Notes from Santorini.

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Some say horsemen, some say warriors,

Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest

Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s

What you love.

sappho

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Photo on 1-09-13 at 11.13 AM:

gazing down at the shining ocean surrounding Santorini Island, or walking through over-peopled Fira,  in between bouts of furious work, thoughts drift through my mind like untethered boats.

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they do not drop anchor, displacing the muse. They are not visitors from Porlock to break the dreaming threads unraveling out of me.

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they pass through me. I feel no need to make sense of them, though some float into the current of creation, are drawn in and consumed. I am in that waking dream state most condusive to writing.

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i am on the story road.

the dreamtrails.

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i hear a snatch of words, see a pose struck, a hat fly, a guide point, a feather float down, a plastic bag rise and turn itself inside out. I see all of the brides and the flowers and that brown faced dapper celebrant who always wears his immaculate cream suit over strangely brightly coloured shirts; blue or emerald green or egg yolk yellow.

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so many weddings pass me by. Was it always like this?  I don’t remember so many in other years. Somedays five or six wedding processions pass down and then up the steps past my terrace in a single day.

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the celebrant’s shirts make me think of Las Vegas preacher. And isn’t there something of Las Vegas in  this parade of brides and grooms, for all the whiteness and tradition? The white yards of cloth brought to drape the astonishing view from one hotel terrace or another, to frame the happy couplet,the flutter of ribbons matched meticulously to the bridesmaid’s dresses, the flowers and maybe the groom’s bow tie? The gaudy naivety of it all.

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how do they choose the colour with which to accent the dazzling radiant colourlessness of the bride and of Santorini, I wonder vaguely. Is there a book of colors and meanings to match?

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what I love is how I don’t need to know the answers to those drifting questions, or the names of the brides and grooms and their flurry of guests, or the ends of their sentences. I am content to let all  pass by unresolved, going down the endless, timeless steps, past my closed courtyard door, passing out of sight and out of mind.

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what I love is being deliciously, alone, floating in all this hard bright whiteness, this stony colourlessness, this busyness of unknown people, whose movements are as fleetingly mezmerizing and meaningless as the ephemeral patterns made by the wind on the sea.

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i first visited Santorini Island almost a decade ago, having recieved an unexpected invitation from my generous friends Virginia and John Lowe,who were staying there in a villa and found they had an empty guest room. It was an extraordinary thing to be invited to stay in a villa on Greek Island – almost mythical and entirely irresistible  to a woman who grew up in a Housing Commission house, even without the lure of good friendship. It turned out to be incredible ten days. Who knew how much it would come to mean.

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santorini is extraordinarily beautiful despite or maybe because it is such a barren stony island. Its beauty is arid and white as bleached bone – a kind of paradox. It makes me wonder why I don’t love the aridity of the Australian bush. My inability to feel what others feel makes me both defiant and slightly ashamed, as if it arises from some lack in me. And maybe it does.

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i think how I always think of that, here; My inability to love the bush as I love other wild places in the world.

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perhaps it is the ubiquitous eucalyptus growing here, that force me to confront the fact that I do not feel the proper fervent love for the bush I see in other Australians.  Yet I remember how I was shocked to see them, that first visit. How tears sprang to my eyes at the smell of the  leaves. Perhaps though I cannot see the beauty of the bush, I can smell it. Perhaps when I am older, I will see what others see, I tell myself forgivingly, tolerantly. As if it is a taste that can be acquired.  Though I do not think love works like that.

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this is  the last time I will come here. I am less sad about this than I expected to be, maybe because I do not want to waste the time here, in nostalgia- it is too precious.

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besides this place has always made me think of endings.  Inevitable, maybe, since I have always come at the end of the season, when the weather is about to change, when the locals are unwinding, beginning to shuck off their hard-sell carapaces, beginning to think of shutting up and moving on. There are less tourists and most come in from the big liners in a tide that empties out every afternoon, when the ships utter their mournful summons.  The winds gradually blow cooler and the humidity rises to thicken into a mist that rushes over the island all night long in a ghostly tide, leaving a clammy dampness on every surface.

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and staying so long, I see others come and go. I feel like an immortal watching the brief lives of mortals. I can imagine what it would be like to be immortal. The compassion, the pity, the remoteness of it.

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i wrote a story about an immortal here, one year, after being here, and another about a script writer who had trouble with his endings …

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i have a fantastic idea for a story set on Santorini, that has been incubating for several years, about an ending. Soon I will write it, I think.  Not here – I never write stories on Santorini, but they often ripen here and I write them in the aftermath.

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why is it the last time?

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for many reasons. The villa is being sold by the Australian doctors who own it, the wonderful  woman who has managed it for the owners for years, is retiring.  Her husband died here, this time. A sad ending, yet he was ill and in pain.  Last year, I had a phone call telling me of the death of a 16 year old girl, to whom I had been reading the last Obernewtyn draft on Skype, night by night. I had not reached the end when the call came…

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and I am returning to Australia after years of living abroad.

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my daughter, is currently studying the last half of year nine by Distance Education, having completed year nine in Czech and so the final year in her Zakladni Scola. She is back in Prague now, readying herself for change, for our looming, oft delayed return to Australia. She brought her homework to Santorini for the few days she and my partner were here. Ironically, she was studying Australian History in the week she was there. She was fascinated by it, that gumstree stuff, that convict and bushranger stuff I had been force fed, like every other Australian child. Maybe  my inability to love the bush with its whine of flies, its dry, dusty heat, its grey green shadeless shade, is a reaction to that that force feeding of a history presented as important and relevant, and yet which seemed to my teenage self to have nothing at all to do with my life. I was ignorant, of course, but seeing my daughter’s interest in what is to her an exotic history, I can’t help but feel I might have been more engaged, had it been presented to me when I was older, and with less fanatical nationalism.

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i have a daughter, golden,

Beautiful, like a flower -

Sappho

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the villa is perched just below the upper edge of the Island, on the steep sunset side, and overlooks what was once the caldera of an immense Volcano. Legend says its eruption destroyed Atlantis. No one knows if it is true but truth is a different beast in this Land where so many myths were born; a white bull, maybe or a minotaur. In any case, the Cyclades are the remnants of a volcano and the circle they describe is so large that I can hardly imagine how big the volcano was; or how it must have looked like as it exploded. The end of the world, maybe.

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when I get up in the mornings at 7 am, the sea lying so softly between the islands has a nacreous quality, a milkiness that I love so profoundly that is nearly unbearable to look at it. I am glad to retreat from it into my work.

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Photo on 2012-09-14 at 17.58 #2

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i write on the upper terrace until the sun gains hight and heat, then I open out the umbrella and sit beneath in its thin white shade, still writing, squinting to see the screen, occasionally lifting my head to see that one enormous luxury liner has been replaced by another, their movements utterly stealthy.

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later in the morning, guests come out of the accommodations and hotels and breakfast is brought to them on little terraces. They eat, mostly reverently silenced by the view, save for the few who take long calls, loudly, oblivious to the crack they are making in the perfection. Later, some depart and newcomers arrive to take their places.  The ebb and flow of tourists is a constant tide. Their heavy cases are carried up or down on the shoulders of slight, wiry strong Greek porters in pristine white. Santorini sherpa. I hope they tip them well, I always think, though it does not take me long to be running up and down those steep, uneven many flights of steps that evoke such gasps and groans of dismay in newcomers, several times a day.

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the guests go off to sightsee or swim at Kamari or the Red Beach or shop in Oia, where they will stay to look at the sunset from a different angle. Or maybe they take a boat to the dark little volcanic island at the centre of the caldera, with its black pumice path and fumeroles, or swam in the hot springs in one of its little dark bays, or they may go further afield, to Thirassa on the other side of the caldera, to mount its steep steps for lunch in its strangely empty town, where there never seems to be anyone but restaurant staff, one old woman in black with malevolent eyes and a dusty donkey in a stony field.

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the first bride of the day will pass down the steps mid morning. I wonder if they wanted that time for some reason, despite the terrible heat.  Maybe it is cheaper than sunset, or maybe sunset is booked for a hundred years to come.  It is very possible. Today I will see three brides and their bridegrooms. And this cannot be the only place where people marry on Santorini. There must be other white hotels, white terraces, white clad smiling staff to carry food and flowers up and down the steps.

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before the bride, the groom, the guests arrive come the procession of facilitators- the catering people and the flower people and the photographer. The celebrant comes next and I watch to see what color his shirt is, trying to read something into it. Occasionally he wears his single pale shirt, an insipid mauve.  The only non bright shirt he has. I wonder how he chooses which colour to wear.  Or perhaps his wife chooses.  Sometimes he wears the same shirt all day, and other days he changes it between weddings. Is it because of sweating or because he goes home if he can.

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at some point almost all of the couples will come with a photographer or ten, and pose atop the roof of the hotel directly below my terrace. The pictures must be spectacular. How not, with that fairy tale dress, drowned Atlantis as a backdrop. Isn’t that the whole point of marrying here, after all? The photos?

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after that first time on Santorini, I thought how wonderful it would be if, one day I could do for others what had been done for me. If I could rent the villa and invite friends to stay. That, amazingly, is what came to pass and over the years, many friends have stayed with me. I would issue an open invitation to stay a week, and it was first come first served. The first week was always a week with Adelaide and Jan, so I never invited anyone else. Then they returned to Prague, while I stayed on. Usually I contrived to have a full week alone, and then the friends who came to stay would come. I made sure it was understood that I was available for talk and socializing only in the evenings, for a few hours, from sunset onwards, and never late at night, because I would do some more work. They could do anything they liked, so long as they did not demand anything of me during the day, and preferably, they would go out and explore.

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i have a rigid routine and by the time the visitors arrive,  it is set in stone and I am confident that it would hold up against any temptation to play tourist.  That, and the fact that I have seen it all before- Ancient Thira, the black heart of the volcano, the underwater volcanic activity. Each trip, I allow one wonder- this time it was Knossos on Crete…

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mid afternoons, i go for coffee at the little local café in the narrow lane running away along the top of the steps, with its satisfyingly dodgy internet access. (The last thing I want, here, is to be plugged into the world via the internet!) then I go back and work inside the villa, which is very cool and quiet because it is a traditional villa dug into the wall and while capacious, has a distinctly hobbit like charm.

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late in the afternoon, I walk the hot half hour to the bus station on the other side of Fira and journey to one of the beaches to swim.  I am an hour at most- I don’t want to get sun burned. On the way back, for the last few days, there had been a classical music competition  called The Muse. I have been to it every time I have come. The practises, the various heats, the nightly and final prize winning concert are all free and some evenings I go and sit for hours  listening to what must surely be the future of classical music in embryo.

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most evenings, I am back on my terrace to watch the sun set, sipping an icy gin and tonic, then I work on the terrace for a little and inside in the dining room, and finally in bed,  until I fall asleep. Many nights I wake at three am and work for several hours before going back to sleep,

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a note on coming back and back to the same place year after year: Far from being bored by the familiarity, you gradually build up layers of experience and memory. Viewed in this way, the three weeks will not feel like ONLY three weeks, or in the case of Jan and Adelaide, one week. It feels as if we are revisiting all of the moments in the past that made up previous visits: Time is made dense by this means, and as well, this time, it is given a deeper resonance because of the inescapable awareness that a period of our lives is ending.

