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The lights were coming on, and in Princes Street the crowds were starting to bustle out of the shops and offices and making their way home, their radiation-proofed smocks and ponchos bright, bustling human activity at the heart of the ancient city.
He felt as if he was somehow opening up, as if walls in his head were crumbling. He wasn’t used to feeling so engaged with humanity as this.
Maybe it was something to do with Jane.
This was Lilliput, small and crowded: a thousand years old, and beautiful. It seemed impossible that it should be under threat – a threat only he perceived.
Venus. The Moon rock anomalies. The Arthur’s Seat dust.
The pieces of the puzzle seemed to be moving around in his head, colliding, trying to find ways to fit. But the essence of the future was clear to him; the inexorable growth of that stuff on Arthur’s Seat would see to that.
Unless he, and those who worked with him, found a way to stop it.
‘We have to, is all,’ he said to himself. ‘If not us, who else?’
For a while longer he gazed out over Edinburgh’s bustle.
Then he began the walk back to the town, to meet Blue.
Henry had a little trouble meeting up with Blue Ishiguro, in the subterranean clamour of Waverley Station. Blue wasn’t much over five five and was skinny as a rake, so it was hard to spot him among all these heavy-set, overfed gaijin, as Henry always thought of Westerners when he was around Japanese.
But here Blue came at last, his pencil-thin frame all but overwhelmed by the giant, battered field rucksack he carried on his back, his button-small face split by a giant shit-eating grin.
Henry embraced Blue, and they went into a mock-boxing routine, what Blue, who had spent maybe too long in America, always called hoopin’ and hollerin’ mode.
Blue said, ‘It’s good to see you, man.’
‘That’s the truth. Let’s get out of here.’
They emerged into the centre of the city. Blue hitched his pack on his back and looked around curiously. They set off west down Princes Street, which ran straight as an arrow towards the spires of St Mary’s Cathedral, to find the guest house Blue had booked for himself.
It was a little after eight in the evening, so the end-of-day crowd had subsided from its peak, and the light was starting to go. All the monuments of the city seemed to be bathed in yellow-gold floodlights: the Castle on its shapeless volcanic mound, the Balmoral Hotel, and the memorial for Walter Scott which looked, Henry thought, like a Saturn V launch gantry rendered in sandstone, turned black as coal by pollution, which the monument was too fragile to have washed off.
‘So,’ said Henry. ‘What do you think?’
Blue gazed around, his rheumy eyes analytical. ‘Skinny,’ he said. ‘England has a lot of skinny buildings.’
‘It may do. But this is Scotland.’
‘Whatever. And it’s kind of grubby from the pollution.’
‘So where’s the volcano?’
Henry clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Tomorrow, old man. You need to sleep off your jet lag.’
Blue sighed. ‘I suppose you are right.’
They arrived in a small, straight side-street in the west of the city, not far from the shadow of St Mary’s. The guest house was a rambling, much-extended building next to a cobbled courtyard, entered by a narrow archway. The ground floor was pretty much a pub, a long bar gleaming with glass and leather, circular brass tables crowded with drinkers cradling pints in straight glasses; cigarette smoke hung like a volcanic pall in the air.
Blue grinned at Henry. ‘I think I will like it here.’
He didn’t object when Henry picked up his rucksack to carry it up the two flights of stairs to his room (no elevator, of course). The room, when they got to it, was just a box, not much bigger than a bed and a shower stall.
Back in the bar, which was still more crowded than before, Blue insisted on buying the drinks. They sat at a table in the corner, sticky with stale beer, and Blue waited patiently, until Henry had to explain that in a British pub you had to go up to the bar and order your drinks and bring them back. On the other hand, in cafés and restaurants you were supposed to wait for service … and so forth. Blue accepted all this serenely, went to the bar, and came back with two glasses full to the brim with heavy Scottish bitter.
‘Here’s to you,’ Henry said.
The beer was heavy, flat and warm; Henry was working at getting used to the stuff, but he had a ways to go yet.
‘Your room’s kind of small,’ he said.
Blue laughed. ‘So small that if I cussed a cat I’d get hair in my mouth. It’s fine, my friend. I have my tatami mat and my happy coat and my portable family shrine, though I’m not sure where I will place it. The shower stall, perhaps. I think this place has a certain charm. Did you know it used to be a coaching inn? And you can see how old it is, so old it has had time to subside. Think about that, Henry. This place is probably older than all but two or three buildings on your whole continent.’
‘But not Japan.’
‘Not Japan, no.’
‘Well, these old Brit places are better than they used to be, I guess. At least you get a shower in your room now. But –’
‘But you can’t polish a turd.’
Henry grinned. ‘I’m glad to have you here, my friend.’
Blue eyed Henry. ‘I take it you don’t want to talk about work.’
‘Not until tomorrow. I need you refreshed. I need your clear thinking.’
‘There are no live volcanoes in Scotland,’ Blue pointed out. ‘Not for three hundred million years.’
‘I know. And I don’t think we have one now. What we have is –’
‘Something not right.’
‘It scares you.’
‘Yes, it does,’ Henry said.
Blue grunted and raised his glass. ‘But that is for tomorrow. For tonight, we will do what old men like us always do, which is to talk about old times. Tell me, do you still hear from the Pinatubo team?’
Pinatubo was a volcano in the Philippines. Henry and Blue had been part of a joint team of USGS and Philippine volcanologists who had gone out to assess the danger of eruption. Because of the accuracy of their characterization of the hazards and their prediction of eruption, more than fifty thousand people had been evacuated to safety, days before Pinatubo’s devastating eruptions.
Henry, fresh from college, had done little more than carry the gear, but it had been his first exposure to real field work, and to a major geological event. And to what it could do to people.
So they gassed about that.
‘Not that we were so smart about Pinatubo,’ Henry said. ‘You remember Sister Assumpta?’
Blue laughed. ‘Of course.’ This was the nun who had walked into the Philippine Institute of Volcanology to tell the assembled scientists, peering at their instruments in the artificial light there, that, begging their pardon, the mountain had just exploded. And so it had, clearly visible from her village; but that nun’s soft-spoken message was the first warning anybody had.
So they talked about that for a while. Then Henry went up to buy some more drinks, and they talked about the time in Colombia when Blue had absent-mindedly walked over terrain so hot that when he took off his boots his socks were smoking … and so on.
Blue kept up, but he looked thin and frail compared to the booming, bovine gaijin around him, and every now and again he would turn away and cough deeply into a huge handkerchief, the phlegm liquid in his throat. He had visibly crumbled in the few years since Henry had seen him last, and that was a true pisser.
Blue wasn’t admitting to any of it, but the word was he had asthma, and maybe heart trouble. Which was why VDAP hadn’t allowed him out of Vancouver and into the field for a couple of years, and – no doubt – why Blue had been so keen to come for a jaunt to Britain, on Henry’s obscure and ambiguous invitation.
Blue was driven to keep working. Everyone who knew him knew that, and knew why. Kobe.
But that wasn’t Blue’s fault. Why the hell should he have to give up, to retire, to succumb to the betrayal of his body?
Henry felt a deep, unfocused anger boiling up inside him. Age. It was so damn medieval that they all had to submit to such a thing. He himself was already old enough to feel the weight of age descending on his own bones. It just went on and on, it seemed, wearing you down, taking out everybody from the best and brightest on down. And nobody got a reprieve, not so much as a day off from it.
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