As I tried to regain my breath, I spent a few moments admiring each waft of smoke billowing out of the crater. They mostly took the form of zigzags. None of your boring clumpy plumes here.
“Don’t go any closer,” said our guide Miguel, adjusting his scarf to better cover his nose. “if the wind picks up and you get some of that gas in your face, you might pass out.”
Miguel turned to take a swig of water. I inched a step forward and went up on tiptoes. Just to see if I could get a glimpse of the lava that would be bubbling down there like hot chocolate in a saucepan.
“Two thousand eight hundred and sixty metres,” said Miguel. “Used to be two thousand eight hundred and seventy but we lost a bit in the last eruption.”
I nodded respectfully as I traced my eyes over the rough underside of the crater. Flecks of rock a few yards away that no being will have ever touched. My toes twitched nervously under my feet, squishing the snow as I realised there was only the same thin plate of ground separating us from the dark fiery chasm below.
This was the kind of volcano you’d see in a fairy tale. While Patagonia might mean vast barren expanses on the whole, this northernmost area of the giant region on the Chilean side was a lush ensemble of colours – with pristine green valleys, gushing blue rivers and a generous smattering of silent turquoise lakes.
The snowy smoky peak just completely dominated the little tourist town below. I loved its angular shape – just like the traffic cone I had a blurry memory of taking home a few nights before the graduation – or like a particularly pert breast. I knew from the moment I arrived bleary eyed at dawn on the bus from Santiago I had to conquer it. Thankfully there were well signposted tourist agencies at every corner waiting for you to hire a guide to take you up.
I turned around to take in the countless Andean peaks around the horizon and peer beneath the clouds for the rolling hills of the region at the foot of the volcano. It must have been around here that Clara’s husband owned the Tres Marias estate in The House of the Spirits. The tattered book I had rescued from being discarded upside down in the ‘used books – please take’ bucket at a hostel in Santiago was excellent at illustrating the shadows of this long and pleasant land – the contours of the darker details of its history you couldn’t see from the window of the bus. Perhaps Isabel Allende had been around here before describing the fields and streams where Esteban Trueba raped the peasant women at night. That this character remained T the head of the family with no punishment for his crimes had shocked me at first, made me a little more afraid to be so far from home even. Brutal realism, you could call it. How could the novel have been all sweetness and light, after all, when the writer had just seen a thriving democracy and respect for human dignity shatter underneath the feet of these polite people?
“Ooh, perfect profile pic spot,” said Tim, “get your phone out, love.”
Ed sighed. “Stop calling me ‘love’! And don’t forget your damn phone next time we travel somewhere.”
The two were loose acquaintances of mine from university who I had discovered on Facebook were happening to travel to Chile at the same time. Having first resolved to travel alone, but fearful of loneliness, I had contacted them and spent five days around Santiago awaiting their arrival so we could travel together. They had just shuffled up to the peak after pausing a little lower down to sip whisky from a hip flask.
“I’d like to apologise for my friend,” said Tim to Miguel, “he’s awfully afraid of male to male affection. Presumably some repressed homosexuality. It’s very funny really.”
“Piss off!” said Ed, “do you want your photo on this here volcano or not?”
“Alright, pipe down,” said Tim, “give me the phone when you finish though.”
“Huh?” said Ed, “I’m down to 17% battery, it better be something important you need it for.”
“It’s after 10 in the UK isn’t it? I want to check who won The Apprentice.”
“Oh good call – I hope it isn’t that mean bitch!”
“What? You really want that chubby one who looks like Toadie off Neighbours to win?”
“Toadie off Neighbours? Oh, jeez, that’s a good one.”
Miguel’s feet twitched a little, as he presumably wondered what the hell the two were on about. I sensed a little disappointment in his eyes that their minds were lost elsewhere, rather than appreciating the might of this volcano.
I smiled but made no attempt to join in the conversation. I was already tiring of their chat. They seemed to be so absorbed in their own banter they could get swallowed up by it and not even notice they’d been eaten by their own humour.
The pair exchanged the black phone, which really stood out due to the contrast with the thick white blanket of snow.
