Mathilde Walter Clark
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THINGS
___Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
He had no firm idea of when it was exactly he first realized that things were
starting to disappear. To begin with, it was just the odd little thing: a screw
lid, a left sock. A camera lost on its way to the airport he explained in terms
of a momentary lapse of attention and a delivery man who had simply been
tempted beyond his strength. Little things disappeared, and reason performed
the task of explaining.
Until the morning he got up and couldn't find his shoes. First he gave
the hallway a thorough check. The baseboard was lined with straight rows of
footwear. He studied each with a critical eye, as a general would his soldiers
before an important battle. But his shoes—the ones that most recently had
carried him home from the government ministry—were nowhere to be found.
The pointless inspection continued longer than was reasonable. It was unlikely
that the shoes, having determined to disappear from his life without a trace,
all of a sudden would care to pop back into line against the baseboard. Yet
he refused to accept that something as fundamental as footwear
That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was
an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of
possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was
a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he
attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings
make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don't just disappear.
At the government ministry where he was a principal clerk he had won
full control of his surroundings. The figures it was his job to administrate
were laid out with a careful hand in rows that were straight as a die. These
were the greatest pleasure of his daily routine. The way in which they divided
the yellow, lineated paper into four equally dimensioned areas and established
such fine symmetry on the page. A complete little cosmos of figures and
systematized markings. He had instructed the junior clerk to purchase six
large boxes of the yellow paper when he had heard that the manufacturers
were about to close down. It was a quantity sufficient for him to feel confident
that he would have no need to resort to white paper for as long as he lived.
His desk was placed at a right angle from the wall, and in the bookcase
behind him, he had arranged his files. His filing system was not easy for an
outsider to fathom. The junior clerk had on several occasions tried in vain to
find important documents, but they were subject to an ingenious system that
included the color of the plastic ring binder in which they were placed. For
his own part, however, the system was one way of making matter more pliable
and of establishing a manageable arena within which his thoughts could
Matter had most certainly not shown itself to be cooperative that morning
with the shoes. Having turned the house upside down for the umpteenth
time, he sat down heavily on the sofa. Here he remained for a short moment
before sticking his head between his legs and investigating the underside of
the sofa for the third time just in case he should have overlooked something
the two previous times. All the while his brain was trying to explain away the
phenomenon, rationalizing ways in which the shoes could have slipped from
his feet on his way home without his having noticed.
Later, larger things, too, began to be drawn in. The grandfather clock
disappeared one Sunday during a protracted visit to the bathroom. He
generally liked to spend fifteen minutes there alone. Today was a Sunday, and
he had taken the newspaper in with him. He returned into the living room
and noted the bare space in the corner. The faded clock-shaped discoloration
of the wallpaper. On another occasion a whole pan full of rissole was lost into
the void, leaving him to make do with a refrigerated cheese sandwich. His
wife, Elsebeth, disappeared one Tuesday evening after he had been out to buy
Yet it was the shoes that tormented him the most. Perhaps it was because
it was the disappearance of the shoes that first had disturbed his conception
of the order of things and prevented her rightful cohesion. It was the shoes
that had introduced the unpredictability of matter into his life, like a clumsy
guide on a mountain slope who pulls an astonished group of tourists with him
in his fall into the gorge. The shoes were irrevocably and unforgivably gone.
And with them the grandfather clock, the rissole, and his wife.
It was not that the disappearance of things became routine. It simply
became less surprising with time. A whim of nature one in some odd way
learns to live with, like a physical disability. It became a natural occurrence of
a kind, albeit one contrary to nature.
When he rose in the mornings his rituals now included a thorough round
of inspection in the home. Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had
drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in
what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to
one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.
His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy.
Superordinate categories: permanent possessions and temporary possessions.
