Invisible Every Day
The cold seeps into my bones, and it won’t go away. The pavement slabs are slick with winter, the road protesting with a hiss under each passing car.
I need to move. I need to move my legs and get some circulation in my feet. That would help. But I can’t. I am invisible, and when I am invisible, I am safe.
The darkness brings more coldness, like a heavy wet blanket, and it settles around me. A shroud. An invisibility cloak.
Girls skitter past in high heels and bare legs, giggling and screeching into the night. Mostly they ignore me, so I ignore them. A safe arrangement. The boys, the men, are dangerous. Sometimes less dangerous the more they’ve had to drink. I am nothing more than an amorphous pile of dirty clothes, huddled in a doorway. It’s the sober ones I fear the most.
The street is quiet, the light and noise barely contained in pockets; nightclubs, pubs, restaurants, fast food shops. I stretch unwilling limbs and make a break for it, shuffling as fast as I can across the street and into the car park behind the pizza shop.
The floor is scattered with discarded pizza boxes. I pick up two of the largest and take them behind the shop. This is where it’s warmest, near the vent from the kitchen. But it smells like food and makes me even more hungry.
A group of men — boys? — cross the car park, laughing raucously, and disappear into the pizza shop. I hear their voices through the vent. Is this what being in prison sounds like? When they re-emerge and walk up the street to where the nightlife begins, I realise that I was barely breathing. Desperate to remain unseen.
I don’t beg. You won’t see me on a street corner, with a sign or a hat, or a guitar case. No one wants my money these days anyway. I look… unsavoury. I tried to buy some bread in the shop once, and the security guard followed me down every aisle until I turned and bumped into him, and then he threw me out. They don’t want my money. It’s touched me. They don’t want to touch me. They don’t want to see me.
The back door of the pizza shop opens suddenly and makes me jump. A man steps out, raises his cigarette to light it, and then sees me, huddled against the wall by the vent on top of two crushed pizza boxes.
We stare at each other.
He lowers the hand holding the lighter and disappears back inside. I tense. He will, inevitably, call the police, and they will come and ask me to move. Their frustration is obvious; they know as well as I do that there’s nowhere to go, so we play the game of moving from one doorway to another, one street to another, until the anxious phone calls abate.
I will take more pizza boxes, I decide. I can break them down and use them as insulation inside my coat. It’s a big coat, a good coat for winter. Too big for me, but I think it is leather, and the boxes will fit inside it nicely and keep me warmer tonight.
Maybe I should put one inside my hat too. I like my hat. This one was given to me by an old lady outside a charity shop. I was looking for gloves in the basket outside, and this lady, she touched me. She took my hand and pushed the hat into it.
“I made that for you,” she said, in a whisper. “You look so much like my Mary.”
And she smiled. And then just walked away. I didn’t know her.
The back door opens again and the same man appears. I scurry to my feet, scrabbling at the pizza boxes. He steps out, cigarette already to his mouth, and smiles.
What kind of smile is this? I can’t see. His face is too in the shadows. I tense. I don’t like the shadowy men.
He speaks in a language I don’t understand, to someone inside the shop. Another face appears. I am frozen in terror, and everything becomes slow-motion.
The first man lifts his lighter, and in my panicked state I see the tendrils of flame like contrails or fireworks follow his hand up to the cigarette that now blazes in the dark, turning his face a sinister orange.
He reaches back to the second man and takes something. It’s a knife. It’s going to be a knife. I am going to be gutted and left like a discarded fish behind a pizza shop.
My brain is struggling to catch up to reality. He’s thrusting it at me and I jump.
It’s a box.
It’s a pizza box.
It’s a small, warm, food-smelling pizza box.
He thrusts it again.
My eyes and my mouth are wide open. I mumble “thanks” with none of the gratitude that I feel, and he nods and returns to his cigarette.
I stumble back onto my makeshift pizza-box bed, clutching this beacon of warmth and goodness. I don’t want to eat it, I just want to hold it. For the first time in weeks, months, I think, I feel warm.
“Eat!” he says again, clearly confused at the wretched girl hugging her food box. He makes big gestures as he speaks, and I wonder where he’s from. Maybe Italy? Maybe Turkey?
He is watching me. I open the box, and the aroma of hot food makes my stomach do backflips. What are we meant to do with that? it beseeches me. I inhale deeply. Yes. I remember this.
The pizza is cut into delicate triangles, and I negotiate one of these from the box under his scrutinous eyes. It’s so hot I almost drop it. I blow on the tip of the triangle and nibble cautiously.
Oh. Oh yes, I remember this. Thin, crispy pizza with tomato and cheese. It tastes like heaven. Have I died?
“Thank you. Thank you.” My mouth is full and my manners have long since fled to feast on memories of food.
He waves his hand dismissively and casts the cigarette end into the night.
“Yes, yes. It is good. Eat.”
The door closes, and I am left in the dark with my pizza. I must have died.
I want to eat it all. I want to gorge on it like there’s no tomorrow and I don’t have to think. I want to feast like the kings and queens used to, on my tiny tomato and cheese pizza.
But… if I am not dead, and not in heaven, then I ought to save it. This will last a good few days, and now I have a warm box to cuddle.
The first drops of night rain begin to fall, and I wedge myself between the wall and the big bins for shelter.
I love the library. It’s warm, and quiet, and people don’t want to talk to anyone anyway. I can be anyone here. I can be safe here. I am invisible here.
The lady at the desk is new, and scowls at me and my pizza box.
“No food,” she hisses.
I can’t part with my food. She will go home to food. I have no home, and no food. I don’t know what to say, so stand there, staring open-mouthed at her.
“No food!” She hisses again, louder this time. Heads turn.
No. Don’t make them look. I am invisible. I am safe here.
