A horror/sci fi/superhero or super-villain mash up story – where the strangest things are right under our nose…if only we could see them……
I’m the guy with the ideas. That’s how I’ve always been, that’s how I’ll always be. And my ideas have taken me to some interesting places I must say. Not places I would have expected, or even imagined in my wildest dreams – and I am capable of some epic, wild dreams I can assure you.
I just wouldn’t have dreamed my recent life in a million years. It’s utterly crazy, even to me. It’s also perfect. I have come to see that. I have come to revel in it. When you reach the precipice that divides accepted reality and real reality, and you just decide to jump off, everything changes, everything is illuminated.
Most of us walk dazedly and purposelessly through our lives with no idea that otherness even exists. I don’t know, perhaps that is just as well, and is a comfort rather than a lack. But for me now, knowing more, knowing this whole other realm, anything less than this would be unacceptable. I’ll take the risks, the madness, and even on occasion the horror, rather than boredom, any day.
Perhaps we are all sociopaths in our heart of hearts in some essential way, and we realize it when it emerges because we finally see a way to get away with it. So something in my nature fits their nature after all, and I belong somehow.
Even though ‘them’, what ‘they’ are, and how long they’ve been around, I don’t know even now and probably will never know. And even though I’ll never be one of them, because I can’t – even with all that, while I perhaps should be afraid, I’m not. I’m like the kid who gets to join the cool gang for some unknown reason, or because I have a talent that is useful to them. And I guess that’s the case, I guess it’s just a matter of need, in the end. And I suppose I should be afraid that someday that need runs out and then there is just me, knowing about them, as I do, and what that might entail. But I’m not, I’m not afraid. They’ve had their journey too, their evolution, and I’ve witnessed it. Even those who lurk in the dark don’t have to be part of the dark ages forever.
But speaking of my talents, and so my induction to strangeness, I’m also the guy who has a mean way of handling a camera. I’ve got an eye for the best shot, the most flawless sequencing. I should be working in the movies. That’s where I’d shine. I’ll get there one day too. Everything happens for a reason, even the oddest of things.
One day I’ll be a lot further than where my ideas and camera savvy had gotten me less than two years ago, working for that fuckwit Roger on his prissy little home shopping channel. I mean, there’s only so much artistic satisfaction one can strangle from the choice of zoom in/zoom out shots on some stupid model’s fingers for the jewelry segments, or so many lighting and perspective intricacies one can elicit from boring twats rabbiting on about home cleaning products as though they were the latest highway to orgasm heaven.
And then, if that wasn’t enough of an indignity – four years at film school to shoot fashion sprees and fat loss programs for the terminally obese – Roger went and fired me. Nothing personal, of course, budget cutbacks.
Where once we filmed about twelve hours of new material a day, the hourly segments started to be in high rotation, often repeated three or four times for every couple of days. That meant far less film was needed to keep the 24 hour operation transmitting. Round the studio the presenters were joking they’d also soon be out of work once the internet shopping for the channel really took off. Or maybe virtual animation could replace them. Privately I doubted the average customer would tell the difference. In any case, it meant no more filming for me.
I’ll remember the day of my dismissal till the day I die I think. I’d not even imagined it coming, though on reflection I probably should have realized the programming changes were financially inspired. I’m just not really a businessman at heart. That’s my father’s thing. I’m creative. So you can imagine both my dismay and personal chagrin at actually feeling terrible, in the pit of me, when Roger minced his way into the control room that day and said we had to talk.
Roger has an affected effeminate style which he uses deliberately to make him seem to fit in more with the entertainment industry. As if anything about Roger is remotely entertaining. This cynical act does nothing to deter the harassment of all the female models, mind you, much to their distaste. Roger thinks he’s pulling off “modern metrosexual” when all he’s really pulling is his own leg. But that’s Roger for you. He’s just a confused, deluded little man.
You’ll think me bitter? I’m not exaggerating one whit. But I digress.
We had to talk. Expressed just like the lexicon of couples in relationships. I didn’t like relating to Roger at all. The less relating the better I thought. Ditto that re talking. Still he was the boss, so I’d set the filming to operate on auto (my ease in doing that should have been another clue had I been thinking about it all, which I hadn’t). And I followed him out, down the corridors, and into the broom cupboard he liked to think of as his office.
Still I think I knew just before he said it. Roger had never had occasion to think we should “talk” before. He didn’t invite people to his hallowed broom closet, sorry office, with any regularity. He liked the distance of power.
He also looked rather awkward in the moment, which was unusual for him. He usually looked smug and stupid, but now it was worried and stupid. That worried me. I watched a nervous bead of sweat meander down his forehead from his obvious hair piece, and I felt a small, growing fear.
“We’ve had to make some difficult budgetary decisions,” he started. He couldn’t look at me. He kept looking just beyond me at the photos he had hanging on the wall, as though he was really talking to the people in them. But then, they were all pictures of him, so he would be talking to himself really.
Nothing new there. Damn it, I need to concentrate. Something is happening here, something important.
“So we are cutting back on staff. With the new schedules we don’t need to film as much live content. I’m sorry Peter, but we’re letting you go.”
“I wasn’t aware I was in captivity” I said.
“Huh?” Roger asked. His brow crinkled. He didn’t understand. Trust him to not get the joke. He missed most things really.
“Letting me go? Setting me free? End of indentured servitude?”
The last line got him completely. I don’t think he understood the words or the concepts. Too many syllables. I felt disgust, but I wasn’t sure it was just with him. I’d just been fired. Perhaps I was also disgusted with myself.
“Don’t worry Roger” I continued, “I understand”.
“Oh? Oh, good,” he said, finding equilibrium again. I saw the old Roger rise out of the confusion, the smugness returning like a color to his pallid, murky cheeks. And that was all I could take of the moment. I turned and walked out.
There really was nothing left to say, after all. Little bastard. Imagine being fired by someone so inconsequential. Just this silly, strutting peacock and he was able to fire me. The universe is perverse.
Still being fired probably wouldn’t have mattered all that much but my untimely unemployment cut off my funds for what I was really working on. I had this idea, you see, this concept, to film and work with the social interactions in this club owned by my mate George – a time-lapse photography kind of deal where no-one knew they were being filmed, and where I could look for patterns in relating and so forth and do a kind of social collage. I was thinking of eventual government grants for some form of documentary, but the idea was only in its infancy, and it was expensive to set up.
George was both willing and helpful. He didn’t charge me – generous creature – for access to the club and the architectural modifications to allow the filming. Anything for a mate, he’d say, though I think it’s because he thought it was cheaper than his security cameras and that he might get to see some filmic action from any of the girls who came to the club that he might fancy. George is hardly one for the altruistic gesture. I think it also titillated him when I told him you could film anyone, anywhere – even in the privacy of his or her own bathroom if you got access – and unless you had recorded sound it was totally legal.
There’s always been the slight whiff of peeping tom about George. You could imagine him lurking in quiet suburban streets at night, searching for open blinds and unsuspecting women. Though that might have required a degree of get up and go, a kind of actual physical exertion that was a bit beyond him.
Still, lust might inspire action in him, with a little additive of perversion. It certainly wasn’t art driving him. Still, god love him, whatever he was getting out of it meant he promised to cover me for the set up and who knows, maybe even help with some of the funding if my savings ran dry before I worked again.
Bloody Roger. His timing was impeccable, which was more than I could say for his producing. There was a reason he was still in shopping television at his advancing age. There was a reason he’d be there, no doubt, till the day he died. But just ruminating on his obvious shortcomings wasn’t doing much for me. I wanted to string him up by his own budget cuts, but life rarely throws you those opportunities when you most need them.
I should let that go, though, or you’ll think me obsessed. Or you might also call me flippant. My delivery tends to invite that description, but I’m really not. I just see things as they are. No finery and dressing up and disguise. That’s why I’m good with the camera, why I see things others don’t. Why I get the ideas. And that’s really what brought me to this other place before I knew what was happening.
But I’m not complaining. As I said before, there’s this whole other level to the world I had no idea existed. But now that I know, anything’s possible, because everything is so much weirder than I ever thought. When I tell you about it, you’ll understand, and perhaps you’ll forgive me my rather dry manner of speaking. It’s just a lot to take in, to process, to understand. Let me take you on an accelerated learning curve. I hope you enjoy the ride.
But I’ll try to be serious, and I’ll try to remember and relate everything, because it really matters in this story what you do and don’t see. And as the song says, when you get over the hill and you understand what it’s really all about, on a clear day you really can see forever.
I should start by explaining my personal filming project in a bit more detail, because if I hadn’t been doing that, none of the rest would have followed. George’s club is rather unimaginatively called The Inferno. I think he wanted some girl to think he was classically educated at the time he was opening it as a means to opening her, so to speak. I doubt he’s traversed even as far as Dante’s first circle, but the internet’s a wonderful thing and you can get these outlines of any of the classics on it and appear to be far more erudite and insightful than nature would ever have provided. You certainly don’t need to waste any time or brain power reading the books.
At least it meant he didn’t spend all his time on the net just searching for porn I suppose.
I’ve got a classical education, mind you – English, philosophy and a bit of psychology for my first degree, then on to film school. I must say, I learned a hell of a lot more useful stuff at film school than that BA ever gave me. Anyone who thinks an undergraduate university degree gives you anything but information skimmed from the surface of things is an idiot. Ah well, there’s a lot of idiots in the world paying university fees I suppose, or parents with idiot pretensions and more money than sense, like mine, sending their kids off to the hallowed halls.
So, just think twice before that sort of thing impresses you, is all I’m saying. Or by people sprouting off classical references, or naming their clubs (which are basically just drug riddled pick up joints in the final analysis) after the works of the great poets.
George is a funny guy. He’s so transparent, but that makes him useful and genial. Stroke his ego a bit, see him as this great entrepreneur, and he’s like a puppy dog at your feet. It’s an incongruous image in a way because George is rather too large to be a puppy dog, rather too balding and rather too fat, though I suppose some puppy dogs might be portly. Still, offer him something a bit illicit also, or something that he thinks he can use in a business sense, and he’s right there with you, sharing the “dream”. And that suits me.
Anyway, back to The Inferno. It’s actually very successful – fashion is fickle and I must admit that George has an uncanny instinct for this sort of thing. I doubt he’ll ever be rich, but he’ll always more than make do. He knows to bring in good people – designers and architects and DJs, and he has enough connections with the drug world to make sure all substances run freely in his midst. George understands his market, and that’s a valuable skill in itself.
The club had established itself very well – it had been open for about six months and the crowds were growing – when I brought my concept to him. He was just starting to get obsessed about security. He had cameras and response units in place, but he is delightfully paranoid. George has possibly missed his calling, he should be writing for a reboot of the X Files really, he can see darkness in everything. Even in the deliberate shadows he created himself for ambience. Given what was really there in his club, right under his nose, it’s very ironic that he didn’t see it. But that’s the point I suppose. He couldn’t.
Perhaps that’s the thing. If you look for darkness it will ever elude you, but if you don’t go looking it will find you, and when you least expect it. Darkness is clever. It recognizes the advantages of surprise.
Still, as it happens, a project that involved multiple cameras in his set up was immediately appealing to him. I explained my concept to him over vodka tonics and a couple of lines of coke. We were both a bit wired, as you’d imagine, but also very clear. What I wanted, I told him, was to film certain patterns of interactions over and over to find any similarities, any rituals and any habits that emerged. I wanted to see if a class system still existed in our supposedly post modern, freedom loving, egalitarian world. If there are things in the nature of humanity which we just can’t erase with social slogans, political advances and higher education. Do we, I wondered, like hierarchies because we are inherently competitive? And if so, if our politically correct societal rules explicitly limit that tendency in our day to day lives, does it emerge in another form somewhere else?
And if so, I wanted to see what this was based on, if certain patterns of behavior were more socially successful than others, if there was some identifiable and replicable ‘dance’ of social success that anyone could learn and inhabit. I was looking for tribal rites, I told him, and realized I was starting to lose him. Psychology and sociology weren’t his field it seemed. In the final analysis, I think thought itself wasn’t really his field. He’s a gut and gonads type of guy. I got back to the basics before he was lost to me.
“Cameras set up to observe the bar, the main dance floor, the toilets, and the shadowy parts where people seem to go to try to hide. Four main perspectives, filmed over and over, every night, recorded for patterns that are constant and those that change depending upon the night of the week or the people involved. Eventually I’ll make it a collage, a kind of layered visual picture, but for the moment I just need to see what’s there, if anything..”
“I’ve got some security cameras.” George muttered, swirling the remnant of his drink with the ice in the glass. He looked a bit mournful for a moment, like a man knowing he is teetering on the abyss of middle age, sinking fast. Probably just the alcohol though. George is not a creature of any great self-awareness. I sometimes envy him that attribute, or that lack.
“The quality of that film is shite, man, you know that. I’m talking the best digital technology. I can get that from my parents. I want it so good I could zoom in and almost see and taste the sweat on a girl’s chest when she’s getting turned on.”
“Or the nipples hardening?” George asked, suddenly more enthused. “You’d do that, sit and manipulate the images that way?”
“Well no George.” I replied, irritated. He never really listened to what you had to say. “I don’t intend to be there. I don’t intend to manipulate the patterns at all. It wouldn’t do to impose my will on it in that way. The idea is the camera eye sees without discrimination, without judgment, without choice, only what is there, not what the seeing eye may choose to see…”
“Pity.” George commented. Perhaps even in the dim recesses of his mind he was calculating how unlikely it was for an inanimate camera to choose to zero in on what he wanted with any intelligence or purpose. Getting to see girls in a state of arousal would be luck at best, which fitted my thematic requirements, but not his. Or perhaps even thinking that through was presently beyond him and he was just disappointed in general. In either case, I was losing him again.
“All I was saying was that the technology is that good, and that security cameras just don’t cut it. We could see all that other stuff later, once I get into the analysis and editing stage.”
I was promising him something here that may or may not be possible to deliver in the end. It made me feel like a real estate agent or a used car salesman. The house will appreciate in value, or the car will not require further mechanical work. When in fact I didn’t really know what I would find or have to manipulate from the filming.
George raised one eyebrow above the other, looking more intelligent and laconic than he really is. I always hate people who can do that. My eyebrows stubbornly refuse to go anywhere on my face separately. They follow each other – up or down – like siamese twins. I feel robbed of a sign of style that I should rightly have.
