by Simon Vestdijk, translated by Eric Dickens (2006)

It could be said with a degree of exaggeration that Albert Cockange had become a watchmaker from the moment his great-grandfather opened his watchmaker’s shop. He was who he was before he was, and he was a watchmaker, a remarkable professional, by that time already. His great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father could not help bringing him to this Earth, in this guise, with the same future profession. His watchmaker’s shop was not, incidentally, his most valuable inheritance, but his capacity for identifying completely with the watches he was offered. Not infrequently, he would perform the most intricate repairs without paying the slightest attention to the customer who stood waiting at the counter.
That rainy morning, he was just about to prise open the lid of an unusually thick, old-fashioned pocket watch, whose owner had told him it was running slow, when he, somewhat more to the left, but at the same distance from the edge of the counter, saw a pale hand lying there, constantly opening and shutting, as if trying to attract his attention, or make a sign. He glanced at it out of the corner of his eye. He was hardly aware of the fact that this hand belonged to the man who had just entered the shop, though he did seem to vaguely remember a lumbering presence in an ample dark raincoat whose collar was turned up over his ears. But the man had not handed over the watch as he described what was wrong with it, or had disappeared immediately beyond Cockange’s field of vision, and it now seemed that the pale hand had moved so far, had moved so shamelessly forward, seeming more to form part of the various rows of timepieces lying in the glass showcase than of a human body. Tinkering perfunctorily, he decided, more out of habit than out of a fear of wasting time, not to allow himself to be distracted. Or rather: this decision was no more than the distant confirmation that he was again not going to let himself be distracted. That made him feel good.
The opening and shutting continued with regularity, but during his tinkering, Cockange did notice something. He didn’t get the feeling he was being made a fool of; he did, however, entertain the possibility that the man wanted to provide further details about the fat watch by way of his monotonous gesture; but not for a moment did his fingers cease their insect-like tinkering movements. He was not afraid, he had not been startled, he had hardly been disturbed. Though it would perhaps be better if the hand were removed.
He was on the point of making some casual comment about it when his attempts were crowned with success and he managed to open the lid. The contents of the watch would, without a doubt, have entirely drawn his attention away from the pale hand, if his gaze had fallen on an ordinary brass movement, instead of what the watch case in fact contained: a thick piece of folded paper, crumpled at the four corners where it followed the rounded form of the case. Whilst the hand continued unceasingly to do its finger exercises, the watchmaker suddenly thought of the students to whom his wife rented rooms and who had once hoisted a chair up the flagpole. These irritating loudmouths, three in number, and who were waited in hand and foot by turns, by his wife and two daughters, who brought them tea and ironed their suits that were covered in vomit following pub crawls, were part of the reason for Cockange immersing himself more and more in his work, not leaving the shop for days on end; sometimes he even had his meals brought to his workshop or behind the counter, and then he had to watch out for greasy fingermarks on the watch glasses, while after marital rows he would sleep on a camp bed which he had had placed in that same workshop. He often had words with his fat, grumpy wife about the students, and he had already begun trusting his daughters less, especially the youngest, since late one evening he had seen her with one of the three, or even a fourth - as enough of them came up to the upstairs rooms for a smoke or in order to mess around, calling loudly down the stairs for more tea in affected voices - walking arm in arm under an umbrella. His old father, blind and half-senile, often asked if it was thundering: this was when the students were larking around. But because they had a separate entrance, they had never caused him any trouble in his shop. So in order to establish whether one of them had entered the shop in disguise to play a practical joke on him, he slowly raised his head. And now he heard the voice of the visitor, and this was certainly not one of the students:
“You ought really to look at the hand instead.”
“What is the meaning of this, sir?” said Albertus Cockange, holding his awl in one hand and the deceptive watch in the other, his eyes directed searchingly at the face opposite him, which was as pale, flabby and unhealthy as the hand making the movements. Otherwise, quite expressionless, with no explanatory mimicry. The fact the man had said “the hand” rather than “my hand” underlined the independent existence which Cockange thought he had already noticed.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with your hand,” he added, “I am a watchmaker, not the owner of a shop selling joke articles.”
“You don’t need to be,” the man now said, and his eyes slid along his right sleeve towards the hand and back again, “it is as a watchmaker especially that you should watch the hand, rather than trying to talk shop.”
“But I don’t want to look at your hand,” said Albertus Cockange.
“Whether you look or not, it’s going to happen anyway,” said the man, raising his arm to caress it with a glance. He looked at the wall behind Cockange where there were around forty clocks ticking away, and added: “All you have to do is say what you want: writing or making sounds.”
“Look,” said Cockange, forcing himself to adopt an acid tone of friendliness, “I can phone up all sorts of people from here. If you don’t mind taking your turnip of a watch off with you - and your hand as well.”
The man began to laugh. - “I knew that watchmakers worked against their own interests, but...” - All at once, he stared at the hand again, so impassive and meaningful, so that the watchmaker too had to look, whether he wanted to or not, and cried, an element of triumph in his voice:
“You have to look now! Look, look! Look what’s happening to the hand!”
“I don’t want to look at your hand,” repeated the watchmaker flatly, as if under duress, already completely taken over by the new antics of the limb. The man was looking with as much absorption over his outstretched arm as was the other, whom he kept on encouraging to not miss one moment of the show, seemingly as unusual and meaningful for him, as it was for Albertus Cockange. Behind him the clocks ticked on; their fortyfold metrics were making him dizzy; one struck three, despite the fact - also neglected just as much by the other clocks - that it was about half-past-ten in the morning; it confused him to have to think of this difference, while he had to look, and was indeed looking, looking, and listening; he did not notice that the awl had slid out of his hand and onto the counter and that the watch had been pushed to the edge, the bulging paper still only half inside.
What he saw was this: the pale hand, which lay palm upwards on the glass plate, was now only half a hand. There was nothing more to be seen of the fingers than a vague waving motion, phantom-like over the glass like an x-ray, whilst the palm of the hand, whose three or four creases were brought together and then separated out again, had been eaten away near the little finger. This process was completed at quite a speed. The schematic finger movements vanished, the palm took on the shape of a wedge, then melted to become a serrated triangle, next to which the stump of the thumb kept up the movements the longest, as if the rest of the hand had to be encouraged to speed up in this fashion, and then it would be the turn of the wrist, the arm, the torso, the whole body?. But before it had come this far, the man pulled back his arm and stuck his hand in his raincoat pocket. Albertus Cockange stood there, his legs trembling.