I preferred to focus again on the wafts of smoke. I thought about the story of the eruption in the 1970s I’d read at the hostel. The sky turning pitch black at noon. Rocks raining down on the town and burning holes in the ground. What a weird relationship the volcano had with the town below. With its imposing peak it seemed to watch over and protect it. They knew down there it could also lash out at any moment and wreak havoc. Then it would leave bountiful deposits of fertile ground like an apologetic lover bearing flowers.
I realised within a couple of seconds I could dash to the edge of the crater and jump in. I’d never felt the slightest depressed, let alone suicidal, which helped me to plot this idea in my head without worrying I would actually be capable of it. I presumed I would end up getting scalded in a pit of lava, which had to be extremely painful, but then again most deaths are painful one way or another. It would produce endless attention, which was an immensely valuable commodity among my peer group of fresh graduates preparing to make their mark on the world – some with their elbows out jostling, and others like me with the feeling of inching along some screechy airport travelator towards an as yet unknown office career. I had applied for a few internships at London legal firms, simply because my closest friend on my English course had done the same. When nothing came out of that, I topped up my savings with my bar job and headed off to Chile.
It would be so easy to dive into the crater. My parents wouldn’t be best pleased, for sure. You could see the headlines now. ‘Recent graduate of respectable university takes suicidal plunge into Patagonian volcano’. Complete with my graduation photo. Plus an interview with Amanda, my parent’s next door neighbour saying: “He was a polite young man who just kept himself to himself really. There was nothing at all to indicate he would be capable of jumping head first into a volcano. We’re stunned.”
Tim turned to me, finally recognising my presence. “You feeling the altitude, mate?” he asked.
“A little,” I said, touching the top of the hood I’d pulled over my head to protect from the cold.
“We’ve still got some whisky if you fancy a swig?”
“No thanks,” I said. I peered down at the never-ending icy slope under my feet. It had become steep enough close to the crater for Miguel to tie a rope down for us to cling onto. It wasn’t going to be a stroll on the way down. I remembered my father’s advice, deployed loosely on numerous occasions on family walks – “respect nature and nature will find a way to look after you.”
“It’s much worse at Kilimanjaro,” said Tim, “some serious shit there.”
“Sorry?” I said, having heard him fine but not appreciating the tangent he had just embarked on.
“You see people stretchered down wailing their hearts out as you’re heading to the summit. It’s loads bigger than this one though. About 6000 metres or something. I’ll get Ed to Google it – how do you call this volcano again?”
Miguel was twisting the thermos cup back onto his flask and decided not to answer. Although his native land was blessed with enough giant peaks for his lifetime, he would have loved to have the resources to visit Kilimanjaro and didn’t like the casual way Tim spoke about an experience he was fortunate to have.
“Do you reckon if I shout loud enough, them folk in the town will hear us from here?” asked Ed, who was sat on his backpack. You could hear the potent combination of the hip flask and the altitude stirring within Ed, a guy who can be best summed up by his becoming an honorary member of the rugby team at uni, despite making no effort to play the sport, purely so he could join in their drinking games on socials.
“Uufff!” said Tim, energised. “That’s a tough one – see that group down there at the foot of the volcano?”
“Oh, right down there?”
“Yeah – shout your lungs out and see if they turn around.”
Ed paused, then shouted “Yabadabadoo!!!!” in full voice.
Tim pulled a grunted smirk, covered his mouth and broke into a howling laugh. He covered his face in his hands.
“Did they turn round?” he asked when he had finally composed himself.
“Nah,” said his friend.
“I wonder how you say Yabadabado in Spanish. That could work.”
It was Ed’s turn to lose his composure now. He arched his hand over his nose and eyes as he let off an uncontrollable chuckle.
“You google it!” he said, tossing the phone in the snow halfway to his friend.
I didn’t even spend a split second envisaging the idea in my head. There was no need to. It just seemed the natural thing to do – as if the sky or even the volcano had whispered it to me. I strolled over to the phone, picked it up, dusted off the snow and lobbed it underhand up to the opening of the crater and away, swooshing down into the void.