“And you could see what turns the different girls on, what makes them respond…your own little information source that they don’t know you have” I went on promising, sorry, lying.
“Sounds kinky, are you sure it’s legal?”
“Oh, yes,” I replied, knowing I had him, that he was going to agree after all, “It’s absolutely legal”.
As I said, my parents gave me the technology for my project. My mother, god bless her, believes in my artistic soul and my attempts to reach my “potential”. She sees me as this little flower, worthy of praise, attention and endless support. My father is less convinced, but less interested. All he cares about is money, which he spends all his time making, and who am I to disrespect that – or to turn down any of the financial aid he gives me, possibly out of guilt at his “emotional absence” (as mother calls it), or maybe just because he can (which I suspect is more the case)?
“I just know you’ll do wonderfully,” my mother once said, touching my cheek fondly, her eyes brimming with lovely, naïve tears, “You always were such an artistic child.”
“It would be nice if you did financially “wonderfully” actually” my father averred, looking up from his laptop where doubtless endless rows of profit figures scrolled down the screen, “Do try to do something successful like that in your life before I die, if you can..”
“Of course mother” I said.
“Of course father,” I repeated. And both seemed satisfied, at least with me, if not with each other.
George paid for the changes to the architecture to house the cameras and recording devices for my project and even gave me a little “viewing room”, which no doubt was really there so George could sometimes go and watch it all himself.
I love how the generosity of others is sometimes so singularly and selfishly motivated. It makes me think most things in life are brilliantly layered, and never what they purport to be initially. It’s why I was so interested in pursuing this project – the real actions of others, without the artifice of knowing they are being watched, and without the confusion of what they are saying. I wanted to capture something immediate and visceral and true.
The beast uncovered. Well, I certainly uncovered a beast of sorts.
How little I realized at the beginning of how literal my analogies would prove to be.
So others paid for the set up. I loved that. It’s part of being the guy with the ideas. You usually don’t pay for them yourself. But the USBs and portable hard drives to be used and any other sundry production costs fell to me, thus my disquiet at the ending of my artistically challenged but financially rewarding stint at the home shopping channel. The truth of the matter was that I’d been filming The Inferno for a couple of months by the time Roger let the axe fall, and while there were patterns emerging in the mating and dating rituals on my film, there was nothing really new or interesting in it at all.
To be honest, I never really thought it through that much – I just thought if I got the project going, something would have to come up and show me what it was I was looking for. I was starting to worry it was all a big waste of time. If I didn’t get something soon I’d find it harder and harder to justify the gradual decrease in my savings as this unproductive monster kept gobbling up my funds. And I suspected I wasn’t getting anything “useful” enough for George for him to make good on his implied promise to help with the running costs if I hit pecuniary disaster.
I hate giving up, but I hate wasting money even more. I am my father’s son, it seems, after all.
My tenacity fights regularly with my conservatism. I believed in my project, still, very much. It could have been stubbornness. I can be stubborn I suppose, though I prefer to think of it as determined. An ex-girlfriend of mine said I raised stubbornness to an art form. I replied that instead I was just committed, to which she replied that I should be committed. Little wonder she’s an ex-girlfriend.
In any case I believed enough to keep going for now, keep trawling through hours of film – about five hours for each night per camera, of which there were four, covering 10pm to 3am, the busiest times of the night and morning. I fast forwarded through dull periods of nothingness, mostly these occurred on the footage of the camera fixed on the toilets. I was even thinking of ditching that camera angle all together, there is only so much that can be gained from seeing people streaming in and out, more inebriated or coked out of their heads each time, or the stumbling of people wanting either sex or to actually go to the toilet and barely getting inside the doors in time for either.
Apart from this, you tell me that watching people take a dump is an interesting way to pass the time and I’ll check you into the nearest psyche ward.
I alternated male and female toilets each night – it made little difference. The main activity was always sex or drugs, the secondary one in the female toilets was applying makeup, the secondary one in the men’s…well, there barely was a secondary one after sex and drugs, but they did sometimes take a piss as well. Any tribal rites in those vestibules were banal at best, highly repetitive, and uninteresting. I think George might have liked them though. It’s just a suspicion. I don’t have proof or anything; it’s just what I’d expect.
The darkened areas were more interesting – there did seem to be a lot of voyeurism that emanated from those areas, as though the people thought the shadows hid their obsessions. Mostly the people who gravitated to those nooks and crannies did not venture forth except to get a drink. They weren’t there to mix, or dance – even consumption of alcohol and drugs seemed secondary, though necessary. They were just people interested enough in watching others to venture out, to eschew the more inert forms of the myriad of people like them stuck in front of televisions every night. So they were social on some level, but reserved, dispassionate perhaps – removed. I thought something might be made of them, though it would be a slow process to get anything definitive.
And when I thought that, the idea struck me.
I was beginning to see finally that they were a beginning – that the artistry of the film might be to draw lines of action, like a grid of activity, which showed places that pulsated with life – like the dance-floors, or the toilets – ones that seemed to be a way station from one activity to another, like the bar – and ones where everything seemed to disappear into entropy.
Maybe this was like an allegory of life, the macrocosm hidden in the microcosm, or something equally profound. The cycles of life, played out on a smaller stage, a nightclub at night, form following function, people unknowingly repeating the larger patterns which were the inevitability of their life, then death, then nothingness.
Perhaps over the centuries human consciousness had evolved only to be repetitive and functional. Perhaps the crowning achievement of humankind knowing itself was to be bored with itself and to just not care enough to do anything different. It would be an interesting conclusion to reach, although a depressing one I suppose. But perhaps we’d crawled out of the primordial sludge and knew ourselves only to not really care.
Or we really are like robots, limited by our programming, conscious only in relation to what we can knowingly experience and see. There could be something in that, given what I found, but then, I found it. So doesn’t that mean something more is possible? Or is self delusion part of the programming also?
In any case, I wasn’t thinking that deeply about it at the time. Finding the other, the strangeness elevates your philosophical musings I find, but at the time I was just searching for a pattern that was remotely interesting and informative. And with this realization I was thinking maybe there was something there. Maybe a combination of night energy, physical longing and exertion, drugs and alcohol, and the social instinct, make us replay the essential pathways of our lives without us even realizing we are doing so. Perhaps at night we know our own mortality better in the reptilian areas of our brains.
Or perhaps it was just an idea I had, an artistic tableau, a structure within which I could place the rhythm of this project.
I imagined coloured lines of light creating the patterns – I saw them like one might on some computer game. The moment the idea came to me it was like a revelation, the way through. The lines danced before me. I saw them, even in their actual absence. And the patterns started to emerge, leading always towards and away from the bar, like some source of more than alcohol, some source of life and light and animation.
The bar – my eyes kept returning to the bar. And it was then, as I began to isolate my attention to that set of films from a range of nights, just in at the bar, that the real mystery struck me.
I may not have noticed if she hadn’t been gorgeous. But hey, George wouldn’t have employed her if she wasn’t. Strange though, I didn’t know who she was. She clearly worked the bar for him, but he’d never mentioned her. George generally talked about everyone he employed, particularly the women – and on this topic his descriptions were not well phrased but very intense on certain aspects (I need not, I think, give you an example? I am sure you have the idea by now about George…).
So it was odd. I first thought, well, who is she? And that got me watching her.
And that was when I realized. She was very, very strange.
I would have thought she was George’s type. He liked them fair, small and slim, like they might almost disappear with a strong gust of wind. He liked a fragile looking face, like hers. I often wondered if George was a bit physically abusive because his uses of words like “breakable wrists” and “vulnerable faces” so often in his descriptions of women caused me to wonder why adjectives of weakness were so appealing to him.
George is no oil painting; perhaps he just liked some form of balance in his relationships. He was married once, a long time ago. He calls his former wife “the ogre”. An interesting description, the only one he ever proffers on the subject and one that does not bring breakable wrists and delicacy to mind. Perhaps she was abusive to him. Perhaps it’s his way of evening out the odds. He gets by on charm and success though, and he seems confident, so you just have to wonder.
Well I wonder, anyway. I spend a lot of time wondering about things like that. I blame my psychology classes at university. A little information, as they say, is a very dangerous thing.
And what I had on film seemed to be that very ‘little bit of information’ meant by the warning ‘they’ give. I know when I started to see the pattern there I actually felt quite chilled. I even stopped to look to see if the door to my little watching room was open because it felt like something cold caressed the back of my neck and I thought it might be a draught of some sort.
They say when the mystic achieves communion with their god, the sense of the numinous is bright and frightening and strange and alien all at once. Well this was something like that without the communion bit. High strangeness I think they call it. This was high strangeness indeed, and while intrigued, I admit to some fear also. We only really expect what we expect. Something completely new is…unexpected. You don’t see it coming. And in this case, you literally couldn’t.
What I saw of this woman might better be described as what I didn’t see.
She was a barmaid, first and foremost, dressed in the dark, low cut uniforms George requires. She seemed efficient, friendly in a vague way, but a bit aloof. Watching her you could speculate on what her dreams might be or what she was paying the way for by doing this job. You definitely got the sense this was a way-station for her. She wouldn’t be a barmaid for life.
This was not true of all of them. In some there was a sense of the lost and broken, of having given up already, in their stance, their expressions and the lack of energy at times in their movements. All were young here. George could probably get done for age discrimination in his hiring practices if anyone ever bothered to take him on. But some seemed destined, perhaps doomed, to this twilight world forever.
Not her though. Her twilight world, if it could be described as such was different indeed. Though I admit I didn’t realize this at first. It was just that she seemed different somehow, and so not likely to remain. I had no idea, initially, how different she would really turn out to be.
She made drinks for the punters, sometimes had a conversation or two, checked the till, stood up at all times with surprisingly good posture for the effort required, remained polite even when the night became tedious and seemingly never-ending. In those ways she was pretty much the same as all of them. They talked amongst themselves – there were usually three at least at any given time. They had a little dance for who served whom and to balance out the workload. It was a well-oiled machine.
But each night, as the hour got later, you could start to see weariness in her stance. At times this was heightened if there was some freak at the bar demanding more attention. That’s when it started to happen. Somehow the other barmaids seemed to pick this up, they moved forward more often, cut her some slack. But she..she…I don’t know how to explain this, apart from just saying what the film shows. At first she just seemed to waver, like some special effect I’ve created, or some glitch on the camera, and I’d curse the technology but it only happened with her, and it happened regularly. She almost shimmered. And when this happened, everyone started to look away from her if they haven’t already done so. It was like she wasn’t even there.
And then she wasn’t.
As simple as that. She just disappeared. One minute she was doing her job, as clear and present as I am right now, the next she was sort of flowing in and out of focus like a hologram that was playing up or where the battery is running down – and then she just disappeared. Sometimes the passage from full body to nothing was almost instant, sometimes it seemed to take some time.
No-one seemed to notice. The fact that there were now only two barmaids wasn’t even noted. Punters who might have been chatting her up a few minutes before were now happily talking to the other barmaids or to others who had come to the bar. Not one person seemed to have taken in that a person had just disappeared before their very eyes, and this doesn’t happen just once, but a number of times each night and some nights more than others. Because she’d suddenly reappear on camera a bit further away maybe twenty minutes later – appearing just after it seemed like one of the other barmaids was talking to no-one, into nothingness – and there she was, responding, and then she’d be serving again, then wait a while and it happened again, and so forth.
And it happened every night, every film, and it was only ever her, and no-one even saw it at all.
I found myself wondering if, when she reappears, she has spoken first, has forced someone to acknowledge her and so be seen again, but as the film is silent, I can’t know. I can hardly read invisible lips, after all.
I actually can’t read visible lips either. I’m not that clever in that sort of way. But that’s by the by really.
I started to study her expressions and her situations prior to her disappearing acts. There seemed to be two types I could note, rarely together. In some she looked tired or wary or displeased, and this was always when someone was trying to engage her in discussion or when the crowd has reached greater proportions near the bar. Many might be looking at her, and one by one they look away, as though something else had suddenly whispered in their collective ears. Then she was gone – whoosh – quick as a flash, sometimes so fast there’s no real wavering to be spoken of at all. At others it was like everyone decided not to see her, as though for a moment or two the attention more naturally turned to other things, the bar was less crowded, the other girls more appealing, and then she wavered, as though the energy has been reduced, until she was gone.
On occasion it seemed that those around her before she disappeared looked a bit stricken, confused, even slightly ill. It seemed to pass quickly, but I’ve played a few scenes back a number of times, and it looks a bit like vertigo. One guy actually swayed in his seat and almost toppled over, but this somehow re-positioned him enough to laugh into the face of another of the barmaids, as though he had just done something rather clever rather than looking like a typical alcoholic fool. Ah, the bravado of liquored up idiots!!
It occurred to me that the thing in common is that before she is “gone” she withdraws – deliberately or by accident – from the attention of everyone else, and when she returns it may be because she has somehow demanded the attention back to her. As though she needs eyes on her and thoughts towards her to even have a physical existence. But also, perhaps that she doesn’t like that attention at all. It’s the strangest thing. And no-one notices, it seems as natural as day. But there is a price, of sorts, she always ends up alone. No film ever shows her pick up, and the later scenes as the club shuts down see her bidding farewell to her workmates, ever alone.
I wonder if she minds that.
She seemed very lovely, a little lost. It seemed a great shame.
I wondered if she knew what happens. I wondered if she had any idea. Perhaps she just thought she’s always alone because no-one is attracted to her. I freeze framed on her form and touched the monitor. It’s not that, I thought, it would never be that.
Or maybe she did know and she did it deliberately. But then, if you had that power, if you were that clever, then you’d be happier I suspect. She always looked quite sad. Someone playing a complicated trick on the rest of us wouldn’t look like that.
It interested me also that if the key to her physical “being” is attention, that the camera eye was insufficient. It ceased to see or record her also – it had no intelligence, no awareness behind the physical apparatus of sight. But it recorded everything, and therefore it displayed her secret.
If she even knew she had a secret.
This was the most fascinating thing I’d ever seen. Far more than I would ever have imagined this project could provide. Of course I had to know more.
Of course I had to know her.
