Anonymous – a short story

Later, after the fog had lifted, I discovered I had become invisible.

It had tumbled down the hill like an afterthought forgotten by the morning, as if it had missed its alarm call and was trying to make up for lost time, scurrying across the lake to where I sat alone, accompanied only by the spirit of Edna Wilson (1942-2013) who was commemorated by a small plaque on the bench, six inches by three. Apparently Edna liked to sit here too.

I watched it for the few minutes as it rolled ever closer, and then, suddenly, I was enveloped in such a cold opacity it felt as if a benign Autumn had been bludgeoned into submission and bullying Winter had announced itself two months early. Having been too warm moments previously – the result of walking nearly one lap of the lake at an enthusiastic pace – I was glad of the scarf I had so recently cursed, and pulled it tightly about my neck. It proved futile defence against the plunge in temperature.

And then the fog was gone. I was unable to divine whether it had continued on its journey beyond me to somewhere else or simply and suddenly evaporated, the milder day fighting back to reassert itself. I loosened my scarf again, pleased to be rid of the chilling anomaly, and allowed myself to further contemplate the question as to whether or not I was going to head to the café for coffee or immediately return to the car park and drive home. Mundane it may have been, but it was a common enough conundrum, one I allowed myself to embrace in a self-indulgent way as if it were a kind of luxury and being able to do so was an affirmation of something unnameable. If I had pressed myself I would have been unable to unravel exactly what such a statement might mean, of course; after all, there was as little remarkable about me evaluating the prospect of crumpets and an Americano as there was about my life in general. 

If you had come across me then – sitting there, eyes focussed on nothing in particular in the mid-distance – what would you have seen? A man in his late fifties, clean shaven and well-enough dressed not to be mistaken for a vagrant. Perhaps a man who was taking a break from work – though it was the wrong time of day for that – or perhaps on holiday, or visiting. Given most of the park’s transient inhabitants were there with a purpose – walking the dog, jogging, or just getting the children out of the house – there could be no doubt that my motivation was far less obvious. Perhaps once I had moved, people might have wondered if there was a familial attachment to Edna Wilson and my presence a pilgrimage of some kind. The truth was far more prosaic. Having been seriously unwell for much of the previous year, I had been forced to give up work and retire early, and in that context I was simply a man looking for a future.

When I say ‘if you had come across me then’ I do so without acknowledging that at that precise moment – and unbeknownst to me – it would have been impossible for you to do so, given I had become invisible. I could still see myself, of course. I stood and looked down at my hands to decide whether or not to put my gloves back on or simply thrust them back into my coat pockets. I settled on the latter, then headed toward the park’s entrance still undecided on the café. If you think about it, how could I have possibly noted anything remarkable in that?

A woman with a dog – a small Jack Russell roaming almost independently on one of those infuriatingly long extendable leads – was walking towards me, she on one side of the path, her dog on the other. It was a common enough sight and a circumstance which, to my mind, was never the fault of the dog but rather that of the owner and their choice of ‘tackle’. Assuming she had seen me and would, before our paths crossed, rein the mutt in with a press of the button on the lead’s handle, it was only when they were perhaps ten yards from me it became obvious that she was completely oblivious to my presence, even though she appeared to be looking in my general direction. With little time to inwardly curse her, I darted to the side of path she was occupying in order to avoid entanglement – yet even this exaggerated movement seemed to go completely unnoticed with the resulting effect that we brushed shoulders and I almost ended up in a hedge. I stopped and looked after her, expecting a pause and an apology, but there was none. Without really breaking stride, she turned momentarily and looked back over her shoulder; then, with her gaze returned to the dog, I heard her call its name and only at that point did she retract the lead a little.

Endeavouring to compose myself, I made a show of brushing the sides of my coat with my hands as if to sweep away any stray leaves I had inherited from the hedge. I thought about calling after her, but decided it might be a little churlish to do so; in any event, she had already put some distance between us and thus it would have required something of a public demonstration on my part. Suitably disinclined, I began to walk toward the car park once again. One outcome of the incident had been to dissuade me from the café; going home now seemed the most appealing course of action.