“Oi! What the hell!?” said an enraged Ed, leaping up. “My Samsung S7!”
I grimaced, waiting to hear a satisfying distant plop when the phone hit the lava. The sound never came.
The way down wasn’t so tricky in the end, even if I immediately had to dodge a furious volley of snowballs. I knew exactly where the bus station was. And I learned, after all, that a wilderness like Patagonia is best appreciated on your own.
“The man was definitely C1, did you see the tattoo poking out under his cuff?” said the female at the back of the darkened van.
“I have him as a lower end B – he wouldn’t have spent so long in the home office section if he was part of the riff raff,” said her female partner.
“Let’s look at this again,” said the boss, opening up a laptop and clicking his way through the shop’s CCTV footage. “Our orders are very clear – to take a middle class couple.”
Tony activated the handbrake and sighed. You queue to get into this place, you queue to pay, you even queue to snack on a few meatballs to avoid collapsing from exhaustion and then you have to queue to get out of the car park. What a way to spend a Saturday.
“I tell you what, love, I could murder a burger,” he said. He put the handbrake down and shifted into second gear for a few seconds before stopping again. He tried to slide the cuff of his denim jacket to cover the tattoo that Joanne had never been fond of.
“After having those greasy meatballs for lunch? Are you being serious? We’ve still got that salmon in the fridge.”
“Okay, love,” he said.
An assortment of crockery rattled around in the boot between a pair of bedside cabinets as the car navigated a speed bump.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t fit those bookcases in the car,” Joanne said.
“I know, dear – still, the cabinets and the TV stand should keep me going this weekend, then I can whizz down sometime myself to pick up the bookcases.”
“Some people have the right idea,” said Joanne, pointing at a blacked out white van that had pulled alongside them at the entrance to the roundabout leading onto the motorway, “we could easily fill one of those up with everything we need for the new house.”
Tony shrugged his shoulders.
“Okay, good news, team – we’ve got clearance for further surveillance to help HQ decide whether their profiles match,” said the boss.
“Great, so we wait here on their road until they go back to the shop, do we?” asked the male subordinate.
“That’s not how it works, dimwit!” said the boss. “If they’re going to know in HQ if these are the right people, they need to see how they behave in their inner sanctum – at home.”
“So we’re going to need some bugs?” asked the female, peering at the screen on the computer. It was showing a feed from a camera placed on the top of van that had zoomed onto the couple’s semi-detached house.
“My God, we really hire the brightest and best these days,” said the boss. The woman’s blushing went unnoticed in the darkness at the back of the van. “Now as you can see, the property is well alarmed,” he continued.
“But they do have two opened bedroom cabinet boxes in the carport,” said the woman.
“We can’t easily get a bug in there though as they fill the wood with paper – it’d split in no time,” said the man, smiling at making an intelligent point.
“Who’s saying we have to hide it though?” said the boss.
“Come again?” said the man.
“How long have we been surveilling people at that shop for now? Nine years? Does that man look like someone thorough with furniture assembly? Someone who is going to check the little bags of screws and bits against the contents listed in the instructions?”
The boss looked up to see the dark outlines of two heads shaking in front of the van’s back door.
“Oh, one more thing,” said the boss. “As you know the strict ethical guidelines mean we have to take a childless couple, but we’ve been asked to verify there are no kids from any previous relationships hanging around, just in case.”
The pair of heads nodded in synchrony this time as the headlights from a passing car lit a couple of patches of their pale green faces.
Tony peered into the small plastic casing that the wire protruded from.
“Strange,” he said.
“What’s that?” asked Joanne. She stopped folding laundry on a garden table that was being used for now in the living room to peer at the scattering of boards and rails spread out over the floor.
“I’ve no idea what this little bit here with the screws is, but I’m sure I’ll get to it at some stage.”
“I’m sure it’ll be in the instructions,” said Joanne.
“Oh right, yeah I might go and fetch them out of the bin if I need them.”
“I told you that you were being too cocky binning them straight away like that.”