“Now it’ll start happening to you,” said the man, who seemed hardly to be aware of the fact his hand had disappeared, “just tell me what you want. Writing would seem preferable for a thinking being as opposed to making sounds, especially if you intend carrying on living here in the watchmaker’s shop. There are enough sounds here already, and yet the time still isn’t given correctly, so that I have to make a guess at the fact that it is half-past-ten. Besides, you have to take account of the fact, if you were to prefer making sounds, that this does not include speaking.”
When he noticed that the watchmaker had continued to stare at him with his mouth wide open, he came over and stood right by the counter. In a more confidential tone of voice he gave a few pieces of information:
“You could have been struck blind as a bat. But your father’s blindness was sufficient reason to choose another way. And then, you have to admit, you are tired, dog tired, less of seeing than of being seen; think of all those prying eyes: the brass cog wheels, the eternal winking of anxiety, your own eyes, staring out at you from yet more watch glasses and polished insides of watches, whose owners were keeping a close eye on you. I could explain it all to you... I mean to say this: over time, you’ve got so much in common with these objects, that all you can do is be looked at” - and he cast a glance over the shop, not sparing what was there to tell the time - “your body has gradually turned into a mechanism, something amusing for the fairground, a sad accommodation to the Thing you have tried to give consciousness by the movements of my hand which has, meanwhile, become invisible. You’re a watchmaker, eh? You were a watchmaker! You’ve gone too far, Albertus Cockange. You’ve served your time and now you are being ejected into space. You’ve got to return to the multiplicity of mutually exchangeable possibilities and impossibilities...”
He was interrupted by a faint cry. In a fit of pique, Albertus Cockange had been wanting to stem the flow of his visitor’s words by throwing, if not the bulky watch itself, then at least the folded paper inside it at his head, when he noticed that he was himself undergoing a similar process as had occurred just now to the pale hand on the counter. His right arm was already half-gone. His left, less regular in outline owing to a frothy bubbling, was enveloped in little clouds of steam. His clothes were going the same way. His whole suit was dissolving, but if only it had just been that. He looked down and could no longer see his feet. Was it his imagination that he seemed to hear a faint hissing sound coming from his body, like when sodium cubes oxidise in air? No wonder he was swaying, shut his eyes and was no longer capable of answering the question, put to him for the third time:
“So what’s it to be: writing or making sounds?”
“Writing... or...” stammered the watchmaker who was doing nothing more than repeating the question with disintegrating lips reducing his words to a weak lisp. But the man took his first word as read, and produced a dirty notebook, out of which he pulled a booklet of coupons which he lay on the counter. With his invisible hand he scribbled a few words. Albertus Cockange was already invisible, with the exception of his left hip; but he could still see perfectly well: how the booklet of coupons, a silver pencil, the notebook were put away again, and how the man, without saying farewell turned to leave the shop. At this moment, footsteps could be heard in the hall.
A rather squat woman with a boxer’s chin stepped inside, malicious looking, but at an awkward sauntering pace. She looked behind the counter, then at the visitor in the doorway.
“Isn’t my husband here?” she asked, whereupon she called out in the direction of the door to the workshop to the rear of the shop” Ab, Ab!”
“Ab isn’t here,” said the man, not impolitely, clutching his invisible hand close to him. Albertus, panicking, had almost collided with his wife, who was darting back and forth behind the counter and who, in a fit of impatience threw first the coupon booklet, then the piece of paper under the counter into the corner reserved for litter. Albertus did not know what would happen if he were to bump into his wife; it struck him that she would be the one to suffer most; so he shot round the counter, whereby the corner of the glass plate cut into his hip, by chance the one which had not yet become completely invisible. It hurt, but not much. As he under no circumstances wanted to allow the man to leave, he had no choice but to walk to the shop door, or to glide, because walking had become so easy, that it could hardly be termed as such. He was afraid to call out, afraid for his wife, but if he really had to, he would do so.
“Is that your watch?” asked Albertus Cockange’s wife.
The man had already opened the door, “ - No, it belongs to Ab,” he said with feigned sweetness and looked her in the face.
“Aren’t you going to take it with you, sir?” the woman asked.
“I’ve just told you, it belongs to Ab,” said the man.
“To Ab...? My husband is called Cockange,” said the woman mistrustfully; then, after having bethought herself, she held up the watch: “Please take it with you; we don’t buy old gold.”
“Old gold doesn’t rust,” said the man, and gripped the door knob, “and work ennobles.” - He opened the door and went out onto the street. At this point, the watchmaker wanted to begin to cry out, something of the order of “Stop thief!”, - but to his dismay he found he couldn’t utter a word. Rushing to the door, he saw the man already descending the steps, in front of the shop window. When he wanted to grab the door knob, his hand slid through it, fell through it, without hurting in the slightest. And he now understood that he would in any case not be able to apprehend the man, even if he caught up with him. This was the final blow. He shrieked soundlessly, brought his hands up to his throat, to squeeze out the sound that wasn’t there; he slumped, straightened up in despair, jumped aloft, it felt as if he had trod on a half-inflated balloon, and immediately found himself with his forehead against the clock somewhere near the top plank, without detecting any bump. All he knew was: “The clock, if I go to the blazes, then a clock too,” - but nothing happened; the clock showed ten-to-eight and continued ticking, although Cockange had touched the place where the spring was, right inside. He came back onto his invisible toes with an elastic leap. Like a cat in death throes, he repeated these useless leaps, keeping his hands to his throat, two metres, three metres in the air, in every possible direction, hitting clocks, grazing against rows of watches, going through thick plates of glass, even wood, but always within the confines of the shop. As he began to realise he would go mad if everything carried on like this, he lost consciousness, and remained motionless for a quarter of an hour near the mat. During that time, three customers waded through him.

His first thought, after he had managed to drag himself out of the shop and halfway up the stairs to the first floor, where he sat with his head in his hands, or half through his hands as it turned out, was rather idiotically and quite unreasoned too, was that he could no longer die. What had happened to him was in fact much worse than death, though he felt reasonably calm with it, without the despair he had harboured before he had fainted, even quite happy, discounting the slight twitch in his left hip which he still had from the contact with the glass plate. This hip, where the process of becoming invisible appeared to have to have been obstructed, remained for some while an area of greater density in his body, like a knot in a plank; perhaps there were still a number of vague muscles to be made out if you paid close attention; but within a couple of hours this too had passed and no sensitive photographic plate would have been able to fix anything of body as it glided by, nor would a hand passing through him have detected any resistance. On account of the hip, Albertus Cockange compared himself, not irreligiously, with Jacob who had wrestled with the angel.
Although he was safe everywhere, and could have gone and hung, so to speak, above the electric chandelier in the living room, without anyone noticing him, he went off to the attic to be able to think things out a little better. There, small rooms were partitioned off, a girls’ room and two for guests, and he now attempted to get used to his new existence by repeatedly walking through walls, from one of the small rooms to the next, or standing so that parts of his body were in three rooms at the same time. He also jumped a lot, even poking his head out through the roofing tiles; as it was still raining, he pulled it back inside, although the raindrops were falling right through his head without wetting it, in the same way as his head could pass through solid objects. What he did notice was that gravity still had a grip on him. He could pass through anything, through wood with not that less difficulty than through iron - he tried this with an old bed - and by making the effort he could float off to wherever he wished. But if he relaxed, which he found wasn’t so difficult after a little practice, then he would sink back to the place he had come from, unless there happened to be a particularly thick iron plate between him and the spot he would have found himself. Although all of this gave him a childish sense of satisfaction, and to which he clung avidly as to a reward for what had befallen him, he decided not to do anything foolish and not to abuse his new powers. And so the next few days, he still followed his normal route from one room to the other, except when the doors were shut, then he would simply glide through them. The sight of a door, slightly ajar, and through which he could just manage to squeeze, was a pleasant one; he would then make himself very thin, and acted in as close a way as the old Albertus Cockange would have done, and would deliberately ignore the fact that whole areas of his body, whose dimensions had remained the same, still cut through the wood of the door and the jamb. This he could, of course, not see; but he noticed it by way of a very subtle and light grating feeling, which he had by now termed “woodworm tingling”. Only in the case of woollen and linen cloth would he feel nothing at all; he once danced in his wife’s wardrobe to test this. He could see all the items there just like any other mortal, there was no difference between one substance and another with regard to their letting through rays of light. If he was inside them, it was simply dark all around him. The fact he could no longer speak or make any other sound did indeed correspond with what the man in the shop had said. He breathed in the normal fashion, although this did not appear to be necessary, nor sleep, which could also have led to strange consequences given the fact that his muscles would have to relax during it; he would under such circumstances have ended up sinking to the centre of the Earth. Digestion, and concomitant activities, no longer existed. What gave token of his previous existence was, apart from his memories which had in no way faded, an irresistible urge on occasions to make turning, boring, prising and filing movements, plus the longing to clap eyes on small brass objects.
As he could not cast his mind back to the shop without abhorrence, and he was sufficiently concerned about the fate of his watchmaker’s business to avoid listening to the conversations between his wife and his daughters on this topic, he spent most of his days in the attic. Once he had become used to his new way of life, and had learnt to move without being surprised that he never bumped into anything, and had begun to say to himself, without one iota of inner protest: “I am invisible, I am no longer a watchmaker, but I am invisible” - as if what was important here were not his unusual circumstances, as the impossibility of combining the concepts of watchmaker and invisibility – then he would sit brooding for hours at a time about the start of his adventure: the man in the shop, the watch, the piece of paper, the hand and the booklet of coupons. He would like to see this man again, not so much to ask him for an explanation for something as miraculous as this, but to appeal to his sense of responsibility. He would like to seize this gent by the collar and bring him back to the shop – as if this would reverse all that had since happened. Where was he and who was he? Could he, Albertus Cockange, ever again become visible, with or without the man’s help? What was written on that torn-off coupon and what on that piece of thick paper in the watch? But under no circumstances was he prepared to return to the shop to check this out.
For although one of these questions could absorb his complete attention, a new vista was opened by the thought that he could, even if not actually grab the fellow by the collar, at least trace his whereabouts, irrespective of what might then ensue. Nothing could stop him from leaving the house; he merely had to wander up through the tiles on the roof and he was in free space; and if he should choose to respect the habits of the old Albertus Cockange and leave by way of a door, then it would be that of the students rather than going through his dreaded shop. Cockange’s house had been built in a rather complex manner, because it actually consisted of two separate houses. It was a strange world of rooms which he could roam through at will; even the corridors were like rooms because he could enter them in the same way, from the top left-hand corner, or by sticking his head through the skirting boards. One of the houses stood behind the other and this could be seen clearly by visitors on account of the double scar in the shape of a short flight of stairs in the two enormously long corridors; the first floor of the (former) front house was occupied by the students, this part led, by way of a flight of stairs, to the outside door. Then there was also a middle flight, from the living-room to the first floor, and, through a door in the corridor, to the students too; these stairs functioned mainly as serving stairs; his daughters and sometimes his wife tripped or stomped up and down them with steaming food on a tray; but in the evening they would steal more quietly, sneaking to the bedrooms, not so much to avoid disturbing the students, who had in any case begun to make merry by this time, but more in order not to be heard by them so that they would yet again ask to be served tea or grog. The blind, half-senile father of the house was usually put to bed at eight o’clock.
