How to make friends and influence… dinosaurs?

This a flash piece I wrote for A. Merc Rustad’s wonderful Robot Dinosaurs. They didn’t choose it for publication, but that’s OK. Anything that makes me write, and finish, a piece, is good! Also, this one isn’t strictly about a dinosaur (although I only discovered that as I was writing it…)


She’s slumped in the sweltering shade in the garden, sweating and irritated, when she first hears the noise. Of course, that’s not actually strictly true – she was a kid when she first heard it in some corny old film, and there was one on that Bowie track. But this is the first time she’s ever heard the sound in real life.

It doesn’t register to begin with. There are cars driving past in the distance, and she’s just so hot that nothing’s really sinking in.

Then she thinks it might be a notification on her phone, some new app that makes a noise like… And that’s when she sees it. It’s gliding down in the middle of the lawn, about 50 metres away. She knows what it is immediately, even as she’s walking, disbelieving, towards it – a pterodactyl. Smallish, maybe 50 cm from one wingtip to the other. As she gets closer, she can see that it’s definitely artificial, but at the same time kind of… organic? Covered in dark brown stuff that looks like velvet or the short fur on a cat’s ear. It looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the parched grass and goes “Squeeeeee?”

She can’t stop herself calling it Terry. It has a little crest on its beak, but not a very obvious one, so she can’t work out if it’s meant to be any specific gender.

She discovers that these days they aren’t called pterodactyls any more, but pterosaurs. And that in fact they aren’t even dinosaurs.

She never finds out where it came from. Nobody seems to be missing a robot dinosaur. Or if they are, they aren’t looking for it very hard.

She goes on a date with Johan, a guy she doesn’t really find attractive, just because his profile mentions that he’s a palaeontologist. They actually have quite a nice time, although there’s no way she’s going to invite him home.

Terry’s a pretty good houseguest. It seems to run on solar power, because it likes to spend a good amount of the day standing about in the sun with its wings partly open like a drying umbrella. The rest of the time it sits on her desk in a cardboard box filled with tissue paper, which it tears up periodically with its pointed beak, dropping the bits onto her desk as if bringing her gifts. It doesn’t ever eat anything, although it occasionally snaps at flies if they’re bothering her, which is endearing but kind of scary because it’s so quick. It catches them quite often, too, dropping the squashed remains on the little heap of paper beside the box. At night it insists on clambering up the stairs with her when she goes to bed, where it sleeps on her discarded clothes.

It smells of cinnamon and gun oil, and now so does she. Several people are complimentary about her new perfume.

Terry’s pretty ungainly on the ground, because its wings don’t really fold up tidily, and it has to walk like a bat, kind of on its elbows. But it can launch itself into the air by doing a surprisingly high leap off all fours, and once there it’s really quite nippy. They play frisbee in the garden, her throwing and Terry snapping the plastic disc out of the air and dropping it at her feet.

As the weather finally gets cooler, she notices that Terry’s moving more slowly, so she brings out the big daylight lamp and the robot pterosaur does its umbrella trick in front of that instead.

After it’s been with her about six months, Terry occasionally starts coming over and pecking at her keyboard, then peering at the screen. She shows it how to type “Terry”, though it doesn’t seem to understand. But a few weeks later she comes downstairs in the morning and discovers that she’s apparently ordered a whole load of electronic components from Kjell & Company, plus some stuff she can’t even identify from a lab equipment supplier. When she confronts Terry with the email confirmations, it gives a tiny pterosaur shrug and settles down in its box.

The deliveries start arriving a few days later. She feels ridiculous trudging up to the village shop in the snow to collect packages ordered by a pterosaur, but she does it anyway, bringing them back and laying them out on the garage floor. Terry shuffles up and down, inspecting the items and turning them over with its beak. She digs out her old laptop and sets that up on the floor too, and watches as the robot pterosaur taps away at the keys, occasionally using a rear claw or a forelimb to move the mouse.

It clearly understands English, but it never communicates with her directly other than with the odd squawk or crooning noise that a cat might make to its human. She wonders if it somehow can’t associate the sounds she makes with the symbols it sees on the screen.

