The invisible Isla Kelly

On the morning of the accident, Isla Kelly packed a mandarin and a banana into a paper bag. A woman at the train station helped her to buy a ticket from the machine. Isla sat on the platform with her handbag in her lap, watching the way people gathered around without seeing her. They talked on their mobile phones and hid inside their newspapers and drank coffee from disposable cups. When the train arrived, they pushed to get on board before the other people had even got off.

Isla hadn’t always been invisible. As a young woman, she had sewn fur coats for the war effort, sitting at a Singer machine in a warehouse near the river. She had had a fiancee, then, a tall man with Brylcreemed hair and grey eyes. Thomas, perhaps, or Leslie, or Philip. She thought of him as Thomas, when she thought of him, which wasn’t often. A girl of seventeen has made many more memories by the time she becomes an eighty-year-old spectre.

The memories Isla had chosen to retain were:

1. An afternoon (and then evening) on the Turkish coast with a sailor called Aziz and his very long lashes. He had taken her to the market to see fabrics woven with pure gold, and they had eaten lamb and honey and saffron with their fingers. Aziz. She would never forget his name.

2. Standing in the front row of The Beatles concert in 1964, after winning tickets on the radio.

3. How to get from her derelict beachside mansion to the bookshop in St Kilda.

It was only seven stops to St Kilda. Isla watched the scenery fly by, ivy crawling all over the embankments and down to the trench where the train shot through. They came out of the foliage and onto a bridge, which passed over a highway and the many cars using it to get from one important thing to another important thing. At each station, more and more people got on. Isla found herself pushed and shoved and crowded into the seat she had by the door. A couple of people asked her if she could give up her seat so a person who needed it could sit there, and she said to them, I am eighty years old and I have water on the knee.

St Kilda was beautiful all year round, but especially in the autumn when the roads were wet and the gleam from the traffic reflected in them, and the trees along the main stretch of road had lost their leaves and let the dull sunlight slip through. Isla walked to the bookshop, stopping along the way to pat a small sausage dog and a large gruff dog, and to talk to an elderly gent who was waiting at a bus stop. She paused to realise that the elderly gent was probably younger than she was, and to listen to the children laughing at the amusement park, and to look in the window of a haberdashery to admire the ribbons, and to catch an escalator to the top and down again, and to sing along to . She stalled to put a dollar in the case of a street performer, and to watch the lights of the pokies through a glass door, and to run her hands along the smooth finish of mosaic tiles, and to step on a palm frond, and to breathe the sweet cool air of inner city bustle. She didn’t think about the accident, which hadn’t happened yet.

Some of the books had paper labels to recommend them, or to let her know that the author was local, or to report that they had won an award. She didn’t know what kind of book she wanted. She flipped over pages of something called a ‘coffee table book’ full of Japanese gardens. She read the first paragraph of a novel about the near dystopian future. She admired the hard covers of leather bound classics and remembered when she had read them, when they were new. Eventually, she chose a book about cats.

The cake shop door jingled. People sat together at extremely small tables, eating with tiny forks from shared plates. She had never seen so many cakes, even when her father had taken her to the bakery where he worked, nor so many variants of one kind of cake. She could buy a cheesecake, or an apricot cheesecake, or a chocolate cheesecake, or a cookies and cream cheesecake, or a New York cheesecake, or a creme brulee cheesecake. Or, she could buy a danish with apples, pears, almonds, blueberries, custard, raspberries, rhubarb or spinach and feta. She tried to remember what she’d bought last time she was here, but it was pushed so far out of her mind by the memories she had actively chosen to keep (Aziz, The Beatles).

‘What do you recommend?’ she asked the woman at the counter.

‘What sorts of things do you like?’ the woman asked.


‘Sponge cakes? Gateaux? Mud cakes?’

‘Um …’

‘Cream pies? Bundt cakes? Fruit cakes?’

‘Er …’

‘Tortes? Layer cakes? Madeira cakes?’

