Milly stared at the flashing cursor, sitting snugly in the familiar search bar, idly twiddling her hair around one finger. It was the hair which had been the final straw. She’d dyed it just before a family outing. For months she’d ignored the creeping grey, trying to embrace incipient cronehood. In the end it had been more than unbearable; it had made her feel ancient, verging on decrepit. The dye bottle had come out and she’d heaved a sigh of relief on seeing gentle waves of chestnut stare back from the bathroom mirror.
Not a soul had noticed.
She was actually beginning to feel like the woman in the old sketch show; the one who had always had the solution to a situation but, in a group of men, she had been ignored and her ideas stolen by one of them. Week after week she had plaintively cried ‘Can any of you actually hear me?’ The Amazing Invisible Woman the skit had been called and that was exactly how Milly felt. As if she simply melted into the background and became a part of it, invisible to the eyes of those she knew and loved.
As a woman ‘of a certain age’ she was well aware of menopause and all its delightful symptoms, from hot sweats to crippling anxiety, insomnia and packs of lard which appeared fossilised to her hips, impossible to remove. What she hadn’t known was that with that ‘time of life’, as her gran had put it, came invisibility. Women did not go quietly into that dark night known as old age; they just faded into invisibility, no longer relevant, only good for doing chores, feeding hordes and occasionally babysitting, always quietly, always in the background of the lives she had created and nurtured. Lives which no longer needed her.
Feeling the tears begin to threaten, the cloud of sadness hovering, Milly shook herself and resolved to type. She couldn’t be the only invisible woman out there, could she? She considered a moment then typed:
Menopause feeling invisible
She hit enter and was unsurprised to see 451,000 results returned. There were a lot of women of a certain age in the world. Although most results were selling something, variations on the elixir of youth, a couple of forums stood out. The first turned out to be a basic bitching place for every possible complaint associated with menopause and Milly was fairly sure reading other people’s issues would make her feel worse.
Then there it was; The Amazing Invisible Woman – A Place for the Faded. She clicked, watched the forum load and felt miserable when the page showed just one thread titled ‘Help Here’. Without any hope, expecting it to be yet another con, Milly clicked anyway. A box flashed up, plain white with a flashing cursor. It jerked into action;
I”m coming, hang on’
That didn’t seem like a robot so Milly waited.
‘Ok, thanks for waiting. My name is Sarah.’
Milly hesitated but the cursor remained still.
‘Hi… I’m Milly’
‘Nice to know you. I’m guessing you are looking for other invisible women?’
‘I guess so. Thought I couldn’t be the only one feeling this way’
‘You’re not. Know the Daisy Chain cafe on Broad Street?’
‘I’ll meet you there at eleven tomorrow morning. Gotta rush, job to do. Bye!’
Feeling a bit bewildered, Milly typed ‘bye’, bookmarked the page and sat back. Sarah seemed to be a vital force and Milly couldn’t imagine her ever sitting in front of a window and staring out of it for hours, often in floods of irrepressible tears. She probably ran some self-help group with an iron fist and indefatigable jollity. Probably a WI member, did the church flowers and went to the gym for Iron Man training in between! Milly giggled at the mental image, somewhere between the horrifying Trunchbull of Pam Ferris and Joanna Lumley in Purdey mode, before trudging off to make dinner and fold the washing.
Morning rolled around, the house fell into weighty silence and all but shoved her out the front door, eager to go anywhere there was sound, not just the faint sifting of dust and clocks counting constantly. She stuck her hands deep into her pockets whilst sitting on the bus in an effort to keep from chewing her nails. It was ridiculous to be so nervous. This was just a woman. A stranger to whom she owed nothing. If worst came to worst, Milly could simply turn and walk away from the cafe if anything struck her as odd.
The Daisy Chain was bright and welcoming. It sported sunshine yellow walls dotted with hand painted daisies in riotous abandon. Rustic round tables with two or three chairs apiece scattered across the scrubbed wooden floor and the air was scented with good coffee and baking. It was exactly how she had always wanted her kitchen to be and she felt oddly at home sliding behind one of the tables and ordering a coffee. There were two other occupied tables, one duo and a triple. Women of her age chattering and laughing over doughnuts and coffee. Both tables smiled her way and then greeted a woman coming through the cafe doors with more smiles and waves.