I had perhaps progressed another twenty yards or so when I saw three joggers swing into view, emerging from a small tributary some distance ahead to the right. It was my general observation that runners such as these – who were, judging from their kit, obviously keen and experienced – had a knack of handling themselves well when in amongst the public. Indeed, I fancied I had seen at least two of them in the park in prior weeks. Because of this I was unconcerned that they had immediately fanned out in front of me; nor was I bothered that they were obviously engaged in a three-way conversation, confident that the man nearest me – typically lean, and perhaps the oldest of the three – would undoubtedly either push ahead of his colleagues or drop behind them in order to allow me room to pass. I allowed my gaze to wander a little, though by doing so I gave myself no time at all to react when the man concerned failed to deviate at all from his course, and our collision – still a glancing blow but much more severe that the one I had experienced just moments earlier – was enough to make him stumble and to knock me back into the hedge.

My shout, instinctive and involuntary, did nothing to arrest their progress, and my assailant – once he had regained his equilibrium – seemed concerned only on glancing back at the path with his companions to validate whether the surface had been uneven and it had been that which had caused him to stumble. My presence seemed totally insignificant to them. I pulled myself upright once more, this time actually needing to clear some debris from my coat. These circumstances, one after the other, seemed so remarkable, so bizarre, that I felt as much thrown off balance mentally as I had been physically. It seemed incomprehensible that I should be subject to two such acts of rudeness, that my presence should be so flagrantly disregarded not only to my own disadvantage but to that of my assailants too. I turned to watch the runners as, now some distance hence, they overtook the woman with the dog, the latter obediently restrained in order to allow them to pass; then they all disappeared from view as the path bent away to the left.

Before moving off again, I looked back at the route ahead and was unaccountably relieved to find it completely empty.  The path was reasonably straight for a short while before it curved gently to the right, a diversion to the left leading to the toilets and the visitor centre. My car was perhaps less than a quarter of a mile away now, parked not far from the café entrance. It was slightly downhill at this point, and ahead, where the path branched, the land began to rise a little, unmade paths winding up a modest hill to where it was crowned by a small Victorian folly. It was not somewhere I tended to frequent as it was often popular with young children during the day, running around and shouting; and at dusk it became a rendezvous for less salubrious activities. My looking up was nothing more than habitual I suppose, but I was immediately taken by the sight of a woman in a bright red coat clearly looking my way. I was wondering if she had witnessed my collisions when she raised her hand in a brief wave. Not recognising her at all, I looked over my shoulder to see if she was gesturing to someone behind me, but I was the path’s only occupant. I looked back at the folly. Having lowered her hand, she raised it again. It was a motion clearly aimed at me.

If I was flummoxed by her salutation, my attention was immediately diverted by the sound of a siren nearby, and then, having walked no more than a few additional yards, the subsequent sight of two paramedics running towards me. Even though they were favouring the other side of the path, I stopped and backed slightly against the verdure. I then watched as they raced past me – almost as quickly as the runners – intent on some unseen incident, too focused to acknowledge me. They began to labour slightly under their respective burdens before they moved away and off towards the general area I had so recently vacated. I wondered if there had been an accident; one of the runners perhaps, or maybe the woman’s dog had finally and dramatically managed to entwine itself around some other innocent, an accident which had led to an unfortunate consequence.

Starting to walk again, I could not help but look back to the hill. The woman was still there. And she was still waving though now more insistently.

“How do you feel?”

It had taken me a little under two minutes to make my way up the steep incline to where she stood. She had been smiling – and obviously waiting. My own enquiry – “were you waving at me?” – had been ignored and trumped by a question of her own.

“I’m sorry?”

“How do you feel? Right now.”

I considered it only for a moment.

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

“You didn’t waste any time coming up the hill, did you? I mean it’s quite steep in places, especially if you take the direct route, as you did.”

I nodded, then glanced back down towards the car park to verify her assertion.

“Which is why” – her voice brought me back – “I asked how you were feeling. You don’t seem to be out of breath at all.”

