The Island of Lost Words


Peter Pan Picture Book, Alice Woodward, 1923

by Jenny Diski

For the third time this month I’ve locked myself out of my online banking facility. Each time I have run over the limit of making three mistakes in my password. A very polite note explained that I would not be able to use the account until I phoned the bank, who would sort it out for me.

It so happens that in the past few months my memory has taken a beating from the chemotherapy and radiotherapy I’ve been receiving. But even without those side effects, it isn’t uncommon for people to forget names, words, phrases, numbers. It’s a perfectly ordinary aspect of growing older. I am almost 68. Yesterday we had some friends round to lunch and every one of us – even those younger by half than me – had to pause over people and titles, while the others tried to help narrow the options down. I remembered a game we used to play, in which one person thought of a person or an object and the other had to guess what they were thinking of by asking questions to which only the answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’ were allowed. The game was preparation for now.

To overcome our various degrees of distress or embarrassment we laughed gently at the forgotten word and assured each other that we did it all the time. ‘It’s just the effect of ageing’ someone said as if the sentence was a ramp. It happened several times at yesterday’s lunch. This laughter is like a blanket – soft, very fine wool, gossamer – that falls over the silent moment of forgetting, and the speaker can proceed either to offer clues to themselves and others (you know, she married so and so, that man who used to live in Scotland and then was killed in a car crash in New York – him.) Or to delete what has now become an unnecessary detail (‘oh, one of those reality show people. It doesn’t matter. Anyway…’) and the story can continue. Inside, our hearts are breaking at the enormity of the lost word. We are kind to each other, even the younger ones, because we know, we all know, what this forgetting because we’re not as young as we used to be, really means.

I don’t speak much French, but I know enough to translate la petite mort as ‘orgasm’. It’s a shame that it can’t be used to depict each of these forgetting moments. Little deaths. Tip of the tongue. Oh, I nearly had it. Each one a petite mort. All the lost words: like the lost boys in Peter Pan, locked out of their homes, left behind in a store, who become Peter Pan’s guards of honour, who live together in Never Land. Elizabeth Taylor, last Friday morning, the blue velvet dress, lees, Honda Civic, William James; some of them are recalled by you or another around the table. But the ones that never reach beyond your own boundaries surely become another lost boy. Forgotten, accumulated, denied importance, laughed out of the conversation. More lost boys to lead their own lives.

But that’s an evasion too. Elizabeth, the Honda civic, William James, the lees you notice as you finish a bottle of wine, once lost and even if remembered as you are taking off your make-up after everyone’s gone, fall like Tetris tiles, and, practice makes perfect, more accurately in place each time, to make a wall. Fall like leaves so that as you wake each morning and look at the birch tree outside the window, it looks increasingly depleted until one morning, after a particularly stormy autumn night, you wake and you keep your eyes shut for as long as possible, because you know, things being what they are, the world being as it is, that when you open them, you will see entirely naked branches. Well, of course, it’s pretty much winter. What did you expect?

So I had a thought about writing a book for the elderly, the old. Those who have lost their words more comprehensively than the friends around our lunch table, but haven’t lost themselves entirely. A book about where all the words go, where after a time they find the others and collaborate to make sentences. Not grammatical sentences, because there are always some words that stick in the mind. Mostly, nouns, verbs, and adjectives disappear, at least at first. The names, the actions, the descriptions that make meaning of what we see and think. That allow us to express the world to others. So the book would be quite short to begin with and grow as more and more words found their way from the tip of the tongue to Never Land. Words put out to grass, like fine old working horses. Perhaps the elderly reader would come upon a word that is familiar and point to it. Perhaps it would be a day of hearing only the sounds the reader makes with the words that mean no more than a falling Tetris brick or a single leaf drifting down from a birch tree. After all, the very young have no words and books are written for them. If the very young can soak up the sound of a word that has no meaning for it, why not the old.

There is a problem of course. We write books for the very young with the intention that they should learn about the names, actions and descriptions of the world they suddenly have found themselves in. The book of lost words is more like a clearing away. Like hoovering up dead leaves, or building walls that have nothing behind them. The child’s book is the book of becoming. The book for the elderly is the book of going. It had better be the most beautiful book ever made.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued.