The Cartographer's Revenge
THE CARTOGRAPHER’S REVENGE
A Short Story by Gareth A. Williams May 2007
He pushed open the door. As expected, it took a couple of shoves because it stuck, which it had done for as long as he could remember. Somewhere above his head, a brass bell dinked with a half-hearted resonance, the pitiful sound immediately withering to nothing. He paused, framed in the doorway in his splendid, tailored suit, savouring the peculiar, stale aroma of his favourite second-hand bookshop.
The shopkeeper, although melting into a counter littered with paperbacks, pulled his head briefly out of his newspaper long enough to acknowledge his usual lunchtime visitor, and then returned to his favoured, slumberous position. He knew that this particular customer was happy to look after himself, preferring to be – insisting on being - left alone.
The visitor, whose name was Mark, stepped forward slowly; his expensive brogues echoed impressively on the bare wooden floorboards. As usual, he appeared to be the only person in the shop, apart from the scruff behind the till. He could just about hear the gentle purr of a Radio Two phone-in. The chummy tones of the host were ambivalent and non-committal.
He made his way towards the back of the shop, stopping at a dimly lit alcove, invisible to the casual browsers, with shelves built in. Above Mark’s head, curled and brown with age, was a small, calligraphed sign:
This was Mark’s playground, the reason he returned every day. It was a treasure trove; a last resting place for all the maps of the world. Mark was pretty sure no map had ever left the premises. No one had ever bought one. There were all sorts of maps stacked here. Antiquated documents, faded and crumpled; like retired citizens, dismissed and discarded, bereft of usefulness, robbed of dignity. He smiled at the metaphor, pleased with its resonance.
At random, he selected a map, a slim one designed for ramblers, but of a location nowhere near here. The paper crinkled as he unfolded it. He tried to smooth out a portion but the lumps and bumps were ingrained, like the lines of the folds. This particular map had obviously received a soaking during its long tour of duty, and had never quite recovered; although it was now bone dry, it had failed to regain its crisp contours. Mark closed his eyes and ran his finger along a b-road. Whilst doing so, he listened to the tale the map longed to tell; he experienced each of the road’s bends, inclines and pot-holes. Leaving the road, he gasped as he trampled across undulating fields and waded through fast-flowing brooks, and he thrilled at the earthy smells of the woodland trails. Mark let the map tell its story right to the end. Then he smiled appreciatively, refolded the pages and returned the map respectfully to its shelf.
Mark was an artist of the highest order, a creator of worlds: a cartographer.
Cartographers are careful people; they are protective of their work. Once a map is in the public domain, it is difficult to prove ownership of copyright, and so cartographers have developed a fiendish system to help themselves. They include “deliberate mistakes” in their work; creative nuggets as unique as fingerprints, which engrave into every map “I own this.” These mistakes can be minor, like an exaggerated bend in a railway line, or more substantial, perhaps an invented landmark in the middle of nowhere. Mark knew of at least one village he’d created (he borrowed the place name from a random page in a novel) which, within six years, had gained a postcode and two dozen inhabitants.
One delicious story he never tired of telling was how a group of boy scouts tried in vain to make sense of his particularly creative interpretation of Mid-Wales, relying on Mark to get them to safety when the weather turned inclement. However, they incorrectly assumed that the river they had been camping beside corresponded to an imaginary tributary whose long, spindly finger was based largely on the life-line across Mark’s left palm. By following the river westward, they were walking further from safety. By nightfall, five boys displayed early symptoms of hypothermia. Forty-eight hours later, when the scouts were found huddled together and brought home by Mountain Rescue helicopter, one boy had already died and another was so seriously frost-bitten two of his toes were later amputated. The scout leader, for possessing such apparently dreadful map-reading skills, was relieved of his position in disgrace. This was adjudged by a coroner to be a contributing factor in his suicide a year later.
Even in the shop, Mark couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory.
Of course, claiming ownership of natural ground features is fundamentally wrong, but cartographers - being cartographers - get away with it. Mark’s hero, Harry Beck, first mapped the London Underground in 1931. That iconic, stylised design had been oft-imitated over the years, but for Mark its real beauty lay in the fact that, for the first time, features beneath the earth’s surface had been mapped and claimed. From that moment on, everything was possible.
