14. The Mapmaker of St Rule’s

When I was younger I lived for a time in Siberia, in a large industrial city which had a shadow city alongside it. I knew about this other city only because I would sometimes see people queueing to get on a bus with no number,  showing their passports as they got on. Later I found out that their destination was a city of 100,000, dedicated to the production of nuclear-grade plutonium. The city had no name, just a postal code – Krasnoyarsk-26 – and it was shown on no maps.

Each of our histories is full of places that we never really knew: those shadow-puppet trees and buildings lit by fireflies, glimpsed from the backseat of our parents’ cars as we rush past in the dusk; settlements abandoned long before our time, or picked up and moved elsewhere, stone by silent stone; Potemkin villages; cities with no names, or two; places on the map that never were, or blank spaces where they should have been.

There’s no denying the existence of St Andrews, of course, drawn with little change from map to map ever since St Regulus – ship-wrecked, angel-driven, crying and cursing – waded ashore holding aloft the knuckles, tooth and kneecap of Andrew, now Saint. After all, there are just three streets in all, and one road in and one road out. You’d think there wouldn’t be much to occupy a mapmaker here.

But high up in the tower by the sea St Regulus’s mapmaker is still at work, all these centuries later. Her room’s at the very top, and it’s crammed with charts and grids, rulers and compasses, an astrolabe, an orrery, a pantograph and sextants, and at the centre of it all, a giant telescope next to a sloping desk. The mapmaker works day and night, scanning the sea and the town. She sees the humps of whales and dolphins move through the sea, and on her maps she draws distant islands, volcanos that erupt one day and disappear the next. In the deserted streets of St Andrews she spies snickets and catacombs and grand boulevards. Next time you can, stand at the very edge of the pier and look back over your shoulder, and you might just catch a glimpse of her, up high in St Rule’s, drawing and re-drawing the shadow cities of St Andrews, over and over again.

Glasses with sailing boat, kitchen table (mixed media).