“Yeah well,” said Tony, “don’t forget my Dad was a carpenter – if he knew I was looking at the instructions for a poxy beside cabinet, he’d be turning in his grave. Or giving it a good sanding to make for more comfortable turning, at least.”
Joanne lifted the sleeve of a sweater she was folding to wipe a tear away from her face.
“Everything okay, babe?” asked Tony.
“No, it’s okay,” said Joanne, “it’s just as much as I love this house, it’s such a shame we don’t have any family left to invite around.”
“I know,” said Tony, placing his screwdriver on the floor and walking over to give his wife a hug. “We’ll just have to fill it with a family of our own one day.”
“Shouldn’t you be going to work now?” asked Joanne. She was spooning breakfast cereal in one hand. The other hand held a brush entangled in her hair while Tony was perusing the knife holder.
“It’s just this damn TV stand – there’s a couple of parts that won’t fit together. If I can just prize one bit out a tad, I’ll have it done in no time and get to the office by 11.”
“Honey, if you keep on prioritising things like furniture assembly over your work, you’ll be out of a job and we’ll be out on the street before you know it.”
“You’re right love, I just wish they gave me home moving leave like you. I’ll get the post out of the box and get ready.”
Tony left the kitchen and returned a minute later with a huge grin, holding a bottle of red.
“What on earth?” asked Joanne.
“Look at this!” said Tony – pointing to a note saying ‘IKEA would like to thank you for making your first purchase at our store.’
Joanne took a step back.
“Don’t you think that’s a bit, I don’t know, odd, that IKEA would handwrite a note like that instead of print it?”
“Hmm, I don’t know, maybe they’re just trying for that personal touch. Anyway, I must call work as after the weekend we had I can feel a nasty cold coming on.”
Joanne laughed and went over to the cardboard box labelled ‘kitchen stuff’ to look for their corkscrew.
Joanne woke first.
She gasped as her brain struggled to process the dark surroundings. She had a splitting headache. The last she could remember they were drinking wine on the sofa watching the one o’clock news.
She yawned and tried to focus her vision as she saw a shape peering over her. A face. It was skinny and looked slightly green. She blinked, thinking whatever had been in the wine was clouding her vision.
“Now, now, Joanne, it will be ok,” said the boss in his gruff voice.
“Your husband is sleeping,” added the female at her side.
“Oh my God, where the hell am I?” asked Joanne, swinging her arms around and hitting the side of the van.
“Shhh….” said the boss, grabbing her arms. “We don’t want to have to tie your arms too, but we will if we need to.”
At that point Joanne realised the slight pain around her waist and lifted her head up to see she had been tied to a stretcher with a giant IKEA plastic bag torn in two and bunched together into the shape of a rope. Her legs were tied to hooks too with smaller bags.
“Who are you people?” she shouted. “Tony!”
“He won’t be waking up for another half an hour. The sleeping poison is very precise. And he drank more wine than you,” said the boss.
“We have a business proposition for you,” said the woman who Joanne couldn’t see at her side.
“Business? What the hell! Let us out of here!” said Joanne.
“Of course you are free to go if you want to. I would ask that you hear us through first. You might be surprised to hear that we chose you and your husband ahead of a shortlist of 97 thousand couples around the world,” said the boss.
“I think this is some bad joke!” said Joanne, “is that green make-up on your face?”
“I’ll get to that in a minute,” said the boss, touching his cheek. “Let’s just have a little chat about your situation here. That’s a lovely new house you have!”
Joanne couldn’t help uttering a disrespectful laugh.
“But I know you’d like something bigger by the time you have a family. Which won’t be easy when you both dislike your jobs so much. Conceiving in itself wouldn’t be too easy either with your husband’s lifestyle.”
“I beg your pardon? At least he doesn’t have a face like a wilted flower like you!” said Joanne.
“Okay,” said the boss, “well believe it or not, I was actually chosen for this job in part for my good looks. It may not appear that way to you though as I don’t come from the same time and place as you.”
Joanne put her hand to her forehead and muttered “help me God.”
