A discovery on the school field evolves into a major palaeontological project that tests friendships, exposes rivalries, and tries the patience of dinner ladies to the limit. A tale of childhood ambition, determination, and dinosaurs.
STUCK IN THE MUD
WHEN WE WERE FIVE, we found a dinosaur skull under the trees at school. I don’t remember who first noticed it, embedded in the bone-hard mud around the tree roots where the grass of the playing field didn’t grow. Details like that weren’t important at the time. One day it simply became our project, as if it always had been.
We got down on our bare knees, seven of us, and set to work, the dust settling on our shorts and checked summer dresses. Shaded by the trees from the lunchtime sun, our concentration insulating us against the clamour of playtime on all sides, we worked in industrious silence. We set to with sticks, palaeontologists all, conscientiously clearing the fine dust from the ridges and clefts of the skull and using the feathery seed-heads of grass stalks to clean the parts that appeared.
This was two summers before the dust and grass started to make me sneeze. I had come to the project fresh from building miniature nests out of the grass clippings left behind by the mowers.
Our first major breakthrough was when the eye socket emerged. Deep, round and unmistakeable, it was as though it gave our dinosaur a face. Now it had its own identity.
‘What do you think it is?’ asked Grace, who wore dinosaur t-shirts on mufti days, had read every dinosaur book in the library, and was generally considered to be an authority on the subject.
‘A stegosaurus!’ cried Billy, who was none of these things.
We had been doing dinosaurs in class all that term. Consequently we were all self-proclaimed experts in species identification, and now began shouting out possibilities at random. The one thing on which we were unanimous was that it could not possibly be a stegosaurus.
Thinking back, I wonder why, over the days and weeks of being engaged on the project, we never once thought to announce our findings to our teacher. The dig was shrouded in as much secrecy as was possible for something conducted in full view of everybody on the field. The last thing we wanted was for the excitement and prestige of the discovery to be diluted by being shared among too many of our friends, few of whom would have any notion of its value. It would, of course, be of great interest and importance to the scientific community when the complete fossil was unveiled to the world, and it would be a fine thing for it to be spoiled by the story being broken too early.
Then again, I don’t think any of us connected it with ideas of fame or fortune. It was simply a matter of urgency, we told each other seriously; those at the cutting edge of dinosaur research must not be deprived of so marvellous a specimen. The responsibility of ensuring its safe extraction was left to us, who had chanced upon it somewhere no expert would ever have thought to look.
If our decision not to tell anyone was because we didn’t want a grown-up to make an incontrovertible pronouncement that we were mistaken, the thought was never voiced openly.
Our second major breakthrough, however, came when we realised why the naysayers had got it wrong.
A sudden breeze, hot as breath, raised the dust in little puffs that got in our eyes and covered over parts of the fossil that we were working so hard to excavate. When the cloud cleared, an ungainly, stocky boy stood over us, sweat running down his face from a bout of lunchtime football on the other side of the field.
We recognised him at once; renowned for his clumsiness, he had once aimed a sodden sponge football so poorly that it had soared off the pitch and hit Yasmin heavily in the face, knocking her head back and breaking her glasses. There was little doubt it had been an accident. Still, we were all very protective of Yasmin, with her small stature and poor eyesight and the jam-coloured birth mark between her eyebrows like a target. The boy had also never properly apologised. As a result, none of us had ever especially liked him.
Nonetheless, we answered him politely when he leaned down and demanded to know what we were doing. When he scoffed and mocked and charged back to the football area, we shouted after him, but didn’t engage in pursuit. We were content where we were.
When he brought back two others, though, we had to take notice. It would be several years yet before one of them was suspended from secondary school for vandalism, and the other developed a taste for playing catch with smaller children’s belongings. As it was, they already had keen eyes for an opportunity to kick dust in unsuspecting faces. It hadn’t occurred to us that crouching close to the ground would make us vulnerable. That stung almost as much as our eyes.
But it also did nothing to dampen our zeal. We had all of us been the focus of such attention at one point or another, and, facing it now as a group, it was easy to dismiss it as irrelevant. The dust-kickers grew bored and sloped away. We dug and scraped and brushed our way onwards.
What proved much harder to brush off like the dust were those who attacked us unwittingly, those who used questions and logic, rather than the beginnings of spite and malice.
‘Why would there be a dinosaur here?’
‘If that’s its head then where’s the rest of it?’
‘If you keep digging there then the tree will fall down and squash you all flat!’
‘It doesn’t look like a dinosaur head to me.’
Many of them would eventually wander away, overawed by the sophisticated rebuttals with which we met their queries. I was usually happy to let someone like Grace take the lead, however. The last question had been bothering me too. Since the early breakthrough of uncovering the eye socket, no further distinguishing features had emerged, despite the fact that much of the fossil’s top face had now been cleared. Glancing around as we scored away at the last crumbling crusts of earth, I wondered if anyone else was worried too.