‘Yes! The last one you said. Go back to that one.’

‘Madeira cakes?’

‘No, before that.’

‘Layer cakes?’

‘No, no. Sponge cakes.’

‘That was the first one I said.’

‘Oh, sorry.’

Isla took her sponge cake and her book about cats, and walked a little way past the palm trees and the open lawn packed with lovers, and found herself in a laneway between old apartment buildings. People hung from the windows, shouting to one another across the way. They had lines of washing strung up, and dogs on the balconies, and chairs and tables where they smoked and probably drank whisky. She stood in that laneway and looked up and continued to look up until a family came through the front door. A flurry of brown leaves dropped in front of them.

There was a small redheaded boy, and a baby in a pushchair, and a dark-haired mother with her face low from exhaustion. They set off down the laneway and went around the corner and Isla, for a reason she did not understand, drew her attention away from the people on the balconies and followed them.

It was late in the morning. Workers were emerging from their office buildings and disappearing into coffee shops. On the main road, tram drivers waved to one another as they passed, taking passengers out to the museum or to the docks or to a northern suburbs art exhibition. Isla loved it all. She breathed it in and breathed it out again, every person in the bustling hubbub of their self-centred universe.

(Hers, too; she had only come to St Kilda because she had deeply wanted to buy a cake and a book, and thought it a better use of her time than eventually crumbling to bones in the bay window of her derelict beachside mansion. When she thought of the self-centricity of others it wasn’t a criticism but a gentle awe of their ability to understand what they needed and how they would set about getting it. She had felt that in the cake shop. Spoiled for choice, she had taken the time to understand precisely what it was that would bring her joy in that instant (Victoria sponge).)

Isla stepped lightly, for an older woman. She stepped between the slow walkers but respectfully around the loved-up couples and truples, avoided pot holes and man holes with yellow barricades and parking inspectors staring into their notepads. As she walked towards the place that would become The Scene of the Accident, she felt the long fingers of the past reach out to her. She tapped past buildings she had known as a much younger woman: a window she had gazed from while a stranger plucked the elastic of her garter; a balcony on which she had reclined in a wicker chair and laughed into a bottle of cheap red wine; a hotel where a man whose name she had never known had told her he would leave his wife; the wide verandah of a pub where she had listened to the blues.

At the next corner, the dark-haired woman leaned down to the little redheaded son and adjusted the collar of his shirt. Isla waited next to them for the traffic to pass. A swan narrowly avoided a collision with a motorbike. The boy looked up at her and said, ‘Good day.’

‘How utterly charming,’ Isla said.

At the top of the main street, where the trams waltzed through a complex junction of tracks, one was turning towards them. It would carry on down the road and past the pub by the sea and the ageing theme park, into the street with the bookshop and the windows filled with cakes. A green man appeared and the four of them crossed the road together — mother, son, Isla and the baby in the pushchair. They waited at the next corner, to cross to the park with the lake.

Traffic had backed up right to the next set of lights. Here there was traffic even in the middle of the day, even when you were a local who just needed to go to the supermarket. Isla loved that, too. She had loved to sit in traffic and have the shared experience with the other people sitting in traffic. She had looked across to them and gestured to the cars in front and shaken her head, and they had looked back and raised their arms in the air and held down their horn. She loved the glow of the red taillights and the flicker of indicators and she especially loved it in the rain, when it all blurred together and everyone became the same person.

The green man appeared again. Isla wondered if the woman knew she was following them, or whether she was happy to believe they were headed in the same direction. Many people went to the lake at lunchtime, to show everyone else at the lake how fine they looked in their running shoes. Isla had never run around the lake but she had sat on a park bench and admired the strength of modern sports bras and the way some people could nap in a park with everyone watching.

The tram had turned and was approaching the intersection. Isla stepped in time with the redheaded boy and the dark-haired woman and they reached the middle of the road, where it had cracked in three places. Isla stepped and stepped and listened to the grind of the tram on the old tracks and the beeping of the people waiting in (and also creating) the traffic, and the dark-haired woman kept walking, and the redheaded boy said, ‘Good day,’ to a woman holding several bread sticks, and then there was an almighty screech and an ungodly crunching sound and then absolute silence.