What was strange was that Albertus Cockange, while making plans to leave the house, was seized more and more by the inordinate complications such a step would entail. And not only that, he also seemed to have grown attached to his house. And although he could always return at will, it was more a question of whether he would have the energy to do so given the experiences which awaited him outdoors. Because this brooding was filled more and more with the thought: not so much the man he was now looking for, but the ways he would have to follow to find, or not to find, him, ways leading to freedom, unknown ways... All things considered, this man was no more than an excuse. The world beyond was tempting him and the incredible adventures which would be made possible for someone who was invisible, even an invisible watchmaker. What watchmaker? He had been a watchmaker; now he could be anybody and anything; anybody and nobody. He could observe people from as close as he liked, first watchmakers, his former competitors, then others, the same way they had treated him in times gone by; everything they said and did and wrote, how they made intrigue - the statesmen, the politicians! - how they loved and hated, and all the rest; in short, his reason stood stock still at all this. And then, finally – and now he remembered for the first time what the man in the shop had said about the choice he had to make – he would perhaps be able to write down everything he had got to know, everything he had seen and overheard...
Inspired by this thought he rushed to the wall of the girls’ room, he was already in the vicinity, and scratched the surface with his right index finger, following his instinct, a tugging and urging of invisible muscles, which had now suddenly replaced in an instant the urge to tinkering with the watches, which had been Cockagne’s worst torment since his transformation. And it worked – he managed to write. Letters of the alphabet, like those made in pencil, not very black but broad enough and well defined, appeared before his eyes, and as far as he could feel they were emerging out of his fingers. He wrote with pleasure, not too much at a time but describing rather well with a feeling of proud self-satisfaction. He wrote: “Something has happened to Albertus Cockange, watchmaker, in his shop, in the shop, to Albertus Cockange, former watchmaker...” and several more words that did not mean anything. Then he gave a deep sigh and wanted to rub out the letters with his finger, but that was of course no longer possible; once words were written down, they were beyond his control. He had not counted on this fact. The pattering of raindrops caught his attention – rain again. He shivered, though there could be no question of real cold. He shivered at the world outdoors, at the things to be found in the large space there which he seemed to have so little grip on. More than anything else, these writing exercises tied him to the house for the first few weeks.

Gradually he managed to overcome his scruples about listening to what might be discussed on the subject of the watchmaker’s shop, and he often spent half-an-hour with his family, mostly crouched in a corner of the roomy, somewhat irregularly built living-room which was linked to a small and sombre yard by way of french windows. The reason for this aloofness – he could have just as easily joined them and sat on the table with his backside in the soup tureen, though the idea would never have occurred to him – he told himself was that he could get a better view of things from his vantage point. Here was his wife with her jaw and sickly complexion, usually quarrelling, then his daughters, the youngest not unpretty despite her spectacles, and, more especially, with a good figure, something which had made him, since she had become a woman, think of her often in a kindly and chaste way, as a woman who would make a man happier than he ever had been, and finally the old grandfather with his grubby glasses, his bald head with uneven hair growth and his trembling chin, whose senility expressed itself most in the unconnected manner he would speak like an insider about watches, which he would call “watchies”. By studying the group as a whole, as he imagined, it would be easier to find out how things stood, than by spying on individuals. In reality, the reasons for his staying there in the corner of the room were completely different ones.
He soon established that his departure, except for during the first few days, had not caused the slightest disturbance. Everything continued as before; people rang up to ask for repairs, invoices were presented and written out, and his wife keep the till. The amounts of money circulating told their own story: business was thriving, despite the invisibility of the owner of the shop. How was this to be explained? Neither his wife nor his daughters knew anything about clocks and watches, while his father was in a condition where he needed, so to speak, to be wound up himself to enable him to take even one step. From various utterances it turned out, and he was surprised that he hadn’t thought of this earlier, that they had taken on an assistant, or replacement, presumably a skilful watchmaker, and no doubt a keen one, because all those weeks Albertus Cockange never managed to see him. Following entirely in the tradition of his predecessor, he not only spent all his working hours in the shop, but presumably slept there too. The only thing which made Cockange have his doubts about the existence of an assistant was the fact that his wife, usually such a busybody and keen on money, never seemed to be looking in the ledgers and seemed to trust the assistant, something he would have been surprised at with regard to himself, let alone to a hired employee. In this regard too, nothing had changed: she and her daughters were totally absorbed in catering for the gentlemen students’ every wish, they did the cooking, bottles were brought in and vanished again, then a suit of clothes covered in vomit would be brought in and the younger or elder daughter would go to work on it, singing away. The conversations at table also centred on the students. They prized their pranks or, at least, justified them, and even his wife, usually so imperious, treated the students, who made such a lot of noise, and left litter on the stairs, with reasonable accommodation. It was true that they paid exceptionally well. Sometimes the old man would look upstairs with suspicion, but this was all nonsense, upstairs were the bedrooms, the students lived at the front of the house and only if they were really jigging about could you hear anything. The old man trembled and spilt his porridge; there wasn’t much in that house that was right for him; it happened quite often that while eating he imagined a student, a young man of severely lanky proportions, behind each of his two shoulders; they were about to tie the serviette round his neck, he’d better make them laugh, that he could manage. Then he would turn round, squirting out thin jets of porridge, so fine that the annoying daughter-in-law wouldn’t notice, he said in a bleating voice: “I often used to get drunk too, you know”. Should one of the daughters come to help him, he could smell this by the toilet soap instead of the eternally expected whiff of cigars, this toilet soap became more familiar to him than the soap with which he himself, and this rarely, would be washed. Because it was the girls who, these last few years, would take him to and from his bedroom and, on hot summer’s evenings, let him get a breath of fresh air by the canal which ran along the front of the house. Then he would smell her hands and her face, large, invisible flowers which had been brought close, though not too close, to his own.
But was there a replacement or wasn’t there? It did happen that the daughters or his wife used expressions of the order of “He isn’t here”, or “Hasn’t he come yet?” or “Give him it, will you”. Cockange had thought at first that these comments referred to one of the lodgers: the tall student with the finely chiselled nose, the one most popular with the ladies, despite his ridiculously demanding nature, which could hardly be satisfied by traipsing around from morn till night. But then a number of remarks were made in connection with a broken spring, a clock plinth, which left no doubt. Now, for the first time, his name was also mentioned, presumably - he entered the room a moment too late - as a hint at how things used to be done. They seemed to have forgotten him very rapidly; but his relations with his wife had, in any case, been pretty cool of late, and the girls were flibbertigibbets. They perhaps thought the whole business, about which they had initially notified the police, no doubt, too painful.
