Gordon Bennett: The Early Years

  

Chapter 1

Where’s He Getting It From?

(February 2002)

When he was two and a half, Gordon told his mum he was going to be a palaeontologist. She had to look it up.

They’d found a splendid book on dinosaurs in a shop called The Works. It sold big books at knockdown prices. This one was for grown-ups really, but it had wonderful pictures. Gordon wanted it, so Edith bought it. Conversations with him on the subject of dinosaurs then became unsettling.

Not long after they brought it home, Edith found him studying one of the pages. She was impressed by the sheer size of the creature in the picture. “That’s a big one!” she said.

“It’s a diplodocus,” he told her.

She peered at the label: yes, that’s what it was. “How did you know its name?” she asked him curiously.

“Zack told me.”

She was going along with Zack for the moment, largely because she didn’t have a choice. “It’s huge,” she said. “They must have been scary.”

“No,” he said. “They were herbivorous.” Such a big word in such a little mouth. She looked more closely at the text and there it was: “herbivorous”. “It means ‘plant-eating’” he told her.

“What else do you know about it?” she asked him. She took the book for a moment and scanned the page. He ticked the facts off on his fingers.

“It lived from 155 to 145 million years ago, it was 90 feet long and it weighed up to 20 tons. Its neck was 26 feet long, 5 feet longer than its body! Its tail was almost as long as its neck and its body put together – 45 feet!”

His eyes shone. “Its head was tiny in comparison, only 2 feet long. Isn’t that amazing? It used its tail like a whip. It had feet like an elephant, with 5 toes on each foot.”

“You know a lot about them,” she said slowly, handing the book back.

He grinned at her. “That’s why I’m going to be a palaeontologist.”

She told her husband about Gordon’s creepily exact reporting of the written text in his dinosaur book. “He’s a bright kid,” Victor Bennett said breezily. “He watches all the Nature programmes. He must be getting it from somewhere.”

“That’s what’s worrying me,” Edith thought, but she kept it to herself.

That night, when Gordon drifted easily and deeply asleep, Zack took his hand and flew with him to the Jurassic Era. It was filled with amazing sights and sounds and creatures that Gordon had no names for yet, but they soaked his senses with wonder.

The absolute highlight was watching a peaceful diplodocus grazing on the waving grasses of a prehistoric plain.

NOTES: PALAEONTOLOGY

 

Chapter 2

Learning To Live With It

(May 2003)

Edith got used to three-way conversations between her son, herself and Zack. It was unnerving the way he always paused for Zack to reply to questions, and uncanny how often he came out with a reply to something Zack had apparently said.

They were watching Animal Planet together one day, in the latter half of his third year. Gordon loved animals of all description, extant as well as extinct. The programme happened to be about chimpanzees.

“I do like monkeys, don’t you?” Edith said. She plopped herself down on the sofa beside Gordon.

“Smarty-pants!” Gordon replied.

“I BEG your pardon?!” his mother said, caught off-guard.

“Zack,” Gordon explained. “He says they’re apes, not monkeys.”

“I think he’s right,” Edith replied faintly. “I’m not sure I know what the difference is between apes and monkeys.”

“What is the difference between apes and monkeys?” Gordon said without taking his eyes from the screen.

“I just told you I don’t … Oh!” she stopped. Her son had held his hand up.

“Sorry, Mum, just a mo.” Edith waited. She had taught Gordon that it was rude to interrupt when someone else was speaking. She wasn’t about to break her own rule.

“Oh yes, you’re right” Gordon said. He pointed at the screen.

“What about?” his mum asked.

“Apes don’t have tails.”

“I think I did know that,” Edith said in her own defence.

“Say again” Gordon said.

“I think I did know that.”

“Oh good. That’s another long word for my collection!”

“What is?”

“Prehensile,” Gordon told her. It means ‘capable of grasping or holding on’.”

“That’s right, it does,” his mum agreed. “I expect you’ll need long words like that when you’re a palaeontologist.” She was quite pleased with that comment. Zack wasn’t the only one who knew things.

There was a brief pause. “Long like that one, but not that one,” Gordon said.

“Why not ‘that one’?” his mum asked indignantly. It was high time Zack cut her some slack.

“Why not that one?” Gordon repeated. His mum opened her mouth, and then closed it again, having realised the question wasn’t directed at her.

“Because,” her son said, “dinosaurs didn’t have prehensile tails. It was only millions of years later, when mammals evolved, that you started to get …”

“Hang on, hang on,” his mum said. Her tail was up now; she was in the mood for an argument. “Maybe not tails, but what about claws? They could grasp things in their claws, couldn’t they? Some of them had prehensile claws and toes.” She stared at Gordon and waited for a verdict.

“You’re right” Gordon announced, a few moments later. “He stands corrected.”

“Thank you”, his mum said triumphantly.

A lot of their conversations were like that.

NOTES: EXTANT; HER TAIL WAS UP NOW

Chapter 3

You’re A Weirdo!

(June 2003)

Other children were a bit of a problem at first. Gordon couldn’t understand why their attention spans were so short. He got very cross if they messed up any of his playspaces. He had a Lego and constructions-in-general space. Then there was his dinosaur exhibition and related information space. And don’t forget his painting, drawing and colouring-in space.

Shortly after his third birthday, he thumped his friend Nicholas for colouring in a diplodocus in his new dinosaur colouring book. It wasn’t the colouring-in Gordon objected to. That was what the book was for. The problems were (1) Nicholas had failed to keep within the lines, and (2) he had used the wrong colours. Mistakes of that magnitude tried Gordon’s patience beyond its limits.

Shortly before his fourth birthday, Tom turned out to be a lot worse. He was a bit older and bigger than Gordon and had recently moved in next door. His mum, Yvonne, had her work cut out looking after him. His dad was in the army, and away for long stretches of time. With her needing to work to make ends meet, it was a challenge to find babysitters and places to park him.

Edith sympathized with her situation. However, she had heard Tom’s tantrums on the other side of the dividing wall, and was wary of letting him anywhere near Gordon’s well-organised playspaces. But inevitably she said to Yvonne one day, after a particularly sorry tale of how difficult it could be sometimes, “Well of course if I can be of any help, just ask.”

Shortly afterwards, Tom came round “just for a couple of hours ‘til the babysitter can collect him.” He was dressed in camouflage trousers and shirt, and had brought his toys of choice: an Action Man in combat gear, and a machine gun that pumped out table tennis balls with considerable force.