And she was right. It hadn’t even occurred to me. The few times I had previously gone up to the folly I had always taken the man-made path which wound its way around the hill to mitigate the incline and make it easier to handle. It was the only way up for mums with buggies and toddlers. But I had made a bee-line for her and I wasn’t blowing in the slightest.

“And not the first unusual thing to happen to you today is it?”

Her second question – delivered with that same tone, the one that said she knew the answer – followed on before I could reply.

“I’ve watched you,” she said, inclining her head slightly.

I turned to look again. The path where I’d had the encounters with the dog-walker and runners was clearly visible.

“Odd that they didn’t move out of your way, wasn’t it?”

“Odd?” Thrown that seemed to know what I had been thinking, I felt a little relieved to be able to get a word in. “Or rude. Depending on your point of view.”

“I mean,” the smile had not yet left her face and I was beginning to wonder exactly how compos mentis she was, “it’s not as if you are a small man, impossible to miss.”

Perhaps that was the moment when the first fragments of realisation hit me: those encounters had occurred as if I had not been there. The woman and the runners had behaved exactly as they would have if they’d had the path entirely to themselves. But they had bumped me, I had felt the contact.

A sound to my left caught my attention; a woman with a buggy had just crested the rise. She was about twenty feet away from where we stood. She had paused and was looking away from us down towards the lake. The child in the buggy was clearly asleep.

“Don’t you think she looks a little weary?” the woman asked, smiling a little less all of a sudden. “And not just from the walk up the hill. Perhaps she has had a hard morning. Don’t you think she looks as if she has had a hard morning? Perhaps she might like someone to talk to, just now, while her child is quiet, while she has the chance.”

There was something of the imperative in her tone, and I could only nod agreement.

“Call to her. Ask her is she’s alright.”

There was no smile now. The woman in the red coat, staring earnestly at me, was doing so in a manner which suggested she was not to be denied. Then, sensing she had got her message across, she moved slightly away to where she had a better view of the lake.

I looked back towards the mother.

“Morning,” I offered, trying to sound relaxed, non-threatening.

When she failed to respond, I tried again, this time a little louder. Again nothing.

For my third attempt I even moved a little closer, hoping that accompanying sound with movement would provide the trigger.

“She can’t hear you.”

The words floated into my consciousness from over my right shoulder. The woman was still looking away from the folly, and even though her voice had been projected out over the water I still heard it perfectly clearly.

“And she can’t see you either.”

I’m not sure what reaction her words should have triggered; perhaps I should have spoken again, gone even closer to the woman with the buggy, jumped up and down – but I did none of those things. Instead I froze for a moment, not only struck by the words themselves but by the meaning that potentially lay behind them. I knew what the words meant, of course, and suddenly I was certain they were true. It explained the dog-walker, the runners.

The woman was still looking out toward the lake when I reached her side. Knowing my eyes were upon her, my head swimming, still she remained motionless.

“I suspect ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ are probably the two questions uppermost in your mind right now.”

I chose not to answer; she was correct again, so what was the point in confirming that?

“Look. Down there.”

She pointed down to the lake and the path that edged it; not to where I’d had my encounters, but to where I had been before that, to Edna’s bench. There was a small crowd gathered there now. I could make out the hi-vis jackets of the two medics who had run past me on the path, plus two others who had joined them, and perhaps another three or four people standing nearby, a little at a distance. Two of the emergency services’ staff were now beginning to push a trolley away from the bench and back towards the main path. In their wake I could see some kind of conversation going on and then the crowd began to disperse. I watched the trolley as it emerged from beneath some trees and make its chaperoned way down toward the car park where I could see an ambulance now waited. There was clearly a figure being wheeled on the trolley, and it was a figure whose face – whose entire body – was covered up.

I felt suddenly cold again. It was the same intense cold bestowed on me by the fog, but this time it seemed to fill me with insight as much as it had previously robbed me of warmth. And in that moment I understood – profoundly, deeply – what had been taken away from me; I knew that my reality had changed irrevocably. And even though I did have questions – the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ to which the woman in the red coat had referred – at least one or two had been answered.

The figure being wheeled away on the trolley was me.