For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by maps. From when I was a little boy maps, atlases, and globes offered a window onto the wider world out there, and, more than that, made it understandable. They represented mystery and the solution to mystery all at once, capturing and enrapturing my imagination.
Before I go any further I suppose I better tell you my name and offer an explanation of any weirdness you might encounter in my observations. My name is Jerome Cogan, I live in a largeish town in the South of England that you’ve probably never heard of, Farringdon, oh, and I have a moderate case of Asperger’s. You don’t have to worry that doesn’t mean that I won’t understand you, just that I can sometimes find it hard to pick up on the emotional cues that others take for granted, I find it somewhat difficult to navigate the world of relationships, and may appear cold or distant to those who don’t know me. I was only diagnosed eleven years ago when I was fourteen but it made sense of the problems I’d had since I was a child.
I suppose that my fascination with maps sprang from my confusion with the world around me. A map gives you a guide to understanding geography, the environment it depicts; there’s no such guide for human beings, more’s the pity. As a boy my attention would instantly be caught by any map I saw, be it in a road atlas or in a novel or whatever. A map in a fantasy novel – of which I read many when I was in my mid-teens – seemed as true to me as one in an Ordnance Survey Map, they all symbolized a way of making sense of a land that was mysterious to me. And that’s the other thing about maps, about cartography, as much as they are supposed to depict the reality of things, there’s usually something much more symbolic than actual about them. After all, things change every day so how accurate can most maps even be? Despite my Aspergic tendencies, my longing for things to be *comprehensible*, there’s something ineffably exciting about the relationship between the presumed accuracy of a map and its true symbolic slipperiness. If you’ll allow me to be vulgar it is like the difference between a real breast and an augmented one, they are both ostensibly the same but one is more *real* than the other. I want to tell you about a particular map I found, the strangest one I’ve ever seen. A map in which the relationship between it and the thing it was depicting was quite odd. As strange as a chipmunk dressed in a dinner jacket dropping from a tree in front of you, raising himself up on his hind legs, and saying “Hello, I’m Tony Randall”. That is to say, *very* strange indeed…
I was on a week-long holiday and I was alone. My girlfriend and I had broken up nine days before, my heart felt like shards of heavy jagged glass tearing me inside, I was feeling alienated and very, very lonely. I guess it wasn’t a surprise that I was searching for something with meaning, something I could trust. My ex-lover, Kaye, and I had made plans for this holiday so it was all the harder not to think of her. I kept remembering how it had ended between us, over and over again, replaying, almost *reliving* it in my mind. Our relationship had lasted two years, which might not seem that long but was to *me*, long in a good way, the best way. She had, I thought, accepted me for me; we’d had our arguments as most couples do, but we had a satisfying, lively, fulfilling relationship – or so I thought. I felt I knew my way around it, and her. It turned out I was wrong. I had been able to be with her as I had been with my two other previous girlfriends Genevieve and Rosalind. That is, free to be myself but also able to communicate and express my love for her; there was little of the confusion and concommitant frustration I felt around others, and none of the distance. Often, I wasn’t quite sure how to behave around other people so I overcompensated and made embarrassing misjudgements, otherwise I knew I came across like an iceman, unreachable, untouchable (with the result that few *wanted to reach or touch me*); therefore I was stuck between two extremes – either attempting to be like everyone else but often failing abominably, or, locked inside myself unable to “move”. With Kaye (and Genevieve and Rosalind) it hadn’t been like that, she had accepted me and, to be dreadfully cliched, I was no longer an iceman with her because she melted me. I felt like a “regular guy”, a good person, a *true man* when we were together. Not Pinocchio any longer, but “a real live boy”! I felt and could express such love for her and she for me. But then things changed, and I lost the map to her heart.
Our loving, often passionate relationship began to crumble and I did not know why, though I, of course, presumed it was something I’d done. Kaye became increasingly distant, cold, inconsiderate of my feelings. With my condition it’s hard to judge but I felt a chasm opening between us and no matter how hard I tried I could not seem to bridge it. As I’ve said my condition, my “specialness”, made it difficult to judge whether I was right and even more so to cope with it. Things grew even worse when we were in bed and she suddenly told me, as I was being affectionate toward her, that I was “obsessed with sex” which came as a surprise to me, as I could hardly be compared to Michael Douglas in the nineties. We’d always had the kind of, as they say, “active sex life” that a young couple should presumably enjoy, so her accusation was shocking. I tried frantically to orient myself and clumsily apologized to her. In the days afterward I was on the look out for signs that I was a secret sex fiend, and just didn’t know it; I worried if I was being inappropriate in any of my behavior; whenever I felt a rush of physical love for *my own girlfriend* I felt ashamed.
