With just four pages to go, Ethel Leatherhead decides, ‘Nothing, and no-one, it is turning out, is what they first appear’. On several occasions in the preceding chapters, Ethel herself has not appeared at all – she’s literally been invisible for hours at a time. This has been exciting, embarrassing and downright dangerous, but it’s in the most urgent of causes; she’s trying to find out ‘who I am’.
Ethel lives in Whitley Bay, on the blustery coast of North East England with her Gram and their labrador, Lady. Gram is ‘very proper’; she can, and does, classify pretty well everything as either ‘common’ (The X-Factor) or ‘vulgar’ (The Eurovision Song Contest). If a programme is deemed ‘vulgar’, it means Gram actually likes it, so it’s permitted viewing. Being very proper in no way diminishes Gram’s love for Ethel, who was only three when her Mum, Gram’s daughter, died tragically. Ethel’s Dad isn’t around; it’s rumoured he drifted back to his native New Zealand long ago. Great-gran is living in a home, though, approaching her 100th birthday; sometimes she makes sense when Ethel and Gram visit, and sometimes she even seems to want to share secrets with Ethel. Ethel is now in Year 8, not exactly Miss Popularity, but she’s getting by, keeping her head down. Or she was, until the spots, zits and boils of the Acne Army pimpled up and now she’s mocked by classmates (‘Pizza Face’), including one or two who once were friends. The worst persecutors by far are the Knight twins – Jarrow (F) and Jesmond (M), the kind of loudmouths you avoid if you’ve any sense. Ethel also tries to avoid an overweight, bumptious newcomer from down South, Elliot Boyd (‘Boydy’ to his friends). To Ethel’s horror, Boydy seems to think they’re best mates.
On the web, Ethel searches for acne escape-routes. First, she tries large doses of ‘Dr Chang His Skin So Clear’, purchased online. Next, she acquires a clapped-out sunbed from a failed tanning salon, since everyone knows tanning can see off acne. But when she’s swallowed her Dr Chang and put in a shift on the sunbed, she is terrified to discover that though her clothes are still there, there’s no flesh visible inside them; she can even spot a cupful of recently-drunk tea floating about in there. The clearest evidence of her physical existence is a series of foul-smelling burps generated by Dr Chang’s potion.
The first person to twig what’s going on is Boydy, who proves to be a loyal and sensitive friend in time of need, and there are plenty of needs aboard this plot’s high-speed ghost-train ride (too spectral and startling to be a mere roller-coaster). Probably the best forays into invisibility occur when Ethel has to do a spot of burglarising inside the Knights’ house when the twins threaten serious blackmail; and again when she rescues Boydy from utter humiliation in the School Talent Contest (he hasn’t got any). Stark naked but invisible (obviously the clothes would have given the game away), Ethel nips on stage, grabs Boydy’s guitar and wafts it about, strumming a couple of chords, and then the guitar floats off through the auditorium, with Boydy in hot pursuit. It’s a knock-out with the audience, but it’s also high risk since she’s never sure when the invisibility will wear off – and it’s a fine piece of comic writing.
Meanwhile, Gram is behaving very oddly. She, of all people, is harbouring secrets. Piece by piece, the jigsaw of Ethel’s life becomes clear, as the mysteries about Dad, Gram and Great-gram fall into place, and the truth about Mum emerges. At first, Ethel is angry – they have all been lying to her, even about her name; but then she sees that behind the secrets, these grown-ups had troubles of their own or they were trying hard to shield her from pain. So although no-one is what they first appear, she realises that what looked like deceptions have been prompted by love, not malice or indifference.