Tom, in his mid-thirties, sells his London pub chain (themed around Charles Dickens' novels), splits with his girlfriend and moves to rural west Oxfordshire. There he begins a relationship with Sarah, which he recounts later as a form of writing therapy.
Having trained as a potter, Sarah owns an Oxford gallery and lives with Welsh Brit Art sculptor, Griff, in a battlemented Victorian tower. To her diaries she confides the history of her secret life.
Invisible is a dystopian romance in which the characters struggle against obsession and misunderstandings in their quest for happiness. It is set against the topsy-turvy backdrop of New Labour's Britain.
"A lovely and beguiling book...full of brambles and sunlight." Frank Cottrell Boyce
"This is Posy Simmonds territory; we’re among fretful middle-class types who take themselves very seriously and make an enormous meal of every bit of slap-and-tickle. That these people are bearable company is entirely down to the author’s lively wit and acute understanding of the emotional landscape." Kate Saunders, The Times
Writing therapy exercises written by Tom under the supervision of Dr Martin Calder, July 2004
A Time When I was Happy
I remember one weekend about three years ago not long before I decided to sell the business. Jill had been going on at me for ages to take a break. I'd tried to put her off by saying it was our busiest time but she wasn't having it. She knew it was the busiest time as well as anybody. How long had we been together? Seven years and the pubs had been part of my life ever since she'd known me. It was the fact that she was putting her foot down at the busiest time that made me realise she was serious. There was something seriously wrong with our relationship.
Anyway, she had these friends from when she was at university. Duncan and Ros. Duncan, or Dunc as he liked to be known, stayed on after they graduated and did a PhD. Then he became a philosophy don and settled down with Ros who was at college with him and Jill and who'd moved back to Oxford after training as a solicitor.
They had this big house at the top of Jericho near where the iron works used to be. It had originally been owned by the factory and its garden ran down to the canal. They lived a kind of alternative lifestyle. Ros was an earth-mother with a penchant for all things Indian: clanging bangles and voluminous faded tops and skirts. She had this long hair that she either wore down and straggly or up in a coil like a Cumberland sausage. She was nice although I didn't take to either of them to begin with.
Dunc was sort of hearty. His baggy shorts and near worn-out work shirts gave the impression he was still having to make do after the war. He was ex-public school, had thinning hair and thick dark-rimmed glasses which would've looked great on Michael Caine.
So, there we were for three nights, ostensibly free agents, using their house as a base. The idea was Jill would show me the places where she'd been happy. Of course it didn't work out like that. We did go to some of the places but the rest of the time got roped into helping Dunc and Ros. Feeding the chickens and keeping the kids amused mostly.
In retrospect I think Jill and I were relieved to be able to break ourselves into being together gently. If we'd been at a hotel we'd have driven each other up the wall.
I liked the kids. Especially the eldest, Charlie. He had something about him. Despite being the eldest, he wasn't cocky. Neither was he a chip off the old block. He had attitude and could take the piss out of Dunc mercilessly. He had us in stitches -- Dunc included -- and it was done so dead pan. He was tall but had a tongue on him that suggested someone much shorter who'd learnt to live by his wits.
It was the last night that sticks in my mind, when it was just the four of us and the kids had been packed off to a neighbour.
Dunc had this idea that we should pedal out to a country pub then come back for a late-night barbie after it was dark. Before we set off, Ros decked out the garden with nightlights in coloured bowls and scented candles on spiky sticks.
Bikes weren't a problem because Dunc and Ros had a shed full for friends and visiting academics. Not that they were mountain bikes but you wouldn't expect them to be with Dunc. Like him, they were more 1950s than New Millennium.
Away we went, Jill and I following behind. First Jill in front of me, then when I'd got the hang of things, me ahead. To start with, when we were cycling through the streets, it wasn't so much the novelty of being on a bike that mesmerised me but the sight of Ros's billowing dress. I kept expecting it to get caught in the chain. Great lengths of it flapped up, dipped down, almost got snagged but never quite. It was like my grandad baiting his terrier with a handkerchief.
Then we were on Port Meadow, bouncing along a white track before veering onto the tow-path. Ahead of us was a steeply curved bridge which Dunc turned onto and powered over. He was stood up, legs braced but having to give as he negotiated a series of bumps which appeared to run the whole of its length. You could hear the rattle of his bike, sounding like it was going to fall to bits. Every couple of bumps he cried, "Yo!" in triumph.
"Mad boy!" shouted Ros as she side-stepped off her machine.
I pedalled hard to get to the bridge before she did. I thought, Wow this looks great. I had this rush of adrenaline and felt I hadn't had such fun in ages.
Around the corner I went onto the narrow bridge just as Ros was going, "Ride him cowboy!"
There was a line of what looked like wooden ribs going all the way up. I got over the first which made the seat ram into my arse and, fortunately, sent me leaping into the air. The front wheel skewed against the second and I leaped forward over the handle-bars legs apart, landing on my feet as the bike thwanged into the side. It was like I'd been winded but my first thought was, How the fuck did I do that? I had to check my crotch and the insides of my thighs to make sure I hadn't sustained some horrific and so far numbed injury.
I let out a yell of "Whaaaa Heya!" in relief.
"Maaad Fucker!" went Dunc. Ros collapsed into a heap of agonised hissing laughter. Jill, looking worried, was dropping her bike and coming towards me saying, "Tom! What happened? Are you OK?"
Once I'd straightened the forks we were off again. A short straight then a section where we had to haul the bikes over a couple of stiles -- the tow-path in between ran through the garden of a pub I'd looked at once with a view to adding it to the chain. It would have been the first outside London. But it wasn't the one we were going to that night.
After that there were more meadows. The girls stuck to the path. I followed Dunc cross-country, which included a stretch of ridge and furrow. It was hard on the legs and I was still wobbly from the accident but I was just so exhilarated, bobbing up and down after Dunc. He was extraordinary from behind: standing up all the time, driving the pedals down then shooting back up again. His legs were milky white which was odd for someone who lived in shorts. There was an erectness about him and every so often you'd catch sight of his beaky nose and black glasses. He looked like a scout master.
Soon we were on the road, bowling along towards the pub. Dunc and I parked up and had to wait for the girls.
"It was bloody brilliant," I said to him. "Shit," I panted. "Absolutely amazing."
"Simple pleasures," he said.
"I know, that's what’s so good about it. It's like being a boy again. I swear I haven't felt like this since I was ten. It makes me realise how out of proportion everything's got."
"Well, you'll have to come again."
"Did Jill tell you why we wanted-- --"
And then the girls were there.
I kissed Jill as we went inside.
And I remember that pint. Hedgecutter. Dunc handed it to me. It was in a handle. It was medium brown and it had this really hoppy nose. It was clear as the evening light. I took the first sip. No hop until the after taste. Good length. Fruity. A taste like an infusion of hazelnuts. Cellar temperature which on a hot night like that felt like it had been in the chiller. Only I knew it was natural. You could tell this guy knew how to keep his beer. I downed half a pint in seconds. It slipped down wonderful.
I felt so happy.
I also knew then what I had to do. I had to sell the business. Get rid of all of the pubs. Get back on the other side of the bar.
I knew too, at that moment, could feel it like the beating of my heart, the singing in my veins, that everything was going to be all right. That Jill and me, we were going to be alright.
Copyright © Francis Egerton 2008