Any academic researcher would of course put their hands up in horror about what I decided to do at that point. An artist or a filmmaker might not care so much, though it would depend how ‘purist’ they were about their original intent and the medium they were using. But in either case, I could imagine the consternation some might feel because to some extent I shared it, though not enough to dissuade me from my course. I was going to do the one thing the experimenter and researcher should never, ever do. I was going to put myself in the experiment.
I’m not camera shy. I’m actually a reasonably good-looking guy, really. I work out semi-regularly, and I’ve been blessed with good genetics. So being on film doesn’t perturb me. It’s just that generally it doesn’t interest me much either. I’d never want to be an actor, for instance, or even a documentary ‘host’, talking to the camera about my observations. I prefer the pictures to tell the story, perhaps with some audio narration. I’m not a narcissist really. I prefer to watch than be watched.
With what was to follow, that’s probably a good thing. I’m not sure how an over-sized ego would have coped with what I was about to find. Man likes to think he’s the top of the evolutionary tree, at least on this planet. But what if he’s not? A revelation like that could be difficult to take if fancy yourself to be an incipient master of the universe, only to find you’re a pretender, at best, to the throne.
But I wanted to see what would happen if someone who knew what this girl could and was doing intruded into her space and her film to be with her while she was trying to do it, and let the camera show it all. I wanted to see what would happen if knowledge stepped in across the picture. There wasn’t any other way. I was hardly going to tell anyone else about my discovery. That would be like giving away the keys to a kingdom I hadn’t even visited yet. I’m neither that generous nor that stupid.
Besides, I liked the girl, I’ll admit. She was pretty and seemed a little lost. I had this internal conceit I think, the idea I could be the hero that found her, the prince that woke the sleeping princess, or something like that.
A friend of mine talks about her supposed ‘rescuer complex’. She thinks she spends most of her time saving people, mainly men, from themselves. Still, from my observation she seems a bit too pre-occupied with herself to save anyone much. Perhaps she saves men because having them in her life says something about her, something essential she needs. It’s certainly true she can never point to instances of even attempting to save women. Still, who am I to judge, really? Perhaps she does all that saving when I’m not around, and my purpose is to just hear about it.
Or perhaps she thinks she’s saved me somehow, but god knows how. It’s a disturbing thought actually and I can’t help thinking, now that I think about it, that if she wanted to save men and include me she could have thrown some money towards my project. She’s very well off. So I probably wasn’t worth saving, just worth hearing about it all. Ah, how interesting to exist as nothing more than a cypher to another’s life!
I wonder if this flickering girl ever felt something like that? She seemed like a cypher to something at any rate, something strange.
This dissection of my friend is a bit ungenerous of me, I suppose. Because here I was, wanting to rescue this elusive girl, if indeed she needed rescuing, or at least – like my friend – I wanted to see myself as a rescuer. The white knight. So I kind of wanted to be the one who actually could still see her, no matter what, if that was possible.
I was all confidence, of course, I always am. Ever since my teen years, when I suddenly turned from frog into emerging prince, girls have liked me. That suits me because I like them. I’m perverse as the next guy though. I tend to particularly like the ones that don’t, oddly enough, like me, or not as much as I like them. I’m banal and typical enough for it to be all about the thrill of the chase, the predatory instinct. I expect this aligns well with those who like to watch.
And what is a better prey than someone that others literally can’t sustain seeing? It was like my ideal woman just dropped down on angel wings from heaven into my lap – or onto my film, in her own strange way. I had a crush instantly. How could I not? And feeling this, and the incipient wonder of the highly strange, of course I had to get involved, personally, in the story. Of course.
I’m an idiot sometimes, but anyway….
I deliberately waited to go to the club till about midnight. I’d never seen her disappearing act before then, and often it wasn’t till after 1am at least. I dressed in fashionable but ubiquitous black. I spent a long time on my hair, gelling it up to the perfect dark waves, and I chose light blue contact lenses (oh yes, the irony of a film maker with short sightedness eh?) to accentuate my eyes. I wanted to look good for her. It seemed to me that I’d have more success in getting her to stay to be observed at if she wanted to look back at me.
The music at The Inferno is not really to my taste, and the average clubber is younger than me – I’m nearly thirty (yes, I took a long time over my first degree. As a friend of mine joked, first year university was the greatest five years of our lives…) and most of these punters look barely out of diapers. But I have been blessed with one of those eternally young faces. I’ll look twenty five when I’m fifty as long as I keep my hair. So no-one looked twice at me when I traversed the dance-floor, heading towards the bar, except on occasion (I flatter myself) to observe with sexual intent.
I didn’t waste any time. She was visible still. Thank god, since it seemed it wasn’t just to the camera eye that she became invisible, as I have said. She was wearing her wavy hair up in a kind of messy chignon, and when I reached the bar I realised she had a small gold cross on a chain around her neck. When she was nervous she would touch it, sometimes grab hold. I’d seen this mannerism on the film though it wasn’t clear and close enough to know what it was she clutched so protectively. Now I knew, but seeing her doing this made me worry that she might start to waver before I had a chance to make contact.
Don’t be nervous, I thought in her direction, please, not yet anyway, not yet.
I saw her nametag on her uniform, just above her breast.
“Natalie” I recited, looking her direct in the eyes.
“Yes sir,” she answered, ever polite, as George would have schooled her. “What would you like?”
“What would you suggest?” I teased her. A faint look of disgust or ennui flickered across her face, but she stilled this, enduring me. She didn’t reply though, just waited for my order to fall into the increasingly uncomfortable silence between us.
“I’ll have a vodka tonic,” I said, falling back on a staple.
She started to make the drink. Her movements were practiced and precise. I watched her unceasingly. There may as well have been no-one next to me on my side of the bar, because whomever was there – vaguely apprehended through my peripheral vision – was of no consequence at all to me.
She handed me the drink and I handed her money. I touched her hand slightly as she took the payment from me. She seemed neither to notice nor mind my touch.
“Have you worked here long?” I asked.
She looked at me, astonished. I do not know if it was surprise that someone seemed even vaguely interested in her, or if it was that such interest did not seem immediately prurient and laced with double entendre. Again I cursed the lack of audio for my filming – it would almost have been worth breaking the law just to know.
“For about a month” she replied, letting me know instantly why it was only in the recent days that I had finally seen the phenomenon on the film.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“It’s all right.”
She looked away from me, up the bar, to see if anyone else was seeking her attention. Everyone seemed occupied. She looked back to me, almost slightly panicked – or was I imagining it? It was as though she knew if it wasn’t for me she could just fade away now. And I wasn’t sure if that was something she wanted, or something she feared. Perhaps both.
“George is a friend of mine” I said, feeling some stupid urge to boast. And why that would be something to boast about is beyond me, as I think about it now, but hey, you use what you have.
“George, the bar owner.”
Her eyebrows raised and she half smirked.
“Oh” she said, “Lucky you.”
I realized suddenly that I felt somewhat at a loss. This is unusual for me. Talking to girls has always been easy for me. As I said, for some reason they seem to like me – I’m not boasting here, it’s just a fact. Normally I just have to approach and remain approachable, so to speak, and they do the rest. Natalie wasn’t like that. There was something like a wall up around her. I don’t know how else to describe it. You felt as though you were essentially uninteresting to her, that even though she might talk with you – in fact even if she did so openly and apparently intimately – that something else, something essential to her, remained aloof. It was like she did not even consider you one of her species. At best, I thought, one might be treated like a favorite pet.
It was extremely uncomfortable. I found myself partly angry and offended by her, even though she hadn’t said anything offensive in the slightest. I was also, if I was honest, somehow partly afraid of her. I became aware that I was perspiring, and it wasn’t the heat of the club. The sweat tickled slowly down my throat, as though to give me away. My stomach was coiled.
“I’m not sure it’s lucky,” I answered, taking a drink from my vodka, frightened that my hands might be shaking. Thankfully they weren’t. Apart from the sweat, any signs of my fear were not apparent. They were private to me.
She leaned forward, smiling slightly. I wanted to lean towards her but found myself moving an equal distance away. I don’t even know why. If she noticed this she didn’t show it. Perhaps that was normal for her. Perhaps people always did that.
“George is ok,” she said, almost conspiratorial. “Though he rarely gets my name right. I think he forgets I even exist.”
“Short term attention span,” I joked. “He’s a goldfish.”
She laughed. She got the joke. I felt ridiculously gratified by that. My fear abated somewhat. I chided myself for letting myself be spooked by the film I’d seen of her. She’s not a ghost, I told myself. She just films like one.
I was feeling a bit better. I started to edge towards her again.
Then something happened. I started to feel a bit ill, a bit nauseous, like motion sickness. As a kid I’d suffered from frequent ear infections, and this sense of disorientation was very similar. For a horrible second I thought I might throw up. I forgot how I saw this reaction in others on film. It didn’t occur to me – nothing occurred to me in that moment except the onrush of illness, or vertigo. She was stepping back from me. I wanted to lurch over the bar to her, as though holding her would steady this sense of dislocation and dizziness that assailed me. I wanted something. I looked at her, almost pleading. Help me, I thought.
I wanted something.
Then the girl next to me at the bar touched my arm and said hello. I blinked rapidly at her. It felt like I was just waking up. The nausea started to recede. I noticed how pretty the girl was with her wavy blonde hair and her very full lips. Lips that were smiling at me. I felt a tingle of excitement.
I looked at her curves appreciatively. She seemed very fascinating. I guess it was lust. She wore very large hoop earrings and a matching gold bracelet, the latter of which I noticed because she reached out and lightly touched her hand to my thigh. A small tease, then she withdrew.
“You look like that guy from television” she said to me.
“Can’t remember his name. He’s a comedian I think…”
I smiled at her. I knew whom she meant. People said that a lot. I wasn’t sure I was flattered by it, but it was useful. It could be very useful now. I just found everything about this voluptuous light creature quite mesmerising.
“My name’s Lisa” she said, holding out her hand. I shook it.
I seemed to remember feeling sick a few minutes ago. It was a strange memory, like something I observed rather than experienced. Perhaps it was just the noise in the bar, the incessant music, pounding in my head. Music I don’t even like, why am I even here?
It didn’t seem to matter and I couldn’t remember why and I didn’t really care. Sometimes you just end up in places without any good reason I supposed. I looked at my drink, and at her empty glass.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked.
“A cosmopolitan would be great” she agreed.
I looked over the bar. A redheaded barmaid allowed me to catch her eye and I ordered for us. I had this strange feeling I’d forgotten something, like losing your keys but knowing somehow, before you need them, that they are gone. Useless knowledge of course, quite pointless, but I couldn’t shake it nor place it either. I proceeded to talk with the girl.
I didn’t pick up though. Her boyfriend arrived soon after, and disappointed, I decided to leave. I got the distinct impression that had I been the television personality I apparently looked like they might have been up for a threesome, but an unacclaimed (as yet) film maker didn’t cut it. Typical for the sort of people who go to clubs like that, I thought to myself with a slight pique and a very real dash of pretension and unearned elitism. After all, I’d just been one of those people in one of those kind of clubs.
As I stepped out into the night air my head seemed to clear somehow and I wondered why I had bothered to go there at all. Surely the filming could look after itself, I thought wearily.
Then I was completely awake in an instant. The filming! The girl! Natalie!
She’d disappeared and I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice any more than anyone else after all, even though she was the only reason I’d gone there. She’d disappeared not only visibly, but also from my mind, in the same instant.
I had to go to the film viewing room now. I couldn’t wait till 3am, or till tomorrow. I had to see it for myself, though I already knew what I was going to see. And so it was. Some poor schmuck (me) trying to chat her up over the bar, only to suddenly sway in his seat as though he’d been shot, then just turning, turning, turning to the girl next to him, and in that moment, of course, Natalie wavered and disappeared. Gone to me, and gone from the film.
So, the experimenter becomes more a part of the experiment than he intended. I was galled at my own lack of focus, or sustainability, or whatever it was, but I was even more fascinated than before. First this girl appeared and reappeared on film like some will o’ the wisp – whether by design or by accident I had no idea. But beyond this, it seemed proximity to her at a moment when withdrawal from sight was nigh brought about a preternatural fear and sickness in others (as I presumed I would not be alone in this) so that one must wrench one’s focus away or collapse in illness or fear or worse.
And that withdrawal was so complete as to not only affect the eye (mine or the dissociated camera) but also the memory and the sense of surroundings. Until I got away from the field of influence, or whatever it was, and remembered my filming, the whole thing simply ceased to exist. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the filming, I’d never have remembered her at all. I suspect that was the case for most. After all, what would trigger them to remember a barmaid they’d so willfully forgotten?
What did this mean for human consciousness? Is it a survival instinct of the mind to eradicate memory through repression rather than fully view the highly strange? Is focus and attention more complex than we think, so that not only is memory unreliable over time but even in the moment if the mind detects a stressor that is sufficiently immobilizing?
And, if my memory did not trick me further about this actual phenomenon, whatever had taken its place in the surrounding scenery elicited an extreme level of fascination – a girl I might never have looked twice at before became like a goddess.
My god, if Natalie had lived with this impact in high school her friends must have got lucky a lot. Poor girl.
But, despite all sympathy I might feel for her, I found myself at the horns of a dilemma. For if this was what happened when one tried to talk with her for any extended period of time, how was I to sustain an interaction long enough to learn what she knew of this, how she felt about it, how much control she might have over it? And if I couldn’t do this then my filming was peculiar at best, an unfinished story before it had even really begun, a mystery I couldn’t solve.
What was I to do?
Then it occurred to me that possibly she couldn’t – either willfully or accidentally – cause this impact if there wasn’t something else – or more to the point someone else – to take the attention of the other. Otherwise surely others before would have noticed her peculiarity. Maybe one on one discussion and meetings with her seemed totally normal – maybe she was at ease in them. Maybe it was the combination of many people, many attentions, that caused her disappearance. Or it might be that only the intensity of a completely focused attention, without distraction, could keep her in sight and in mind at all.
Something like that would have to have happened for George to employ her in the first place. If he couldn’t remember or observe her within moments of meeting, if he’d been forced through that peculiar vertigo to lose conscious knowledge of her existence as I had in the moment, he’d never have offered her a job, never have signed her on. But since most of his proximity to her occurred thereafter in the club where other factors created a greater instability of her form, his lack of recall about her in general terms might be explicable.
