‘What! Who said that?’ Albert had been sitting quietly on the park bench watching the world go by, eating spaghetti from a black and gold can. It was excellent; cost him all of 59 cents. A mere hour of begging had gotten him a veritable feast, cheese and crackers for entree, Spaghetti, a block of chocolate and a two dollar bottle of red.
‘Whose fucken I? I can’t see any fucken one! Oy! what you lot looking at fuck-off!’ The tourists who had been walking by, glancing sideways at Albert talking to himself, scattered.
‘Gabrielle as in the angel?’
‘Nah, I’m no angel, believe me. I’m just like you’
‘Vagrant, seriously, is that the term you use for yourself’
‘Yeah, why not, it’s what I Am. Now, where are you, you cheeky fucker.’ Albert sprang to his feet and turned as quickly as he could; nothing. He sprinted, or so he thought to the nearest tree, around it. Still nothing.
‘Where are you, you shit?’
‘Can you please stop swearing so much.’
‘I’ll fucken swear as much as I want.’
‘Well then, I’m done, goodbye’
Albert stood dead still, listening. Listening for anything, for the wind, the crunch of a foot on the dry leaves, breathing, anything at all that would tell him he wasn’t alone. He waited like that for a few minutes, standing, slowly scanning the park around him.
After a time, he returned to his bench, quietly picked up his can of spaghetti, his bottle of red taking a swig, and resumed watching the world go by.
* * *
Albert woke with a start, the dull thud of his red wine head and sinus fading instantly into the background. He sat bolt upright. This was the part he hated; he hated sleeping rough. Not so much when he was in the outer burbs, but when you were in the city there was always trouble.
There was nothing, no one near him. In front of him, a fresh cake of soap, a white linen washer, a pure white bath towel and an envelope with Albert scrawled on the front in cursive writing.
Albert opened the envelope and a plastic card fell to the ground, with a yellow note stuck to it. ‘Room 103 The Westin. Have a shower’.
‘They won’t let me in there’ this was incredulous; whoever had stuck this in front of him was a fool. Yeah sure they’d let him into a soup kitchen, or the Salvo’s if they had a spare bed, but not the bloody Westin, that was four and a half star.
‘Yes they will, let's go.’
‘Yes, what do I call you?’
‘Good to see you’re not swearing this time’
‘To stunned mate, too stunned’
‘Let’s go then’
Albert staggered to his feet, he quickly spread out the scrappy blanket he had been sleeping under and threw all of his worldly possessions into it, a spare jumper, a cloth bucket hat and the cheap, half-drunk bottle of Scotch he’d been using as his sleeping pill the night before.
He also threw in the cake of soap, washer and towel that Gabrielle had put in front of him; or so he thought. Pulling the corners of the blanket together he slung it over his shoulder and started walking in the direction of the Westin Hotel. ‘You still with me Gabs?’
‘So who are you?’
‘Like I said, I’m just like you. I’m homeless, just that I am invisibly homeless.’
‘Bullshit!’ Albert could not help but think there was some truth to this, here he was shambling down George street at God knows what time in the morning, with not a person in sight, with the exception of the street sweeper that was coming down the street in the opposite direction; and him talking to himself.
‘If yer invisible, why the hell are you talking to me, and not of sneaking around the place getting up to mischief’
‘Oh I’ve done that mate; invisibility corrupts the best of people. When it first happened to me, as a kid, I thought it was great. That was until I could not convince anyone that I was still alive. My mother went insane thinking she was hearing the voice of her dead son. I tried everything, eventually, they committed her to an asylum, I hung out with her for a while, but it was not good. So I left.’
‘Albert, please can you please stop saying that’
‘Righto then, how do you know you’re not dead, just you don’t realise it’
‘If I was dead, why would I be having a whole conversation with you? Ghosts aren’t sentient beings mate. They are stuck in one place and on a cycle, a bit like a scratched record. Like an event scratched into the thread of the world’
‘Shit that’s heavy Gabs, probably too bloody heavy for some floating see-through sheet, so yeah maybe you're not a ghost. Maybe you’re something else, maybe you’re an alien.’
‘Nope Albert, like I said I am just like you, just invisible. Oh, here we are. Ok, the room you’ve got is on the first floor when we go in you go straight up the stairs and turn right; ok?’
‘Ok. You know they’ll kick me out’
‘No, you let me take care of that.’
Albert approached the door; it didn’t open. He stood there dumbfounded for a moment, wondering what to do next. Then he spotted it, the magnetic scanner for the swipe card, lit-up by a small red LED. He quickly swiped the card, the LED went green and there was an audible clunk as the electric door lock released.
