While you can read The Invisible Boy as a stand-alone, it does carry on the story of Patrick, who is a major character in the BBN. We first met him in Saving the Rat, then checked in with him again in Slipping Through the Cracks. So you may want to read those first if you haven’t already!
The skinny boy with the messy hair – it had been so long since his mother had dragged him to the hairdresser that it was edging into an untended Afro – cut the apple into neat slices, laying them around the edge of a plate. A rat, a little round and slow-moving, sat watching him with bright interest.
“There, Guillaume,” the boy said. “Try that.”
The rat approached the plate and grabbed a piece of apple in his front paws, sitting back on his haunches to nibble at the crisp flesh. The boy watched him, a frown line dividing his forehead. He’d found the rat two years ago, and he’d not even been full-grown then, but still – two years was getting on for a rat. Guillaume moved more slowly these days, ran less. He mostly liked sleeping in the hood of the boy’s jumpers, or sprawling on his lap as he did the little homework that interested him, or read aloud from fat books on wars and conquests, monsters and humans. The rat made a good audience.
“Is it okay?” the boy asked.
Guillaume looked up, and stifled a rotund burp with one paw. “It’s not bad. But it’s not wine gums, is it?”
“You’re fat,” the boy said.
The rat rolled his eyes. “The tact of youth. I’m an old rat. I’m allowed to be fat!”
“You wouldn’t feel so old if you weren’t so fat.”
“Just because you’d fall through the floorboards if you turned sideways.”
The boy grinned, and it lit his face, making him look very young and unexpectedly beautiful. “There were loads of leftovers tonight. I love bangers ‘n’ mash.”
The rat didn’t answer, just gnawed on the apple slice thoughtfully. Granted, he was hardly an expert in the affairs of humans, but the way the boy was forgotten – not neglected, nothing as deliberate as that, just forgotten – it worried him. At first it had been small things, school lunches not made, or no one home when the kid came traipsing up the little path to the door in the afternoons, Guillaume with his paws pressed to the window, wishing he were strong enough to work the locks. Then came the table being laid for two instead of three, the messy bedroom ignored, laundry undone. And then the twins had arrived, and the boy had become a ghost in his own home, the invisible boy. He didn’t go out with either parent anymore – they were likely to drive away and leave him somewhere. If he persisted enough, they might give him a puzzled look and try to pay attention for a moment or two, but only until the phone dinged, or the TV laughed, or – or anything, really. So now the boy with the uncut hair washed his own clothes, and fetched his own dinner, and took himself to school because he wasn’t quite sure what else to do. And there were no friends’ parents to ask about his outgrown jacket, and teachers closed doors on him, or missed him off assignments, until he decided there was no point even trying. Most days now he just took the rat to school with him, and went to the classes he liked. The rest of the time he spent in the library, or sometimes at the movies, but that still felt a little like stealing, just walking in without paying. After the thrill of getting away with it wore off, it left a nasty taste in his mouth.
“I’ll get some wine gums tomorrow,” the boy said. “This’ll have to do for tonight.”
“Fine,” the rat said, more grumpily than he really felt. “I guess I can put up with fruit for one night.”
The boy giggled, and left the rat to his dinner. He stretched out on the unmade bed with his hands behind his head and listened to the sound of the TV creeping up from downstairs, and the murmur of his parents’ voices. He listened with an odd mix of resignation and longing, but no real resentment. The rat watched him, and wondered what sort of child watched his life slip away with such acceptance, and, more to the point, what sort of person that child might become.
Guillaume squeezed himself out through the gap by the cellar door, cursing as his belly almost wedged him in. He had sudden visions of being found stuck there as firmly as Winnie the Pooh, and scrabbled frantically, straining and wriggling with his paws against the wall. It took a long, panicked effort, but finally he popped through to freedom, panting. He thought, grudgingly, that the boy might have a point with the apple after all.
