Friday, November 7, 2014

The Convoy

John put his glass of water down on the counter. He watched as the surface of the liquid vibrated for a moment then stilled. And then it vibrated again, even more violently than the first time. He frowned. The quakes were getting worse. Bill, the man behind the counter, saw his look and laughed.
'What are you worried about man? This island has always had the shakes! Sometimes they're bad; sometimes they're not so bad.'
'Right now they're pretty bad,' said John.
'They'll calm down. They always do,' said Bill. John grunted and went back to looking at the menu. But he had a hard time thinking about food; he had a bad feeling about the way the quakes were increasing and his stomach was shaking almost as badly as the island. He turned to look out the plate glass window of the diner at the volcano at the centre of the island. It didn't look any different to the way it had looked all his life. His shook his head. What did he expect living on an island with a volcano? Bill was right. Sometimes the shakes were bad, sometimes they weren't; but they always calmed down. That's what everybody said.

So why didn't he believe it any more?

He noticed a man with long white hair and a beard stapling a sheet of paper to the pole outside the window. He was wearing brown robes and carried a staff.
'What's his story?' he said to Bill, nodding towards the man. By way of answer, Bill reached under the counter and pulled out a flier and slapped it down on the counter in front of him.
'A lunatic,' said Bill. 'He's been sticking those up and handing them out all over the island.'
John picked it up and looked at it. It was an A4 sheet of yellow paper, with a small picture of Jesus on the Cross at the top and some writing below. It was a bit blurred, probably from photocopies of photocopies being photocopied thought John, but still legible. The message of the text was stark.
'Time is running out. I know a way to leave the island. I can open a secret passage that begins at the grove at the bottom of Oak Mountain and leads to safety. Bring your vehicle and plenty of fuel. It is a long journey. I'll meet you there Monday at noon. Wait if I'm not there; I may be late because I still have a lot of fliers to post. But don't be late yourself because we'll leave as soon as I get there. I'm the only one who can open the secret door and it will close behind us. So, again, don't be late; and wait if I am delayed.'
It was signed 'Fr Mark.'
'Crazy, right?' said Bill. 'I mean, this island is always shaking.' As if to prove his point the ground beneath them trembled, rattling cups and plates in the diner. John's water slopped out of his glass.
'See what I mean?' said Bill, as the trembling stopped. 'Whoa! That was a big one though! But it stopped - like it always has and always will. Right?'
'Like it always has and always will,' said John.
'So what'll you have?'
John looked at his watch. It was nearly ten. He stood up.
'I think I'll skip breakfast today. This is Monday right?'
'All day. You got to be somewhere?'
'I think so.'

John had no family so it didn't take him long to get ready. He looked around his house and realised that if he couldn't take everything he might as well take nothing. So he just grabbed his old photo album, packed a few changes of clothes, and threw them into the back of his four-by-four. He drove down to the petrol station and filled the tank. As he was putting the nozzle back on the pump he remembered what the flier said about bringing plenty of fuel. And what if Fr Mark was late? It got very cold around Oak Mountain this time of year; he might have to run the engine for heat. So he bought some jerry cans as well and filled them up too, enough to fill the tank again if he had to. He bought some food as well. And then he headed for the meeting place. 