And then one day we noticed something odd about one of the tree roots. Extending in long skeletal fingers from the tree trunk, they were all worn smooth and pale by the running, climbing, trampling feet of countless generations. Personally I was sure that the tree’s enormous girth, round which I couldn’t make my fingertips meet, made it at least as old as the Romans, or possibly even the Egyptians; the most significant historical landmarks I possessed.
Except that one of its roots wasn’t like that at all. It protruded grudgingly from the ground like a hunched shoulder, as rough and black as the rest of the roots were polished. Intent on our fossil as we were, we had paid this anomaly little attention.
I don’t remember who first had the blinding realisation. At the time, individual feats of brilliance immediately became communal property. One day we suddenly knew, as if we always had done, that here lay a second fossil fragment, buried more deeply than the first. On it, we realised, we would find the dinosaur’s missing features. I studied my companions and saw my own relief reflected in their faces. Now we had an indisputable answer to all the questions bombarding us. Now we had even more reason to keep going.
I could tell, though, that we hadn’t convinced Bertie. Gawky, outdoorsy Bertie, who cycled to school every day on a bike without stabilisers, could identify any bug we could find, and in general scientific expertise was considered second only to Grace. It was, in fact, Bertie who unintentionally caused us our first major setback.
We greeted him with friendly waves as he clumped over to us. Peering over our shoulders, he asked what we were doing, in totally different tones from the dust-kickers. But when we told him, and (after a brief consultation) invited him to join us, he frowned, perplexed.
‘But why would it be a fossil?’ he asked.
We glanced at each other. We hadn’t encountered doubt expressed like this before.
‘There isn’t a reason,’ Grace said. ‘It just is.’
Bertie rephrased his objection. ‘But you don’t just find dinosaurs in the soil,’ he protested.
‘How do you know?’ Billy demanded. ‘Dinosaurs were everywhere.’
Bertie tried one last time. ‘But they’d have found fossils here before if there were any to find!’
‘Not necessarily!’ Grace countered, meticulously pronouncing her favourite phrase used by our teacher. ‘Not if they built the school before the fossil-hunters had a chance to look. I bet they wouldn’t let fossil-hunters in now. Otherwise they’d be digging up the field all the time.’
‘They will when we show them what we’ve found!’ squeaked little Yasmin excitedly.
‘Come on, Bertie,’ I said in my best conciliatory voice. ‘If you want, we’ll tell them you were with us when we found it too.’ Everyone else nodded their agreement, some more readily than others.
But Bertie was shaking his head. ‘It isn’t a fossil, it’s just a rock!’ he declared stubbornly. ‘I’ll prove it!’
And he stomped away.
We sighed our disapproval. We’d done our best to make him see, but some people were just too sceptical. It would have been too cruel to point out to him that there being a rock of this size by itself on a school playing field was, if anything, more unlikely than a dinosaur skull. Taking up our sticks, we got back to work.
A strident, deafening voice, the kind that commanded instant obedience, ripped through our cocoon of silence. We scrambled to our feet almost before it had finished its sentence.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
We stared at the dinner lady as she strode towards us across the parched grass, unsure what we weren’t supposed to have done. Then I noticed a shamefaced figure in tow. Bertie.
‘Come out from under those trees and go and wash your hands!’ the dinner lady bellowed. ‘Look at you, you’re all filthy!’
Yasmin’s lip was trembling. Billy looked bewildered, while Grace was glaring accusingly at Bertie. He didn’t meet any of our eyes as the dinner lady shooed us off the field.
It didn’t matter that, as he’d tried to explain later, he hadn’t meant to tell on us; that he’d merely consulted the dinner lady to back him up in putting us right. He hadn’t intended to land us in trouble. But none of us wanted to hear it.
After that the dig became a far more complicated endeavour. There was, of course, no question of giving up. The cause of scientific advancement depended on our perseverance. We returned to the dig site as soon and as often as we could. But now we stationed a lookout at the edge of the trees, who would sound the alarm if ever a dinner lady glanced in our direction.
It was undoubtedly inconvenient and tiresome, repeatedly having to scatter and pretend to be playing hide-and-seek between the trunks. It was also causing severe delays to our work; we could have had the first fossil fragment out of the ground by now if not for this complication. But, as Grace wisely informed us, it was the mark of a true palaeontologist to be able to persist no matter how difficult the project became. So we did.
Only two considered their personal record with the dinner ladies to be of greater importance than the disastrous consequences of allowing the fossil to remain neglected in the ground. Whenever we caught sight of them across the field, returning as a pair to the old games we had once played endlessly as a group, we cast dark looks in their direction, condemning them with our eyes as deserters of science. And those of us who remained dug on, more determined than ever to see the project through.
Our second major setback was when it began to rain.
I knew that all my fellow palaeontologists would be feeling the same dreary thump of disappointment as I did on looking out of the window that morning. The wide, staring blue of the sky was gone. In its place were damply piled clouds, every raindrop an unfeeling insult to our tireless endeavours of the last three weeks.