He pushed his way in, and for the first time, he felt something move with him, a physical presence, or what he thought was a physical presence, like someone pushing past him, just that it had been so long since someone had been that close to him he could not be sure.
As instructed he went up the stairs in front of him, not looking in either direction, expecting someone to yell out at any moment, to stop him. He expected to hear footsteps running towards him, to grab him and evict him from the building. Nothing.
He mounted the stairs, trying to keep calm, trying to look as though he belonged there, as much as a scraggly, smelly homeless guy could. It had been weeks since he had truly been inside a building, the last time around was at the station on Erskine Street.
He got to the top of the stairs, the bile rising in his through, anxiety, fear he would get caught, and evicted, humiliated and thrown back onto the street to be ignored and a shadow. Why was he doing this, was he really doing this, Gabrielle could simply be part of his psychosis, part of his stupid thinking that put him on the street in the first place.
He turned right. Still no shouting, no footsteps. Spotting the first sight 101 to 115 with an arrow pointing the direction he should go. 101, 102; in front of the door he inserted the card, it didn’t work. He took a deep breath, reversed the card, it didn’t work, his panic was rising it was going to overwhelm him. Third time lucky, he hoped.
The small red LED on the door changed to green; he grabbed at the handle, turned it and pushed in, the door shutting loudly behind him. No what? Where was Gabrielle, what was he to do? Have a shower!
* * *
Albert walked out of the bathroom, back into the large room, with a double bed. The large plate glass window had sheer linen curtains on it that screened him from the outside world, as he was only on the first level the view was not anything spectacular, as he had confirmed when he first came in.
Looking about he realised his clothes were gone and in their place laid on the bed was a charcoal suit and blue business shirt, a pair of shiny black shoes on the floor with a pair of socks laid across the top of the shoes. Next to the suit on the bed was a brown leather duffle bag.
‘Oy, where are my clothes?’
‘Do you always talk to yourself, Albert?’
‘No just when you are about, now were are my clothes, my belongings there was some important stuff in the pockets’
‘I know, don’t worry, you’ll find your photo in the breast pocket of the suit’
Albert picked up the coat hanger that the suit was still hung on, and scrambled to the inside pockets, yes the photo was there, he removed it, not looking at it, walked the suit over to the wardrobe and hung it in there. Back to the bed and dropped the duffle bag at the foot of the bed, then he lay down clenching the photo between him and the bed and shut his eyes.
After a few minutes, he heard the door to his room open and shut. He figured it was Gabrielle leaving, rolling onto his back he lifted the photo so he could see it, there in front of him were his girls. He hadn’t seen them in years, not since he chose to become invisible to them. To leave them alone as he thought they would be better off without him.
He looked and thought about them for a long time, he so missed them, he struggled with the guilt of how he had let them down so much and tried to remind himself and tell himself that they were better off without him. No matter how often he tried to this he could never fully convince himself. After a while his eyelids got heavy and he fell into a deep sleep, sleeping soundly and safely like he had not for a long time.
* * *
He stirred; the room was dark and silent except for the hum of the air conditioner. He had not noticed it earlier when he arrived, but now in the middle of the night when it was the loudest thing in the room he noticed it. Where was he? how long had he been asleep?
The Westin, room 103. He was clean, warm and comfortable, safe. He fell back into his sleep, this time dreaming of his girls, wanting to be there with them again, hoping they were ok.
* * *
The smell of bacon and eggs woke him, that’s what he felt. The reality as he thought about it; was that he was rested. It had nothing to do with the food. Still, he got out of bed, pulled the robe from the wardrobe and sat down to a full breakfast, coffee, orange juice and coffee.
‘You here Gabs?’
Nothing, silence, he was alone. At that moment the TV turned on; it was his wake-up call. The text on the screen read ‘Good morning Mr Jenkins your checkout time is 10am thank you for staying at the Westin’ to the sound of 90’s hits playing in the background.
Looking around Albert spotted the alarm clock on the bedside, 9am. Good he had an hour to think about his exit, he was unsure as to how he was to check out, he knew he had no money. He figured he would simply walk out, the same as how he had come in.
* * *
Standing in front of the mirror, showered, clean shaven, hair pulled back and tied with a hair elastic he found in the courtesy toiletries; blue shirt, charcoal suit, black shoes, he looked like a successful businessman. Picking up the leather duffle bag, he paused to build up courage for the fast exit.
As he stood preparing a white envelope was slid under the door. He bent and picked it up. Opening the envelope he found cash, an Opal card and a letter.
Go home; there are enough invisible people in this world. Your family wants you and need you. They are expecting you.