There had been drinks at Angela Barr’s retirement party. Half mugs of warm Prosecco and a shop-bought cake. ‘Early retirement’ was what they said, but she knew the truth. Her face didn’t fit any more: liver spots apparently were not part of their brand identity. ‘They’re not part of mine,’ she had wanted to say. ‘It’ll come to you too, crappy old age, and sooner than you think.’ But she hadn’t.
‘Just think about the lie-ins you can have now, Ange,’ they had cooed. ‘Oh, what I wouldn’t give to retire!’
They bought her a pair of gardening gloves, printed with a Liberty pattern, as a leaving gift. £12.99 in Boots. Twenty years’ service, and she lived in a first floor flat. Thank God she had remembered to reclaim her pot plant.
She hadn’t expected the sense of slippage to come so quickly or so profoundly. The feeling that life was sliding out of her grasp, like a greased rope she couldn’t catch hold of. A tiny voice whispered, ‘No one will even miss you.’ It got louder in the dark.
She missed deadlines. Catching the bus, lunchbreaks, meetings…her life had been walled into distinct events, little hurdles set in her path to coax her along. Now a wrecking ball had swept them away and she was left in a hollow warehouse of time, aimless. She could stay up all night if she wanted. Sleep all day. She had no reason to go out, but the more she stayed indoors the more fearsome outside became. She was haunted by police sirens and the pounding throb of car stereos. It amazed her that she used to navigate the jungle so confidently. The radio became her intimate friend.
‘Get out there!’ her brother admonished from his beach house in Australia. ‘Volunteer for something. You’ve always been a people person.’
She tried, she did. She took a volunteering job in a local charity shop, with its tacky carpet and finger-smudge windows. She tried to bring a briskness to her management of the till – professionalise things. But Maggie said ‘she came off cold’ and, next shift, she was moved to the dingy backroom to sort through donations. Bags gaped at her in horror, flashing stale fabric in lurid shades. Would it be clean? Or crusty? She had to turn her head when she reached for the next donation so the other women wouldn’t see her gag. One day, when it was her turn to get coffee, she left the building and never came back.
She didn’t even used to think that she liked her job. How strange, she thought, that it was the only thread tethering her to the world, gossamer thin.
It was a Tuesday morning, the first time she noticed that she was disappearing. She tried to pick up her coffee cup and her fingers passed right through the handle. Just for a blink, they were gone. When she looked again, her digits were restored. She told herself she was imagining things.
But then, when Angela was out collecting her milk and newspaper, a woman with a high ponytail and her eyes glued to her phone marched straight towards her, filling her channel. There were people either side, hemming her in. Angela Barr had only a moment to brace herself for impact.
It never came. No top-spinning blast, just a wave of cool air, and a numbness where her shoulder should have been. Angela let out a yelp then, passed her hand through the space at the end of her collarbone.
No one stopped. No one even noticed.
Angela developed a macabre fascination with her burgeoning disappearance. Day after day, it drew her out of the house, the need to know which parts would be missing, which might have returned. And yet, the more she went out, the more of her vanished.
It wasn’t long before Angela realised that she wasn’t alone. She noticed a homeless woman who sat on the park bench with no lower legs. An Indian lady at the checkout without a nose. A young woman in a wheelchair with only one arm. They were an army, Angela realised. A tribe of disappearing women. It made her stomach a soup of anxiety. To be alive, but gone. If a woman is no longer useful, can she exist at all?
She saw the advert in a local paper. She was sitting in a cafe, struggling to drink her tea because half her face had faded away. ‘Wanted: Invisible Women,’ the ad said. It was posted by an artist, and there was an address listed, somewhere south of the river. Angela didn’t stop to think. She gathered up her work handbag – less shiny now – and set off to the bus stop.
The artist’s digs were in a shabby neighbourhood. Bins lay drunkenly on their sides amongst long grass. A shopping trolley idled in the embrace of a wisteria. The house itself felt blurry around the edges. Could it happen to buildings too? Whole neighbourhoods, maybe?
The artist was a young man with mild eyes, distinctive only in his bulk. His stomach stretched the cotton of his t-shirt, distorting the band name written upon it. His thighs were so wide his knees were distant strangers, and his tracksuit bottoms could not quite cover his acres of fleshy back. When she looked closer, she realised she could not tell what colour his hair was. The top of his head was a blur. In contrast, his munificent middle seemed to shine with preternatural brightness. He was one of them.
He sat her in the light of the back room window. She still had her coat on. He didn’t even give her chance to brush her hair. But she found she enjoyed the tickling sensation of the sun’s rays on the half of her face still there and she closed her eye to the world. The artist started to sketch. There was nothing in the room other than the sound of her heartbeat in her ears, and the scratching of his pencil nib on the paper. It was soporific, almost meditative. Gradually, a strange feeling came over her. With every pencil stroke, her skin tingled. She felt a strengthening of her fibre, a thickening of her blood. It was almost as if she could feel his pencil on her skin.
She snapped her eyes open, half expecting to find his bulk leering over her, his face oozing palpable lust for older, irrelevant women. But he was still three metres away, intent eyes flickering between her, and his canvas. And then she realised it was not his pencil she could feel. It was his gaze. Those frowning eyes moving keenly over her surface. Seeing her. Really seeing her. She raised trembling fingers to her face. Yes – she could feel a nostril, an eyebrow. Her eyes widened. There was a fizzing of glee in her stomach. Soon her mouth was whole. She stretched it in and out of a garish grin. Otherwise she did not move. She was terrified of breaking the spell, of tearing the magic that cocooned her. For three wonderful hours, she was seen.
At the end, when Angela’s self was entirely whole, he lifted the frame from the easel and leant it, face down, against the wall – one canvas alongside dozens of others.
‘I changed your hair a bit,’ he muttered. ‘Hope you don’t mind.’
Her hands flitted to her head. Her hair felt light, smoothed into a swept fringe. She knew without looking that he had taken years off her. She stood, her actual limbs creaking. Oh, wonderful arthritis! Wonderful bones. She gripped his hands, tears gathering at the corners of her actual eyes. He was invisible from the frown line on his forehead upwards.
‘What can I do for you?’ she asked urgently. ‘How can I help you?’
He shrugged, his shoulders lifting his t-shirt above the hairy, pale mound of his belly. He gestured to the canvases. ‘I have them,’ he said. ‘Something to remember me by. You know … when I’m gone completely. Sometimes – doing this – brings a bit of me back.’ He reached up to his hairline and probed but they can’t have found what he had hoped because his frown deepened.
Angela nodded. ‘Can I come again – if I need to?’
He sighed. ‘I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I think’ – he paused to gnaw at a hangnail – ‘maybe just try not to let it happen again. You know?’ Angela did know. She slipped out of the front door and crossed to the sunny side of the street. She turned her face to soak the bright rays through the full roundness of her face. With one hand, she fished in her shiny handbag for her lipstick. It was time for Angela Barr to start living again.