Pencil was a watchman. He'd been
one for twenty years. Ever since the big man in the big house
had told him that it was to be his job to watch over the things
inside the little brick hut. The hut that nestled under the clump
of palm trees beside the narrow dusty track that led to the Tuehville
municipal sewage plant.
Ten years had passed since Pencil's
last official visitor; ten years during which his routine had
never varied. Every weekday morning he unlocked the increasingly
weather-beaten wooden door for the start of another day's vigil.
Every day, he dusted the wooden shelves and swept the concrete
floor with a palm frond cut fresh from one of the nearby trees.
He had no fellow staff; neither equals, nor superiors, nor subordinates.
But Pencil had never been lonely. His chores completed, he would
install himself on his crude three-legged palm-wood stool by
the door of the hut, from where he would greet the steady stream
of passers-by. Occasionally, one or two would stop to chat, and
it had not been long before one of the army of market women that
peopled the landscape had set up her stall alongside. As time
went by, Pencil's hut became a little social gathering point,
and his days passed in amiable, contented conversation.
On the last day of every month, Pencil
reported to the paymaster's office at the U.S. embassy to collect
his modest stipend. There was no-one in the payroll section who
knew, or even cared to ask, what it was that Pencil actually
watched over. Nor could Pencil have told them. He swept the floor
of the little hut, and dusted the shelves and their contents.
But what lay there he knew not, and neither could he have understood.
For Pencil was totally illiterate, and had never in his life
seen a map.
"This is it?"
"Look at the sign."
Twenty years ago, the lettering had
been fresh duck-egg blue on white; today, the faded, peeling
characters were barely visible. James screwed up his eyes in
the blinding mid-morning glare.
"U.S. MILITARY MISSION: CORPS OF ENGINEERING."
He read. Then, under that, in smaller
Below, all that was left of the rest
of the forgotten signwriter's long-lost message were word-sized
patches of bare wooden board, sun-split and sun-bleached to a
Charles parked his car as far under
the clump of palms as he could, where the shade offered at least
some protection from the furnace-like heat. They got out and
walked towards the hut, Charles' green suit iridescent in the
Pencil leant back against the wall
of his hut and eyed their approach. His palm frond stood beside
him, propped against the doorpost.
"What you say, old man?" Charles'
greeting acknowledged respect for Pencil's superiority in years,
without elevating his humble social status.
"What you say, boss?" Pencil could
sense officialdom, and shifted uncomfortably on his stool, wondering
whether he should get up. Charles resolved the dilemma by squatting
beside him. James hovered uncertainly in the background.
Charles handed ten cents to the nearby
market woman and picked two cola nuts off her tray. He passed
one to Pencil. They chewed companionably for some minutes. Eventually,
Charles broke the silence.
"I say, old man," Charles had adopted
his Very Important Voice, "You in charge here?"
Pencil stiffened on his stool.
"Yeah, boss. I the one in charge."
"What's your name, old man?"
Charles' gaze wandered leisurely over
the little hut.
"Hmm," There was approval in the Very
Important Voice, "The place looks fine, Pencil." Pencil's chest
swelled slightly under his threadbare vest.
Charles bought a red and white packet
of Du Maurier cigarettes from the market woman's tray. He undid
the cellophane wrapping, flipped open the lid, pulled out the
silver foil leaf and offered the pack to Pencil. Pencil's forehead
creased as his eyebrows lifted; he dearly loved cigarettes. Sometimes,
at the end of the month, he would throw caution to the wind and
buy two at once. A fresh one straight from a new pack was a rare
treat. Today, he knew, something very special was happening.
Charles lit a match and held it out;
Pencil leant forward with his cigarette and drew deeply. His
eyes closed with pleasure for a few seconds.
"Old man; we are from the embassy."
Pencil's eyes snapped open. He pulled
the cigarette from his mouth.
Charles felt in the inside pocket
of his jacket and withdrew Stan Borman's letter. He passed it
The words meant nothing to Pencil,
but he recognised the seal at the top easily. It was the same
as that on his pay envelope, only this was in colour, not black
and white. As with Charles' voice, Pencil knew instantly that
the letter must be Very Important.
"Yeah, boss?" Pencil had the illiterate's
fear of official communications.
"We would like to see inside your
office. Maybe there are some things there we need."
"Yeah; OK, boss." Pencil clambered
to his feet and led the way, bowlegged and bare foot, through
the open door, Charles and James following behind.
"Dammit, old man; you look after it
Pencil glowed silently; his discomfort
was easing. His bare feet padded silently on the concrete floor
as he followed his visitors along each row of shelves. He watched
as they pulled down and examined one after another of the mysterious
rolls of paper that lay there.