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some days, most days,  the sun, though extreme, has a soft quality, as if its light is strained through muslin. The air is a silken whisper that grows more insistent as the days pass.  Its patterning of the sequined satin sea grows more complex and enigmatic.

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sometimes the men and women who serve the tourists glance up at me with faint puzzled recognition. I imagine they might know I have been here a long time in Santorini terms. Maybe they remember me from another year. From all the years.

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i am reading my way through a book of translated fragments of work by the poet Sappho . Only one of her poems is intact. I like the brokenness being presented.  The lovely absurdity of two words with a great long gap in between appeals to me. There is so much that might be in the gaps. As with life, what is left unsaid seems to speak more profoundly than what is said.

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i read a line in another book which says ‘I am always lying to myself when I get poetic.’

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was that true of Sappho, I wonder?

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a bride comes on the arm of a father.  They often come like this, with a beaming Greek or Chinese or Japanese or American older men escorting them, identical in their pride in the princess on their arms. All brides are princesses- who said that? They look like Barbie dolls to me. Perfectly beautiful, perfectly made up with perfect hair and floating dresses of white or cream with frills and beads that glint and fluttering ribbons. I do not see any stern modernity, or anything unusual. Marriage Santorini style is very traditional, even without a priest. Why not? There is comfort in tradition. The weather is perfect, always, the view sublime and the photos will nourish you forever.

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today, the umbrella frill snaps and flutters and I am aware it did not do that yesterday or the day before. The weather is hot and beautiful as ever, and yet for the first time,  I sense the change  is coming. Soon the bourganvillia will begin to lose  its vivid frills and they will dry and be swept across the white stone paths, catching a little, sounding like tiny claws.

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i think how I love the snatches of conversation as people toil up and down the steps.

my watch has stopped. Isn’t that funny.

the hard part is going up. Has anyone counted the steps?

i will be there on Tuesday, (this into a phone). Love you.

you will need suntan lotion a hat. All the things you have for the beach.

other phrases in French and Japanese, a smattering of guttural throaty strangely appealing Arabic.

greek: giassou, efkharisto. kalimera, parakalo.

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later, on dusk there is a new thing: free runners plotting a course across the roofs in loud French, American,  Spanish, German and Russian-accented  English,  executing experimental somersaults, back flips, balletic leaps, turns. They gaze at the view unseeing, focused on launch pints and trajectories. Their anarchic beauty, their youth seems a throwback to those Spartans and Athenians of old.

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then i remember vigorous gesticulating Elena, golden-haired and older than she looks, last year lamenting the damage done by spectators of the free running event staged by Red Bull last year. ‘They invaded the roof,  the terraces, the courtyard of the villa, to watch,’ she had said indignantly. ‘They left cigarette butts, graffitti, crushed beer cans. Someone must be there,’ she had said, only I left before the competition. I will be here this year, I think with a sinking heart. They will be here on my last day. I ask a man with a Red Bull T shirt who is part of the offial entourage if someone will remind spectators what is private property. He tells me he can’t tell people what to do, even though, later he and his minions command spectators to allow yet another bridal group to pass over the Red Bull branding stickers that have been pasted everywhere, red as open wounds. I ask who will be responsible for the damage done. I want a name. I want them to know someone is keeping watch. He shrugs. ‘No one is responsible. People can do what they like.’ My heart sinks lower.  This is too much of the world I am trying not to see. That political debacle, those poor refugees..

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at night I hear footsteps on the roof and wonder if the people on the path know my bedroom is underneath. Restless, I sit up and work for a time, then I lay awake, listening to mosquitos, those little vampires, whining in the night. When I swat them in the morning, my blood will be smeared on the wall; shocking evidence of their midnight feasts.

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i think how a black dog, dark as night against all the whiteness, craned its neck to look up at me a few days before, when I walked to Oia. It had no collar and yet it was healthy, muscular and lithe. The animals here seem not to be owned by anyone and only the tourists show sentimentality, croon at them, pat them, take photographs. The cats are narrow, strident, self possessed. They are supermodels.  Books have been written about them, poems.  A thousand photographs have been taken. They know their value against all that still and rigid whiteness, that breathless blue. Occasionally they will grace your porch with their sleep. Or your step, You have to slide them aside to get out of the door.

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i think of the things I saw during the day. The eucalypts with the lower parts of their trunks painted white. The little piles of donkey manure, that smell bad only immediately, briefly. The way you never see birds, though this morning I did – one, winging hard as if a the still silky air is thick as syrup, hard to negotiate.

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later, I am woken by fireworks going off closer than they have ever done before.  I get up to watch and cannot help flinching at the loudness of the explosions as I come outside. I notice that the olive tree has dripped a thick dark ichor onto the flagstones, that makes my feet stick as I climb the steps to the terrace. Then I look up and draw in a breath of wonder and sorrow. The mist flies at last, unravelling endlessly upward.  I have been waiting for it at some level, I realise, since I came.  Its strangeness wakes me from my drifting dreaming with a thrilling chilly touch. I feel the coldness in it, the hint of harder days to come.  The edges and elbows of things.

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The Moon is down,

Pleiades. Midnight,

The hours flow on,

I lie, alone.

Sappho

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it is almost time to leave

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An Icelandic Saga

there are places that change you

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travel is all about metamorphosis.

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but there are places which, though you may never have been there before or even thought of going there, answer a question your soul did not know until then, that it was asking.  I felt this sense of profound recognition the first time I stepped out of a car as a young journalist on assignment, and went for a walk along the stretch of coast I now call home, near Apollo Bay.  I felt it when I was at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland.

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it was how I felt in Iceland.

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we did not go there directly. In truth travel is rarely direct in a real world or metaphorical sense, and people who imagine the means are divorced from the end are as wrong as those that imagine the end can justify an abhorrent means. The journey is part of the destination. We reach our destinations via means that shape and hone our seeing.

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and of course the place you leave and how you leave it shapes you, too.

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the day we left Prague was the last day of my daughter’s nine years of schooling in Czech. The last day of year nine, and the beginning of the end of our European sojourn. By the end of the year we will be back in Australia. Everything is tinged with this end of days feeling which is partly nostalgia, partly trepidation and partly excitement.

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the day was cool in the bumpy start to the European Summer. A mere 14 degrees in a week that had seen 27 and 32 degrees. I was glad of the few days of cool because it is very hard to pack for one season when you are in the other. Somehow it is always hard to adequately imagine that one could be THAT hot or THAT cold.

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there was not a lot of space for clothes as, planning on camping, we had three sets of big hike boots, two tents, three sleeping bags of arctic strength (aka big), two self-inflating mattresses and one thin grey floor mat resembling an unappetizing diet biscuit, tied up with a bit of string. We also had cooking and eating utensils, a new thermos, the top bit of a Primus (which I was about to use for the first time), 3 amazingly small micro towels and a lot of dried, tinned, spices and other ingredients because we had heard Iceland was terrifyingly expensive. We had already paid Summer prices for the car hire and plane tickets, and were anxious to spend as little else as possible.

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my brother said the night before we left:  “So let me get this straight. You are going camping in Iceland, but you are flying there with all the camping gear, and food, from Prague, via London?” I explained that the only other option was to go through another European city, and hang at an airport for nine hours or incur the cost of a hotel room we would only use for about three of the nine hours. But if we went through London we could stay a night at the house of my writer friend Ann Jungman.  I would get to see her and visit her part of London, which I love.

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so, with two big suitcases and a jumbo size back pack loaded to the max, a full complement of hand luggage, as well as the guitar Adelaide had decided to bring at the last moment (fortunately half size) we set off in a taxi at 9 pm, expecting to be at Ann’s in Muswell Hill in London (via Stanstead because landing there was cheaper than landing at Heathrow) about midnight. I knew the route having traveled it numerous times, and had even bought train tickets from Stanstead to Tottenham Hale underground station in advance. From East Finchley, we would have a short red double decker bus ride to Muswell Hill or if we were lazy, it would not cost much to mini cab the last stretch.

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what could go wrong, right?

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what went wrong was that the plane was a half hour late, then there was a longish wait at the airport to get through customs.’Only staying a day?’  Asks the Customs Man. ‘We are going to Iceland tomorrow,’  I say, thrilled to be able to say this aloud, though I sort of can’t believe it. The Customs man cocks his head and says, ‘Tell them we want our money back.’.  I laugh, though baffled, because Customs people (even the friendly English kind) always render me obsequious. Like policemen, they make me feel that I am a criminal concealing something. The only way I can get over my nervousness about policemen is to ask them directions because I think they would think I would not think of coming up to them if I was a criminal.

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after difficulties getting the machine to give me the tickets I had booked I went to the desk  -  it turned out that though open tickets, I was meant to pick them up on the 22nd and it was the 23rd by five minutes – the guy at the counter gives me free paper tickets,  fulminating over staff cuts and corporate failure to understand or care about the inability of technology to handle anything but specific given situations. We have missed the last train that would stop at Tottenham Hale, and on the train, learn we will have to go all the way into London Liverpool Street on the Stanstead Express. Never mind, I say. ‘We can still get back to East Finchley by the Underground. But London Liverpool Street is closing when our train pulls in, and being ushered off the premises by officials, we are told there are no more underground trains. There are a lot of policemen around and I wonder if something has happened.  Last time I came to London, bombs had exploded in the city.

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‘what the hell, if the the worst comes to the worse, we will just get a taxi,’  I decide.

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but it is a warm, dark balmy London night and aside from being anxious about Ann waiting and wondering what happened to us, we are all somewhat dazzled by the busy-ness of the London night, in which about twenty different things seem to be happening. We stare at the spectacularly long  line  for taxis and wonder if this is how it always is on a Friday night. Adelaide points to a line of firemen in glowing safety gear and says ” I feel like we have stepped into a musical.’  This is EXACTLY what it feels like. A Bobby tells us it would be smarter to go to the intersection and wave down a cab.  So we try.  The only one that stops is on his way home and does not want to go all the way to Muswell Hill. Another person suggests getting a night bus that would take us where we needed to go but no one could tell us where the night buses go from. Finally we ask a bus driver stopped at a set of lights. He urges us to get in. He is headed for the  station because he is going off duty. We run around for the bus he told us to get, and just miss it. We ask the next bus driver who says we could go with him a certain distance then switch to another night bus that would drop us one street from Ann’s. We get on, only to find we have no English money.  I dredged out an Oyster card, but it would not let me pay for the three of us. I found a ten pound note with triumph, only to be told the bus driver has not got the change for it. He waves us aboard, maybe taking pity on three laden, disheveled and disorganized travelers.  I am stuck by the gallantry of these counter attendants and bus drivers and policeman who have been kind to us. I doubt bankers and managers would exhibit the same gallantry or kindness and wonder why it is always those who have least who give most. Is it because they can empathise because our situation is not so far from theirs?.

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‘this is like the Night bus in Harry Potter,’ Adelaide says in wonderment. Like all of us, she is fascinated when what she has regarded as entirely imaginary turns out to be strongly grounded in reality. It strikes me that the reading the Harry Potter books by English kids must have been quite a different experience to her reading of the books, and even more so, those children who read it in translation.

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being a night bus, it goes the long way round,  stopping everywhere. ‘Where are we going?’  Adelaide asks, after a half hour. ‘I don’t know, but I think we are leaving London in ever widening circles,’ I say, wishing we had a map of the town, but who knew we would need more than the train and underground maps? I call Ann with my dwindling phone credit, to tell her what has happened.  She is sitting up watching Game of Thrones. ‘I thought I would loath it,’ she says.

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relieved to have let her know what was happening, and glad she is not sitting up trying to stay awake for us, I enjoy the ride as a surreal trip full of the names of famous places we cannot see. ‘Buckingham Palace,’  the Bus says. Iceland seems a remote and impossible destination.  Adelaide nods to a sign warning people against smoking, and asks, rhetorically, ‘They don’t really kill people, do they?’ It takes a minute to work out she has mistaken the work prosecute for the word execute. Finally we get off where the bus driver has told us, and muddle our way along a dark, dilapidated street and under a dark bridge to another stop.

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by now it is 2.30 am.  Twenty one minutes till our bus according to a little electronic sign. As we stand there, marveling at all that has happened in a single evening, we fall into astonished silence when a fox emerges from the shadows to run across the street and nose at some tufts of grass growing from a crack in the pavement. It goes calmly along the road, then crosses back, as we hold our breaths, praying it will not be run over.  It disappears into a scrubby looking corner of a park that vanishes away into the shadows.

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‘a fox,’  I breathe.

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three drunk London girls loaded with makeup arrive, note that it is 17 minutes till the bus comes and totter off on unbelievably high heels to get some food.  As they return, a man comes walking backwards along the centre line of the road, saying constantly  and amazingly, ‘God is Green. I promise.  God is Green, I promise.’ Passing drivers shout and curse at him as they pass. He tries to borrow a cigarette from an eastern European girl who tells him she does not have a light or a cigarette though she is in the process of rolling one.  She tells the lie blatantly, staring him in the eye, continuing to roll her cigarette. I am amazed at her toughness but then again, Czechs can stonewall anyone, so I guess it is the same for Russians and Poles and Ukraines.  I am not tough. Drunks scare me as I always imagine they are about to fly into a violent rage.  But somehow this guy exudes a drole sort of dignity and non aggression.  He bows exaggeratedly and then tries to dun a young, well dressed guy who has just arrived for a cigarette, forgetting he was asking the girl for a light.  All of the party girls, eating fast food, and we three, watch to see what the young man will do.  He is clearly unnerved by the scrutiny but keeps it together as he tells the guy the cigarette he has put in his mouth is his last.  He then asks the girl rolling her own for a light. She glances at the drunk, who now has his back turned as he is promising God is Green to the fence. She swiftly and efficiently lights the young man’s cigarette. The drink man  goes round to the other side of the stand and begins a long loud leisurely pee, all the while promising God is Green to the night or perhaps to his penis.

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finally the bus comes. We get to Ann’s at 3 am.  There are people here too, clearly heading home after work or a night out. Ann comes out in her nighty, smiling sleepily, and ushers us in. We all go to bed, Adelaide in Ann’s study where I usually sleep, and Jan and I on the couch bed. In the morning, I wake first and bring Jan and Ann a cup of tea in bed. I feel an intense pleasure at making tea in her brown teapot that makes the best tea I have ever tasted, and as I am drinking my own in her familiar kitchen, revisiting her prints, which I love, a friend of Ann’s sleeping in an apartment upstairs (perhaps because we are here), comes in for a cuppa. Later, the friend goes and we three take a walk as Ann is tutoring a boy in the house. I remember how much I love London High Streets and once again regret the rise of the Mall. ‘Who invented the mall?’  Adelaide asks. ‘The Americans,’ I say with unwarranted certainty, and wonder why efficiency is so often ugly. Adelaide and I reminisce over the occasions we have stayed here together through the years as I buy her a birthday present of a shirt in my favorite boutique. ‘You can’t have it till your birthday,’  I say. She rolls her eyes. Later I take Ann to lunch as Jan and Adelaide cat nap in readiness for the late flight to Iceland. I wish, as I always do with friends, that I saw her more often. I think how harsh it is that a children’s writer of her level and fame should have to tutor to make ends meet, but she insists she likes it. Hearing how firmly and kindly she talks to the boy, I do not doubt that she was a good teacher, before she started to write, and I hear certainty and pleasure as a warmth and enthusiasm in her voice.

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it is good to be capable of diversity, I think, especially in uncertain times. You have to be ready to turn your hand to many things and ready to find pleasure in mastering those things and being good at them.

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we set off again in the late afternoon, this time via a bus that takes us to directly Gatwick, and after a smooth boarding with Icelandic Air, and a two hour flight, we land at Keflavik Airport and collect our baggage. Outside we are met by a laconic balding Icelander from Borgun Hire, who hands over the keys to a battered four wheel drive  with a rusted body, one panel clearly taken from another car as it is a different colour. ‘It is an old but a good car,’  he assures us, and when he hears we plan to go inland, warns us against F roads. (Why do I feel a doomed certainty in this second, that we will end up on an F road?) We ask how to engage the four wheel drive, neither of us having driven one.  (In fact Jan has not driven for about 8 years so we have decided I will be doing the driving.) The hire man nods to the sun shade saying the instructions are written on it. Discovering the car is half full of petrol, he tells us to bring it back that way, then he goes to wait at the gate to let us out.  I wish he would not as I am about to drive a four wheel drive on the wrong side of the road for the first time in my life and I do not need the added pressure of a watcher.  It is a geared car and it takes me a while to figure it out. I am very glad it is heading for midnight and manage to get us past the hire car guy without stalling or bunny hopping, but I feel very uncertain. ‘We cannot go through any towns,’ I say.  ‘I don’t want to have to turn left or right.’  I have this idea that if I am driving the Ring, I can simply spend the whole time going forward without turning.

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it is cold,’ Adelaide says, sounding surprised.

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it is cold. Very. 4 degrees, in fact. We don jumpers and the winter jackets we had been debating bringing.

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though now after midnight, it is not night, and yet it is not day, either. It is a milky twilight and though I don’t realize it yet,  the sun has just set for the mere half hour it sets in Summer, before rising again around midnight. It does not get dark, even in that half hour, and as I had hoped and planned, I can see well and I am wide awake so we drive, so setting off on the Ring we avoid a night in a pricy hotel room. The idea is to drive to the camping ground at the foot of Eyjafjallajokull which has the distinction of being the only Icelandic volcano whose name I remember. Only I am tireder than I realised, not having cat napped in the afternoon, and after the drama of London the night before, which already seems like a long time ago, and the pressure of driving an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar road. As always it sits heavily in my mind that my father and brother both died in car crashes. Our family has a tendency to death by car, I feel, and I feel that as a heaviness and a terrible responsibility when I an behind the wheel.

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mists rise and hang above streams winding across the soft flat ground. There are almost no cars on the road, though it is technically the first weekend of the European school holidays and official high season. The  sun rises and shines brightly and my head tells me it is 8 am though it is in fact two am.  This time last night I was on a bus in London, I think.  London seems far away and long ago.

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it is very cold and spitting when we finally stop at Seljalandsfoss camping ground, which is next to Eyjafjallajokull (‘ll’ is pronounced= ‘tl’) Volcano. We are all exhausted from a drive where Jan has had constantly to remind me not to drift to the other side of the road. He flinches whenever I get too close to the verge for his comfort. (About a flinch every three minutes) It is understandable. The narrow dual carriageway, the lack of a verge and a graveled drop either side of the road means veering off the edge would probably flip the car. I feel I am not too close but I don’t argue with his nerves, save to say when we stop that the fact that we did not go off the road is proof I am not too close to the edge.  He does not find this comforting. We are slightly frazzled because, in addition to the road conditions and the fact that I am driving on the wrong side of the road, every time I meant to switch on the blinkers, I start the wipers, which screek arrestingly over the dry window, making us all cringe. Also, I do not know how but every now and then I toot the horn by accident. ‘Be careful,’ Jan says tetchily at one point. ‘How?  I ask. ‘I don’t know where it is and how I am touching it!’

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our first camping ground is a lush green veld backed by a rocky, moss streaked escarpment over which at least four streams flow as individual waterfalls.  It is the prettiest camping spot I could imagine. The mossy ground feels soft and spongy underfoot and it is spitting lightly. ‘Here,’  I point to a place before a waterfall, but far enough away not to catch the spray it throws up.  ”The waterfall will be very noisy,’  Jan warns. ‘The noise of a waterfall is not noise,’ I laugh.  Jan erects both tents and lays out mats and sleeping bags with the swift efficiency of an experienced camper as Adelaide sleeps in the car and I sort clothes from food and utensils so that I can cook from the back of the car.  We bought a Primus tank and milk from a service station and some fruit and veggies.  I had also done some more food shopping in London, but we do not eat. We sleep.

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adelaide has one tent, Jan and I the other. I freeze.  In the morning I complain about having blocks of ice for feet. I tend to feel the cold, so none of us pays much attention to my complaints. Besides, the sun is shining and it is a bit warmer. I discover the Primus tank does not fit. This is maddening because it is the tank we were shown when we bought it. ‘It must be the other kind,’  I say. ‘Go tell Tata the bulb does not fit the stove,’  I tell Adelaide. ‘You are always sending me to tell Tata things,’ she objects. ‘That is your job,’ I tell her solemnly.  She rolls her eyes and goes off to find him.

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we pack up and he walks to the waterfalls to photograph them.  I wander off and see the small hoof prints of the herd of Icelandic ponies I saw passing as I made breakfast. They look as small as Jackie Onassis sunglasses,  It occurs to me that these glasses might not only have hidden her eyes.  Maybe they were hiding tears, or black eyes.

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later in the day, again slightly worn at the edges by driving, constant needful reminders to stay on the Right side of the road, sundry cringing from my navigator at verge proximity, the intermittent dry skreek of the wiper blades and the occasional loud blare of the horn that causes people to glare or look startled or puzzled, whereupon we have to mime that the tooting was an accident, we stop for a coffee break and more petrol at most southern place we travel- Vik with its cliffs rising sheerly up from the water. I am still trying to figure out how the horn works. I am beginning to think it must be in the round part of the steering wheel for how else am I activating it. But the wiring must have a short because when I try to toot the horn, trying everyplace, there is nothing.