Normally wet play had its own kind of excitement. There was a kind of thrilling novelty in being in our classroom without a presiding teacher, the space for order and calm being turned into a space for play, an inviolable routine overturned. But that day, all it seemed to offer was an hour of sweltering humidity and the exuberant noise of our classmates trying to expend their pent-up energy in a confined space. As we gazed through darkening windows at the rain pounding the playing field into a quagmire, colouring books seemed to have none of the old appeal.
At least, on the first day, we could find solace in our shared anguish. But when after three days the rain showed no signs of abating, and the dinner ladies supervising our classrooms were starting to take on a slightly haggard, despairing appearance, something alarming began to happen. Those on the dig team whose chairs faced away from the windows, who were not tortured by the daily sight of our excavations lying abandoned, were beginning to take interest in their colouring books again.
The situation was becoming desperate.
At last, as suddenly as they had begun, the days of rain ceased. We awoke once more to a cloudless sky that looked as if all the dust had been washed off. The cool, clean air seemed to get inside us and refresh all our hopes.
It was days more, though, before the field was pronounced dry enough to admit our return. Lunchtime after tantalising lunchtime, we were forced to remain on the playground, racking our brains to remember the shallow ways we had entertained ourselves in the days before our eyes had been opened to greater concerns. Skipping ropes. Tag. Stuck-in-the-mud. We had been so frivolous, once.
And then one day, the rumour ricocheted around the playground that the dinner ladies were checking the grass.
I remembered how, at the other end of the summer, a silent crowd had gathered, attention focused as at no other time on the solitary figure of a dinner lady crouched at the edge of the grass. The tension had mounted palpably as she laid her hand flat on the ground. The power to declare or deny the true beginning of summer had hung heavy from her green apron. When she rose to her feet, turned round and gave her momentous nod, I had never before been part of such a riotously cheering forward charge.
How much higher the stakes had become now.
The nod came. A jubilant mob thundered onto the grass, restored to fresh lushness by the deluge, and resumed their frolics as if they had never been interrupted. No one noticed as a small group broke off and headed urgently for the trees.
There seemed to be fewer of us than before, when at last we congregated once more around the excavation site. More members of the dig team had resigned, defected or simply not returned. Drawn back like circling bees to the forgotten pleasures of the playground, they had abandoned all devotion to our project. So they were not there to share our despondence when we discovered the full impact of the ceaseless rain.
Wave after wave of water, running fast across the packed dirt, had washed the mud back into all the crevices it had taken us so many painstaking weeks to clear. Our fossil was almost completely covered once more. It was as though we had never been there.
Our resolve was slow in returning. Dully, wearily, with a feeling of pointlessness that had never been there before, we took up our sticks again. Once again, we started with the eye socket. But now it didn’t look nearly as much like an eye as it once had. Unless you looked at it from a very specific angle. Then it looked as though it was laughing at us.
We worked as wordlessly as ever, but now the silence was distracted, inattentive. After ten minutes, for the first time ever, someone broke it to talk about something completely unrelated.
Grace, who in a little over twenty years would be completing a doctorate in palaeontology, said with a sigh, ‘Shall we go and get some skipping ropes?’
I felt a deep throb of regret as we laid down our sticks. But I couldn’t very well excavate a whole fossil skull by myself, and so I followed the group back to the playground for the final time.
As we turned our attention once more to skipping games and stilts, as we shuffled sheepishly towards Bertie and invited him to join us again, our glances strayed only once or twice towards the trees. Yet a part of me still wanted to go running back.
The final blow came right before home time, on the very last day of the summer term, when our teacher made an excited announcement.
We wouldn’t be doing dinosaurs next term. We had learnt everything there was to know about the stegosaurus and the diplodocus and the tyrannosaurus rex, and were moving on to stars and planets. Our discovery had come too late, and would lie in the ground for ever, and it seemed that I was the only one who still cared. We dispersed for the summer, contemplating six glorious weeks of freedom to spend in sun-baked gardens, and all I could think about was how close we had come to transforming science.
I couldn’t see what there could possibly be about balls of rock and ice and fire floating in empty space that was nearly so interesting. We wouldn’t find any of those under the trees. There was no discovery we could possibly make that would advance this scientific field. Nothing would ever compare to the fossil we had so nearly succeeded in excavating.
When we were six, we spotted the remains of an alien spaceship caught in the treetops.
Alice Ahearn is a London-based writer and bookseller. Her work has been published by the British Fantasy Society (BFS Horizons #6) and Lightfall Literary Agency (The Obsidian Poplar), and she was shortlisted for the Notting Hill Editions 2017 Essay Prize. She has also reviewed for London Calling, Culture Whisper and Revoice!.
Some of Alice’s writing can be found on her blog: https://onefootintheunknown.wordpress.com
Find her on Twitter @Avengernaut