By now, Gordon was very good at building things. Many of his toys were kits needing careful assembly. When this big boy ran into his living room, he and Zack were putting the finishing touches to an impressive castle with ramparts and a drawbridge. It had already taken more than an hour. Gordon was particularly proud of the crenellations around the guard towers and along the outer walls.

Tom was straight into it, Action Man at the ready. “WHEEEAAAOOOUUU!” he yelled, mowing Gordon down in the first assault. “ATTACKATTACKATTACK!” he howled, his right arm swinging in a perfect arc towards the outer wall. Action Man did a kamikaze dive into the ramparts …

KABOOOOMMM!! Pieces of what had been a fine mediaeval castle were flying in all directions through Gordon’s well-ordered Lego (and constructions-in-general) playspace. All that patient work had been shattered in two seconds of deliberate devastation.

“Now now, Tom!” his mother called out. She followed him into the room at an ineffective distance. “What have I told you about playing too rough in other people’s houses?”

“Please don’t worry Yvonne,” said Gordon’s mum, in a brave attempt to be polite. “No harm done.”

No harm done? Gordon just had time to wonder what reason his mother could have for telling such a fib when the destructive little dynamo was at it again. He hoisted his machine gun and began firing table-tennis balls into his mother’s face. “KERPOW! KERPOW! KERPOW!

Yvonne let out a helpless little giggle. “I don’t know where he gets his energy from,” she confessed, clearly unable to cope. A moment later, however, Tom was flying backwards as if propelled by some unseen force. His tumble turned into a backward roll and his head met the polished floor with a satisfying thud. He landed on his bottom on a pile of bricks – an uncomfortable experience in its own right.

The shock silenced him for a precious second. Then his mouth opened to let out an unsoldierly wail of truly stunning volume. “OH DARLING, WHAT HAPPENED?!” his mother shrieked. She rushed over to him and got a nasty kick on the shins for her pains.

“He PUSHED me!” howled Tom. He dragged himself to a sitting position. Screwing his face into a murderous scowl, he snatched up a wooden building block and drew his arm back. He clearly intended to hurl it at the innocent Gordon, who was still sprawled where he had been pushed when Tom first entered the room.

“NO!” Edith yelled. She tried to get her body between her precious son and the incoming missile; but before Tom’s arm could reach maximum speed, his hand seemed to meet some invisible force. It stopped for a moment in mid-air, fingers still wrapped around the brick, then continued its rapid sweep forwards and downwards to smack into the floor with the ends of Tom’s fingers still underneath it.

If you thought his first wail was loud, you should have heard that one.

“Oh dear,” said Edith. There was just a hint of grim satisfaction behind her air of concern. “We do seem to be in the wars, don’t we?”

Zack walked over to Gordon, grinned and held his hand out. Gordon grinned back, grasped it and hauled himself up. Neither mother noticed Gordon gain some leverage out of thin air while pulling himself to his feet. Tom certainly noticed the grin on Gordon’s face.

“He’s laughing at me,” he complained; but the aggression had drained out of him for the moment. He had a sore bottom, a sore head and a sore hand. He decided to pause for thought, or at least the closest form of that mental activity he could manage.

“Oh dear”, Tom’s mum wittered, “What am I to do? I’m late already.”

Edith took a deep breath: decision time. “Nerves of steel,” she told herself. “You get off, Yvonne,” she assured the other woman. “We’ll look after him. He’ll be fine here.”

“Are you sure?” Yvonne asked. She was clearly relieved, but going through the motions.

“Yes of course!” Edith said. She laid a firm hand on Tom’s reluctant shoulder. “We’ll be fine, won’t we Gordon?”

“Yes,” Gordon agreed. “Zack and I will show Tom how to put the castle back together again.”

“I didn’t know you had another little boy here.” Yvonne said. She looked round expectantly and a little puzzled.

“We don’t,” Edith said. She ushered her towards the front door. “Zack is Gordon’s imaginary friend. They do everything together. It’s a phase.”

“He’s young to have an imaginary friend, isn’t he?” asked Yvonne. She bustled gratefully through the front doorway. “Aren’t they normally older before they get one of those?”

“Gordon’s very advanced,” Edith told her with a fixed smile. She shut the door and turned back to the challenge in hand. “Better than having an imaginary enemy,” she thought to herself, and re-entered the living room on full alert.

She needn’t have worried. Gordon and Zack had everything under control. Tom was picking up the scattered bricks and bringing them back to Gordon. He was moving very carefully, his eyes darting around the room. Gordon was rebuilding the castle and discussing possible modifications with Zack. His mum watched them for a minute, then decided it was safe to go into the kitchen and put the kettle on.

“Who you talkin’ to?” Tom asked Gordon, once his mum was safely out of the way.

“Zack,” Gordon told him, without diverting his attention from the task in hand.

“Who’s Zack?”

“My best friend.”

Tom looked down at the bruised knuckles on his right hand, while his left hand felt the bump on his head. “You’re a weirdo,” he sneered.

A puff of air blew on the back of his right earlobe and he jumped about a foot in the air. Gordon laughed. “Come here, Zack. Leave him alone.”

Tom whirled round, his eyes like saucers. There was no one else in the room. He turned his attention back to Gordon, and made one more attempt to regain the upper hand. “Stark, raving bonkers. AHHAHAAAH!” This time the gust of wind was behind his left ear. It made a whooshing sound, and made him realize he needed the toilet.

Zack!” Gordon said. “Well maybe he did deserve it, but we need to get this castle finished. Oh, yeah, OK.” He pointed at the armchair in the corner. “There are some bricks under there,” he told Tom. “See if you can get your arm under and get them out, will you.”

“Why should I?” Tom demanded. Gordon’s eyes narrowed. Tom felt himself being spun round and propelled towards the armchair. He landed on his stomach while he still had some forward momentum. His outstretched right arm shot under the chair.

“That’s it,” Gordon said. “Well done. Bring them over here, will you? The toilet is out the door, turn left and first on your right.”

Tom did as he was told. Zack, in the meantime, was staring at Gordon with significantly raised eyebrows.

NOTES: CRENELLATIONS; KAMIKAZE; MEDIAEVAL; MOMENTUM

 

Chapter 4

The Cunning Plan

(June 2003)

Tom seemed very pleased to see the babysitter when she came to collect him. “Oooer,” the young woman confided to Gordon’s mum. “What ‘ave you done to ’im? ’E’s almost polite! You must ‘ave the magic touch.”

Edith had smiled modestly. As she was about to shut the front door, she heard Tom say: “I don’t like it there. ’E’s weird.”

“Wot? – make yer do as you were told for once, did they?” his babysitter asked him cheerfully. “Well yer can do as yer told for me now, else yer won’t get no sweets and I’ll take yer down the police station.”

“No yer won’t.”

“Yes I will.”

“No yer WON’T!”

Edith closed the door with a shudder. She was already working on a range of excuses why she wouldn’t be able to look after Tom the next time Yvonne asked. In any case, it sounded like he would resist any attempt to dump him next door again.

Gordon was quite satisfied with the way things had gone. He was surprised when Zack began sounding notes of caution. “I think we need to agree on one or two things before anyone else comes round here to play,” Zack told him.

“Like what?” Gordon wanted to know. He surveyed the rebuilt castle with a critical eye. Tom had helped him put the finishing touches to the crenellations and he hadn’t been good at it. Gordon had told him what they were for – which he thought was interesting – but Tom could not have cared less. His specialism was demolition. He wasn’t into putting things back together again. Humpty Dumpty would have had NO chance.

“Like not talking to me out loud when other people are around.” Zack told him.

“Why not?” Gordon asked. Talking out loud to Zack seemed a perfectly normal thing to do. It was just like talking to his mum or his dad, or to anyone else who happened to be in the room.

“Because it spooks them,” Zack explained. “Didn’t you notice Tom staring at you like you were from outer space? He even said you were weird.”

Gordon had thought Tom was weird, to tell the truth. He had completely ignored sound advice on the amount of space to be left between the crenellations. There was no point to them if you didn’t space them properly.

“You can’t keep chatting away to me when there are other people about,” Zack told him firmly. “And you can’t be telling people they’re not doing something right because I told you to do it differently. And you can’t tell them about the things we’ve done and the places we’ve been, like the Middle Ages and the Jurassic Era.”

“I thought he’d be interested,” Gordon said sullenly.

Zack sat down next to him and put a comforting arm around his shoulders. “It’s not your fault, Gordon, it’s mine. We’ve been having a great time, but you’re growing up really fast. You’re going to have more and more to do with other children and other adults besides your mum and dad. Heavens, you’ll be going to school before we know it. It’s time we worked out how you and I can be together without scaring anyone.”

Gordon screwed his face into an impressive frown. It was an effort, because he hardly ever used his frowning muscles. “What’s to be scared of?” he demanded.

Zack sighed. He’d been putting this off. Sometimes the facts of life are a bit hard to take, especially when you’re not quite four and you don’t yet know how really different you are. “OK,” he said, “it’s like this. You and I are … unusual.”

Gordon stared sadly at him. “Why can’t anyone else see you?” he asked.

“It’s always been like that,” Zack told him. “Most adults don’t believe in us. Some children do, for a while, but then they close the window and shut us out.”

“Is it bad to be unusual?” Gordon asked.

Zack shook his head. “Oh no,” he said. He stared so intently into Gordon’s eyes that his senses started swimming. Zack drifted gently into his brain and out again, enjoying the warmth of the welcome and the breeze from the wide-open window. “It’s how I exist: by finding someone special.”

“Am I special?” Gordon asked. That sounded better than being unusual.

“Oh yes,” Zack murmured, “you’re special all right.” He’d had nothing to do with Tom’s spin-round and power-glide under the armchair. Gordon had made that happen without his help, without even noticing.

Gordon cheered up. “What shall we do next?” Zack was a fountain of good ideas. He always came up with something interesting.

“Let’s practise something I know you’ll be brilliant at. It’s going to come in very handy from now on.”

Gordon loved practising new things. “What is it?” he asked eagerly.

Zack’s eyes glittered. “It’s called ‘telepathy’.”

NOTES: MIDDLE AGES; MOST ADULTS DON’T BELIEVE IN US; TELEPATHY

 

 Chapter 5

Getting Ready For School

(September 2003 – May 2004)

Gordon’s fifth year whizzed by, and Edith noticed that Zack was fading into the background. By Christmas, Gordon had stopped talking to him when he was with her. By Easter, he no longer mentioned him. She heard him chattering away in his bedroom sometimes, but small children do that, don’t they? – especially only children.

She knew that Gordon needed to get used to being around other children before being plunged into the hurly burly of primary school. Nursery School would give him the chance to make friends with real children. It should be easier for him to make other friends, now that he had grown out of his imaginary one.

Curiously, she found herself almost missing Zack. It had been like having two children: one visible and the other with a lot to say for himself. She told herself not to be silly. It was good that he was gone. Gordon didn’t seem to be missing him at all.

Gordon’s telepathy skills were improving all the time. He no longer had to move his lips or close his eyes. The first stage had been dropping his voice to a whisper, and then he progressed to being able to say the words without making any sound.

For a while when he did this he would close his eyes and move his lips. It helped him to concentrate on beaming his message. His mum came across him once while this was going on. It was a few weeks after his fourth birthday. “What are you doing, Darling?” she asked curiously.

“Practising counting,” suggested Zack from his bedroom upstairs. Telepathy is even more useful when you can do it over decent distances.

“I’m seeing how fast I can count to a hundred,” he told his mum. It was only a little lie, and it was for her own good. He didn’t like doing it, but he already knew that the truth isn’t always what people want – or need – to hear.

“That’s good, darling. Do you know what we used to say when I first went to school?”

“No.”

“One, two, miss a few, 99, 100,” she said, smiling.

Gordon laughed. “That’s cheating.”

“We thought it was really funny at the time,” his mum told him. There was a little pause. “School can be good fun,” she said. “You could go now, you know. You’d make lots of new friends and learn new things.”

“No thanks, Mum” he had said. “Next year when I’m five: I think I’ll be ready for school by then.”

“It needs to be sooner than that,” his mum thought, but she didn’t push it. After all, he soaked up information like a sponge. He was working his way through the early reading scheme she had got him, and he always had his head in some book or other. It wasn’t the learning side of it that worried her. It was the social side that could prove to be a real challenge.