The real coup de maitre (the moment Mark considered the watershed in cartographic supremacy) occurred in 2002. The European Union was sued by a cartographer for printing, without permission, a map of Europe on its bank notes. The cartographer successfully argued he had copyrighted Denmark. He accepted his damages in Euros, so was paid with his own maps!
Such is the power of a cartographer. He possesses the ability, with a deft wield of his pen, to lay claim to the very world you inhabit. So you think - because you’ve paid a king’s ransom for your three-bedroomed semi and postage stamp garden plot - you actually own it? Think again! With a single sweep of a cartographer’s pen, he can lay claim to entire villages. Whatever he draws, he owns. Buyer beware!
Mark selected another map at random. It was old-fashioned in style. Its naivety reminded Mark of the old-school cartographers who still existed when he first took his position with the firm. He still remembered Clive; dear, fat, moth-eaten, dusty old Clive. When Mark joined, Clive had already been there, apparently, for centuries. He shuffled around the office interminably in his crumpled two-piece, an inane yet good-natured grin on his fat face. A first-rate cartographer – methodical and accurate – but he was by no means a member of the modern world. He was a man of honour, thought Mark, although this was not something of which to be proud. It was a weakness. Who would have thought the fool would have left his latest project (a politically important document charting the regeneration of London Docklands) unravelled – and more importantly unprotected – on his extravagant mahogany desk? Mark remembered very little of that night; some excuse about working late, waiting for everyone to leave, then it was time for a quick makeover for the Docklands: a series of linking roads and a fetching pond amongst the skyscrapers which together, if you squinted, spelled the word “MARK”. His promotion within the year was symptomatic of the rise of the more youthful, savvy, ambitious, smarter generation that would – within a decade – wipe out the old guard with little more than a baffled whimper. Poor, sad old Clive had no idea what had gone on. He was pensioned off with little more than a “Fuck you”, and was never seen again. Mark heard he died six months later.
Another chuckle. Mark looked again at the map he had picked out. It was a colossal compendium of the world; a teddy bear on the cover (Atlas-like, holding up the Earth) suggested its target audience was a good deal younger than himself. A game he liked to play was Spot the Artist. Some cartographers’ works were so distinctive he could identify them quite easily, almost like hand-writing. He opened the book at no particular page. Then he perused a couple more. As he suspected, this was not produced by an artist. There was no pride in the work, no flair, no drama, no flourish. He looked for the protecting error, but couldn’t find one. In fact, he thought, he wouldn’t be surprised if the cartographer hadn’t bothered, as these maps were so utterly flat, despite their hills and mountains.
He returned the book to the shelf and looked at his watch. He had time for one more before heading back to work, though it would have to be a quick one. He pulled out the smallest map he could find; it consisted of one sheet of A4 paper, folded over into a pamphlet.
He turned it over and over. It appeared to be hand drawn, although expertly done. He never ceased to be amazed by the production values to which some map-makers adhered.
He read the teasing and elegantly-lettered title: “Beauty Spot, Cheshire.” The only other thing on the front was the obligatory pencil-scribble: “£1.25.” He opened the pamphlet, hoping for great things.
He was not disappointed. He was immediately captivated by its utter, mouthwatering, testicle-teasing beauty. Without question, this was created by a master-cartographer. Map-making was about accurate rendering; but cartography was more than that. It was art. From the base ingredients on a surveyor’s data sheet, a strange, alchemical process takes place, the product of which is sheer perfection, way beyond the merely accurate. Mark’s eyes followed a collection of country roads and lanes which swirled around the page with a striking flourish. At their centre was a modestly-sized hill that had a sharp incline on its northern edge, and a south-facing slope which would be (if it was in central France, surmised Mark) perfect for a vineyard.
The hand-drawn map was a rare commodity; a cartographer’s preliminary sketch. It was a rough-draft which the cartographer would use to translate the raw data (GPS readings and grid references) into something visual, and gauge how to approach his final version. These are usually destroyed by the cartographer after the map is produced.
Cheshire was Mark’s area. He had worked its land for years now, and he owned the lot. There was not one single inch he had not mapped. Or so he thought, until this moment. He searched through the contours of his mind, trying to locate this particular beauty spot. No. He had never heard of it. He ticked off in his head every surveyor’s report he’d read. Not one mention of it. Damn, he thought.
The shopkeeper looked up at this outburst. He’d never heard his strange visitor say anything before. In fact, he’d gone the whole morning without hearing another person’s voice (Radio Two excepted). Hence, this single-syllable sound came as a shock, and he frowned disapprovingly in the man’s general direction. Then, with a loud shake of the pages for good measure, he returned to his newspaper.