Would he remember her if I spoke of her? I remembered her the minute I had another association, the filming, so surely he’d remember employing her if prompted. And if so, perhaps he could be persuaded to arrange a meeting between Natalie and I in more secluded surroundings, even if it was just at the club during the day when it was basically closed.
George remembered her all right, but in an interestingly odd way.
“Natalie? Yes, the little dark one. Rather cute. But she’s very small or something, isn’t she? I know she does her shifts because she always signs on and I see her coming and going from time to time, but the rest of the time, you don’t even see her…bit of a shame that,” George mused.
“She’s delicate,” I agreed, “Easy to lose sight of, but the camera has a…special relationship with her.”
“Oh?” There went George’s singular eyebrow, up again, irritating me intensely. He also looked like he thought I had filmed her naked or something.
Ah George! Hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?
“Yes. I don’t want to go into that yet” I said, riding over George’s immediate disappointment, “But I have an idea to make the whole project more interactive..”
The eyebrow again. I’d like to bloody interact with it, I can tell you.
“Stop it George, I can see what you’re thinking..”
“So you’re going to disappoint me Peter?”
“Not necessarily, but what I’m not going to do right now is tell you…” I replied, “You’ll just have to trust me. Do you think you could arrange a meeting between us?”
George looked quite put out. He’s a lovely guy in many ways, if you can excuse his prurience and this laziness in the pit of him. He doesn’t like being asked to do things much. It triggers a deep stubbornness in him and he tends to go silent and just not budge. This was perhaps due to a domineering mother, followed by a domineering ex-wife. Come to think of it George was a psychologist’s wet dream, if he could ever be encouraged to actually go to one.
This time at least he was roused to debate it slightly, so I knew I had a hope of persuading him. If he said nothing at all to something, you knew it was over. There would be simply no point in pursuing it.
Not that that always stopped me. I can be stubborn too and I’m a bit of a sucker for lost causes it seems.
“Why not just talk to her at the bar?” he asked. That would be easier for him of course, leaving it all to me.
George will never be anyone’s wingman, of that I am sure. Though it probably also wasn’t an unreasonable question to ask, given he didn’t know the particular circumstances.
So, why not indeed, however George was hardly the sort of person I was going to explain that to – not yet, anyway.
“Too many people, too much noise. I want a proper discussion. I’m not trying to pick her up.”
“Wouldn’t blame you if you were..but yeah..ok..she’s a bit odd, isn’t she?” he agreed, suddenly reflective.
“What do you mean, odd?”
“Don’t know really, just can’t..quite..put my finger on it..or her..” and he laughed at the last few words as though he’d just made the most clever joke in the history of man. I didn’t laugh, and he sobered up quickly, plundering on into the silence “I understand she has trouble keeping jobs. She told me that. She said she’d be loyal and punctual and everything and that she always was, but she’d found it hard to get some employers to notice that..”
“I told her not to worry,” he continued, warming to his theme, “I always notice those qualities. Not to mention a little sleek body and lovely wavy fair hair, and those eyes that look almost always on the verge of tears..”
There he went again. If I didn’t stop him before long he’d be extolling the virtues of women who buckle easily under pressure. I didn’t think she would, and I wondered if he’d ever experienced the fear she could evoke. Probably not. She wouldn’t be employed anymore if that had occurred. He just probably didn’t notice her enough to feel it, and good thing too for her.
I suspect George sees the stereotype of people, or at least women, rather than the actual people themselves. And this would make him an ideal employer for Natalie in some ways.
George agreed to set up the meeting eventually. Muttered that he’d offer her overtime if she wasn’t keen on the idea, and said he’d ring me later to arrange the time. When he rang and told me she’d meet me the next day at about midday at the club I was half frightened and half exhilarated. It turned out she wasn’t reluctant at all.
“When I told her a film maker wanted to meet her she was so surprised I think she agreed immediately. Said the oddest thing actually” George told me.
“Oh?” I asked, though I had already almost guessed exactly.
“Said she was surprised you’d even seen her.” He guffawed. “Aren’t women funny eh?”
“Very funny George,” I agreed, “Very funny indeed.”
Natalie was waiting for me at the door to the club the next day right on time, just as I expected. She had the key to get in, so she had to be there first, and she seemed a polite girl, and punctual as she claimed.
In the daylight she looked pretty but more ordinary. I don’t mean unattractive, but something about the shadows and lights of the club had heightened my sense of her and her mystery. On greeting her I was struck by how absurd it all seemed. She was just a normal girl.
But this normal girl disappeared regularly on film I reminded myself. The evidence spoke louder than any of my impressions could do.
She remembered me. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not. To tell the truth I felt a bit embarrassed by that.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said as she keyed the lock to the club door and opened it for me to enter ahead of her. There was no particular humor or edge in her voice as she said it. It would be impossible to know if she found it bizarre or pathetic that it was I, or if she suspected – as I feared – that this had suddenly become an elaborate pick up routine for someone who failed so badly at it a few nights before.
I wanted to say yes, it was me, and I wasn’t out to pick her up or anything but felt I would seem even stupider then. Instead I opted for:
“Yes, my name is Peter Reynolds. I’m a film maker and cameraman. I’ve been filming the club for a while for a project I’m doing, and I decided to come on down, so to speak, and join the revelry the other night.”
She followed me and I turned to her. She stopped as I stopped. We were in the foyer area just before the doors to the dance-floor and bar. In the darkened light she looked like an echo remaining resolute in the now emptied room, and in a way that struck me as very right.
“We can go through,” she said, motioning her head towards the door behind us. I took the cue and opened the door to walk through, “It will be more comfortable there.”
We settled on sitting at one of the tables in the usually ‘darkened’ area of the club. She sat rather primly, but did not telegraph any sense of unease or fear. Importantly she wasn’t creating one in me either. She seemed utterly normal and very nice.
“Are we interesting then?” she asked.
“To film, to watch? Do you get anything interesting?”
“Well, it’s funny you should ask that. But before I answer, can I ask you some questions? There is a reason for this, I promise, and it has to do with filming you. But they might seem odd at first?”
Natalie blinked and re-positioned herself. It looked like she was buying time to consider something, but whatever it was, she was resigned to this interaction at least. I wondered what George had required of her and what she therefore expected of me, if anything. Maybe he had suggested I was an important friend who needed to be indulged for some unspecified business reason, or maybe I was just as he put it, that she, like most people, was bound to be intrigued when a film-maker found them interesting. Or perhaps she was just curious and nothing more.
“Of course,” she said, “Go ahead.”
“You’re very game!” I couldn’t help saying.
“Maybe I just expect a film maker to ask odd questions,” she replied, unperturbed. With each moment she was apparently becoming surer of herself, almost more into herself – if you understand what I’m saying. I was thinking that if I were filming this (which I wasn’t and I suddenly wished I was) she’d appear more and more physical with each passing moment.
That was exactly how it felt to me, and in a way I could have sworn it was literally true rather than an impression. Everything about this echo was becoming more distinct as she seemed to relax. I realized I was noting the contours of her cheeks in the shadowy light, and could see her eyelashes clearly, the small pores near her nose on her face. It was as though she was in high definition focus, or gradually becoming so, and the impact was only acceptable because it was gradual.
It wasn’t just looking at a beautiful woman for the sake of seeing more. It wasn’t like the way that finding the indistinct flaw in beauty actually heightens it, so the artist in me seeks it out. It was more than that, more subtle and more pronounced. It was as though something in the beautiful woman was allowing itself to be more seen. I wondered if she knew.
“Or maybe you just get asked odd questions a lot?” I prompt.
She frowned at me but said nothing.
“OK, perhaps not. Let’s start. Do you find that sometimes you feel…invisible?”
The frown deepened.
“Doesn’t everybody sometimes?” she asked, “Like when you want to get served at a counter and no-one sees you there for ages?”
“Yes, like that. But more often than that. In social situations, or even at the bar, does it sometimes seem like people cease to notice you are there?”
She was looking troubled now, but I couldn’t tell if that was because I’d struck a nerve or whether I’d somehow insulted her.
“I don’t mean to say that you wouldn’t attract attention,” I blurted out, “You’re very, very pretty, and the camera loves you, really, it’s just, it’s just that sometimes the camera..misses you…”
That was too much to have said. You can’t ask leading questions or make leading statements in an investigation; you can’t show your hand too soon. She leaned forward now, her elbows resting on her knees. I noticed how pale her skin was and how her forearms had a fine sprinkling of light hair upon them. I looked up from the blue of her t-shirt into even bluer eyes. She was watching me with the avidity of a hawk about to swoop.
What do you know of yourself, I wondered, what do you know?
“I do feel invisible, quite often,” Natalie finally said, as though she had decided by some internal assessment that I might be trustworthy, or even because she wanted to talk about it to someone. Finally, to talk to someone who had noticed. “Sometimes it’s as though I ceased to exist as far as others were concerned. It happens quite a lot here. And there’s other things…”
Her voice trailed off.
“Like what?” I encouraged her.
“It probably isn’t what you’re asking about,” she demurred.
“No, no, please! It probably is. Please keep going..”
She shook her head and I decided to take a risk. Looking back, this was probably the first step into the other, a kind of blind longing and need propelling me over the edge. A friend of mine reads tarot cards and there is one called ‘The Fool’ which normally depicts someone just stepping off a cliff. That was me now. The fool.
“Natalie, there’s something special about you. Something unusual, something I can’t easily explain. But the camera has seen it and what I’m asking and what I think you were about to tell me, well it’s all related, it’s all relevant. I think I might be able to help you, perhaps, if help is what you need…”
“Okay,” she said, “Okay. Well, at the bar, sometimes it’s like I’m suddenly not there, like there’s this wall between me and everyone. And we have this routine, this pattern, to make sure the customers get served quickly and no-one is over-worked, but somehow it’s like the other girls forget I’m there and none of the customers ask me for anything and it’s frightening because I’m there, but no-one will look at me. It even happened with you the other night..”
I was oddly gratified that she remembered this, that she noticed me in this manner.
“I know Natalie. I suddenly forgot you were there. I’m sorry, but that’s the point. Please go on.”
“I find I find sometimes it’s a relief and I just stand there, and I walk up and down to see if anyone notices but they just don’t, and the only way to get them to is to say something quite loudly to someone who knows me, then they turn to me and they see me again. It’s odd but it’s not really new to me…”
I’d suspected that. I nodded to her, encouraging her to continue.
“It’s happened in some form most of my life. Even in my family. Sometimes I’d be at the dinner table and they’d all just look everywhere but where I was and I found something interesting when that happened, they never looked where I was, they looked everywhere else, almost like the space I occupied had ceased to exist also. Or that it existed in some other, inaccessible plain that only I was in at such times, like a kind of lacuna in the fabric of the world, surrounding me. And then I’d get frustrated and shout something and they’d see me and tell me off for being so noisy, but it was like being down this strange, deep hole and everyone seemed both larger and more distant all at once and I had to call out to get out. It sounds crazy I know..”
“It sounds crazy, yes, but I believe you. I believe what you experience is very, very real.”
“Why? Why do you say that?”
“It’s what the camera showed me, but we’ll get to that, tell me more. Is there more?”
“Well, it’s caused me problems with jobs and it did during school sometimes too. I was accused of being absent a lot for classes I attended, that sort of thing. One teacher joked it was because I looked like another girl in the class, but we didn’t look that alike, not really at all…”
I nodded. She seemed to have stopped, so I probed further.
“How does it affect relationships, friendships?”
“It doesn’t affect friendships, except that I rarely choose to see people in groups because I just get lost in them and it makes me feel so shy and self-conscious. Like no-one finds me interesting enough if there are others around. It hurts really. So I tend to avoid it. As for relationships, you mean with men?
“Yes, that’s what I mean..”
“I don’t have them. Anyone who ever seems interested, they approach me, then something happens. It’s like, it’s like they get afraid or something. Or they lose sight of what attracted them. I don’t date. It never gets that far, pathetic I know..”
“Natalie, it’s not pathetic. And besides, many men are frightened of beautiful women.”
It seemed a hollow compliment given my purpose in talking with her, but I wanted to give her something. She was really very lovely, and so open – you only had to ask – as though her nature, when questioned, was the very opposite of her self-hiding form. Perhaps it was just because no-one else had ever asked. She wanted to tell someone because no-one had noticed enough to ask her before. And of course, had I not first seen her ‘nature’ on film, I’d have been no different. I’d have been, at best, another of those men who came close then took fright, forgetting what attracted them and possibly forgetting her entirely.
“Another thing,” she said, “Is that I get ideas for things, ways of looking at the world, and I tell people and within days they tell me, as though it was their idea, as though it never came from me..”
“Unconscious plagiarism, that can happen a lot Natalie, believe me. I have a friend who vampirises every idea I’ve ever had. I’ve gotten to the point of never telling him anything of substance.”
“But it happens all the time!” she cried, “Nearly everybody!”
Who was I to presume? I suddenly thought. It could be far worse for her. Why wouldn’t anything that came from her be similarly ‘forgettable’ and ‘invisible’ as her form? Particularly in relation to friends or family who had long ceased to really see her in anything but greedy one on one interactions.
“It could be part of it then,” I said, “That’s got to bite..”
Bite big time, I thought, and it was a good allegory of how it probably felt. When it happened to me I literally felt the other person was feeding on me. What would it be like to be perpetually consumed and ignored at the same time? It would have to make you hate other people a bit, wouldn’t it? I’d hate other people if it happened all the time to me. As it was, when it did happen to me, I did hate the person concerned just a bit, every time.
“Part of what?” she said, suddenly on the verge of anger. She’d laid her vulnerability out to me and clearly it was time to lay my cards on the table also.
“Natalie, what I’m going to tell you might seem odd, impossible even, but I can show it to you and I can promise you no tricks are involved and that I’m as perplexed as you are. But that it fits with what you’ve just said you experience, so I think you’ll accept I’m earnest..”
“Tell me what? Show me what?”
“I’ve been filming the club continuously for the last couple of months. I started to notice you. Firstly because you are pretty, but then for another reason. I started to really notice you because you’d just disappear..”
“Disappear. Sometimes you’d kind of waver and fade out, other times you’d just be there on film one minute, gone the next..”
