Invisible Man


R. P. LISTEN is an English free lance whose poetry and light articles appear frequently in the ATLANTIC.

A month or two ago I found, to my surprise, that I had become invisible. I had never been excessively solid; people could see around me without taking more than a pace or two in either direction, but they had never been actually able to see through me. So at first it took a bit of getting used to.

What caused me to become invisible was buying a scooter. I had only ridden a scooter once or twice before, some years ago, so I expected to be a little unsteady at first, and I was. Scooters are inherently unstable, like spinning tops. On a motorcycle, if you want to go around a corner, you lean over, and there you are, around the corner. On a scooter you lean over, and there you are, upside down in the ditch. You have to influence the scooter around a corner in a series of more or less controlled wobbles. This is in the early stages. After a couple of months, I now find I can lean over and get around a corner; but I am never sure exactly in what direction I shall be facing when I straighten out, or on which side of the white line I shall be.

So I had my early troubles, but what I was not prepared for was my invisibility. Quite soon a series of puzzling events occurred which at first I could not explain. I was tearing along Kensington Gore at a steady twenty-two miles an hour one fine morning when suddenly a taxi drawn up at the curb twenty yards ahead shot forward and made a U-turn across my bows. I braked sharply with hand and foot, and after weaving about the road with a dramatic screeching of tires I drew up with my face about three inches from that of the taxi driver, who had heard an unaccustomed noise and halted in mid-Gore. I must have regained visibility abruptly at that point, since he glared into my eyes with an indignant expression, twitched his mustache once, and carried on.

Further significant events followed. Cars passed me with six inches of clearance, pulled in to the curb immediately ahead, and stopped abruptly. Cars surged out of side streets in front of me and shot across the road, their drivers anxiously peering out in the opposite direction. Other cars turned out of the stream of oncoming traffic and attempted to ram me amidships. Whether I swerved, braked, or turned into the side street myself to avoid a collision, all faces showed a bland unawareness of my presence.

It was after a number of such harsh experiences that I formulated what I may term Lister’s Law of Invisibility. This, like all the best laws, runs in two sections, as follows:

(a) To the motorist, a man on a scooter is normally invisible;

(b) When faintly visible, a man on a scooter appears to the motorist as a stationary object without dimensions.

Later experience has shown me that this law — again, like all the best laws — does not always apply. It does not apply when the man on the scooter does something wrong; as, of course, considering the characteristics and temperament of his machine, he frequently must. When he comes out of his wobbling curve three feet or so on the wrong side of the white line, he must expect to observe reactions from any other traffic present, indicating that his invisibility has failed him on the one occasion when it might be useful. Similarly, on a narrow road, as he put-puts along at a comfortable thirty-two, he will be conscious of a strong feeling of unpopularity in his tail end. This is caused telepathically by the following stream of motorists, who are more comfortable at forty-two and are unable to get by.

The law of invisibility, oddly enough, also fails to apply when there is something wrong, not with the man on the scooter but with the scooter itself. A month or so ago, I set out at eight o’clock one morning from Edinburgh to return to London. It was a merry journey. For once the law of invisibility did not seem to apply. All the way along, motorists waved and shouted at me, and I, not to be outdone in the fellowship of the road, waved and shouted back. It was like a grand triumphal procession.

Once, about three in the afternoon, somewhere north of York, I became uneasy. I had a suitcase and a large rucksack on the carrier, and I wondered if perhaps the fastenings had worked loose and they were about to fall off. I got off and looked at the back. It was quite true; they were about to fall off. So I tied them on again and went on; but so did the waving and the shouting. It was quite a relief when darkness fell in Leicester and I could complete the journey in peace. I arrived in London safely at two thirty the following morning.

A day or two later I set off for Kent. Somewhere near Tooting, as I was waiting at a traffic light, a carload of youths drew up beside me and observed that my back wheel was wobbling something horrible. I looked at my back wheel myself and found that their observation was indeed correct. Two of the six bolts that held on the wheel were missing, and the wheel was bent over sideways at a fearful angle. I had the thing seen to, and the scooter experts who saw to it found at the same time that the front forks were crooked, so that if I had applied the front brake once or twice more I should have jammed solid and shot over the top. Now I have a new back wheel, and my front forks are straight, so my survival for some few more years seems more possible.

It is this matter of survival that impels me to record these observations. My own life is too far gone to be worth bothering about, but most of the scooter drivers I see on the roads are about half my own age and may still have many interesting experiences to look forward to. They, and other young folk about to buy a scooter, would be well advised to master the Law of Invisibility, enunciated above, and consider its implications. They should then go on to master the Second Law, which runs as follows:

When a man on a scooter is clearly visible, there is something wrong with him.