BBC WORLD SERVICE
Icelandic volcano eruption causes major disruption across Europe.
A recent spectacular eruption in Iceland, predicted for sometime by experts, has closed down European air space yet again. In 2010 the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, grounding 100,000 flights in the largest commercial air-traffic shutdown since World War Two. And now Katla, a neighbour in the Katla Geopark, has erupted – causing an earthquake 6.4 on the Richter scale, which created shockwaves that reached the north of England. Since late on Saturday night vast amounts of toxic material have been thrown up into the jet-stream, where it is causing a major hazard to aircraft. Aeronautical engineer, Helen Macdonald said: ‘When ash is sucked into a jet engine, it is heated to such a high temperature it turns into molten glass. When it reaches the back of the engine, it cools, solidifies on the turbine blades, jamming the engine and causing the plane to plunge out of the sky.’ Vulcanologist, Sten Olafsson, said: ‘This has been a long time coming. The last time Katla erupted was in 1918. It threw up five times as much ash as Eyjafjallajökull and extended Iceland’s south-coast by three miles. The glacial melt released was similar in volume to the Amazon river. There was major destruction, although amazingly no one was killed that time. Unlike when Laki went up in 1783. That explosion killed a fifth of Iceland’s population, and created an ash cloud that covered the northern hemisphere for months, reducing temperatures to three degrees. Winds brought tonnes of lethal sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid to your Britain, where an estimated 23,000 people died from poisoning and extreme cold. The poisonous ash created a fog that closed ports. The sun turned the colour of blood. Crops and farmworkers died in the fields. Some believe it triggered the French revolution.’ Europe’s travel systems are in meltdown as millions of travellers attempt to get to their destinations by other means. Train stations are experiencing chaos and major roads are gridlocked. Jeremiad Hopkins, controversial social media ‘influencer’ tweeted: “We are finally paying the price for the cholesterol of capitalism. The blood clots of a corrupt system. Europe’s infrastructure is having deep vein thrombosis.” Leader of the GB-Homefront party, Roger Fandango, said: ‘This is exactly why we need to get out of Europe. If we go down, we go down with them.’
Chapter 1: Meltdown
The young man on the Ducati motorcycle filtered through the gridlocked traffic. Eddy Redcrow had been riding all night. From Italy, through Switzerland, and now, at first light, into Germany. He’d travelled further down any of these poor souls would for some time, but with the endless jams he hadn’t been able to get up to speed and had barely covered three hundred and sixty miles in twelve hours. Yet, slowly, he was making progress. Up ahead, the traffic message boards weren’t boding well. Serious delays ahead. What, worse than this? Time to find another route.
Looking down, he checked updates on his satnav. His phone was playing up; the signal fracturing. He gave it a frustrated tap. No good. On a whim he turned off the autobahn as soon as he could – a junction to somewhere obscure – and pulled over on the slip road. He flipped up his tinted visor – showing fierce blue eyes, an angry brow, red skin. A ponytail of long black hair poked out from the base of his lid like dark tail-feathers. His appearance seemed apt for his name, so his friends joked. He pulled out the atlas from his tankbag and followed his intended route with his finger, from Pisa to Calais: fourteen hours, fourteen hundred clicks. He spotted a straight-ish country road, going north-by-north west, and nodded. Looked promising. He was tired and rubbed his eyes. He would need some coffee soon. The new day was about to start, though you would barely tell it.
The sky was dark again. Traffic jams stretched into the smoggy distance of the autobahn – an endless stream of red and white lights. Nothing was moving. As dawn broke over the land to a chorus of car-horns and road-rage, it could have been a scene from an apocalyptic movie.
Tired of the babble of rolling news, which seemed to be stuck on a Moebius loop of clueless politicians, failing to quell the rising panic, vox pops and punditry – Eddy Redcrow changed from radio tuner to music – selecting shuffle and revved the bike into action as a blistering rock track kicked in. He felt the tension of the autobahn melt away as he accelerated to a hundred along a blissfully empty country road. He would use his own navigational skills (‘your blood’s sat-nav’, Grandpa Running Bear called it) to cross this benighted land.
As he lost himself in the rhythm of the ride and the hard chords of the rock music, his mind flipped back to Pisa.
‘What do you mean, it’s over?’
Eddy held his arms out in disbelief. He wore a faded AC-DC t-shirt, Levis and shades. His girlfriend, a light summer dress which revealed more than it concealed. They had parked up in a view of the famous leaning tower. Tourists snapped away around them, the digital cameras making artificial shutter sounds. Despite the early summer crowds, it should have been perfect. The Italian sun caressed them, made everything stand out like a Surrealist painting. Their body language was a tableau, classic ‘arguing couple’.
‘I can’t go on, Edward.’
She always used the formal version of his name when she was upset. He hated it. He wanted to correct, but gritted his teeth.
‘We’ve only just started the tour! You wait until we’re all the way out here to tell me … this! You know how long it took to save for this trip. How many crummy shifts!’ He let his hands drop, shook his head. ‘I just don’t believe it!’
‘It’s hard to stop you, once you get started. It’s like when you ride that damned bike. I swear you have a death wish.’
‘Ah, that’s the real problem here. You hate the wheels. But you knew the deal. You chose to go out with a biker, for crissakes! When I suggested a bike tour of Europe, you leapt at the idea.’
‘I know. It sounded totally wild. But I didn’t realise it would … take so long to get around. And we’d have to wear all that gear. Uh. And hardly take any luggage. My butt aches after being on that thing all day.’
‘You seemed to like it at first – enjoying the views. It was a buzz, you said.’