Shortly afterwards, he saw his successor in the flesh, in the half-light, so that he had to hazard a guess, but it could hardly have been anyone else. It was a singular encounter; he was more curious than suspicious, although his mistrust had been fed these last few days by something which had made him regard this man as a worker: his stubborn preference for workshop and shop. Here he would manage to avoid every form of monitoring; would he not be able to shirk without being found out, pocket valuable items, embezzle money? We should note here that the invisible man had little appetite to play the role of supervisor, not only because the shop was still a place of hellish shocks for him – a place where watchmakers were, so to speak, crushed – but because, should he detect any fraud taking place, he could hardly do anything about it, at the most note down his findings somewhere, and then he would have to wait to see whether they took account of them. But all in all, he didn’t really believe that the business was in bad hands.

It was late, after eleven, when he saw the dark figure ascend the “service stairs”, head bowed. The electric lamps in the hall was particularly weak, one of them was even broken. He was himself standing at the door of the staircase to the attic, which he had reached by a somewhat irregular route: between two beams of the living-room ceiling and with a couple of swimming strokes through the wood to the left; from experience he knew that in this way he would arrive exactly at the attic door, with as little time loss as possible, and some evenings he would amuse himself by cutting off the girls on their way to bed and looking into their faces in the uncertain light, as a lonely goodnight kiss, while his wife, still downstairs, was not present. But he had come too late, the girls were already in the back bedroom, which he did not wish to enter because they would immediately begin to get undressed; it would then become a whirlwind of arms, legs and ever whiter clothes, in the end this-and-that would be drawn up over their heads and they would plunge into bed, cackling busily; all habits from the time they had been small girls, with their father as a self-evident witness. So here he stood at the attic door, watching the door of his wife’s bedroom, once his too, and still now, should he wish it to be so, although it meant very little by now - and heard the stairs creak with the slow tread of a man. The assistant appeared, went onto the landing, shuffling his feet, his hands in his pockets, evidently lost in deep thought; he didn’t appear to be talkative, wasn’t young, wasn’t much shorter than the watchmaker himself, and wearing clothes that seemed to him, Albert Cockange, strangely familiar. For a moment the man looked, like someone about to cry out, down over his shoulder; then he aimed for the first bedroom door, opened it and entered the room, leaving the door ajar. The light was switched on. He sighed and started to whistle to himself. A chair creaked. This was all extremely odd, even worrying, because what was the man planning, and weren’t there valuables or even money hidden in the bedroom? Cockange lacked the courage to peep inside; and now his attention was caught by what followed this little scene. It was his wife that was now coming up. When she stood on the landing, the loud chinking of cups could be heard from one of the students’ rooms, whereupon she briefly listened at the dividing door, mechanically loosening a couple of the press studs on her dress; the watchmaker could guess at the conflict between her coarse fingers, her thick fingernails, and the sharp-edged buttons which belonged more in a watch than on such a dress. And he guessed something else, after he had moved deliberately towards the lit up crack between door and jamb. He guessed surprisingly much, as he stood there at the shut door a few moments later. He suppressed the temptation to peep inside, and went up to the attic, which was where he belonged.
It didn’t mean much to him. Maybe they were right; marriage plans would do nothing but increase the loyalty of the assistant, and his wife seemed too sensible not to make sure that he did have marriage plans. At worst it was shameless, so near to the girls. Because it seemed to Cockange, something which did not repeat itself for a while, that the man by way of his work and the business, had likewise taken over the marital tempo of his predecessor, with the added advantage that he now began to feel far less guilty vis-à-vis his wife and the whole family. By his disappearance, he disadvantaged them, or could have done so at least; now they were quits. The fact that the man wore one of his suits, even his best suit, could show that he would not be including as part of the business in the capacity of someone with a good deal of wealth; it was also proof that his wife harboured certain feelings. She was someone who had never been particularly helpful – feelings therefore towards the newcomer. Piety, with regard to clothes that had been worn by others could have played a somewhat greater role, he thought bitterly, but he was soon consoled by the thought that this was the best solution for his daughters. He was determined that, as the time of the marriage approached, he would leave the house forever.
Albertus Cockange didn’t again see the assistant, who slept each night on a camp bed in the workshop, and since the suit was the only thing he had recognised him by, he couldn’t get a really clear picture of the man. He also began to notice more and more other things that took place in the living-room and which affected him more than whether or not his watchmaker’s business was thriving and whether his spouse had remained faithful. The fact that he kept on sitting in the corner of the room did have other causes than those he had originally convinced himself of. Not so much to be able to survey the room better from a distance but because there was nothing that he feared more than physical contact, especially with these people, his own flesh and blood. Should he draw close to them, he would not be able to resist making use of his new abilities and simply float or fall through them, something which would be unbearable in the case of his father, indecent in the case of his daughters, repellent in the case of his wife, although reason told him that the person passed through would be equally unaware of the event than he himself. His feelings forbade him from getting any closer than about four paces. Instead of solid bodies, against which you could collide and had to avoid, there were now human chasms that you had to avoid for the opposite reasons. It was not done, in the eyes of the watchmaker who seemed to have far more scruples now than when he belonged to the realm of the visible, to stare them in the face from close by. Perhaps it was precisely to resist such a temptation, that he remained as briefly as possible in the living-room after picking up a few details or scraps of information, or what he considered as such, before withdrawing as swiftly as possible. While falling into the human chasms would have been little more than clumsiness or a challenge to the laws of nature, staring, conducted in so a long and sucking manner from close by, that he imagined himself to be breathing with them, seeing through their visible eyes, constituted something he longed for and which he simultaneously feared was becoming an addiction from which he could never again break loose. To stare for so long that they had to look back, yet saw nothing! And then thinking: they can’t see me, they see nothing, they are stupid and fat and don’t pick anything up, there are places they can’t get to, not even with their eyes, places as close to them as I now am! This felt to him like compensation for quite a lot; but if he clung to them with suckers because the feeling he would get on parting, of the person stared at were to regain his former equilibrium, seemed the worst thing in the world.
