My daughter is taking part in a short story competition. She has got 8 days to write a story, three prompts, the genre, the character and the theme, and the 2,500 word limit. The prompts are randomly allocated and all participants are split into a number of heats, everybody in the heat responds to the same three prompts. My daughter got Comedy – Palaeontologist – Successful. My first reaction was, come again?
Famously supportive mother that I am, I thought I’d keep her writing company and produce a short story of my own, sticking to the same three prompts. I then spent the next couple of days secretly debating whether or not to abandon the project, because if I gave up before I started nobody would need to know, and I could get on with my life as if nothing happened. But then I thought, I was not getting defeated by some stupid random prompts, and started writing. What I wrote has no artistic value. It is froth and nonsense from start to finish. What I found fascinating though was that even as I spewed out word upon word of pure tripe, I was still getting pulled into this dull pointless prompt-centred world I was creating, and despite having nothing to say on the subject I managed to come close to the word limit in hardly any time at all. Scary stuff.
When I finished I sent my daughter my story with a short note; Dear A, this is by far the worst story I have ever written. It is not funny, it has no plot, but it has a palaeontologist in it and about 2,200 words.
So in a moment, there will be nothing protecting you from the worst no plot no humour non-story you are ever likely to read. I am posting it here just for the record.
I learnt one thing for sure in the last few days, namely never to be tempted to enter a writing competition. The very thought of a panel of faceless jurors reading and judging the freshness and originality of my style killed both of them dead. You have been warned.
Jurassic Crap – The Story
The day Jurassic Park came to his local cinema, Frank ripped off his cherished Take That poster from the wall and replaced it with a black and red silhouette of a T-Rex. The decisiveness of his action excited and scared him in equal measures. He was never big on spontaneity, so that was a new territory for him, but as he tilted his head to admire his new bedroom decor, he saw his whole future unfold ahead, with the clarity he never thought possible for somebody as prone to awkwardness and confusion as he was. Half an hour into the movie, and he fell in love with the majestic animals, the lush vegetation and the sweeping Mesozoic landscapes. He found the human characters in the movie an irritating distraction and he did not care one iota whether any of them survived to the end or not. This sentiment was to become an overarching principle in his life, whereby he cared significantly more about magnificent dino-worlds and their many visualisations than about the relatively uninspiring reality around him.
Fifteen years later, the T-Rex, was still there on the wall, albeit faded at the edges, and Frank remained faithful to his love of prehistoric world in the way he never managed to maintain an attachment to another human being. He had lived and breathed fossils all his adult life, to the neglect of nearly all other pursuits, and occasionally, basic rules of hygiene. He felt much more at home in the Cretaceous period than in whatever decade he was currently living, in fact, he frequently had to remind himself exactly which decade that was. Frank was at his happiest buried in the underbelly of the Institute, tenderly unpacking and dusting off new artefacts, photographing them, cataloguing them, and affectionately stroking their corners when nobody was looking, trying to piece together their history, before sending them off to the lab.
Despite an unquestionable dedication to his work, Frank’s successes were modest and professional recognition eluded him. His doctoral thesis had twisted itself into a knot of taxonomies, taphonomies, a few other -omies, and ground to a halt in a blind alley, where it was currently parked and where it was going to remain unless he did something about it and soon. If he were to be completely honest with himself, and Frank was adept at avoiding such candour, he would have to admit the possibility that his whole research project might be heading for a scrap heap, pulling his entire career in the Institute with it.
This morning however, he woke up thinking that all of it was no longer of any importance, as his life was about to turn the corner. Today was going to be the first day worth mentioning in his future resume. He was getting the break he’d been longing for. He conveniently shooed away a question whether he deserved the success that was inevitably hurtling towards him.
There were two reasons why he believed fate was about to deal him a winning hand at last. Both landed through the letterbox on his doormat yesterday.
First was his brand new passport. Frank applied for it several weeks before for no particular reason, just in case, and promptly forgot all about it, so its arrival was a surprise, not an amazing surprise, but not an unwelcome one either.
The second letter was from the Institute. Frank re-read his favourite part of the short note over his bowl of Weetabix, ‘In acknowledgement of your work for the Institute to date, which you always complete to extremely high standards and frequently demanding deadlines, we would like to invite you to an informal meeting to discuss a possible career advancement opportunity. Please contact…’
Frank tried hard not to believe in signs, especially since the last fiasco in that department, when he mistook Maggie’s blocking his number for a clear sign that she really liked him and was simply setting him a challenge by removing the most obvious method of communication from the equation. It was only when her new boyfriend turned up on his doorstep and crushed his septum with one well-executed blow that Frank realised that he might have misread the situation.
Today was different, though. With the passport and the letter arriving in his life at precisely the same moment, the writing was on the wall. He could feel it in his bones. His own bones, he added for his amusement, not the ones that piled in unopened crates in the corner of the room at work. He had a habit of adding palaeontologist in-jokes even when talking to himself.
He brought down a suitcase from the attic and decided to start packing straight away. He was not taking chances, in case they needed somebody who was available immediately. He practised his best casually smug facial expression in the mirror, ‘I’m ready whenever you are’.
Since he had no way of second-guessing which dig site they might have pencilled in for him, packing was proving tricky, so he checked long-term weather forecast for a number of possible countries scattered over four continents; better safe than sorry.
At 7.30 am he could wait no longer.
– Hello, Institute of Vertebrates, Professor Russel’s office, Angela speaking, how may I help you?
– Oh, hi, it’s Frank Dobson, I would like to schedule an appointment with the Professor, I received a letter inviting me to an informal meeting to discuss….