“You see, I and my, ahem, assistants, we come from a different world so to speak. I’m sure you’ve seen films about humans of the future or those who live in parallel universes. It’s something like that. I’m afraid we aren’t allowed to give a precise explanation now for legal reasons,” he said, sighing, “but I’m sure you understand, more or less, what I mean.”
Joanne stared back motionless, hoping only that these freaks would be true to their word to let them go once she had heard out this bizarre story.
“The world we come from is very advanced in terms of technology, but we have developed some major resource and practical knowledge gaps. Over time we became so dependent on machines, and our people went out of their homes less and less. After many generations we had all become allergic to the sun, which explains why our complexion is strange – in your eyes.”
Joanne nodded, feeling some satisfaction that a chunk of the story appeared to have been delivered.
“We developed extremely powerful computers, but slowly our society lost other interests and instincts that are natural to humans in your era. Like living in a pleasant home environment. Unfortunately, in our world we mostly live in empty concrete rooms the size of a hotel room. All communicating and entertainment occurs through computers, so we slowly lost the need for these other touches. All we need is heat and power, which we get from our many nuclear plants. There has been a small movement away from this lifestyle though, as in the last couple of generations people in our world have realised that these small non-technological things like a home interior can add a lot to overall life satisfaction.”
“Which is what led us to look for you,” added the female voice.
“Right,” said the boss. “Your era at the start of the 21st century on this planet was found to have the best combination of actual human knowledge acquired from tradition as well as an ability to understand technology – albeit in a basic form.”
“You forgot something! The furniture!” said the lady.
“I was just about to get to that, tssk!” said the boss, waving his hand dismissively at his assistant. “We manged to discover the archive of the internet a few years ago, including when prints of all objects in your world were stored there for 3D printing purposes in the year 2045. As well as the loss of knowledge, our lack of materials contributed to the extinction of things like furniture – the last tree was forested many centuries before our time. We did manage to make a major breakthrough a decade ago by producing a substitute of wood. So the good news is we now have approximately 100 gazillion pieces of Ikea furniture for our planet.”
“Great,” whispered Joanne, happy to go along with this story, which she sensed was nearing its end.
“We have all versions of the instructions too,” continued the boss. “Only nobody in our world has a clue what to do with a screwdriver or hammer.”
“Ok, I think I get it,” said Joanne.
“Hurrah!” shouted the boss. “It is exciting isn’t it! You and your husband could bring happiness back into our world. We don’t need you to assemble all 100 gazillion, only a very small sample fraction which will be filmed – and we want to be able to ask you a few questions when our fellow people get stuck. Oh and just tell us where you want to live – Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal or Disneyworld? All three are available if you want them.”
“I’m ever so sorry,” said Joanne, gulping for thought, “but we’re both pretty happy in our own world. We’ve just moved into a new house too, so yeah! Thanks for the offer though, it was very interesting.”
“Oh!” said the boss, flinching, “we thought you would be the ideal candidates, actually.” He looked at his underlings accusingly.
“Sorry again,” said Joanne, half smiling, “maybe you’ll find the right people if you keep on looking?”
“Hmmph,” said the boss, “well we have no legal grounds to keep you against your will. So if you want to leave, you can. Only can you explain this all to your husband when he wakes up? Just in case he is interested and persuades you into changing your mind.”
“Oh yes, of course I will” said Joanne, brushing her thumb against the plastic restraint around her waist.
“Well, what are you waiting for!” he yelled at the man in the shadows, “untie the lady.”
“If you can just place him here on the sofa please, yeah, oh maybe slightly to the right. Just a tad,” said Joanne. The boss and his assistant placed Tony down and exhaled.
“Well, farewell, dear lady. And all the best for the new house!” said the boss.
“Yeah, see you!” said Joanne. She could hear them starting an argument on the way out. They closed the door loudly and Tony’s eyes popped open.
“What the hell?” he asked.
“Don’t worry love, it happened to me too,” said Joanne. “All that shopping and DIY over the weekend must have taken its toll. The wine knocked us both out. Ha!”
She squeezed her husband’s hand.