“I don’t leave the bar..”
“I don’t mean you ran off somewhere. You don’t go anywhere. It’s just like you say you experience, people stop looking at you and suddenly you aren’t there on film anymore. You just disappear for stretches of time, then you reappear again, probably after you’ve called out to someone, but I can’t say that for sure because I don’t record sound…”
She sat very still, looking at me, her eye contact not wavering, but blinking rapidly.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I think you can somehow, whether knowingly or not, and it sounds like it’s not knowingly, vanish. You can become invisible, like something in a comic book, only this is real and it’s obviously, it’s obviously not something good for you…”
She blinked more. I realised it was to hold back tears. I reached out and took her hand. It was all I could think of to do to comfort her. Something about her seemed to stop me trying to embrace her, something indefinable but strong. But she allowed my hand in hers.
“I’ll show you,” I said, “You can see that what you’ve experienced is real. You aren’t imagining it..”
“I’m not paranoid? I’m not crazy?” She said, half stuttering her words.
“Not, not at all, not at all..” I responded, “And more than this, I thought, maybe you aren’t alone in this. Maybe, if we understand it better, we might be able to find if there are others..”
I saw a small hope in her eyes. It made me want to cry. I swallowed hard.
“Maybe you aren’t alone Natalie. Maybe we can find others..”
“Of my kind..”
“Yes, Natalie. Of your kind…”
Well, there you go, bloody man with the ideas, eh? And the problem with ideas is they come before you even realize you’ve had them, and if you’re keyed up – like talking to a very pretty girl who is crying in front of you – you just blurt them right out as though they are writ in stone, eminently realizable, the logical conclusion to everything.
It’s got me into trouble before, my tendency to speak before I think, and my lack of regard for follow through and consequences. But now, how was I to do what I suggested? Whatever possessed me to think that this strange, otherworldly phenomenon, which no-one had ever seen or spoken of in anyone else (to my knowledge anyway) could not only be replicated in another person – and not just one other person on this planet – but another person in George’s pissy little club?
I’m a moron. It’s true. The evidence is in. And a moron now faced with a big problem, because I desperately didn’t want to disappoint Natalie. I’d thought discovering her was fascinating, rather delightful really. It wasn’t until she’d laid her secrets bare to me that I began to really think how terrible it would be to be like that. I’d had vague thoughts about it, but nothing concrete enough to think and take care. Take care. My mother used to tell me to do that all the time, because she knew I never did.
I have an eye for things – a very perceptive eye – it’s just that it doesn’t connect often enough to my brain. Maybe that was why I was still lurking around the edges of the film world at almost thirty with the most impressive entry on my resume being working for that halfwit Roger. Who was I to think that I’d not only make the discovery of the century for film, but also be able to make something of it?
Or help a lonely, frightened girl find someone else who really knew what she was going through?
Still, I’d made my bed – another of my mother’s favorite sayings. The odds were against me, that was true, but I had to at least try. I made a list of the possible reasons I might just be successful, because I thought it would cheer me up:
1. Maybe like draws to like, others of her kind would come to the club because she was there
2. Maybe it was something in the drinking water in this city – a kind of mutation – and so there would have to be others
3. Maybe she was the next evolutionary step up, and that evolutionary improvement liked dance-clubs
4. Maybe I was destined for greatness so I’d just be lucky this time
Yes, you can see the problem. Except for the very slight hope around number one, the others became increasingly absurd. And even that one seemed unlikely too, because she didn’t even know exactly what she was. Why would anyone else so blessed and afflicted have any idea either, or have progressed to actually seeking out others? Unless they had someone who noticed too? Or unless some difference in personality made the experience different for them and so they were confident or brave or inquisitive. Or at the very least less timid.
I could, of course, extend the experiment outside the club, but the logistics were extraordinarily difficult to manage. If I roamed around, vox pop like, filming in the streets it probably wouldn’t work because I would be there, looking through the camera eye in situ, an ‘intelligent’ presence that would see any possible other ‘ghosts’ and so the film would film them, just as Natalie appeared on film whenever anyone was looking at her. And while theoretically other security camera systems might have captured – or only partially captured which is more to the point – such creatures from time to time, where would you start going through them even if you had access to them? Which I didn’t have, of course. So, I would be limited to other places where I could set up cameras to film by themselves, and that meant getting the agreement of other club owners, café operators, restaurant managers, librarians. Well, you see the difficulty. There aren’t that many George’s around, and if there are, I don’t know them.
So, it was the club or nothing. Well, I’d try at least, and I’d also try to put some intelligence into the operation. Hard for me, you might say!
The thing was, apart from the ridiculous idea another would be there anyway, finding her, or him, as the case may be, was going to be tricky. I saw Natalie for two reasons. First, she was pretty. For someone who could disappear on film with all the skill of a stage magician, she was, on physical grounds alone, a head turner. Ironic really.
Second, I’d probably not even have seen that had she not been so ‘visible’ in her occupation. There were only three behind the bar at most times, a focal point by virtue of occupation rather than anything else. If another ‘ghost’ danced on the floor or did drugs in the toilets, would I even notice them among the throng?
Where would a ‘ghost’ most likely abide in a dance-club? On the dance-floor primarily, to be seen by others to the greatest degree possible, or in the shadows? I was thinking the shadows. I’m not sure why. Call it instinct. Maybe I actually had the scent of it now, this species. Natalie said she avoided crowds (which unfortunately might mean any others wouldn’t come to the club unless they had to for work, but we work with what we’ve got…). She said she felt uninteresting and unimportant in the groups. If she had chosen to be in the club, and wasn’t working, she’d be in the shadows. It was the best place to start, at least in the absence of any other workable theory.
So I changed all the cameras to get the maximum number of angles of the entry and exit areas from the shadows. Anyone lurking there and emerging to go to the bar, or the dance-floor, or the toilets, would be recorded. It would take a bit of discipline to take notes of each and where they went, a lot of time also, and a sense of mathematical intensity that didn’t sit well with my artistic pretensions. But, needs must as the devil drives, as they say in the classics. I had no other choice.
Natalie would ring me every couple of days, just to ask how it was going. She was trying not to seem pushy or demanding, but I could tell she was desperate. Hell, I would be too, if someone was holding out a hand to me while I felt I was drowning. I wanted results, as desperately as her, and I wanted them fast.
Mostly the task was boring. I found in myself I had the capacity for altruism, to put aside my own interests, motivations and obsessions, for another. I surprised myself. It felt good, I must say, it actually felt good to be a bit selfless. Perhaps all those born again Christian types who used to harass us at school had a point after all. Remarkable.
Anyway, that sustained me, that warm inner glow or whatever it was. Plus I had an instinct for the hunt as I was also discovering in myself. And for hours nothing resulted. I felt like a fisherman in a difficult stream or river, waiting, patient, hopeful and hopeless by turns, so still, so silent, so respectful of the passage of time. And like that fisherman, eventually, it seemed I’d reeled something in.
And it was the big one.
“Ok, watch this, just over here” I said, pointing to the upper right side of the monitor.
Natalie leaned forward from her hunched position, sitting so close to me I felt I might melt. Her gaze was so intent on the screen however, that she hardly seemed to see me, and only what I was showing her.
In the small confines of my filming alcove the sensation was both claustrophobic and exhilarating. Indeed, we were sitting in such proximity that our arms almost touched as she leaned inwards. I swore I could vaguely feel the hair on her arm brushing mine, but it was so slight it might have been electricity instead, electricity between us. Or perhaps that was just pathetic, wishful thinking.
So close, I could vaguely smell a hint of jasmine from her, a perfume I particularly like. I had to remove myself from these pleasant and disorienting sensations to explain what I was showing to her. It was a wrench.
“See this guy here, coming out of the shadows? The tall one with the wavy, thick blonde hair? Watch him approach the girls on the dance-floor. See how he’s calling out something to the people behind him as he leaves them, then the girls see him, so he’s being seen all the time?”
“Yes…” she said, hesitant to give me anything more. Fair enough, all I’d shown her so far was just another guy who seemed to be on the camera all the time.
“OK, watch him with the two girls.”
“Peter, is there a point to this?”
“Oh, ye of little faith!” I chided, half laughing, “Just be patient and watch!”
The man started dancing with both the girls. He was very good looking, just like Natalie, brazenly youthful, this time blonde, this time a god rather than a goddess, another one more than capable of catching the eyes of others (all things being equal of course). I felt jealous, and I’m a good-looking guy, as I told you. I look like a celebrity. But that’s me. My attraction at least partly based on my similarity to someone else, while this guy, he seemed to shimmer. Just like Natalie. I didn’t like him, but since he was soon going to prove to be what Natalie needed, I tolerated him and his glory.
The girls were starting to compete for his attention and he seemed to be half laughing about it. I typed some commands into the computer to bring his face into magnified close-up.
“Watch his expression,” I said.
It was cruel, playful, knowing. He was smirking about something he knew and they didn’t.
I zoomed out again, about half way, letting the girl’s reactions take up part of the screen but be more magnified also.
The girls started to become more awkward, they actually pulled away from him slightly, and he stepped back out of their immediate eye line. They looked at each other, as though sizing up the competition, and then they seemed to change. Their movements loosened, became almost homoerotic to each other, they had forgotten about him.
And he had disappeared, suddenly, no wavering. One second he was there, the next he was gone, no film to show him walking away, nothing.
“Now look over to this angle, up to the bar. It’s just a wide enough angle to get it, taken off camera three’s focus on the shadows behind the bar area.”
I pointed to a spot just near the bar approximately where Natalie was standing, serving, still seen at that stage by others so very, very visible.
“You were looking very nice that night, by the way,” I said, “I like your hair out.”
“Thank you” she said, smiling a very secret, gleeful little smile to herself as she watched the camera. She didn’t look at me. She didn’t need to, I was warmed by the pleasure of my compliment being received so greedily. She seemed to hug it into herself, as though she was almost hugging me. I wish….
The man reappeared suddenly, his hand on the shoulder of one of the punters. He was talking with his apparent friend, but he was looking directly at Natalie.
“Now, it gets even more interesting.” I said, “Watch! This is peculiar”.
On the screen a further mystery unfolded. Natalie had turned to look at the man and he had turned from his companion to look at her. They stood for one instant, one regarding the other, no awareness of or focus on anyone else in their field. Importantly, no-one else was watching them in this instant either. The friend had turned to say something to his companion next to him at the bar, and everyone else was occupied elsewhere. Something very odd started to happen on the film. Static covered both of them, as though their proximity and mutual awareness had created a distorted and problematic electrical current. They both seemed to struggle to be. The distorted, ugly form of the man seemed to fall back, defeated, and he disappeared, reappearing further down the bar a few moments later, ordering a drink from another of the barmaids. Natalie had disappeared completely as though the shock of the interaction had forced her into her invisible exile.
But the man was looking in the direction she had recently vacated. I zoomed in again and his eyes were intent, moving slightly from side to side and up and down as though he was seeking her out. He hadn’t forgotten her it seemed, he hadn’t forgotten to remember to look. He had a real knowledge of himself, and of her, and whatever it all meant and a better capacity to stay conscious of it in the moment.
“It’s so interesting!” I almost shouted. “Let me show you some other film of him!”
“I know who he is,” Natalie said, stretching back as I changed the film. “He’s well known in the club. But I’ve never really spoken to him or served him directly.”
“Not for want of him trying I suspect,” I said, “But it looks like that might be difficult for both of you. Who is he? What do you know of him?”
“Not much. I know his name is Gabriel.”
“Like one of the seraphim?” I remarked, laughing slightly, “That’s fitting!”
She understood the reference. “Fallen angel I think” she added, “He’s the one a lot of the girls like. But he’s also a bit strange, a bit mysterious. I think Angie, one of my colleagues, slept with him once. She never talked about it though. I thought he just probably didn’t call afterwards and hurt her pride.”
“Perhaps, or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps she forgot it happened. Anyway, I don’t think he’d be interested in her really. I think he’s interested in you.”
Natalie made a huffing sound as though to refute the stupidest of suggestions.
“Why wouldn’t he be, if he knows what he is, and he knows what you are?” I asked, “Besides, as I keep telling you, you’re very attractive.”
“Sorry,” she responded, “Force of habit.”
“Fair enough, but watch this, see what I mean. I’ve spliced a number of sequences together here, to give you the whole affect.”
Gabriel was shown to repeatedly try to approach her, or to apparently be watching her, even from the shadows. He also seemed to stay watching her even when she disappeared. It was impossible to tell from the camera angles if he actually saw her, or just an approximation of where he thought she would be. In any case, he seemed to have an unerring accuracy about which area of the bar she would re-appear on, and when she did, he was always smiling to himself. Maybe he was testing himself in some way, or testing her.
She spoke of a lacuna in the world’s fabric, I think that was her term, for how it felt to be invisible in the midst of her family. Was that it? If he couldn’t see her, could he see the lacuna? Could he sense that place that he also inhabited from time to time?
Whatever it was and whatever he knew, his individual approaches were always unsuccessful, for similar reasons to what I had seen before.
“Look, I can’t prove that he’s looking at you, but you can see it’s always roughly where you are, or where you reappear. And then, he’s always trying to get close, he’s tenacious, I’ll give him that. But it’s like coming across another like you causes something to erupt in the electrical field, to jam your frequency. But look at this, this is the closest he ever gets, he’s talking to someone you are serving, and in doing that, he looks like he’s about to try to talk to you because the frequency is still ok when there is the other person as part of it who is still aware of you both. But you get called away, just at that moment, which makes me think…”
She wasn’t following me, she was remembering the situation.
“I remember that night. I’ve been kind of aware of him but I didn’t know why. I remember feeling a bit frightened then, frightened of him. I felt a bit sea sick or something, but it passed when I served the other person…”
“I felt that, with you, the first night, because you were only just holding on, I think, to whatever purchase you have in this material world. I felt frightened of you, and a bit sick..”
“Did you? I’m so sorry…”
“I don’t think it’s your fault, and its fine now, after all, one on one is just fine, and maybe that only happens when you don’t know the other person or something, who knows. But it means that you react to him as I did to you, but the more interesting thing, if you ask me, is that some contact between you, which he clearly seems to want, was almost possible in that moment..”