James was becoming despondent. It
was just as Stan had told him it might be; nothing but endless
maps of coastlines and coastal waters, all dated towards the
end of World War Two. The allies charting the channels and reefs,
harbours and creeks for their supply craft.
Suddenly, his attention was caught
by one of the sheets;
"Look at this, Charles."
"What's that, James? You got it?"
Charles peered over James' shoulder.
"That's not Tuehville, man."
"No, I know that. It's Ngombia; but
look at the middle."
The centre of the map was entirely
blank. A great rectangular swathe of white, bounded by straight
dotted lines. In the middle of all the white, the legend 'No
cartographic coverage'. Charles looked quizzically at James.
"It's like Stanley and Livingstone.
These are the only maps of Ngombia in existence, and they're
blank in the middle. Nobody in the world knows what's there."
"Bullshit, man," Charles sucked loudly
through his teeth, "The people who live there know what's there.
What's it matter to anyone else?"
James wondered if Cook and Columbus
had faced similar attitudes. He shrugged and rolled up the map,
pushing it back into its place on the shelf.
It was Charles who found it.
"What the hell is this, James?"
Charles pulled the roll from a massive pile and held it up in front
of him. "Looks like New York. What's it doing here?"
They spread the map out on the floor:
an urban sprawl with a complex grid of horizontal streets and
vertical avenues. It did look like New York. James' eyes travelled
to the legend at the bottom.
"Tuehville, Sheet 1 of 4"
His stomach knotted.
"This is it, Charles; look."
Charles looked; peering over James'
"Nah," His voice was scornfully dismissive, "That's
not Tuehville; look at all those highways."
He peered closer. "And look at all those names; 'Montgomery Street',
'Robertson Street', 'Jefferson Street'; ain’t no streets
called that in Tuehville."
James was inching his way across the
sheet, poring over each tiny segment.
"It is Tuehville, you know. Look at
it carefully. It's an aerial photograph, with a grid of streets
superimposed, and every one of them named. Look closer."
Charles looked closer.
"Yeah, you're right." He ran his finger
along a bright red line that wandered, artery-like, across the
page. "That's Unification St., and there's the presidential palace." His
finger moved to the bottom of the map. "What's all this, James?"
"What's all what?"
James looked to where Charles was
pointing. 'This' was an emblem, a black and white quartered shield,
in its centre a miniature globe. Above the shield lay a highly
stylised representation of a star and the sun. Around it all,
a circle of words.
"'CORPS OF ENGINEERING'," Read James, "'U.S.
ARMY TOPOGRAPHIC COMMAND'."
"Yeah," Murmured Charles, "And look
what's written beside it."
'DISTRIBUTION RESTRICTED', he read,
'SEE DOD MAP OR CHART CATALOG FOR GUIDANCE ON RELEASE OUTSIDE
THE US GOVERNMENT.'. It was all in bright red letters.
"What the hell's a DOD map, Charles?"
"Department of Defence?" He hazarded,
"After all, it was wartime."
"Charles, something tells me we're
not supposed to be looking at this."
"Hey, come on James, that was 1943.
Didn't you just tell me that these things were declassified years
"I suppose so." James was uneasy;
it was all so very far away from Number 8, Acacia Avenue. Charles
was crawling over the map again.
"So where are we, brain box?"
"Must be on another sheet; look, down
there," James pointed to the corner of the map, "See? Continued,
"Where the hell's sheet three?"
"Must be here, Charles, we've looked
James tugged a fresh roll out of the
huge pile; another Sheet 1. He tried again; Sheet 2. And again;
another sheet 2. The massive mound of paper rolls had neither
order nor labels. It was several minutes before he found a copy
of Sheet 3, and spread it out before them.
"You'll be pleased to know, Charles,"
James was examining the map minutely, "That the track outside here
is known officially as 'King Sao Bosso Street'."
"Yeah," Pencil was muttering softly
to himself, "Sao Bosso Street."
"What's that? You know the name?"
"Sure, boss." Pencil looked startled.
"How come? Who told you, old man?
Who told you the name?"
"Oh, boss," Pencil tugged nervously
at his vest, "The people came, boss. They told us this place
called Sao Bosso Street."
"Which people, Pencil. When?"
"Big people, boss," Pencil was miserably
uncomfortable, "Big people came, long ago. This place been Sao
Bosso Street ever since."
"Damn," Charles was pacing the floor, "I
don't understand. How come someone like Pencil knows, and I've
never heard of the street?" He stopped pacing.
James had picked up the map.
"Let's go outside, Charles." A thought
was niggling at the back of his mind.
They stood in the middle of the track,
the map held out between them.
"Look at that, man," Charles growled
at the dusty trail that wandered between scrubby bushes, "Ain't
no straight line highway there."
James let go of his side of the map
and stepped a few paces into the bushes, gazing into the distance.
Charles watched him, puzzled.
"You looking for somebody, James?"
James was staring straight ahead,
intent on something.
"Charles," James beckoned, "Look at
Charles came and stood beside him,
peering over his shoulder. In amongst the trees and bushes on
either side of the track the corrugated tin roofs of occasional
houses and shacks poked through.
"I'm looking. So?"
"Don't you see? They're all in a straight
Charles screwed up his eyes, mentally
filtering out the random sizes, random shapes, and random spacing;
ignoring the clumps of trees and walls of bushes. It wasn't easy.
"Yeah, man; you’re right. They
They were, too. On both sides. Two
parallel lines, thirty-five yards apart, a broad avenue filled
"You see what it means, don't you,"
James flapped his arms excitedly, "It's already here; the routes
for all the streets were cleared, years ago, but they got overgrown.
Now we've just found the plans for all of it."
James knew instinctively that they'd
find exactly the same arrangement on every one of the warren
of tracks and dirt roads that burrowed through the suburban undergrowth
"So how come there's nothing here
"The war ended," James shrugged,
"Plans got shelved, and pretty soon all that was left was paths
between the bushes."
"Huh," Grunted Charles, "Hell of a
way to run a city. Draw the plans, then hide them so nobody can
find them. No wonder no-one knows what any of the streets are
"But we do, Charles," James
was flapping his arms again, "We're the only ones who know what
the street names are."
"Christ," For a moment, Charles was
dumbfounded. Then, his brow darkened, "Unless someone else finds
James stopped in mid flap.
"Oh, Damn," He said.
"My thoughts exactly, James. There
are hundreds of these maps in there."
"Mmm, there are. Two hundred and twenty
eight of them; I counted all the rolls while you were grilling
Pencil." James made a quick mental calculation, "That's fifty
seven complete maps of Tuehville."
"So, Mr. Heinz, are you going to let
fifty six other people in on the act? Because, if you are, you
can kiss goodbye to this project."
"What do you suggest we do then? Hide
all the maps?"
"No; burn them."
"Burn them?" James was horrified,
"Christ, Charles, these are official U.S. Government property.
People get shot for doing things like that."
"Oh, Come on man," Charles gazed pityingly
at him, "This is Ngombia. Important papers go missing all the
time here. You ever heard of anyone getting into trouble on account
of something small like that?"
James hadn't, although that didn't
make him feel any better.
"Besides," Charles pressed home the
attack, "You heard what Stan Borman said; nobody even knows these
maps are here. There hasn't been a stock check in twenty years."
James still didn't feel entirely at
"Anyway," Charles delivered his best
shot, "He said we could take what we wanted. You told me, remember?"
James didn't think this was quite
what Stan had meant, but he was weakening.
"How about if we just took one sheet
from every set except ours? Three quarters of a map wouldn't
be much use to anyone else."
"Forget it, James. We don't even want
anyone to know they exist."
Eventually, they compromised. The
entire collection of maps would be transferred to Charles' home
Charles turned and walked back towards
"Yeah, boss?" Pencil hovered nervously
in the doorway. Charles pointed at the great mound of maps on
the floor of the hut.
"You put all these in the car, you
Pencil scurried to and fro, transferring
the maps to the boot of Charles' car. He was loading the last
armful when Charles pulled out one of the rolls and spread it
over the bonnet.
"You see this, old man?"
"You can remember it?"
"Yeah, boss." Pencil had no difficulty
remembering pictures, it was only words that failed to register.
"You find any more the same, you keep
them for me, you hear?"
Charles rolled up the map and slung
it in the boot along with the rest. There seemed to be an incredible
number of them. He turned to Pencil.
"You did well, old man," Charles handed
him a small folded note.
"Thank you, boss." Pencil's eyes sparkled, "Thank
you." He stood, waiting for further instruction.
"You can go, old man."
"Yeah, boss; thank you, boss."
Pencil scampered back to his hut, Charles' note clutched in his
hand. Ten Nombas: enough to buy a whole carton of cigarettes.
He grabbed his palm frond and disappeared inside.
Charles reversed the car carefully
out from under the palm trees. James leant back gingerly against
his seat; it was scorchingly hot.
"Just you and me, Charles," He directed
one of the dashboard air-conditioning vents at himself; the stream
of air was like a jet from an oven, "We're the only people who
know the names of Tuehville's streets."
Charles nosed the car down the track,
tooting in response to Pencil's enthusiastic salute.
"Yeah," He growled, "Now all we got
to do is persuade the mayor to buy signs for all of them."