While I have been laying low this last couple of weeks, I have rediscovered an old pleasure. I think I was first introduced to it the year I caught chickenpox. It was during our annual moletrek to England, and I was deposited with Great Uncle Mole to convalesce while the rest of the family galavanted around the countryside.
I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned this before, but Great Uncle Mole was a tunnel designer – well engineer, really. And while he was working at his great big drawing board I was deposited in a nearby chair with a dog-eared book on trigonometry which he said he had loved in his youth. It was very quiet; just the scratch of a pen and his tuneless whistling. And the clock ticking, chiming the quarter hour, the hour. My tummy began to rumble. When Great Uncle Mole was absorbed in his work he lost all sense of time.
So you can imagine how my little moleheart leapt with joy when I heard the rackety approach of Uncle Ratty. ‘I’ll take the high road…’, he sang in his rich baritone as he kicked off his gumboots and flung open the door. He pulled the book out of my paws and rolled his eyes. We left Great Uncle Mole to it, and went out to the courtyard to eat marmalade sandwiches under
Garibaldi’s heroic statue.
I think that’s where it began. Garibaldi led to what was to become Italy, and Italy led to the boot, with Sicily being kicked off the bottom. And before you could say Jack Robinson, Uncle Ratty had gone into the burrow and re-emerged with a wooden box that had once held Madeira wine but was now stuffed to the gunnels with maps.
They were higgledy-piggledy, and so we opened them up at random, Dorset, Bombay, Venice, Ireland, Bern, Portmadoc, Palestine. It was like Christmas, unfolding the stiff linen and gradually seeing the thirty two rectangles some mole in a workshop had carefully glued on. And then not seeing the gaps at all, but a feast for the imagination, an abundance of possibilities. We played with names at first. I shouted them out alphabetically while Uncle Ratty picked slugs off the lettuces. Alfoxton Park to Zigzag Hill. Or he would tell me I was a black and yellow taxi in Bombay and was to find him the best route from All India Radio in the Fort district to the Mafatlal swimming pool on Chowpatty Beach. Or ask me what trains to catch to get from Galway to Wexford. Or he would say we were cyclists in canton Bern and needed the flattest route from Arni to Lützelflüh. When I didn’t understand how I would know that, he found some cardboard and we traced the contours, and cut them out and glued them, one above the other, to make hills and mountains. His muddy paws made them all the more realistic.
I didn’t know any of those places then, just loved the names, loved imagining myself along roads, across rivers, up hills and past forts. Now my pleasure lies both in imagining journeys I might or might not take, and retracing the ones that have fed into my making. Remembering with maps embeds me into the soil and the air of a place. I remember with my body the steps, the smells, the sounds and languages, the people I met, the thoughts I had.