Within six months, Zack had bowed out entirely and she couldn’t wait any longer. She made her enquiries and secured a place for Gordon in the local nursery class. He’d only be going for a term, as he was already 4¾. She broke the news at the beginning of the Easter holidays, to give him a chance to get used to the idea.

He looked doubtful. “What do YOU think, Zack?”

Zack was sitting cross-legged in their bedroom, immersed in a history of The Castle in England and Wales by D.J. Cathcart King. He grinned: Gordon’s telepathy skills were improving by the day. “I think we’re ready.”

That “we” made Gordon feel a lot better about it. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad after all. “OK,” he told his mum.

She breathed a silent sigh of relief. “Good. The teacher says you can take a toy with you if you like. Sometimes they do ‘Show and Tell’, when you show the other children something you’ve brought and you tell them a bit about it.

“I’ll take one of my dinosaurs,” Gordon decided.

His mother nodded eagerly. “That would be perfect. You know a lot about dinosaurs.” What her Gordon didn’t know about dinosaurs was probably not worth knowing – unless you were a palaeontologist, and really into that sort of thing.

 

Chapter 6

The First Hurdle

(May 2004)

The first day of the summer term duly arrived, and they set off after breakfast. It was only a short walk away. They could hear excited yelling at least two minutes before they turned the final corner. And there they all were: the other children, a very large number of them.

The nursery class was attached to a primary school. It had its own little section of the playground, but you could still see infants and juniors running around in their much larger space. You could have counted up to a hundred and still not counted them all. It would have been impossible anyway, with all the racing around that was going on. The noise was deafening.

Gordon was overwhelmed and stopped dead. His courage had suddenly left him, and he wanted to turn around and run home. He pulled on his mother’s arm and his bottom lip quivered. She’d steeled herself, knowing he would need help over this hurdle. She knelt down and smiled bravely at him. “Everyone finds it scary the first time. After you’ve done it once you’ll be fine. You get used to it ever so quickly.”

“We can do this.” Zack stood next to his mum and grinned encouragement. “Come on Gordon, let’s go. ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’.”

Dimly, Gordon understood. This was an important test life was setting him. Tests like this came along from time to time and they had to be passed. He was about to leave the safety of what he knew for the uncertainty of something new. Learning how to do that was an important part of growing up. At least he wasn’t on his own.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he said to his mum, and her eyes filled with tears. She knew where he’d got that expression from. It was something his dad always said before they tackled a new model. “Come on Mum,” he said. “We can do this.”

They crossed the road and entered the nursery part of the playground. There were other mums and a dad or two standing chatting while they waited for the door to open. Most children already knew each other and were running around, especially the boys, Gordon noticed. Others stayed close to a parent until some other adult arrived to make sure they weren’t mown down by a bigger, more boisterous child. Survival of the fittest in its early stages.

“HELLO-O-O,” called Yvonne. She detached herself from another couple of mums and came over to Edith. “I wondered how long it would be before we saw you here. Tom’s been coming for ages. This place is a godsend.”

“WHEEEAAAOOOUUU!”

Gordon recognized that noise. “Whoah,” muttered Zack. Tom came charging out of the pack towards them, his arms spread wide in fighter-plane mode. Gordon stood a little closer to his mum while Zack jumped in front of him, ready for the onslaught; but at the last moment, the plane veered off in a near miss.

“TOP GUN!” Tom yelled. He charged at another group of smaller children, which obediently scattered. There were scared looks on some of the faces. Hmmmm. Tom wouldn’t risk a full-on assault while adults were around, but the grin on his face suggested he was looking forward to the first chance he got, once the coast was clear.

“Boys,” Yvonne said. “They’re so different from girls, aren’t they?”

“I think it depends on the boy.” Edith said. “Oh look, Gordon, there’s Nick. Why don’t you go and say hello?”

Gordon walked over to a nervous little boy standing near his mum. Nick saw him coming and smiled shyly. He and Gordon were quite good friends. Gordon had been cross with him that one time he’d got a bit creative in one of his colouring-in books, but that was a long time ago now. They’d both said they were sorry.

Nick was an only child too, and he needed a good friend at nursery school. He’d been coming for a while now, and had found it difficult to settle. Some of the other boys were rough. They’d taken one look at him and honed in on a soft target. Making “Knickers” cry was a favourite game.

“Hiya Nick.”

“Hiya Gordon.”

“What’s it like here?”

“It’s all right,” Nick said, but his eyes said something else. Nick’s mother put a comforting arm round his shoulders.

“It’s about to get a whole lot better,” said Zack. Gordon had never seen him angry before.

Their classroom door opened, and a smiling lady appeared. There was no need to blow a whistle or ring a bell. The children streamed towards her and disappeared inside. Edith joined Gordon and Nick as they walked over to her.

“So, this is Gordon,” said the teacher. She was stating the obvious, but showing him that she already knew his name. “I’m Mrs. Watkins.” She held her hand out for him to shake, and he decided there was a good chance he was going to like her. “You already know Nick, do you?” Mrs Watkins said. “That’s good. You’ll be company for one another.” She smiled down at Nick with just a hint of worry in her eyes.

“Lessons will be learned.” Zack said. Gordon did not think he was talking about them.

NOTES: THIS WAS AN IMPORTANT TEST LIFE WAS SETTING HIM

 

Chapter 7

Rough Justice

(May 2004)

The room was divided into different play areas. In one square, there was a plastic track with loops and bridges and a box filled with cars and trucks. In another was a table with play-dough. There was a home corner where a number of dolls were tucked up in bed. Next to it was a section for finger-painting and drawing with chalks on little blackboards.

The areas were divided by screens covered in pictures and posters and photos of the children. The theme that term was all about staying healthy, and the number to think about that day happened to be 5. It was light and cheerful, full of colour and promise. Mrs Watkins had four adults working with her, keeping their eyes on different areas of the room and helping children make the most of their opportunities.

“What do you think?” Gordon asked Zack.

“Good,” Zack said cheerfully. “Let’s get stuck into something.”

The ages of the children varied. Gordon was one of the older ones, which was OK. He watched them all make their beelines to favourite activities. Many of the boys went for the track, while the home corner filled up with girls. Nick stayed with Gordon, his eyes constantly checking where Tom was.

Tom was pretending to be on a pogo stick and going “boing! boing!” from one group to another. He was an accident waiting to happen, and the nursery assistants were clearly used to him. “Come on, Tom” one of them said. “Let’s find something for you to do. You’re going to knock somebody over in a minute!”