The night air was cut glass crisp, the streetlights shattering yellow light across the ground. Guillaume keep to the shadows, scuttling determinedly down the empty pavements, trying not to think about stray dogs and unfriendly cats and the territory of other, potentially less civilised rats. He was going to have to deal with at least one of those, but hopefully that’d be on his terms, rather than theirs. He paused, sitting up on his haunches to scent the air, then set off again, breathing rather harder than he would have liked. Fine. After this, it’d be more apples and walking, less wine gums and sleeping. Just because he was a kept rat didn’t mean he had to be a soft rat.
It took longer to get to the park than he’d expected – it didn’t seem this far when he was tucked into the boy’s backpack. His feet were hurting from the hard pavement, and his heart pounding loud enough to make his head swim. He stopped in the shadows of the gates, panting, waiting for the black spots to clear from his vision. They made him uneasy, those spots. They didn’t seems right, and they reminded him that he wasn’t just fat – he was old. “All the more reason to get this done now, then,” he said to the empty street. “It might be too late before long.”
“It could already be too late,” a smooth voice said from above him. “What d’you say to that, Mr Rat?”
Guillaume shrieked, trying desperately to flatten himself into the gutter, and soft huffing laughter came from above.
“Mr Rat, I can still see you. You are – ah – generously proportioned.”
The rat took a shaky breath and sat up. This is why he was here, after all. This was why he’d sneaked out while the boy slept in his pyjamas that were inches too short at the ankles, in a bedroom slicked with dust. He tried to make his voice firm as he said, “There are treaties. And I seek parley.”
“Oh, Mr Rat. There are always treaties, but what isn’t known seldom hurts.” Two glittering green eyes examined him from on top of the park wall.
Guillaume gave brief consideration to the thought of running, but it was too late for that. He was too tired, too fat, too old to outrun a damn cat. He lifted his nose high and said, “I demand parley with the Watch, Madam.”
“Madam!” The cat huffed her unpleasant laughter again, and slid out of the shadows and into the light, her eyes never leaving the rat. He squeaked in alarm – she was completely hairless, claws blossoming out of the tough knots of her knuckles, her tail a somehow obscene parody of his own. “Madam, he says. Such a polite little fat rat.”
“I – this is important! I must speak with the Watch! I must!” His words were spiralling into desperate squeaks, and they shrilled away to nothing as the cat leaped to the pavement in front of him, muscles strung like wire beneath the bare skin, the streetlights lending her a sickly glow.
“You mussst, mussst you?” she whispered, those green eyes unblinking.
Guillaume had a moment to consider that his heart would give out right there, which at least would deprive the damn cat of her fun, but would also mean he never got to tell the Watch about the boy, the lost boy adrift in the world, then another voice came from the wall. It was mild, but there were hard edges hidden beneath it.
“What’s happening, Phyllis?”
The bald cat’s lips tightened in a snarl, then she sat down, suddenly relaxed, and started cleaning a paw. “This rat reckons he wants to parley.”
“Oh. And here I thought you were about to eat him.” A skinny calico cat strolled across the top of the wall and looked down at Guillaume. His whiskers were still trembling violently.
“Ahh, c’mon. I was just messing with him.”
“We’ve discussed this.”
Phyllis growled, and looked up at the calico. “I don’t answer to you, Claudia.”
“Yes, you do,” the cat said, in that same mild tone. Guillaume thought it was the sort of tone that probably would set you growling after a bit. But you probably also wouldn’t do anything more than that, no matter how skinny its owner was. It was that sort of tone, too.
“I still say I was just as qualified to be team leader!”
“And if Anna had thought that, you would have been. Not my call. But this is – so none of your ‘messing’ while I’m team leader. Understood?”
Phyllis stood up, hissed at the cat on the wall, then slipped through the bars of the gate and stalked away, bare flanks ghostly in the night.
Guillaume blinked a couple of times and found he could actually straighten up.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he managed, and gave the calico an awkward salute. She blinked her eyes in lazy amusement, and jumped to the pavement, ambling over to the gutter to examine him more closely.
“Claudia does just fine, little rat. What’s this all about?”
Guillaume took a deep breath, and brushed some leaf litter off his belly. This cat was nowhere near as frightening as the bald one had been, but she still made him nervous. Her eyes were different colours, and in the yellow light the blue one was washed almost white. He didn’t much care for it. “There’s a boy,” he said. “And he’s fading.”