Permanent possessions included his wife and the grandfather clock, all his
furniture (including lamps and curtains), his clothes (including shoes, towels,
sunglasses, umbrella, wallet, hat, and cycle clips), his books, paintings,
electronic hardware (including extension leads), kitchenware (including
electrical implements, tea towels, and dish cloths), tools (including garden
tools, writing implements, shaving tackle, and three-in-one nail clipper, as
well as his wife's knitting machine and sewing box), photo albums, personal
documents, and letters. Temporary possessions were things towards which he
felt no close relationship, for the simple reason that they were not permanent
elements in his life. The classification did not make their disappearance
any less unacceptable; it was simply part of an endeavor to maintain a grip
on what was what. The list of temporary possessions included such things
as writing paper, kitchen towels, newspapers and magazines, perishables
(including rissole), cleaning articles, almost everything to do with his personal
hygiene (shaving foam, shampoo, toilet paper, toothbrush, and toothpaste),
and electric light bulbs. Some of the broader categories were elaborated in
the form of separate lists. For example, his primary list might specify Books:
five hundred and twelve. A suspicion as to the disappearance of certain of these
would then lead him to consult his booklist to identify more precisely which
ones were missing.
All of which might sound rather extensive. However, everything soon—
too soon, for his liking—became a lot more manageable. To facilitate his
stock-taking, he had spread most of his possessions out on the living room
floor in orderly, well-structured piles. It wasn't long before there was plenty
of room for everything. The idea had come to him the day his bookcases,
though not his books, had disappeared. It seemed obvious. He had felt quite
cheered, invulnerable even, as he spread his remaining possessions out in full
unhindered display on the tidy space of the floor. For documentation he had
photographed the piles with a disposable camera purchased specifically for
the purpose. Yet his efforts proved futile when the camera disappeared only
ten minutes later.
Presently he moved his mattress into the living room as well (the bedframe
had disappeared along with his wife) so that he could sleep in the closest
proximity to his possessions. He had yet to experience things disappearing
in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might
be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room
with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity
to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.
His routines were thus subject to constant revision according to the
whims of matter. It was humiliating, certainly, but what was he to do? For ease,
the piles in the living room were arranged in accordance with the categories
on his leaves of yellow A4. These he placed before each pile, as though they
itemized objects in a museum. It worked fine for a day or two until the
He had awoken from a particulary disconcerting dream whose content
immediately disappeared from his mind, and when he looked around him
the leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.
It were as if he acquiesced there and then. The disappearance of the lists
proved too much for him. There was no point any longer. The shoes were gone
forever, just like Elsebeth, and now his very proof of the disappearance of
things had itself disappeared. If there was any point at all to all of this, it was
utterly concealed from him.
Could it be that there was something wrong with his memory? Perhaps
his things had existed only in his head rather than in reality? Perhaps all
that matter had never really been material at all? He had no way of proving
this thought, though it would certainly have explained much. He searched
desperately through the piles for material references to his memory, but with
what was he to compare them if not his memory itself, from which the concept
of his things' existence might have emerged? There was Elsebeth, of course,
but she was no longer, and there was absolutely no guarantee that she had
ever been anything other than a figment of his imagination. The shoes. Had
he ever been able to afford such expensive shoes? He really had no idea. The
salary he drew each month for his duties at the government ministry might
have been something he imagined. It wouldn't have surprised him had it been
the case, he thought bitterly, and wished he had possessed the inventiveness
to imagine a more extravagant remuneration.
It was then he decided to gather together his final possessions. He
placed the remaining things on the mattress: four books, a local newspaper,
the remote control for the television that had long since disappeared, a sock
without a partner, a corkscrew, an empty shoebox containing old family snaps
(of which only those from his schooldays remained), a bread knife, a pair of
bathroom scales, a vase, his grandfather's pocket watch, a disposable ballpoint
pen advertising the services of an undertaker, and a single bedsheet. A heap of
unreliable matter, he thought as he tied together the corners of the sheet. He
carried the bundle out into the street.
The car had disappeared, so he took a taxi. The bundle rattled every
time they went over a bump, but its contents diminished all the while as they
neared the coast.
The weather was cold and gray, and he was all alone when he dumped
the bundle into the sea. He stood at the end of the bathing jetty, in one sock
and a laced shoe, and let the sea tug at the white sheet as the remainder of his
things slowly sank to the bottom. At last he could no longer see them through
the rush of murky waves, and on that account he felt strangely relieved.