Sure, he was the quiet type: he didn’t really have what you would call ‘mates’, and was generally happy keeping himself to himself. But he accepted that most days necessitated some sort of response to another human, even if it was just ‘OK’, ‘thanks’ or ‘sorry’.
When he thought back to his early days, he knew it had always been that way: lists he was left off, teams he wasn’t picked for, parties he never got invited to. At first, he felt resentful. There were those kids who were always noticed: the ones who seemed to be good at everything. But he was just OK at doing a few things. Good enough to get by, but not good enough to get noticed. And when no-one really sees you, and you start to accept that no-one sees you, you begin to wonder: ‘Why bother?’
So there came a time when he began to understand that, on some unconscious level, he was starting to phase interaction out: discouraging behaviours and circumstances that led to any more interaction than was absolutely necessary.
The thought if this gave him queer and slightly unnerving thrill. As he lay in bed each morning, with the quiet dread of the day hanging over him, he started to review his routine with this ‘phasing out’ very much in mind. Often, by the time his six-thirty alarm went off, his dad had already disappeared to catch a train into the neighbouring city, and his mum was still on her night shift at the hospital. So he’d wrestle with an un-ironed uniform, double check his rucksack, grab himself a meagre breakfast, and run, head-down into the wind, for the bus stop. There, he would stand slightly apart from the crowd – kids who were the same age as him, and who went to the same school. Three of them were even in some of his classes. He imagined them all as a bird might see them: a scattered constellation of strange and familiar faces. Mostly, they ignored him. Sometimes, a casual question or ‘Billy No-mates’ comment drifted his way. But he’d learnt how to reply with something so bland or non-committal, that it rarely provoked another response. His headphones were also a useful barrier. So, safely on the bus, he was he’d plugged in, hooded up, with head leaning against the window; placated by the friction of the road on the cool glass, watching the bleary grey hues of a suburban morning hauling itself into another day.
Arriving at school, he always made sure that he was one of the earlier ones. If he was first to get to the little bench near Reception, he could occupy the whole thing: with rucksack and kitbag claiming the remaining space, he sat with his head deep in a game on his mobile to block out interferers. And there was usually some similarly accommodating corner to get lost in at breaks and lunchtimes if the bench had been taken.
In his lessons it was too easy. You kept your head down. You didn’t make eye contact when questions were asked. You sat next to someone who either hogged the teacher’s attention with brains or with bottle. He had neither: he got on with it, did what he had to do to, unnoticed. With the new electronic register system, he didn’t even have to answer his name anymore.
So, a page at a time, this boy set about erasing himself from Life’s book. After a while, he was like some lightly drawn doodle on inside cover – fading away in the sunlight without meaning, rarely seen. He imagined that, line by line, he was gradually making himself disappear until he would become totally transparent.
As each day closed, he felt compelled to return to his house as soon as he could. By night, in his bedroom, the frantic mayhem of combat games caught random areas of his expressionless face; with only the quick movements across keyboard betraying any significant interaction with another plane. Occasionally, he might shuffle down to where his dad, tired and similarly mute, warmed a ready meal in the microwave while the TV blared out CSI Miami; but this was the outer limit of his universe. It was unusual if either of them turned in before 1am.
He played the long game. It was a gradual process, this one of disappearing. Vanishing days turned into vanishing weeks turned into vanishing years. He now found himself avoiding mirrors like some unnerved vampire, not knowing if the empty space that yawned back at him would thrill or horrify; and sometimes he would do strange things to check if he was actually there or not: stare at strangers, stand inert in the middle of a shopping mall for hours on end…even steal random items from shops. He knew he would never get caught: after all, no-one could see him anymore, could they?
The years rolled on and, the day before his twentieth birthday, he made the decision to erase the very last traces of his existence on the Planet Earth.
Then, he was gone.
It was a while before they found him, and then quite by accident. But, surprisingly, his death bought all sorts of people out of the woodwork. Hand-written messages on scraps of card, garage-bought flowers and sombre wreaths scattered outside the door of his humble bedsit.