“The boy?” the cat said sharply. Then, examining him more closely, “Yes – you’re the rat, aren’t you? The one he rescued?”
“Yes,” Guillaume said. “So you know?”
“We’ve been watching.”
“Why haven’t you helped, then?” He cringed as soon as the words left his mouth – he didn’t want her to think he was criticising, gods no! But she seemed to think his question was reasonable, and he relaxed a little. Maybe all cats weren’t entirely psychotic.
“We thought he might be best having his parents for as long as possible.”
“Well, they don’t even notice him if he’s standing next to them. I’m scared he’s going to get hurt, or lost or something. He needs help before something – happens.”
Claudia looked amused. “I don’t think that’s a risk, Mr Rat. Your boy can take good care of himself. But if there’s no advantage to home, then maybe it’s time.”
Guillaume wanted to explain that it wasn’t just the monsters that hunted in drains and slept in dark places that he was worried about, that there were monsters that didn’t just wear human faces, but that were human. He wanted to say that he wasn’t at all sure the boy would be able to defend himself against them, and that sometimes they noticed him where others didn’t. Most of all, he wanted to say that the boy was still so young, for all that he didn’t act it, and for all that he could look after himself, he shouldn’t have to. But the cat was already walking away, so all he said was, “What are you going to do?”
“This is one for the Watch leader,” the cat said, looking back at him. “Can you get home alright, Mr Rat?”
“It’s Guillaume,” he said wearily. “And yeah, I guess.”
“Then we’ll be seeing you soon.” And she was gone, her dappled sides mimicking the play of the shadows so perfectly that she could have been watching him from just inside the park gate, and he’d never have known. He gave a heavy, dragging sigh and turned back down the street, casting the odd anxious glance behind him. He didn’t quite trust Phyllis not to come out and mess with him again.
Guillaume was so tired the next morning, he almost didn’t go with the boy. But he dragged himself up, accepted some more apple, and let himself be lifted to the boy’s shoulder. It felt necessary, as if in going he could somehow protect the boy from all the monsters, human and otherwise. Although what an old rat, fat and feeling his age this morning, would actually be able to do was another discussion entirely.
The boy shouted goodbye as he went out the door – there was no response from the kitchen, although both parents were in there. Guillaume felt a sudden, uncharacteristic flash of anger – couldn’t they even try? But it was gone just as quickly – that was just the way of things. Some people aren’t designed for this world.
The boy ate as he walked, a cold sausage he’d found in the fridge with congealed mash still stuck to the side. “Have you got another one of those?” Guillaume asked.
“You’ve perked up,” the boy said, and broke the end off the sausage to give to the rat. “You didn’t look well this morning.”
The rat wondered for a moment if he should tell the boy where he’d been, about his witching hour encounter with the cats, but decided maybe it was better not to. Let things happen as they would. The cats had never even acknowledged the boy yet. “It’s all that fruit,” he said instead. “It doesn’t agree with me.”
The boy snorted and kept walking.
The boy cut through the park as he always did, Guillaume’s weight reassuring on his shoulder. There had been a heavy dew, and everything had a glossy finish to it, the early sun lifting threads of mists off leaves and paths. It looked like it was going to be a nice sort of day, and he thought he might not bother with school at all. They could go get some some crisps and wine gums from the corner store, then come back and read in the sun. Bollocks to this diet he was trying to put the rat on – Guillaume was right. He was old. He may as well be fat and happy.
Decision made, he took the path that would take them to the road the shop was on. He wasn’t thinking of anything beyond how Bilbo was going to rescue the dwarfs from the trolls, and the quiet life of the park moved around him all but unseen. They were as familiar as the people he passed in the street – the tiddy un settling in to sleep by his pond, the wind imps tugging at a discarded newspaper, the pillywiggins that lived among the blooms and wove tapestries of scent. He ignored them all. Noticing gets you noticed, after all, and there were other, more unpleasant things that watched and hunted. So when the small black cat stepped into his path he just raised a hand, said, “Morning,” and went to detour around her.
