On The Accidental Death Of A Cartographer : Part Two

Part One is here : now read on …

The Paraffin Shed was the smallest of a cluster of buildings, far from the railway itself but owned nevertheless by the company, which charged pitiful rents to the tenants. Among the other buildings were a tavern, an ink factory, a menagerie, a cork shop, an igloo, a massive, empty prison, and a warehouse full of bones. The Paraffin Shed was rented by a retired sea-captain, whose name is unfortunately not recorded. In later years, Buttercase remembered him as by turns gruff and amiable, languid and crusty, corrosive and vibrant, insensible and bereft. Although it may be thought that he spent long hours entertaining his small visitor with seafaring yarns, tales of exploration and derring-do upon the high seas, rattling narratives of piracy and bilgewater, there is no evidence that he ever did so. As far as we know, all that ever took place was that, upon Buttercase’s arrival, the boy unhitched the tub from his back, unscrewed the stopper, the sea-captain poured a paltry amount of paraffin into it, demanded his money and held out his vast and hairy hand for receipt of the coins, whereupon the lad paid him, replaced the stopper, hitched the refilled tub on to his back, bid the old salt farewell until the morrow, and began the long trudge back towards his parents’ hut.

Did he ever visit any of the other buildings? He may have done. What would have happened had he encountered, in the warehouse of bones, a slobbering giant wracked with the dropsy? Or blundered into the menagerie and come face to face with a starving bison? Or been lured into the ink factory and had his tub of paraffin stolen from him by the snag-toothed serf detailed to stand guard at the door, his mouth forever filled with sticky, raspberry-flavoured confections, the juice of which dribbled down his chin and fell in droplets upon his outlandish pantaloons? What turn might have been taken in the life of the cartographer-to-be had these things happened? There is rich material here, but we must turn our backs upon it, and follow the young Buttercase back to the rep-divided hut, to which, daily, he returns, as twilight descends upon the land, and howls are heard far off in the distance, or perhaps the occasional spurt of gunfire, or a hoot from the rickety train, trundling on its way, with or without passengers, with or without freight.

He was sixteen years old when he was flung into prison, and twenty when he was released on a special licence, having been recommended by the prison governor to accompany an Antarctic expedition as general factotum, accordionist, and toothbrush maker. Up to the very minute the steamship Indescribable chugged out of the harbour, Buttercase was handcuffed to a prison guard. The two had become fast friends during the seven-week journey from the prison to the small seaside town from which the expedition sailed. Clump, the guard, was a small, flickering man who drew maps in his spare time. Never having set foot outside his homeland, his exquisitely illuminated maps of Far Cathay, Beach, Zimpagu, Hoon, and Yssicol were the products of a fevered imagination all too rare in men of his profession. Buttercase, of course, was awestruck. He repeatedly badgered Clump to make him a gift of one of his maps, but the prison guard refused for reasons we can only guess at. Not that we will bother.

As they made their way on foot across the country for forty-nine days of that abominable winter, Clump nevertheless gave Buttercase a far more valuable gift – a pencil. It must not be forgotten that in those days, convicted felons – especially those released on licence – were routinely deprived of pencils, as they were of pencil-sharpeners, pencil-cases, pens, protractors, rulers, compasses, crayons, set-squares, and many other items of stationery and graphic equipment. The king himself had renewed the ban in the very year of Buttercase’s release. Clump was taking a terrible risk. Perhaps he was in his cups when he hastily shoved the pencil into Buttercase’s pocket. The great cartographer later recalled that the prison guard had tears in his eyes as he did so.

On the deck of the Indescribable, Clump removed the handcuffs from his young charge’s puny wrist. The two embraced. Doughty explorers, some already kitted out in their Antarctic furs, bustled Clump off the ship; they were impatient for Buttercase to begin his accordion lessons. Prisoner and guard never saw each other again. Clump came to a bad end. On his return to the prison, he had his pencils counted, and his furious blushes confirmed the governor’s suspicions. Dismissed from the service, he fell on evil days, and died two years later, drunk out of his brain on the floor of a post office in Tantarabim.

To be continued …

[NOTE : Clump is the first, but by no means the last Hooting Yard character to meet his end drunk out of his brain on the floor of a post office. The same fate befalls a music critic in The Phlogiston Variations, I think, and quite possibly one or two others. This was also the first appearance in my work of that realm of mystery known as Tantarabim.]

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