‘A life cut tragically short; Heaven is blessed by a New Angel’.
Who were these people – the mourners he had never known? Maybe old classmates, or anonymous neighbours – perhaps they were teachers briefly grazed with the guilt of being unable to put a face to the name, despite having taught him for two years? He would have winced at some of the messages. But it didn’t matter: they had all paid their tributes and thrown away the receipts.
Except: that’s not quite the way it had to happen…
Someone, somewhere pressed rewind. For a brief moment, the whole world screeched down to a faltering, juddering halt; a thin gauze of stillness covering all the madness and rendering it still, silent.
Then the pall lifted. Someone somewhere inhaled, and life cranked slowly and purposefully into reverse… Clouds flitting deftly back across the sky; the sun scratching a sweet elegiac arc from West to East; ant-tracks of buses and trains sucked backwards down flickering dual carriageways and railway lines.
…quite suddenly, there he is once more: the nameless thirteen year-old boy, sat alone on his bench near Reception, playing games on his phone. And there is another boy stood near to him. His lips are moving, and sounds are coming out: ‘Anyone sitting there?’
Our boy’s not looking up; but he shrugs: ‘Doesn’t look like it, does it?’ The standing kid is shuffling for a moment before gingerly placing the blockade of bags on the floor, to take a seat.
A little more silence and then, ‘What you playing?’
The boy on the bench speaks while his thumbs skit across the screen, wiping out hoards of violent marauders with one simple gesture. ‘Clash of Clans…?’ he says, in what he hopes is a carefree fashion. And he is suddenly startled by his own voice; slightly ashamed of its unfriendly belligerence. What is it with him?
The other kid nods earnestly, and moves in a little, trying to catch a glimpse of the screen. For the duration of that lunch hour, neither one of them gives up his place on the bench.
For the next few days, this boy feels rather odd. This other person has squinted through the opaque film of his bubble, and reached inside. He feels slightly irritated by the persistence, by the stubborn refusal to feel affronted and walk away. And suddenly, he’s always there, come rain or shine, like some crestfallen dog tied up, outside Tesco. To his annoyance, he sometimes finds himself being drawn into conversation – albeit monosyllabic – about gaming, or football, or the sadistic weekly Maths tests. And then, often, he’ll clam up again. And feel guilty about clamming up. More often than not, they just both sit there. On the bench. Two teenage boys staring at their phones. Mostly silent. But not alone. And not unhappy.
One day, the other boy doesn’t come to school. He’s been there on his bench, and the time to be joined has come and gone – he’s set his watch by it. The bell for assembly goes, and he looks down to where his two bags lie propped up together on the floor. The empty space he has made on the bench gapes like some aching chasm; and he feels something massive tug at his stomach, and wrench at his heart. It becomes a massive benevolent hand wringing every last drop of longing from him until he feels empty and desperate.
Where oh where has he gone?
There is a pricking behind his eyes and he holds his head down, his face crumpling as unfamiliar waves of euphoric sadness engulf him. The thought of a day without the other boy being there feels like the worst thing in the world – but the yearning for his company him feels incomprehensibly wonderful too.
Suddenly, through his tears, he’s aware of two very familiar scuffed Doc Marten shoes moving into his line of vision. He looks up. There the other kid is, grinning and out of breath. ‘Missed the bloody bus,’ he pants.
The boy on the bench wipes his sleeve of his duffle coat across his nose. He takes his phone off his lap and holds it up. Holds it up to his friend. ‘I paid for the upgrade,’ he says. ‘Wanna quick go before Spanish?’
This is a story for vanishing people. The people we look past, walk over, see through; the forgotten, the meek, the shy, the indifferent; the silent majority who slip into queues and ‘mustn’t grumble’ while the individual parts of the whole fade away. Some of us are or have been those people. But every day, somewhere, the kindness of a stranger will stop, look, smile and engage; they will join the dots, colour in the empty spaces and give their time until that person feels a part of something bigger and warmer again.