Mark considered the possibilities. Perhaps the beauty spot was new, and this particular part of Cheshire was due a review? No, the sketch in his hands was not recent. The paper showed the telltale signs of yellow age. Well then, the beauty spot was fictional. No – Mark could not accept that: the map smelled genuine. He had a nose for it.
So what, then? The only conclusion was that the map was genuine and as yet, unprotected. This map could not be considered a published article, so the beauty spot was still up for grabs. There was no time to lose: he must go there immediately. It would be merely a preliminary visit before arranging for a survey. But would he be missed at the firm? He was currently working through survey data for an area of Warrington’s industrial wasteland, but that could wait. It would probably end up as just another housing estate, anyway. This was much more important, certainly to Mark.
He could hardly stop his hand from shaking as he placed the map under the nose of the shopkeeper.
The man behind the till looked up, wondering at first what was required of him. Was there a problem? Some seconds passed before he understood that the man wanted to buy the map. He reached out to take it, but the customer seemed unwilling to let it go. Their eyes met for an instant, during which the shopkeeper detected a certain fear – a need – behind the sharp suit.
Somewhere from deep in the shopkeeper’s past, some business acumen awoke fleetingly. He rang £3.00 into the till, and put on his best poker-face.
Mark’s eye’s narrowed. The pencil scribble said £1.25. Did he dare argue? It would be a risk: only argue if you’re prepared to walk away. Defeated, he pulled from his pocket a handful of change, selected three shiny coins and let them drop. They clattered, danced and spun around the counter, and by the time they came to rest, allowing the shopkeeper to gather them, Mark had gone, and so had the map.
* * *
He loved to drive. His car was his pride and joy. Many of his colleagues drove 4x4s because of their innate authoritative air. However, Mark preferred to feel close to the road. In his Porsche Boxter, he experienced every undulant the British road system had to offer, of which there were many.
He checked his Sat Nav; more than a merely habitual action. For someone with such an intimate knowledge of the road network, he had a surprising mental block when seated in a car. Even on short, familiar journeys, he struggled to think which roads connected the starting point to the destination. He would have to imagine the entire journey in map form before setting out. The small, grainy map on the in-car display was a comforting companion, more so because it was based on his own cartographic efforts; a rewarding endeavor in so many ways.
The Sat Nav urged him to turn left up ahead and leave the a-road he had been following for some time. He knew he was somewhere close to the Welsh border. He indicated, slowed and turned in, immediately finding himself under low tree cover. This was the outpost of his experience: some other cartographer owned North Wales. The tunnel-like quality of the trees was oppressive, making him feel queasy, as if he was falling. He suspected he had the beginnings of a headache.
According to the Sat Nav, this road went nowhere, and would simply peter out after a mile. But evidently this was not the case as he had already been following it for two miles, and it showed no signs of coming to an end. He switched off his high-tech companion; now he was reliant solely on the landmarks of the hand-drawn map which rested on the passenger seat.
* * *
He was sure he had gone past this bit once already. All these bloody trees looked the same. He had expected to have sussed out the place in little over an hour, but it was dark now – and he had yet to find anything resembling a hill. The trees, of course, did not help his vision. Without light, he wasn’t even confident of finding his way back to the a-road. He brought the Boxter to a standstill. He hadn’t seen any sign of human habitation for three hours. Not one single house, nor even a fence. No cars, tractors or pedestrians had come his way. His head was killing him. He reclined his seat and shut his eyes. He needed a rest. The map he had bought in the shop, he now realised, was not perfect. Where the proximity of two or more roads made drawing them fiddly, only one would be shown, or a road that was otherwise accurately conveyed would simply end for no reason other than to prevent its merging with another road. These were standard cartographic procedures – art was about creating something that was pleasing to the eye – but right now, Mark was overcome with frustration.
Scrunched foetally in the driver’s seat, and interrupted frequently by periods of semi-wakefulness, Mark somehow managed to sleep. He also had a strange dream, in which he was kept prisoner in a coffin-sized metal box. He found it impossible to get comfortable. The metal box had air holes in it, and he spent his time peering through it. Eventually, he saw a man walking slowly towards him; the man had a sweet smile on his face and kind eyes. Mark hoped he was going to give him the key to the box, and asked as much. The man laughed at this. “Mark, you silly sausage! You have the key right there with you.” Mark was confused. He searched the box as best he could, but found it difficult because it was so small, and he was wedged in tight. There was definitely no key in the box, but he did find the sketched map. He picked it up and looked at it. “See?” smiled the man. He seemed to be hiding something behind his back. Mark was angry with the man, now. He insisted he be let out as it was illegal to keep someone chained up. The two men were practically face to face, merely separated by the metal box. The man still smiled. Mark spat in his face. The man continued to smile but took a step back. Then he showed Mark what he had behind his back, although Mark didn’t know what it was. It looked like a biro and a plastic bag. “This is a DNA swab kit.” The man wiped the spit from his face with the liniment and placed it carefully in the bag and sealed it. “I’m going to map you,” he said. “And when I’ve mapped you, I’ll own you!”
Mark awoke. It was light, although he could tell it was still very early. He was a little shaken by the dream, but countered it by trying to understand it. It was quite common for cartographers to dream strange things: when you were that powerful, the only people you feared were other cartographers, and this seemed an interesting take on Mark’s usual insecurity dream. He had no idea who the man might represent; probably the owner of the hand who sketched this map. As he reached out for the map still on the passenger seat, he groaned as his uncomfortable sleeping position caught up with him. He realised now he was starting to feel older, on the home-straight to middle-age. He also felt hungry and thirsty. He turned the key in the ignition and the engine started first time. It was time to get this over with and go home. At least his headache had gone. Before pulling out, he scanned the rear-view mirror, although he knew there would be nothing coming. He did not bother indicating. He needed a wash, a shave and also – God, yes – the toilet. He set off, and then checked the map. There was a circular collection of interlinking roads, almost like (it had not occurred to him yesterday) a mouse-maze. No wonder he had found it confusing. Still, there must be a way through it all, to the beauty spot within.
And yet, no matter how much he drove around, he never seemed to get any closer, and regularly seemed to be doubling back on himself. If only he was better at spotting navigational features; then he would not have to rely on this beautiful, yet utterly useless, map.
As he drove, he became more frustrated, but would not accept defeat. He had never noticed (nor did he notice on this occasion) just how his driving reflected his moods. Now his rage was growing, his speed was fiendishly increasing and his breaking was dangerously late. He threw the steering wheel around with abandon, for bend after bend, knowing he would meet no oncoming traffic. At each furious turn he felt the irresistible pull of gravity from one side to the other, and under his seat he felt the usually casual brail of the country roads grow in presence and volume. Faster and faster he was going, and more desperate he was becoming. Then: the inevitable.
A hefty juddering told him his tyres, which had been noisily complaining at every turn, had lost contact with the road. He found himself travelling sideways, watching the road slip out of view and be immediately replaced by trees, which were bigger and closer than they had a right to be. And then: nothing.
He opened his eyes to a faceful of twigs and leaves. The first thing he noticed was that he was suspended upside down by his seatbelt. Good job he had it on. How long was he out? No idea. Hours? No way. Minutes? More likely. The next thing he noticed was the silence: his engine must have cut out, probably stalling in gear, he thought. Oh well, it could be worse; at least he was okay. He reached up to release the seatbelt but was halted by a fiery pain in his stomach, matched by a singing in his ears that may have been his own whimpering. He made himself look and saw the end of a tree branch emerging from his once white shirt, the entire garment now stained a deep crimson. Around the base of the spike was the richest colour, and he noticed a pulsing red tide continually adding to the saturation. He was no expert but he knew it was bad.
His voice was thin and reedy, and more plaintive than he meant it to sound. “Help!” He could not keep up the shouting for long, the pain was too much. Besides, he had no reason to believe anyone would hear him. He decided to save his strength, for what it was worth.
Gingerly, he looked around the car, seeking material solace in his predicament. His increasingly-hazy gaze came to rest on the sketched map, which had come to a fluttering rest on the roof’s underside, just in his line of vision. He tried to focus on the roads but no matter how hard he tried they blurred and merged and intermingled. They seemed to say no more than “Look at me!”
That was the moment he understood everything. He began to laugh, which caused the pain to increase, and also made him cough. He saw at last the protecting error of the artist. He remembered, too late, the usual signature of a certain, much-maligned colleague, who would take the Old English derivative of his name (clif, meaning hill or slope) and etch such a landmark into each of his maps.
He did indeed have the key all along. But he had to squint to see it.