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as we set off again, I am commenting on the interaction between the server and a customer when Jan announces that this is too much philosophizing for him.  ‘There is no such thing as too much philosophizing,’ I say loftily. ‘What is too much philosophizing?’  Adelaide demands. ‘It means wasting too much time and thought on something that is not worth the effort,’ Jan says.  ‘Not worth it to you,‘ I point out with asperity.  ‘The thing is that dissecting detail interests me.  It is part of being a writer. At least, of being the kind of writer I am. What you might more reasonably say is that you don’t want to hear any more bah blah.’  He wisely says nothing and Adelaide puts her ipod on and plugs in her ear phones. After some time, she offers him one ear pod and he listens nodding. When they talk about the music, it is in Czech.

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over every rise, we see a new and different and striking vista.

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strange pale bulbous moss over big boulders to the horizon, gives way to black desert as far as the eye can see, with patches of vivid green grass, then over the next hill, there are gnarled black lava lumps and bumps pushing ruthlesslyup through thick green moss. Every vista is inhabited by little herds of wild seeming Icelandic ponies and foals and fillies.  I wonder if they can be wild and think not.  But is it solely to serve the tourist trail rise trade that these sturdy, shaggy little ponies are bred?

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there are also very white thickly fleeced sheep with beautiful dark eyes. ‘Are they sheep or goats?’ I ask, when I see my favorite kind, black as animated shadow, but horned. ‘Because that does not look like a goat, but it does not look like a sheep either.  It looks like a very goaty sheep or a very sheepy goat.’ I am longing to get a picture but even though they occasionally block the road, I can never seem to manage to get a decent picture. Every other minute Jan yells, stop, and I look for a place to stop so he can take pictures.  The exhausting thing is that it is all spectacular. We are reduced after a single day to saying ‘Wow’ and ‘amazing’ over and over.

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at one point, stopped to take photographs, Adelaide asks if she can go and pat a sheep. I say she can if they will stay still for it.  She returns to say that they were not sheep they had horns. They might attack her.  ‘They might be rams but even if they are goats, they will not attack you,’ I assure her.  They are wild. ‘They have very wild eyes,’ Adelaide insists.  ‘All goats have wild eyes,’ I say, but they won’t attack you. ‘What do you know about goats?  Adelaide demands. ‘A lot,’ I say.  ‘Goats are very special animals for me.’ She bursts out laughing  and we all end up laughing at how silly things sound when you take them out of context.

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it is heading for midnight when we enter Skaftafell National Park. The time means nothing because it is not getting dark. The sun has set over lavender and grey hills and  purple flowers that remind me of hyacinths carpet the ground. It is rising again as we come in sight of  three massive glacier outlets at the end of Skaftafell jokull (glacier) which is the largest glacier in Iceland and also in the arctic regions of Europe. For the first time I can actually materially comprehend that a glacier is a flowing river of ice.We can see two settlements at the foot of the glacier. One is in a little patch of sunlight and we hope we are headed there, but the camping ground sign directs us the other way, into the shadow at the base of the Vatnarjokull outlet. I am entranced and try to find the words to describe what i am seeing. ‘Can you think inside your brain sometmes,’ Adelaide demands crossly, sick of my transports.

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it is very cold and raining lightly as we call into the Information Centre and pay our tent fees. The place is packed with trekkers, purple faced and perfectly attired for walking on a glacier. There are buses full of people setting up neat army style rows of tents around or beside communal tents.  There is a cafe that smells enticingly of soup, but I resist. In our designated unpowered site  for tents,  Adelaide helps Jan erect ours as I make dinner. We eat and then they go to bed.  I tidy up my little camp kitchen, smugly pleased with the supplies I bought. The Primus functions perfectly, now that I have figured it out. It boils a cup of tea in a remarkably short time, as long as I use luggage to block the wind. I feel complete and self reliant, though I curse because we only have a few matches and Jan forgot his Swiss army knife with its can opener. I wish I had bought one myself, as I had planned. Fortunately he has a slightly dysfunctional wooden handled sharp knife.

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i have coins for the  shower but this time, it transpires that tokens are wanted. I wash in the warm, well heated toilet enclosure and am content.

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once again, I freeze in my sleeping bag, even though I have piled all of my clothes and my winter coat and Jan’s on top of me.  I am so cold my face hurts. Jan admits that he, too, was cold- at least his face was. But he offers to have my sleeping bag the next night and I agree to the swap, reasoning that there must be something wrong with my heating system. He will probably be fine.

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we all rise late and have a leisurely breakfast, Jan and Adelaide dismantling the tents when it begins to spit. Then they shower as I go sit and write in the Information Centre coffee room. I am expecting them to join me, but eventually I go searching and find they have been sitting in the car waiting for the rain to stop.  It is still raining, but not as hard and when it stops, I suggest Jan sets off on his climb of Kristinartidnar Mountain at once.  I make him a packed lunch. He has all of his climbing gear but aside from being very cold, it looks like it will rain again. He finally reluctantly abandons the climb. I feel bad for him, but I tell him I want to walk to the hem of the glacier, which looks close. Adelaide will come with me if he wants to at least walk the start of his climb.  He can then decide to go on if he wants.  Adelaide scowls having begun to decide she has been dragged against her will to Iceland. ‘I am not a camping kind of girl,’ she announces haughtily. Jan suggests all of us go to the Information Centre for coffee and cake. We do this and then when it begins to rain , I tell them I am determined to do my little walk and don’t care if I get wet. He suggests I wait till the rain stops.  I say mulishly that it might not stop, and that they can come after me if they want. I feel guilty but somehow family life always produces these moments in which you have to fight against the inertia of intimacy to do something.

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the truth is that I am happy to walk alone for a little. I stride off into what is a pretty light rain after all.  I am not cold because of the exertion of walking and I am rapt to actually be out of the car and walking in this incredible landscape that seems so primal and unspoiled.  I  stop enough times to take photos that the rain does stop and Jan and Adelaide catch up  in time for us to do the last stretch together. The glacier is as close as it looks – only a half hour from the camping ground, but it is surprisingly difficult to negotiate the creeks and levels of scree and shale and lakes with small melting chunks of ice, to reach the actual glacier, which turns out to be as much mud and stone as ice, and black, rather than white. It is very porous and Jan and Adelaide tell me there is a sign (which I failed to read) warning people to be careful not to be swallowed up by sinkholes of mud or to fall through soft melting bits in the glacier. In contrast, later waiting for Jan to take photos of one of the glacial lakes, Adelaide and I see a crocodile of older tourists led to the sign by a guide, whereupon they peruse it intently before turning and heading back to the bus.

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‘really?’  Adelaide mutters in disbelief, in the same tone I would ask ‘Are you kidding?’ and it does seem bizarrely as if they have come to see the sign and not the glacier.

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we walk back to the camping ground and set off again. We are all wet and cold and glad to be in the car. We continue on through Skaftafell until, much later,  we reach Jokulsarlon. This is a lake at the end of another of the outlets of the glacier on whose grubby hem we climbed earlier in the day. I am astounded and enchanted to see actual enormous icebergs floating in the lake. Again, the sun is still shining though it is approaching midnight, and gradually, as I make a simple dinner from my back of the car kitchen, it sets in the dreamy, creamy way it always sets here, when the sky is largely clear. After dinner, I go to take pictures. It is astonishingly impossibly beautiful, but very very cold. We leave reluctantly and drive for an hour until we come to the tidal estuary town of Hofn.

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the sun is rising now and the tide is out so the dark sand is a sheet of reflected light where quacking ducks and other birds delve and chatter and swoop in a busy communal way  that is completely divorced from human activities. There is not a soul about, and I think how I love these hours when the world sleeps but it is day.  It strikes me that we have entered a land where there is no night.

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it is cold and windy as we set up the tents, shivering all the while.  Adelaide goes straight from the warm car to bed, complaining of a headache. Jan and I have a cup of hot tomato soup and watch the mists that always rise in the early hours emerge and gradually obscure the distant view of the glacier then the surrounding fields. It freezing now and Jan gets into his sleeping bag.  I am freezing by the time I have packed away the cooking stuff and resolved to have a hot shower. Maybe if I am warmer when I go to sleep I will not get so cold. Only I find  the coins required will not go into the machine. Unfortunately I am naked and shivering when I make this discovery.  I wash in the sink and redress, cursing, and go back to the tent. But now Jan has given me the  thick arctic sleeping bag which Adelaide said was hot. She has Jan’s less thick bag, while he has mine.

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i have a wonderful warm night of sleep.

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jan freezes. The next morning, packing, Jan announces that a peg is missing. It seems mad but he is convinced it has been stolen. I tell him to count again and then we will check the ground. Then I wonder if the camp warden takes a peg from anyone who has not paid the fee. We often come in too late to pay at night, and pay in the morning. I go and pay and no mention is made of peg penalties. We go back and Jan says that not only did he find the missing silver peg, he found a golden peg.  We take it as bounty and after breakfast we fuel up and discover that Icelandic bakeries (bakari) are miraculously good at producing coffee scrolls with a strange but wonderful caramel icing. Adelaide pronounces her Donut sublime. We buy matches and a can opener and another bulb of gas.

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we continue along the ring road until, exhausted to the point of indecision, we cut east to the seaside town of Breiddalsvik where we have coffee break. This is the Easternmost point of our journey. Adelaide is sound asleep in the car and Jan wants to be inside in the warm but I do not find the hotel appealing.  There is some sort of in house business meeting happening in the tiny coffee shop and the waitress offers to seat us in a little side room, part of the main enormous dining room they are in the process of setting up for a formal dinner.  Just looking at the settee and table we have been offered makes me feel out of place and I opt to sit outside.  Jan decides to stay inside, clearly annoyed.  I do not feel like explaining my paranoia and I sit outside where it is windy and chilly but I am warm in my thick coat and no one is watching me or wondering why I am there or wishing I would hurry up and go.  Also, I feel better because I can see Adelaide, who had been complaining of a headache and seems more moody than usual.  Maybe she is a bit under the weather, I think. She had a lot of stress in her last week, exams and results and concerts and all the rest of it. I remember how, on the way to the airport she had said with sudden triumphant elation: ‘No more concerts!  Ever!!’

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buses come and go. One disgorges a lot of elderly, wealthy looking tourists at the hotel and they troop inside looking relieved. I imagine the dining room is being set up for them.  I wonder where they come from and why they would choose to come here. Another lot climb aboard a bus which departs with ponderous efficiency.  On a grassy common,  a man, woman and child take turns playing with a golden retriever pup.  The play feels strange to me, and I am trying to pinpoint why when the boy, whom the dog was licking and jumping on earlier, begins to call it, urgently. Though  unrestrained,  it remains steadfastly seated at the foot of the woman.  It dawns on me that they are training a seeing eye dog.

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jan comes out having forgotten his annoyance and says ‘The air is perfect!  Breathe!’  We leave, returning to the Ring to wind up and down two long fjords before finally passing inland through a 6 km tunnel.

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we arrive at the town of Agilsstadir. ( The highest ever summer temperature in Iceland was recorded here- 30 degrees. Usually the hottest temperature in Iceland in summer is 20 degrees, dropping to two and three degrees at night,  This does not seem so bad until you remember that it is summer and this is as good as it gets.)