As if that wasn’t the general idea.

She tried to take his hand but he evaded her grasp and ran into a different part of the room. It was exasperating, but he was no longer in her space, so he became someone else’s problem. “BOING! BOING!”

“Excuse me a moment,” Zack muttered.

“What do you want to do first?” Gordon asked Nick.

“I don’t mind,” Nick said. “You choose. OOOH!”

There had been an almighty crash, and one of the dividing screens by the house corner was shaking violently. Tom appeared to have pogo-ed himself sideways straight into it. He was sprawled on the floor, looking bruised and bewildered.

Zack was back at Gordon’s side, looking grimly satisfied. “Lesson 1,” he said.

“You see, Tom!” Mrs Watkins told him. She picked him up and checked nothing was broken. “What are we always telling you about banging into things? This time you’ve hurt yourself for a change.”

Tom’s whimpering self-pity turned into a hard-done-by howl. “Somebody pushed me!” he claimed. This seemed to trigger a memory. He swung round to check where Gordon was. Gordon, however, was nowhere near him.

“No, they didn’t,” Mrs Watkins told him. “I was watching you. Mrs Marshall told you to stop, and you ran away from her. What is the rule about running in here? Tell me.”

Tom hung his head and mumbled.

“I didn’t hear you, Tom. What is the rule about running in here?”

“Don’t run.”

“Right. And were you running? Right! Then you started pogo-ing again after you’d been told not to. You didn’t look where you were putting your feet, and this little building-block was on the floor.” She bent down and picked it up. “You trod on it and went over sideways into that screen. That’s what happened. So whose fault was that?”

Tom hung his head and mumbled.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you Tom. Whose fault was that?”

“Mine, Miss.”

“That’s right, Tom. It was your fault. So what will you do differently in future?” Tom squirmed. “What will you do differently in future, Tom?”

“Won’t run,” he muttered.

“Good! And what else?” That was a hard one. “What else?”

“Do as he’s told Miss,” one of the bigger girls called out.

“Let me hear it from you, Tom.”

“Do as I’m told.”

“Good. Now play sensibly, and remember there are other children in here besides you. Many of them are smaller than you, and you have to be careful you don’t hurt anybody.” She scooted him off and was obviously still watching him. Fully aware of her gaze, he walked quietly up to the track square and sat down beside it. Gordon noticed that the other boys cleared a little space round him. One or two wandered off to find a new activity.

He suspected that Tom never forgot there were other children in the room, and that his favourite game was hurting as many of them as possible. “I’ve brought a dinosaur,” he told Nick. “Let’s do a chalk drawing on a blackboard. I’ll draw a diplodocus, and you can colour it in.”

“All right,” Nick agreed. He felt happier than he ever remembered feeling at nursery school before.

“I’ll help you choose the right colours,” Gordon said generously. For the next half hour, Gordon and Nick were completely absorbed. Gordon drew his picture of a diplodocus grazing in a clearing, surrounded by prehistoric bushes and trees. Nick coloured it in, using browns and greys and greens, and being careful to stay within the lines. It was a triumph of collaboration, and for children their age it was a minor masterpiece. Nick even forgot to be afraid.

Mrs Watkins came up and clapped her hands in delight. “That is wonderful,” she said. “What a very good drawing of a diplodocus.” Not only had she correctly identified the species, she had pronounced its name properly. Gordon now knew he liked her. She grasped Nick’s shoulders and squatted down so her head was level with his. “And that’s the best colouring-in I’ve ever seen. Well done you!”

Nick glowed. “I’m going to be a palaeontologist,” Gordon told her.

“Are you now?” she said. “I’ll bet you know a lot about dinosaurs.”

“Quite a lot,” Gordon admitted modestly.

“I see you’ve brought your own,” she said. We’ll be having ‘Show and Tell’ for the older children after break. “You can show your dinosaur and tell us a bit about them.” Gordon smiled. School was turning out to be good.

Breaktime came around, and they all went outside for some fresh air. Tom pretended to be tidying up the track area so he could be the last one out. It gave him the chance to scrawl all over Gordon and Nick’s drawing while no one was looking. Then he ran out to find them.

NOTES: COLLABORATION

 

 

Chapter 8

“I Bin Wai[t]in’ Fer You, Weirdo!”

(May 2004)

“Get ready for lesson 2,” Zack warned Gordon. Tom was zeroing in, flanked by another couple of toe-rags. Such children never take long to find one another. There were fewer adult eyes around, so it was a chance to get in a bit of bullying without anyone who mattered noticing. A chance to make someone cry.

Nick saw them coming and a little whimper escaped him. Gordon put his arm round his shoulder. “Don’t you worry!” he whispered.

“Oh look, Knickers got a friend,” Tom sneered, and his two cohorts sniggered. Gordon took his arm from around Nick’s shoulder and took one firm step towards Tom, so that Nick was now behind him. Tom stopped dead; smaller boys didn’t normally do that. For a second, he was at a loss.

“When are you going to learn to talk?” Gordon asked him. “Did you mean “Nick has a friend”? You’re right, he has. What’s it to do with you?” Nearby children picked up the signals and began to gather. It wouldn’t be long before the playground supervisor noticed something amiss.

“Oooh,” Tom sneered. “I bin wai[t]in’ fer you, Weirdo!”

“You bin waiting?” Gordon asked innocently. “Which bin was that? – the one you came out of?” Some of the watching children laughed. Tom whirled round to glare at them, and the laughter died.

“Where’s your bes’ friend, Weirdo? Wossisname? ‘Cack’.” He addressed the audience. “Weirdo’s got a invisible friend called ‘Cack’. Di’n’t yer bring ‘im wiv yer? AHHAHAAAH!”

He clutched at his left ear and leapt about a foot in the air. His unexpected action startled his two associates and they sprang away from him. It was quite comical and there was more laughter from the watching children. This time, when Tom glared at them they didn’t stop.

“What’s the matter, Tom?” Gordon asked. “Did my invisible friend blow in your ear?”