It was only two weeks or so later that I discovered that she had been having sex with her work colleague Gavin (blech, what a name!) behind my back. As you might imagine I was devastated. It was a friend of Kaye’s, Lorna who told me. I’d always liked her and we got on well together, she met with me in a coffee shop and said “I’m sorry about this, Jerome, but I just had to tell you. Kaye’s my friend but so are you, and I couldn’t let you go on blindly…” Lorna went on to tell me how Gavin and Kaye had got together and about the affair they’d been having. I couldn’t understand why Kaye hadn’t just told me our relationship was over, there was no guide to this. Had she just wanted to delay herself discomfort for a little while, or did she hope I’d get the message. I was confused. Obviously, it was my fault. I didn’t need a map to know that.
As much good as it did me I couldn’t help but blame myself. I may have loathed Gavin with a venomous intensity I usually reserve for the likes of reality TV “celebrities”, murderers, the overly extroverted, and certain politicians, but I knew he was quite a confident, easy-going person, he was also better-looking than me (not difficult, admittedly) so there was really no competition. It was like I had fallen into the ocean and the waters were closing above my head as the current sucked me under. I tried to say nothing to Kaye but could not hold back, she quite calmly admitted to it and apologized while also not, really. I felt angry and lost and something broke loose in my chest until all that was left was directionless confusion and teary-eyed pain. I begged her not to go, I couldn’t stop myself even though I wasn’t sure if that was correct behaviour; frankly, I would have done anything, said anything, no matter how degrading to get her to stay. I wasn’t sure it was purely love as much as that she had brought so much calmness, sense of balance, and pleasure into my life. Obviously she still left.
After Kaye departed my symptoms increased, the approach of the holiday just a week away did not improve things, unsurprisingly. However, as my mind searched in its peculiar way to find some distraction, I hit on an idea that appealed; you may say it’s too clunky a metaphor but I turned to my hobby because maps offered a guide to the way things *are*, they may not always be accurate but few people make a map to intentionally mislead, and even if a map *is* misleading you could investigate the reasons why it is so. The world of maps felt comprehensible to me in precisely the way that the world of people, their motivations, and their emotions often didn’t to me. Even a map of a fictional place symbolizes the wish to provide information about a landscape. So, I made plans to visit various libraries, museums, and antiquarian bookshops to seek out maps I had never seen and satisfy my interest.
The economic bite and the onslaught of the internet meant that there were fewer places to visit than before but this made it more of an adventure, even if a pathetic one. Of course I’d visited the British Museum before and had sampled its delights but I wanted to venture farther afield. That’s how I ended up in the Northern city of Hardy. I had looked up the Hardy Metropolitan Museum and had been fascinated to see that there was an exhibition on map-making there, while Hardy itself seemed to have a few antiquarian booksellers in its midst. This was exactly the kind of thing my particular condition was good for, I could plan and structure my itinerary, find directions (using Google Maps ironically enough), work out timings, and then set off on a specific route. Everything made *sense* that way. As it was, the vagaries of the British railway system and the kind of nerve-scraping delays that would test the patience of a statue meant that my best laid plans were torn into so much confetti. It took me an hour-and-a-half longer than it should have to get there and the journey was already more than long enough. Aside from that, I don’t know if you have ever spent several hours squashed up next to a grossly fat man with a major body odour problem while in the same carriage a group of troglodytic soccer supporters get progressively drunker and more obnoxious but if you haven’t, it is an experience I really wouldn’t recommend. I’m not fond of crowds anyway – they present too many conflicting signals, too much *static*, and they overload my senses – and after a few minutes of this I was ready to throw myself off the train, which would have been quite dramatic of me don’t you think? Instead, I tried my best to read and ignore it all.
Eventually, after what seemed like a torturous eternity, the train finally made it into Hardy to my palpable and divine relief. I trudged exhaustedly to an affordable little hotel I’d found on the internet, finding my way by seeking directions on my smartphone.