But great was his shock, even disgust, when he realised that vampire-like staring had been practised for a very long time in this household! Earlier, there had been regular Bible evenings held by a little circle of friends; he knew his Bible well enough to regard this as a pleasure, although on the other hand, his wife, in her blunt ignorance, made use of these evenings to make him look ridiculous or expose his lack of knowledge; something which proved to be quite easy, if you had the Book right under your nose and then started quizzing people. The atmosphere of a presbyters’ gathering, of which these evenings were a good imitation, then changed into pretty vulgar confirmation classes. Albertus’ wife loved to box him round the ears with prophets and the order of the books of the Bible, and if he didn’t have anything to answer back she would remain reasonably content for the rest of the evening. His old, blind father was always present and was allowed to stay up. This time too, during the first revival of the honourable practice since Cockange’s accident, the first one in their house at least. First he floated down to see if everything was in order and whether the old man was sitting comfortable in his armchair, with mulled wine in front of him; it also interested him whether the visitors would speak about him, but he was disappointed in this. The assistant was absent; perhaps the man was not religious, something hinted at by the way he entered bedrooms. At nine o’clock, he came to look for a second time. They were dealing with the Book of Ruth, everything was going well. His wife was not interrupting anyone, neither when people read aloud, nor during the analysis or improvised little sermons, which everyone was allowed to give at their own discretion. He listened from the attic until a quarter past eleven to hear whether the girls had come home, as they had been invited to a party, also listening to the students immediately below him, who seemed to be debating with equal fervour, although on different topics. By the raising of voices and the slamming of doors he could hear when the guests left; he waited a while, because he could make out from the reactions of the students that the girls had also arrived home: a sash window was slid up, shouts to down below. But if they were drunk, they could well have also made cheeky observations to the departing guests. No, it hadn’t been the girls. Everything went quiet again. A short while afterwards, he went down for a third time, suddenly worried about his father who would now have to be taken to bed by his wife, so worried and impatient that he even entered the living-room between two beams, from diagonally above, and could get a full view of what was happened at that very moment. The two of them were sitting opposite one another, his wife at the Bible, her hands placed on either side like someone preaching from a lectern, her eyes boring into the blind ones of the old man whose right hand was groping for his glass of wine. Cockagne knew that on such evenings, one he’d got over his sleepiness, he needed wine, or imagined he did. But as soon as the hand nearly reached the wine glass, his wife leaned over and moved it a little further away. Presumably imagining herself to be alone in the room, the greybeard began to grope again, muttering to himself. But now something terrible happened. The woman stood up slowly, with her hand still on the table, still staring the blind man in the face, glowing with hatred, so intolerant, so obstinate and self-satisfied, convinced that she was right, so witheringly, that to the watchmaker who was a witness of this scene from not so far away from his father, with throbbing heart, it seemed that she could at any moment reach across the table and strangle him, without the least pang of conscience, or even fear of punishment. He had never known that she was possessed of such hatred, although the old man was very troublesome. Leaning right across the table she pressed with her fat belly against the Bible, staring but, as if her eyes would emerge on the other side of the old head, at the point where there were a couple of crazy, yellowish curls, which Albertus could see quite clearly. She could not lean any further over. But now she began to pull faces, to make threats with her lips and teeth and with her jaw, while the old man mumbled and searched for his glass, missed his goal and gazed out in front of him into the void. She seized the glass, put it to his lips to give him a drink but then, and this was also part of the mockery, put it back down on the table, right in front of his chest, between his arms, the right one still groping, much further forward, to the left and to the right.
Without really knowing what he was doing, Albertus walked round the table and stood next to her. He put out his invisible right arm, which trembled much more than those of the senile old man opposite and wrote, in as large letters as he could, on the open page of the Bible, which was now almost entirely hidden under the belly of the woman: “Stop these bloody Judas tricks”. This approach cost him an enormous amount of self-control. Presently, I’ll have my hand in her body, he thought, and there’ll be letters inside her; even for this bout of pestering the old man, he thought that that would be too severe revenge. He would have preferred to choose the passage about mene, mene tekel uparshin for this purpose, but there was no question of choice, he was after all unable to turn pages, just as little as being able to box his wife’s ears, kick her or bawl her out; it was the Book of Ruth and it remained Ruth, and in the end, the page made little difference. Full of agitation, he waited for what would happen. With a grin, full of Schadenfreude, which threatened to turn into a crude and motherly form of tormenting, as soon as she heard the front door slam, she snapped with her index finger in the direction of the old man’s ear, without touching him. In order to achieve this, she had to lean so far over the table that the Bible was pushed away and ended up lying crooked, and when she stood straight again in order to regain her seat, a movement which caused her lose her balance momentarily, she turned at least a hundred pages with her body. Suddenly the girls came in and Albertus Cockange hastily withdrew, as they moved towards his wife, flushed, babbling, fresh from the night air.

So this was his house. Not a house, indeed, where a man who had the world at his feet, if he so wished, should carry on living. His old plans popped up again in his mind and the following morning, very early, wilfully ignoring the construction and exits of the building, he started off, cut through washing lines, beams, joists and roofing tiles, coming into contact with everything he could and rose into the sunny atmosphere above the roof, with birds flying around or through him, and the odd butterfly. Spring! What now? His feeling of power soon quickened and made him forget about all the humiliations caused by assistants, devilish daughters-in-law and unruly pages of the Bible. This was something no one would imitate, after all. Rising even higher, he was afforded a view of the canal, the pristine foliage which almost filled the channel; then the water appeared, and through the haze of twigs and branches he saw the cobblestones, the butcher’s and the baker’s. Perhaps all of this was rather beautiful. The sun stood sober at the end of the row of houses, more and more of whose roofs he now had a view of, red mountain ridges with moss and the caves of glaciers formed by the dripping guttering, and above all this pigeons and crows, the odd seagull busy moving towards the coast. Back yards opened up, gardens became rectangular, the perspective of outer walls impossibly narrow. He was without plans, simply enjoying the power of the movement of his own crystal transparency. Ever more roofs; and now the town lay beneath him, girded by the green of avenues, by the blue of distant hillls. He made a quarter turn in flight and looked at the tower of the cathedral which he was already rising above.