With a snarl, Tom leapt forward and swung a right-hand punch. Gordon watched the approaching fist with interest. It was as if time had suddenly slowed … Meanwhile, Zack had grabbed Tom around the waist … Just before the punch reached the side of his face, Gordon relaxed his knees and ducked. It whistled harmlessly over his head while Gordon concentrated on Zack, lending him strength …

Aided by Tom’s momentum and Zack’s extra pivoting power, Tom’s flailing fist smacked straight into the face of the boy behind him. The force of the blow cannoned the semi-conscious toe-rag into his mate, and they both went down like a house of cards. Zack let go and the seriously off-balance Tom sprawled heavily on top of them.

The joy of the watching children was unconfined. All three bullies down at once! The playground supervisor panted up at last. “I saw what you did Tom Taylor. I was watching the whole time. What have you been told about bullying, all three of you?”

She hauled them off, scolding as she went. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs Watkins telephones your mothers and tells them to come and take you away right now.” She kept it up right across the playground. “We don’t like bullies in our nursery, and we do NOT allow violence. How many times do we have to tell you?!”

They disappeared into the building. Gordon turned to Nick and smiled. “What a loser,” he said. The gratitude on Nick’s face was quite touching. The spectators clustered round them, and for the first time in both their lives they got an inkling of what it felt like to be popular with other children.

It was a good feeling.

NOTES: APOLOGY TO TOMS; TOE-RAGS; UNCONFINED JOY

 

Chapter 9

Show And Tell

(May 2004)

Gordon and Nick stood in front of the slashed-out chalk drawing. “No prizes for guessing who did that,” Zack said. Mrs Watkins was not yet back from her break. Presumably she was still dealing with the three offenders.

Gordon went to the sink and came back with a damp cloth. He wiped the board clean. By the time Mrs Watkins reappeared with three chastened little boys, Gordon and Nick were fashioning amazing creatures on the clay table. Gordon’s definitely looked like a triceratops. Nick’s looked more like the dragon in the Shrek stories, but that was perfectly all right.

Other boys gravitated towards the clay table and started making animals too. Perhaps Gordon had become a trend-setter. Perhaps some of the less secure children sensed that they were somehow safer near him. He asked each one their name, and soon there was a positive discussion going on about what they were making and which Lego models they had at home.

Tom and his two friends smashed cars around the deserted track for a bit, but the crashes didn’t have the same appeal when they weren’t knocking other children’s vehicles all over the place. Given that their concentration spans rarely exceeded ten seconds, they soon got bored with it.

Tom didn’t have a “boing” left in him. The other two – Kieran and Dean, for future reference – were fair weather friends on whom he could not always rely. He wandered over to the finger paints and began daubing a fairly seriously disturbed painting on a luckless piece of white paper.

It was a long time since the staff had had such an easy morning.

When it was time for ‘Show and Tell’, the older children went to another part of the classroom that was screened off. Mrs Watkins welcomed each one into her circle of chairs. It was a good way of getting them used to speaking to a group, and also to listening to each other.

“As you know, we have a new member of our group today. This is Gordon, everyone, in case some of you haven’t met him yet.” There was an enthusiastic chorus of “Hi Gordon” and “Hello” from round the circle. Tom was too busy swinging his feet sideways to join in the welcome. He liked kicking the chairs on either side of him

“Sit still please, Tom” said Mrs Watkins. Years of dealing with difficult children had taught her patience. Tom reduced the arc of the swing somewhat so that he was just missing the chairs. Gordon noticed that the children either side of him were sitting with their legs pulled as far as possible out of harm’s way.

“Excuse me again,” Zack muttered. He crossed the circle and knelt in front of Tom.

“Gordon has brought a dinosaur to show us. He knows quite a lot about dinosaurs. When he is older he wants to be a pal – ae – on – tol – o – gist. That’s a long word, isn’t it? Does any of you know what it means?”

CRACK! That was the sound of Tom’s knees slamming together. He stared down at them with his mouth open and his eyes as big as saucers. “Well done, Tom, thank you,” Mrs Watkins said. Nick had his hand up. “Yes, Nick?”

“It’s somebody who studies creatures and plants that lived a very long time ago.”

“That’s right, Nick. Well done you, again.” Nick beamed. This was definitely the best morning he had ever had at nursery school. Knowing that particular word was nothing really. You couldn’t be around Gordon for very long without finding out what a palaeontologist was.

“So, what would you like to tell us about dinosaurs today?” Mrs Watkins asked Gordon.

Gordon held up his dinosaur. “The word dinosaur means ‘amazing lizard’. Many dinosaurs were amazing, although they weren’t actually lizards. This one is called ‘Diplodocus’. It was huge, and lived in the late Jurassic Era.”

Several hands shot up. “Just a moment, Gordon. Yes, Rachel?”

“I saw them in ‘Jurassic Park’ Miss. They was massive.”

“That’s right, Rachel, they were massive. That’s what the rest of you were going to say, wasn’t it?” Heads nodded.

CRACK!! Harder this time, and accompanied by a little whimper. Tom’s legs had started swinging again. “Thank you for remembering, Tom,” Mrs Watkins said. “Carry on, Gordon.”

Gordon warmed to his theme. “The Jurassic Era lasted from about 208 to about 146 million years ago. Dinosaurs were the dominant creatures on land for millions and millions of years.” He paused dramatically. “Then something happened that wiped most of them out. We call it ‘The Extinction Event’.”

That “we” brought a smile to Mrs Watkins’ lips. Gordon had the group’s attention, and when George put his hand up he was no longer looking at Mrs Watkins. Gordon pointed to him. “Yes, George?” Mrs Watkins’ smile grew broader. She leaned back and folded her arms.

“What happened?”

“About 65 million years ago, a huge meteorite about 10 kilometres across smashed into Earth. There’s a crater that size on the Yucatan Peninsula in Central America.” Gordon was clearly in control of his facts. “We think that was the one that did it. It would have triggered extreme climate change, and that’s the most likely reason dinosaurs became extinct.”

Another child put her hand up. “Yes, Jill?” said Gordon.

“The boy’s a natural,” thought Mrs Watkins.

“We’ve got climate change now. Will we become extinct?”

Gordon shook his head. “I don’t think so. Our climate change is making the weather more extreme, but not as extreme as it would be if a giant meteorite crashed into earth again.”

“KABOOOOMMM!” Tom yelled. He stuck his arms and legs out wide and leaned back in his chair, imitating a huge explosion. CRACK! His knees slammed together again. The front legs of his chair came back to earth with a sudden thud. His stomach was rammed into the back of it, sitting him up straight. His hands slapped down on top of his knees, and his feet hit the floor with military precision. He sat there, bolt upright and motionless, his face pale.

Gordon had his hand up. Mrs Watkins was staring at Tom in wonder. She noticed Gordon’s hand and nodded. “Tom was doing an interesting painting before we came in here,” he told her. “Perhaps he would like to show us, and tell us about it.”

Tom had never shown or told the group anything. All previous efforts to get him to had had to been given up as a bad job. “That would be wonderful,” Mrs Watkins said weakly.

Tom stared across at Gordon, who stared back. Suddenly, Tom seemed to make his mind up about something. He gave his head a little shake and stood up without a word. They watched him disappear round the screens.

“Well,” said Mrs Watkins, finding her voice again. “Thank you, Gordon for that very interesting ‘Show and Tell’. Who would like to go next?” Several hands shot up. “Right,” she said, “I think we’ll ask …”

Tom reappeared, holding his painting. He went over to his chair and sat down. Everyone put their hands down and looked at him. He held the painting up for them to see. It was bleeding. Red swirls occupied the centre of it like a mortal wound. Black slashes tore across it in a frenzy of anger and despair.

Slowly he moved it around the circle, so everyone could see it properly. Then he lowered it so he could look at them. “I miss my Dad!” he said, and the tears came. Mrs Watkins went over and knelt down in front of him. He buried his head against her shoulder and sobbed as though his heart would break.

“Let’s give him some space,” Zack said quietly to Gordon. Gordon nodded and stood up. Nick followed. The rest of the children took their cue from them and quietly went back to the main play area.

Mrs Bennett was waiting anxiously when the door opened and the nursery class began to stream out. Gordon came out with Nick and ran over to her. “How was it?” she asked.

“Good,” he said.

His mum hugged him. “I’m so glad,” she said. Her relief was palpable. Mrs Watkins appeared in the doorway and Edith Bennett went over to her. “Thank you very much” she said.

Mrs Watkins shook her head. “No,” she said, “thank you. You have an exceptional little boy there. I am really looking forward to working with him and getting to know him better.”

Tom had not come out. Mrs Watkins spotted the young woman who normally picked him up. She was stubbing her cigarette out and looking at her watch. She walked over to her. “Could we have a word inside, please?”

The woman gave a heavy sigh. “What’s the little bleeder done now? I swear I’ll swing for ‘im one of these days.”

NOTES: CHASTENED; TRICERATOPS; APOLOGY TO KIERANS AND DEANS; TERRIBLE LIZARD; THE YUCATAN PENINSULA; PALPABLE; I’LL SWING FOR ‘IM

 

Chapter 10

Designer Dreams

(October 2004)

Gordon stood on the mountain-top and gazed across the valley. It was a place where sheep might safely graze: green and peaceful, dappled in shifting light; but on its other side were deep, dark woods. Gloomy rainclouds crowded over them. You would not want to be lost in such a place without some means of leaving a trail.

He could see an impressive castle in the distance. It had ramparts and a drawbridge, crenellations and guard towers. “I have a dream,” he thought. Taking a short run, he spread his arms and launched himself into space, soaring on air rising from the promised land below. He was a fair flyer for a five-year-old.

Seconds later, he plunged into the cold, wet mist that drifted in demented wisps below the clouds above those murky woods. Brrrrrrrrhh! But just as quickly he was through and out again into a sky of brightest blue. He left the wood behind.

The castle was much closer now. Countless crenellations topped the guard towers and the outer walls. Gordon slowed down to admire them, allowing Zack to overtake him and streak on ahead. Zack was dressed all in green like Peter Pan, which made Gordon realise he was still in his pyjamas. Something would have to be done about that.

There was a bit in the centre of the castle that looked like a cathedral. It had a magnificent rose window, very like the one in Westminster Abbey. Zack flew straight through it as if the lead-lined glass had not been there. Gordon followed and landed neatly beside him on a narrow stone balcony. He was now dressed for the occasion in a lacy white shirt, gold breeches, and a coat of many colours. There were silver-buckles on his knees, and diamonds on the soles of his shoes. He looked down at the congregation bustling below.

“You must give me the name of your tailor,” Zack said, a little put out. Peter Pan had expected Gordon Darling still to be in his pyjamas. “Whose fairy tale is this anyway?”

Gordon grinned at him. “It’s ours” he told him. Instantly Zack began turning in the air, surrounded by twinkles, just like Princess Fiona in Shrek. Gordon heard a faint “Whoah!” from inside the magic haze. When his guardian angel reappeared, he was dressed like a fairytale prince in scarlet hose and a royal purple doublet trimmed with lace. He looked down at himself, then across at Gordon.

“Way to go!” he said admiringly.

They seemed to have gatecrashed a royal occasion. Below them on a marble dais sat an unmistakable King and Queen. A large number of very well-dressed fairies were sitting on either side of a wide central aisle. Gordon knew they were fairies – they pulsated with psychic energy, and those wings were a bit of a giveaway.

He found that by concentrating on a particular spot he could actually zoom in. It was as if his eyes had developed a bionic zoom lens that he could operate at will. How useful was that?!

His Fairy Highness sat on a cushioned throne of green-veined stone. He was of slender build with remarkably fine features, and dressed in crimson and gold. A magnificent, cut-crystal crown turned in the air above his head. Light streaming through the rose window fractured in the facets of the crown, bathing the dais in all the colours of the rainbow. “Richard of York gave battle in vain,” Zack murmured.

The Queen sat next to the King on a closely woven, high-backed basket chair. It was lined with white silk, and wreathed in roses, leaves and twisting vines. Seeming to float in a dress of forest green, she was so beautiful that just to look at her took Gordon’s breath away.

An imposing male figure, dressed in solemn black, stood at the foot of the dais. He raised a long staff and banged the floor with a single, reverberating thud. The buzz of conversation ceased immediately. Trumpeters raised long-throated instruments and blew an impressive fanfare.

The King stood up. He was about a metre in height – tall for a fairy – and his voice was surprisingly deep. Magically it filled the awesome space. He spoke with sadness and authority.

“We welcome you not as subjects but as friends. This is a time of crisis in our realm. The news is grave. We face a fearsome foe: a danger that could devastate our land.”

Zack was staring at Gordon with his mouth open. Where was this stuff coming from? Gordon was giving the king his full attention.

