On a midsummer morning, three or four months into my residency in Stuttgart, a drawing appeared in my apartment.
The sunlight in the south of Germany is a gentle critic. I was standing at my window reading through the previous night’s work, letting the light soften its rough edges, when noticed something on the white melamine surface of the table beside me. Curious, I stooped closer. It looked like a drawing. Some of the lines were faint and curly; others were emphatic, shooting off at angles like fragments of a graph. Together they made up an image as tangled as a ball of hair in the bristles of a brush. My first thought was that a previous occupant of the apartment had scarred the surface with a knife during a careless cut-and-paste job. But when I rubbed at one of the lines, graphite came off on my fingertip.
The drawing made no sense. All I could say for certain was that it had been done very recently. I used the table every day and something so striking could not have escaped my attention for long. Where on earth had it come from?
Several possibilities passed through my mind, the most compelling being that one of the resident artists had come into my apartment— while I was sleeping? — and left a calling card. Someone was playing a practical joke.
The drawing was the size of a dinner plate. Again I thought about knives. But then its precise position on the table snagged another association: this was where I had been working the night before. I drew up a chair and sat down facing the drawing. My computer was here, to the left, the mouse over there. Reaching out with my right hand, miming the action, I discovered that the drawing was exactly where the mouse had been.
The little mystery dissolved in an instant. I uncoiled the mouse from my laptop and turned it over. Lodged in a recess in the plastic was a fragment of lead, the tip from
A propelling pencil. The artist was me, blindly making pencil marks as I slid the mouse over the smooth white surface.
How many movements in three or four hours of work? I imagined my hand in the shadows, a manuscript beside the computer on a lily pad of light, the cursor wavering across the screen, blocking, dragging, deleting, inserting, cutting, pasting. Clicking on icons, dropping down menus. Do, undo, redo. In the chance drawing on the table top, every single thought, second thought and final action had been translated into a line.
The mouse drawing, as I called it, haunted the following days. I willed it to represent something. I remembered a newspaper article about a man who found a cinnamon bun shaped like Mother Teresa, another about an amateur photographer who captured a dollar sign in a cloud. But my image remained stubbornly indecipherable. At best, there was the white of an eye in the swirl, a quieter centre where the lines were sparse.
Naturally, I turned the incident into a fiction. In my story, ‘Mouse Drawing’. A writer discovers a mysterious image on a table top. Like me, he works out how it got there. But he is luckier than I am: for him, the drawing is full of meanings, he recognizes people and places in it, he sees figures and signs. Convinced that the world s talking to him in a strange tongue, he embarks on a series of experiments, typing up his fictions in the dark, with the mouse resting on a clean sheet of paper secured to the table top. His every creative act now excretes a secondary product, a shadowy illustration, in which he discovers a surfeit of new meanings: faces, animals, ships, the profile of his father, a map of his country.
When the story had been drafted, I fetched a kitchen sponge and wiped the table clean.
As you can tell, perhaps, the fiction was more elaborate but less satisfying than the factual account I’m giving you now. And this factual account is only possible because the fiction came to nothing, just as it had come out of nowhere, by chance.
By the end of my residency in Stuttgart, I had accumulated a quantity of papers and books. These I packed into two sturdy boxes, which Herr Friedrich had hauled down from the attic for me and reinforced with packaging tape. Another conspirator, Frau Babel, helped me to bind the boxes as tightly as hostages and address them to myself in Johannesburg. All twelve sides were inscribed with my name and address in indelible ink. Then Herr Friedrich and I delivered them to the airport: two loaded dice freighted with my work of the past year. Despite every precaution, the boxes were lost in transit and I never saw them again.
In the decade since then, I have forgotten exactly what was lost. The books that mattered were replaced long ago, and I soon learned to live without the half-formed fictions and copies of correspondence. But ‘Mouse Drawing’ will not rest. Hear it rustling now in the waste-paper basket. It wants to begin again.
This extract has been taken from:
The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories