Authors: P. B. Kerr
In memoriam: Fiona Kerr
imrod, a powerful English djinn and uncle to the similarly empowered but quite dissimilar twins John and Philippa Gaunt, had absolutely no idea why he should have felt compelled to invite his young niece and nephew on his annual holiday to the southern Italian town of Sorrento and his favorite grand hotel in southern Italy, the Excelsior Vittoria. The hotel, which was built on the site of a holiday villa once owned by the Roman emperor Augustus, had never been the kind of place that seemed particularly appealing to children. It was full of old people and valuable antiques and elegant frescoes and stiff-looking waiters in white jackets. Sorrento itself offered only inlaid woodwork, spectacular views of the Bay of Naples and the volcano Vesuvius — not to mention the world’s biggest super-yacht, the
, which was anchored in the bay — and a proximity to the ancient city of Pompeii, which had been destroyed and completely buried during a catastrophic volcanic eruption in
79. But none of these amenities seemed likely to impress Nimrod’s three companions.
John disliked vacationing in hotels that did not have a wide-screen television with an extensive variety of programs in English; Philippa disliked being without her laptop computer and the Internet, and the hotel’s rather unreliable Wi-Fi connection soon left her feeling frustrated and bored. Nimrod’s butler, Mr. Groanin, who accompanied the three djinn on their Italian journey, merely disliked any town where he could not obtain a decent cup of tea or the latest English newspaper; however, being a bit of a snob, he rather admired the Excelsior Vittoria hotel because of all the many kings and queens who had stayed there. Groanin was a big fan of the British royal family and whenever he traveled he always carried a silver-framed picture of Queen Elizabeth II in his luggage, which he would place, reverently, on his bedside table.
On their second night in Sorrento, the four sat on the hotel’s panoramic terrace enjoying dinner and the twinkling lights of Naples on the other side of the bay while Nimrod talked about the last days of Pompeii and the excursion they would make there the following day as the twins listened, politely concealing their boredom.
When Nimrod had finished speaking, John frowned and said, “What’s the Italian for
?” He shrugged. “You know: the feeling that you’ve seen or experienced something before.”
“I suppose,” said Nimrod, “it would be
And it seems rather a good idea to have a fresh new name for déjà
vu as the French one has become tiresomely familiar. I shall adopt your idea immediately.” Nimrod lit an enormous cigar and blew a triangular-shaped smoke ring in the direction of the volcano. “But is it the hotel or the place that seems familiar to you, John?”
“The place,” confessed John. “Especially Pompeii. I mean, I
I haven’t ever been to Pompeii before but I sort of
that I have. And I can’t explain it.”
“Me, too,” admitted Philippa. “Ever since I saw Vesuvius I’ve had the strangest idea that I’d seen it already.”
“Perhaps,” said Groanin, “in a previous incarnation, each of you was one of them folk from Pompeii who got themselves buried in volcanic ash.” He sniffed loudly. “That is, if you believe in such nonsense as reincarnation.”
Of course they all spoke much more than they could know. Or could ever know. None of them was or ever would be aware that indeed they had visited Pompeii and seen Vesuvius before. While at the same time, of course, they hadn’t. Their previous visit was in a previous adventure that had occurred in an alternative or parallel universe that was not within the observable universe in which they now lived. Which is to say it happened and then it didn’t happen; and since this previous visit to Pompeii was far beyond their cosmological horizon, then only you, omniscient reader, might possess a more complete knowledge of why they had been there and what they had done. Suffice it to say they had no sense or memory of this previous adventure, which is exactly the kind of thing that happens when you travel through a wormhole in space-time.
But no more of that for now. In the world they currently inhabited, it never happened and when nobody took up Groanin’s provocative conversational thread, he added, “Although such a catastrophe as a volcanic eruption seems hard to believe on a night as lovely as this, with the bay looking so blue and calm and the sky so clear, and Vesuvius itself — well, from here it’s hard to credit that it’s an actual volcano. I’ve seen warts that looked more dangerous than that volcano. I said, I’ve seen warts that looked more dangerous than that.”
“Nevertheless, it is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world,” said Nimrod. “Certainly in Europe. It probably ranks about third in the volcanic top ten. There’s no telling what damage or disruption or loss of life would be occasioned if it were to erupt. Frankly, it would make Eyjafjallajökull look like an overflowing ashtray.”
As might have been expected, Nimrod’s pronunciation of this tongue-twisting Icelandic name was faultless.
“I-er-follow-Joe-Cole?” repeated John, as best as he was able. “What the heck’s that?”
“Another volcano,” said Philippa. “In Iceland. Don’t you read the newspapers? It’s what caused all that disruption to flights to and from Europe in the spring of 2010. Eyjafjallajökull.”
“The ash cloud,” said Groanin. “Of course. For several weeks no one could fly anywhere. In a plane at least. The ash affected all of the jet engines on the planes that tried to fly through it. And so they didn’t. Not for weeks and weeks. People were stranded all over the world. Yes, I’d quite
forgotten about that Icelandic volcano. It’s amazing what you forget, isn’t it?”
“It’s not exactly an easy name to remember,” said John, and immediately attempted to repeat the name while it was still in his mind, only it came out sounding more like, “Hey, fellow, are you joking?”
“Well, I’m happy to say, it looks quiet enough now,” said Groanin. “I said, Vesuvius looks quiet enough. Not so much as a whiff of trouble brewing there.”
“Yes, but looking quiet is no indication that there’s nothing happening underneath,” said Nimrod.
“Unless it’s John you’re talking about,” Philippa said cruelly.
John ignored her and so, for the moment, did Nimrod.
“Vesuvius,” he explained, “was quiet for eight centuries before it started erupting again, in
62. And Mount St. Helens, in Washington State, was dormant for seven hundred years before it became active in 1480. It’s a bit of a mystery what causes some long-quiet volcanoes to become active again. With others, the explanation seems much more straightforward, such as an earthquake. It’s remarkable that volcanoes don’t cause more disruption, considering how many of them there are in this world. And the power they contain.”
“How many volcanoes are there?” asked John. “In total. Does anyone know?”
“Nobody knows for sure,” said Nimrod, “since there are a great many that lie unseen on the seabed. However, there are possibly six or seven hundred volcanoes that have been
active on land throughout recorded time and man has learned to coexist with them. Even today there are probably fifty volcanoes erupting each year. Kilauea, in Hawaii, has been erupting since 1985. Of course, our family has good reason to remember that particular volcano.”
“We do?” said John.
Philippa gave her brother a scornful look. “Duh,” she said. “It was Kilauea that destroyed our mother’s physical body, and obliged her to take on the shape of Mrs. Trump, our housekeeper.”
“Oh,” said John. “Of course. I remember now.”
“It was your mother’s misfortune that it was a pyroclastic flow that hit her rather than a simple blast cloud. Very likely her body would easily have survived the latter, but not the former. A pyroclastic flow can attain a temperature of eight hundred and fifty degrees centigrade or more.”
“You seem to know a lot about this subject, Uncle Nimrod,” observed Philippa.
“Volcanism? Oh, yes. But then again that’s hardly surprising is it? Given that we djinn are made of fire? Our kind has always enjoyed a close affinity with volcanoes. Indeed, some of the world’s most eminent volcanologists have been djinn.”
“Being full of hot air must be a tremendous advantage, in that respect,” remarked Groanin, who had enjoyed a little too much of the local Italian wine, which was perhaps the only reason he reached down and stroked one of the hotel’s cats.
Nimrod smiled happily. He was in much too good a mood to feel provoked by Groanin’s insult. The Bay of
Naples has a very calming effect on people, which is why they go there, of course.
“Oh, very good, Groanin. Very good indeed.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I was, myself, for many years a visiting professor in the Planetary Geosciences division of the University of Hawaii,” said Nimrod. “And before that I was the Corleone Professor of Volcanology at the University of Palermo in Sicily.”
As Nimrod continued to list his academic qualifications in the hot field of volcanology, John tried and failed to stifle a yawn.
“Sorry,” he said. “This is very interesting, I know, but I think it’s bedtime for me.”
“Me, too,” admitted Groanin. “It’s all this fresh air. It’s a bit too, well, fresh, for me. Plays havoc with me pipes. Give me Manchester smoke any day of the week.”