 He arrived about 15 minutes ahead of the deadline. He drove down the narrow dirt road that led into the grove of small stunted oaks that gave the mountain its name until he came to a small clearing at the end. There were 8 vehicles already there and three more arrived over the course of the next few minutes. Nobody got out. When the clock on his dash said noon there was no sign of Fr Mark. He got out and walked to the centre of the clearing. Over the course of the next few minutes the others joined him. Most were families with children; there were three older couples, two with dogs; he was the only one on his own. It wasn't until the last person had joined the group that anyone spoke.
'So where is he?' He was a stocky man with a bright red shirt. His face was only a couple of shades lighter. 'Where's this prophet who's going to lead us to the promised land?'
'He said he might be late,' said John.
'Yeah? And how long do we wait?' demanded the man. John shrugged. They all stood, staring at each other.
'This is stupid,' said the man in red. 'We're going.' He turned and stomped back to his car.
'Honey,' said his wife, following after him, 'he did say we should wait if he was late. Don't you think we should wait a while?'
'No,' said the man. 'I think we should get in the car and go. Get in, kids.' He opened the door and two small children climbed in.
'But, honey, what if he's right? What if time is running out? Isn't that why we're here, because we believe him?'
'It's just foolishness,' said the man. 'There's no problem. This place has always had a few shakes. But they've always gone away.'
'Always have done and always will, right?' said John. The man glared at him.
'That right.' The he glared at his wife. 'You coming?' After a moment's hesitation she got in and he roared off, much too fast for a street car on that kind of road.
'So what now?' said another man, tall and lean, dressed in faded denim. He was looking at John. John was vaguely annoyed. Why did people expect him to have any answers? He didn't know any more than they did. But he answered the question anyway.
'I guess we wait.' He went and sat down by his car on the grass in the shade of one of the oaks.

The day passed. When evening came those who had brought food shared with those who hadn't. As full dark started to set in, another car left, this one with one of couples with dogs. It was starting to get cold now.
'Maybe we should light a fire?' said one of the women. She was holding a baby in her arms. John shook his head.
'Better not. It hasn't rained for weeks. It's pretty dry around here. One spark could set the whole grove on fire.'
'So what do we do?' said a man. It was too dark to see his face. John only knew it wasn't the man in denim.
'Get back in our cars. Wrap up as best you can. If you start to get too cold, run your engine and turn the heater on.'
Some grumbled but there was really nothing else too do. John got into his four-by-four and put on an extra jumper and his coat and wrapped the old blanket he kept on the back seat around him. It wasn't enough. In an hour his teeth were chattering. He switched on the engine. Soon he was warm enough to throw off the blanket. He stared out his window at the stars. Am I being a fool? What if there's no danger? What if Fr Mark never comes? The warmth made him sleepy. As he drifted off he thought, so what? The worst that can happen if I'm wrong about this is that I'll have wasted some petrol.

The next thing he knew it was full daylight. He blinked his eyes, switched off his engine, got out of his four-by-four and stretched. The bang of his door must have woken others. Soon all ten vehicles were empty, the people milling around in the centre of the clearing.
'He hasn't come,' said the man in denim.
'He hasn't come yet anyway,' said John.
'What now?' said the woman with the baby.
'I guess we eat. We can decide whether to wait any more after breakfast.'
So they sat down on the grass and shared again. As they were eating a phone rang. The man in denim answered it. He walked over to the trees, talking. After a minute, he came back.
'That was Tom, the guy who left last night. He ran into Fr Mark back in town. He got held up putting up some last posters on the north side, but he's on the way now. He should be here in a couple of hours.'
The was a small smattering of applause. Then people got up and went to their vehicles and started getting ready. John checked his fuel gauge. He was down to a quarter of a tank. Well, he thought, the engine had been running all night and it had been a fair drive to get there in the first place.
'Hey,' said a man, the one from the other couple with dogs. 'We're running kind of low on fuel. Can you help us out?'
'We are too,' said another family. And then another. John groaned.
'Everybody, get back to the centre,' he called out. The group gathered.
'Now,' he said. 'Who's got extra fuel and who doesn't?' Of the ten, five did and five didn't.
'Okay, I've got one extra jerry can after I fill up. That's about a quarter of a tank. But that's all I can spare. How are the rest of you fixed?'
The lean man in denim volunteered an extra can as well. But the other three vehicles needed what they had to fill their tanks.
'Two cans. That's only enough to fill half a tank,' said the man with the dog. That leaves five of us without enough fuel for the journey. Can't the rest of you share what you have so we can all make it?'
The others looked at the ground. It was John who spoke up.
'No,' he said. 'If we share with you now, then none of us will have enough and none of us will make it. Fr Mark said to bring plenty. Why didn't you?'
'Because I didn't expect to be sitting out here all night running my engine,' the man said. His tone was bitter. 'I think if you all gave up a bit more we could all make it.'
John shook his head.
'We can't risk it. Fr Mark said it was a long journey. If we all set out with half tanks there's too big a chance we won't get to safety.'
'So what are we supposed to do?'
John thought.
'Look,' he said. 'There's a station about an hour back the road. If you leave now, there's probably enough time to fill up and get back.'
'And what if Fr Mark gets here while we're gone?'
'We can ask him to wait.'
'And what if he doesn't? He said in the flier he wouldn't.'
John shrugged.
'Then he doesn't. All the more reason to hurry.'
Grumbling, the five families without enough fuel headed for their cars.'
'Wait,' said John. They paused. 'Why don't you leave your children? There's enough room in the vehicles that are here to take them with us. That way, if he doesn't wait …' His voice trailed off. Most of the people gave him a disgusted look, got in their cars and drove off at speed. One, the woman holding the baby started tossing things out of her car, bags, toys, some clothes and jackets. Then she came over to John, carrying the infant, with two other small children coming behind her. They were crying.
'Look after them,' she said, handing him the baby. 'You be good, now,' she said to the other two. 'Mommy won't be long.' She ran for the car. Just before she got in, she stopped and looked over her shoulder.
'You make him wait!' she called. 'Make him wait!' And then she was gone. The man in denim came up to him. He had the other man's dog by a lead.
'There was nothing else we could do,' he said.
'I know,' said John. 'I hope they'll be quick. And if they're not, I hope he waits.'