Having reached the hotel feeling like someone had scraped out the contents of my head and replaced them with spaghetti, I somehow fumbled my way to my room – after booking-in in my usual singularly clumsy fashion – and, after making an unusually token attempt to put everything in its right place, collapsed into bed. I woke hours later to find darkness pressing its face up against the window panes. Due to my condition and, well, a high-strung, nervous nature in new situations, I had to let the “pressures” equalize to restore my equilibrium. I was to use the rest of the day checking over my plans for tomorrow (hey, you never know *what* could happen! Be prepared!), I hadn’t been like this for a few years but the loss of Kaye had sent me back to square one, knocked me for six, stole the wind from my sails, and any other cliche you could think of; the act of planning and re-planning was almost soothing even as I irritated the Hades out of myself by doing it. After spending a not inconsiderable amount of time doing this I calmed myself down by listening to Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! on my laptop, perhaps the fact that I accompanied this with the consumption of vast amounts of coffee was not a help in feeling less jittery, but I never did like following the conventional path… Before I slept again, I read some of Moby Dick (a novel that I have started and failed to finish again and again for a decade, I promised myself that this time it wouldn’t defeat me!) followed by a little of Dava Sobel’s Longitude until, finally, I tumbled into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I awakened at Six ready to face the day, excitement about what I might see thrumming in my head like a pleasant headache; despite this there was a part of me, a very great part though submerged, that felt a little ashamed suspecting that *looking at and for maps* was a rather pathetic escape from pain, yet I had to quieten that voice of censure with rationality, I knew I was hurt and I knew that The Great Map Search was a way of sublimating that hurt but better that than to sit at home in the dark thrusting metaphorical daggers in my heart. I wasn’t letting my condition *rule* me entirely, I was getting it to *work for me*. Although I was in pain and feeling as if I were at permanent low tide, I hoped that losing Kaye was not going to be the end of my life just one difficult *part of it* and I trusted that in time new routes to happiness and fulfillment might open up for me. In a way this week of map-seeking appeared a clumsy but useful analog to the searching for a new balanced *life* that I would do in the future. Oh, well, I think I have astonished you enough with what I like to think of as Cogan’s Big Book of Constipated and Unconvincing Metaphors.
At a little before Eight I slipped out onto the streets of Hardy, the bright blue sky and cold sun of a late June day greeted me. I walked to the famous Hester Gardens Park and drank in the lovely surroundings, although I felt it was a shame that though Hardy had been cleaned up from its grimy lows of the Seventies and Eighties (mostly before I was born) that the changes in the city to bring it to life as a bustling 21st Century metropolis meant that some of its treasures were being inappropriately encroached upon, not to mention that parts of the city were beginning to succumb to the disease of identikit modernity : the same shops, the same designs, the same ambiance. Thankfully, the revitalization of the municipality had also brought some of its spectacular and fascinating architecture and character back to life in a way not seen for decades.
The city’s museum itself was a beautifully designed, almost cathedral-like building that shone white in the sunlight. Entering the building was to undergo an almost religious experience; here was a place that spoke of all the astonishing accomplishments of men and women through the ages. It felt to me the way that stepping into a church must feel to especially devout people, and as I entered the exhibition I felt almost giddy.
I emerged into the exhibition room to see an amazing map hung on the far wall, it appeared to be made of cloth and was a fanciful depiction of Great Britain. The maker had gotten many things correct but there seemed an amusing vagueness to other parts of it, as if he either lacked the knowledge to complete it properly, or had merely become bored and had made the rest of it up saying “Euuurgh, that’ll do!” or something similar. I had myself a high old time looking at the contents of various exhibition cases and viewing fascinating cartographic instruments. It probably seems strange to you but I took a true delight in absorbing all this knowledge and seeing how the understanding of the face of the world had enlarged over the centuries.