At any rate, after a day or two using a freeware CAD program, it produces a neat diagram showing how all the parts fit together. She’s pretty good with a soldering iron, and she’s used to making models for wargaming, so it kind of makes sense. She prints out the diagram, lays out the tools she thinks she’s going to need, and starts work, with Terry watching closely.

It takes her nearly a month, because some of the organic parts have to be grown in glass beakers. They just look like blobs to her, but sure enough when she lays the blobs in the right place in the structure, they ooze into position like they’ve always been there.

And when she’s finished, Terry squawks in satisfaction and stabs at the Enter key on the laptop, and the second pterosaur – a bit chunkier, a bit more obviously robotic – looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the garage floor and goes “Squeeeeee?”

Writing as therapy, or why reality isn’t necessarily relevant

I’ve been thinking a lot about reality recently. And it’s occurred to me that for a relatively idealistic person, I tend to adopt an extremely narrow, logical approach to my past. Consequently, when I think back over my life, I ignore the things I don’t remember. Probably we all do this.

So I remember bits of our family holiday in 1979, if only because it was shortly after the election of Thatcher as PM, and I was still so politically naive at the age of 11 that I still thought it was a good thing for a woman – any woman – to be elected to that position. I’d never heard of Conservatives, or realised that a political party could despise its fellow citizens to quite such an extent.

And yet I don’t remember anything of the summer a few years earlier, when we had a visit from my Aunty Pam and Uncle Pete, during which – to judge by our slightly raffish appearance  – we were impersonating some kind of Mafia family.

L-R: Me, Aunty Pam, Dad, Uncle Pete, my brother John, Mum.

So does this mean that my aunt and uncle didn’t visit us in summer 1974? And if I sit down now and write a detailed account of my (imaginary) Austrian cousins visiting us in 1983, what distinguishes the two? A real visit of which I remember nothing, and an imaginary one of which I have an extremely clear recollection? Which is the more real?

Research has shown that the brain doesn’t really know the difference between reality and imagination. This is, apparently, very useful when it comes to setting yourself goals. So for example, if you tell yourself in sufficient detail how fit you are, your brain goes, “Hm. So I am. Then I need to behave like this“, and off you go, refusing dessert and getting to the gym four times a week like you always intended to. (It should be said that although I believe this works, I haven’t yet managed to implement it in terms of practice.)

And I’ve recently discovered, both from personal experience and from watching someone else do it, that you can deliberately rewrite your past, giving yourself a more satisfactory plotline – whatever you personally consider to be satisfactory. This means that those little niggles (“Why didn’t I say ‘Yes’ when he asked me out?”, “I should have taken that job offer”, “If only I’d gone to that party”…) can be resolved. And it’s surprisingly liberating.

Now, obviously you can’t rewrite the big stuff in your life. If you’re an impoverished 45-year-old bartender, you can’t have accepted that job offer if it would have led you to becoming a billionaire at 30. But you can definitely picture yourself taking that job offer – whatever it was – and it not leading to the success you’ve always imagined. Maybe you’d have burned out at 23? Maybe you’d have been on the street at 25? Maybe you’d long since have been dead? Instead, you’re a bartender, and yeah, perhaps it doesn’t pay much but you enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories and having your afternoons free. (And if you don’t, get a new job. Life is short!)

But for small regrets it’s surprisingly effective. You think of a situation that you’ve always regretted, and you sit down with a pad of paper, or at your computer – personally, I always write best on paper, but these days I have to use one of those soft propelling pencils so that my atrophied writing muscles can cope – and you write yourself an alternate story as you’ve imagined it so many times. Write it like you’re a novelist. Put in description, dialogue, comedy, drama… whatever it takes to make it believable. Plunge into the story like it’s a warm bath, submerge yourself in the bubbles, feel it permeate your pores as the scent of Badedas tickles your nose. Write it and rewrite it. Live it. Feel the excitement, the nervousness, the elation – or the boredom, the arguments, the misunderstandings, the failures. Or, more likely, both.

Because if you look back over your real life, even the best bits aren’t perfect, are they? If you were editing the film of your life, you’d tweak stuff to make it flow more smoothly. Well, when you rewrite your past, don’t do this. Instead, bring your most level-headed realist to the table and give them free rein to sneer as much as they like. Write as it would have happened. And see where it takes you. In my experience, it takes you down a path that makes very little difference to where you are today, or to who you are.

And if it does, you’ve learned something. Perhaps you realise that you really can’t stand being married to your spouse any more, that you haven’t felt excitement – or even affection – with them for years. Or your reinvented past when you worked as temporary crew, delivering yachts all around the world, is so challenging, so much you, that you decide you can’t live another moment without getting back on the water somehow. Maybe you can build on those lessons and make small changes in your current reality. Maybe you have to throw it all up and start again. Or maybe you just manage to finally put some of those regrets to rest and be happier with what you’ve really achieved.

Whatever the result, I guarantee you’ll find it an interesting experience – and if you have literary ambitions, a better writer, too.


A rite of passage

This is a little story about witchcraft that I wrote in response to a comment on Twitter. The story’s set on my native Isle of Man. Today is the island’s national day: Tynwald Day. The island’s government is the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world (possibly founded before 1000 AD) – just one more unique thing about the island where I was born!


The handle of the broomstick plunged half a metre into the sticky mixture of water, mud and reeds, nearly taking Kerry with it. Again.

Already covered in mud, and more than slightly redolent of semi-rotted vegetation, Kerry swore. That made almost half an hour in the labyrinthine wetlands of the Curraghs, and still no sign of the blasted water hemlock.

Maybe coming in from the east would have been easier? But no, there definitely been a good big patch of the stuff in this part of the Curraghs only two weeks earlier when they’d done the field trip out here. Or at least there’d been plenty somewhere here. One umbellifer growing in a soggy section of marshland looked much like another, in the dark – even if you were a witch.

Well, OK, apprentice witch. Five years of study successfully completed and very nearly graduated. Just the final wild magic practical to complete – the time-honoured ritual that, in its current form, involved the apprentices being dropped off by minibus at dusk, somewhere on the island. They then had until dawn to orient themselves and gather the objects required to make their own way back to the Academy by more traditional means.

Although justifiably proud of its ancient heritage, one of the stated aims of the Manx Academy of the Wiccan Arts was to produce versatile witches capable of dealing with the challenges they would face in the 21st century. Consequently, after studying ancient grimoires and learning spells by rote for the first four years of their time at the Academy, final year students were strongly encouraged to explore alternative ingredients and approaches. The practical test specified a broom and flying ointment combination that was traditional for the Isle of Man, but it was rumoured that the examiners awarded extra points for suitable alternatives. Kerry did another mental run through of the list.

“A besom or broom, with the shaft cut by the witch’s own hand from hawthorn, correctly trimmed of branches and with birch twig bristles, attached with a willow withy.” Check. Even starting at dusk that bit had been fiddly, but Kerry was pretty handy with a billhook. As for the ingredients for the flying ointment, they’d taken the rest of the night.

“The grease of a fatted pig.” Kerry was vegetarian, so that just wasn’t happening, but lanolin worked just fine. Of course, they’d been allowed to prepare the base in advance and bring it with them, which was just as well, because obtaining grease from either sheep’s wool or an unfortunate pig was a task that would take even an expert witch more than a few hours.

“Wraick from the seashore, gathered from below the tide line but at the height of the tide.” Check. The still damp denim flapping around Kerry’s legs was a testament to that. That updated drying spell using chili powder was pretty effective, though.

“Copper from the heart of the Earth to anchor the witch.” Check. Fortunately the Isle of Man had been a major mining centre in its day, and if you knew where to look you could find remnants of lots of different metal ores. The minibus had deposited Kerry on Laxey promenade, opposite the chip shop, and it had been a slog walking up from the seashore past the giant water wheel to the former mines and over the hills. Kerry was once again thankful that the island was relatively compact. It must be a sod having to do this practical somewhere bigger.

Although, again, you learned the magic that was fitting for your environment. In the fourth year, they’d done a study visit to London and seen some of the urban resources their peers were learning to use; pigeon shit rather than seagull or sheep, rose bay willow herb and other plants of waste ground, plenty of stuff about “foul steaming breath” – in other words, car exhaust… and Kerry had been fascinated to discover the power contained in the superimposed layers of fly posters, if selected from the right spot.

