Earlier this week, I was stood on the edge of a volcano watching my publisher run down into it. This is not a metaphor.
I was near the summit of Mount Etna with Ra Page from Comma Press and writers Robin Yassin-Kassab and Julian Gough. The walk up had been tough – a 45-degree slope of black volcanic marbles that rolled away beneath our feet. Etna was smothered in cloud, so you couldn’t see more than 10 metres ahead or behind. The cloud dampened all sound, giving the whole place an otherworldly feel. Black rock. White cloud. And us.
There are dozens of craters all over Etna, at one time spitting fiery gobs of lava up into the air, but now cold. We four stood on the edge of one of these craters, looking down into it.
And then Ra started running down the slope.
At first I was all, like, WTF? The inside slope of the crater was seriously steep. It was full of cloud and you couldn’t see the bottom. The surface was composed of the same marble-like lava chunks we’d had to struggle with to get up here, along with lots of large and jagged rocks ideal for cracking open skulls.
And then Robin ran down behind Ra. Both of them disappearing into the mist. Julian and I were in the same state of WTF, reasoning that while it was possible to climb down, climbing back up again would be extremely difficult/dangerous/require a rescue helicopter.
Ra and Robin continued down. Wind cleared away the clouds. And then Ra called up from the bottom, ‘It’s full of hats.’
The prospect of hats was too exciting to miss, so Julian and I headed into the crater too.
I skidded half the way down in a squatting position, the soles of my boots providing little grip, thinking the whole time that Naomi was going to go ape shit if I died in a volcano. She was at a cafe further down Mount Etna with writers KJ Orr and Annie Kirby – the three of them had only brought flimsy sandals to Sicily – footwear that had foiled their attempts to climb up the steep slope and caused the group to divide into boy-girl teams.
Now I was doing stupid boy stuff. Charging into a volcano. Shitting my pants about cracking my head open.
But then I got to the bottom of the crater, where the ground was flat and the prospect of climbing back up was still a little while away. There was a field of hats to explore.
We each chose hats. I took an extra one for Naomi. It was a terrific thrill to be stood at the bottom of a crater, looking up at the rim far above. I’d grazed my wrist on the way down and there was blood, making this a proper adventure. We talked about how it reminded us of the scene from The Prestige where hats accumulate in the woods outside the laboratory of Nikola Tesla.
We guessed that the terrific wind atop the mountain regularly blows people’s hats off and carries them down to the bottom and that the steepness of the descent puts most people off ever retrieving them.
It was a weird, brilliant, scary-as-hell moment, and unless Ra had unhesitatingly charged into the crater, I would never have done it. As I’m always saying, thank goodness for adventurous, fearless, independent publishers.