Etch-a-Sketch

This is the beginning of a novel.
---

    When I was seven, my favourite plaything was a magic drawing board. For the other kids in my small suburban infants school, the toy to die for was the Etch-a-Sketch. It later featured with its classic strawberry red case in the supporting cast of Toy Story. But I hated its crude jagged lines. It didn’t matter how carefully you worked the knobs on each side in an effort to draw a diagonal or a curve, the result was always ugly. The Etch-a-Sketch was no more than a status symbol, created by and for mechanistic minds. It was limited in its scope and predictable, much like most of the kids in my class.
    In contrast, the magic drawing board, or magic slate as it was sometimes called, was a simpler concept born I guess of more creative minds. There was a thin transparent sheet that lay on the surface of a dark grey rubbery layer, and you used a plastic stylus to draw or write on it. The top sheet would stick to the under-surface only where the stylus pressed, leaving a clear black imprint. When you’d finished, it was simple to erase what you’d produced by peeling apart the two layers. Once, on a family trip to the famed toy shop Hamleys, I saw a more expensive version demonstrated. This held the two layers in a robust plastic frame and had a slider that went from one side of the board to the other, erasing as it went. But I was ecstatic with just my basic version. I spent umpteen hours designing intricate black and white pictures and crafting simple two or three sentence stories in neat, precocious handwriting.
    I can still remember the feel beneath my finger tips as I ran them over the indentations left behind once the sheets had been separated. For a while, if I held it at the right angle, under direct light, it was still possible to read the imprint of what had gone before, even as I created something new. Sometimes I would follow the previous patterns and, if you peered closely, you could see two versions of the same design on the one board, with the new work sometimes coinciding with the original lines, and sometimes deviating from them.
    Years later, travelling in another continent, feeling lonely and devouring each and every book I could lay my hands upon, I came across the word ‘palimpsest’ in a well-thumbed paperback that someone had forgotten, or perhaps discarded, in a cafe. The etymology of palimpsest is that it comes from the Latin for ‘parchment which has been wiped clean’. The term, though, can refer to any manuscript that’s been reused but which still bears visible traces of its earlier contents. Just like my magic board.
    The book, which I still possess, is a memoir by Lillian Hellman. In it, she also wrote about how old paint on canvas can become transparent, revealing the artist’s earlier attempts to produce the picture, or else previous works, ruthlessly obliterated because of the need to re-use the costly canvas. This is called ‘pentimento’, meaning the painter changed his or her mind – literally, that they ‘repented’. Hellman described in her memoir how she sought to see more clearly and to understand better the differences between her life and concerns as a younger woman and what was important to her now.
    I guess that as time passes the vivid palette and intricate script of our present lives tends to obscure our unique personal histories. But if the paint begins to fade on the canvas, or we set out to trace the delicate grooves left behind on the slate, we can still find compelling reminders of the people we once were and what we once cared about. When we first met, Mona and I had at least one characteristic in common - somewhere along the way we’d changed our minds about who we wanted to be and tried to put the past to bed; but the past hadn’t tired of us yet.

Tags: