The man with the black bar over his eyes said: “My name’s [deleted] and I’m anonymous.”
“Hi [deleted],” the group chorused, sitting around him on foldaway chairs arranged in a semi-circle.
“I suppose I’ve always had a tendency to be non-descript,” the man said in his quiet, unassuming voice. “For the most part, I didn’t think it was a problem. As a child, I was left to do my own thing and to be honest that’s kind of how I liked it. I remember going to birthday parties and just sort of being there while every one else around me played games and stuff and somehow I’d just get… overlooked. They’d sit in a circle for the pass the parcel and somehow I was just kind of hung around outside the ring and the parcel… well, it passed right by. And perhaps it was coincidence that the mums always mis-counted when cutting the cake, but I never got a piece to take home. After one party, my parents forgot to come and pick me up. It got to about ten o’clock and Sam Jessop’s mum found me reading comics in the larder and had to call my mum and dad. When they got there, they looked kind of embarrassed, but… I don’t know… there was something about the way Mrs Jessop said ‘we just forgot he was there’ and the way my mum nodded and looked at me… I don’t know…”
[deleted] took a sip of water to clear his throat.
“It was the same at school. I wasn’t the brightest kid in the class, but I wasn’t stupid either. I suppose I did just enough not to be noticed, either as a problem or a prospect. The thing was that there was always someone shouting or throwing pens across the classroom, so why would they notice me, sat at the back with my head down? They wouldn’t. And they didn’t. Sometimes my form tutor sometimes forgot to call my name out in the register. For a while, they thought I was bunking off, until I proved to them that I was there and had done all the work. Then it was all forgotten about.
“I thought it would be different once I got out of school and into work. I thought it was a chance to leave it all behind and start fresh, but it was just the same stuff all over again. Worse, in fact, because I was working for a big company with thousands of employees and amongst all those people it’s easy to get lost. And that’s what I did. I lost myself.
“I remember going to a Christmas party one year and looking round at all these people having a good time, talking to each other, flirting with each other, dancing badly and getting pissed and I wondered what it was that made them special. Why could they all do that and I couldn’t? It wasn’t for want of trying. I’d try to strike up conversations and people would just look blankly at me and walk off. I tried making friends and it would be OK for a while, but then people would just sort of drift away. If I ever tried to ring them up there would be that five second pause after I said my name where they’d just be wracking their brains trying to work out who I was and where they knew me from.
“So I just stopped trying. I just couldn’t make the effort any more, so I figured ‘why bother?’. For a while, I thought that if they couldn’t see me, then I was free to do what I wanted. I’d confused being forgettable with being invisible, so I stopped going to work and thought that I’d be able to live off the salary at my leisure. That didn’t work out, obviously, and I learned the hard way that while you might as well not be there, someone always notices when you really aren’t. I had to make up some excuses about an aunt dying and being called away to tend to her estate. All lies, but nobody really cared that much. They just wanted that empty seat filled.
“But it was at that point that I met someone. Someone that I worked with every day, but never really noticed before.” [deleted] said, smiling at the memory. “He recognised in me the same condition that he dealt with every day and he was the one who first told me about this fellowship. He said that there was a place where I wouldn’t be ignored, where I could meet others who share my condition and with whom I could speak openly about my struggle. A place where I could be recognised.
“I thank God that I met that man when I did, because I honestly don’t know how much longer I could have gone on like that. Since coming to my first meeting, I’ve learned how to manage my disease and with the tools this programme has given me, I’m able to live with my anonymity. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot. I still get ignored and forgotten. On the way to the meeting tonight a bus drove straight past me as I stood at the stop with my arm out. It wasn’t full. The driver just didn’t see me. Before I came in, something like that would have eaten me alive. Now I can laugh at it and wait for the next one. Or walk. Either way, I’m happy to be here. Thanks.”
And the others shared their experiences, sometimes with laughter and sometimes with pain. Mary (not her real name) spoke from the shadows about how difficult she found it to show herself after being abused by a teenage sweetheart, while Mr X shared his memories of being perpetually passed over when football teams were picked at playtime. Electronically disguised voices spoke up about their struggles with anonymity and the comfort they found from sharing their experience with people who understood, people who had been there and experienced those same struggles first-hand.
And little by little, their masks fell away. The tone of the voices shifted from synthetic disguise to natural timbre and pixellated faces regained their resolution. Pseudonyms were dropped as people gained confidence in their true identities. Mary’s real name was revealed to be Sue, Mr X was John and the name of the first speaker was unerased from the record as he closed the meeting, his blue eyes gleaming where a black bar had once been.
“Thank you all for helping me be identifiable,” he said, “and try to remember that anonymity isn’t an end – it’s a beginning.
“My name’s Peter and I’m anonymous.”