But now a doleful feeling of emptiness ripped through him. He knew all of a sudden that he must under no circumstances lose sight of the roof of his home if he wanted to move further away. Had he not already lost sight of it? He had presumably strayed too much to the right; the crazy idea even struck him that the wind had swept him along, blowing from the west as it was, judging by the trees and the smoke. By relaxing, he managed to sink several dozen metres and again caught sight of the canal embankment. As the roofs all looked alike, he had no choice but to sink even further and look at each roof, one by one, or if it really proved necessary, to reach the canal and go up through the students’ entrance, keeping his eyes firmly turned away from the shop. Just as he was beginning to put this plan into practice, and holding his breath, which would no doubt help him to relax his muscles, he spotted on the roof a couple of human figures, tiny men waving their arms. He steered a little nearer but before he even managed to recognise their faces, he realised that he’d found his own house. Now he also saw who they were: the tall student with his superior behaviour, the one with the most forced voice of them all, and the short, fat one who always acted as a satellite to the tall one. Although he suspected that here was something which could disturb his peace of mind, and that it was not for nothing that he had, up to now, scrupulously avoided the students and their rooms as well as the shop and workshop, and that he should heed this warning by floating by and never more returning, he observed their behaviour with great intensity, whereby he began to wonder about their rapid movements, like those of young animals, bears, for instance, and which had something unspeakably roguish in them, an innocent, but therefore so much more dangerous roguishness.
Nevertheless, he thought that he could still amuse himself, as long as he ignored a loose roofing tile. Up to the ridge of that steep roof, in gym shoes, and then tricks such as one leg to the side, and in between obscene songs; that was quite something, even farcical. But now, after these more or less altruistic actions, they started getting reckless. They slid down, banging their fists on the tiles and leapt along the guttering, stamping spitefully in order to destroy everything. They then reached the back of the house, where the tall one was a few moments later lying on his stomach in order to peer downwards. Right below him was the yard. Behind him stood his satellite, shrieking like an old woman, then dancing again. But the tall one kept silent, and when the other one bumped into him, he waved him away, not wanting to be disturbed.
Albertus Cockange, on the ridge of the roof, now also glided towards the back façade, and it became immediately clear to him what had caught the student’s attention. It was not something in the yard or the neighbours’ gardens. It was exactly between the yard and the guttering – on the first floor, by the bedroom window, where his younger daughter was busy. She had stuck her head out of the window and was looking up. She was very flushed, blinking her eyes behind her spectacles against the light; but her eyes were focussed on the student diagonally above her; unyielding, pleading, in love, those blue eyes looked through a curtain of blinking, like a ray of light through restless waves. And this gaze was answered: there was no doubt about it! What a lot of eye contact, what a shameless baring of pupils – Albertus Cockange grew all hot and cold, and anxious above all, more anxious than angry. After such glances you could expect anything. There was no longer any question of recklessness or larking around, although the fat student was still showing off behind his courting mate; this wasn’t a first, shy attempt at getting to know one another, no, it was, in this spring weather, the consummation of innumerable meetings of eyes and hands that had gone before. The student, who usually had such a big mouth, was nearly as flushed as the girl. By God, soon the two faces would tear themselves loose to become one glowing red ball, shooting out rays, and unite. Even if you put the young man in hell, the young woman in heaven, after such glances, they would still manage to meet somehow. And he was powerless. Powerless as a father, and so much more so now he was invisible. This gazing, although it lasted no longer thanh twenty seconds, was far, far more painful than what he had experienced the night before.
He chased though the house that morning like a harpy. He discovered places where he had never been before and kept on coming again to the rooms of the students, in a hopeless mess, cigar stubs and exercise books full of learned notes. They had gone out. Everywhere in the house, except in the shop and the workshop, he found something which had gone wrong or was in the process of doing so. The business – the money – the senility of his father – the passionate cruelty of his wife which had to erupt sometime – the assistant, who would abandon her – the stove over which his father could stumble – what the neighbours were saying about the students – what the students were saying about his daughters – one endless vexation in Albertus Cockange’s mind. If only he could express himself! That was the worst about it: being the conscience of a whole household and not being able to utter a word that could prevent the downfall of these people. He found things out which wrenched his heart – his invisible heart in his invisible body. Unspeakable forms of filth. Dead flies in places where no one ever came, but which were still there. Cigarette ash in the food, absolutely and unerringly. Holes as big as fists in his blind father’s socks. And everything to do with the girls. He found this all out and an unbearable feeling of remorse burnt within him, because he’d let these habits become a canker, letting the girls into the rooms of the students, in order to make their beds! No he took stock of this all, he understood that this was no work for his wife; but what sins, what cruel acts, were there that could be explained away? The more you spied on them, the more you found out.
In the end, two days later, once again in the morning, he discovered what he wanted to. In the cramped girls’ room, at the front of the house, he had let himself glide down at that particular hour; the hour they would be tidying the students’ room. Because he had sworn never to miss a day. At first, the students’ rooms looked deserted – his daughter hadn’t arrived yet, everything was in a mess, and he had grown irritated at this provocative untidiness, which seemed to have no other aim but to be unpleasant for less tidy people. Then suddenly he heard whispering behind him. He had wanted to ignore it by first going to look in the two other student rooms; in the end it seemed the best tactic to turn his back on it, move towards where the whispering was coming from, then whirl abruptly round. Indescribable minutes followed. From very close by, closer than he had ever come to any human being in this new life of his, he observed, with terrible self-torment, the student and the girl, leaning on one another on the corner of the old sofa. With no other wish than to see, to see everything, he had, in the most abnormal fashion – especially the proximity had something crazy about it, like sitting with your nose right above a panorama – become witness to lovemaking which might have been new to them both, but which would for all that not come any more slowly to an irrevocable finale. The student at least was kissing as if his life depended on it. Cockange’s daughter clung to him and pushed him away with almost the same movements of her arms. For half a minute she sank into the sleep of a thousand years as in a fairy tale, tender, alone, having died so sweetly. The student said, that she was sweet, upon which she began to get curt and wild and took off her glasses, while the student looked towards the window as if he wanted to let down the roller blind. And the father saw all this, with a taste in his mouth as if he, however invisible he might be, was beginning to putrify while still alive. Because it was death in life that he was experiencing, the death of old, long-cherished feelings, the sinking away of every point of support, and not because that panting piece of swank was his own daughter, whom he had to protect, but because he hoped with his whole heart for an end to come to it all. And end had to come to it, in whatever way, an end to the tormenting doubt and care for others – the visible people who would have to manage on their own. The more irrevocable the end to all this, the better; the more powerless he felt, the more clearly he would realise that it was indeed an end...
