On The Accidental Death Of A Cartographer : Part Four

Parts One, Two, and Three. And now, Part Four …

Buttercase’s map of Sumatra was his first and, arguably, finest cartographic achievement. Having abandoned his shipmates, his first step was to enter the general store in Blimbing, and, using the small sum of cash he had stolen from the purser’s hatbox, he bought a knapsack, some cakes, a compass, a shirt, a fetching little hat, a jar containing a substance no longer obtainable on earth, although it was quite common at the time, a guide-book, some clips, a lead-lined smock, and a windjammer, among other things. Then he set out on foot to cover the whole island. It took him five years. He began by keeping to the coastal routes, tramping from Blimbing all the way up to Oleleh, then along the eastern coast, through Edi, Balei, and Rupat until, once past Telok Betong, he returned to his starting-point. He took the opportunity to call in to the general store and have his clips de-rusted and his hat stitched. Then he headed off into the interior, zigzagging his way nor’east, nor’west, nor’east, nor’west, until he reached Segli. All this time he had been taking copious notes, and he was now ready to begin work on his map. He returned to Blimbing on a motorbike and holed up in a shack. Sustained by Rumanian beans and hooch, he worked for a further two years, using an enormous sheet of Waterbath paper and a collection of coloured pencils. A stupendously detailed description of the map appears in Crone’s Anthology Of Sumatran Maps Concocted By Felons (Hooting Yard Press, 1937), to which the reader is referred.

But that’s quite enough about maps for the time being. Of more interest is the fact that at around this time Buttercase fell in with a gang of ne’er-do-wells who haunted the more disgusting sinks of vice and iniquity in Blimbing and, when it was learned that he was an accomplished accordionist, he was invited to join their jazz band. The band was led by the scrofulous but benign cornettist Lip Suk Jab, a Korean who had been hounded out of his country following the infamous Unserrated Postage Stamp Scandal of 1922. Suk Jab’s musical gifts were slight, but what he lacked in technique he made up for with what can only be described as stage presence. Slightly less than five-feet tall and impossibly rotund, he held audiences in thrall. Several critics have attempted to explain precisely what it was about the man that was so spellbinding. Was it his occasional impersonations of Constantin Brancusi or Cicely Courtneidge? Was it the metal harness he strapped to his head which emitted incandescent light? Was it the pocketfuls of custard triangles with which he showered the audience at the end of each show? Who can say? What we do know is that, when his regular accordionist was drowned in a freak dandelion-hammering accident, he cajoled Buttercase into joining his band.

The next thirty years passed in a whirl. Cartography was all but forgotten as Suk Jab’s band – known variously as The Crumpled Ships, The Amnesiac Lane Octet, Lip Suk Jab And His Big Aluminium Kettle, Shimmying In Ponds, The Norwegian Hooters, or Go Wild With Lip Suk Jab And The Mullet Babies – toured endlessly through Sumatra, Java, Borneo, New Guinea, Timor, and the Yukon. There were shows virtually every night of the week, in hotels, dancehalls, casinos, scout-huts, community centres, bingo parlours, caves, factories, deserted mineshafts, and temples. Lacquered gits clutching recording contracts followed the band everywhere. Broadcasters from the burgeoning Dutch East Indies Radio Corporation were forever dragging the band into studios. Buttercase took up the bassoon and the ondes martenot in addition to his favoured accordion, although he was never able to play either of them with much conviction.

This idyll ended on 14th January 1959, when disaster struck. The band, billed as The Authentic Sound Of Geriatric Slobbering, were booked to play at the Fop Palace, a nightclub in Selwyn, hard by the banks of the Macmillan, which had become the in place to be for the local population of trappers, Mounties, card-sharps, detectives, rustlers, and circus performers. The journey from Borneo had been exhausting, and half the band had contracted dengue fever. Lip Suk Jab himself was under investigation by the Javan Secret Police following his involvement in a stamp collecting scam, and had become convinced – rightly – that agents pursued him at every step. Indeed, on the night in question, eleven Javan plainclothesmen were loitering in the snug bar at the Fop Palace, ready to make an arrest. As if this were not trouble enough, Buttercase’s accordion had been sabotaged by thugs employed by a rival Sumatran jazz combo; as soon as he played an F sharp, explosives secreted within the instrument would detonate, blasting the accordion, its player, and anyone and anything else within a five-hundred yard radius to smithereens.

By quarter to midnight, when the band were due to begin their set, the Palace was packed. The Javans, skilfully disguised as a group of Lithuanian business executives, had fanned out from the snug and taken up strategic positions around the stage and at the exits. Never one to tolerate sickness, Lip Suk Jab had summarily dismissed the dengue-stricken members of the group and was busy rehearsing four locals in a back room. None of the callow Yukon youths had ever played a musical instrument before, but so awe-inspiring was Suk Jab’s tuition that, by the time the lights went down, Biff, Skip, Chump, and Dib felt confident enough to attempt the banjo, tuba, sackbut, and kettledrums respectively. The locals gave them a rousing cheer, which was only slightly muted when they were followed on stage by Buttercase and the other two long-serving band members, whose names we may learn later. The seven of them started to bash out a scorching opener designed to set the scene for the arrival of their leader. You will be pleased to learn that Buttercase played the bassoon on this number. The deadly accordion rested behind him on a rather intriguing stool, carved entirely from the tusk of a narwhal and engraved with scenes of piracy and racketeering. He had received this piece of scrimshandy from a Bolton mustard merchant after a concert in Wetter in 1946.

Towards the end of the number, Lip Suk Jab made his way towards the stage. As he paused to screw the last bolt into his incandescent metal head-harness, four of the Javans pounced. Before he knew what had hit him, the cornettist was gagged, handcuffed, and frogmarched out by a side exit into the wintry Selwyn night. The rest of the Javan detectives joined them, and they hurried down to the banks of the Macmillan, which was of course entirely frozen over. Hastily lacing up their ice-skates, and muttering incomprehensible messages into their walkie-talkies, the agents careered across the river at breakneck speed, narrowly avoiding bashing Lip Suk Jab’s head into an ice-trapped tugboat in midstream. Once they had made it to the other side, they put the cornettist back on his feet and, having removed their skates, ordered him to march with them four miles to the airfield where their bi-plane was waiting. As they set off, midnight struck.

To be continued …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.