It was a few hours later that I left the museum and reemerged, blinking, into the brighter, warmer day. I had eaten in the museum cafe and ambled through other rooms, observing, among other things, a forlorn-looking mummy and shrunken head with an irritated expression on its walnut face (I, too, would probably look pissed off if my head was shrunken…) but now I was ready to explore the rest of my itinerary. I won’t bore you with the rest of it for the most part, only to say that as I relaxed I allowed myself to follow my plans much less strictly. I headed up and down streets doing my best to follow the route I’d worked out – ironically, though I enjoy maps, I’m not always the most skilled at following them – visiting a few booksellers whose details I recorded. However, it was when I accidentally headed down the wrong side street due to the crowds becoming to wearing on my poor brain that I made a *real* discovery. I was, feeling rather annoyed with myself when I happened to look to the left of me and found, nestled between a signmakers (boarded up) and a pornographic videostore, an antiquarian bookstore of whose existence the internet had given me no clue. There it sat utterly incongruous in these surroundings but undeniably *there*, despite my initial conviction that I must be hallucinating. The sign outside proclaimed “Westerby and Klein Booksellers”, I looked at the sign for some seconds, then shifted my attentions to the windows which were murky but displayed some promising-looking tomes inside, plus, even more interestingly, what looked to be a 19th Century map of Hardy, itself.
What could I do but go in?
I pushed the shop’s door open taking note of the browning postcards and advertisements stuck to the glass, most of which seemed to hail from the Fifties and Sixties, there was a long dusty blind behind the glass from which a cream-colored cord dangled. The interior of the shop was dim, a faint amber illumination came from I knew not where supplementing the sunlight dulled by the clutter and dust in the window, as well as some old russet-colored curtains that were tugged partly shut. I looked around and saw: books in plenitude and maps in multitudes. It was like stepping into my own personal Narnia, I almost looked around to reassure myself that I had entered through an ordinary door and not a wardrobe. The smell of books and a slight must was in the air but this wasn’t unpleasant as it can be in some of the cheaper and more ill-maintained second-hand bookstores, certainly Westerby and Klein’s could not compete with some of the more upmarket booksellers but it had something they did not, a strange kind of Soul. Not the James Brown kind, but the Deep, Human kind. You might say it is my condition but I think Books, Maps, or pieces of Art, etc, have “souls” all of their own, certainly those made with love or, at the least, inspiration do. Westerby and Klein’s as unexpected and strange as it may have seemed at first glance felt like a place of True Worship to me. I’m sure some of you out there must be rolling your eyes skyward at this (certainly my mother used to chastise me a lot for doing that when something struck me as frustrating or unnutterably stupid) or perhaps even yelling “Get a Life!” but that’s how I felt and feel, and I’m secure in myself to assert I still do. Certainly, this was a place of worship where columns of books were piled higgledy-piggledy on tables, towers of tomes with leans scarcely less pronounced than that of the Tower of Pisa; sure it was a place of worship where the dusting was haphazard at best (some areas were spick and span, others were what I am forced to call rather grubby), but despite that it felt like a place where the objects it contained were *loved*, I can’t explain it any better than that.
The shop was surprisingly large on the inside, once again I found myself thinking of the wardrobe from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe before my mind leapt to apartments of unlikely hugeness in American sitcoms, to Mary Poppins’s carpet bag (I had a crush on Julie Andrews as Mary when I was a boy if in nothing else, though I am not sure I should admit that in company), or to the TARDIS in Doctor Who; after my imagination returned to Planet Earth I began looking around to see what I could see, so to speak. The deeper recesses of the store were draped in shadow and I could only barely perceive what I presumed to be the cash register, of a proprietor or shop assistant there was no sign, and thankfully there seemed to be no browsers or customers save for me. Apart from the piled books there were legions of book cases which seemed inhabited by every conceivable type of book while on the walls were *maps*! Dozens of them! Here was a map of London circa 1950 tacked to the wall, there was a map of New York from 1910 or thereabouts mounted in a picture frame. I wanted to find a ladder to get a look at these fascinating objects though it seemed less than likely that I would be able to! At eye level adjacent to the window was what appeared to be a map of Antarctica and beneath there was a portrait of a gaunt, bearded explorer with an expression both haunted and elated. I leaned down to get a better look, then almost knocked my head into the wall as my body involuntarily twitched with surprise at a dusty voice above me. “Intriguing, isn’t it, sir?” I jerked my head back uncomfortably in my haste to see who this unexpected interlocutor was. There, softly illuminated by the amber light, was a small man dressed in old-fashioned tweedy clothes which were set in relief by the rather jaunty purple cravat and turquoise tie he wore. He had a tidy iron-grey beard and incongruously dark brown hair, he appeared to be somewhere in his late sixties or beyond; I noticed all these things as I recovered from the shock of his sudden appearance – or perhaps that should be materialization as he had seemed to emerge from the ether – and he said in a soothing, worried tone, “I’m dreadfully sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you! I’m afraid my partner, Mr Klein refers to me as “Old Silent but Deadly! It’s a flaw of mine.”