“Water hemlock to lift her from the soil.” Yeah, well that was the problem, wasn’t it?

An owl hooted close by, and Kerry jumped. ‘Lacks concentration’ had been a frequent criticism from the Academy’s tutors, and especially from Mistress Voirrey, one of the self-proclaimed “Modern Witches” amongst their number, yet who had nevertheless opposed Kerry’s presence, from admission onwards. But as the best Manx-born talent the Academy’s interviewers had seen for many years, Kerry couldn’t be denied a place.

Kerry sighed again and peered through the gloom. Now where had this blasted water hemlock got to?

OK, think clearly. We came in from the front of the Wildlife Park, and skirted around the enclosures, and it was somewhere near the back of the lake that I saw the hemlock. Today I’ve come in from the seaward side… Kerry squinted up at the line of the hills above, with the outline of Gob y Volley visible against the Milky Way.

…so if I go over this way, then I should find the fence pretty quickly and then from there it’ll be easy as… well, easy as smashing all the ingredients up on a stone with my pestle, mixing them with the pot of lanolin, and rubbing it on to the broomstick. A quick flight back to Slieu Whallian – ideally resisting the urge to do a victory roll over the Principal’s garden this time, given the trouble it got me in last year – and even a tolerably tidy landing will have me in the history books…

But once again, Kerry hadn’t been paying attention. In the dark, the tall wire fence around the Wildlife Park was almost totally invisible. The outermost, electrified fence was completely so. The current running through it was low – just a deterrent to keep animals, both native and exotic, on their respective sides of the boundary – but it still gave off a nasty shock. Kerry leapt backwards onto the soft ground, twisting frantically to avoid falling onto the pot of lanolin… and heard a resonant “Crack” as the shaft of the broomstick snapped.

‘Dammit.’ Kerry examined the damage. It was a clean break, right through, and the bristles weren’t looking too clever either. Finding another straight trunk of hawthorn down here in the Curraghs was going to take hours. And there wasn’t much time left. The sky in the east was definitely beginning to get lighter.

Although at least the water hemlock problem was finally solved, because Kerry was surrounded by the stuff. It was growing in thick clumps along the ditch at the base of the fence. Bearing in mind Mistress Mona’s cheerful words of warning – “Never mind a black cat! A nice pair of Marigolds are a witch’s best friend!”, Kerry bent carefully beneath the electrified wire and collected a good handful of the toxic plant, frantically wondering all the while what to do next. The broomstick was a no go, that much was clear. What else, what else? Think, brain!

Coming to stillness and breathing deeply, as Mistress Aalish had advised in Basic Meditation for Spellcasters, Kerry strove for a calm mind and an open spirit. What had they been taught on the London trip about suitable objects for flight? There had been something, something…

But an insistent noise kept impinging – a kind of scritching noise, like nails on the blackboard. It was familiar yet alien at the same time. It reminded Kerry of hot sunshine and the taste of melted ice cream in a soggy cornet. It was the sound of a summer holiday coach trip. It was the smell of the reptile house and the okapi enclosure. It was the sound… of a group of large sleepy birds expressing their discontent with the early morning chill.

Kerry suddenly grinned broadly. That elusive phrase spoken by the London instructor suddenly resurfaced. ‘Don’t forget. In a pinch you can use pretty much anything as a broomstick, providing it’s roughly the right shape. Something that has the life force in it is best, but failing that a lamppost or traffic sign, a patio heater…’

‘A garden parasol’, Mistress Voirrey had interrupted. ‘Never forget, ladies…’ She’d scowled at Kerry before continuing, ‘…never forget that as modern witches, we aren’t limited by traditional beliefs or components. You will always be taught the traditional methods first, but you may elaborate upon these with new materials, if they can be made to work according to the Rules of Witchcraft.’

So… an alternative broomstick-shaped object, ideally with the life force in it? Yes. And there’d be no need for the water hemlock, after all. The object Kerry had in mind didn’t merely have the life force in – it could fly too. So a simple element to cancel her own weight, such as dandelion or thistledown, would do the trick.

