Wednesday 28 December 2011

THE LAST WORD by Linda Gillard

Durham Cathedral door handle
As 2011 comes to an end, it’s time to wind up this blog, thank all my guest bloggers and take stock of my CELEBRATE SCIENCE residency.

It was full of surprises. I had no idea Durham was so small or so beautiful. I would never have guessed that being commissioned to write for money wasn’t the authorial Holy Grail I’d imagined. As an agnostic, I couldn’t have foreseen that interaction with scientists would set me thinking – and writing – about religious faith. When Dr Pete Edwards tried to explain to me the significance of the Higgs Boson, I didn’t know that just a few months later, there would be rumours (unconfirmed as I write) that scientists at Cern in Switzerland were about to make an announcement that the 40-year search for the predicted sub-atomic particle was finally over. 

Dr Pete Edwards
It's an interesting time to be celebrating science. As Prof. Brian Greene wrote in an article in the New York Times, “…even the tentative announcement has rightly fuelled much excitement. Finding the Higgs particle would complete an essential chapter in our quest to understand the basic constituents of the universe.”

My own quest to understand the basic constituents of the universe was possibly doomed from the outset, thanks to my ageing brain and lack of scientific education (which I wrote about here.) In fact I’ve ended my residency feeling more ignorant than when I began, but I suppose it’s a wise woman who knows just how ignorant she is. Fortunately, exposing that ignorance has done nothing to lessen my interest in science or dull my enthusiasm. As the year turns, my writing agenda for 2012 includes research for a novel about a physicist who’s also a musician. I console myself that writing from the point of view of a scientist can’t be any more difficult than writing from the point of view of someone who’s congenitally blind (which is what I did in my novel STAR GAZING) and it will be much easier to research. 
Weardale hay meadow
If 2011 was a year of writing and travel (back and forth between home on the Isle of Arran and Durham) then 2012 will, I hope, be a year of sitting down and reading – some of it about science and scientists. 

I saw a lot of the landscape of the north-east which was more beautiful than I was expecting. But most of it was seen en route to and from Durham and I wish I’d been able to spend more time in the area rather than passing through. Another time, I’d think harder about the practicalities of long distance travel to and from a residency, how tiring it would be and how long it would take.

The Word Factory on Arran
So… the writing residency. How was it for me? The benefits to me as a writer were many. For a start I got off my backside, away from my study on Arran, with its tranquil view of Brodick Bay and Goat Fell and out into the real world. Walking through the portals of the Department of Fundamental Physics took me out of my comfort zone in several ways, but that was all to the good.

I met some exceptionally helpful and enthusiastic scientists. Their patient answers to my questions (“What will the end of the world be like?” "Do any scientists believe in God?”) stimulated yet more questions and I began to see a link between writing fiction and scientific enquiry: asking questions. So it seemed obvious that a unifying theme for our workshops and the writing they produced should be the title, “What if?...” 

Financial remuneration was another benefit of the residency. It was a luxury, but also something of a two-edged sword. Normally I write for myself, without regard for potential publishers. (This year I e-published two new novels independently on Kindle. I wrote about how and why here.) However when I was writing the commission piece SIX DAYS, I found I was all too aware of my potential audience. I was conscious of the obligation to produce something that both celebrated science and was inspired by my visits to Durham and the surrounding area. 

LG reading at the 2011 Durham Book Festival
That wasn’t a difficult goal in itself, but it felt like an artistic constraint. That feeling increased when I discovered I was expected to read some of the piece at the Durham Book Festival. Consideration of an audience began to dominate the writing until Dr. Paula Martin and I agreed we should abandon the idea of an incomplete public reading as it was proving counter-creative. (I felt a bit of a diva, but was hugely relieved.)

The experience of being commissioned to write is one I’m glad to have had, but I’d approach another such commission with caution. Despite working as a freelance journalist for 12 years (or perhaps because I did?), I was ill at ease writing to a specific word length for a particular audience. I prefer my imagination to be completely untrammelled, otherwise I become preoccupied with outcomes when I should be engaged in process.

Durham Cathedral's Millennium window
Free to develop in its own way, SIX DAYS became an exploration of science, faith and art and it furnished me with yet another surprise. Paula had originally asked me to write a short story but I requested a vaguer brief as the short story was not my natural medium. She agreed, so I was then free to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it (my personal definition of good writing) but the end product, though actually intended to be an excerpt from a novel, emerged as a short story. So I’d actually stepped outside my comfort zone again, which I saw as another benefit to me as a writer.

My mind was certainly stretched writing and reading this blog, not to mention grappling with the vagaries of Blogger (which encouraged me to explore colourful new avenues of invective.) I'm particularly grateful for the mind-stretching contributions of Prof. Tom McLeish and Emma-Kate Prout, both of whom have what I referred to in my novel EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY as a “wide-angle mind”.

Reading the blog entries has been a source of surprise and entertainment over many months. There haven’t been many comments posted which was a little disappointing, but I hope anyone who found the blog was as impressed as I was by its enthusiasm, humour and eclecticism. It was very much a group effort and I’d like to thank all contributors, especially Paula (like me a Blogger novice) who put a lot of work into administering the blog with me.

Paula has written about the writing workshops in her three blogs, Where do good ideas come from? and you’ve now had a chance to read some of the work they produced. Interesting and wide-ranging as those written contributions are, what pleased me most was the way some participants immediately adopted a method I’d taught them and applied it elsewhere. It’s been gratifying to see the “Timed Writing” process spread like a virus.

There were many benefits to me as a writer and, in a way, I think it’s still too soon to assess their impact. I think I'll feel “aftershocks” for years. It was certainly a privilege to be invited to participate in the 2011 Durham Book Festival and to be offered a platform alongside the brilliant poet, Valerie Laws who has written so movingly about the decaying brain in her anthology, ALL THAT LIVES.

But there was also a downside to the residency and in the spirit of scientific enquiry, I’d like to record what that was.

My other work suffered. I discovered I’m not good at concentrating on more than one project at a time, especially if one of them is a novel. Once I’m halfway through a novel, I prefer to immerse myself in the world of the book until it’s finished, so I decided to set my novel aside to concentrate on the residency. The book I’d expected to finish in the summer dragged on and wasn’t finished until December. It was difficult to resume work on it once I’d done my last trip to Durham and I had a tough period fearing the novel had died of neglect. I managed to resuscitate it, but I’m not sure if it’s the novel it should have been. (Memo to self: don’t accept another writing residency when half-way through a novel!)

Paula and I had too many good ideas and we planned too much, some of which never came to fruition, despite a lot of thought and email discussion. Sadly, I didn’t get to work with primary pupils in rural schools, nor did I see Paula teach a writing workshop, which was disappointing. A planned open forum session on mental health issues, led by me, was shelved because we simply ran out of time.

But what I struggled with most was my own lack of confidence and expertise. I’m a worrier and I worried – constantly! – about being the “wrong” person for the job. I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating company of scientists, but frequently felt out of my depth - not because I lack scientific knowledge and qualifications. (Heaven knows I do, but I’m always happy to ask questions and learn something new.) No, the source of my insecurity lay elsewhere. Normally when teaching a writing workshop, I’m besieged by questions about the writing and publishing processes. It’s not difficult to tailor answers and activities to suit participants’ needs because it’s usually clear where my students are coming from. (Writers aren’t always a loquacious breed, but writers in workshops usually are, possibly because they've scraped the funds together to attend and are determined to get every last scrap of useful information out of the tutor!)

LG teaching a writing workshop
My writer-scientists were much less forthcoming – often silent – so I found it difficult to identify their writing needs. I was aware that I was sometimes taking them outside their comfort zone, but it’s difficult in a workshop situation to know whether glazed expressions signify boredom or an attempt to grapple with a new idea.

So even though a good scientist apparently has a lot in common with a good writer (see Tom McLeish’s post here and my response), I worried that my workshops might not be appropriate for such a motley group – one that included geology undergraduates, science communicators and professors of physics. (Intimidated - moi?) I didn’t tailor the workshops for scientists. (How could I? I’m not a scientist and haven’t studied science since I was at school.) I decided instead to focus on process, exercises to stimulate creativity and build confidence, because in my view, writers at all levels of experience can use this kind of input.

But I sensed my student writers were expecting something more structured (or perhaps I mean directed). Certainly some participants seemed ill at ease with Timed Writing, where you produce writing that is of no particular significance in itself, but which shows you how you write, or rather could write, if it weren't for all the inhibitions and preconceptions that get in the way.