But Fr Mark came long before the others would have time to get to the petrol station and back. He jumped out of a beat up old pick up truck. He had a worried look on his face.
'I'm sorry I'm so late,' he said. 'And I'm sorry there are so few of you.'
'There were more,' said John. 'Five more cars. But they used up their fuel keeping warm waiting. Can you wait?'
As if in reply the island shook. It was the biggest quake John had ever felt. Fr Mark shook his head.
'I'm sorry. If we don't go now then none of can.'
'Please,' said John. 'Some of them have children. And the mother of these children was in one of the cars.' He held up the baby before him, as if to prove what he was saying. A tear rolled down Fr Mark's face.
'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. But I said to bring plenty. And I said I might be late. I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. If I wait, you'll all die.'
He walked away and got into his truck. He started the engine and started driving towards the mountain. John got in his four-by-four and followed. On the back seat, the children started to cry again. In his mirror he could see the others following him. They trailed through the trees for a short distance, then John could see what looked like a cave up ahead. Had that been there the day before? He didn't think so, but he couldn't be sure.

Fr Mark drove in. John paused at the entrance. In the light of the truck's headlights he saw what appeared to be a tunnel, stretching ahead for hundreds of yards until the lights could reach no more. Where had it come from? John wondered. There never had been any mining on the island. Behind him, one of the cars beeped. He drove on. In his mirror he saw the others enter behind him one by one. A few moments after the last one, the light from the world outside suddenly vanished, as if a door had closed behind them.

The tunnel seemed to go on and on. After half an hour he realised it must go on for miles. How far he didn't know yet, but far enough to take them a long way from the island. Maybe as far as the mainland. He glanced at the clock on the dash. Around two hours had passed since the others had left to go for more fuel. They'd be arriving back around now to find them gone. He hoped they would forgive them, that they understood there was nothing else they could do. He wondered who they would blame most: them for leaving; or themselves for not being prepared for the journey. He guessed he'd never know. Because if Fr Mark was right, the island wouldn't be there much longer. And if he was right about the tunnel opening and closing, then he was probably right about that too.
(C) Fr Levi 2014

I told this story to the children in school today. Believe it or not, it's based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins! My wife thought it might be a little scary for them; but the children didn't agree! I asked them whose fault it was that some got left behind. One said it was John's; when I asked her why she thought that, she said she didn't know, she was just taking a wild guess! Most felt that it was their own for not being prepared.

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