“Why do you think he wants contact? Do you think he knows about himself and recognizes me?” Her voice was hushed, hopeful and a little bit dread.
“Yes. I think he does, I really do, and I think he’s figured out something, just as I have. That it is possible, it is possible for you to circumvent the frequency problem, if you have an intermediary…”
She turned and looked at me, realizing where I was going. She was shaking slightly in anticipation.
“So,” I said, “What I propose is that I am that intermediary.”
The issue was how to make contact with the enigmatic Gabriel. I intuited that this could be even more difficult than it had been to talk with Natalie at the club, for similar reasons, but magnified because I half suspected Gabriel was aware of his disappearing skill and played with it for fun at the expense of we other mere mortals. So approaching him at the club seemed pointless.
Gabriel was far more frightening than Natalie, perhaps because he didn’t seem even slightly vulnerable. Even as he failed, repeatedly, to approach her, he seemed irritated and frustrated at most, not defeated. Never defeated. So, personality did seem to affect things, including the knowledge of and control over the ‘ability’.
I needed to make a big splash, get his attention instantly so that I wouldn’t be overlooked and therefore exiled from his consciousness and therefore he also from mine. And his interest was in Natalie. I would be of little consequence to him, except that I’d stumbled on whatever it was that he was.
It might be a bit dangerous, I thought, and if I bumbled the introduction, then failure would haunt me, dog my every step. I couldn’t let Natalie down like that.
So I decided to take an almost indirect approach, but one sure to get his attention. I got his address from the signing in book at the club. Patrons had to give those details. George, like many club owners, demanded it in case he needed to seek restitution from anyone for vandalizing or otherwise damaging his property and premises. There was a risk that the address might be fake, but it was a place to start.
I put on a USB a ‘best of’ video of Gabriel’s magical act, and a few shots of Natalie in her invisible/visible fluctuations, and a few of Gabriel trying to approach. With it I put a short note:
“Gabriel, you will know these films aren’t doctored in any way I think. Interesting viewing for you, as it was for me. You want to meet Natalie. She wants to meet you too. It could be arranged. I think you realize how someone who is not like you could help. Destroy the USB if it doesn’t interest you. I’m extorting nothing from you. But if it does, call me – 9985 7532. Regards, Peter”.
I mailed it express post, and then I waited. That was Wednesday.
I didn’t have to wait long. Friday night I was settling to watch a DVD I’d rented, with a beer by my side and a packet of chips, when the phone rang. I checked the caller ID before I answered and saw ‘private’. That meant either my friend Elaine who used a silent number since a rather unfortunate persistent ex-boyfriend saga a year or so back, a stranger, or Gabriel.
I may have been imagining it, but I’d swear I got a slight electric shock as I picked up the cordless receiver. In any case, in that moment I knew for certain who it would be. He had a rather lovely, mellifluous voice which what sounded like a trace of an European accent, though I might have been imagining that last bit. He just sounded ‘expensive’ in some way.
“Peter, it’s Gabriel here. I received your delivery.”
“Good, I wasn’t sure if the address would be bogus.”
“I have no need to hide in such a crass manner.”
“No, I can imagine,” I said wryly, “You have better ways to hide.”
I thought I heard a slight chuckle down the phone. I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased he appreciated my humor or frightened by how smug it made him seem. Was he just indulging me?
I decided that attack was the best form of defence.
“Good little party trick really, but it’s a bit more serious than that, isn’t it? At least it is for Natalie.”
“It’s very serious,” he replied slowly, “What is it you want Peter?”
“Nothing really, except to help.”
He laughed quite openly and audibly this time, derisive.
“Do you expect me to believe that?”
He didn’t sound offended or even shocked. He sounded vaguely intrigued and amused. Guess he wasn’t used to being discovered and this might intrigue him, or he felt so above me that he could pursue my line of thought without real care or concern.
The thing is, though, beyond that he just sounded normal, like any normal person. Not like some partially invisible freak, or some monster from a child’s nightmare. It made me quite bold, that sensation he gave off, that sense that he was more normal than not. Whether that was remotely true, of course, was entirely another matter I had no way to gauge in the moment, so I stumbled on.
“Perhaps not, but I sent the film to you, it hasn’t been sent to funniest home videos yet, if that’s what you think I’m about…”
“That could change,” he replied, with measured, silky tones.
“That won’t change. Natalie is a friend. I don’t care about you really, but I care about her.”
“Well, how could it be otherwise Gabriel? I don’t know you. We haven’t met. But, that isn’t the point of any of this. I noticed you wanted to meet Natalie, or it seemed that way. She wants to meet you. She’s rather lonely, I suppose you can imagine.”
“It seemed that way. I could see how she would be..”
“Yes, and you’ve tried to meet her, haven’t you?”
“If you expect me to play with you and deny everything that you have clearly shown on your film you are in for a disappointment Peter. Obviously I have. You know that. So do I. My question is, what is it to you?”
“Nothing, I’m curious about you, and she is too, and I’m curious about both of you. It’s a pretty interesting thing you both do. But I think you know more about it and you’re more in control of it and I think that might help her, and she’s a friend. That’s all really, that and curiosity, as I said.”
There was a moment of silence on the phone. I could feel him considering my words. I wished for a moment this wasn’t over the phone, and that we were talking face to face. Then I remembered the nausea I felt in Natalie’s company when she was anxious and I thought better of it. I felt he could make himself invisible around me if he wanted, triggering all those unpleasant disorienting symptoms, so I was safer by far talking to him over the phone. Presuming he couldn’t do it electronically as well….
“Curiosity killed the cat Peter.”
“Is that a threat?”
He laughed, this time more deeply. Something seemed to slither down the telephone line. It chilled me, making me think he could perhaps ply his effect across distances and down electrical currents. I felt vaguely repelled, wanting to hang up, but I couldn’t when I was this close.
“Not at all, couldn’t resist. Nor can I resist your offer, which is what it is, isn’t it, Peter? You’re offering to facilitate a meeting between Natalie and I?”
“Absolutely, that’s right.”
“Then I happily accept your invitation. In fact, I extend one, to both of you, to come to lunch with me, here, tomorrow, away from any eyes or distractions other than our own..”
Wow, that was easier than I thought. And so hospitable! You’d think we were casual business acquaintances arranging a pleasant business lunch. Still, it was what I wanted, so I wasn’t going to argue with ease or allow that to frighten me in some other new, fresh, inventive way.
“Perfect Gabriel, but I must confess, I do have a threat to make to you.” I said, bolder than I actually felt. He seemed to know, because I heard the irony in his voice. I felt like an ant, threatening the boot that was about to tread down upon it. Watch out, I’ll bruise your sole!
“Oh, and that is?”
“Don’t hurt Natalie. She’s such an innocent and I don’t think you are at all. Well, neither am I, so don’t even think about it.”
He laughed again, warmer this time.
“I’d never think of it Peter! I’d never hurt my own kind!”
Natalie was both excited and a bit frightened. So was I. We sat, calming each other and buoying each other up in the interminable taxi trip to Gabriel’s home. He lived in Surry Hills, in the penthouse apartment of a security building with resplendent views across the Sydney skyline. Somehow this creature strolling above everyone in this manner seemed fitting. As we ascended the floors of the building in the lift it really did feel like approaching the realm of the archangels.
We’d already buzzed his apartment to be let through the security doors, but needed to ring the bell when we arrived. We took a moment to collect ourselves.
“OK, theoretically, if this is going to work,” I said to Natalie, “I need to be able to look at both of you and talk with both of you at least for the first few minutes, then we can play it by ear. Otherwise I’m going to cease to see one of you I guess and forget why I’m even here. I don’t feel like wandering around this building on my own with no memory to speak of!”
She nodded, and she suddenly took my hand, clutching it hard.
“You won’t forget me, I’ll be holding on,” she said, and braver than I, she reached out her other hand and pressed the bell.
Gabriel opened the door. He stood, an imposing figure in the flesh despite how youthful he also looked and he was taller than both of us, as though his knowledge had increased his stature somehow. He looked smaller on film. Don’t be stupid, I told myself, that’s just genetics, probably had tall parents is all. I’ve always been a little bit intimidated by tall men. No need to get over excited about it.
He was irritating though, because he really did look like some kind of fallen angel. In real life his hair was a sandy blonde, accentuating the perfect light olive of his skin, the dark, intense nature of his well lashed eyes and the fleshy generosity of his lips. Bloody hell! These creatures, was being impossibly beautiful also part of their evolutionary ascent? It seemed so unfair if that was the case, for the rest of us. Then I realised the irony, to be impossibly beautiful but also almost impossible to see. Perhaps Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor overall, or evolution balances things out in its own perverse way.
While I mused on the many injustices and re-balancings of life, Gabriel and Natalie looked at each other. I found the whole earth seemed to shift on its axis, the nausea rose in me, and I grabbed the side of the door to steady myself. I needed to speak, to speak.
“Gabriel, I’m Peter” I said, forcing the words out and holding out my free hand to shake. The connection was made, his focus on me, we grasped each other’s hands, and in doing so all three were suddenly physically joined.
“And this is Natalie,” I said, just as quickly, to establish the introduction firmly in all our experiences and our consciousness in that moment.
Grounded by our physical contact, he could look again at Natalie, and I turned to see her change her terrified and hopeful gaze, wide eyed and achingly beautiful, from me to him. Instinctively he took her free hand. We stood, a circle, steadying ourselves.
Then the tide started to recede. We all felt it, like the electricity was dissipating. We all seemed to fear that to break the physical contact would be to destroy the moment and throw us back out into the desert’s electrical storm. But gradually, we calmed. Gabriel was the first to recognize it. He laughed, warmly, a bit in wonder and his eyes twinkled as he looked first to Natalie, then to me.
“Come in!” he said, and bravely broke the physical contact, dropping both our hands.
Still hand in hand like Hansel and Gretel at the doorway to the witch’s house, we stood, expecting the sky to fall. It didn’t. I realized I was breathing again. I hadn’t known I’d stopped.
Natalie, bolder than usual, as though made this way by the contact and breakthrough with Gabriel, dropped my hand and stepped over the threshold into his apartment. She laughed to herself and turned to me, shaking her head.
“Come in Peter! Come in! It’s worked! It’s worked!”
For a moment I stood, the alien to these two glittering creatures, feeling partly like an ignorant fool and partly like a hero in a myth who had united an ancient king and queen who were separated by a curse. And it felt wonderful and it felt terrible. I wanted to belong, but knew I didn’t. Still, they thought I did, or so it seemed.
“Come in!” Gabriel returned, a youthful patriarch still amused by my reticence but indicating his patience was finite. He was the young scion of the newly born empire and was not inclined to wait on the comfort of his lessers.
I obeyed. For that was what it was. I was being carried on a tide far greater than myself in that moment. My curiosity, my skills, my ideas, had all brought me inexorably to this point, in a well-appointed, almost opulent penthouse towering over the city, with two fallen angels greedy for each other but tolerant of me. Maybe even a bit grateful to me.
Gabriel ushered us over to the dinner table and motioned for us to sit. The table was arrayed with salads and cold meats, all presented with obviously but discretely expensive silverware and crockery. I wondered what Gabriel did to make a living, and one so fine as this. Perhaps his talent had given him a plush lifestyle, or perhaps he’d inherited it. This part of town was full of young men and women with nothing much to distinguish themselves other than healthy inheritances or trust funds. Which was Gabriel? A self-made young man, or one well born? He looked youthful but I suspected he was actually about my age (which isn’t that old really!) but older than than Natalie. He had an unworried air about him and the sense of ‘to the manor born’ which made me suspect he was the latter of the two.
Gabriel poured champagne into our glasses and raised his for the toast.
“To finally meeting!” he said, smiling at Natalie and then turning to me. “And to our resourceful go-between!”
We clinked glasses and drank. It seemed the distrust I had sensed in my phone call from Gabriel had receded before the force of the success of our venture. He was largesse rather than suspicion. Natalie was shaking a bit, but I didn’t feel this was fear. She was like a little girl at her first real birthday party. She kept looking at Gabriel like he was some sort of special prize, then looking to me and clutching my hand, over and over, as though to ask me to confirm her beliefs. I felt a bit jealous, but I was glad to be included, and I was happy to see her happy.
Bloody altruism and affection. My Achilles heel.
“What do you do for a living Gabriel?” I asked into the self-satisfaction that was forming around me, almost sickeningly so. “What pays for all of this?”
He looked around as though seeing his own apartment for the first time. His eyes settled on paintings that were clearly originals, on elegant vases holding fresh flowers, on the leather lounge and chairs, the glass coffee table, the expensive and minimalist home entertainment system.
“Not much,” he admitted, “I was born into money.”
“I thought so,” I said.
“It’s that obvious then?” he asked, amused.
“Well, to me, yes. I have an eye for these things.”
“You certainly have an eye.” He agreed. We were testing each other, two men in a pissing contest. I wasn’t going to win, but then, I don’t think before I act, as I’ve said before. I wanted to show off for Natalie.
Natalie! I remembered her in that moment. Gabriel and I both looked at her at the exact same moment, but while I was relieved to still be able to see and remember her, that the communion hadn’t broken by engaging directly with Gabriel, he seemed secure and amused.
“I still see you Natalie,” he said, as though he had read my mind at least, and probably hers.
“And I see you,” she replied, “It lasts, in and of itself, after the introductions.”
I suppose this must have been an amazing moment for them. For all I knew neither of them had met another of their kind, even unrecognized, given how difficult it seemed. Beyond this, they might be the only ones of their kind. No matter how confident Gabriel seemed, it still must have been lonely, even for him. And he’d struggled for this contact, and he’d decided to trust an unknown – me – to bring it into being. And for Natalie, it goes beyond words. All those years of appearing insignificant, invisible, to finally be seen and seen as crucially important, as belonging. So it would have been incredible, and really, to even want a part of it was disgustingly greedy of me. But hey, I’m no saint. I didn’t want to be left out.
But Gabriel, as I would come to learn, is almost a social savant. He picks up nuances that would be lost on the rest of us. Maybe it’s from being able to invisibly watch others, see their secrets, when they think no-one’s looking, or maybe he’s just smarter than most of us. In either case, he’d given Natalie just what she wanted at the moment she needed it, then he turned and did the same for me.
“And we have you to thank Peter. And I do, very much.”