The silence lasted and lasted. It ripped through Isla, stopping her heart, stopping the inflation of her lungs, stopping the neurons pulsing in her brain. She looked at the slow-motion world and the walls of noiselessness, at the redheaded boy adjusting his own collar, and at the lady with the bread sticks’s mouth dropping open, and at the dark-haired woman looking away from the muteness and into the pushchair and then at her redheaded son, and then the sound came back and the tram had rolled off the tracks and onto its side, and something was on fire.

The people creating the traffic leapt from their cars and dragged the injured through windows and through the tram door that opened and shut on a loop. People shouted, some of them to get attention and some of them in pain. Some people grieved at the side of the road and some people hung back to see how they could be useful and a couple of people tore their shirts clean off and wrapped them around the bleeding limbs of people who had just been trying to go to an art gallery.

No one, not one person, not a single screaming and hollering soul, could look at the cars underneath the rolled tram.

And the dark-haired woman stared into the pushchair and back to the accident, pointed the baby inside so it could see what was unfolding, and the baby bounced and clapped. Some distance away, a siren started up, and another. A helicopter came swooping in from the sea. A television news crew pulled up in a van and shoved cameras into the faces of the bystanders, who told their own versions of the stories while they watched the people who had made the traffic still pulling passengers from the snapping jaws of the broken tram door. Three ambulances arrived at once. Two police cars, then a fire engine. The fire engine stopped as close to the tram as possible, which was, because of the traffic, a block away, and six men pulled a hose as far as they could but still had to shoot foam at a great distance. The shirtless men and women were covered in foam too, but still they ran, stopping to talk to the police and to the paramedics, stopping to wipe their faces, then stopping because everyone had been pulled from the tram and all that was left to do was look at the cars crushed beneath it.

Isla dropped her Victoria sponge.

‘Oh no,’ said the redheaded boy. ‘Oh no,’ he said, to a policeman. ‘Oh no,’ he said, to a woman with blood on her sleeves. ‘Oh no,’ he said, to the tram driver, who was in such deep shock he could only breathe tiny shallow breaths into the crook of his elbow without blinking.

Another news crew arrived. A young woman in a beautifully tailored suit (Isla had once considered a career in fashion design, though of course she could not remember, and especially not right now) muscled her way through the open-mouthed crowd and made a beeline for the polite redheaded boy. Isla, knowing herself to be quite invisible, had no time to warn the reporter about the Victoria sponge on the bitumen the woman stepped in it, and her arm shot out to break her fall on Isla’s shoulder.

‘Don’t shoot this,’ she shouted to the man with the camera. She had cream on the tapered curve of her high-heeled shoes. She shoved a microphone in Isla’s face, one with a fluffy ball on the end. ‘Did you see what happened?’ she said.

Isla looked around her, at the police diverting cars and the row of unconscious passengers and the swarming mass of people creating their own story for the benefit of their later conversations, and then at herself standing right in the middle of it, and she said, ‘I think that boy saw it.’

The woman from the news station crouched down to the redheaded boy and pointed the microphone towards him. ‘Did you see what happened?’ she said.

‘Oh no,’ said the boy. ‘I think my sister did it.’

The stations would run that bit again and again, the adorable toddler blaming his baby sister for the death of three people. Behind him, his dark-haired mother would point her finger into a pushchair, where his sister would bounce and clap. And next to him, no one would notice an older woman slip away and back to the train and home again to her crumbling mansion by the sea.



Sometimes writer, frequent emotion haver. Tops mother, massive try-hard and friend. Wrote THE GULF and THE PAPER HOUSE.

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Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan

Sometimes writer, frequent emotion haver. Tops mother, massive try-hard and friend. Wrote THE GULF and THE PAPER HOUSE.