Volcano – when the Earth has had enough

A short story about volcanoes inspired by a past career in Earth Science and Ecology, and this Scientific American article.

Karen sipped her tea thoughtfully. “So, how long have you been living here now?”

I thought back. “Well, it must be five years.” 

My wife Gina disagreed. “No, John. It has to be six, because I remember that it first started when Annie was two. It was her birthday.”

“What was it like, being the first to see it? The discoverer?”

Gina glanced at me thoughtfully. We had tried to avoid the subject.

“I didn’t think too much of it to begin with. I remember that I was digging in the garden. It was a fine spring day; frosty and crisp. Surrey used to look really fantastic at that time of year. I shoved the spade into the ground with my foot and broke the soil, and then I noticed that the earth was steaming. I pulled off my glove – the ground felt quite warm to the touch. I dug deeper, out of curiosity more than anything else. It wasn’t only steam coming out. It was more like yellow smoke, and it smelt like rotten eggs. I could see the gas was coming out of a tiny crack in the earth.”

“Wow, what did you do?” she asked.

Gina ruffled my hair. “He came into the house cursing the local council. He was convinced that the house had been built on a landfill site. We’d only been in the house a few weeks and John had been waiting for something to complain about.”

“That’s unfair.” We laughed, because it was exactly what I had done.

“It wasn’t exactly like that, Karen. But I did phone the council the next day and someone eventually came around. They stood around it, dug deeper, and finally put a plank over the hole then left. We didn’t hear any more about it for a few weeks, until the water company came around. They poked about some more, and dug a much bigger hole. The bloke who was digging actually passed out and we had to call an ambulance.”

Gina took over the story. “So we were left with this big hole with red tape fencing it off, and yellow smoke was rising out of it high into the air. The local newspaper did an article on it too. Then we got an official notice to keep our windows closed and not to allow anyone in the garden. John had a brainwave and he called the university in Guildford and finally a Doctor James came round. She took soil and gas samples away. When she called us we couldn’t believe it.”

We were sitting around the patio table enjoying the warm summer night, and the story we were unfolding seemed impossible to believe even now.  I lit the candles to keep the mosquitoes away and opened a bottle of wine.  Karen drew her cardigan around her thin shoulders. “Well, don’t stop there. What happened next?”

Gina continued, “John and I did as we were told, and after a few weeks we almost forgot about the yellow smoke, apart from the smell. It made my throat sore.”

“Yes, Gina was busy with the baby and I went back to work.  I can’t remember how long it was until the ash started. First, the smoke turned a grey colour and then, little flakes of soot started to float away in the wind. I could see them rising up in the smoke and they came down all over the place. After a month, there was a pile of ash around the hole shaped like a cone, about a metre high to start with. Then the newspapers got interested and we were on television. Did you see us?”

Karen shook her head. “That must have been exciting.”

“It was bloody awful. It was raining and they trampled wet ash throughout the house. We were interviewed endlessly standing in front of the ash-cone, coughing with the fumes. Of course, once the story went out we were inundated with callers, cranks and geologists from all over the world.”

At the time Gina and I had been broken-hearted to leave our first real home together but glad to take the baby away from the danger. Needless to say, no one would buy the house. The ash-cone grew until it filled the garden, and it became hotter, too. Not just the ash-cone, but the whole neighbourhood. Even the floor in the house seemed to be warm and the windows were always steaming up. One day, our neighbour’s garden shed caught fire and we reckoned another ash-cone must be starting beneath it.

“Where did you go when you left the house?” Karen asked, as I refilled her glass.

“We stayed with Gina’s parents, in Reading. But I went back to salvage as much as possible. By that time, the rest of the neighbourhood had been evacuated as well, and people for maybe a mile around had their houses up for sale but no hope of selling. The whole of Woking was affected and right bang in the middle, the ash-cone was squatting. Did you see the aerial photo in the Times?”

Karen nodded. “Of course; a grey hill, bigger than houses and a circle of white around it.”

“Did you read about our house burning down?” I asked.

Karen shook her head.

“It wasn’t just our house, John. The whole area started to burn,” added Gina. “The ash started to get very hot, you see. At night, it looked like a firework and the whole area had to be fenced off. It could be seen from miles around and a television company even installed a webcam.”

In fact it got a lot worse than that. Woking became a ghost town and most of the people lost everything, because insurance companies would not pay out. A well-known and charismatic geologist from Southampton University seemed to appear on every programme, and he was the first to state openly that it was a volcano. It would carry on growing quietly until the magma followed the gases up the crevices to the surface. A significant number of scientists had denied the possibility of the phenomenon occurring so quickly and looked for other explanations, until the connection was made to global warming. The shell of the Earth was being distorted by the sudden melting of millions of tons of ice at the poles, fracturing the old fault lines, setting off something called a magma plume. For many environmentalists, the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions represented a cry of rage from Mother Earth.  Bus loads of new age travellers started to arrive, and the ash-cone became an icon of the Earth’s last warning to humankind.

“How about you, Karen? Where do you come from?” Gina asked.

