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[The scenario presented in the following tale has no basis in scientific fact. Ed]

The sky had filled with birds. The empty wails and screeches of seagulls almost drowned out the noise of the midday traffic on Nicholson street. Aimlessly dipping and peaking, they appeared to be congregating away from Holyrood Park. As Grzegorz approached Arthur’s Seat, he was mildly surprised to see a fox trot past him and hurriedly thread its way across the road. Oddly, it seemed to be heading in the direction of the city centre. And then songbirds were suddenly agitating around Grzegorz’s head – bombarding him with shrill, urgent tweets – before they rose and trailed away in a tiny disorderly mob, across the road and off – like the fox – towards the city.

Whenever he got time off work, Grzegorz would leave the city and go hang-gliding in the hills, but today he is taking his laptop to the plain behind Salisbury Crags. The words “Arthur’s Seat” may bring to the mind’s eye an array of mud-coloured, picturesque lumps, but one needs to approach the great theatre between the Crags and Arthur’s Seat to learn the true character of the place; and its soaring sense of space and stillness and ominous awareness. Grzegorz felt this today, and he hummed as the peaks loomed up around him and that sense of the ominous growled inaudibly.

Grzegorz was a bright lad – a bimbo with few definite views on anything – who only seemed to fully concentrate on the world when he had been amused or provoked by some very technical problem. The purpose of his PhD was to create a time-lapse computer animation – an hour or so of footage – of the thirteen primordial volcanic eruptions which had shrunken the great Lion’s Haunch Crater into the shell that remains today. What had propelled these rocks in that direction? How fast had this lava stream flowed down the mountainside? Answering these questions was sheer food to Grzegorz and today he had decided to investigate the origins of a long yellow stain at the base of Whinny Hill.

Dead seagulls lay in little untidy heaps on the rocks around him. Fringes of vegetation dangled limply from the hillside. Grzegorz whistled, impressed. And then he noticed a chimney of smoke rising from the tip of Arthur’s Seat. Grzegorz was not to know that numerous people had climbed Arthur’s Seat that morning – cogs from Holyrood offices on their midday jogging circuits; overdressed tourists undertaking the famed ascent to the peak; a crocodile of kindergarten tots in fluorescent yellow jackets on a picnicking-adventure – and that none of them would ever come down again.

There was a little musical flourish as Grzegorz’s laptop started up. Grzegorz despaired as the computer produced a succession of urgent announcements stating that it could not detect an internet connection around the hillside. Once the laptop had settled down, Grzegorz opened up the seismograph application.

Wild graphs and pie charts appeared. It seemed that a chamber of magma was forming beneath Arthur’s Seat and that the pressure was building to a truly terrible degree. “Alert Status: Desperate!” the laptop warned. “This program has encountered a problem and will now close.”

Grzegorz whipped out his phone and called directory enquiries.

“Can you get me the number of the Prime Minister… err, Downing Street?” He frowned. The woman at the other end of the line was not being particularly helpful. Grzegorz found his mind wandering to consider the various scenarios which could unfold when the peak erupted, and suddenly, inexplicably, he recalled an incident which had occurred when he was nine years old and a pupil at a primary school in Lodz. He had made a large papier-mâché volcano – with an internal pump which dispensed tomato-ketchup lava – but he had underestimated the force of this pump and, in a demonstration before the class, Grzegorz had blasted ketchup across the classroom ceiling. The janitor had estimated that it would cost tens of thousands of zloty to repair the damage to the ceiling and Grzegorz had been beaten so viciously by his father that he had lost the ability to speak for several weeks.

After being kept “on hold” for about fifteen minutes – throughout which Grzegorz had quivered with a subdued incandescence – he got through to a lady with an Oxbridge accent, who sounded very drunk and who could not seem to concentrate on the telephone call. Grzegorz hung up. He next phoned his girlfriend.

“Agniezska?”

“Gregor!” she exclaimed. “Where are you? I’m watching on the news about the Queen and her party at the palace! And guess what? She’s chosen the green hat!”

“Agniezska… I want you to get the next train to Glasgow.”

“Glasgow? What do you mean Gregor?”

“What did you say about the Queen?”

“About the Queen? About her garden party, Gregor! Why do you want me to go to Glasgow?”

“Forget about Glasgow. Get over here – to Arthur’s Seat – and bring the bag I packed for the weekend. The bag I packed for the weekend!” As Grzegorz hung up, a deep rumbling rose from the peak.

It took Agniezska about half an hour to totter over to Arthur’s Seat, dragging the great bag behind her. “I was attacked by these seagulls,” she moaned, kicking her heels off. “And they were screaming at me, Gregor. Screaming.” Grzegorz kissed her to quiet her down and together they walked over to the edge of Salisbury Crags, lugging the great holdall after them.

At Holyrood Palace, the Queen was beginning the first walkabout of the afternoon. Her face was clenched into an unpleasant smile, and her eyes were cold and very beady. Her eight thousand or so party guests waited and sipped their tea and nibbled at their sandwich rations. The monarch was at the far end of the garden, away from the gazebo where the catering firm hired for the day were dispensing tea. She was shaking hand after hand and mechanically making agreeable remarks, when Grzegorz leapt off the top of the Salisbury Crags in his glider. He dipped over Holyrood Park – across the road that runs around Arthur’s Seat – and into the Queen’s garden.

There was pandemonium in the garden, as the guests exclaimed and put down their tea and generally retreated, whilst armed security guards gathered to attack the intruder. As bullets zipped past Grzegorz – one popping into his thigh – he remained intent upon getting the right woman. When he saw the Queen, he fell from his glider and grabbed her. Both were thrown roughly to the floor.

