On The Accidental Death Of A Cartographer : Part One

In a comment on yesterday’s piece of Hoonery, Banished To A Pompous Land pleaded for the resurrection of a story which has – unaccountably – never been reissued since its original appearance in the Massacre anthology published by Indelible Inc twenty years ago. Here, then, in several parts over the next few days, is Accidental Deaths Of Twelve Cartographers, No. 8 : Ken Buttercase. Please note that Nos. 1-7 and 9-12 were never written. With some misgivings, I have transcribed it exactly, resisting the temptation to mop up certain infelicities.

The parents of the great cartographer Ken Buttercase were employed by a small railway in a remote country. They lived in a wooden hut which served as a signal-box. A threadbare curtain of rep divided the hut into two halves. In one half, the Buttercases ate and slept and baked and washed; the other half contained the signalling controls and was also used to store an ever-changing collection of broken locomotive machinery. Once a day, at noon or thereabouts, a cart would trundle to the door of the hut; two railway workers would deliver some broken bits and pieces and take others away. Mr or Mrs Buttercase would sign one chit for the deliveries, another chit for the pieces removed, and help the two officials – one of whom was tubercular – to load and offload the invariably rusty pieces of metal.

Their duties left them little time to devote to their only child. Let us examine these duties in some detail. The railway itself was not busy – the one train passed the hut four times a day; heading north at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., and heading south at 10 a.m. and 10.15 p.m. Before its passing, the signals had to be set; the cranks, winches, levers, pulleys, knobs, fulcra, and transistor motors all had to be adjusted with frightening precision. In order for this to be done, the broken locomotive-parts had to be shoved out of the way, into the other half of the hut. They could not be kept outside, exposed to the elements, as the company regulations forbade such a practice. Nor could they be stored permanently on the other side of the rep curtain, as not only was this – as we have seen – the family’s living quarters, it also served as the work-room devoted to carrying out the many other tasks they had to perform, which we shall examine in due course. Once all the broken stuff had been moved out of the way, the signalling equipment could be set. Readjustment, back to the original coordinates, took place once the train had passed, after which the day’s conglomeration of broken bits and pieces could be shifted back to the other half of the hut.

There was a great deal of paperwork. Buttercase’s parents carried this out at the tiny wooden escritoire next to the oven. Every day an inventory had to be taken of the heteroclite jumble of rubbish cluttered on the other side of the curtain. The railway provided pre-printed forms to be completed for each item, in the form of a questionnaire, detailing such things as time of delivery (to the minute), exact dimensions, percentage of surface area covered in rust, visual evidence of sabotage, signs of unlawful hammering, pounding, twisting, or breakage, and so on. The forms had to be handed over to the officers on their daily visit, whether or not they removed the piece in question. Multiple forms were therefore necessary if a piece remained in storage for more than twenty-four hours; but this was rare. Mrs Buttercase usually wrote the details out in rough, then her husband copied the information on to the form in his best handwriting, which was rarely neat enough for the officers, particularly the tubercular one, who lambasted Mr Buttercase accordingly.

There were other forms to be completed. It was necessary to count the number of passengers aboard the train each time it passed. It trundled along reasonably slowly, which helped – but the windows were filthy with grease, which made it imperative to peer with great concentration. The accuracy of the figures could always be checked by comparing the Buttercases’ calculation with that made at the next hut along the line, although this was rarely if ever done, and it could always be argued that passengers had leaped or fallen off, or jumped aboard, between the signal-box and the next hut, not that this was likely, as hardly any passengers ever used the railway anyway. The passenger-count forms were collected on a monthly basis by another, more important, railway official, who wore a tall hat like a funeral director’s and arrived at the hut astride a gigantic horse. When he called, the Buttercases had to feed both the man and his steed with buns and glucose syrup.

Other duties included buffing up ceremonial shields and brasswork, making flags and pennants, procuring rainwater, cooking sausages for the company hound, sharpening the pencil-sharpener, cleaning the rails, slaughtering insects which trespassed on the railway, keeping the paintwork up to scratch, dismantling the signals on public holidays, and carting huge amounts of sand and grit from one side of the track to the other.

Little Ken was bidden to undertake only one task. Every day a small amount of paraffin had to be collected from the Paraffin Shed, which was four hours’ walk away across the desolate, bandit-strewn moors. He would leave mid-morning, carrying a special tub on his back, supporting it with ropes crossed over his shoulders and under his arms. His parents gave him a flask of turnip soup for sustenance along the way. The bandits of that country were fierce and ruthless, but they were unforgiveably careless, and had little idea of how to conduct an ambuscade. Buttercase was always able to spot them long before they would have been able to waylay him, and he took the necessary precautions. Sometimes he would hide behind a stone until they went away. Or he would wait for them to set upon a less observant traveller – perhaps a pedlar or minstrel – and then dash swiftly past while they were otherwise engaged. His other alternative was to make long detours, which he often did, approaching the Paraffin Shed by a bewildering variety of different routes. Was it this early familiarity with the highways and by-ways of his homeland which stirred his first cartographic impulses?

To be continued …

One thought on “On The Accidental Death Of A Cartographer : Part One

  1. ‘Pleaded’ might be over stating matters a trifle Mr. Key. After all I have my copy. If ’twas a plea then it was on behalf of all those other poor wretches who have been so long denied.

    Another rung on my ladder to sainthood. And yours too of course.


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