Art Pact 171 - Cartography


Once a map-maker always a map-maker, as my father said, and it did seem to be true. I found myself catching up my notepad and pencil, and before I realised it I was sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring at the paper, imagining the strokes, the lines, the shading. That's how it is with me - the map has to somehow mature in my brain, or perhaps develop would be a more apt word. Like a film image it fades into solidity, to something that I can capture and hold in my head, as though I'm projecting it onto the page and then just pencilling in the lines that are already there. Perhaps it's as much art as anything else, but there were no other artists of any kind in our block, so I have never been able to talk to someone else about it.

There's a more technical aspect to it than plain art, of course - there are proportions to be preserved, relationships to be observed. Compromises are possible, but every compromise must be weighed against the end use of the map. Distances and angles can be compressed or stretched, but stretch one and you alter the other. Sometimes this is acceptable - better to get salient navigational figures in place rather than ensure an absolute flat mapping with all distances at the same perfect ratio to the territory. Sometimes it is vital that measurements made on the map correspond with the reality they represent. Down there, in the basement, I had none of the tools I would usually use - excepting of course those that I carried with me always, which is to say my thumbs, my eyes, my arm span and my stride length. Here is a test to see how prepared you are as a map-maker, as an estimater in general: How wide is your arm span? For most people it is roughly the same as their height, and so knowing your height you can measure with your arms the length of a room's walls, the width of a door, and so forth. A walking stride can vary, but a good cartographer always knows the length of his pace at a normal speed.

I began to lay down pencil lines, tentatively feeling at the edges of the problem. I had a sense that there was something hidden in the map, a section of the basement that I had somehow not visited, although I was sure that I had gone through every door, walked down every corridor. It was something to do with the floorspace of the rooms, I felt, some lack. The building was this big - I had walked around the perimeter of my block many times, looking out of the windows at the grey ash and broken houses below - and if the building were that big then the basement levels must be that big at least, probably larger. I sketched out the path I'd taken from the goods lift to the junk room I was in now, then surrounded the path from memory with the rooms that I'd walked through on the way.

I have a pretty good memory for floorplans, but travelling back along my path I discovered that my estimates for room sizes were all slightly off - but that it was only obvious once measured. The room immediately outside the goods lift, for instance, I'd put down as thirty feet by twenty feet. But it was actually only about fifteen feet deep, quite a discrepancy - barely three times my armspan. I cursed myself for an idiot, and moved on to the next room (the one where all the oil drums were). This time it was the length of the room rather than its depth which was shortened. Were my estimates really that bad, I wondered? Perhaps being underground had disoriented me.

But as I was looking around the room in irritation, I noticed something odd about the placement of the barrels. There were more on the side to my left as I entered than there were to my right. That in itself would have signified nothing except that the door was in the middle of the room and the barrels had been deposited with roughly the same spaces in between them. There should clearly have been the same number of barrels either side. Looking from one side to the other gave me an unpleasant sensation, as though I were moving when I was standing still. My curiosity engaged, I used my arms to measure the far wall again. Approximatly thirty feet, just as I'd measured before. I walked to the other side of the room, intending to measure it, but before I got there I had already spotted the trick.

The barrels on this side of the room were smaller (not shorter, but slimmer) than those on the other side. They weren't oil drums at all, they were props. I moved back, examined the scene carefully. The reason it had looked as though there were more drums on one side than the other was because there were, and that odd asymmetry had somehow fooled my eyes into seeing the room itself as symmetrically arranged either side of the door. Someone had set the whole place up as an optical illusion. I measured the wall - first of all, it was almost five feet shorter than the opposite wall, and second of all, the corners were not square. They'd been painted in some combination of counter-shading that made them look square, but the whole room was actually a trapezoid.

Now that I was onto the trick, it was obvious wherever I found it - subtle arrangements of metal shelving, desks and beams and piles of wood arranged so as to cover up the irregularities in the shapes and sizes of the cellar rooms. I rubbed out lines and redrew them, and even as I began I could see that my sense of something missing had been right all along. There, hidden in the middle of the cellar, was a void - a room roughly twenty feet by ten, directly in the center.

I began to look for a way in.

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