“Your majesty!” Grzegorz cried. “Your majesty! Arthur’s Seat is going to erupt! Millions of the peoples will be killed! You must evacuate the city immediately! You must telephone the army! Everyone will die!” He was still screaming these things into her blank face when they got to him and dragged him away. He was still screaming – now to the unresponsive security guards – when they manhandled him on to the stretcher. They broke both of his arms getting him into the security jacket.

“Your hat, your majesty,” the Lord Chamberlain murmured. The Queen had muddied her knees when she had been thrown to the ground, and as the minders buzzed around her, scrubbing and disinfecting, her eyes fell on the chimney of smoke billowing from the top of Arthur’s Seat.

“The mountain will explode?” she asked stupidly.

“A student,” the Lord Chamberlain replied. “I don’t think that was anything significant. Shall we… err… crack on with the party?”

The Queen could not take her eyes from the tower of smoke. Arthur’s Seat was always described as an “extinct” volcano, but could a volcano ever really become extinct?, the Queen wondered. How does a dormant volcano become an extinct volcano? The Queen, however, was being led back to her guests. “What a nice little girl,” she said robotically to an eager-looking child. The child’s mother beamed.

There was a distant rumbling.

“Thunder your majesty?” a guest despaired. “And it’s been such a lovely day…”

“Indeed. Shall we go into the gazebo?” The Queen found herself trying to recall the name of the head of the army.

“Your majesty, more guests are waiting over here,” the Lord Chamberlain reminded her.

“It’s rather chilly. I would prefer it in the gazebo,” the Queen said. The Lord Chamberlain cleared his throat in disapproval.

Occasionally a head would move out of the way – or a parasol would be lowered – and the column of smoke would still be there. The Queen needed some time to herself, to reflect upon what the student had told her. But her subjects would not give her a moment’s peace, and so she briskly chatted with them, scarcely able to conceal her irritation.

The Lord Chamberlain was muttering instructions into his wrist. What was up with the monarch? She had been in the gazebo for almost twenty minutes now. She had possibly been upset by the young man in the hang-glider, although it was uncharacteristic of the Queen to react to such disturbances. Maybe they should take her inside and tidy her up a bit. Give her a glass of water, let her take off those gloves for a minute.

And then the sun came out. The Queen’s private secretary emerged from the gazebo, out into the garden and in full view of Arthur’s Seat.

“Sir Henry!” the Queen’s voice cut through the party with a peculiar firmness. “Come back here, into the gazebo!”

“Your majesty?”

“I want you in the gazebo,” the Queen insisted.

This was a crisis, the Lord Chamberlain fumed. The Queen was being troublesome, the guests were bewildered. He barked a further order into his wrist. One of the security men discreetly approached the Queen and slipped a hypodermic into her neck. She barely blinked. The private secretary took one elbow and the Lord Chamberlain took the other. They were now conducting her out of the gazebo, into the garden. The guests smiled at her in encouragement.

But suddenly the Lord Chamberlain became aware that the Queen was resisting. She was murmuring and shaking her head as Arthur’s Seat came into view. They hastily returned her to the gazebo.

“Concentrate, your majesty!” the Lord Chamberlain hissed. Another hypodermic was administered.

“You want more tea, lady?” a girl from the catering agency asked.

What would they say? the Queen wondered from somewhere within her drugged brain. She was the only one who knew – who had been explicitly warned of the catastrophe – and after the city had been destroyed, the people would turn on her and the monarchy. She should call the head of the army, if she could only remember the blasted chap’s name. How on earth did one evacuate a city? However she brought the subject up, she knew that her staff would just blink at her, or ignore her, or march her off for a lie down. And as she was again led out of the gazebo – into the sunshine and the full view of Arthur’s Seat – she was suddenly struck with a powerful sense of dread. Like a pig smelling the abattoir, she bolted.

“Your majesty!” the Lord Chamberlain barked, chapping his hands.

The Queen ran. Minders and security men were in pursuit, but they were uncertain of how to handle the monarch once they had captured her. The Lord Chamberlain and the private secretary were herding the guests towards the far end of the garden.

“Her majesty is unwell,” the Lord Chamberlain explained, laughing desperately. There was a dull boom from the peak of Arthur’s Seat.

The Queen’s minders were circling her – arms outstretched – but she was too quick for them. She grabbed hold of a stretch of canvas flapping overhead and hauled herself up. The minders watched – frozen with horror and disbelief – as the Queen, her legs kicking furiously, clambered up on to the roof of the gazebo. She was then still for a moment; perhaps she wished to rest after her exertion or perhaps she was astonished to find herself up on the gazebo. She clung to the striped canvas, before edging up along the roof; away from the minders and security men and guests who were now all trying to coax her back down.

“Do anything! Pull the gazebo down!” the Lord Chamberlain ranted.

A sustained rumbling rose from the peak of Arthur’s Seat. The whole hillside was now smoking and the sky above it was dark and churning, leaving the city below flickering in a violet light. On the roof of the gazebo, the Queen sat up, turned to face the mountain, and began to howl. It was a deep, guttural, animal noise and all who heard it were appalled. And then lava was slopping over the edge of the Salisbury Crags and the party dispersed, the guests fleeing for their lives. The peak was now fully erupting and ejaculations of liquid fire were splattering spectacularly up through the sky. In odd pops and bursts and explosions, masses of rock was blown from the peak. Boulders came crashing down through roofs in Newington and Marchmont. Poisoned gas wafted through the streets of Leith, killing thousands. The churning black sky was now touching the very rooftops of the city and scalding ash was raining down upon the terrified populous. Rivers of molten rock surged deep into the city and by mid afternoon, most of the city centre had burned to the ground. Nothing was left of Holyrood Palace and the new Parliament. Edinburgh Castle shimmered alone above a sea of fire.

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