Sergio Rojas tried to shout, but the wet ash clogging his mouth made him retch. Bending over, he used a forefinger to clear out the worst of the muck, spitting out long strings of grey slime. Standing upright, he peered out at the torrent of ash and pumice that had been coming down now for what seemed like days. Moving to the doorway of the shack in which he had taken refuge, he bellowed into the stifling blackness, willing there to be an answering cry. But beyond the mind-numbing clatter of pumice falling on the corrugated iron roof, there was nothing.
He moved back into the shack’s interior and winced with pain as he eased his scalded body into a sitting position. Leaning back against the adobe wall, he closed his eyes and tried to make some sense of the nightmare of the last few hours. It had all happened so fast. The detonation announcing the start of their journey into hell had blown in the windows and dumped him and his wife, Bernita, out of bed. Even before they had gathered their thoughts, pumice fragments were battering the roof above, the clamour a counterpoint to the jet-engine roar of an eruption in full spate.
Sergio played over what happened next as a series of disconnected cameos, as if in a film trailer. Still dazed, they grabbed some clothes and yanked them on. Bernita picked up screaming Hector from his cot, wrapping him in a blanket and clutching him close. Sergio kicked and pushed at the outside door, forcing it open against the rapidly accumulating volcanic debris, and made a gap wide enough to squeeze through. Outside the rain of pumice and ash made it impossible to see further than a few metres, and as soon as they lost sight of their home they struggled to find their bearings. Sergio held out a restraining hand, and they paused while he turned full circle. After a few moments, he came to a decision and pointed hopefully into the blackness. Trudging through drifts of hot ash and rock that already reached almost to their knees, they followed a route through a cluster of scrubby bushes that he prayed would take them away from the volcano.
They inched forwards, Sergio in front, arms outstretched in anticipation of unexpected obstacles masked by the volcanic deluge. As they stumbled on, the already stifling air became hotter still, sucking the sweat from their bodies even as it formed. Scraps of hot pumice blistered their arms and legs and set Hector’s blanket smouldering. The baby had stopped screaming, but Bernita had no opportunity to check if he was all right.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, it started to rain. A torrential downpour of enormous drops coalesced around ash particles blasted high into the atmosphere. In seconds, the ground was transformed into a quagmire of sucking mud from which they could barely lift their legs. He called a halt as they found themselves under the wide canopy of a tree, its branches almost touching the ground under the weight of ash. They made the most of the shelter to clear their clogged mouths and scrape away thick layers of ashy mud from their faces. Hector’s blanket was sodden now, and the child was still except for the occasional dry cough that wracked his overheated body. But Bernita was able to do nothing except cover his face as best she could and hope against hope that he survived until they found somewhere safe beyond the volcano’s reach.
Sergio had been dimly aware that scientists were concerned about the volcano’s increasing rumblings and the possibility of a major blast, but they lived nearly twenty kilometres away, surely much too far, he had thought, for them to be in any danger. Now, as they searched the blackness for any chink of light that might guide them in the direction of safety, he wondered if they would ever find sanctuary from the volcano’s seemingly limitless fury.
He hugged his wife and son close before taking Bernita’s hand and pushing through the drooping branches and out, once more, into the barrage from above. If anything, the rain – of water and pulverised rock – was even heavier, and they struggled to make any headway through the deepening, glutinous, mud. Without warning, he felt Bernita’s tight grasp loosen and her hand slip from his. He turned at the sound of a small cry just in time to see his wife and child slide down a steep slope, along the unseen edge of which they must have been walking for some time. Without hesitation, he followed, hurtling into the darkness on his back, his passage lubricated by a mixture of mud and water.
Then he was in the air and falling. The torrent of muddy water that ended his fall shocked him like an ice bath. It took just a second or two to realise that his body had been fooled. The water wasn’t freezing at all, but close to boiling point. Screaming as the agony started to build, he fought to heave himself out of the flood, but his hands could find no purchase on the steep, muck-mired bank. The churning waters carried him downstream, where he came to rest up against a fallen tree, along which he was able to scramble to the bank. He lay in the darkness, skin lobster-red and throbbing, mind numb. The pain was excruciating, but he had to find Bernita and the baby. He struggled to his feet and slipped and slithered along the edge of the boiling cascade as it continued to tumble downhill.