– Hold on a sec, let me log into Professor’s diary, is it urgent?
– Well – Frank put on his conspiratorial voice – you tell me, at the moment your knowledge about what we are likely to talk about is much more accurate than mine, as…
– I am afraid I have no idea what the Professor wishes to discuss with you, but he does have a last minute lunch cancellation today, so would you be able to come today at 12.30?
– A cancellation, I see. Rather a coincidence, wouldn’t you say? Seems like it is more urgent than I thought. Anyway, I don’t suppose you could lift the veil of secrecy, ever so slightly, just a little, and tell me if it’s Mongolia or …?
– Sorry, sir, you lost me. We shall be expecting you at 12.30, and the Professor will have 20 minutes for you.
– I guess discretion is a prerequisite in your job, fine by me, mum’s the word.
– Sir, I have another call waiting, so I am going to end this call, goodbye.
– Not to worry, I appreciate your professional approach, see you soon, nice talking to you.
Frank found himself delivering the last platitudes to the dull continuous phone signal, as Angela had disconnected.
Same day appointments with Professor Russell simply did not happen, unless it was a matter of life and death. Life and death of a fragile fossil site, Frank mused happily. The site which he was being sent to look after, secure and preserve to the best of his abilities. His reputation for being gentle with the artefacts must have been noted where it mattered after all. The only remaining question was, where was he going?
Still only eight thirty, plenty of time to take care of everything. He finished packing, went through the list of current projects the Institute had an interest in worldwide for the third time, made a cucumber and pumpkin salad for Jasper the gerbil, watered the plants, and then slapped his forehead as he suddenly remembered something. Cathy, his elderly next door neighbour was in.
– Hi Cathy, huge favour to ask.
Jasper’s and the plants’ survival secured, Frank strolled out of the door with half an hour to spare. It was only when he got to the bottom of the stairs to the Institute and was about to jump two steps at a time when he realised he was pulling the suitcase behind him. If he went back home now, he would end up being late for the meeting, so he carried on, slowly dragging his luggage upstairs.
– Frank! Thank you for coming so soon. Professor Russell outstretched his warm podgy hand towards him. Just wanted to run something past you. Oh, are you going away? Professor gestured to the suitcase.
– You tell me, Professor, Frank smiled, happy to play along.
If the Professor found his response a bit odd, he didn’t let it show. He carried on.
– I’ve looked at your work records for the last six months, and I could see that you spend most of your time sorting through rather large number of late Triassic fish bones. I hope it won’t put you off fish pie for life.
– I honestly don’t mind, Professor.
– Still, I thought you might be ready for a new challenge.
That was Frank’s cue to deliver his well-rehearsed line.
– I am ready Professor. Ready whenever you are, he added with a knowing nod of the head, overdoing the theatrics slightly.
– Right, right, good to hear. I must warn you though, the learning curve will be steep, and it might be unsociable hours.
– That’s an understatement and a half, Professor, if I may say so.
– Well, I wouldn’t…
– Alright, Professor, I like a bit of teasing just like the next person, but I don’t think I can keep this up much longer, please put me out of my misery. I tried to work it out for myself, I checked a number of our sites, but I am none the wiser, is it Mongolia? Because if it is, I just want to say I am totally fine with it, I mean Argentina sounds really interesting, and I actually got a decent grade in A-level Spanish. Not much use for Spanish in Mongolia, is there? But I think it would be amazing to visit the place, they say one in 200 men living today is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, so it would be like visiting my ancestors’ graves, unless of course I am one of the remaining 199 men who are nothing to do with him, is it Mongolia, Professor? And please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against any other places, I would not want to sound ungrateful, and I am not saying that I wouldn’t be happy about Tanzania or even Utah, because I would, in fact, by all means, Africa, the cradle of civilisation, that makes a lot of sense, I am not picky, so yeah, anywhere at all. I’ve heard we are about to set up camp in Antarctica, is that true, because if it is, I am your man, too, language would not be an issue, I am not sure people are too chatty in those sort of temperatures. Oh, shoot, I will need a visa for Mongolia, won’t I?
Professor Russell was sitting very still. He covered his mouth with his hand, his eyes darting about. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft and gentle, ‘What, for the love of God, are you talking about?’
‘Actually, you know what, let’s try something else, let’s see if we could pretend that this had not just happened, and that you didn’t just lose your, well, not sure what it was really, I can only guess we were not working from the same hymn sheet excuse the cliché. Anyway, where was I, before you felt like sharing a list of random geographical locations with me, oh, yes, steep learning curve. What I had in mind for you was to give you a senior supervisory role in our brand new coprolite analysis department. What do you say?
It was Frank’s turn to sit in open-mouthed silence. This went beyond his most daring hopes. Instead of digging in dusty Mongolian steppes or sweating in bug-infested Argentinian pampas, with no guarantee of any significant find, the Professor was inviting him to dig in the actual excrement of actual dinosaurs, without leaving the comfort of the Institute. He was asked to devote his days to peeling off outer layers of mineralised crust to reveal the most precious core, the digested content of the stomachs of those beautiful beasts, oh, my, this was the closest he would ever get to taking the glorious creatures of his dreams for a walk and scooping their poop after them. Life did not get any better than this.
‘People never cease to surprise me’, Cathy told her church choir friends later that week, between sips of aromatic green tea. ‘Take my neighbour Frank. Maureen, you met him, the geeky fossil man. He tells me his boss dropped him in a heap of dinosaur shit, and I mean literally, mind you they have a fancy word for it, crapo-sphere or something, and Frank, bless him, happy as larry about it, calls it promotion, his highest professional achievement. I call it a pile of crap.’