At length, Albertus Cockange awoke from his fateful trance. This should, this must, continue no longer. It was his duty, as father, to interfere. He rushed to the wall, the patch of wallpaper above the more and more suspiciously rocking sofa, half leant over the couple, taking all the precautions necessary not to touch them, and wrote in wobbly, but colossal, letters: “Hilda, watch out! Your father.” Rushing about the room he scribbled the exercise books and letters belonging to the young gents and that were lying around full of the same warning: “Hilda, don’t do this to me! Your father.”, or “He’ll make you unhappy, Hilda, think of your mother!” Then he scribbled two other walls full, in monsters of letters, but it didn’t help. He flew around like a trapped bird, wrestling with impulses as ridiculous as they were ineffectual; writing on her hands, on her dress, throwing himself upon them, walking through them, in the hope that they would notice something. Ugh, then they’d probably be kissing where his liver was. He was powerless. In a fit of desperate rage he struck the back of the chair with his hand, struck through it. Would the boy be so crude as to seduce this girl right under his nose? My God, what was he to do?
But now he understood what his only chance would be, and that of his daughter. He would have to try to again become visible! At all costs. As a visible father, he would storm into the room and throw out the young scoundrel. It had to happen. In the same way as he had been rendered invisible by way of a hand and a watch case with a piece of paper inside and a coupon, so he could, by using the same objects, which would no doubt still be lying around in the shop, try to undo the spell. But he remembered all too well where his wife had thrown down the piece of paper and the coupon, on which there were probably written formulae or tips for invisible watchmakers who’d had enough of it. Seeing the shop once more would be a terrible experience, and contact with the assistant no doubt unpleasant. But he wouldn’t begrudge his own child such an action. With no further hesitation, he calculated where he would have to sink through the floor; he relaxed, felt the woodworm tingle rise higher and higher, like water around the legs of a bather, with his feet already thrashing about in the shop. He shut his eyes to avoid having to see any more of the sofa. His eyes shut, he fell into the shop and landed softly on his feet, bracing himself immediately, to prevent himself from sinking further. He opened his eyes.
What he did find in the shop, which he had avoided for so long, was that little had changed. Rows of clocks, with the obtusity of their faces, in the security of their mahogany surrounds, were ticking madly. A cuckoo clock, which would choke on the whole of nature and the kingdom of birds, if care wasn’t taken. Watches which didn’t show a smaller time, but the same, which was something of a miracle. Wristwatches in the display case. A broad ray of sunlight on the accessories of bedside tables with stripes of radium. Albertus Cockange took this all in at a glance, then he made a determined move for the counter. Behind it stood a figure in a long grey dustcoat, reparing a watch, leaning slightly forward, with slow, skilful hands and a frown frozen between his eyebrows, a frown which resembled the number XII on the watch face, and which made Cockange immediately realise what this man was not, and never could be, even if God were to shuffle all professions and sub-professions up. No way that this man was not the assistant he had expected to find in the shop. Why wasn’t he the assistant? Because it was he himself.
Indeed, there stood the invisible Albertus Cockange, who had just tumbled down from the student’s room, looking as if into a mirror. With the difference that the man opposite him not only had the advantage of being visible, but was also working and seemed not to be victim of the fathomless wonder that he himself, the invisible one, had fallen prey to. They were the same, but they behaved differently. With attention – the attention of a child seeing something for the first time – he watched as the he himself, or his alter ego, or the real Albertus Cockange, or whatever you would want call the figure behind the counter, picked up a tiny cogwheel with a pair of tweezers, held it up to the light, blew through it with gravity, through all the cogs. That used to be his work! This mouth had been his, this nose his nose, and the pepper-and-salt moustache had often reminded him of approaching old age. The creases in the cheeks, the wart on the left-hand side of his forehead - it was all there. And the same wooden movements. There was no doubt about it: this was the living – albeit a little deathlike – it was the citizen Albertus Cockange, deprived of nothing, that stood before him, who had been standing and living here all these months in the workshop and the shop, immutable as always – who had all these months been making the movements that belonged to his profession and would continue to make until his dying day.
A feeling of respect seized him as he very slowly stole over to the counter, almost a feeling of pity. He felt the need to salute this man. For the first time, he understood everything about his life, and why he had had to undergo these changes – this new change especially, it was as if he had become invisible, even more invisible, now not chemically eaten away by magic, but cleansed, in one fell swoop, in an instant. How absorbed the man was with what he was doing, how much had he put all his soul in that watch, in one of its cogwheels, one of its cogs, and the dust sticking to it! A somewhat absurd, somewhat lifeless man, this Albertus Cockange, who would stay behind alone, and to whom he would now have to say farewell.
Because this was the decision he had made: not for one minute longer, one minute of these clocks ticking to eternity, would he stay in this house. He had nothing more to gain here. He had become detached from everything. The way the clock ticks at home, it never, thank God, ticks anywhere else; since nowhere would things oppress him as they did here, ridiculous things, ridiculous duties and responsibilities, which no one on Earth could ever discharge, duties which were best handed over to some illusory figure or other, to a convincing dummy.
Without his feeling of respect and pity being in any way diminished, he walked right up to the counter, looked for a completed invoice which his doppelgänger had written out, stuck out a finger and wrote: “Sir, your daughter is being seduced upstairs.” During the time he was writing this, it cost him some effort to imagine that this warning concerned the younger daughter of Albertus Cockange who was so absorbed in his watches. Was it the younger one? No, he shouldn’t start having doubts about that now – it was a certain younger daughter of a certain Albertus Cockange. He took a run up, flew through the pane of the display cabinet, through the shop window, between the green branches of the trees, and vanished into thin air.


Translation © Eric Dickens, 2006

Original story in Dutch © stichting administratiekantoor auteursrechten Simon Vestdijk