He followed the torrent until the gradient flattened out and it turned into a sluggish and gently steaming creek. For hour after hour he ploughed through the mud, the rain and the continuing deluge of pumice and ash, calling out all the time. Lightning spawned by the eruption periodically splintered the darkness, revealing a blasted, featureless, plain on which nothing lived or moved. His legs eventually failed him and he was crawling on all fours when he – quite literally – collided with the shack, a jagged piece of corrugated iron drawing blood from his temple. Struggling upright, he dragged open the makeshift door against the drifted ash and collapsed on the earth floor inside.
He lay on his back, bone-weary, bereft and overcome with loss. Much of his exposed arms and legs were blistered, but the pain had subsided to a dull ache that pulsed in sympathy with his heartbeat. His mouth was clogged with ash and he was desperately thirsty, but there was no water to be had. After a time, he dragged himself painfully to his feet and stood at the open doorway, peering into a blizzard of ash and pumice. He shouted for Bernita until his throat ached and no voice would come.
Despite the pain and the din outside, Sergio fell into a troubled sleep. When he awoke, the rattle of falling pumice on the roof had diminished, but now there was something else, a barely audible susurration, like the rustling of the grass on the high plains. The sound grew rapidly, becoming first a loud hissing and then a soft roar. At the same time a pale glow illuminated the shack’s interior and for a moment he thought it was a car’s headlight beams. His spirits lifted briefly, and he moved as quickly as he was able to the doorway, but the hoped-for vehicle was not there, just an eerie, dull-red glow, off in the direction – he assumed – of the volcano.
Turning away, Sergio sought to relieve the pain of his scalds by stretching out on the floor of the shack. Soon, a hot wind sprang up, clawing at the flimsy walls. Within seconds, it became a howling banshee that tore off the roof and carried it away into the darkness, drenching him with dislodged ash and pumice so that he scrambled to his feet to brush the debris from his head and shoulders. The glow was brightening quickly now and in the far corner of the shack it picked out a child’s teddy that looked familiar. Hector had one just like it. A surge of hope overcame the pain and despair and Sergio walked over to pick it up. It was the last move he would ever make. Through the roof space, the open doorway and the two, small, glassless windows, came a hurricane blast of boiling gas and incandescent ash and pumice that gathered him up and hurled him against the shack wall.
The shock made him gasp. The first intake of scorching gas tore his vocal chords and windpipe to shreds. The second destroyed his lungs. His mouth gaped wide in a silent scream that would never come. The last sound he heard, overlaid on the crackling and sighing of the gas cloud, was a repetitive popping. It was the sound of his skull sutures unzipping as the water in his brain turned to pressurised steam and blew his head apart.
Karl Slater put on a burst of speed as he crested the tussocky slope that climbed steeply out of the village, then paused to suck air at a drystone wall where the ground levelled out. He was out of shape, seriously out of shape. Too many working lunches, not enough workouts. His side was already cramping and he bent over to stifle the pain. Easing himself upright as the discomfort passed, he took in the widescreen view to the west and south, where gritstone crags like tumbledown castles capped green, rolling hills.
It was late September and the air was bitter. Patches of snow and ice lurked in the shadows, the first year they had persisted throughout the summer in the English Peak District. He turned to watch a line of dark cloud coming in fast from the north, gravid with the first of the winter’s snow. A little way off, a mountain hare squatted on its haunches, ears alert, watching and waiting for his next move. It already bore its white winter coat, a sure sign that the all too brief summer was at an end.
He shivered beneath his fleece and wondered if next year would bring any summer at all. The climate had deteriorated so quickly he wondered how long it was going to be possible to stay in the village. The winters were already grim, and he knew that much of the high ground of Scotland, the Lake District and the northern Pennines were already shrouded in snow all year round. The official word was that they were over the worst, but all the signs said otherwise. In any case, he would know more when he met up with Jane that evening.