‘Yes, we saw Naples; nearly died. But the thrill has … worn off. I want to travel in style and … comfort.’
‘Listen to you – you sound like someone whose retired! I thought you wanted some rock ‘n’ roll?’
‘Sure. But I like to change the station as well. That rock is deafening – after a while, it all sounds the same. Planet Rock, pluh– lease. Give me a break!’
Eddy looked over the glittering waters, scanning it for some meaning in all of this. ‘I thought you were different. Not just another Lake girl. You were so spontaneous. Now I see you just wanted a bit of excitement – to liven up your life.’
‘Oh, because it was so dull before you came along! Get real! Some of us grow up, get real jobs, want a real life. Not to keep riding…’
‘What are you getting at?’
A group of Japanese tourists stood watching them, filming it all. Eddy gave them the finger.
‘You can’t keep running forever, Edward.’
He gripped the rail, knuckles whitening.
‘A girl can’t pin her hopes on some … tumbleweed, blowing through life. Maybe one day you’ll realise that.’ She turned on heels and walked off.
Eddy watched her go.
Numb, he walked absentmindedly until he ended up by the bay. The black holes of his shades mirrored the beautiful vista. The seagulls harsh call seemed to mock him. Letting out a roar, he kicked the spare helmet onto the beach, to the alarm of Italian sunbathers who gesticulated their annoyance with verve. Sighing, he went to collect it. He picked it up, dusted it down, and walked along the beach, scanning the breakers. Their boom and hiss said it all.
The Ducati roared along the straight country road – an old Roman road, surely, Eddy pondered – the needle pushing a ton. The rock track reached its feedback crescendo as he shot over some train tracks just before the barriers came down. A train rumbled past as he sped ahead. Suddenly, beneath a line of poplars he spotted a figure. A woman, with her thumb out. As he approached he slowed down a little. She had a good figure. A very good figure accentuated by tight jeans, high boots and a leather jacket unzipped to reveal a figure hugging top. Designer shades. Spiky ash-blonde hair.
Eddy dropped gears and tugged on his front brake, sending the bike into a semi-circular skid, leaving a crescent of burning rubber. He rumbled to a stop, just a few yards passed the crossroads. He turned to look back, as she flicked away a cigarette, picking up a small bag, which she slung over her shoulder and walked towards him. ‘Walked’ doesn’t do it justice – the movement her lower body seemed to make, independent of the upper half. He took off his helmet and found himself beaming. ‘Want a lift?’
‘Sure,’ she said, with a faint Nordic accent, lifting up her shades, revealing eyes the colour of glacier melt. ‘Nice bike.’
‘Wish it were mine.’
The woman looked at him steadily.
‘Not that. Hired, for the grand tour that never was.’ He shrugged. ‘Where you heading?’ He was mesmerised by her face – and the rest of her he tried not to think about.
‘To the coast. I need to get to Britain.’
‘You’re in luck. So do I. I hear they’re still letting flights out of Aberdeen. Hop on.’
She appraised him and the bike coolly. ‘Can I trust you – on this?’
‘Lady, I’ve been riding bikes since I was a boy. Have a hog, but I wanted to check out a European bike. Belong to a gang back home.’ He anticipated her response. ‘No patches – just for kicks. But you’re safer with me than some of the clowns on the road.’
‘I have your word of honour?’
Eddy laughed. ‘Not a word you hear very often these days, but, of course.’ He placed his hand on his heart. ‘By the code of the Runestone Cowboys – share the road, but not your woman!’
She took his hand and held it very firmly, nails white as teeth. ‘A man who does not live with honour is no man at all.’
‘Phew, I bet you’re one helluva ball-breaker when you wanna be, huh?’ He got off and unlocked the tail box. ‘Here, you’ll need this.’ He handed her the spare helmet, shaking out the remains of the sand.
She laughed, showing bright teeth.
‘Pleasure. I’m Fenja … Bergrisar.’
‘It’s an old name. Fenja with a ‘j’ but you pronounce it with a ‘y’.’ Eddy looked confused. ‘You can call me Fen if you like.’
‘Whereabouts you from, Fen?’ asked Eddy.
‘Somewhere Scandinavian, clearly..?’
She shook her head.
She smiled inscrutably. Nodded. ‘That’ll do.’
‘Icelandic? Cool. Can you go tell your freakin’ volcano – enough already!’
Fenja looked puzzled at this.
‘Never mind.’ There was an awkward pause. ‘Now you’re meant to say: And you?’
‘Gee, thanks for asking. Well, a butt-hole called Gimli, Manitoba. New Iceland, they call it – lot of puffin-eaters. Sorry, that’s what we call your fellow countrymen – you might feel at home there!’
He watched the woman struggle with the helmet. ‘Here, let me show you…’ The strap clicked into place. He adjusted it so it sat true. Fenja said something, muffled. Laughing, he flipped the visor up. She gasped.
‘Is it meant to feel like you can’t breath?’
‘You’ll get used to it.’
‘It smells of … another woman.’
‘A long story. Listen, I don’t know about you but I’m dying for a coffee. Shall we find somewhere for breakfast? We can talk more then?’
Fenja scried him with piercing pale grey eyes. ‘Okay.’
‘Ridden a bike before?’
She smiled innocently.
‘Sit still, don’t lean. No funny hand signals. Hold on.’
Eddy mounted the bike, sitting between her thighs, which felt hot – even through his leathers.
Fenja placed her arms around him.
Smiling, he flicked his visor down and fired the 1200 into life.
It growled down the lane, leaving a tail of dust.
A new track kicked in.
Extract from Thunder Road copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020