Dr Paula Martin
So I have mixed feelings about what I achieved with the residency, but positive feelings about its benefits to me as a writer. I’m happy to have lobbed a few stones into the Durham writing pond and I suspect the ripples are still travelling outwards. As for me, I plunged – terrified – into the Durham science pool and floundered around. But I came away less afraid of the water and determined to do more than dog-paddle in future.

I think I speak for all of us involved in the CELEBRATE SCIENCE blog and the writing residency when I say we achieved our main goal, which was to celebrate science in all its diversity. I wish to thank Durham University (especially Dr Paula Martin) for inviting me to take part in the celebration. It’s been demanding, exciting, frustrating and at times joyous. But at every turn the experience has affirmed what we all believed: that science really is worth celebrating.

LG pictured with poet Valerie Laws at the 2011 Durham Book Festival

Tuesday 20 December 2011

What If... (Photographs on the Mantel) by Lynne Hardy

Lynne Hardy says:

The idea for the story came from Linda Gillard's "What If?" writing workshop. One of the pictures in the inspiration pack for an exercise on character development was of an old lady, proudly sitting to attention amidst a collection of brick-a-brack. The mantlepiece was crammed with photographs, all of them very old, except for one of a young boy in school uniform, which stood out because it was so modern compared to all the others. For some reason, that set alarm bells ringing in my mind and I began to wonder what else might not be all that it seemed. From that grew the short story "Photographs On The Mantle", which was written as an extension of the character design activity and to work through some ideas on whether what we perceive is really real or all of our own making.

What If... (Pictures on the Mantel) by Lynne Hardy

To look at her now, you would never know; no, never know what a beauty she was, how the men all stopped to stare the moment she entered a room, how the women glared at her with envious eyes as hard as diamond. And always round her neck a string of perfect pearls, a generous gift from a long dead suitor, faded now to match her faded beauty.

There is no-one living left to admire her, only the ghosts that watch her with their dead eyes from the mantelpiece, shrouded by glass and dust, forever frozen in that one fleeting moment of time. Unlike her, for whom time strides inexorably on, beating her down, weathering her like rock, until one day there will be nothing left but sand and dust and memory.

She will tell you about her glory days, if you let her, her voice crackling with excitement like an old record on a gramophone. She’ll tell you about her ghosts, too, while she fiddles with her pearls, bright and brittle, her dinner slowly heating over the gas fire she can barely afford to run. It is only her stories that truly bring warmth to her bones, a flush to her cheek, a smile to her milky eyes, not these flickering, cold flames.

And you would never know, never guess, that none of it was real. The boy on the mantel was someone’s grandson, true, but not hers. Those sepia prints were of someone’s parents, someone’s lovers, someone’s friends, but not her own. All of it make-believe, the fantasies of a lost old woman, clinging to something she never possessed, never wanted, until it was too late and time had stolen its possibilities away from her.

The clock does not tick, it cannot; she lost the key years ago. No, not lost – discarded, thrown away to try and stop the miserable passage of time. But now, sitting staring at you as you politely sip your tea and listen and take your photographs, she knows that nothing can stop it, nothing ever could. It seeps away, just as her looks have done, as her life has. And now she waits to join her ghosts, to become the sand in someone else’s hourglass, just another picture on the mantel.

Linda Gillard says:

That photo has been inspiring writers for almost 20 years! I used it when I was a primary teacher and I use it all the time in workshops. I suppose the woman is long dead by now, but I like to think of her now being immortalised now on the internet on our blog. I wonder what she'd have made of that?

Monday 19 December 2011

What If... by Anne Liddon

Anne Liddon says:

I have written fiction for many years, but I earn my living as a communications professional. For the past five years I have been science communications manager for the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, a national interdisciplinary research programme that brings together natural and social sciences. This has made me think about how technical progress and human behaviour influence one another in our everyday lives. In an era of environmental change, this interdependence is thrown into ever sharper relief and I think fiction can be a powerful means of examining some potential futures.

What if… by Anne Liddon

It’s all getting so complicated that sometimes I even wish I hadn’t said yes when Craig asked me. Mum wants a big do – that’s understandable when there’s just me, I suppose. Maybe in the old days, when people had brothers and sisters, it took the pressure off. Dad does all the calculating of their carbon allowance at home. He keeps tabs on their smartcards and swaps around the entitlements to keep them in the black. Heaven knows how he manages it. Craig and me never make our credits stretch and we’re always having to do without something at the end of the month. But Dad seems to work his magic - I’ve even seen him bring in a pineapple once on Mum’s birthday. She loved that. Sometimes I suspect he buys up a few black market credits so they don’t have to go without. They’ve never even had to switch their electricity off, as far as I know, not ever. I can see Dad’s point – if something like that happened it would just about kill Mum, the shame as much as anything. And he’s a bit of a softy about giving Mum what she wants. I just hope he never gets caught. Somebody at our office went to prison last year for fiddling their carbon allowance.

But now, with the wedding, it’s all coming to a head. Mum wants to have the reception at a hotel with proper wine and lots of imported food and me wearing a big white meringue. She was even talking about serving meat to fifty guests at one point. We couldn’t expect Dad to stump up all the credits for that – I feel bad enough about him paying out the cash for everything. But Craig says having money hardly matters any more, and that it’s only your carbon allowance that’s worth anything anyway.

Mum says it will be fine. She says they could trade in some of their future credits to pay the carbon costs of the wedding. The trouble is, who knows whether we’ll ever be able to pay them back? There’s a limit to how much black market dealing Dad could get away with. They might end up with no credits for electricity next year, and the last few winters have been terrible with all the snow storms. Nearly a hundred people froze to death in Scotland a couple of years ago and that was mainly older folk who had to turn their heating off.

Craig’s got this “live now pay later” attitude too. He thinks the wedding is a great opportunity for a big party. He says we don’t get many of those, so we should make the most of it, and I think Mum feels the same. But I can’t see him wanting to live on turnips from our allotment because we’ve got no credits left for food.

We’re lucky to have the allotment at all. I know people who’ve been on waiting lists for years and years. There’s such a shortage of land, what with so much of the world not even being able to grow food any more. Ours is half of Dad’s really and he does a lot of the digging for us. But Craig’s always moaning about the lack of variety, especially in the winter, and wanting to splash out on imported and greenhouse-grown veg. Plus, he’d eat meat and eggs every day of the week if it was an option. It would have helped if the hens hadn’t been eaten by a fox. I only had them for six weeks, but those eggs! Well, I’ve never tasted anything like them! They were completely different from the ones you buy in the shops. I suppose it’s because they get to scratch around outside while all the bought eggs are from intensive farms. Mum says battery cages were made illegal when she was little but the government brought them back in because the free range systems were too carbon-dear. It seems to me everything nice is carbon-dear.

Even getting married seems to come at such a price. I can see why people don’t bother. I really do love Craig, and I know he loves me too, but I’m afraid there’s something he wants to do, even though he’s never said it in so many words. It’s the way he looks at the pictures on those websites. And now he’s started to watch films on the internet.

He carries one of those new little Graspberries around with him all the time. You know the ones where you can insert your own picture into the action? They say it’s one of the addictions people can get. And he’s started asking me to watch them with him. He says he likes me to watch too so we can imagine we are those people – the ones in the old films, having lovely food and wine and going in amazing cars and on aeroplanes to far-off exotic places. But it doesn’t feel right, seeing my face on those people on the screen, doing those things. I think it would be easier if we just forgot about how it used to be. In those days nobody even knew about the carbon.

And now he keeps saying it’s time we made a real commitment to each other. It’s nice, I’m glad he feels like that. But all the time, I think that there’s one thing he’s not saying. It’s like something floating in the air between us, but never being mentioned. There’s one thing we could trade in and get credits for that wouldn’t just entitle us to a party, it would keep us comfortable for years and years. It would be worth tens of thousands of credits. We would even be able to have meat sometimes and drink tea and coffee more or less every day, and buy fruit all year round. I had thought I didn’t mind Craig feeling like that. I would have agreed. I would have liked all those things too. I know people who’ve done it and they have such nice lives. But I’m afraid. To get the full credit allowance it would have to be both of us. We would both have to agree and sign up to it. Then we would both have to be sterilised. The word sounds so awful. And after that there wouldn’t be any going back.

Sunday 18 December 2011

What If... (The Watchmaker and the Magic Magnet) by Charles Donachy

Charles Donachy says:

This story is largely true. When I was a child I was very impressed with everyday science, from magnets making little iron filings line up nose-to-tail, to the magic chemicals in mammy’s cleaning cupboard, and especially the sulphur match-heads that let home-made percussion caps go with such an exciting BANG! So this story is for anyone who was a curious child - or had unkind relatives.