He took a deep breath and launched himself down the slope on the next stage of his run. The hare’s eyes widened as he bore down on it. Then it turned and fled in the direction of a nearby copse.
The promised heavy snow arrived during the early afternoon and played havoc with the rail timetable. Sheffield station was steeped in a miasma of diesel fumes, sulphurous smoke and steam, and overflowing with disgruntled passengers. After a number of platform alterations, the announcer settled on number four for the next London train. A tide of desperate travellers swept Karl up and over the bridge and down onto the platform, where he shoehorned himself into one of ten already packed carriages and was lucky enough to commandeer a last remaining seat. Departure time came and went, with no explanation or apology. For a time, he watched the snowflakes melt on the window, then closed his eyes, leant back in his seat, and resigned himself to a frustrating few hours. Finally, twenty minutes late, the train nudged forwards, faltered, then juddered onward again. Couplings clattered, and he heard the familiar ‘chuff – chuff – chuff’ of an engine getting up steam. Incrementally, the train eased itself out of the station and – with a struggle – began to pick up speed. It was going to be a long, slow journey. The train crawled into London’s St Pancras International terminus more than two hours late. Rather than fight his way through the crush to the tube, Karl decided to brave the blizzard conditions. Turning up his collar, he made for the small hotel in Bloomsbury that he used on the rare occasions, these days, that he was down in the capital. At least the weather had kept the smog at bay, so he didn’t need his face mask. Dumping his bag, he called Jane and arranged to meet an hour later in a small pub around the corner. The place was pretty much empty when he arrived and he ruffled the snow from his unkempt nest of brown curls and matching beard as he waited to order at the bar. Jane was already there, half hidden in the shadows at a table close to the enormous coal fire, hands clasped around a large glass of red wine. He took his pint over and sat down opposite. Jane greeted him with a crooked grin and leant forwards to plant a kiss on his cheek. He smiled in return. It was nice to see her again, but by God she looked tired. Her eyes were ringed with shadows and he was shocked to see that there were one or two streaks of grey in her long, brown hair.
He waded straight in. ‘How does it look?’
Jane Haliwell stretched out an arm, palm down, and waggled her hand from side to side. ‘Touch and go, I’m afraid.’
‘I’d heard things were improving,’ said Karl. ‘It’s a fair few years since the last of the ash settled out.’
‘Well,’ Jane was cagey, ‘it’s not that straightforward.’
‘So what are we talking now?’ queried Karl.
Jane looked down at the dregs of wine in her glass. ‘I’ve just come from the commission – the latest figures aren’t good. Carbon dioxide levels are down around the two hundred parts per million mark.’
Karl gasped. ‘Jesus Christ!’
Jane continued, ‘The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has more than halved in just seven years.’
Karl shook his head and was quiet for a few moments, digesting the news. ‘What about global temperatures?’
‘Still dropping, as you’d expect,’ said Jane, twiddling the stem of her glass.
‘So, what’s the official line?’
Jane’s mirthless smile said it all. ‘For what it’s worth, both the WMO and the Met Office are saying the worst is over. It’s the government’s angle too, but that’s understandable. People are shit scared already.’
‘And what do you think?’
Jane puffed out her cheeks. ‘I think we’re screwed.’
Karl lay naked on the bed. Outside, the snow continued to fall, but the room was overheated and stuffy and sleep just wouldn’t come. Turning his head, he watched Jane’s exposed breasts rise and fall as she slept. They hadn’t planned this. It had been solace rather than sex, a commodity much valued in a world going to hell in a handcart. Her prosthetic lay in the corner of the room and the smooth stump that ended her left leg just below the knee peeped out from the bottom of the sheet. He looked away and stared at the ceiling. The sight of Jane’s maimed leg never failed to bring with it a sharp pang of guilt. He knew it wasn’t his fault, but sometimes it didn’t feel that way. Seven years, he thought. Just seven years since this whole thing blew up. What the hell were they thinking? The stupid bastards had called it ‘the fix’. In fact, it wasn’t a fix at all. It was a fuck-up, the mother of all fuck-ups.