Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was five months old at time of publication.
I was walking to the railway station the other day and a small boy of no more than four years old, wearing a spider suit, was trailing disconsolately some yards behind his mother. He dragged his feet, hung his head, complained loudly: ‘It’s hard being invisible, mummy.’
He said it again. And then again.
His mother didn’t answer. Perhaps she didn’t see him there.
It’s difficult to imagine what had led him to this conclusion, to this complaint. I was brought up at a time when it was said frequently that children should be seen but not heard. Perhaps the rule in spider-boy’s house went further – he had to be unseen, unseeable and unheard. And that’s pretty tough for a four-year-old boy.
Or maybe he’d spent the whole morning concentrating with all his small might – screwing up his spider eyes, trying very hard to be The Invisible Boy – but had realised too late that he’d donned the wrong superhero suit that morning. He should have gone for the Cloak of Invisibility, not the cobwebbed padded bright blue and red.
Or perhaps it was simpler than that. Maybe his mother, worn down by constant spider antics, had given him an ultimatum: stay out of my sight or else.
I’ll never know the answer because I went one way and he went the other and when I turned and looked for him he’d gone.
But spider-boy was right. And he was wrong. Curiously, becoming invisible is easier than you might think. What’s hard is living an invisible life.
It was, of course, the kind of thing you daydreamed about as a schoolboy. If you could slip in and out of invisibility at will, then you could get the answers to all the exams from the locked cupboard, knock the textbook from the teacher’s hand, knock the breath from the school bully, help yourself to any sweet, toy or comic you wanted from any shop. And no-one would be any the wiser.
But little did I realise how easy it was to disappear from sight. To end up with all the disadvantages of being unseen and none of the advantages of being unseeable.
I got a very small taste of it back then, in those daydreaming days of boyhood. For family reasons of no real interest or relevance here, I had to change schools frequently – sometimes only staying for months, rarely for more than a couple of years. I always seemed to join and frequently seemed to leave mid-term: slipping quietly to the back of another new classroom, disappearing unannounced before teachers had begun to stop struggling to remember my name.
It was the strange uneasy half-life that some children occupy: in which teachers and classmates see you and yet somehow don’t – they don’t know you, don’t want to know you – in which you want to be noticed but are glad when you aren’t – because you don’t know these people, don’t know what to say to them, don’t belong.
I was lucky though. At an important point in my young life I stayed in one school for more than three years. And it was there that I discovered that I wasn’t invisible after all. I made friends, prospered, became head-boy, captain of cricket. And those three years gave me a self-belief and a resilience that has lasted a lifetime.
But some children go through their whole school lives alone, quietly troubled, almost unseen. They may have difficulties at home, they may be in care: whatever it is, they keep it to themselves. Try to disappear.
I wrote about one such boy, Baxter, in Love, Love Me Do.
But not all troubled children try to be invisible. There are those who fight back and try too hard to be noticed. Often they make bad choices, end up in every kind of trouble, imaginable and unimaginable.
So the blight of being invisible – or trying not to be – is a big part of too many childhoods.
And it doesn’t stop there: if anything it gets worse. Because you can be too easily invisible if you haven’t got money, if you are elderly and alone, if you’re living on the streets. We all walk past, often not seeing, not wanting to see.
And I have a real regret here because I knew this – about what it was to be almost invisible, because of what I learnt as a boy – but I managed to put it from my mind, to forget. I have spent too many of my years getting on, pursuing a career, trying to be successful, being busy. It was only after l turned fifty and was lucky enough to have the chance to work in education and then with different charities that I was forced to remember. During that time, I met many thousands of gloriously confident, boisterously happy young people. But I met others too: damaged children, abused children, children with terrible addictions, girls pregnant at fourteen, boys (and girls) in gangs. The silent barely visible ones and the ones who had made those poor choices.
All of which, I know, is a long stretch from a small boy in a spider suit trailing after his mother – and it’s, perhaps, an unlikely choice of subject for you, Theo.
But I mention it now because one of the miraculous things about being five months old in a loving family is that, although you are the smallest person in any room, you are, without doubt, the most visible.
You’ve got nothing to say for yourself, very little you are yet capable of doing – a kick of the legs, a stretch of the head, a grip of a finger – and yet you are the centre of everyone’s attention, a subject of endless fascination. Your every small move is watched over, studied, talked about, admired. Your every smile brings smiles multiplying in return.
It’s an extraordinary thing: there will never again be a time in your life when you are more visible than you are right now. The older you get, the less people watch, the less they see.
So enjoy it while it lasts. And try to do better than me. Try not to forget.
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