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agilsstadir is a proper town and the camping ground at the upper edge of the town is equally urbane.  It offers a bar, a bath house, toilets, washing machines and dryers. There is endless  free, slightly sulpurous hot water. We park and Jan and Adelaide set the tents up in a very small wet lush patch of grass behind the bar and bathrooms while I prepare food. It is raining but I put up my little makeshift awning (an umbrella).  After dinner, as I pack up, Adelaide showers.  I shower, too, and when I return Adelaide playing the guitar and has attracted a couple of young swains.  Jan gives me a significant look and later, to Adelaide’s delighted indignation, I tease her about being a siren. I have washed my hair and the others go to bed, but typically insomniac, I sit inside the shower room foyer in the arm by the tumbling dryers and read. I so love these endless days. When I do sleep, I sleep well in the big sleeping bag as Jan will not switch back. He is cold though and pronounces the new sleeping bag we had bought a dud.

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we have a mild argument about my driving and I discover that I have misunderstood Jan’s reluctance to drive. He merely did not want to drive out of the airport with the hire guy watching, he says.  I am really shocked because I thought he had been saying he did not want to drive at all. I ask if he wants to take over the next day. He agrees.  I tell him Adelaide and I will sit in the cafe/bar while he goes for a drive and familiarises himself with the car. It will be easier without us watching him and I like the idea of not going anywhere for a bit. The truth is that I am really relieved that I will not have to drive the whole way.

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we sleep and again, I wake marveling that I have not had a sore back at all. One of Adelaide’s swains is a Canadian camera man (boy) who comes to tell us to be careful of F roads. Jan returns from trying to have a shower with the news that the power is out.  It turns out that the power in the whole town is out. This may explain the unmanned (or womaned) office way after the posted open hours. Talking with an an American woman as we wait, me to ask about internet access for Adelaide and she to pay for three caravans, I learn she has come the  other way round the Ring, and that some of her family accidentally ended up on  F roads.  The tales she tells are hair raising. Jan takes the car for his test drive but comes back quite soon, which is lucky because the office never does open. We set off again and soon come to unpaved road. The surface is hard, though rutted but I am very glad not to be driving as we head up into the mountains.  Jan is clearly confident and competent and much happier driving than being driven. He has also driven on the wrong side of the road (the right side) though he admits he was  a little hard on the clutch.

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the horn toots often and idiosyncratically and Jan is maddened, finding, as I did, that his hands are in different places at different times when it toots. ‘It must have a short circuit in something,’  I say vaguely. ‘Or maybe it simply toots when it feels like it. ‘ I like this idea and decide this is definitely it.  The car has a temperament- it goes with it being old and a bit battered.  This is the sort of car I have always driven and i know all about age and temperament.Hell, I think, I am a bit old and battered and I toot when I feel like it.

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up and up we go, with the terrain getting more and more barren. We stop often to take photos. At one point Adelaide asks in exasperation ‘How may angles can there be to take!?’  We laugh.  Later when swe stop again, she groans and says “This is not getting me any closer to my macaroni and cheese!’ Behind (way below) is the Fjord we have followed inland, but now we go over a steep rise.

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we pass through a long, downward sloping rather somber  valley called Sudurdalur, cleft by deep gorges through which glacial streams flow. I would like to get out and walk down the valley,  but it is raining and very cold, and it is getting late.

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just before Myvatn we stop at Namafjall where mud pots boil and numerous fumaroles furiously and spectacularly fume.  In between clouds of sulfurous water, the air is freezing and still it is raining lightly.  Adelaide gets out of the car reluctantly and we do a circuit and then drive into a little bistro where we get warm and eat.  Adelaide has chips and I have a veggie burger that turns out to be a hot toasted roll filled with salad veges and some sort of pale sauce.  It is actually very nice, and the coffee is good. We then drive to Hverfell, which is a volcano, hike up to the top, then around the rim. This takes a couple of hours. By now it is windy to a slightly alarming degree and we are all alone, which makes me feel like a sitting duck. It is high and the drop into the caldera of the volcano and down the outside are steep enough that I feel slightly giddy.  I am glad when the circuit ends.

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we watch the sun setting, knowing it is now near midnight, then descend and drive to Reykjahlid. There are two camping grounds, one (which we did not get to) close to the very big lake we saw from the Volcano rim, and one set  above the town on man made grassy steppes in the midst of what seems to be a  frozen lava flow. The bathroom and shower are minimalist and squalid, the sink rims full of dead insects. No doubt there are the non biting mosquitoes for which Myvatyn (mosquito lake) is named.  Adelaide hates them but to an Australian who has endured huge biting horse flies, and little sticky summer flies that come in black clouds, they are nothing to be troubled about.  Plus we are tired so we set up, pitching tents in the least windy spot, and crawling into our sleeping bags at once.

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the next morning, given our very late night, we thought to sleep in, but the whipper snipper man has his own idea about this.  I and many others stagger out of tents and camper cans and caravans at 8 am to stare in disbelief at a sullen faced youth  whipper snippering the weeds along the upright verge of the steppes. He does not look at any of us and the accusation and iritation gives way to the suspicion that there is actually something wrong with him. Something in his face and body suggesting aggression and fragility.  We soon pack up and hit the road.

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first stop is Krafla- a volcano that last erupted in 1984, and which is now a crater filled with opaque aqua water. We pass through an area where there is a fascinating geothermal plant that feeds into a 60 megawatt power plant. It looks very dramatic and technologically futuristic and Adelaide says, ‘It looks like something Shaun Tan would draw.’  Much of Iceland’s power comes from harnessing the geothermal power of nature, though Iceland is suffering, along with the poles and all arctic regions, because of global warming caused by the est of the world. I take a lot of pictures here, planning to use the futuristic looking machines and  the geothermal activity in my drawings for The Ice Maze, which will come next in the Land of the Lost series. I stop to photograph the machines and strange little buildings capping the fumaroles. We see a sign saying parking for scientists .  This strikes us as hilarious, as if scientists are too preoccupied and vague to watch out for themselves and might even need to be shooed off the road like sheep. Later, backing the car, Jan asks , ‘Is anyone behind us?  Any scientists?’  This becomes a common question which always makes us laugh We also stop by a startling pale blue lake, which turns out to be so hot you would literally cook if you fell in. Adelaide, looking pale, says her head hurts again and she does not want to get out.  I think she is lazy but I also think she might be coming down with something. She was headachy again in the morning and when Jan leaves us at the same  little bistro as the day before, she only picks at her meal. I try sweet potato chips and which turn out to be stupendously good. Jan has gone off to walk up a small mountain, and I hope  a nice warm, calm sit in the bistro will make her feel better. When Jan arrives, I persuade him to try the pumpkin chips and Adelaide, perking up slightly, helps him eat them. We go to look at a deep rift and a hot water grotto. I persuade them to drive a little and let me walk along the rift to meet them.  I take a lot of pictures and feel this was what I was striving to draw in the Cloud Road. I marvel at how many times in Iceland I have seen landscapes that seem to come from my imagination.  Not for the first time I wish I had come here earlier in my life- before The red Wind, before The Sending, but at least I can draw on the experience for The Red Queen.

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i sigh, thinking of the book, which despite everything, I am yearning to be working on at some level. I made the decision (wise as it turns out) not to bring my computer (as when would I power it and when would I work?  We are constantly on the move) I think how I  cannot seem to get the deep immersion I need for this book.  I need time with nothing else to do and no distractions. It is like I am always trying to fit writing it around all the other million things I have to do and it deserves better.  I wonder how life got so demanding and busy.  For a moment I fret at the time spent in Iceland, knowing I will only be back in Prage a week before returning to Australia and touring New Zealand for a month, and then there is the four day con in Brighton later in the year. But there is no help for it.  I need the money and I have to work to earn it. These days, writing can’t keep me.   I slough of the worry and the fretting, because Iceland is spectacular and nourishing and I have had some amazingly important thoughts about not only The Red Queen and The Ice Maze, but about another book I have been writing for a long time. The input I am experiencing is utterly rich and invaluable and to waste a moment fretting about all the other stuff waiting to be done would be idiotic. I will think what to do about getting the time I need to finish The Red Queen when I get back. For now, I must live in the moment, I tell myself.  And I do.  Somehow that is not hard to do in Iceland.

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we drive on to Godafoss (foss= falls) and it is spectacular but I suspect it would be more so in winter.  One day I will come back in winter, I think. Adelaide is not feeling good again and stays in the car. Jan tells me she ought to get out.  I tell him to let her be. We split to take pictures and I fall over and skin both knees.  Back in the car when I tell Jan, he says  he worries any time I am on the edge of anything.  ‘But you were calling me to the edge of the falls,’  I tell him indignantly. ”Yes and I would have stood between you and the edge if you had come,’ he says firmly. That reminds me of Adelaide telling me she thought she might easily one day come home and find I had fallen out a window. I am a bit clumsy but this dangerously clumsy mama seems to be one of those myths that families evolve about their members- a sort of intimate constructed self.

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we reach  Akureyri having thought we might stay there, but find we don’t like it so we continue to Varmahlid where we stay in a nice campsite with a weird square trampoline fixed to the ground above a thermal node, and little tree lined sections. There is a nice shower you pay the camp warden for, so you can stay in as long as you like. The water has a sulphurous smell but we all bath and I wash clothes. The morning is lovely and sunny and after breakfast, we pack up and set off. But Adelaide had woken with a painful headache and she is very pale and shaky. We had intended to leave the Ring today and head inland where it is wilder and tougher but we do not want to do this when Adelaide is clearly sickening, so we decide to head to what will be the most Northern point of our journey; A little fishing village called Saudarkrokur, where there might be a chemist or maybe even a Doctor. Uncertain how ill Adelaide is, we are not sure what to do next.  Perhaps this is the time for a hostel or hotel. We find an Information Centre but there is only one languid, friendly Icelandic youth there on the internet.  But it is very warm and seeing a fat friendly cat, I bring Adelaide in to sit awhile.  She can go on the internet and maybe a quiet hour apart will do her good. We drive down and take some pics of the harbour, then it starts to rain. We collect Adelaide, who is more cheerful but otherwise very wan. Getting directions from the young man in the Information Centre,  we find an Apotec (chemist) who gives us some pills. I ask about a doctor and the pharmacist suggests the hospital.