“You’re welcome,” I answered, rather amazed at his timing, but happy to be acknowledged. “It is an extraordinary thing though, once I saw it on film I had to see it through.”
“Nevertheless,” Gabriel said, saying it all, “Please, eat! Eat!”
We fell to companionable discussion. Just the three of us, as normal as can be, just friends sharing a lunch. Extraordinary.
Gabriel told us of his life, his travels and his education. He told us how he’d come to realize his ‘difference’ fairly young, but because he was an only child and a darling of his mother, it had never been a vexation. If this ability ran in the family, the bloodline, she either never knew or never spoke of it, and for Gabriel the concept that he could be unique never seemed something worthy of questioning.
Wrapped in love and unconditional attention when he needed it, in that home he would never have felt left out or overlooked. It wouldn’t have occurred to him. He just came to realize that he could do things other people couldn’t.
“I hadn’t so much felt invisible and left out as capable of hiding,” he said, “I suppose that was the key. So I played with it, and in doing so, became more and more aware. I wasn’t always what you would call moral about it, but it was like a science investigation, there are casualties to that. What I was always looking for, and have only just found of late in you Natalie, was someone like me. I was surprised how hard it was to make contact though. It showed me something else I hadn’t known about this state of being, and difficulties associated with it I hadn’t anticipated.”
Natalie responded by explaining how it had been to her, but that she had never realized what it meant. As she spoke I saw a real tenderness and understanding on Gabriel’s face, and I saw how she responded to that with a simple, childlike gratitude. That should have made me happier for her, but it somehow angered me slightly. He could commune on a level I never could, understanding her state in a way I never would. It made me a little jealous. But as she spoke, how could I begrudge her this little happiness this connection?
“I just thought I was uninteresting, unattractive, of no real consequence, like people didn’t see me because I wasn’t worth seeing.”
“You poor thing” Gabriel sympathized, “It’s not true, not true at all.”
“Yes!” she agreed, “I didn’t understand any of it until Peter showed me the film! I had no idea! I was just unhappy all the time, just alone, but even if I tried to tell friends to get them to see how it was, they never did. How could they, I suppose.”
She continued to sketch out her life story to Gabriel much as she had previously done for me. Again I was amazed how open these creatures of talented hiding were to each other and to me. I wanted to hug her as she told the tale, but as usual I felt unable to get that close. Gabriel watched her steadily, attentive, only occasionally glancing to me with a kind of knowing look. It wasn’t derisive or judgmental of her at all; instead it sought only to include me. I wasn’t sure if a master of the art was just beguiling me. By then I didn’t really care.
Who’d have thought I’d belong with such as these? If, indeed, I did.
“And you Peter?” Gabriel said, once she had finished. We had finished our lunch and were left drinking champagne, feeling a bit light-headed and free, “How did you come to discover this?”
The drink had loosened my tongue and so I was a bit loquacious I must admit, and all my petty resentments came to the fore, as though to prove I had also suffered in life, if in no way as directly as Natalie. If I don’t think before I speak as a normal course of events, it’s probably far worse if I’m drunk. I talked a lot and I don’t remember much of what I said now – perhaps this is a blessing – but most of it was about my frustrations with getting anywhere with film and that led inevitably to the tedious and revolting and demeaning work at the home shopping channel.
“That prick Roger” I said, over and over. I followed each expletive by the indignities he had subjected me to, his lack of artistic understanding let alone integrity, and finally the ignominy of being fired by the bastard.
I didn’t even know till then how much I loathed him. I resented his money, his success. I probably resented everything about him in fact, and the casual injustice of a world that would raise one so relatively high. This seems to be a bit of an issue with me, I must admit, making being in the presence of these higher order beings something that was likely to be corrosive over time. But in the middle of my ranting I little realised or cared about such consequences. I just liked talking about it with a willing audience.
“He has a bigger apartment than this,” I spat at one stage, “And it is appallingly decorated, I can tell you, Roger, home shopping’s king of kitsch! And he’s done nothing of merit for it. He’s just a sniveling little salesman who had one good idea in his whole life and has worked and re-worked it ever since. Makes you sick.”
“It certainly does,” Gabriel agreed in measured tones, pouring me more champagne.
My invective knew no bounds. In my testimony Roger represented everything that was wrong in film today, in television, in mass marketing. He was more than a person to hear me tell it. He was a disease.
“It was the exact opposite thing I was looking for in my club filming project, which was something deeper, something more intimate but also more universal. I wanted a statement, a new thought, a new idea, something fresh! Something as far away from Roger’s insipid little universe as I could get” I announced, and then fell back on my chair, as though defeated, with only enough breath for one more statement, “And of course, I found it, in you two, and I can’t use it.”
“Of course you can’t” Gabriel agreed, “Not as film, anyway.”
“I wouldn’t!” I declared, sitting forward again, “I have principles! You are my friends.”
But were they, or was I just announcing this and my fealty because I desperately wanted it to be so? Somewhere in my champagne befuddled mind a little fear was speaking to me of what creatures like this might do about someone who knows their secret, has film of it in fact, after any initial gratitude had worn off. But I wasn’t listening. I was just bumbling on, making statements I wanted to be true, as though by simply saying them they were given the aura and impact of truth.
“Of course.” Gabriel agreed.
“Bastard of a turn of events though,” I allowed, “But that’s my life.”
“Perhaps,” Gabriel responded, watching me with an odd expression in his eye, “Though things sometimes have a habit of turning out differently to what you’d expect.”
He looked at Natalie. I noticed she looked back at him just as knowingly, as though these strange creatures now communed on some telepathic level. It was probably the champagne. I was well and truly wasted, so I can’t verify any impressions by that stage. It’s just what I remember now.
“Tell me about it!” I agreed, and laughed with them both. They had begun the laugh you see, so I wanted to be included, even though I wasn’t sure what the joke was, and I was just a little bit frightened it was me.
So, a great victory achieved, I had time to rest back on my laurels. And I’d survived the lunch intact, and as I sobered over time I realized that was a significant fact in itself.
Natalie was so grateful I almost started to hope she might return the affection and attraction I felt for her, but it became quite obvious in a relatively short space of time that she was more drawn to Gabriel. I suspected they had become lovers quite quickly but I never asked because frankly I didn’t want to know.
Having established their introduction it seemed I was dispensable, at least as a companion if they wanted to spend time together. The electrical field between them seem to have been nullified or neutralized by having met and spoken properly. I might have hoped I’d always need to be there, but like the first domino that falls to set off the cavalcade, it seemed I’d pretty much achieved my purpose at the very beginning.
It wasn’t that they avoided me, or ‘dumped’ me like some expendable lover. Both remained in contact with me and we met, sometimes all three together, and sometimes with each separately. Gabriel seemed to feel responsible for the dissolution of my filming experiment, or at least its distraction. He was very encouraging about looking past the phenomenon of Natalie and himself to what I originally wanted to achieve. I’d lost interest however. Nothing would be as exciting as that.
“Who am I kidding?” I said to him one day, “It was a long shot I’d get anything interesting anyway. I just didn’t have any other ideas, or not ones that I could afford at any rate.”
“Well, money need not be a problem anymore,” Gabriel said. I understood he was offering to be my benefactor. It was very tempting but I felt a bit concerned about owing him something. I liked that at this stage he owed me. It seemed like the only way to keep the power balance even remotely on my side. But, his money could allow me to pursue my real dream, an actual proper film.
And let’s face it, my project was pretty much down the toilet to all intents and purposes, as I said. Even George seemed to have tired over waiting for something illicit or sexy from me so I doubted he’d have encouraged me to continue endlessly. Gabriel’s offer was compelling therefore. I said I’d get back to him when I’d worked something out, buying time and desperately trying to discipline myself.
“Whatever you wish,” he conceded, but I think he knew my discomfort and its origin. I think he knew but didn’t really care.
Natalie was happy. I liked that. She said Gabriel was teaching her how to recognize her ‘talent’ as he called it and to control it. She said he sent her on experiments and tests and that she was doing well. She seemed finally to be reveling in something that had formerly shadowed her days at best.
But sometimes she took to speaking quite condescendingly of the people she ‘played’ as she called it. I’d remind her I was one of those types of people and she’d laugh and tell me I was silly. But it did disturb me. She seemed to be becoming more and more like Gabriel and I wasn’t sure this was a good thing. I would have preferred he had become more and more like her, but I suppose knowledge never becomes innocence, it’s always the other way round. He made me think of some roué, some licentious and dissolute creature teaching the virgin the ropes. It was disturbing, but then, I was jealous of him, so that colored my view. I am not so blind to myself that I didn’t recognize that.
That might have been an ending to it all, really – an ending to the most interesting story of my life – its narrative spent. But, I’m not the only person with ideas. It wasn’t the end at all.
In many senses, it was just a beginning, and the beginning of the beginning really started with a phone call and an invitation from Gabriel to a “mini-celebration for the three of us” at his apartment that night.
“I’ve got some film to show you,” he said, “Which I’m sure you’ll find most engaging. And after that, I’ve got a proposition to make. I do hope you will come.”
How could I resist?
“Of course I’ll come” I replied, “How could I say no to an intriguing invitation like that?”
“I should begin by explaining something” Gabriel said as he stood before his home entertainment unit, apparently ready to show me this mystery film to which he had referred both in the invitation, and on and off over the first few hours of our cocktail strewn celebration.
I nodded, indulgent, relaxing back in the extreme comfort of his leather lounge, my arm almost insouciantly draped around Natalie’s shoulders as though she belonged at least partly, also to me.
To my right Gabriel’s impressive windows and balcony displayed a Sydney skyline view that many realtors would kill for. On occasion my eyes were drawn to the lustrous beauty of Sydney city lights at night. I wished I had a view like that. For me, if I stood up on my bath’s rim and peered to the left from my bathroom window I could just see Bondi Beach. It was hardly the same thing, though when I’d first responded to the rental advertisement for the flat it had proclaimed ‘beach views’. Well, it was literally true I suppose.
But this night there was more to see within the flat than outside it. I’d noticed that Gabriel never really looked at the view himself, as though its ubiquity had removed its charm. And now he was very intent on us all watching something within, not without.
“You will recall,” he continued, “When I told you of my youth and learning about this ‘gift’ that I said I tested it, not always in ways that would be considered moral?”
“I do,” I said, quelling the dark suspicion I had felt for weeks now that Natalie had now been drawn into similar evils.
“Well, I suppose in truth, I’d have to say I’m rather amoral. Or, you can’t be ‘rather amoral’ can you, really, it’s an absolute, either you are or you aren’t. So, I must admit, I am amoral. I don’t know if it is part of me innately or if it developed because of what I can do, out of some sort of feeling that I was above the consequences of my actions on others because normal people, forgive me, do seem to me rather like an animal might to you. Charming, loyal sometimes, but inferior.”
I snorted and took a sip of my cocktail. I knew what he said was probably true but it was repellant, of course, to me. I chose to find the moment humorous rather than insulting.
“We don’t mean to offend you Peter,” Natalie said hurriedly. I looked at her, understanding it was now ‘we’, not Gabriel and Natalie singular, but unified. As Gabriel saw ‘normal’ people, so had she come to see them. I felt a bit sick.
“Not at all,” Gabriel said, “Indeed, we are indebted to you, and it is clear that since you had the talent to find us, to see the truth, you are by far ahead of your peers. Indeed, you may be in a class of your own.”
“Don’t flatter me!” I retorted, because that seemed worse than the offence. Was I to be beguiled by the compliment and so give some moral and intellectual value to their pretensions of glory? They had an odd gift, of course, but that just as easily made them mutants as it would gods. I was feeling very high-handed because I felt out-numbered and outclassed. I didn’t like the feeling at all.
“It’s not flattery, it’s true. None of this would have been possible without you. So, we’ve got a kind of thank you gift for that, which I’ll get to, but first, let me continue. Please understand we don’t see you like the others, we needed you and we need you, so we aren’t talking of you. I must stress that you will need to be able to differentiate yourself from them if you are to be part of what I will propose…”
Part of what they propose?
“Go on,” I said, because I had nothing else to say at the time. Natalie had rested her head on my shoulder. It was so close to something completely impossible that I wanted anyway that I almost cried.
“All right, basically, amoral creature that I was and curious as to the limits of my abilities, I took to a bit of a life of crime. It wasn’t anything to do with needing money or drugs or any other such thing, you will appreciate that those were always at my disposal. It was to see what I could do by being ‘invisible’. It seemed risky at first, but if I was caught I planned to pull the ‘sad rich boy’ act and get off with a hand-slap and some therapy, and anyway I soon realised I was accomplished. I went from just taking things from people in small cafes or bars, through to following them into their homes and taking their belongings from right under their noses. As long as they hadn’t seen me before I started to follow them, and nothing outside of myself made me come into their consciousness, they just didn’t see me or what happened. They found it impossible to look at where I was, and so wherever I was became open season for the taking.
I often gave the stuff back, left it like a mystery in their backyards or in the middle of their lounge-room floors or whatever. I didn’t need it. But sometimes I also kept it, like keepsakes, it depended upon my mood. I’d like to say it depended upon their own wealth or lack thereof, that I returned to those more in need, but I’ve always been more quixotic than that..”
“Don Quixote’s eccentricity without the moral vision. Given that I don’t think the word means what you think it means,” I said dryly. Gabriel laughed. He seemed impossible to disturb or offend.
“Exactly! What I didn’t realize, of course, until you and your filmic discovery, was that my invisibility, and that of Natalie, was just as powerful on film. See, I’d never even guessed that. I’d never thought to test it out, it had never occurred to me at all. I thought if other people didn’t see me it was probably some form of telepathic control I had on their minds, not something that was actually physical, for want of a better word. So I never tried anything like my own building, nothing that would have security cameras, and it would never have occurred to me in a million years that the security cameras at your friend’s bar would have ‘lost’ me either, so I never did anything illegal anywhere were cameras were likely to be present. It was a bit of an impediment to me, but you showed me that under certain circumstances, I need not worry about that, as long as I am never seen by anyone from the very beginning of any crime, the film won’t see me either. If I cloak myself in my intent to be invisible well in advance of approaching the building in question, I’ll leave no filmic footprints of my presence at all. This was a wonderful thing to realize!”
