The sound of my typewriter is soothing as rain; that tappety, tappety, tappety, ping. But from time to time, when I get overenthusiastic, instead of queueing sedately for their turn, the type bars all compete to reach the platten first – and they crunch. I have to stop and gently prise them apart with my claws.

Sometimes, though, one or other of the bars lags behind or never makes it to the patten at all. Perhaps there have been too many collisions in its lifetime; the typewriter is, after all, seventy or eighty years old now. It belonged to Great Uncle Mole, and before that to his Mama who earned her living writing about the tombs of the Pharaohs, some of whom never existed. When a type bar lags strange manifestations can appear on the page.

I don’t think it was sluggishness that prevented the x from taking up its position when I was typing the other day. It was more an elegant step back, allowing an ‘e’ and a ‘q’ to elide. They formed the word ‘equisite’ and, rather than subtracting from the intended ‘exquisite’, they managed to suffuse the word with a sense of equanimity and enhance my intended description of a day of Qi Gong.

The graciousness of the withdrawal made me consider the X in its own right. Letters are so invariably surrounded by others, positively promiscuous in the way they move from one set to the next, that I have seldom thought about a letter as an individual. What was it about the X that gave it the sensitivity to foresee what the ‘e’ and ‘q’ might achieve if brought together and dignity to allow it to happen. The X, I felt, must be a very interesting chap indeed, not only perceptive but with a character strong enough to have no fear of effacement.

As soon as I paused to think about effacement and X in one breath I lost a little of my admiration. I realised that far from being self-effacing, X was usually the perpetrator of effacements. It is the X after all that is used to obliterate other letters when I have to backspace over mis-wordings. More sinisterly still, X might mark a face in a photograph in an act of social ostracism; or replace a name when the name can no longer be spoken, as happened to my poor ancestor Molex.

But then a cornucopia of pleasurable X associations spilled into my mind; of Uncle Ratty who on one particular birthday – my seventh, perhaps, or eighth, – had sent me down to the cellar to fetch our rucksacks. He had promised me an outing but would not tell me our destination. And in my rucksack I found a scroll which unfurled revealed a treasure map marked with an X in green ink.

And there were those postcards from Uncle Ratty’s wayward sister, Celestine, in which almost obscured by a carpet souk in Cairo, or above some cafe on Paris’s Left Bank, or on a dilapidated houseboat on the Kloveniersburgwal in Amsterdam, a window would be marked with an X; and so they somehow made her flesh and blood, a real creature who was living in an identified place, not the restless nomad who seemed more story than real.

But if X is so definitive why did Descartes choose it to postulate the unknown? I like to think it was was to triangulate the positive and negative aspects of X and create a more rounded individual.

And although I know that the Greek letter Chi, from which X is derived, is quite unrelated to the Chinese Chi or Qi, I do like the fact that the etymology of the Chinese character is an exclamation of surprise or wonder, and also have a meaning of something unique, so beyond definition as to verge on the anarchic.

Next time I have to untangle the bars on my typewriter, I shall pay due homage to the letter moulded into the striking head of the X.


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