What If... (The Watchmaker and the Magic Magnet) by Charles Donachy

My friendship with my watchmaker Granda froze in time the moment I stopped all his clocks. I was six at the time and had been aware of an affinity with my Granda from my fourth Xmas when he made me my wooden train from Santa. But since the day of the magic magnet "Time has stood still" between my Granda and me...

Granda’s "hoose" was a two bedroomed apartment. Then he took early retirement and moved their bedroom from the "big bedroom" to the "living room", using the former as his new workroom.
"Hey paw, why hiv ye locked the big room door?" asked Uncle Pat.
"Because I don’t want you or anyone else touching or nicking anything."
"Bit whit hiv yeh got in there?"
"Ach ye know fine well it’s my watch-making workshop."

Uncle Pat and his brothers were not happy for although they were all married and living away from Denmark Street they still treated the house as if it was still theirs - and not just when they were on the booze or merely escaping wives and weans. "There’s nae wei we can manage wae only the wee bedroom atween us." said Pat. But for many years they did.

I was there one day and Granda was out but the big room door was wide open.
"Hie", said Uncle Pat, "the auld man’s furgot tae lock ’is door," and he and Joe went in. A short time later they called me through. "Hie Charlie wid yeh like tae hae a wee look."

I went in and my eyes lit up – the room itself was in darkness but there was a large overhead light shining down on a massive desk full of tools. Granda had steel rulers, two iron protractors, dividers and compasses, and a large tray full of pliers of all types, shapes and sizes. Another tray held the biggest collection of small screwdrivers I had ever seen – some were so small you could hardly see the part that screwed. Answering my unasked question - to the right was a small box containing eye-glasses and magnifying glasses.

"Look at this Charlie." said Uncle Joe and my eyes turned to orbs as my gaze fell upon the large horseshoe magnet in his hand and suspended from a cord. "Granda left a message asking if you could help him." "Joe," he says: "You know young Charlie’s only six but he’s got eyes like a hawk and a lot of gumption so if you just show him what to do I’m sure he’ll do a grand job." I swelled with pride fit to burst. "Now," he continued, "You must make sure that all these little screws are magnetised and stick to the screwdriver like this," and he showed me. "This makes it much easier for him to screw them back into the watches."

It was only then that I noticed that shadowed in the light’s penumbra the whole left of the desk was covered in watches and small alarm clocks and then bigger and bigger clocks all the way to the wall.
"Yeh see it’s difficult fur him tae see them proper but he says you’ve got really sharp eyes and will be able tae dae it." said Uncle Pat.
"Whit dae a’ dae?" I asked, shaking with excitement.

So they left me with the basic instruction to attach any pieces of metal that would stick onto the big heavy magnet. I set to and did this assiduously by first putting each iron protractor onto one of the "feet" of the magnet and then attaching all the loose nails, fly-wheels and main springs. And the magnet, the while, had drawn me into it by its mysterious power just as surely as it attracted all the small screwnails and watch springs, and I was happily lost in a magical wonderland of armies of screwnails faithfully following their screwdriver leaders.

BANG! - Reality impinged when a mighty blow hit the back of my head knocking it forward crashing my left eye and nose into the magnet in my left hand and as from a great distance I could hear this strangulated voice:
"Fur Chrissakes! What the Hell are you doing."
"Bbbut Uncle Joe … Ppat..."
My splutter was lost as he dragged me by the collar into the living room where Grandma let out a shriek: "Holy Mother o’ Jesus! Paddy McGhee! What in God’s name do you think you’re doing to that wean - his face is all covered in blood."

Sure enough the sharp bottom of the magnet‘s ‘U’ plus screwnails had hit me flush on the nose drawing immediate blood, but worse was my left eye, which had taken the full force of the solid ‘U-bend’ of the magnet. Granda’s frantic rage was such that he just shook himself like a wet dog and harrumphed back to his ruined workshop. Yes, ruined. The delicate balance of all the small flywheels and springs was destroyed by their being magnetised into clinging to each other – or any other bit of metal within range.

Meanwhile Grandma cleaned me up as best she could as she tried to coach me on what to say to my parents – well to my Dad, who often failed to see eye to eye with his in-laws at the at the best of times.
"So if you just say you were swinging the magnet on its string and when you glanced away it cracked into you."
"Naw, naw Grandma – a’ know a better wan. A’ wis bending doon tae pick up a wee screwnail behind the door when Uncle Pat came rushing in and the door handle caught me right in the eye and nose."

Grandma found out what had really happened. Uncle Pat had unscrewed the padlock on the workroom door, but pretended it was already open. She insisted on telling a still angry Paddy all this and making him say he was sorry. He hated that almost as much as the damage and Granda and me were never really pals again. He did carve me a nice woggle for my First Communion later, but only because it was already half-done and because Grandma insisted. Apart from that the only things I remember his saying to me were "Wipe your nose!", "Don’t talk with your mouth full!" or "Don’t gabble when you’re eating!"

Grandma got hold of Uncles Joe and Pat, “Right you two get in there and apologise to your Da. And when you’ve done that you’re going to get that poor wean something to make it up to him.” And Joe, being Uncle Joe, decided that they would each get me a magnet. They also got me a big pile of little bits of iron as well (I’d never heard of "iron-filings"). Joe taught me "big magic" - how to hide the magnet under paper or cardboard and move the magnet about to get the filings to "march" mysteriously when nobody was touching them.

I managed to get the belt twice at school for showing off that trick in class. But "Drawing Class" was one class where my magic magnets really helped me. I wasn’t very good at drawing and never got any praise. Then one day I got two metal protractors and attached a magnet to the back of each one. Then I balanced the magnets on the edge of my desk and put a thin piece of cardboard in front of them. Then I traced an outline of my initials ‘C’ and ‘D’ by feeding iron filings onto my now magnetized protractors. Everybody was impressed and Miss Stevenson said it was very clever.

And I liked being popular.

Friday 16 December 2011

What If A Young Boy Made An Important Contribution To Palaeontology? (or Matty's Sea Monster) by Damaris Wade

Damaris Wade says:

As Biology is my subject, I have always enjoyed palaeontology, have taken evening classes to increase my knowledge and designed courses for Years 7-8 whilst I was in teaching. I was therefore delighted when my grandson, Matthew, started to take a real interest, more than the usual “dinosaurs as monsters” approach. There is so much superficial and inaccurate literature around, that I wanted him to have a story which was both scientifically accurate and had himself as the hero. I have aimed the story at 4 – 7 year-olds and was pleased to have had a favourable reception from Matty himself.

What If A Young Boy Made An Important Contribution To Palaeontology? (or Matty's Sea Monster) by Damaris Wade

Matty is six years old and lives with his Mum and Dad and his brother who is called Little Dave. Little Dave is not very interesting because he does not know how to walk and talk, but when he is older he will be able to play football in the garden at the back of their house. Matty likes playing football, but what he likes best of all is finding out about creatures which are now extinct. He has books with pictures of what they looked like and where they were found. His favourite extinct animals are the plesiosaurs. They were reptiles, similar to lizards, which lived in the sea about 80 million years ago. They had long necks, short bodies and flippers for swimming, and chasing after the fish they ate.

Every year, Matty and his family spend a week at a cottage in Devon. This is an exciting place for hunters, as the rocks are full of fossils. What if Matty could find a really special one this year? As usual, he wanted to search for fossils near the cliffs above the beach. Mum warned him, “Don’t wander too far and keep away from loose rocks.” Matty promised to be careful and set off to see what he could find.

Matty is big and strong for his age so he was able to turn over some quite large stones but there was nothing except some smaller stones underneath. He was just about to go back to Mum and Dad when he spotted something which looked too smooth to be a rock. Matty remembered the pictures he had seen in his books, so he knew at once what it was – three large spine bones and a short limb bone. “What a find! I am the greatest fossil-hunter ever!” He cheered and ran over to tell Dad.

Dad was not sure about the bones Matty had found, but they seemed to come from a large animal and he took several photos of them on his mobile phone. “There are some fossil experts investigating further along the cliff, perhaps they can tell you what you have found. But don’t be too disappointed if the bones are not very interesting,” Dad warned as he and Matty walked along the cliff path.

The professor in charge of the team was very excited by Matty’s discovery and went to look at the fossil immediately. He said he would take the bones to London so that other fossil experts could examine them.

