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What a Glorious Day

The Other Side of Paradise

All’s Well That Ends Well

Photo by Yosh Ginsu on Unsplash

It’s not a part of anyone’s daily routine to know exactly what the next steps are, after your home is covered in volcanic ash so thick that all the garden plants lose their leaves and everything is left resembling a lunar landscape, with small and tall trunks sticking up out of the earth, like thumbs and fingers and arms, a sort of frozen in time whack-a-mole of headless bodies.

When the volcano blew, I was in New York, and my grandmother had been in Florida, visiting an aunt who was ill. While there, she decided that the aunt needed her for an extended period, so she bought a trailer home in the trailer park where the aunt lived, and set up camp.

After much contemplation and discussions with my grandmother about this situation — which yielded a mixed bag of suggestions, as she was in the early stages of a rapidly progressing dementia, I determined that we ought to travel back to the island to retrieve the valuables in the house. No one knew when, or if, we’d ever be able to visit or live there again, so it seemed prudent to go empty the house as best we could.

It wasn’t an easy trip. I assembled a team of about 8 people. Everyone agreed to help with the “mission” of helping Nana retrieve her most treasured belongings, or sell what was no longer needed. After 30 years of life in paradise, this was a heartbreaking task. How do you decide, in the span of a week?

My grandparents had retired and lived for 30 years on the island of Montserrat, this absolutely pristine paradise of a tiny island, nestled in the Leeward chain of the Caribbean string.

Near the end of that period, the island’s famous volcano, the Soufriere, erupted. It had been a fabulous tourist destination prior to the eruption, with a spectacular waterfall and benign hissing sulphur holes that local Rastafarians could charge a tidy fee to be a sherpa for the day, guiding tourists on rugged paths to see these sights.

We were all left stunned about what to do, what to save, and how this would all work.

I rented a gorgeous villa. Sun and surf and tropical pleasantries, rum and cokes and a pool just a step away from the exit door to the deck beckoned for our attention every day. Steel drum bands and barbecues on the beach called for us at night. Maintaining focus was challenging at best.

I made arrangements with the local government and enforcement authorities to get permission to go into the “zone,” where the house was. This had originally been strictly closed, and after years of the government and scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory or MVO for short, monitoring the activity of the monster, they loosened restrictions and allowed us to apply for “day passes.” I got one, hired a car, and with an early morning start, we drove down the road for the team’s first look at the damages.

It was not my first look. I had been there shortly after the first explosion. This was the team’s first look, and by this time, a lot of the life in the plants had started to return.

We got to the gate across the road, marking the zone’s boundary. Driving into the zone was an adventure. Electric was all turned off, and lines were down everywhere. Water had not been turned off, and broken pipes leaked a steady stream of water across roads. Animals had taken over the land, having busted free from fencing, or more likely, released by the Rastafarians who either owned them, or now claimed the abandoned ones. The brush was dense, and driving down the middle of the road was the only way to protect the sides of the car.

Our team of four arrived at the house. Half of us stayed behind at the villa, and their job was to work on other things, play cards and entertain my grandmother, or just relax and do meal planning for the week.

That evening however, we had made plans for a nice dinner with friends of my grandmother. The dinner was set for 6 pm.

Arriving at the house, I had two sets of keys in hand — one set for the house, and the other set for the rented car.

We unlocked the gate, then the door of the house, entered and assessed the damage.

I was excited to be there. Thirty years of fond memories of time spent with my grandparents flooded my mind, and as I walked through the rooms now overrun with termite trails and vine roots crawling up and down the walls, all I could see were the happy moments. What it looked like to me, in my mind, was infinitely more beautiful than what my friends on the extraction mission saw.

I started to take them on a tour of the house, like you would for a new buyer, telling the stories of things that had happened in each space. Then we went out to the door that led to the pool.

The pool had never been drained. The deck was covered with overly large frogs. Some were sticking their heads out of the water, and others were sunning themselves. It was a frog paradise now.

They jumped away as we walked onto the deck. The pool was a gray color, like a giant pond, with volcano silt many feet deep at the bottom, and no way to visually tell exactly how deep it actually was. I remembered doing lazy laps, and diving into this pool. What a mess it was now. There was no saving the pool on this trip.

I took my friends to the edge of the deck. The view had always been spectacular. I remembered all the times standing there with my grandfather, watching the egrets come in at sunset to roost at the island’s bird sanctuary below us, or to watch the sunset itself, with invited guests, who’d come for dinner and cocktails.

In my excitement about the “house tour,” when we got to the edge of the deck with the glorious view of the Caribbean Sea at our feet, I raised my arms in a wide gesture and exclaimed, “Just look at that spectacular view,” and in that moment of broadly sweeping in the landscape in a sort of virtual hug, the keys for the rented car, which had been in my hand the entire time as I scurried around playing tour guide, left my hand and slipped away from my fingertips as if in slow motion, heading directly into a trajectory to the pool, where they slid into the murky depths to become frog food.

We all stood there, frozen, looking at each other.

Did that just really happen?

Shit. Yes. It did. We were in a closed zone, at a house with no electricity, running water, or telephone, and definitely no cell phones. This was way before cell phones were compact and ubiquitous. No one had one.

With a dinner appointment at 6 pm, and no way to drive out, we immediately set to thinking about how we would retrieve the keys.

Quickly finding out what tools we had to work with, that hadn’t been pilfered in the years the house remained unoccupied, yielded a bucket, some rope, a rake and a few other items that might be useful.

We started lifting out buckets of wet, heavy volcanic ash, from what we thought was the general vicinity that the keys dropped into, dumping them onto the pool deck, and raking through each bucket full to see if we found them. We had no idea if the keys would have rested on top of all that silt, or fell to the bottom of the pool. We could only hope, and try.

At some point someone asked if we might find a second bucket.

This went on for HOURS.

The sun started to go down.

DINNER was waiting! How long would it take to hike out of the zone? We had to be out before sunset. And we still had not retrieved the keys.

We decided we needed to hike our way out, through the wires, and water and brush. We did not arrive at our host’s house until 2 hours after the appointed dinner time. We’d had no way to notify anyone of our dilemma. There was no rescue party coming to look for us.

When we got to their house, covered in dirt and ash, sweat and slime, we meekly knocked on the door, and relayed our story. They took pity on us, gave us some leftovers from what I’m sure would have been a divine dinner party, and drove us back to our rented villa.

The next day, we contacted the rental car company. Surprisingly, they did not have a spare set of keys! They gave us a ride back into the house, and we set about scooping out pool slop once again. At one point my best friend for college who was on the expedition with me, went in search of a hose, and out of desperation, stuck one end into the pool and sucked the other end to start a water siphon. Now that’s a BFF right there.

When we finally recovered those keys, it felt like we had all won the lotto. We celebrated with tired congratulations, drove the car back to our villa and sat on the clean pool deck, after changing into swimming suits and grabbing our rum and cokes.

I don’t know how everyone maintained their composure. I still can’t believe it happened. But to this day, my car keys never leave my jacket pocket or my handbag. I no longer walk around with car keys in my hands. I am at no risk of misplacing car keys, ever again.

Thanks to Amy Sea and Toni Crowe for their feedback on this piece.

This short essay was written in our weekly writer’s workshop hosted by the Garden of Neuro Institute, a space for women to find their voice, share their stories, be published and feel supported. Join us there and be inspired!

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Susan Brearley

EIC-MuddyUm-Contemplate. Serial Top Writer. Writing comedy since Age 3. Founder, Garden of Neuro Institute-global space for women's agency and leadership.