I stumble backwards toward the door.
“Shh!” Shirley appears around the corner and shakes her head at the new lady. “She’s fine.”
Shirley is like someone’s mum, or nan, or… kindly aunt. Sometimes I want to ask her if she’s married or if she has children, or if she can read to me. Shirley is the first person that was nice to me.
She smiles and beckons me through the gate. “Come on dear. I’ve just put the kettle on.”
I’m not invisible with Shirley. I don’t need to be. I’m not scared with Shirley.
We walk through the library, blissfully ignored, to the back counter, the Enquiries desk. Shirley lets me sit at the end here as it’s safe and out of the way, and she can sneak me tea and biscuits. You can’t have food or drink in the library, unless Shirley says it’s okay.
We have a routine, me and Shirley. We have tea and a biscuit, and she asks gentle questions about how I am, and tells me little bits of news. Then when the tea is done, she brings the latest book that she’s found for me, which I can sit and read in peace, while she indulges in Rosamunde Pilcher. She always gives me a conspiratorial wink as she opens her book.
She sets the cup of tea down in front of me and frowns. I follow her eyes down and my fingers are mottled purple and orange and white.
I tuck my hands under my armpits, half warming them, half ashamed.
“No, no,” she whispers. “Let me look.”
I hold them out and she touches them.
“Can you feel that?” I nod in reply. “Good. Carole was telling me about a man in the North Pole who lost his fingers and toes from frostbite — can you imagine!”
I stare at my fingers in shock. They used to be nice. They used to do nice things. They used to make music.
She pats my hands. “Wait here.” As if I’ve somewhere better to be.
A few moments later she reappears from the back room — I assume it’s the staff room. Do libraries have staff rooms?
She is holding out gloves. Not just woolly gloves. Beautiful navy blue leather gloves. Real leather. They look like ladies driving gloves, with the seams and the little button, and I giggle. I slip my hand inside one, and it’s soft and warm on the inside. I pull my hand out and inspect it. It looks fluffy.
“They’re lined. They’ll keep you warmer.”
I smile and she pats my hands again, and we settle back into our little routine. She glances furtively around the desk to make sure no one is looking, and then pulls out her little tin of biscuits. When she offers me one, I point proudly at my pizza box. She mouths a silent “ooh!” and smiles, then nudges the biscuit tin at me. I smile back and take one. It’s Shirley. It’s our routine.
Shirley likes to bring me hopeful books. Her last one was Alice in Wonderland. Sometimes it’s books about things to make, beads and knitting. Sometimes, when it’s quiet and there isn’t anyone else around, she reads things to me from a magazine called The Lady.
“Look,” she said. “You could have a job with a house. A nice little cottage in Devon with a cleaning job. A nice little cottage of your own.”
I smile and nod, because it’s Shirley, but I know as well as she does that they wouldn’t want me. We don’t talk about how I might get to Devon.
Sometimes I read the old books, the ones about the peasant girls that walk across the country to a new job in a big house, the farm girls, or the ones that find out that they’re really the descendants of some noble family. Life isn’t like that any more.
Sometimes I just pretend to read, and watch the people in the library instead. I wonder who they are, what they’re reading, what they’re doing, and where they’re going. I like to sit outside the group reading room on Thursday’s. They talk about the book of the week, and sometimes I find it and read it, but mostly they talk about their husbands and children and homes, and this is the best fiction.
“Where do you go?”
I don’t understand Shirley’s question.
“At night. Where do you go?”
Oh. I shrug and gesture outside. Out there.
“Hmm.” She is frowning again.
A blonde lady approaches the Enquiries desk and I shrink back in the chair. She half-smiles at me and then smiles at Shirley, and gives a little wave. Shirley stands up and takes the lady’s hands excitedly.
“Hi mum. I was just in town, wanted to see if you needed anything else.”
Mum! I try to sneak a furtive glance, to see the family resemblance. Both of them are looking at me.
Shirley gestures to me.
“Gracie, this is the girl I was telling you about.” I feel my cheeks reddening. “Tilly, this is my daughter, Grace.”
Grace extends her hand. I get up awkwardly out of the chair and shake it. “Hello. Nice to meet you, Grace.”
I can see the resemblance now, the curved nose and rounded cheeks. I wonder if Shirley’s grey hair was once blonde too.
Shirley is almost bouncing with excitement. “I thought we’d have one more tonight.”
Grace smiles at her mum. “I thought so, that’s why I asked. I was going to pick up some other bits. I’ll leave you to it. See you about six, out front. Nice to meet you, Tilly.”
I wave awkwardly. Shirley is still bouncing, and shuffles her wheeled chair over to the end of the desk where I am.
“Tilly, now, you can say no if you want to, but I hoped you might like to come back for some food and proper sleep tonight. You don’t have to, and you don’t have to stay if you’ve somewhere else, but… well, Gracie has been away and I wanted to ask her first. It’s her house, you see.”
All of this comes tumbling out in a rushed, hushed whisper, and I don’t know what to say. I stare at her, and my mind has gone blank.
“I — I have pizza.”
“I know dear. We can pop it in the fridge and then you can warm it up when you want it. We’ve got a microwave.”
“And then, if you want to stay, we can find you a little job and then you can get back on your feet. You’re such a bright girl, Tilly.”
I think my heart has stopped. Maybe it’s escaped. Maybe I did die last night and all of this is a dream. No, I’d have to be alive to be dreaming. Maybe I’m still asleep outside the pizza shop, and that’s why I can smell pizza. Yes, that makes sense.
And so, because I have convinced myself that I’m dreaming, I find myself nodding at Shirley.
“I don’t have to walk to Devon?”
She pats my hand. “No dear, you don’t have to walk to Devon.”