Sarah was a force alright, but not even close to how Milly had pictured her. She sashayed across the room, a cloud of hair escaping her careless ponytail in bright red strands, her gypsy blouse and billowing skirt – both in eye-popping shades of purple – catching on chairs and tables, hands beringed with what looked like the toys from the tops of Gregg’s cakes, and a smile a million miles wide as she flopped into the chair opposite Milly.
“Gimme a minute. All this extra padding takes ya breath away to carry it! Clare? Coffee and caramel doughnuts please”
Five minutes later, wiping caramel from her mouth and swallowing a second cup of coffee, Sarah grinned at Milly.
“So, feeling invisble huh? Bit useless? No-one even sees you any more, let alone hears you and thinks what you say is relevant?”
Milly nodded, feeling the prickle of tears. Sarah scrabbled a hanky from the vastness of her bosom shelf.
“None of that now. Help here that thread said and it was true. We’ve heard it all, how it is time to slow down, take time for ourselves, do what we want to do with the rest of our faded grey lives, right?”
Milly nodded, scrunching and flattening the hanky between her fingers.
“But I don’t know…”
“Who you are or what you want, right?” More nodding and swallowing of the ever teetering tears, “We are all like it, darlin’ but some of us decided invisibility might be useful.”
Milly perked up, sipped some coffee and frowned.
“I can’t think of a single way being ignored and undervalued can be useful.”
“What did you do before you became ‘mother and wife?”
“I was a teacher.”
“Excellent. We can always use brains.”
“Oh not that way, dafty. We’re not some clandestine cannibal group. Nope, we’re just a group for women with a unique ability.”
“Walking the world unseen.”
Milly drank again, pondering. She pushed her plate and cup away – which had held four bacon sarnies and then two eclairs, set her elbows on the table and cocked her head, interested but wary.
“We’re not really invisible. It’s just a phrase. We can’t actually walk around with no-one seeing us. We can’t…”
She gasped then gaped as Sarah gently faded out of view. Glancing up Milly noticed the women at the other tables had followed suit. To anyone peeking through the café’s lace-curtained windows the place would have held just one lonely lady and Clare behind the counter.
Sarah reappeared, smiled at Milly and called to Clare.
“Couple of drinks over here, love.”
Clare brought two G&Ts and retreated. Milly swallowed most of hers in one gulp, staring in disbelieving silence at Sarah.
“Amazing huh? Never thought I could hide in plain sight until I realised it was what I was doing every day. Yes? You see?”
“I understand the idea, but how…?
“Oh that bit is easy. You already think of yourself as invisible. Now you need to believe it. As soon as you do you’ll be able to fade in and out at will. It’s fun sometimes, I promise.”
She went on to describe popping out of nowhere behind two jeering girls in a communal changing room, remarking on their underwear and vanishing as readily as she had appeared.
“…Their faces!” she chortled and then drew a steadying breath, “Hun, there is a reason we have embraced our invisibility. Think about what you can do, what good you can do. Do you want to hear?”
Milly nodded slowly and listened whilst Sarah explained the purpose behind the Faded Females group. Once a member learned how to truly fade in and out they were assigned an area of work. Sarah had been a social worker and she chose to watch over children.
“I have a friend who works at the local social offices. She lets me know if there is a case I can help with. I take the ones where no-one is sure if there is an issue. That usually means they drop through the cracks because there isn’t enough by way of resources to check on everyone. I check the ones who are silent, who slide away and only get noticed when the dead kid turns up on the news and the neighbours say ‘but they were such a quiet family.’
“How do you help?”
“I follow them around, slip into the home, watch what happens. If there’s no cause for alarm, cool beans. If there is, I appear, grab the kid and leave. I swear, the parents are always too stunned to do anything and I can walk away easy.”
“All of you do this?”
“Different strokes, different folks. Julie there” she pointed to the trio, “ She helps out old folks who are on their own, vulnerable. Kathy works with homeless and Anna with folks in homes who are dying alone.”
“I know why I would do it, but I would like to know why you all do.”
“Because we have a gift hun. We have the gift of experience and we can make this world just a tiny bit better. I’m not a fool. I know it also gives us faded ones some purpose, makes us feel needed, but mostly we do it because we can and feel we should. You in?”
Milly drew a deep breath and nodded. Sarah swept up and around, hauling Milly into a vast embrace.
“Welcome aboard you amazing invisible woman!”
That night, when the house was still, the dust sifting and the clocks ticking, Milly stood in front of the mirror and concentrated very hard on learning to truly fade.