonight. Feeling a bit washed out.”
“ You’re certainly attracting some attention,” Ian murmured as we drank our midnight champagne. “ That’s a pretty stunning dress. I like the hair too. Very eye-catching.”
And suddenly it wasn’t sirens and fireworks I was hearing. It was alarm bells. Loud ones.
My invisibility, it seemed, was wearing off.
The room was exploding with balloons and streamers and champagne corks and everywhere I looked skinny women with dyed hair were squealing in the arms of overweight men with white, or little, or no hair, putting their left legs in and out and shaking them about.
And I knew what I should have known twelve months before. That I had more sense than the lot of them put together.
And that it was time to go.
“ I’m glad you like it,” I whispered in Ian’s ear – referring to my dress. “ I bought some new undies to go with it.”
And while he put his arms more tightly around me and moved his mouth so that he was nibbling at my neck – something I’ve never liked – I reached into his jacket pocket and extracted the car keys.
I’d drunk very little that evening because I knew I’d be driving home.
It’s very quiet in the car park. And a much better night than last New Year. No rain, no wind, just a clear, frosty sky with a billion stars. With a bright moon to help me pick out our Rover among the Mercs and BMWs.
Ten minutes to get home. Quarter of an hour to change, pack a bag, collect passport, driving licence and cash cards and I’ll be on the motorway.
And then France.
Via Portsmouth I think. Not Dover. Less obvious.
Although I’m not sure he can stop me in any case. The Rover’s registered in my name, as it happens. Some tax arrangement I never quite understood.
And I’m not taking anything with me that isn’t mine.