John and Groanin got up from the table, said good night, and went back into the air-conditioned hotel, which was a little too cool for John’s comfort and not quite cold enough for Groanin’s.
The young djinn went to his room on the fourth floor, brushed his teeth, and watched a program on Italian TV for a while, which seemed to be about a fourteen-year-old Romanian gang leader called Decebal in a town near Rome.
John, who was fourteen himself, thought fourteen was kind of young to be a gang leader and assumed he must have misunderstood. Then again the boy did look fourteen.
When the program was finished, John switched out the light. Immediately, he fell asleep and dreamed strange and
improbable dreams of mountains and Tibet, aged Nazis, kind monks and fourteen-year-old gangsters and talking wolves.
Groanin did much the same. He watched TV and brushed his teeth, which were false. These he placed in a large vodka and tonic that stood beside the photograph of the queen on his bedside table. Then he read a little of
, which he always found to be as good as any sleeping pill.
It was almost dawn when the butler was awoken by the tinkling of the glass chandelier hanging above his bed, as if its complex array of dangling prisms had been brushed by the hand of some invisible force or being. Groanin switched on his bedside light and looked up to see the chandelier swaying on the ceiling. The next second the whole room shuddered loudly like a Russian passenger plane in flight, and he didn’t have to see the needle moving on a seismometer or be watching the BBC to know that he was experiencing an earthquake and probably quite a powerful one.
Unnerved by the movement of his hotel bedroom, Groanin replaced the dentures in his mouth and, as was his habit, earthquake or no earthquake, drank the vodka and tonic. Such are the intemperate habits of butlers the world over.
“Don’t worry, Your Majesty,” he said addressing the queen’s picture. “I’ll look after you, lass. You’re safe with me.” And so saying, Groanin placed her precious picture back in his suitcase before, reeling and rolling, he rambled out of his room and down the stairs where, among the
other guests heading for the safety of the open air, he encountered John.
John had never experienced an earthquake before and all earlier thoughts that he would like to know what one felt like were now quite forgotten; this was much scarier than ever he had supposed.
“We have to get outside,” he yelled at Groanin. “In case the building comes down on our heads.”
“I know that, you young scamp,” growled the butler. “I wasn’t born yesterday, more’s the pity.”
Most of the guests walked quickly toward the safety of the poolside and the hotel’s extensive gardens and orange groves. John and Groanin would probably have followed them, too, but for the fact that they caught sight of Nimrod and Philippa heading out onto the terrace at the back of the hotel where they had dined the night before. Yet it hardly seemed like the safest place given the height of the cliff below the terrace railing. This was a sheer drop of at least seventy or eighty feet and the thought that the cliff and the terrace might at any minute give way beneath their feet gave Groanin more than a pause for thought.
“Sir,” he said. “Is this advisable? To be out here? Surely the garden would be safer.” Nervously, he turned and pointed in the other direction. “Which is this way.”
In the violet hues of the Italian dawn, Nimrod remained silent for a moment, his face pointed out to sea, his hands resting on the elegant stone balustrade, and looking more than a little like the Roman emperor Augustus whose villa had once occupied this same spot.
“Sir,” persisted Groanin. “We shall perish if we remain here. At any moment this whole flipping terrace might collapse and land us in the sea. Surely caution dictates that we should follow the rest of the guests into the garden.”
Nimrod waved his hand at the hotel. “It’s all right,” he said. “The immediate danger’s past.”
And it was true. The hotel had stopped shaking. Unlike Groanin’s knees. What was more, the building seemed quite undamaged beyond a bit of dust that had been disturbed from some of the less accessible parts of the older public rooms and a picture of the actress Sophia Loren that had fallen off its hook.
In the harbor parking lot underneath Nimrod’s gaze several car alarms were going off, and in the distance could be heard the sound of more than one approaching siren.
“I will yield neither to the song of the siren,” said Nimrod, “nor to the voice of the hyena, the tears of the crocodile, or the howling of the wolf.”
“Eh?” Groanin looked at the twins. “What’s the man on about? There aren’t any wolves about here. Nor any crocodiles, neither, I should hope.”