I'm Still Here!

...perhaps his rival had been sitting beside us throughout our conversation, and had written the message when Nathan wasn't looking.

By the end of 1933, I think I could fairly say that I was an experienced traveller. I had seen and heard enough so that I wasn't panicked by the unpredictable, and I had developed a level of equanimity that enabled me to enjoy seeing new places, but withstand their ordeals as well. Yet there were always more mysteries to contemplate.

One morning, as I finished my breakfast in the dining room of my hotel in Zagreb, I was given a letter by the concierge. It was covered in stamps and forwarding instructions, indicating that it had been following me for some time, and had finally managed to catch up with me. The letter was from my second cousin Mathilda, who lived in Bath - I had only met her a handful of times, and couldn't imagine why on earth she was writing to me. I ordered more coffee, put on my spectacles and opened the letter.

Dear Albert,

I hope this finds you as well as can be hoped for, and that you are continuing to recover from the loss of your dear wife.

I have heard that you are travelling the continent, and I hope that this letter may catch up with you. Will you be travelling anywhere near Hamburg? It would mean a great deal to me if you could find the time to meet with Nathan. He was engaged to be married, but it has been broken off, I suspect due to her wishes. He has been sending me letters of an increasingly erratic nature for quite a while now, but he seems unwilling to travel home to visit. Since my husband died some years ago, I have been unable to afford such luxuries as the means to travel to Hamburg to see Nathan. I have asked him if he would meet you, and he is happy to do so, but for some reason is quite adamant that if you meet, it must be in January. He will not say why. If, Heaven forbid, Nathan's behaviour takes a turn in some nasty direction, I fear something terrible could occur. If you should be able to visit him, and let me know how he is, I would be immensely grateful. I have included his card, which will enable you to contact him.

With all my love,

Mathilda

Nathan was Mathilda's son, an only child, and he had moved to Hamburg to study for a biology degree at the university. Giving my assistance in what was likely to be a delicate matter made me uncomfortable, as I didn't know Mathilda well, but it seemed she had nobody else to help her, so it was clearly the honourable thing to do. The ad hoc nature of my travel habits meant a trip to Hamburg was no disruption, and as January was only two weeks away, I made the necessary arrangements and arrived there on the 11th, with a view to meeting Nathan the next evening in the sitting room of my hotel.

When Nathan was little he had been an uncommunicative child, and did not warm to other children. He had a love for animals, and insisted that the family own the maximum number of dogs and cats allowed by the local authorities, plus many other small animals and insects that he could secretly adopt and cherish. He had found a vole in the garden which had been mauled by a cat, and he stayed up through the night to tend to it, until it expired, unsurprisingly, in the morning. He had suffered from bullying at school - his way of coping with it was to not respond to the bullies, as if they weren't there, hoping they would grow bored and leave him alone. But the bullies would take his behaviour as a display of snobbishness, and it only served to perpetuate Nathan's suffering.

The Nathan I knew as a little boy had grown to become a thin, neatly presented young man, with a long nose and close-set, clear blue eyes. I found that throughout our conversation, he seemed to meet my eye only with an act of will, and at other times his gaze would naturally fall downwards. The sitting room was large and comfortable, with a high ceiling, luxurious furniture and walls of polished oak - fortunately there were not too many people there, so I didn't anticipate the need for us to keep our voices down.

"Mister Butler! It's very nice to meet you again!"

"And you, Nathan! But please call me Albert - you're not a boy any more! Why don't we sit down. Here, I have cigars which I bought in Portugal. Imported from Panama, they told me."

"I say, thank you very much! You know Albert, I remember you when you visited us in Bath. I stole your bowler hat, but you let me keep it for the rest of the day!"

"Goodness, you remember that? It must be over ten years ago!"

"Oh yes, I believe so. It's funny the tiny details you remember from long ago. But now Mother tells me you're travelling around Europe."

"Yes, I have been for over two years now."

"That sounds very exciting!" he said. "I envy you. Perhaps one day I might do something of the sort myself. Now let's get to the heart of it - you must tell Mother that she has no cause for worry. I have my problems, but then, who doesn't?"

"Oh? What's troubling you? Perhaps an outsider's perspective may help. You may rely on my discretion, Nathan, I assure you."

