What happens to all the letters that get erased when writers realise they’ve made an error and go back to correct it? When they’re typing as they’re thinking, and change tack mid-thought? When they erase the bluntness of what they’re feeling in preference for kinder words which don’t attack the reader as much as their impatience and frustration first led them to express?
This kind of existential dilemma intrigues me: what happens to all those letters which were, and now are not? Did they ever exist? Clearly. Yet where is the evidence of their existence? There is none. Even more tenuous are the punctuation marks, which don’t mean much, if anything, in isolation … let alone the spaces that are erased: how can space be physically erased? It can be filled in and rearranged, but can it ever be really disappeared?
As I type I wonder about these lost symbols of my written communication. I like to think they’re floating about in the air, as in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only Fruit, where people are employed to clear the skies of the residents’ forgotten thoughts, hovering over the city like smog, cluttering up the clear blue sky.
Or like Kryten, the android in Red Dwarf, the off-the-wall British comedy with humour that seriously tickles my funny bone. As Kryten amicably discusses his impending replacement by a newer model which will make him redundant, he states to the crew that he will go to Silicone Heaven. When questioned about its existence he queries plaintively, “But … where do all the calculators go?” The mechanised android cannot perceive of something beyond what he has been programmed to believe.
So if you feel cluttered, or perplexed, take comfort in knowing that things will clear, that programming can be overwritten and redirected, and people continue on, nonetheless.
One of the hundreds of picture books borrowed from the library to share with my children was about a tooth fairy who looked like an archetypal bag lady with layers of clothes bulked out by bulging pockets. The story revealed that this fairy picked up forgotten things and kept them. I don’t recall what she did with them and how, or even if, she used them (beyond stuffing her copious pockets), but I do remember the young boy-protagonist’s look of utter surprise when she pulled out his odd sock which had disappeared in the washing machine. Come to think of it, that sounds like a bizarre plot for a book! Yet I can relate to it because there has been more than one occasion when I have stumbled across something I had totally forgotten about. This has happened around as many times I have looked for something and not found it, confident in the knowledge that I haven’t thrown it out, I have merely to look in the right place … wherever (and whenever, usually a year or so later, when the immediate need is long gone) that turns out to be …
And who can go past The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan? This wonderful book, then short film, describes the plot pictorially, with very little text except for in the traffic signs which are pivotal to the story. Stunning detailed pictures – to be expected from this brilliant author-artist – effectively depict the loneliness and despair of the harried everyday world, monochrome compared to the joyful, playful, fun-filled colour where the Lost Thing finds its home.
So next time you think something is lost – or if you feel lost – take comfort in the thought that everything has a home … it may just not be found yet.