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it is the weekend but Doctor Johnsson agrees to see us. As we wait, Jan marvels at the hospital whose facilities are like those of a first class hotel and a far cry from the rather dingy interiors in Czech hospitals. Adelaide tells us the cat’s name was Kunda.  ‘As in Kundalini?’ I ask, startled. Jan grimaces because the cat’s name is a coarses word in Czech. There was a dog, too, Adelaide says. ‘He was called after some god but now he is called Hannibal after the Cannibal man.’ The young man in the Information Centre had imparted all of this information, along with the fact that the owner is ‘eccentric’. (A newspaper clipping in the office had told us he had swum 27 hours in an atttempt  to cross the Channel.)Doctor Johnsson turns out to be a lean, long  athletic young man with short dark hair and a cheerful rather social manner. He tells us he is an inhabitant of Akureyri, which is said to be lively and finds the fishing village where he is posted very quiet. He asks us about our trip and questions Adelaide.  He asks her at one point :’What are you afraid of?’  This is such a strange and almost metaphysical question that we are all struck dumb.   Jan tells me later that he was wondering if the Doctor was suggesting the ailment might mental. I had wondered confusedly if he was asking her if she was afraid of being sick or maybe afraid of something she has been unable to tell us. Then I realise he is merely asking her what she fears might be wrong with her.  This still strikes me as odd, for in a way it is asking the patient to self diagnose.  But she tells him finally that she thinks she has a cold and that everything emanates from this. He takes her into a side chamber, meticulously leaving the door ajar, and examines her, returning to say her temp is slightly raised and her ear and throat are a little inflamed. Jan tells him we are thinking of spending a night in an hotel rather than camping and he pronounces this an excellent idea, suggesting this will sort her out and telling us to return on the morrow. For the moment he can’t think how to bill us, anyway.

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we search out sleeping options.  There is a rather lovely looking little wooden hotel I saw earlier when we were parked alongside he Information Centre, but when Jan inquires he says regretfully that it is 300 euros for two rooms adjoining. I want to say yes but he says it is too much.  We try another place which I like, and is only 150 euros but we would be in two rooms separated by two floors. The young receptionist suggests their partner hotel, which is not far from the hospital, and books us a three bed room. This is far less appealing to look at, being no more than a square functional looking building, but the room is warm and after check in in, we put Adelaide straight to bed.  She does not want food. The room is warm and clean and we leave her to sleep.  We drive a little way and i make us some soup for dinner, though it is raining hard. My little awning umbrella does the trick and we both feel better for a hot meal. Not wanting to leave Adelaide alone, we go back to the hotel and sit in the nice foyer.  Jan goes on the internet but I read and write. I feel no inclination to cyber space.  The lack of it is refreshing my spirit. It is enough that I am making notes for my blog, and making notes about various idea I have had for books. We sleep well and warm and late.  Sheets and pillows feel like heaven. We do not leave until 12. Dr Johnsson laughs at the sight of us and says we ALL look better. Adelaide is much better,  and we decide to go inland as planned, but we will sleep inside in sleeping bag accommodation, which will be warmer but a lot cheaper than a hotel. The main thing is for Adelaide to be warm and comfortable.

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we have lunch in town at The Hard Wok cafe which smells unappealingly of hot oil to me. I wanted to go to the Bakari and get a coffee scroll but Adelaide wants to have pizza and we want to please her. In fact I am determined to get one before we leave so although I am tempted to have Nail Soup, where you get the basic soup and can then add all manner of ingredients, I save myself. Adelaide has Pizza and Jan pasta and coffee. We all feel relieved and and cheerful as we set off, stopping briefly at the bakari.

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it is raining when I wake as Jan stops at Glaumbaer which is a museum of turf houses. I feel sleepy and reluctant to get out into the cold and wet, and yet the desire to take some pictures is strong enough that we all get out. We take pictures, refuse the chance to enter a labyrinth of tunnels lining the tiny settlement of turf houses, presumably for wintertime use, and spend some time perusing the gallery of Icelandic faces of prominent locals, imagining personalities and lives for them. Then we go into the coffee shop house where I am served the lightest and most heavenly hazelnut torte with chocolate icing I have ever eaten. Adelaide has lemon cheese cake and hot chocolate, which she spills. Jan overreacts to this public accident as he does to all such public spillings. It always puzzles me about him that he sees these events as such a dramatic occasion. It is as if he sees a far greater significance in them- as if he extrapolates this accident into some dangerous and mysterious propensity for disaster. Perhaps this is his version of what I feel when I think of those car accidents. I pay the plump, creamy waitress, telling her she is lucky to live in Iceland, She tells me sweetly and dreamily that she feels blessed. She is dressed like an Amish, but talks of travel to Switzerland and Finland and to Italy ‘That lovely hot sun, she says with a surprising wriggle of pleasure.’  She loves those places, but home is best.  ‘I miss my mounntains.’  I tell her the cake was sublime and that I will long for it for the next  twenty years (like Edmund and the Turkish Delight). Beaming, she assures me that she and the cake will still be here waiting. It feels like a promise and I feel a sense of delight and wonder that she can see herself in this place serving this cake for decades to come, and look so happy.  She is one of the few people I have ever met who actually loves doing what they do.  I have a weird urge to hug her or make some deeper gesture of sisterhood, but I only smile and she wishes me well.

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at last we leave the Ring for the road less traveled part of our trip.  Initially we were going to come up through the centre, but had decided to come down through it instead, leaving the toughest driving to later in the trip. I feel glad of this decision and ready for the tough stuff as we take a slightly confusing turnoff to famous to the Kjolur road.  We are some way along the corrugated, water filled potholed length of it before I realise we are (of course) on an F road.  The F 35.  ‘Did you know this was an F road? ‘ I ask Jan. He gives me a look that says of course but he didn’t mention it because i would have baulked.  ‘Buses come this way,’ he says mildly. The truth is that although we have to go slowly, it is not bad at all.  The dirt is hard-packed and we can negotiate the potholes and even avoid a lot of the corrugations.  The road reminds us both of a trip we did years ago together, though the red centre, when I was speaking in out of the way schools. The black volcanic landscape is utterly desolate and would make a perfect setting for the Blacklands in The Red Queen. I think about Elspeth, stumbling across it…

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after a brain scrambling couple of hours, we reach a place called  A’Fangafell. As in crossing the Nullabor, the places marked on the map are usually not settlements but a single establishment.  There are no hotels, only huts. We have not planned to stop yet but seeing anything at all in that utterly deserted black volcanic desert seems so amazing  that we pull in.  The place is gated, which is off-putting, but there is coffee and cake advertised and also meals if you want.  It is warm and clean and pleasant inside, while it is raining hard (again) outside. There is even a little dog whom I scoop up for a cuddle. But when I enter the sitting room three young people give me sullen teenage stares and I feel as if i have invaded their lounge room. I withdraw and we drink coffee in the dining room, where a glowering man at another table with a weathered face and a lean and hungry look studies a map in between giving us sour looks. The proprietress is friendly if businesslike and the baking she keeps checking on in the oven looks and smells heavenly, but we are not inclined to stay.

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we go on to Hveravellir.  By now it is eleven and though not dark, the overcast sky makes it gloomy, and it is still raining hard. We ask in a warm and friendly bar in the camping ground for sleeping bag accommodation but they tell us they are full. We are resolved to stay- it is hours of driving to the next spot, but we beg for a bed for Adelaide who is still recovering from being sick, explaining she is 14. We can sleep in a tent, no worries. The man consults and comes back to announce that they have a no show and that we three  can have beds after all.  The cost is 3,000 Kroner for Jan and I each. Adelaide is free because she is sick. We are sent across the rutted and rainswept yard to a tiny two story hut, where we find a loft bench where we can sleep side by side.   Adelaide elects to go straight to bed after a visit with me to an horrendous toilet block back across the yard.  There are no toilets in the hut, just a tiny kitchen and shelves where people sleep side by side in their allotted space.  It sounds horrible but it is warm and cosy and the babble of international voices and the friendliness of the people in the same situation is lovely.  It strikes me that in general, people camping and roughing it are a different breed entirely from people who stay in hotels.  There is a camaraderie and trench buddy mentality that I like very much.

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even so, to Jan’s incredulity, I elect to cook dinner from the back of the car. He thinks I am mad.  It has stopped raining but it is cold and very windy now.  As he goes to look at the thermal fields behind the hut,  I toast cheese and vegemite sandwiches for Adelaide and make Jan and I soup and toast and hot coffee contentedly, because there is something about the crowded kitchen and the need to take turns and figure out systems that makes me nervous.  I love the simplicity and solitariness of my own little kitchen.  We pack the stuff away after we have eaten and go to check on Adelaide, who is sitting on her bed softly playing her guitar, having demolished her sandwiches. We  leave her to it and walk up and around the geothermal area behind the camp. I hwanted to try the famous hot pool but it turns out to be very small and full of people.  (People soup) Besides it is very cold, though I suppose it must be incredibly hot in the water because people get out into the icy wind to dry and dress or even run half dressed back to their camper vans or tent. We go to bed and I sleep at once, and very deeply.

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i wake to sunlight shining dazzlingly through the window and decide to try the hot pool.  Everyone is asleep as I dress in my bathers, pull on some loose clothes and grab my towel.  Jan wakes to ask what I am doing.  ‘You should not swim alone’ he mumbles, when I tell him.  ‘Come then,’ I say flippantly.  ‘It’s 6.45.’  Outside it is so terribly cold my teeth chatter, despite the sunlight.  It is very windy and there are mists unraveling across the ground and fumes from the mud pits and fumaroles flow up from behind the hut. I hurry down to the little landing, slip off my gear and climb some steps down to the pool.  Only when I am immersed do I discover the water is barely lukewarm.  I shiver harder than ever and realise I will have to go back inside only the cold air is so terribly intense that I am actually afraid to get out.  I wish I had brought my towel down to the side of the pool but it was so windy I had  feared it would blow away. I pray for Jan to come and rescue me.  He comes. ‘Help,’ I call softly. He strips his gear off and gets in!  I am aghast.  He didn’t even bring a towel down that I can steal. ‘It is not hot,’  he observes, frowning.  Then he asks if I know what time it is.  I say through chattering teeth that it is it 6.45, just like I told him.  ‘It is 4.30 am,’ he tells me and I remember my phone is still on Prague time.  No wonder there is no one else in the pool. We both look at the sun where dramatic purple clouds fly across its face. It is stunningly beautiful.  Jan gets out and  brings me a towel.  I wrap it round me and go straight inside the hut.  We get back into our still warm sleeping bags in the heated loft. I shiver for ages before falling back to sleep.

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later in the day, we rise, I make breakfast and go for another look at the geothermal field behind the hut. It looks far less dramatic in the daytime daylight than it had at 4.3o am. We set off again on the rutted black road that will lead us between  between two glaciers: Hofsjokull and Langjokull. Midafternoon, before we begin the journey back down to sea level. Some hours later, we reach the famous and mysterious  Kerlingarfjoll Mountain, where there is a very modern chalet offering internet connection, stupendous apple pie, waffles and mushroom soup. It is also a hotel and there are huts but clearly the place is full. We debate camping, drawn by the clean, modern luxuriousness of this chalet common room, but busloads of people keep arriving gearing up for walks and climbs.  Jan wants to climb Snaekollur but it is raining hard and very cold.  He decides to start the walk and see how it goes. Adelaide and I walk two hours with him, to just short of the snowline, then we turn back, leaving him to continue.  I take Adelaide back to the car, and then walk an hour to what our Lonely Planet guide tells us is a hot pool alongside the river. I imagine it will be a pleasant walk along the shore of the river, but very soon the path climbs high up the the bank, which then turns into a cliff, and the path degenerates into a muddy rut alone the crumbling edge of a little jutting cliff.  At one point I have to jump over a gap in the path.  The cliff drops straight down into the rushing river at this point and I am afraid I will fall. But I am stubborn too, and having leapt over this bit, I tell myself it will be better from here on. Besides, I have to work up to getting back over the gap.