"Yes I'm sure I may, but I fear you might only think me paranoid... I say, this cigar is a fine thing. I wish I could afford to buy one of these from time to time. Where did it come from?"

"From Panama."

"Panama," he said, "yes, I beg your pardon, you did tell me. You see, it's one of my fellow students. The sad thing is, he was my best friend. The short version of it is that he became jealous of my fiancé (Charlotte is her name), so he began to tell her lies to make her leave me and love him instead. She believed him so completely that she eventually called off our engagement. But perhaps I'm boring you with the sordid gossip in my life?"

"Not at all. Tell me anything you wish."

"You're a good man, sir. Tell me, what brings you to Hamburg?"

"Er... well, I'm travelling Europe, and your mother suggested we get in touch."

"Ah, of course. Yes. I did know this. Now I was talking about my friend, I think."

"Yes, please go on."

"Well," Nathan said, "the sad thing is, he was my best friend. But our rivalry became more and more acrimonious. Yet we had academic obligations which made our association compulsory. Then, one night as we were conducting a chemistry experiment, he said to me,

'Shall we have a drink before we proceed?'

"And while I was looking elsewhere, he poured out two glasses of the wine we had been in the habit of drinking for its cheapness. But I noticed in the reflection of a window that he poured something from a small beaker into the glass he intended me to drink. He gave me the glass, but I demanded that he drink from it instead. He jumped at me, I fought against him, and in our struggle I managed to turn it around so that he was forced to drink the concoction. He reeled back, his face struck with terror.

'You've ruined me!' he screamed. 'Within ten hours, I will be invisible. After that, no eye, no mirror will ever see me again, no light will cast my shadow, I shall be gone from the sight of the world forever! But you will still feel my presence, damn you!'

"He ran from the room, and I was left too shocked to know what to do. Of course, I naturally presumed he was speaking figuratively. But it wasn't long before I realised he had become invisible. Literally invisible!"

I couldn't even begin to think of how to reply to this. Was he messing about with cocaine, or something of the kind? Had he become confused after going to the cinema? But silence is sometimes the best form of interrogation - I watched Nathan for a few moments to see what he would say next. Yet he seemed to continue without worrying about being considered a liar.

"I can guess what had happened. In the weeks leading up to this, we had been working on the chemical basis of disease immunity in the epidermis of reptilians of the Iguania suborder. He had been talking about finding a way to increase the speed and coordination of guanine nanocrystal excitation using glutamate neurotransmission to achieve quicker antibody formation, and he must have stumbled on a method of inducing invisibility while he was experimenting with chameleon scales. Of course it's easy to see why he had seized the opportunity to try to make me invisible. If he succeeded, then I couldn't rival him for my fiancé's affections, and yet he had not broken any law. Unfortunately my fiancé (Charlotte is her name), called off our engagement anyway. It's hard enough to be rejected by the woman you love. But since then the invisible man has been looking for an opportunity to take his revenge on me for making him drink his potion. He has followed me and tormented me, in many ways. Sooner or later I fear he'll finish me - but I can't foresee when or how it will occur. Now, I suppose you were wondering why I was only prepared to meet you in January. The fact is I feel much safer walking the streets during the colder months of winter for a simple reason - an invisible man must be completely naked to remain undetected, and in cold weather he is obviously reluctant to be without clothing. I know you must think me paranoid, but I want to tell you the things I have seen. Things that I know, but you may not believe me, because I sound paranoid."

"Well, give me an example," I said.

"I returned to my room one night to find he had stolen my repeating watch from my desk. It was a gift from my late father, and it was my most valued possession. I frequently left it behind on my desk if there was a chance of rain."

"Is it possible that you simply misplaced it?"

"Of course it's possible. But then I was almost killed when a car went out of control on Hallerstra├če two weeks ago."

"Yes, but accidents happen on the roads every day."

"Well, I've been hearing threatening words from the street come through my bedroom window at night. I'm sure it's him."

"Surely there could be a reasonable explanation for that as well?"

"Of course, damn it. But there are too many other things he has done, that don't readily come to mind. Look, when one flips a coin it's an even chance of heads or tails. But if one flips it twenty times, and it's heads every time, doesn't that make you think there are other factors at work?"