“I’m gratified I could be so enlightening to you Gabriel,” I responded, sarcastic. I’m not sure why I thought I was in a position to inhabit the moral highground but I claimed it nevertheless.
“Oh Peter, don’t be so pedestrian, you know you’re beyond all that, just as we are.”
“Yes Peter,” said Natalie, suddenly seductive, touching my hand with a form of coquetry, “You’re no more like other people than we are and you know it! So let Gabriel finish!”
It was almost like a mother chastising her child, although it was a whole lot more sexual than that. I felt like a morsel trapped on a web shared by two irresistible spiders, awaiting my end, and wanting it.
“So,” Gabriel continued, amused at most by my reluctance to just acquiesce, and watching Natalie very closely because he clearly knew what she was doing and approved, “We’ve been testing the ability in places with cameras, mainly buildings around here, and this one. I don’t need to explain to you in detail, I’m sure, how we both managed to test that and then get access to the security camera film? You’d realize it was all part of the same process? We were very successful I must say. Sometimes we did it alone, sometimes together and both invisible sometimes having one distract while the other entered. We mixed it up a bit. It was fun.”
“It was!” Natalie agreed, glowing.
“And then we had this idea. How we could use this new-found talent and do something for you Peter. Something to say thank you, but also to demonstrate the many possibilities our abilities provide for us, and for any business venture.”
“A thank you for me?” I asked. I was at a loss to see how this could be achieved. Had they stolen some incredible piece of technology for me? Was that it? Why not just buy the bloody thing if they wanted to say thank you, then. Gabriel could afford it. Just showing off, that was all it was.
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t that at all.
“So, for you to see the gift, we need to show you a film we made. Watch this and it will all become clear.”
The first shot is of Gabriel and Natalie waving hello to me, excited like children. They looked about ten years old in that moment, like little demon seeds on acid. But they were beautiful of course and completely irresistible.
“Hi Peter!” they cry in unison, laughing.
Gabriel then looks up above the camera’s eye and thanks whomever it was they asked to film the scene.
They seem to be outside a building and it’s vaguely familiar to me, but I’m a bit drunk, so I might be imagining that.
“Getting in to the building couldn’t be filmed of course” Gabriel is explaining to me, like a director’s commentary for a film, “We had to wait till the little old duck had gone and then enter when no-one, including the security guard and the buildings cameras, could have seen us.”
I’m still thinking I know this building so Gabriel’s words are irritating to me. I just want to watch the film. I don’t care what he was aiming for with each shot. It was hardly film school, and he was hardly Martin Scorscese.
I feel like saying “If I’d wanted a commentary I’d have bought the DVD’, but truthfully even in my drunkenness I am a bit too frightened of them to say something like that, no matter how tempting it is to battle otherness with human wit.
The next shot is familiar though. I know this dreadful beige and off white flat. I know the large ostentatious furniture and the ridiculous faux modern art on the walls. I’ve only seen the place once at a terrible Christmas party that had to be endured to be believed, but I know it.
It’s Roger’s apartment. And Roger is preening into the camera, as though he is well pleased to be the subject of film. Perhaps he’s been jealous of his models all along. I always suspected that. I always thought he’d liked to dress up in their clothing too. The girls’ clothing I mean, but that might just be what I liked to think of him.
Roger is coyly trying to work out his best angle.
“What do you think, sweetie, the right or the left?” He’s turning his head each way to show the three-quarter shot for each side.
Really, Rog, don’t bother, neither are remotely attractive.
“Why are you there?” I ask Natalie, but she just hits me playfully and tells me to be quiet and just watch.
“The left,” she’s saying, so he turns his body that way.
I’m wondering where Gabriel got to, which shows how stupid I can be at times.
“We should put you in front of the camera honey,” Rog the Dodge is saying, leaning forward, trying to be seductive and failing of course. “Your bone structure is great, as I keep telling you.”
“Oh, thank you honey,” Natalie is replying.
I want to throw up. Perhaps it’s one too many cocktails. No, it’s just Roger. How I loathe that man.
What a present, eh, what a gift. Film of someone so repulsive I’m actually feeling ill. I am thinking I’ll need to explain the concept of ‘gift’ to Gabriel at the end of the screening.
“So, give me the camera,” Roger is saying holding out his hand.
“No, sweetie,” Natalie replies, “I want to capture you on film. I know someone who’ll just love to see you.”
“You do?” Roger asks, a quizzical look on his face.
He’ll never think of me. I’m sure he never thinks of me. I wish I didn’t ever think of him, but he’s like an irritant in my system, hard to expunge, like that really nasty stain at the plughole of the bathtub that refuses to budge. Gross creature.
“Oh yes,” Natalie says, and giggles.
It sounds odd to hear her giggle. She laughs more than giggles. It is so clear she’s playing the part of the clueless bimbo, and I can’t begin to work out why.
Then Roger suddenly slaps his hand up against his throat, a look of pain and surprise on his face. He looks quite comical, though something dark is flowering in me, telling me I’m seeing something that is no laughing matter.
“What’s wrong Roger?” Natalie asks, but there is something in her voice, something like knowledge, something like a game. I don’t like that tone in her voice, it worries me.
“Damn mosquito or something bit me,” he said, “Bloody hurt too.”
He looks at his fingers and shakes his head.
“Missed the fucker,” he mutters.
Then he stops very, very still, and looks even more puzzled. A second or two passes and Natalie just holds the camera still, steady, letting its eye capture it all. He clutches his chest, suddenly stricken by some terrible pain. He goes red in the face, and that’s saying something because he’s always been a bit florid anyway. He gasps, reaches out to Natalie who is immobile across from him, and he’s shaking his head, trying to figure something else out, then he’s just pain, just pain and if he could breathe he’d cry out, but he can’t, and then, he just collapses.
Thud. On to the floor. Natalie follows with the camera. He doesn’t move. I know. I don’t need to be told. He’s dead.
“Well done Gabriel” Natalie is saying.
She raises the camera and he’s standing there behind the couch. He was there all the time.
“We’ve worked out how not to see each other when we don’t want to,” Gabriel is saying down the lens, ‘Just for the dramatic effect of the film, you see. And you’re right, Roger was a cheap bastard. He has no cameras of his own in here, so it doesn’t matter that you can see me on our film now. And Natalie told him to leave the door open for her when she buzzed him, so she could let herself in and so stay invisible until she got into the flat. Perfect eh? The perfect murder.”
I am in shock. I’m just sitting there, a million questions racing through my inebriated but suddenly very awake mind, unable to articulate any of them, not even the most obvious one, the one bubbling to the surface of my inarticulate wonder and dread.
Gabriel has anticipated this on the film though. He continues his soliloquy.
“You’ll be asking how? With this.” He holds up a hypodermic needle for the camera to see. “It’s wonderful how not only are we invisible, but so are our clothes and anything we carry on our person. Far more advanced than those old Disney type invisible man characters. I suspect it’s that we inhabit another space, so to speak, so everything with us also inhabits the invisible, but that’s just a theory. Anyway, it’s very effective. I’m sure you’ll agree. And what did this contain? Absolutely nothing, which is the whole point my friend. I’m sure you’ve seen enough B Grade noir films to know that an oxygen bubble into the blood stream goes straight to the heart and…kapow!”
I blink at the screen. In my peripheral vision I realize Gabriel is watching me intently, but is happy to allow his filmic ghost to continue the explanation.
“What we don’t know, because let’s face it, none of us are medical people, is whether that is detectable, whether the bastard’s post mortem will show the cause of death. But there will be no murder weapon left at the scene of the crime, and.as all the security cameras will testify, we were never here. No-one was, no-one remotely near the time of death. What a little puzzle for them if they do realize it’s murder. And what’s more, no-one knows we have any connection to him. Natalie made it her business to meet him, but never where anyone would know, and she never used her own name, of course, in case he told anyone else. Though he probably wouldn’t have. He obviously wanted to nail her and I’d guess he never talks of conquests till he has them, oops sorry, had them, everything’s past tense now for our dear Roger. And as for forensic evidence, if we actually leave any, and perhaps we generally don’t, it will never be tied to us. We don’t have criminal records, we are quite invisible in that respect too. So, the perfect crime, using the technology that is anticipated to protect and identify the criminal to actually protect us! Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Gabriel repeats, this time in real-time.
I’m speechless. He seems to understand. We all continue to watch the last few shots of the film.
“So, there’s our present to you Peter. We’ve got your revenge on the little prick for you. It was the least we could do. And we knew how much it would mean to you. And, as a secondary gift, we’re showing you the potential of it all. But for now, back to you.”
“You’re murderers?” I asked, when I finally found speech again. “That’s what you wanted to show me?”
“Oh come on Peter, it’s not like you’re going to miss the little fucker. Be honest, it was almost a civic duty to rid the world of him. You should be thanking us, not judging us.”
Surprisingly it was Natalie, not Gabriel, who admonished me thus. I turned and looked at her. I tried to understand what she was saying, and, I must admit to my eternal shame, it did make sense. I did hate Roger enough for that, perhaps not enough to do it myself, but certainly enough that I couldn’t mourn his passing, nor easily condemn those that facilitated it.
“Okay,” I said, feeling a bit afraid of them, and also of myself and the ease with which I could come to accept, and perhaps even be thankful for, their actions. What had Gabriel said? You can’t be just a bit amoral, it was either/or. Perhaps I was amoral also. I just never realized.
“Hey, Peter, it’s a bit to take in, we know,” said Gabriel, ever soothing. I looked at him. Mephistopheles or the dark lord himself? Of course, I thought, of course we’d find him in the Inferno. I looked at Natalie. Of course I’d find both of them there. Oh well, as in that great classic, the only way out is the way in.
“And we did make a bit of a show of it,” Gabriel continued, “Because we thought you’d enjoy it.”
“It had flair,” I admitted, “I’d give you four stars. But I’m kind of a captive audience in more ways than one.”
“That’s true” Gabriel conceded. ‘Nevertheless, an appreciative one I think, and one matured and advanced enough to accept it for what it is. Which is just a little gift, a little secret, about a little life that no-one will miss being cut mercifully short. And also, a bit of a performance for you to see what we can do on a grander scale.”
And here it was, coming down the mountain, whatever it was.
“Which is?” I asked.
“Which is to do this sort of thing for profit.”
I snorted at Gabriel, incredulous. In the first moment his proposition seemed too ridiculous to take seriously. I guess most insanely evil things do seem that way at first.
“What are you suggesting, some sort of Assassins R Us?”
Gabriel laughed, truly appreciating the joke.
“That’s one way of putting it. It can be death, it can be theft, it could be fraud, it could be all sorts of things. All the things people might want to do, or want done, but are afraid to do themselves because they would get caught. And we won’t.”
I shook my head at him. “You don’t need this Gabriel, you’re fucking rich. What’s in it for you?”
“Fun” he replied simply, “The challenge. The art. I thought you of all people would get that Peter. Hey, you said you wanted to do something new and interesting and vital, something that was screaming out for a man of your talents.”
I was confused now. Partly horrified, partly stunned, partly curious, it was a strange and disorienting combination of emotions.
“But it isn’t my talent Gabriel, it’s yours, and hers,” I replied, looking at Natalie. She was just watching us, calm, confident. She already knew she had me, and therefore so did Gabriel, if they found a way to convincingly include me.
“Not entirely Peter, you’re too modest.” Gabriel laughed. “After all, you’re the guy with the ideas right? Right?”
“Right,” I allowed, waiting for him to go on, feeling outclassed but not wanting to admit it.
“And you are resourceful, you can maybe help us find clients…”
“I don’t know any would be criminals Gabriel…”
“Give it time. You find anything you put your mind to, we all know that. You’re also the guy with the eye for things.”
I stood up and walked away from them as though that would free me and clear my mind sufficiently to think straight. By God I wished I hadn’t drunk anything that night. I’m never at my best when I’m drunk.
“It doesn’t make sense Gabriel. It’s flattering but it’s stupid. You can come up with ideas, you can find the clients, you could do it all. Why include me? Some kind of on-going favour? Carrying the cripple with the superheros, or supervillains, or whatever? I can’t even see that. An amoral person won’t feel that kind of gratitude will they, not really?”
Gabriel laughed and looked at Natalie.
“He really is quite smart isn’t he?” he said to her. She nodded sagely and looked over at me, and I swear, I wasn’t imagining the kind of pride she had in her eyes, like she really was proud of me in some way. Of me. At that point they had me, really, but I wanted to hear Gabriel out.
“Peter, you are right. I’m not pre-disposed to gratitude any more than any of those other finer emotions really. But I think this will be fun. And I want it to be as big as possible. We both do. Natalie and I, to do this, we don’t want it just to be us. We think there’s others of us out there. We want to find them..”
Ah ha! I understood.
“And you might be able to do that alone, but you can’t make contact with them.”
“Assassins R Us need an intermediary to have any company growth.”
Gabriel grinned. “You’ve got it Peter. All companies should grow, and we should have, we want, we crave company. And like I said, we needed you to get to each other, and we still need you, to get to others.”
I laughed, slightly derisively.
“Who’d have thought?” I asked no-one in particular. I looked out the window of Gabriel’s apartment to the sweeping views below. Our playground, possibly, the playground of the new gods.
“What the hell!” I said.
Gabriel had, as always, anticipated me and handed me a refreshed cocktail. Natalie stood beside him. He held up his glass and we followed, like musketeers.
“To our new recruitment manager,” Gabriel quipped.
The glasses met in a flash of light and we laughed.
I’ll leave you my card. It is pretty plain, as you’ll see. It pays to advertise, but not so overtly if you are in the business I’m in. Our business name, of course, is far more obscure and subtle than our original version. You’ll understand that. Now you know the story, I’m sure you’ll be confident of our professionalism and that you need not be concerned about us failing in any way.
You can think about hiring us. But I already know you will. We’re a sure thing. And hey, we know where you live, and you literally can’t see us coming.
Well, you can’t see them anyway. And there’s six of them now. To tell you any more of the story would have been repetitive. And Gabriel’s still the leader, and Natalie is my favourite. I don’t have as much fun telling anyone about the others.
God, I love being the guy with the ideas and the eye. It can take you anywhere. And as I said, on that clear day, the day you finally realize what that potential could be and how strange the world really is, you really can see…forever…..