Summer comes, and autumn. Days pass, months fly by. He clears up the shop and buys in goods. He gets bread from the baker and vegetables from the greengrocer. In the evening he stands in the kitchen holding a cauliflower in his hand, staring at it as Hamlet stared at Yorick’s skull, and as the water comes to the boil and the steam clouds the window, he shakes his head and drops the vegetable into the bin. He goes to bed. He gets up again. He butters sandwiches on the cracked granite surface and chews them standing up, looking out of the kitchen window over the roofs of the town towards the houses, the little factories, a school and the stump of an old windmill. A mind that is empty from early morning till late evening. A life that is nothing but movement, day in, day out. And every morning and every evening, in his kitchen, by the window, looking out over the town, he wonders what it is that he sees, this jumble of roof tiles, these angles and curves and diagonal lines, the rhythmic skip of saddle, pointed and flat roofs. And the days pass. And the months pass. Years go by. Five years. As if he is giving himself time to despair. Five years. Five years in which he doesn’t eat a cauliflower, but does fry eggs, puts shoes in boxes and takes them out again, years in which he shaves and doesn’t see himself in the mirror, eats an omelette at the same empty dinner table at which he goes through Red Cross lists in the evening, writes letters and collects information. For five years in which at night, bobbing in an endless sea of emptiness, he wakes up, gets dressed and walks through the dark, silent streets of the empty town, to the station, where he crosses the rails and, shoulders hunched in his jacket, looks out from the platform—the steaming fields, the water tower dripping tap-tap-tap on the rails, the melancholy lowing of a cow in the pasture of the farm on the other side—years and nights in which he watches the rails, gleaming in the moonlight, disappearing into the distant darkness among the trees.

And then, after those five years, the contractor’s men come. They demolish half the top floor, break down the shop shelves and saw and hammer and lay bricks, and after five weeks, because everything seems to be in fives at this time, he stands in a shoe shop ready for a future that won’t begin for a long time and living in a house in which all traces of the past have been expunged, because he hasn’t just turned the en-suite bedrooms with stained glass doors into a big sitting room and combined and converted the many little bedrooms on the first floor so that there are now four big bedrooms and an ample bathroom, he’s also got rid of the curtains, the carpet, the tables and the cupboards and the chairs. Everything is new, nothing is as it was.

It’s 1950. Jacob Noah has shed his past the way a fox gnaws off the foot that got it caught in the trap. The future lies before him like a blank sheet of paper.

But it changes nothing.

The past doesn’t pass.

The path towards a stirring future lies before him, open like the first page of a book whose story has yet to begin and could go on for thousands, hundreds of thousands of pages.

But still.

In the morning he stands in the doorway and looks out over the quiet crossroads and in the evening he stares out of the window over the rooftops, and although he barely wakes up at night these days and he has completely stopped walking to the station to wait for travellers who don’t come, he often lies down in bed wondering what he’s done wrong, how things could be different, what the problem is.

He begins to doubt what he saw in the forest when he saw the whole world in the palm of his hand.

In the evening he sits bent over his old schoolbooks at the dining-room table and over his middle-school Latin lessons he dreams of lecture theatres and learned discussions with professors.

How it could have been.

How it should have been.

Then—one evening by the yellow light of the standard lamp by the bookcase that holds not much more than what he has kept from his schooldays and the first volume of the encyclopaedia he subscribed to not that long ago. He drinks his coffee, and although the open accounts book on the dining table gleams in the lamplight, he starts flicking through part of the EncyclopaediaBritannica. He has never felt the need to travel, he has never been further than Amsterdam, but in the encyclopaedia he travels over continents and through whole eras and cultures. That evening, as he flicks through his first and only volume, his thoughts catch on the word ‘Atom’, and as he reads about Rutherford and Szilard the image of the atom comes and hovers in his mind: a nucleus with a cloud of electrons floating around it, attracted by the mass of the nucleus and at the same time almost escaping because of their velocity; and suddenly he thinks about the town as he sees it in the morning and the evening, the roofs and their pattern of kinks and bumps and, yes: paths.

He wonders where the nucleus is.

Once it was the monastery around which the village grew. The produce of the fields was brought to the monastery and the monastery provided shelter in troubled times and the knowledge of medicine in times of sickness and the comfort of God in times of need. Later, beside the monastery, the town hall was built.

But, Jacob Noah thinks, a waxwork in the circle of lamplight around his chair: God is no longer at the centre of life, and in a population that has evolved from a peasant community into a society of workers who don’t have to provide for their own most basic needs, but who buy them with the money that they earn with their work …

What is the nucleus?

It is deep in the night as a light still burns behind the windows of the house above the shoe shop, and in that light Jacob Noah is bent over the dining table on which he has laid out a big sheet of brown wrapping paper and is drawing something in thick lines that could be a reasonably faithful depiction of the street plan, no: the structure of the town. That is to say: the structure of the town as he has come to see it over the past few hours. The nucleus is what lies beyond his window and is at presentonly a ramshackle collection of apartments, warehouses, little streets and alleyways, but is soon to become a square, an open space edged with a ring of high-street shops and, like electrons swarming around it, small shops held in place by the gravitational force of the nucleus, and neither engulfed nor repelled by it.

That night, a moonless sky hanging in velvet silence above the town, he stands at the window of his new big empty bedroom, the bed a white catafalque in the darkness. He looks out over the scaly roofs of the town and reflects that it could be another twenty or thirty years before his idea becomes reality, and as that sober realisation hits home his mind is filled by the sad idea that if something were to mark his life then it would probably be the fact that he is the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place. It is a thought he isn’t sure he can live with, but tonight at any rate he resolves to sleep on it.

Before morning announces its presence with the leaden greyness of a Dutch autumn day, he wakes up. He switches on the lamp and lies on his back staring at the new ceiling, as questionsquestionsquestions like trainstrainstrains rush through his head. Is he going to change the town by himself? He who, after the renovation, heard people asking where that Jew got it all from? He who is alone, no wife, no friend, no one but a few survivors, people with whom, when it comes down to it, he has little in common? Does he have to go into politics? Does he have to become so rich that he’s impossible to avoid? Does he have to become a member of the shopkeepers’ association that wouldn’t let his father become a member? What, he thinks, and that is the first question that he doesn’t imagine as rhetorical, what kind of person do I actually want to be? What am I? He lies in his bed, his arms stretched out beside him, and thinks about his mother.

A memory overwhelms him, so powerfully that he is surprised by the intensity with which it comes upon him. (Many years later it will happen again, in the shop, as he helps a woman tie up a new corset and bends forward to pull the laces tighter. In the waft of perfume that rises from her warm skin he is so overcome by the memory that he has to stay in that posture for a moment, bent at the hips, head lowered, till the intoxication passes.) It is his mother that Jacob Noah remembers in his circle of light, the woman who had formed Jacob and his brother according to the ideal that she herself had never attained, the mother he remembers with the gnawing melancholy of a man who knows he misses what he never thought he would miss.