Gigantic Bolivian Architectural Diagrams – I

I am minded to post an old, old story from the last century. Gigantic Bolivian Architectural Diagrams is divided into three parts. The first part follows. Parts two and three will appear over the coming weekend.

I. September 1894

I had been marooned on the island for eleven weeks when I discovered the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams, rolled into a metal canister and wedged in a narrow crevice between two rocks. Taking a swig from my bag of turtle’s blood, I squatted on the ground and removed the diagrams from the canister. There were about a dozen large sheets, rather frayed around the edges but perfectly legible. The top left corner of each sheet had been stamped with an official device of the Bolivian administration, showing an escutcheon, a ziggurat, the helmet of a conquistador, the hand of God, and abbreviations in neat italic lettering. The signature of what I supposed to be a petty official had been scratched across each of the stamps in mauve ink.

Munching a whelk, I turned my attentions to the diagrams themselves. They were fearfully complicated. I am no architect, and at first all I could make out were miriad lines meeting at angles and criss-crossing each other seemingly at random. Most of the diagrams had been subjected to revision, and there was much evidence of erasure, overprinting and churlish emendation. My studies were interrupted by a sudden and ferocious thunderstorm. Shoving the diagrams hastily back into the canister, unfortunately tearing one of them, I hobbled back to my shelter, where my viper was busy biting the head off an unidentified rodent. Tossing my crutches into the corner, I lay back on my pallet and spent a profitable hour mucking about with bits of wire and driftwood to make a trap for bats.

The life of a maroon, on an island such as this, is not unpleasing. Food is plentiful and easily gathered, or slaughtered. The vegetation is lush and the animals are slow-witted and trusting. On my very first day I was able to bash out the brains of a badger which trundled innocently towards me as I sat on the beach idling with my club. Quite what a badger was doing on the island is beyond me. I have not come across any others. But I am ever vigilant. I will not risk boring you by listing the stupendous array of equipment I managed to salvage from the wreck of the HMS Tot of Magnesium. Suffice to say the club was not my only weapon; nor am I at a loss for a change of trousers.

I have told you that I am not an architect. The truth is, I cannot remember what I am, what trade or business I followed on dry land. Perhaps I was a jolly jack tar; but I think it unlikely. I like to think that I was aboard the Tot of Magnesium as a supernumerary passenger, a merchant of sorts, my cabin crammed with samples of tea, or silk, or mustard. In the final desperate moments, as the ship pitched and rolled and smashed against gleaming rocks, I received a blow to the head which has impaired my memory. It was not the only injury I received. My right leg is only just recovering. I was thankful that among the first items from the ship washed up on the beach was a wooden box of sinapisms from the surgeon’s casket. In the first days of my marooning, the lifeless bodies of my shipmates were washed up on shore, white, puffed, gruesome. I ticked off the dead in an impromptu ledger, which I have since mislaid. The bodies did not lie there long. Enormous birds swooped out of the sky, hooked the dead in their vicious beaks, and bore them off. Their nests are not on this island; I have searched every inch of it. The gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams came to light on one of my earliest searches. For the first few weeks I was so sure of being rescued by a passing smack or schooner that I could barely bring myself to move. I sprawled on the beach, knocking out the brains of a variety of curious animals, applying sinapisms to my wounds and gashes, and covering myself with an old bit of sailcloth at night, or during rainfall. At last a ship hove into view. I hopped about like a mad thing, shouting and raving in Latin, following the advice of my Jesuit mentors. Eventually I realised that the craft I was hailing was none other than what was left of the Tot of Magnesium, seen from an advantageous angle. If, dear reader, you were expert in tides and currents, in the pleasingly complex science of the movement of seas, I would ask you how it was that this broken wreck of a ship sailed about for nine or ten weeks without sinking, only to return to the spot where razor-sharp rocks hidden beneath the waves had pierced its fabric and brought about its doom. But I suspect you are not.

It was at this stage that I conquered my indolence and set to work. In forty-eight hours, I salvaged everything I could carry from the ship, constructed a raft, knocked up a shelter from planks and sail-cloth, knocked up another shelter when the first one collapsed on top of me, this time shoring up the sides with some sort of metal, killed eight turtles, made a store for buckets, dug some holes, lost my death-ledger, ate a pickled wren I found in the surgeon’s casket, and hardly paused for sleep. The next day I began my search of the island. I found a mulberry bush and some gemstones. On the second day I found bauxite deposits, a waterfall, big grains of sand and what looked like the bones of a horse. On the third day I found the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams. On the fourth day I found a crushed encampment of beetles, and a cave full of the most loathsome bats I had ever seen. So it went on, day after day. In two weeks I had covered the island. All the while I had been making careful notes, and now I rested and spent my days drawing an exquisitely detailed map. I tacked this up above my pallet. As night fell, and my blubber candles spluttered, I lay back and considered my island home. With nary a smack or schooner in sight, I could remain marooned for years on end. My shelter may not last, buffeted as it was by howling winds and freezing rain. I decided that the best place for me to live would be the cave. I declared war on the bats.

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