The whole thing was definitely doable, providing she could scale the fence. Fortunately, she’d been a terrible tearaway when she was a little boy, and it wouldn’t be the first time she’d broken into somewhere. The only problem with the entire plan was that Mistress Voirrey was probably going to have kittens at the sight of the Academy’s first transgender student landing on the West Lawn on a bright pink flamingo…


Written for the flash fiction prompt “Clouds” for a Facebook writing group which may, or may not, involve badgers. Sparkly ones.



Cloud dancing

Layla whirled and leaped on the dry grass, skinny arms and legs flying as she threw back her head and laughed at the sheer joy of dancing. She watched the skies as she moved, squinting then widening her eyes to see how the clouds were developing above her. She raised her arms above her head and changed to a movement that would probably have been called a reel, in the time Before.

Not that Layla knew anything about Before. She’d been born in the throes of the sticky time, the time when there wasn’t quite war but there certainly wasn’t peace, when the stability of the previous 80 years in that part of the world had gradually tipped into chaos. Maybe if she’d have been born Before she’d have been different. Maybe she’d have had people care for her and help her through a much easier life than he could make for her. Maybe she’d have been cured by some of those miracle medicines he’d heard talk of and kind of maybe just about remembered. But now all she had was him. And all Malc could to for her was make sure she could dance every now and then.

He watched her ecstatic, loose-limbed spinning figure and remembered how he’d first found her, hands bound and dragged behind a family of Eaters, destined to be their next meal. He couldn’t stand Eaters, so he’d shot two of them as soon as he’d seen what they were, another two as the smaller ones ran and screamed and panicked, and the final ones he’d killed close up. One of those had been young enough that he’d hesitated, but the mother had been holding it and when she’d run shrieking at him with a knife he’d put the next arrow right through the both of them. Stupid Eaters never kept much of a look out, as if the act of eating human flesh somehow made them immune to any danger. He always left them for the scavengers – and maybe one day he’d eat the flesh of a creature that had fed on those Eaters. But he would never become one.

So he’d fetched Layla out of the camp, retrieved his arrows and they’d walked on. He wouldn’t do things quite the same now. Travelling with someone else had made him more cautious in some ways. Especially someone like Layla. He’d seen straight off that she wasn’t right. But she wasn’t stupid either. She’d held still in the midst of that camp as he killed her captors, and she’d not shied away from him when he went to free her, instead presenting her bonds to be cut. And she’d proven herself handy enough with a knife in the time since, too.

She was, he reckoned, maybe 17 – perhaps a little younger, perhaps a little older. But no more than a couple of years either way. Skinny, always, no matter if they spent time in a caravan of travellers – not that they were ever tolerated for long – or were just walking the roads alone, sometimes hungry for a day or two if the hunting luck wasn’t with him.

So they’d travelled together for the best part of a year now, first as companions and then when Layla came unbidden to him one night, as lovers. He supposed he was perhaps five years her senior, but she was the first woman he’d ever had, all the same.

As for him, he’d survived first because he was with a big group and his parents were still alive. Then they both died, one of a broken leg gone bad and the other of some kind of fever, and he’d been tolerated for a while because of his skill with a bow. And then the boss man’s daughter had wanted him and he’d seen the way that was going and run rather than have his throat slit some night.

Since then – until Layla – he’d been alone.

He looked up at the sky. Time they were going, more than.

Layla was still dancing, but even she could see that her dancing was nearly finished for the day. He sighed. He knew that sometime – and he should have done it already – he’d have to stop this. Stop her. She wound down and came to a slightly swaying halt, smiling that beautiful, relaxed smile she always got when she’d been cloud dancing.

The adrenaline of the hunt had gone now, replaced by the fear of the potentially hunted. The smoke of the pyre would be visible from a long way off, and soon others would come to pick over the corpses. Not Eaters this time, but Layla had been jumpy and snappish for days and when they’d come across this lot she was in amongst them with her knife and no thought for her own safety before he could stop her.

Still, he thought again, he really would have to do something about Layla. As they walked quickly away from the billowing smoke rising into the sky, drifting away like a host of small black clouds, she put her hand in his and smiled happily up at him, her blue-green eyes full of love and joy. Yes, he’d have to do something. Just maybe not yet.