about the author

Tom White is based in Birmingham, England, where he is completing his PhD in Creative Writing. Extracts of his first novel were published in Fatboy Review. He is working on an experimental ‘novel’, Wallpaper, which explores the role of metaphor in thought and language, and which sees creative and critical elements merge, vying for supremacy. Tweet him @TBIZZLEBEAR.

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Thought Take Root  

Tom White

Steve was new to the mapmaking department, and so his job was to plot the newly-formed, and so lesser-known, paths that people create unawares, just by virtue of being present and mobile in the world. Part of his job, for example, was to add, in thin, barely-there lines, the paths that form when, over time, someone eager to shave a few minutes off their commute to and from work, sets off, day after day, across a piece of brown belt land, bending the blades down, wearing the grass down to dirt, to gravel. As the blades bent, so Steve would be at his desk, making almost imperceptible adjustments to a line here, a line there. As the dirt wore away, he would be there again, his hand perfectly attuned to what thickness of line and spacing of dashes corresponds to gravel newly exposed.

His friends and colleagues and betters dealt in the big stuff: Motorways, train lines, flight paths, the shifting of country borders. There were people in the upper levels of this building, people Steve had never seen, who dealt in the really big stuff. Such people had been there for millennia, it was rumoured. And since the jump from millennia to eons doesn’t feel so big once you have half-accepted the first, the rumour persisted that some, at the very heights of the building, had been there for an age or two, an epoch or more. Such people plotted the rise and fall of mountain ranges, or tracked, with inch-perfect accuracy, entire continents as they drifted.

Steve wanted what they had, the prestige, but though he had the knack, the true mapmaker’s instinct for pressure and pattern, he did not have the drive or the focus. He was forever being called into his manager’s office to explain away an errant line, a path not plotted, a clumsy ink blotch where no pond was. His manager would then watch intently over his shoulder as he corrected his mistake.

One day, Steve was being berated again. He had made himself comfortable in the black leather chair opposite his boss’s desk. It was business as usual, except that it was his boss’s boss behind the desk. A less familiar face, but the same tired routine: Steve had been careless, and now there was a thin line (but a line nonetheless) through a thicket that no one had set foot in for years. No trace of a path existed there, but now there was this line—‘Do you see the problem, Steve?’ Steve did, and promised to sort it, and got up to leave, because she didn’t have the time to watch him make the amendment.

He was almost back at his desk when Jacob, the work experience boy, got to him: She wanted to see him back in the office. Don’t get comfortable, don’t make the correction, don’t think, just come back right away, was the message. Steve liked Jacob. Jacob saw the work they did here as important, and imbued every little thing with significance.

She was waiting for him, twirling a pencil between clean fingers. Had he made the correction?

Jacob had got to him in time, he said. She imbued everything with a different kind of significance. It wasn’t that things were important or not in and of themselves. It was just important that they got done.

‘Good, good. Don’t make the correction. The situation has changed. Someone saw the line, must have looked at their map right after you drew it, and now they are there. A rambler, his family. They are still there, picking their way through the thicket. There is now a path forming, a parting in the branches and a scuffing of the leaves, right where your line is, right where it should never have been. Of course, this is not how we do things here. We do things by the book. We plot what is the case, and we do it with precision. We do not intervene—that is a founding principle. But look, I like you, you show promise, and I’m just about important enough here to sweep things like this under the carpet. I don’t need to tell you that this is bad, but I can make sure that it isn’t taken any further than is necessary. The line stays, of course, for accuracy’s sake, but it won’t happen again, will it, of course it won’t.’

And with that a bell rang out, and the working day had been survived. He walked home, the long way, avoiding the fields and woods that lay between his office and home, because the principle of non-intervention extended beyond the working day, and it was oh so easy to go off piste in the half-light and fugue that followed a nine-to-five.

It was a principle that seemed more than a little cracked, a little unsteadied now, after the events of today.

Months passed, Steve more diligent than before, praised even for his diligence, even if the foundations of his work felt shakier than before—did this kind of thing happen often? How much of the world had they, in the process of mapping, inadvertently created? How many people like he before him? And then his world fell apart:

‘They found something there, the ramblers.’ This time it was his boss, and her boss, and her boss too sat opposite him, and probably others higher up still aware of the meeting, and he knew that this was bad: ‘A new and valuable material—we can’t be sure of the specifics. There are hundreds of people surrounding the thicket as we speak, readying heavy machinery and prefab buildings. There are going to be mines there, factories. Housing for the workers and their families, schools and shops and cinemas and hospitals. And all of these structures springing up to enable the exploitation of this new natural resource.’

Steve walked home, a dismissed man. In the distance, black smoke curled up into the air. He could hear, on the breeze when it blew right, the cracking of tree trunks and the screech of machinery, the flattening of land never before tamed. The building of roads that would, in time, come to be plotted with ink so thick that it would cast a shadow on the page, with spidery tendrils, as if something neural, reaching out from the implied congestion. The beginnings of a new city, a new society mapped—because of course that is and will always be the mapmaker’s job—but preceded in a very real way by its mapping.

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