She looked up at him, pupils dark scratches in her green eyes, and said, “Patrick.”
He stopped short, staring down at her, a skinny boy in an old coat with his wrists showing knobbly at the end of the sleeves. “Ah – yes?” he said uncertainly.
“It’s time.” She turned and headed down the path on soft feet. “Let’s go.”
“Ah -” Patrick considered this for a moment, then hurried after the cat. She was going in the direction of the street, anyway. “Time for what? And why are you speaking to me all of a sudden?” He’d never doubted they could speak – he’d just accepted that they had better things to do than chat to small boys.
“The more you interact with this aspect of the world, the more you fade from the other,” the cat said without looking at him. “Mr Rat there has an awful lot to answer for as far as how quickly you faded.”
“I didn’t know that!” Guillaume protested. “How could I know that?”
She glanced up at him. “Maybe you should have asked a little sooner.”
“Maybe you should have mentioned it a little sooner,” he replied, then shrank into the shelter of the boy’s hood under the scrutiny of those eyes. “Could have,” he muttered.
Patrick patted the rat absently. “So, what’s it time for?”
“Time to go,” the little cat said. They’d reached the edge of the street, and she stopped, looking up at the boy curiously. His eyes were calm and oddly unafraid, but that frown line was deepening above them.
“I can’t just go. My mum and dad -”
“How long since they made you dinner, kid? Tucked you in? Told you a bed time story? How long since they looked at you?”
“Well, yeah, but they’re busy, with the twins and stuff…” he trailed off, staring at the edge of a flowerbed, where some small creature was trying to lasso a ladybird.
“Too busy to remember they have another son?”
“I -” Patrick rubbed his face roughly with the back of one wrist, the words lost in a sudden choke at the back of his throat.
“Nice,” Guillaume said, looking down at the cat. “Very tactful.”
“Well, what would you do, rat? Lie to him?”
“He’s eight. Break it to him gently, at least.”
“It’s okay, G.” Patrick lifted the rat out of his hood and cradled him against his chest, looking down at the cat. His eyes were over-bright, but his voice was level. “I guess I kind of knew it wasn’t going to get better.”
The cat gave him that curious, evaluating gaze again, then nodded thoughtfully, as if in agreement with some unheard suggestion. “I’m sorry -” she stopped, thinking about it, then said tentatively, “For your loss?”
Patrick giggled, a quick, light sound. “They’re not dead.”
The cat started to say something that Guillaume figured was unlikely to be helpful, so he said hurriedly, “What’s your name, then?”
She looked at him for a long moment, her eyes narrowed, then said, “Anna. I’m the leader of the Watch, Patrick, which is something you will learn about. You have a lot of learning to do. Are you ready?”
He gave her a look that was almost as cool as her own, and said, “Do I have a choice?”
“Yes. You can stay here and hope the monsters don’t get you.”
Guillaume bared his teeth – cautiously, and staying hidden behind the boy’s arm – but the boy smiled. It was an odd smile, too old for his face, and far too sad. “That’s rather what I thought,” he said. “Which way, then?”
They walked as the streets filled with kids on the way to school, adults on the way to work, to chores, to crowded offices and empty homes and hungry shops, the cat and the boy and the rat balanced on the boy’s shoulder. They didn’t talk, and the people washed around them like they would a bollard or a lamp post, seen without being noticed. Patrick watched their faces with a fascinated sort of interest, thinking, I’m not like you. He wasn’t sure yet if that was something to be grateful for or horrified by.
The shops gave way to rows of terraced houses, at first festooned with cheap window boxes and brightly painted doors, then giving way to buildings whose brickwork was blackened with age and dirt, gardens joyless dumping grounds for sprung chairs and rusting bikes. They walked on, past garages with peeling signs and off licences with metal grilles on the windows, concrete parks where the only greenery was a patch of unhappy weeds in the corner. There was less other life here – these were human places, and they made Patrick feel uneasy, although no one so much as glanced at them.