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i have a weird hope that Jan will come after me and rescue me. I wish I had brought the walking stick thing he brought me to use, and which I had rather scornfully spurned. Now I see how it could have been helpful.  But I am not too despairing  It  is incredibly beautiful though it is raining constantly and it is lovely to be alone for  a time. The way gets steeper and less certain but then it drops down to the river level and I sink up to my ankles in sodden moss. ‘I will just go to the top of the next hill,’  I tell myself sternly and purposefully,  and then I cross the hill and see there is another. Occasionally the narrow path drops down to track along the sodden river bank.  At one point the path has been swallowed by the water and I jump from stone to stone until  reaching dry ground.  One more hill, I think, and this time I really mean it. Over the hill I see what I have come to believe will not be here- a change hut and a little landing.  Inside the hut looks flash until I see that lino has been hammered on the walls and roof to spruce it up. This time, remembering my previous perishing experience in a supposedly hot pool, I check the water.  There are three pools. One running into another like overflowing champagne cups at a wedding. The first is biggest but lukewarm.  My heart sinks but no way am I getting into less that hot water. The second pool is shallow and a little warmer but the third is hot. I am cold and getting colder now that I have stopped.  My clothes are wet through from the rain- I put them all in the change room and run out shivering and barefoot onto the sharp stones.  It is sublime. I sink to my neck, leaving my hat on because my head is cold and I don;t want my hair to get wet. I lie there for an hour. Birds come and look at me, rain falls, the river boils and chatters over the stones beside me. I feel blissed out and reluctant o emerge but finally, something prompts me to get out. I dry and dress, and then imagine I hear voices.  I look out and incredibly 20 chattering french people are standing in the rain on the landing, a couple of them feeling the water in the first pool gingerly.  I tell them the third pool is hot, in French, glad I got out before they arrived. I can’t imagine how it would feel to suddenly have twenty french people looking at you lying in a bathing pool.

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heading back, I come to an overhang I noticed before, and see that the moss under it is dry.  I sit here and eat the half coffee scroll I brought way back where Adelaide went to the Hospital, gazing out at the slanting rain and the river rushing by. When I set off again I see someone in the distance coming towards me. I cannot see the face but I am convinced it is Jan.  It is.  He tells me that he could not go all the way up his mountain because there was a storm. It had got more and more muddy and windy and mists now swathed the heights.  He said he had reached a shimmering red rhyolite valley  and had been gazing at it for 10 minutes when the mist descended and he had to turn back.  He described muddy, crumbling cliffs dropping straight down either side of the path and heavy rain. We walk back, collect Adelaide and go inside for coffee.  We are still undecided about whether to go on, but the cafe is still only serving waffles, apple pie and soup. They have even run out of waffles. It is also very crowded. This is enough to make our minds up for us.  We drink our coffee and set off.

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hours of driving over a bleak volcanic desert  plain before we come back down to sea level. We pass Gullfoss, which is the most famous falls in Iceland, and do not even stop because it is raining hard. We come to Geysir township, beg the closing servo restaurant for soup and sandwiches to take away and leave without waiting for the geyser to erupt.  It is still raining and we are cold and becoming too tired to decide anything.

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we continue doggedly, coming eventually to a town none of us like. It is pelting down and for the first time, the storm clouds overhead have produced something very close to night. I feel oppressed by the near darkness.  Jan finds the endless rain a downer. We look at the campsite and find it dilapidated, muddy and sodden and all but empty. We ask about sleeping bag accommodation but there is none.  We go to the Youth Hostel in town and are offered beds.  The price is high and the woman running the place has a rim of red wine stained spittle around her lips and her teeth are stained. We go to the car to talk it over but by the time we have decided we must stay, the reception is closed and no one is answering.  We are all tired and low and it is raining harder than ever.  Let’s go on, I say, impulsively, There is a town just on the other side of the river.

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we are in Hveragerdi.  The camping ground is sodden and it is now raining like hell. There is no one in reception, but the door is open and it is warm inside. There are showers and hot water.  That is enough to decide us. Jan heroically if grumpily builds the tents and I make Adelaide go and have a long hot shower as I help him.  When she returns, her tent is erected and she goes straight to bed.  She is disgruntled but warm enough in her sleeping bag, which is all that matters. The rain goes on and on.  I go and shower too, and bring Jan hot tea. He is sitting glum and disconsolate in the car, and will not be cheered up.  We go to bed  and despite the rain that goes on and on falling, the damp in the tent, the sodden piles of our clothes and boots, I feel content and warm, and we both sleep well.

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in the morning it is chilly but only spitting. The tents are sodden so we quickly dismantle them after stowing the still dry sleeping bags in the car.  We eat breakfast in the car and are all reasonably cheerful but when Jan proposes that instead of driving beyond  Reykjavik as planned, we enter the town and see if we can find a cheap place to stay the night.  ‘We can walk in the city, look in bookshops, drink coffee,’ he says.  Despite loving the wildness, camping has been tough enough that the idea seems lovely. Adelaide is elated.

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reykjavik is wonderful. Small, bohemian-cosmopolitan with a Scandinavian tinge, lots of great coffee shops and eating places, street buskers, bars, music shops.  It reminds me of Vancouver and Apollo Bay. We see a Backpackers Hostel in the main street and I propose getting accommodation there so that is dealt with early in the day. The hostel is charming and it has room for us. After checking in, we set off to get food. Two stores away from the Backpacker Hostel is a juice and sandwich shop.  I see a guy in the window eating a sandwich that makes my mouth water and insist we go here. The sandwiches are hideously expensive but sublime, as is the juice.  Adelaide had a strawberry, mango and watermelon juice (A Nice Guy), I have a mango, orange and pineapple juice (A Honey Bunny). Protesting the prices,  Jan has coffee. We walk on and find a dress for Adelaide, a T shirt for Jan, some jewelery and knitted gifts for friends and family. I buy myself a dress, too, and I get some Icelandic Chocolate for my friend and sub agent in Prague: a longstanding tradition between us. Adelaide finds an incredible pair of shoes and we lament that it is the last pair and too big. Jan  has gone off taking pictures, When he returns we walk down to the end of the long street and Jan and an anxious Icelandic man called Erwin are co opted by a Maori busker called Football Joe, who has a trick with soccer balls and a very high unicycle. It takes ages and Jan is surprisingly willing and relaxed. Not so poor worried Erwin who keeps getting complicated instructions back to front. Amazingly no one is injured. At last we are released to continue and we go back to the car, get out sleeping bags and bring them to the hostel, then we go out to eat.  There is a good place Jan found and after eating we are all sleepy.  We return to the hostel and Jan and Adelaide get into bed. I have a long long hot shower, then decide to shift the car because it is in a school ground and there is not another car parked there. This makes me nervous. As usual sleep never comes easily unless it is very very late and as well as being close by, it is still light, of course, but light. The street is still alive with people chatting and laughing and walking. The midnight sun is near to rising and after shifting the car then shifting it back to its original spot,  I go for a walk and take some pictures of the sky.  It is nearing 3 am and broad daylight when I go  to bed.

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we wake and go off for breakfast, revisiting the juice bar for drinks. This time I have a Nice Guy too. This is when Adelaide takes in our intention to spend the final two days on the Snaefells Peninsula.   ‘But why?  she asks with real horror.  ‘I mean, we are here! Why would you want to go out again?’  Because there are two nights left, we tell her. We can visit this other peninsula. She begs us to reconsider. We are merciless and bundle the sleeping bags and her back to the car and set off again.

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i loved the night in town, but I was already yearning again for the wildness and freshness and rigors of life away from people and towns and ordinary modern life.  I am becoming addicted to the intensity of living in the wild in weather that is incredibly changeable, I think.  Every day has been incredibly changeable. Both in landscape and in weather.  I love watching the sun set and rise, and then the mists come.  I do not want to waste another  precious day in a city, even one as small and funky as Reykjavik.

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the weather has been perfect and sunny the whole time we have been in Reykjavk but as we leave the city it begins to rain again. We drive 200 km hoping to outrun the sullen weather. We go through a 6 km tunnel that takes us under the water in Hvalfjordur, intending to stop at Arnarstappi. It is very claustrophobic. The tiny fishing hamlet offers a magnificent two hour cliff walk I was longing to do, but it is raining and raining and neither Jan or Adelaide want to do it or wait for me. I can’t blame them.  ‘Let’s try it from the next town,’ I say hopefully, for maybe by the time we get there the rain will stop and I can do the walk from the other direction.  It does not stop but I see a sign with a tent and suggest we camp the night.  Maybe the weather will be better the next day.  Only we can’t find the camping ground. At one point, I find myself entering a lavish modern hotel.  The people sitting around in the foyer are wealthy and remote and well dressed.  They regard me with faint surprise, as if  I was some sort of unexpected animal that had wandered in.  I thought how far these people were from the back packers and campers we have been meeting.  The velvet voiced concierge tells me there is no camping ground and all accommodation has been booked for a year in advance. We go on. None of us are tired and the unrelenting rain is depressing, but the day does not have that desolate quality of the one before Reykjavik.

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‘i feel like there is sun just behind the rain and the clouds,’ I say. Jan gives me a skeptical look but after a while he too admits the rain is lighter and the cloud thinning.  We drive on and on, in rising hope.  It is well after midnight now but daylight and the cloud keeps thinning and thinning until suddenly we are out of it!  The sky is blue and pure and though there is a brisk wind, the rain has stopped.  We round the end of the peninsula and begin to travel East along the top of it.  We pass one town without stopping and then reach windy but beautiful Hellissandur, where we can see a camping ground full of caravans. The place is unstaffed but there is room for tents and is not raining.  Jan and Adelaide set up the tents. As he blows up the self inflating bed a little more, he points out to Adelaide that she will be sleeping on his breath

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the showers are hot and unrestricted and they both shower while I make spagetti.  Adelaide has a second helping, which I take as a triumph.  I clean up though Jan has urged me to leave it to morning and he will do it.  But the night seems too swift and silky and beautiful to abandon. They go to bed, but I cannot sleep- do not want to sleep. I make a cup of tea and drink it watching clouds fleet    like fish across the sky and a blue sheen on the horizon of the sea. A white cat appears sniffing at Adelaide’s tent and then it slinks across the gnarled lava outcrops rising from the round all around us.  I repack my clothes and bin all that will have to be binned from the food supplies, aware I don’t want this last night of camping to end.