“I carried on living in London for about five years after Tom was killed. I wanted to continue teaching, to give me something to focus on. After the first big earthquake, the flooding resulted in most of the Underground closing, and I couldn’t work, unless I moved out of the city. As you know, it wasn’t possible to sell our houses so like millions of other people, I had no choice but to take what I could, and leave. So I lived on benefits until I bought the motor caravan, and arrived here.”

The smell of cooked food interrupted the tale, and we started to eat at that point. Gina had been lucky enough to ‘find’ some sausages and baked beans. I did not ask her where she got them. As we sat under the stars eating the simple food, I found myself looking into the fire. I did not hear the friendly hiss and crackle of the wood, because all I could think of was the image of the lava flows spreading outwards from the volcano. Within two years of its appearance, the little ash-cone had grown to over one thousand feet high, and it was growing at an accelerating rate. Lava had initially done little more than stabilise its sides. As time passed, the eruptions grew in strength and at night, lines of fire travelled outwards following landmarks.

The Basingstoke Canal became filled with lava rock that turned rust-red under the endless rains. More lava blocked the Thames not far from Weybridge and caused massive flooding as the river found itself a new route. Thousands of refugees streamed out of the South-East looking for work and a place to stay, but many others murdered and looted and the army shot lawbreakers on sight. Not martians this time, just our planet.

“How do you feel, living like this?” Karen asked.

We looked at each other. “We just take one day at a time. We spend a lot of time planning where to find food and fuel. We’ve got guns and ammunition, and we keep away from others, unless they are part of this little community, that is.”  Fifty or so camper vans surrounded us, and beyond them, heavily armed neighbours kept watch.  We did not like having to raid the army barracks in Pirbright, but when the army pulled out, there was no point in letting the equipment fall into the wrong hands.

The three of us sat late into the night, watching the light from the volcano light up the sky. Occasionally, vivid flares of orange and red lit up the heavy curtains of cloud. When the ash started to fall again we went to bed. I was awoken by a dull thud at first light. I shook Gina awake. Another thud sounded. We could tell that the origin of the sound was very far away, but the ground trembled beneath us. By the time that we had left the camper, everyone in the settlement was up, and the dogs were in a state of nervous excitement. We knew what that meant and waited anxiously.

Finally, the Geologist got up and appeared in our midst, surrounded by a group of wondering children. He held up his hand, kneeling, placing his head on the earth to listen. Silence fell. A distant grumbling noise could be heard to rise and fall, like a living thing.  Finally, the Geologist rose, and stroked his long grey beard.

“My people, I have heard that a great rift will come. It will tear London in half along the Thames and when the waters pour in, there will be a large explosion. The distant sound you can hear is the beginning. Gases are finding their way to the surface. We must move to higher ground. The North Downs are not safe any longer.”

Someone called out, “Why stay in this country, Geologist?  We could find a way to cross the channel. We could go anywhere in Europe.”

He nodded. “Yes, you can and many thousands have done already. However, I know for a fact that Belgium and the Netherlands are under water. A big chain of volcanoes has reactivated in France. They are in a worse state than we are.”

Annie came over to us from her friends and held Gina’s hand. “What’s he saying, Mum?”

Gina wiped her eyes. “He says we’re all going to move a little further away, dear.”

We all knew what that meant. Travel was a slow and painful business because of the roadblocks. We were enough in number and arms to be left alone, but many settlements had barricaded the roads, forcing long and tedious diversions, or protracted negotiations before we would be let through. It was not surprising, because gangs from London were preying on the isolated villages of the Home Counties, the army and police unable to cope with the sheer numbers. We would also have to travel through curfew country, but we were a registered mobile settlement, had the necessary permissions and would pay our taxes, if anyone was interested in collecting them.

Within twenty-four hours we were on the move and it was an amazing sight to see an endless procession of mobile homes heading South-West. We passed other mobile settlements presumably without Geologists, camped around deserted stores and garages.

That night, the leaders met around the fire.  The Geologist started the meeting. “We’re safe here from floods, but we must lay in enough food and supplies for the winter. We can worry about next year later.”

We laughed but it was not funny. We had all heard of settlements where people had actually starved to death, and others where families had been turned out to fend for themselves rather than share their food. Rumours of cannibalism were rife.

“We raided a superstore when we passed Bristol,” I reminded them, “but it’s not enough. We need to grow food – winter crops, and we will need to plant enough to allow for some failures too.”

An experienced traveller spoke up. “Look, we’re not subsistence farmers. We’ve got enough skills within the settlement to be able to trade. Some settlements may be able to sell us food in return for other things that we can make.”

There was general agreement at the plan. As we were compiling a list of settlers and their skills, a red flash lit up the entire skyline. Moments later, as the families came running from their vehicles the sound wave hit us, leaving people clasping their heads, dazed by the enormity of it.

As we stared at each other in shock, the geologist raised his arms.  “London is no more. The flood will be here by morning. We must prepare.”

The earthquake arrived minutes later and it was the worst yet. Landslides were carved from the hillsides and we were tossed about helplessly. We stayed awake all night, waiting for daybreak, but when it came we could see that the waters had filled the valleys and as the water gradually surrounded Dartmoor, we stood together and prayed on our island.

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