And still they walked, the sun sliding higher and the boy’s bag growing heavy, chafing his shoulders. He didn’t complain though – not through fear of the cat, although he doubted there’d be any sympathy there. But what point was there in complaining? There’d be there when they got there, wherever there was.
They passed a little collection of shops, an Oxfam and a co-op, a hairdresser and a Boots, then the cat led them into a neighbourhood of squat bungalows, some detached, some not, their gardens a haphazard mix of the well tended and neglected. With the gardens came life, gnomes squabbling among the flowers, cats watching them pass with lazy eyes, small things fighting for space on the power lines. Patrick’s feet were sore, his belly rumbling so badly he felt lightheaded, but he kept on, dragging one foot after another and wishing he’d thought to pack a lunch this morning. And just as he was thinking that he couldn’t go any further without at least a rest, Anna stopped in front of a detached bungalow with a lawn run to joyous riot. Wildflowers surged out of the long grass, bees dancing between them, and the house beyond the rickety gate had roses scrambling over its walls. The path to the front door was lined with more rose bushes, sentries to the entrance.
“Here we are,” Anna said.
“What is it?” Patrick asked. He’d somehow expected something more magical than a rundown cottage in a street peopled with mobility scooters and neighbourhood watch stickers.
“Your home for now,” Anna said.
“Who’s house is it?”
“Her name’s Jasmine. She’s different, but not like you, do you understand? She – ah, we have suggested to her that you are a nephew, come to stay indefinitely. Anything you need, you ask her. Anything you want to know, you ask us.”
“Suggested to her?” Patrick said, his voice thoughtful.
“It’s a form of hypnosis. You’ll learn about that, too.” Anna’s voice was brusque, but when the boy looked at her he couldn’t help feeling that she was nervous. As if being Watch leader really didn’t count for much when it came to dealing with small lost boys.
“Alright,” he said. “But if she’s not like me, then how do I know what I am?”
Anna sighed. “On that, we’re going to have to learn together.”
“Don’t you know?”
“I know what you are, just not what sort of person you are.”
“So, what am I?”
She regarded him for a long moment, then said, “You’re a peacekeeper. The only one left, it would seem. And the one before you left before he could train you. So that leaves you and me to figure this out together.”
Patrick considered that for a moment, considered all the questions he could ask, all the protests he could make, considered the distance between the world he had been born into and the world he inhabited now, then hunkered down next to the cat. She looked at him, startled, as he watched her with solemn brown eyes. “If that is what I am,” he said, “I’ll be good at it. So whenever you’re ready to start teaching, let’s start.”
Anna didn’t reply for a moment, thinking of Rupert, the keeper of the history of the Watch and therefore the world, saying, he needs guidance, not mothering, and huffed in soft, rueful agreement. “Alright, kid. But let’s get you some food first. You look like a bloody stick insect. Can’t go round keeping the peace like that, can you?”
Patrick grinned – a broad, dimpled grin that exposed a missing tooth, and said, “Yes ma’am.”
“And you can stop that, as well. There’s rank but no class in the Watch. Anna or Watch leader, nothing else.” She turned without waiting for an answer and trotted up the garden path, feeling cat eyes on them as the boy followed. The door opened before they could reach it, and a curved woman rushed out, clothes floating around her like the feathers of a tropical bird. She swept Patrick into a rib-crushing embrace before hurrying him inside, fluttering and fussing and smelling of cats and good garden dirt and fresh baked things. Anna followed on silent feet and watched as the boy accepted a cup of tea and a sandwich that looked bigger than he did, offering some to the rat before he took a bite.
“What d’you think?” Claudia had appeared at her shoulder, watching the boy with those odd-coloured eyes.
“Oh, it’s him,” Anna said.
“Is he going to be okay? Not another bloody Ben?”
“No one can say that for sure,” the black cat said.
“But what do you think?”
The boy lifted his mug to Anna just slightly, dipping his head. It could have seemed mocking, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like a thank you, the gratitude of a boy who had been falling through the cracks in the world until a small cat had caught him, and set him down somewhere else entirely. Somewhere that things made sense. “Well,” she said. “I think he’s going to be okay.”
And surprised herself by believing it.