I tried to smile and meet his eyes in reassurance – which is harder than it might seem, sometimes, due to the ol’ Asp – “No, no, that’s all right. I was just so absorbed in the picture and all these fabulous maps that I wouldn’t have noticed if King Kong had walked up behind me!” He smiled and said “Yes, they are rather marvelous, aren’t they. I, by the way, am co-prop of this rarefied establishment: Damon Westerby, at your service,” I straightened up and was about to extend my hand in greeting when I noticed something peculiar about his hands they were of a peculiar hue and they had an artificial, glazed look to them, realization came to me all of a sudden, they were made of *plastic*, they were prosthetics, he had what I presumed to be outdated prosthetic hands. There was a moment or two of awkwardness as I didn’t know what to do, and felt something of a moron for not noticing in the first place; it was only when he chuckled and made a placatory gesture with his odd plastic prosthetic (*surely* they could have found a better color for them than khaki?!) that I calmed, “Oh, don’t worry yourself about *these* things, I have had *decades* to get used to them!” He then began to talk about Westerby and Klein’s and how long it had been there, he was oddly vague about the exact time span yet indicated it had been decades, I was curious as to how he managed to handle books and maps with his false hands but could hardly ask, could I? He divined my enthusiasm for maps, and told me this was one of the absent Mr Klein’s fascinations too, it seemed he was quite expert, and maps were a specialty of the shop. It was after an extended period of conversation (a period in which I felt no awkwardness, engrossed as I was in the subject matter) that he asked me The Question: “Mr Cogan, I can see that you have a fine interest in the cartographical arts, one of which Mr Klein and, indeed, his niece Mollie, a mapmaker herself, would heartily approve. Also, I recall you describing our little collection of maps as fantastic,” Here, he paused as if gathering his thoughts, “How would you like to see a genuinely *fantastic* map?” I did not know what he meant by this but I was, to pilfer a word he’d used, intrigued.
“I’d be fascinated to Mr Westerby” At this he grinned and began ushering me to the back of the shop making beckoning motions with his artificial hands, for a moment I had an unfair image of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which I banished with shame. He guided me past the register and beyond to the very deeps of the shop then he took me up some gloomy stairs, a worry insinuated its way into my overactive imagination – what if he were a crazed killer luring me to my doom? Then I recalled his plastic hands and thought to myself “Even if he were a madman, what could he do? Kick you to death?!” At the top of the stairs was a rickety door, Westerby pushed it open and we entered a clean, tolerably well-lighted room quite different to the dim first floor. There were a number of filing cabinets and desks within, and it was to one of the desks that Mr Westerby beckoned me. He gestured toward a chair on which I sat, he then drew a key from his jacket pocket and entered it into the lock of a desk drawer. Having unlocked it he pulled it open with a flourish, and took out the contents with great care. It was a map, a large map, that was obvious. He carefully placed it on the desk and smoothed it out. “There! Take a look, what do you think?”
It was a map of Great Britain. It looked to be from the Seventies, at first I was a little disappointed but then I noticed some strange things. Very strange things. It was Britain, but *different*. And it wasn’t just the difference between the 1970s and the present. No, there were towns and cities that should not have been there and towns and cities missing that should have been. There was no Hardy or Farringdon St Mary Mead but there *were* places called Manchester and Exeter and York. I looked at the map with building astonishment. This was *obviously* not a fake it was *real*. No one would go to all this trouble for a joke, in all honesty the map, despite its fantastic unlikeliness bore the stamp of mundane reality. This was a map of *another* Great Britain, one with differences but one entirely *real*. I looked at Mr Westerby, he smiled. He knew. After an hour or so of looking at the wonderful map, Mr Westerby declared with cheerful resignation that he had to close up. He patted my shoulder and said nothing more. I did not know *who* he was or *what* he was, but I knew that for some reason I’d been given proof of something beyond.the ordinary. I can’t explain it to you other than that I felt like I had been given a metaphorical map for the future, banishing my fear and pain. This glimpse of the truly strange had given me faith.
After all, having been given proof of the existence of another Britain, how could I doubt that *anything* was impossible? Love, Happiness, Fulfillment. Nothing seemed impossible for me now.
I only wonder, dear reader, which world *you* live in?