After a few weeks, Matty had a letter from the professor; the bones were, as Matty had thought, from a plesiosaur, but one new to science. They had gone back to the place where Matty had found the bones and dug up more of the skeleton, showing that the plesiosaur was larger and had bigger teeth than any found before. Because Matty was the first to find the bones, the naming committee had decided to call the new plesiosaur Matteosaurus. “That means ‘Matty’s lizard’, he told Little Dave, but Little Dave was chewing a crust and was not at all interested.

Thursday 15 December 2011

What if... (Seeing the Light) by Judi Steen

Judi Steen says:

I usually write children’s stories. However, given the general heading of Celebrating Science, I decided that this story was one that would be appreciated by adults and really did celebrate science.

Eureka moments are the highlight of a teacher’s life and this story is based various incidents at schools both in the North East of England and in Amsterdam. Most characters are composite but one or two are depicted as their own, unique selves under new names.

What if… (Seeing the Light) by Judi Steen

They were already here.

Struggling to balance two boxes, she juggled keys and heavy bag to reach the lock.
“Morning, Mrs Davies.” said Mr Robson, the caretaker, as he relieved her of the overloaded boxes just in time to prevent the contents from cascading to the ground. “I’ll put these in your room. Coffee’s ready in the staffroom and the head wants a meeting at 8.”

Twenty minutes later she collapsed into a chair, a steaming mug of coffee clutched in her hand. “Well, that’s it, there’s nothing more I can do. If I’m not ready now I never will be. I’ve got Kazim first period and if an Inspector so much as looks in his direction he’ll be off on a rant about light coming from satellites. Just keep them away from me until second period.”

She stared despondently into space hardly hearing the Head as he said. “… remember - it’s a snapshot. I know how well you all teach these children. I also know that the majority of them will be on their best behaviour - enjoy that, it doesn’t happen every day.”

He grinned as he quoted his favourite line, from his favourite, vintage TV series, “And remember people, be careful out there.”

As Mags left the room he stopped her, “Don’t try anything new today – that’s risky with any group. Stick to what you’ve planned – it’s an exciting lesson and you’ve planned it well. You’ve got all the equipment ready?”

She nodded, “You bet. Eight sets, one for each group and two spares. I’ve checked all the batteries this morning and I’ve an extra pack just in case. None of the mirrors are cracked or chipped and I’ve tested all the light boxes.”

“The team know that you’re on supply so they probably won’t even watch a whole lesson.” he reassured her, “And I know what a fantastic job you’re doing. You’ll be fine.” He patted her shoulder then turned to greet the Registered Inspector, who was waiting by the office door.

Half-an-hour later the children filed into the classroom. They were subdued and quiet; homework was collected and the register taken, almost silently. Apart from a whispered ‘yes miss’, there was none of the usual morning chatter. Looking at all the pale faces watching her every move, she drew a deep breath and smiled at the really very nice class, who had to rely on her now.

“It’ll be absolutely fine, it really will.” she promised, echoing the Head’s words.
“But Mrs Davies, what if we get things wrong, or we don’t know something? Won’t the inspectors be angry?” asked a number of children, anxiously.
“No, they certainly won’t.” she stated, “Don’t think that for one minute. It’s not you they’re here to inspect. It’s the school; it’s me and all the other teachers. They want to make sure that we teach you properly, that we keep all the records we should, prepare our lessons well and all sorts of things like that.”

While the children collected the books and files that they would need for the first two lessons of the day, Mags had a quiet word with the classroom assistant.
“You’ll be fine.” Alison told her, “They’re a good class - as long as Kazim doesn’t get a bee in his bonnet - and I’ll make sure he stays on task.”
“I just keep remembering the OFSTED inspection at my last school. It was an absolute nightmare. I was teaching the third group – electricity, switches, light bulbs, when in walks an inspector half way through the lesson. Naturally he hadn’t bothered to read the notes and he thought it was the high achiever’s group. Fail? That would have been a gold medal compared to what he said.”
Alison tried to reassure her, “Well, this time it’s going to be great.”

Mrs Davies turned to the waiting children and managed another smile.
“Good morning everyone – are you all ready to start? Today will have to be mostly me showing you stuff I’m afraid. There’s hardly enough space to breathe in this room never mind do a practical lesson. So, observations and questions today: tomorrow we’re in the workspace and you’ll all be doing practical, exciting experiments. The plan for today is on the board so could you all…”

The door opened, slowly. Her stomach clenched. There was an almost inaudible intake of breath from the children as an inspector edged into the overcrowded classroom.

Thirty-two apprehensive faces stared in silence.

“Could I have a word, Mrs Davies?” he asked quietly, “Would you mind if I came to watch this lesson, instead of the next one? I’m sorry to have to ask but we’ve had to re-arrange things – it often happens with last minute inspections.”

Mags heard him through a long and very narrow tunnel. She smiled confidently back at him. What choice did she have? No - go away? Come and watch the lesson I’ve planned for you. The one you said you’d watch; the all singing, all dancing lesson with prisms and mirrors and light boxes; the one where my brightest children are going to bounce light around corners and measure angles, split light through prisms…

Dimly she heard herself say, “That’s - absolutely fine. It’s very crowded in here though – I don’t think we’ve a spare chair anywhere.”

Turning back to the class, Mags smiled confidently at the somewhat bewildered faces. She took a very deep breath and began the lesson.

As she demonstrated some of the experiments that the children would be doing the next day, she began to relax. The children crowded round the cramped space in front of her desk, so she could show them beams of light in the darkest space she could find. No one over-balanced, no one pushed or shoved or complained about being squashed or not being able to see. Everything worked perfectly. The children she asked to help did so efficiently and no one complained that ‘I didn’t get a go’. Light beams co-operatively reflected and they even managed to measure some of the angles with the huge blackboard protractor.

Her trick of using a small ball to show them how light reflected worked too. The children curbed their excitement and the ball stayed within reach. Mags risked a glance in the direction of the inspector. True to his word he had stayed well out of the way perched on the windowsill at the back of the room. “OK,” she said, “any last questions before the bell rings?”

Hands shot up all over; curious minds had been intrigued by what they had seen. Most of the questions she referred back to the class and for several minutes they had a lively discussion. Then she heard the one voice she’d hoped would stay quiet.

“Yes, but, yes but… Mrs Davies… you got it wrong Miss, cos you aint done the sat’lite. It’s sat’lites send light init.”

Her heart hit the floor and went on going.

“Kazim, when you watched the light bouncing from the mirrors, where did the light start? Can you remember where you first saw the light?”

He nodded.

She waited, “Could you tell everyone where that light came from?”

“Course, Miss. From that box thing init, with th’hole.”

“You’re absolutely right, Kazim, well done…”

But Kazim was in full flow; nothing was going to stand in his way. “Yeah, but it was sat’lite sent light into’t box miss.”

There were cries of protest:
“Oh, Kazim – give it a rest.”
“Not again.”
“It’s NOT satellites…”

At that point, to universal relief, the bell rang. Quietly, children gathered their belongings and went off to their next lesson. The inspector nodded at Mags as he left the room, “That seemed fine.” he said in passing. But his next words were completely unexpected, “Physics isn’t my subject - don’t really like it, don’t really like such young children either. I usually inspect sixth form biology.”

Mags and Alison stared at his retreating back in silence.

Lesson two went like a dream. Once she had explained everything, Mags almost felt she didn’t need to be there. Even the passage through the workspace of three more inspectors, who had lost their bearings, failed to unsettle her. She missed the other faces watching through the window and hardly noticed the Head stopping by to see how she was doing. The children concentrated on their tasks, there was no chattering, just a quietly excited hum of conversation. Yet none of that seemed to matter. All Mags could focus on was what had happened earlier: another inspector in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The morning finally ended. Exhausted, anxious teachers staggered into the staff room and silently munched on sandwiches or salads, hardly tasting them. There came the sound of running footsteps followed by a thunderous knocking on the door. The unfortunate person sitting in the least popular spot nearest the door lumbered up out of the sagging chair and opened the door a crack.

“There is a large notice on the door, and I know you exactly how good you are at reading Jade, so this had better be an emergency.”

There was an instant hubbub of excited voices from the crowd of children in the corridor.

“Well, no, sir, it’s not reeeally an emergency. Not a Proper Emergency, sir. Well, you don’t need ambulances and such…” Jade was hopping from foot to foot by now, “but we NEED Mrs Davies, we need her now – it’s real important and she needs to come right now, before it’s too late. Oh, Mrs Davies, Mrs Davies,” Jade had spotted her across the room and beckoned frantically, “Please, Miss. We need you to come with us - RIGHT NOW.”
“You’ve got to come, Miss.”
“There’s light. There’s light travelling in straight lines – it’s all over the sky Miss.”

Several other excited voices joined in, urging Miss Davies to ‘come and see’. Everyone in the room was grinning.

“I don’t think you can get out of this one, Mrs Davies. Off you go, science teacher par excellence,” said the head as he ushered her out of the door. “Don’t keep Mrs Davies too long you lot. She hasn’t had her lunch yet.”

“No, sir.”
“We won’t sir.”
“Come on Miss. You’ve got to hurry – it might have gone if we don’t hurry.”

The excited children hurried Mrs Davies out into the playground, where most of Year Five were waiting. Sure enough, brilliant rays of sunlight lanced across the heavily clouded, grey sky.
“See, Miss.”
“We told you, Miss, didn’t we.”
“We were right, weren’t we, Mrs Davies.”
“It’s what you’ve been telling us isn’t it? Light comes from the sun, travels in straight lines and ...”

Mrs Davies couldn’t help grinning at the crowd of chattering, excited children who were so delighted that they had persuaded her to come out to see the spectacle. “Yes. Yes, it is what I’ve been teaching you. And you were right to come and get me. It’s brilliant. I love things like this and it’s great that you can see what I’ve been talking about. Isn’t it fantastic – mind, remember - be very careful not to look at the sun.”

“Is this doing science, then Miss?” asked Robbie, who often struggled to understand things.

Mags nodded and hugged him, “It is indeed ‘doing science’ Robbie. Isn’t it wonderful when it all starts to make sense?” She waved her hand across the gloriously obliging sky where the clouds had parted once again. Rays of light shone like spotlights on the houses parading up the hillside, opposite the playground.

“Dah-dah.” crowed a delighted Mags, “Sun. Light. Straight lines.”
“But, this not egs-peri-ment?” queried Nadia, who had only been at the school a few weeks.
“Is it observation then, Mrs Davies?” asked Jak.
Mrs Davies acknowledged a waving hand, “What do you think, Martha?”
Martha nodded, as did several other children.
“Course it is, Miss.” Martha turned to her classmates, “My dad says ‘observation is the difference between looking and seeing’. He has to observe stuff all the time at work, when he’s looking for clues. ”
“That’s just robberies and stuff, init?” demanded Kazim, who had unaccountably joined them.
“Obsvashun - is - looking hard?” Nadia wondered.
“Not just looking hard, Nadia.” Mrs Davies explained. ‘It’s looking hard and thinking hard about what is happening to what you are seeing. Oh, dear, look, the sun’s rays are starting to disappear – and so must I. See you all later.”
“Oh, but Mrs Davies, what about ... Where does… No, HOW does the sun…” Jak began to ask.
“Good question. Sorry Jak, got to go – I need my lunch. Remember what you were going to ask and ask me later in class.”

The scattered spears of light faded and vanished. Rain began to fall and there was chorus of groans from the disappointed children. Mags headed back to the building but, just as she reached the door, excited voices called out and she turned round.

Across the slate grey sky arched the most glorious rainbow.
“It’s like magic, init Miss?”

Startled, Mags turned to find one of the biggest bullies in Year Eight towering over her, grinning like a child at Christmas. He was pointing at the rainbow, “That’s what you was teachin’ us Miss, yeh? That time me and Carl was real bad. Aam sorry Miss, sorry I messed yuh lesson. Aah won’t do it again.”

The eponymous Carl came running across the playground, shouting for his best mate to come back to the football game.

“No. I’m doin’ science with Miss.” stated Sean, red freckles standing out vividly against a very white face, defiant for the very first time.
“Don’t be daft man Sean. Yoose can’t do science in the yard.”
“Look.” was Sean’s response, as he pointed skyward, “There’s light comin’ from the sun. In straight lines. Just like what Miss said. It’s goin’ through the raindrops and makin’ a rainbow.”
Miss was grinning, too. He’d got it. She had despaired of ever teaching him anything, but Sean had finally got it.

Then a familiar voice interrupted; “Yeah, but sat’lites send light…”
“Kazim, yoose should listen to Miss.” Sean pronounced very seriously

Three days later Mags was grinning like a child at Christmas herself. The Head had just finished debriefing the staff about the OFSTED inspection report. Apparently she had ‘...made a boring subject interesting.’ Boring? How could light ever be boring when you had children to teach who thought it was - Magic?

Judi Steen says:
Children want to find out and understand more or less everything. My job, in this instance teaching science to Year 5 at a middle school, was to give them enough information and the relevant tools to grasp the concept of light traveling from a source. It is relatively easy to explain in simple terms that light travels in straight lines but the experience of being with a large group of very excited children who had just had their own eureka moments will live with me forever.

I don’t think anyone will ever be able to disabuse Kazim of his belief that light comes from satellites. Kazim is not Einstein and this fervent conviction stems from a cartoon depicting a lightning bolt zapping towards a planet from – yes, a satellite.

Sadly, these OFSTED inspectors are based very closely on specific characters and the comments are genuine. However, there are, I know, some very good, very sympathetic inspectors around who do an excellent job.

For anyone who would like to see images illustrating the science in this story, I recommend Engineering Interact's sections on reflection and mirrors and light sources and rays

What If Everything Was Forgotten? by Zoe McAuley

Zoe McAuley says:

I study archaeology and archaeology isn't, strictly speaking, a science. That made celebrating science through a subject that isn't really a science rather tricky. So what could archaeology do for the sciences, I wondered. In what 'what if' scenario could archaeology really shine? When lost things need to be found and when lost science needs to be recovered. So I wrote about archaeology serving as memory for the sciences.

That, and I like a good post-apocalypse with crazy collecting bag-ladies.

What If Everything Was Forgotten? by Zoe McAuley

They call her mad, the Rock Whisperer, but they still send their children to her to learn. No one else cares so much for letters as the Rock Whisperer. No one else has the patience to press words into the children’s brains, nor numbers and sums into their skulls. Mara's turn came when she was entering her seventh summer and big enough to cross the two deep-wooded valleys alone. She was given little warning. She brought in the basket of eggs one morning, as she did every other, and found her mother and aunt bickering over their millstones.

"Take a look at her," her shrewish aunt tutted. "She's far and away old enough to make it. My Tam was smaller than her when he started and twice as easily lost."
Her mother snorted, "What's the use of it though? I never had no lessons with a crazy stranger. You just come to know these things."
"Really? Mara dear, how many eggs are in that basket?"
Mara looked puzzled, "There's lots, I looked really hard. I even got the ones the speckled one hides under the trough."
"Yes, very good, but what number?"
"More than yesterday?"

It was decided that she should visit the Rock Whisperer the next day, once the eggs were in. Two other children in the village had the trip to make and jabbered as they walked, distracting her as she tried to learn the route.

"You'd better be careful what you say," said the smaller one gleefully, a boy two years her senior. "If you say a word she doesn't like, she'll grind you up with her seed chewer. She'll says it's for herb-grinding, but don't believe it. And she hates lots of words, like all the words she says they didn't have before the Winter. Dunno how they can have not had words, but she says they didn't."
"It's called a language," said the older girl, a cousin recently stretched by growth spurts. She was clever, everyone said it. She'd been learning letters with the Rock Whisperer. Some muttered that she'd been learning spells too. "A language is having the wrong words for things, but those words still mean the same as normal ones."
"See? Don't listen too much or you'll turn out like that. I only go when my folks want me to count up the sheep again, but she wants me to learn tricky stuff, about fracting and splitting the herds into little herds or something. She's mad."
"She's not completely mad," the girl said. "Her ideas usually work."
"What about all that junk she has?"
"Alright, that doesn't work."

Mara gaped when she saw the house for the first time. It was not one of her village's roundhouses, all posts and thatch. It was stolen from an alien world. Lumps of orange stone, each an almost perfect block, hung together in a neat pattern, stuck with thick grey mud. The edges met in sharp corners, the walls straight as blades. The shape wandered, boxes cutting into boxes. The roof was pointed too, and lapped with stone scales. Mara's world had been rough-hewn from nature, surfaces seldom finished or smoothed. She crept forward to stroke the strange rocks.

"You like it?" a bright-voiced figure stepped out of the doorway. "I built it myself. Took ages to find bricks that weren't too worn, had to take down a few whole walls. They were nearly fallen over anyway. Then lugging them over here and putting them back up again. Still, it was worth it. They work so well, these Autumn houses. It's all from the Ruins, you know, every brick and tile. It's how houses used to look, you see, before the Great Winter. The books told me so, I'll have to show you the books. And the ruins too, they told me. The stones told me how they got there. Well, in their own way. You've come for lessons, I take it? I was wondering when you would turn up. Mara, isn't it? Anita's littlest one? It'll be good to have a new face, see what you make of it all. That's the best bit, seeing what you make of it all."

Mara stared up at the Rock Whisperer for the first time. She was lean and sun-beaten, not some dark-lurking invalid like her great-uncle, like she had expected. Her great-uncle, long ago lamed by a horse, was the only person she knew with books and he spent all the time sitting and reading his four books again and again. No, the Rock Whisperer was built like a mink, her eyes just as quick and bright. She wasn't as old as Mara had expected either, old enough to lose track of her years but not so old that it was killing her. Her clothes were as peculiar as her house. Where Mara worn home-woven woollen, the Rock Whisperer wore a tunic of a strange sheen cloth covered in hundreds of tiny circles, its colours swaying between pink and purple as she moved, and faded blue loose leggings with a fine weave and thick seams. Both were patched and twisted from repairs, but their oddness made them grand. About her neck hung a dozen tarnished trinkets: a little bear without all its limbs, letters and numbers, a handful of hearts in all sizes and styles.

Mara said nothing, her little dark eyes bulging. The Rock Whisperer smiled.
"Terribly exciting, isn't it? Let me show you the rest."

The Rock Whisperer's house was a den of wonders and a monument of madness. It was clogged and cluttered beyond all hope of comfort. Furniture was jammed into every space just large enough to take it. There were great upright boxes which stood from floor to ceiling and had lids that opened like doors, made of some substance patterned like wood but with the smoothness of ice. There were tables, broader and flatter than any conveniently cut log, the legs wastefully braced with metal. There were great iron chests, with wire shelves inside and an odd pattern of four metal wheels laid flat on top. And over each of the large treasures were a thousand smaller ones: shaped scraps of metal, the sheets of wire-studded card and the splinters of pressed wood.

More sinister was the ruin-bone, lying about as if it were no more than wood shavings. It took all manner of forms: boxes, cups, bottles, tiny people, ropes and endless other forms with no clear purpose. Its smooth, warm surface and elegant curving shapes invited the inquiring hands of the braver children and the Rock Whisperer showed nothing but love for it. Most people would not have it in their homes, calling it cursed. Ruin-bone came only from the Ruins, where it was as common as dirt. There was no creature that yielded it, no trees from which it could be cut, no ore that melted into it. It came from nowhere but the past and most people were keen for it to stay there. Not the Rock Whisperer though. She gathered it up like a harvest of falling fruit and fussed over each piece like it were a newborn baby. Sometimes the villages would ask her why she kept it, why she risked bad luck for useless relics. "Because it lets me speak to the dead," was always her glee-filled answer. They seldom asked her anything after that.

Of all the things that overwhelmed Mara as she stepped into the house, it was the books that startled her the most. Before that moment, she had seen a total of nine books: her great-uncle's four, the blacksmith's two, a tiny one with gilded edges that they kept but never opened for the story was that it was somehow holy, and the two village tomes, the great chronicle of happenings and the tally of harvests. But around most of the Rock Whisperer's rooms, balanced on reconstructed crushed-wood shelves, was a layer of books. Most were damaged, some unreadable, some peeled open with careful hands. Blended in with them were reams of ancient brittle paper, now covered in notes, translations from a dozen ancient languages into more modern squiggles. Mara peered into an open volume and gasped at the faint but perfect picture of a woodland, just as if she were looking at real trees. The Rock Whisperer grinned again. She always seemed to be smiling.

"It's called a fotograf. The Autumn people could catch sight onto paper somehow - haven't quite figured it out yet, I'm afraid. Still, they're beautiful. I have hundreds, of all manner of things, I don't even know what some of them are."
"These ones are trees," said Mara softly.
"Oh, I'm well aware of trees, my dear girl, but what about this?" the Rock Whisperer spun and plucked a book from a shelf like a heron spearing a fish. Just as deftly she flicked open the crinkled pages and slapped the book down in front of Mara. This picture was senseless - all multi-coloured blobs within blobs. Mara frowned.
"I haven't a clue either, and the text isn't the usual Autumn script. Another piece for the project, I suppose. Oh, I can't have told you about the project!"

Everyone knew about the Rock Whisperer's project. Or rather, everyone knew that the Rock Whisperer had a project. Understanding the project was somewhat rarer.

"The project! Yes, I'm trying to translate the writings from before the Great Winter. Some of it is like ours, but the words are different and there's so many more of them. And so many things I don't know the meanings of, but so many things it can tell us. How the world was..."She meet Mara's blinking eyes. "I'll show you." She swirled again, grabbing another book and snapping it open. "See," she jabbed a finger at a faint grey picture of curving rooftops, "it tells me about a building-maker and shows me how his buildings looked. They might be ruined, but the book can tell me."
"Is that what the Ruins look like?" Mara asked. She had always imagined them to be more swampy, with insects scuttling everywhere.
The Rock Whisperer shook her head fiercely, dislodging some of the old metal clips snapped into her hair. "No! Nononono! This is somewhere else, somewhere far away. I've been looking at maps, I think I've found it on some of them, but I'm not sure where we are, been trying to work that out for years. You see, if I cross-reference these two maps...," she stopped suddenly, her hand halfway to another shelf. "I'm meant to be teaching you to read, aren't I?"
"Numbers please."
"Ah yes, numbers. Numbers, then letters, then advanced theoretical geography. It'll make more sense that way."

She was not born to their village, like almost all of them. One morning they had awoken to her yelling at the gate of their fenced-off little fortress, with a voice cracked and dusty.

"Hey! Hey, anyone living in there? I can see the smoke, there must be someone in there! Can you open up? I just want a chat! It's been so long."

They muttered among themselves for a while. She wasn't from the nearest villages, for they were kin and familiar. She wasn't a trader, though she did carry a bulky pack, for traders always boasted of what they were selling as soon as they could. She wasn't a raider for she was weedy and carried no weapon. And she was no raiders' spy, said some, for no one would send someone so oddly dressed, in bright pattern in an unknown fabric, to do anything subtle. They let her in eventually. She was gratefully and gabbling, engaging anyone who dared to look for too long.

"Hello! Who are you? Hmmm, smells like you deal with the pigs, am I right? No no, I didn't mean to be cruel, I've just learnt to trust my nose. That's a very nice weave, for handmade stuff, I mean...Well, there's other sorts as well, oh never mind, shouldn't have mentioned it. Had a good harvest? Good to hear it. Always a good conversation starter, asking about the harvest and I thought ours might be about to flounder. My village? Oh I haven't got one...I've been travelling. You don't see many people travelling... Oh, it's not as dangerous as all that. People really overstate the dangers. I've been travelling about for years without being murdered. Or murdering anybody else, just so that's clear. There are really many people at all in the...wider world, so I'd thought I find some and I found you. So how many of you are there? That's a very large hut..."

She was happy to chatter for hours, over the simplest and the most bizarre topics in the same breath. Some pulled their children from the fireside as the holes in her story deepened, some got bored of her babbling and wandered off to their daily work. A few drew closer, curious at what would slip out next. She talked until the evening, when the rough cauldron was rolled out of the night's stew.

"Oh never mind about all that, the dinner should be on me tonight. You've spoken to me for so long. It was nice to hear all our words, all your voices." she skipped to her pack, a shadowy bundle abandoned to a corner, and began to pull out metal logs, each cut to a hand span in length, with a thin bark of white-faded paper. Then came a strange wheel of fangs on a handle, with which she pierced and gutted the logs with long-practised ease. Inside, with honey in a hive, was soup, thick with vegetables, all out of season. Soon a dozen of these had been emptied into the pot and rested on the fire. "Oh, they're something I picked up. I live off them most of the time actually, they get a bit dull after a while. It's like wrapping cheeses in wax, but for anything. Oh no, I don't make them. I find them. Where? Well... oh look, it's done. Bowls anyone? This one, I think, is called Scotch Broth. There's a lot of it around." Only the brave ate that night.

It wasn't poisoned, of course, and she spent a happy night curled up in human company. But in the morning she shouldered her pack again. "I'm sure you're all kind enough that if I were to ask to stay, you'd have me, but I'm not going to ask that kindness of you. I think I've been on my own too long to be able to not be on my own for long, if you follow, although," she said brightly, "I might visit."

She did drop by from time to time, bringing food-cans and trinkets. Then one spring she appeared with a strange cart filled with strange rocks. "I need a home," she told them whenever she sheltered in the compound for the evening, "I've found so many things, they need to be put somewhere. I'll be just two hilltops over, I can see you from there."

They could see her too and watched with baffled wonder as her 'brick' house rose slowly. She laboured alone, turning away the few villagers who offered a hand. They had their work, she told them, and she would not pull them away from it for her benefit. "If I want to live in an ancient clay rockery, I don't see why anyone else should suffer for it."

Mara wandered home late that afternoon, her head tumbling with numbers. The Rock Whisperer had poured out a great bucket of fist-sized ruin-bone objects, triangular with three spikes protruding from one side. "These are rather common, attached to lots of things. They don't seem to do anything but they make good counters," explained the Rock Whisperer, before taking Mara through the basics on putting things in groups. She thought she got the gist of it.

Mara came back three days later, alone this time, as the others were busy at chores and her mother was content that Mara knew the path. As she reached the Rock Whisperer's door, she paused. There was whispering inside. Peering through the open doorway, she could see the strange woman gripping some trinket, turning it over and over, running fingers over it, staring at its plain surfaces, whispering all the while.

"Some scratches on the outer casing, nothing serious, the owner a little careless so not a terribly precious item. But not for heavy duty use either. Screw holes in each corner... might come apart. Brightly coloured paper pictures on the casing, probably for children then, right style of child-centric art of that period... Hinges still working well. Differently coloured, slightly mobile parts set in dips in the case...probably attached inside somehow. Probably an example of 'but-tons'. Moves a little when pokes but nothing else...ah, I didn't hear you coming in!"

Mara jumped as she was spotted. "Didn't mean to earwig," she murmured. "Didn't know if you were busy."
"Oh no no, just going through a bag I'd forgotten about," she snapped shut the little device and offered it out. "Do you like it?"
Timidly Mara took the mysterious, possibly cursed object. She had pondered the matter for the past three days and concluded that if ruin-bone was reliably cursed, then the Rock Whisperer would have caught plague, burst into flames and had her house fall on her all at once. As she seemed to be in good health, it couldn't be that dangerous. "Is that picture a duck?" she asked.

What if the Rock Whisperer had special spells to keep off the curses, the thought invaded Mara's head. She dropped the device as if it were red-hot. The Rock Whisperer sighed and picked up her toy, "Bit you, did it? Never mind. Back to numbers?"

The smell of her home was always welcoming whenever she returned from one of her expeditions. As dusk dulled the landscape, she would climb to the hilltop. Her bag of treasures would weigh on her as it had for miles that day and miles more in the days before. Almost giddy with the knowledge the weight would soon be lifted, she would stagger to the doorway and slump against the wall as she finished out her key. It had taken weeks to find a door with a lock that still worked and a key nearby, but she had to have one. It was such an elegant idea. The sound of the tiny metal parts in motion was music to her. Her neighbours thought it magic, a spell tied to a token, but then her neighbours thought everything she did to be magic. The door unlocked, she would tumble inside, letting her bag finally fall to the floor. The house would smell of stillness and dust, the attempt at plaster crumbling a little here and there. She had followed the recipe as best as she could, but where she didn't recognise the ingredients she had improvised. The house was mostly stuck together and that would do. She would light the candles, the glass eggs affixed to the ceiling simply for show. And at last she would fall onto her settee, a monstrous thing stitched together from a score of images and a hundred scavenged husks. Lumpy as it was, she could lie upon it and know that it was twenty times softer than the old straw on which her neighbours slept.

Mara began to like the number lessons. It was mostly moving the spiky counters, the 'plugs', from one heap to another. She even took to practising with her egg collection, proudly proclaiming to her mother the total produce of the day as she handed over the basket.

As soon as the Rock Whisperer was content with her counting however, they moved onto letters. "Now some people will tell you that you don't need letters, but they're fools. It's not just the chronicle and tally, you know. It's not even sending letters to other villages. It's the whole world, everything that used to be, all yours if you know enough of letters."

They started with simple books, filled with running dogs and 'shops'. When she wasn't having Mara read, the Rock Whisperer would read out passages from her favourite books, following the words with a finger as she spoke, to show Mara their shape. One book she held more precious than any other. It had been among the first armful of books she had recovered on her first venture in the Ruins. It was more than an inch thick and held together by a green papery cover. She read from it most days, even though every word was etched in her memory, even the ones that still meant nothing to her. She read it as a kind of religious observance, honouring the words which had made her who she was. She read it to Mara too, from time to time.

"Information on the type of mould used can generally be obtained by the simple inspection of the artefact. If it shows evidence of casting on both upper and lower surfaces, a two-piece mould was presumably used. More elaborate shapes are likely to have required the lost-wax method..."
"Is that your magic book?" Mara once asked her. Her curiosity had simmered for months.
The Rock Whisperer broke off from her evening reading. "No, not magic. There is no magic, not anywhere. I'm not a witch, you know. You can ignore what the other children say," the Rock Whisperer scowled a little. "You can ignore what your parents say too."
"Well, if it's not magic, what's it for then?"
"It tells me how to see what things were like before they were broken, to see what the past looked like, to listen to dead people," the Rock Whisperer beamed as she spoke, every word coiled tight with delight.
Mara gave her a withering look, "And you say that's not magic?"
"It's not. It's..."the rock whisperer lowered her voice to an awed and secretive hush, "...called archaeology."

Her collection wasn't as senseless as it appeared at a glance. The books were arranged by theme, or at least her best interpretation of their themes, and each cupboard contained a different group of items. Grouping items was very important, her book told her. She had her mug cupboard, with shelves of shattered crockery arranged by shape. She assumed that they got bigger over time, as more food seemed to become available over time, so she had at the top a shelf of tiny espresso cups and at the bottom mugs so big that they bordered on bowls. Of course, bowls were in a different cupboard, arranged by depth of curve. Another cupboard held a selection of number-pads, palm-sized ruinbone objects studded with numbered buttons. There were several cupboards of boxes filled with metal hairs impaling cards. There were clothes too, a few salvageable enough to wear.

Her pride and joy was the peddle-lamp. She had found plenty of the bicycles during her travels. She had straightened one out enough to ride it, after falling into the rubble a great deal. Keeping out of sight of the villagers' paths, she had even brought it home and used it to fly back and forth to the Ruins. When that one disintegrated into a cloud of rust, she sought out a replacement and it was then that she found the lamp. She had dragged a bicycle from a collapsed barn-like ruin where many bicycles had been smashed together and had hauled it to a favoured patch of flattish ground. As she launched and began to peddle, the faceted plastic disc strapped to the handles gave off a sputtering light. In shock she mis-twisted the handlebars and spiralled to the ground. The light died. The Rock Whisperer scrambled to her feet and threw herself onto the bike again. Once again the light flickered faintly. The Rock Whisperer cackled in delight.

She spent the winter poking through a sack of lamps, whirling peddlers and rotting wires. By spring she had four working peddle-lamps, hidden away to spare the villagers their inevitable terror. But with every turn of a peddle, every puzzled-out wire, every beam of light, she wondered what else in the Ruins might still work.

Mara set aside her book with a sigh. It was filled with 'poems', strings of words which ignored all the rules that she'd so carefully learned. The Rock Whisperer appeared to be dozing in an armchair, but opened an eye when Mara's recital stopped. "Bored? I plucked that off a half-collapsed third storey. I didn't go through that for something dull."
"Well, you did," Mara wriggled restlessly. "What are the Ruins like? You talk about all your books and gadgets, but you never talk about what the ruins are like."

The Rock Whisperer opened the other eye and gave Mara a long, cool look. There was a shadow in her expression that Mara had never seen before, in over a year of lessons. She cringed away from the interrogating gaze. "No, I don't, do I?" the Rock Whisperer began softly. "Most people don't want to hear about it. I know I prattle on and on about everything I find there, but that's different. People don't want to think about the Ruins as a place, a real physical place that I or you or any of us could walk to, could touch. They want to keep it as a nasty dream, or some kind of fairy realm you only stumble into through stories. So I don't make it real for them. You want it to be real? Fine. The first thing is that the Ruins are huge. It takes a day to walk from one side to another, and that's if you know the way. And those aren't the biggest ruins I've seen. Oh yes, there are lots of ruins, they're not just one special place, alone in all the world. There are ruins everywhere. Some of them are tiny and almost entirely eaten by plants. You can only find them if you understand the shapes of the earth, how it mounds over the buildings and silts up the paths. Others are vast. The largest I saw seemed to have no end. You could climb the tallest buildings still standing, look out and see only more ruin. There's brick and stone everywhere. The buildings tumble in and leave a layer of bricks over the soil, makes it tough going to walk over. And the stone has iron rods running through it and is slowly crumbling to dust. It's rather like the sea-shore, I suppose, with great lumps of rock sticking up everywhere. Some have their shapes still, enough to shelter in and to find things. A few are almost complete, they're the best pickings but they're usually claimed in the big ruins. Oh yes, people live in the ruins, did that ever cross your mind? Only the huge ones, of course, but there are whole villages clustered here and there, picking over scraps. Some even have farms in the open patches. Frankly, most of them are just as ignorant as the countryfolk ...that came out a bit too harsh. People just want to survive, they don't want to think, even when they have the ruins all around them to think about. Oh, the paths, that's the other strange thing - there are great broad paths of black sticky stone, with buildings lined up along them. More are broken now, trees growing up through them, but they're still useful to follow. There's metal husks in the way sometimes and...oh the metal trees! Well, posts, they stick up out of the ground everywhere. No idea why. They have wires inside, so they must have done something. Wires are a sure sign of doing something."

She sank into her chair, deflated from saying so much. "You know," she added in a whisper. "I could take you there, if you like."

Mara sucked in a breath. She thought of creeping along ancient paths, where everything was made of ancient mystery. Then she thought of her family's tutting faces when she returned, changed and corrupted. She shook her head.
The Rock Whisperer sighed, "You're not the first. It's always no."

She was always strange, even as a child, stuffed full of questions, questions which had no bearing on the gathering of the wheat or the pulling of the vegetables. When she was seven, she learnt of the ruins and that was the start of her downfall.

"Now I'm letting you wander, now that you're old enough," said her mother on her twelfth birthday, "but you can't wander everywhere. You can't go onto Long Beach alone, because the sands will suck you down. You can't go into Half-Hill Thicket, because the wild dogs live there. And you can't go to the ruins, because the ruins are evil."
"Evil?" her eyes lit up. "How can a place be evil?"
"Because it can," her mother scowled. "Evil people lived there."
"Evil people? What did they do? Are they still there?" her eyes grew even wider.
"They're all dead. They were evil and the Great Winter came and killed them for it. That's all there is to it. Now go collect the eggs."

Of course, as soon as her chores about the farm allowed, the young Rock Whisperer went to the Ruins. Days passed and she did not return. Her family grew frantic and called help from nearby villages to aid in the search. They did not search in the Ruins because it was well-known that all who went there perished. A fortnight went by and her family mourned her, for they had little hope that she could have lived this long alone, with wild beasts, raiders and the land itself all keen to kill a young girl. A month had passed when she returned. She was smiling as she skipped into the village, a little chubbier and with a bundle hugged tight to her chest.

"Sorry, I'm late home, I found the most won-"
Her mother screamed at her for two full hours before she could speak another word, finishing the rant with "And where were you anyway?"
"It was wonderful! There was food locked in metal eggs, and cosy rooms, and all sorts of metal shapes and these!" she let the bundle spill onto the packed-earth floor and books fluttered forth. Some were stuck sealed with damp, others were worm-chewed, some faded to blankness, but enough of the words and pictures shone through, the writing too regular for a human hand. "They're not quite like real words, but I think I can work them out. At least sometimes. It's a big puzzle!"
Her family drew back as if she had begun to froth like a rabid dog.
"Where did you get these?" asked her uncle, the village chief, sternly.
"I went to the Ruins," she said, a little sheepish. "But I brought you a present!" The last thing she drew from the bundle, wrapped in a cloth that was not wool, was a tiny copy of a cow, made of pure ruin-bone.

The next hour was a blur. Her more skittish relations shrieked and fled, crying of curses. The sterner stood fast and shrieked at her parents, lamenting the evils of their child. Her father cowered. Her mother took hold of her by her rough-spun tunic and threw her out of the farmhouse, books launched swiftly after her. "Get out, you little monster! You've cursed the lot of us! I told you, I told you it was evil and look what you've done. You wicked, ungrateful, vicious child! Get out, get out of here and never come back!" In tears, the young Rock Whisperer snatched up her treasures and ran into the falling night, headed for the one other sanctuary she knew. She headed back to the Ruins.

Mara had noticed that something was amiss with the Rock Whisperer all winter, but she was grown used to the strange woman's strange ways. She had been even more distracted than usual and Mara struggled to pull her from some strange tome and her sheets of scribblings, of tunnels and boxes. In the end she gave up visiting, the short and stilted lessons not worth the trek through the snow.

Her mother shrugged off Mara's concerns, "The old bat will come out of it. This happens every few years, she gets the Ruin-madness worse than usual. Probably been touching too much ruinbone again. She got obsessed with this metal box once, was convinced that it should be able to talk. She got over it. She'll get over whatever this is too. Not that it matters too much for you, you've got more than enough letters in you now. You don't want to be spending more time up there than need be."

Mara tried to catch her again when the snow cleared, but she found the brick house abandoned, a note pinned to the door. "Gone to Ruins early this year. Back soon. Probably gone soon too though." And true enough, she was back within the week, laden with foul-smelling lengths of metal. It was quick and easy when she knew what she was looking for, she told Mara when they bumped into each other on the path, as the Rock Whisperer headed off again. "I wouldn't bother waiting up for me. I've got lots to do!"

And so the spring passed and then the summer, in endless little trips to ferry back pieces of metal. There were great sheets of the stuff, poles and rings, pots and toothed wheels. The village smith visited her more than once to trade, as in the past she was traded her scraps for food. It was usually apples, she was fond of those.

"So, will a basket do for the lot?" he asked, scratching at the surface of a misshapen lump, hoping for some metal beneath the rust. "That's our usual."
"Oh no! Nonononono," the rock whisperer bounded from her unpacking with alarming speed and snatched away the piece. "I need all these! They're for the project, you see. That's a valve. Those are important. I need lots of valve, or so Haynes says. Though if the sea-village people come by, I could do with whale oil..."
The smith left her to it. There was little to be gained in fighting with her when Ruins-madness was upon her.

It seemed that she was content with her rust heap by the end of summer, for she dashed off in the other direction towards the coast, with a bundle of golden scraps and shining fabrics. Two weeks later, she returned with gallons of whale oil, a mule to carry the lot and a face-splitting grin. "I've got everything now!" she squealed as she passed the village. "Wait and see! You'll love it!"

They didn't really wait, they simply went about their lives and time passed just as quickly. Winter came and yet the Rock Whisperer did not appear at their gate seeking heat and company. Some muttered that perhaps finally her odd ways had claimed her. Perhaps she had drowned in all that whale oil. Perhaps she had eaten it all and burst.

By some good fortune, it was Mara who spotted her first, on a crisp day after the Thaw. She had been tending to the goats, feeding them the scraps of the night before. She had given up hope on more lessons. An older girl had taken over the task of teaching the littler ones, but she didn't really know any more than Mara. She contented herself with borrowing her great-uncle's books and with tending goats. They were more interesting than chickens.

A great roar ripped through the valley. The goats bleated and fled. Mara froze and glanced about for the source of the sound. It was louder than any sound that she had ever heard, except perhaps the river in a flood and a falling tree. The roar continued, continuous like the purring of some monstrous gravel-stuffed cat. The Rock Whisperer had told her about monstrous cats, but she was sure that there couldn't be lions here. A shadowed shape rolled over the brow of a nearby hill. It was the size of a wagon and just as blocky. It lunged down the slope, the whirling of its four dark wheels becoming plain. It was a wagon, but of metal and glass, rolling loose without horses to guide it. The stench of burning whale oil clogged the air. As Mara squinted at it, she saw a figure squatted behind a glass panel and upon it the glimmer of sequins. The other villagers were beginning to run out, spears in hand and armoured leathers hastily donned.

"What is it?" her cousin called to her as he ran to her side. "What is that thing? Get back inside!"
"It's some kind of monster! A Ruins fiend!" cried one of the others.
"No, wait, I think it's..."Mara faltered, unsure of what she thought it was. "I think it's hers."
As the monster sprinted towards them, above the sound of its furious snarl came the voice of the Rock Whisperer, shrieking with joy.
"Look! Look at it! It works, just like the manual said!" As she neared the crowd, she turned the strange wagon and circled around and around the village, flicking up mud and grit. "It's beautiful! Isn't it beautiful? We could go anywhere! It's so quick. It's a car, a horseless wagon! I fixed it. We can fix things, we can make it work again! We can have it all back again!"