"Well, I don't know. But you're getting worked up, Nathan. Just calm yourself for a moment."

"I knew it, I knew I shouldn't have said anything," he muttered. "But there is something else. I think he has done something to affect my brain, I don't know how, maybe he has poisoned my food, or stolen the electrical apparatus from the neurology lab, and is using it against me somehow, I don't know how. I keep saying things to people, and they remind me that it had already come up in conversation. Have you noticed anything like that?"

"Yes, perhaps a little," I admitted.

"Oh my God, it's not my imagination... My God, of all the things he has done, this may be the worst."

Nathan put his face in his hands, and was silent for a minute or so. I began to worry that I was out of my depth talking him through his troubles... What should I say? Should I remain silent? As I considered my approach he said,

"It's as if my brain is fading away... I'm afraid if I can't maintain my clarity of mind, my affairs will deteriorate without me even realising. What would become of a man living by himself, if his mind becomes lost forever and all that's left behind is fear?"

He looked up, took a deep breath, and forced a smile.

"But, but you mustn't upset Mother. Tell her that she has no cause for worry. I have my problems, but then, who doesn't?"

"Well, Nathan, you-"

Suddenly Nathan shrieked and pointed behind me. I turned around, and there on the wall of the sitting room, someone had written in large, crazed letters,

"I'M STILL HERE!"

Nathan burst into tears, leapt from his armchair, and ran from the room.

I couldn't remember if the message had been there when I entered the room, although I don't see how I could have missed it... I went to the wall - on the carpet beneath the writing was a small piece of chalk. I picked it up and made another small mark on the wall - it was clear that the letters could have been written with little or no noise. If one were to take Nathan at his word, then, perhaps his rival had been sitting beside us throughout our conversation, and had written the message while Nathan wasn't looking. Yet any alternate explanation was just as unsettling - perhaps there was no invisible man at all, perhaps Nathan had written the message himself, and then forgotten that he had done so. But why would Nathan write such a thing in the first place? Was he, in some strange way, trying to reassure himself that his brain wasn't fading away?

I couldn't run after Nathan, as I had no idea where he had gone. There was little more I could do anyway, as I had to leave Hamburg the next morning. I told the concierge of all that had occurred, and went to my room to compose my letter to Nathan's mother.

Dear Mathilda,

I met with Nathan earlier tonight. Although I am by no means an expert, I am sorry to tell you that he seems to be suffering problems of some kind with his mental functioning, to a degree that may be detrimental to his ability to take care of his own affairs in the future. You must find some way to have him seen by specialists in the sciences of the mind, and while it is probably not urgent, I feel the problem should be dealt with as soon as possible.

Mathilda, I'm so sorry that you have to hear such unwelcome news. Please keep me informed as to how he fares, and if there is anything more I can do, let me know.

With my kindest regards and sympathy,

Albert

It seemed wisest not to tell Mathilda about the invisible man. I learnt some time later that after Nathan fled from the hotel that night he was found crouched in the corner of a steam room at a nearby public bath, still crying like a child. I suppose he had hoped that the steam would give away the presence of his invisible enemy. He was taken to an infirmary and given a diagnosis of brain fever, an attack which lasted for five weeks.

* * * * * *

I wish I could say that happier days lay ahead for Nathan, but he was destined for a sad and mysterious ending. Not long afterwards, Mathilda managed to persuade her son to leave Hamburg and return to England. The body of work he had completed at the university showed evidence of a keen intellect, but was marred by frequent additions of an erratic and at times unintelligible nature which cast doubt upon the whole. As he had feared, his mind had deteriorated to a state where he needed constant care, so he had to live with his mother. About a year after his condition confined him to a wheelchair, Nathan disappeared, only to be discovered a week later, drowned in a canal some miles from where he lived. Due to his incapacity, it was concluded that foul play must have been involved, but a lengthy investigation found nothing. Mathilda tried to take comfort in believing that Nathan was not conscious of his final hours, but of course, she'll never know. As to the question of Nathan's invisible nemesis... if he did exist, perhaps all his opportunities to torment Nathan had finally been exhausted, and the invalid's body in a lonely canal was the bitter conclusion. But perhaps one might suppose that the invisible wraith suffered just as much as Nathan, a victim of the desolation of living unseen by his fellow man.

April, 2016

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