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i wake early and the sun is shining brightly. With a sense of utter contentment, I take a long shower, do some more packing and sorting and make tea. I  sit in the sun and read my kindle until Jan and Adelaide wake. ‘Hop in the tent and throw out the sleeping bags,’ I tell Adelaide when she comes back from showering. ‘There will be no hopping involved,’ she says severely. I give them breakfast and we all pull down the tents, packing everything well because there will be no more camping.  This the the last day and as we have an early flight, we have decided to tough it out and take our time going back to Keflavik, then sleep at the airport for a few hours. Only as we are departing, does it begin to rain lightly.

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feeling triumphant and content, we set off again, and do not stop until  Stykkisholmur where we have out one token gourmet meal.  It is wonderful and well worth the price. Jan is full and sleepy and wants to rest for an hour.  Adelaide wants to mess with her guitar so I leave them in the car and set off to explore the town. I climb a bulbous tor of stone rising over the harbour and visit the enormous  modern church, marveling at the futuristic aspect of Icelandic churches. The cathedral in Reykjavik looked like a temple to the Emperor of Alpha Centauri.

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we set off again, and waste time sitting in various servos.  ‘What if you met the love of your life in one of those tiny places we went though?’  I say to Adelaide. ”Imagine having to live there forever.’ ‘He can come and live with me,’ she said firmly. My work is done, I think, grinning to myself. One servo overlooks the sea and we spend a long time there, Adelaide eating a pizza and Jan and I drinking coffee after coffee. Finally  we head off and stop in Reykjavik where we spend an irritating, difficult, wearisome hour trying to get everything back into the three suitcases. This is difficult because it is raining hard and we are tired and puzzled how there can be any difficulty when we have less than we started out with. Finally, we set off for the airport  It is nearing three am and we are about an hour from the airport when there is a spectacular road accident in front of us.  Jan, driving, does not see it happen because he is concentrating on the road directly ahead of us.  But Adelaide, gazing into the distance, saw a car hit a light pole and all but explode into pieces.  We avoid the car fragments only because she warns us, and pull up. I am sick with fear that I will find someone badly injured or dead, but amazingly, despite the shattered car, two tough looking men get out the cabin, which is intact.  I have the impression they are Russians but they might be Icelandic.   I have found that English spoken with an Icelandic accent i sounds like many languages. Irish, Russian. One of the men  is trying to get us to agree he was not speeding. We tell him only Adelaide saw what happened.  He comes to the car to talk to her and sees she is a child. She tells him she only saw the car bits flying out.  Another car is coming and I run to flag it to slow down.  A woman gets out of it and helps me shift the shrapnel off the road. We flag down several other cars to stop them running into the wreck, before the police arrive.  One of the men in the accident called them.  There is an ambulance and they load up the man with the black eye and the cut head- this is the only injury I can see.  A tall, movie star handsome policemen learns that we cannot offer any useful information  Jan frowns and later tells me they flew by him and he was doing the speed limit.

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we continue to the airport and sleep two hours before we finish packing.  I clean the car up inside as Jan and Adelaide take the luggage inside,  where it is warm. The hire car man is late so we check in, then we have coffee and croissants.  I keep going to look for the man from Borgun. It is five minutes to seven and we have to pass through customs but he has not arrrived.  I call and learn he mistook the time.  He is five minutes away and tells me to put the keys under the seat and leave the car unlocked.  I do, reluctantly. Twenty minutes later, boarding our flight,  I call to confirm he has the car. I tell him about the horn, which we now know toots whenever it feels like it, the leaking roof window, the loud whine from the clutch whenever it is not engaged at a higher gear. I tell him it went fine and thank him. I look out the window as the Icelandic Air plane taxis along the runway, wishing we were at the beginning of the trip. Now we will go back to day and night, I think. The long dreamy day in Iceland is over. The road is bending homeward – back to reality.

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i feel sad.

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Taken at the Flood

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there is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

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over a decade ago, in 2002, river Vltava flooded.

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people called it a Hundred Year Flood (some said Four Hundred Year Flood) meaning a flooding so extreme that it occurs only once in a hundred (or four hundred ) years.

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 it was a truly strange time. 

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back then, I lived with my partner in the enormous, shabby glamour of his fifth floor family apartment. Much of Prague city center had been drowned, blacked out and evacuated. We, on the periphery of the center, were also beginning to be evacuated. In the end, as it transpired, we were not forced to leave because our apartment building was on a hump in the street, which lofted us above the high water mark.

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when I leaned out the window before most of the street was flooded, I saw people moving and meeting in clots and singly in a slow chaotic dance that bore little resemblance to the purposeful hither and thither of normal days  Even at that distance, it was possible to see something had changed.

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later, when we went out to try to find out if we were required to evacuate, we called into one of the cafes higher up where many people gathered, with their dripping umbrellas and raincoats, talking from table to table, sharing news. To understand the strangeness of this, you have to live in Prague and learn how neighbors barely acknowledge one another the way strangers do not speak to you unless you force the issue.  Yet here they were not only talking, but smiling.  There was a curious sense of solidarity in the day, and also a distinct, almost festival air of excitement, that I felt as static electricity on my skin.

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 a decade later, it is raining again.

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now,  we live on the third floor, in an apartment building several streets higher than before, though in the same district. The predictions of flooding are less dire and this time, the city is ready.  It took five years after the last flood, to install a system of barriers along the river, and although the city moved sluggishly enough tin setting them up that the Kampa was once again submerged before they managed to activate the barriers, all have now been set up.  They are not so much designed to hold back the river as to redirect it back to its course, as much as that can be managed. Besides the barriers, everywhere you see banks of hoses connected to pumps, all pointing into the river. There are sandbag barriers around many buildings. All of the Metro stations and many low-lying roads are closed. Tram routes have been torturously and in some cases inefficiently altered. Some routes see trams running empty while on others, every tram is packed like a sardine tin. Police with fluttering tape barriers, man those streets where the river had begun to invade the city. This seems an absurdity for what does the river care for uniforms and police tape?  Each day the police cars sit higher and the tape barrier is moved.

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it rains non stop for days.

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my daughter goes by bus to Croatia. One thousand kilometres and she reports that it rained all the way. One thousand kilometres of rain is a lot of rain, my partner murmurs.  And all the while it rains on Prague.

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one day, sick of reports and unsteady footage on the internet, I take a walk to the Vltava.  It is wide and brown and smoothly fast in places, churned to caramel in others. Barrels and sticks and oddments of flotsum float by. Along the edges tree tops shudder as the river creeps higher up their trunks and plucks at their foliage with a bullying playfulness. The water looks strangely bare and then I realise it is bereft of boats save for one lumbering two story Botel lashed to the shore on the other side, its gangplanks half submerged. There are a lot of people doing what I am doing, coming to look, taking photos and film clips with camera and phones and ipods.

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again I am struck by the general sense of suppressed excitement and the unspoken hunger for more. As if this flood is a story that is unfolding, and spectators are caught up in a desire to know what is going to happen next. They want the next installment.

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along the river bulky, official looking men with number 2 razor bark into two way radios. People line the barriers and bridges, peer and point. ‘Remember 2002,’ they say and then they tell where they were and what they saw.  My partner says later, marveling, that every single person he had passed was discussing the river.

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they are waiting for something to happen, I think. Of course they don’t want it to be anything very bad, but you get the feeling that the current level of flooding is not quite dangerous enough to feed their illicit and unspoken hunger. The tourists whose holidays have been blighted at least want something for their money. A little danger and drama, some good pictures.

 

‘we are very disappointed,’ one couple on their anniversary trip from London are reported as saying.

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the sound of police and ambulance sirens are constant.  They are evacuating the hospital nearest the river. Later, we hear they have begun to evacuate the zoo- two tigers escaped for a short time before sleep darts put an end to their adventure. I try to imagine how it was, to be briefly free in the drowned world.

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my partner tells me they have evacuated many animals already and none were harmed but a flamingo that broke a leg. He tells me a complicated story about a flood tower at the zoo through which tranquilized gorillas were passed up to a higher enclosure. The alpha male gorilla is furious and attacks the keepers who try to feed them.

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i can’t help but remember the most tragic moment of the last flood, when an old and grumpy elephant unable to be moved, was fed buns by a weeping zoo director until he had to be shot because otherwise he would have drowned.

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people died in that last flood, too.  Not many, though that would be little comfort to the bereaved. People have died this time, too; one an old woman whose house collapsed around her, two whose raft was overturned.  There are pictures circulating on the internet of the waters flowing over the river banks, covering streets, drowning signs and statues with a kind of magnificent, blank, brown disregard.

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today I go out because I have promised to meet a friend.  It is chilly and damp and dark and rain is falling. I think to cut over the hill through Letna Park so I can see the river for myself. To my surprise, there is police tape forbidding entry to the park. I remember that my partner told me the much lower Stromovka Park which runs to the Zoo, is closed. There are policemen stationed at the entrance with their tape barriers to ensure no one enters.  I remember that last flood, the whole of Stromovka Park was dramatically under water, and afterwards many trees fell or developed rot which required them to be cut down. The park was never the same afterwards.  The flood tamed it. Yet now, standing at the rim of Letna which is too high to be troubled by flood waters, people are forbidden and as I gazed into the dark, still, quiet under the trees, bereft of humans, the air seemed suddenly strangely dense and wild to me.

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this is what Little Fur came from, I remember, ten years ago.  That other flood and the disruption of it – a city cracked open to reveal a hidden wildness. The sense of the inexorable potency of nature roused, which foolish humans forget to take into account.  As I turn to seek another way to the part of the city I want to reach, on the other side of the river, I hear someone say in English that it is a disaster. There is distinct excitement threaded through the voice and I think yet again how there is something about disaster that thrills us, tasteless though it might seem.

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perhaps it is because, for a time, normality is broken and in the cracks things can happen that could never otherwise have done so.

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i remember once, back when I was a journalist, someone telling me that there had been a significant spike in divorces and separations after the Ash Wednesday fires. I had been commenting on the divorce of a couple about whom I had done a feature article some years before.  The woman had been an artist and the man an incredible wood worker.  They had lived in a mudbrick house in the Otways and had seemed blissfully happy and creative. But after their house burned down, they divorced. It was not a matter of money, because there was insurance, but it turns out this is a common statistical aftermath of any disaster. It is not so much that the disaster or even the destruction and financial hardship it produces, causes the estrangement of couples. It is that disaster produces unexpected possibilities. The chance to change paths and try a different life.

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for some, it opens a crack through which they can fall and disappear, perhaps never knowing until that moment how they desired to escape their lives. Another statistic in the wake of disaster is a rise in disappearances.

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for others disaster provokes change simply because it produces extreme situations that force us to see aspects of ourselves (or of others) that would never have revealed themselves in ordinary circumstances: Fortitude or patience or kindness or compassion or courage or cowardice.

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of course for some, sometimes for many, disaster can mean an end- to love or wealth or a way of life or a certain life or to life itself.

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it strikes me that writing fantasy, in many ways, attempts to do what disaster does. To fracture reality in order to produce extreme situations in which things that would not ordinarily come to light, are revealed.

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