“A terrible dragon roams our hills where once our sheep could graze. All who see it flee, and who can blame them? Who would not choose life over certain death?”

The king made a grand gesture stage left. The eyes of his audience swung to a dejected figure in battered armour. It was standing in the place reserved for the bravest of the royal knights.

“Witness our champion, brave Sir Nicholas!” the king declared. “No heart is more steadfast! How oft has he defended us from harm? Who is there here who does not owe him thanks?”

He looked sadly at his courtiers. “Yet even he is humbled now before a mighty foe,” his voice faltered slightly, “a monstrous lizard of astounding length.”

Sir Nicholas hung his head even lower.

“He battled with it time and time again!” the king went on. “Stroke on stroke he slashed across its lines, as if to blur its shape from common view.”

His audience murmured its admiration of Sir Nicholas’s bravery.

“But the great beast could not be so subdued. With formidable strength, it flung him down.”

So that’s how he got those dents in his armour.

“Now sadness wraps him in its dismal shroud, and deeper than an ocean’s salty depths his spirits sink, to drown in cold despair.”

The great warrior had his visor down, so Gordon couldn’t see his face. He was smaller than your normal champion, but you didn’t need to be big to be bigger than a fairy. The crest on his shield was strange as well – two crossed crayons, one red and one purple.

The king raised both arms towards the rose window. “Who will now rid us of this wicked worm,” he thundered in a final appeal, “and live forever in our history as a saviour of our honour and our realm?!”

Gordon vaulted over the balustrade and leapt into the intervening air. He and Zack soared over the congregation and landed on the royal dais. Dropping on one knee before the astonished king, Gordon had no hesitation in offering their services.

“Sir Gordon and Sir Zack, your Majesty. We hear your plea, and fly now to your aid!”

He leapt up, and swifter than an arrow from a bow he zoomed: out through the window and round the sky like a rainbow in his technicoloured dreamcoat. Zack had trouble keeping up with him.

NOTES: WHERE SHEEP MAY SAFELY GRAZE; “I HAVE A DREAM…”; A ROSE WINDOW; A COAT OF MANY COLOURS; SILVER-BUCKLES ON HIS KNEES; DIAMONDS ON THE SOLES OF HIS SHOES; DOUBLET; BALUSTER; ROYGBIV; “AND WAS SO BEAUTIFUL …”; INTERVENING.

 

 

Chapter 11

Reading Between The Lines

(October 2004)

“SLOW DOWN!” Zack telepathed to Gordon up ahead. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Does it matter?” Gordon beamed back. He was having far too much fun to worry about little things like that. In any case, he’d been to Dreamworld before, and knew the story would come to him.

There it was, on the other side of the mountain. That had to be the “dragon”. It was enormous; but something was dreadfully wrong with it. Its outline was all blurred and fuzzy. It was swinging its head blindly from side to side. Gordon spotted the problem right away.

“That’s not a dragon!” he yelled. “That’s a dinosaur! It’s a peaceful diplodocus. That idiot, Sir Nicholas, has slashed it all over with his stupid red and purple crayons. Look at all that gunk in its eyes! He’s blinded it!”

His heart went out to the gentle creature below him, torn through time and tossed into a world that believed in dragons. Now it was covered in red and purple, and did look as though it was on fire. “We have to help it Zack” Gordon said. “There’s got to be something we can do!”

Problem-solving: maybe that’s what this was about. Zack waited …

“I know!” Gordon yelled. “We need a downpour, sheeting rain, lots of it!” He looked at the clouds above the murky woods and then at Zack. “Can we bring those rainclouds over here, and make them deluge right above its head?”

Zack zoomed away so fast he could have put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. Gordon felt the wind pick up, and soon the clouds came scooting. Huge drops began to fall, as they nearly always do on mountaintops.

“NOT YET!” Gordon yelled. He held his hand up and they seemed to hear; they held on! Over his head they drifted to hover directly above the troubled beast.

Its eyes were shrouded, yet it felt the wind. It scented the flood. Eager and bellowing, it stretched its neck towards the waiting rain. “NOW!” Gordon cried.

He thrust his right arm up at the clouds like a young Thor in training. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Obediently, the bucketing began. The water pelted off its two-foot head and down its sinuous neck. It washed in sheets along its massive sides. The creature flicked reptilian eyes to bathe them clean. Its ancient tail splashed in the pools that deepened on the saturated ground, and the colour came off!

Gradually, the clean, grey lines of an unmistakable diplodocus emerged from behind that clueless daubing. The purple and red soaked into the grassy plain, after which the wind changed direction, blowing the clouds back towards their preferred spot above the woods. Contentedly, the great beast lowered its head and began to graze on the long grass.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Gordon asked in awe. No wonder he wanted to be a palaeontologist.

“It can’t stay there,” Zack said. Gordon nodded. In this kingdom, as in his own, it was never long before some clown turned up and spoiled things. It could easily be Mr. Benn, Red Knight next, or that other idiot, St George.

“It will need both of us,” Zack said. He held out his hand and Gordon took it. They joined forces. Power streamed from them like a beacon, enveloping the dinosaur in the glow that normally precedes time-travel in films and television series …

The diplodocus began to fade. It would have to take its chances in a world red in tooth and purple in claw, but at least it wouldn’t have to contend with people and fairies. Gordon was sad to see it go. He could have watched it for hours, but he knew it was for the best.

“Let’s go and tell the King his dragon’s gone” he said.

NOTES: GIRDLES ROUND THE EARTH; THOR; MR BENN RED KNIGHT

 

Chapter 12

The Bigger They Are …

(October 2004)

They were flying back over the dark forest when a massive disturbance erupted below them. Trees shook, branches broke and the canopy trembled. Something gigantic was ploughing its way through that dense tangle. It swept the wood aside like blades of grass. Bushes were being torn out by the roots. Tell-tale signs of its progress rippled towards the forest’s jagged edge. For the moment, it was hidden; but it would not be long before whatever it was smashed its way into the open.

“That is big,” Zack beamed to Gordon.

Gordon agreed. “Let’s get ahead of it.” A burst of speed put them a safe distance from the wood before they skidded to a halt in mid-air. It was an impressive manoeuvre, much like the one used by ice-hockey players when they run out of rink.

A shaggy giant was tearing itself free from the final tangle of vegetation. It must have been at least forty feet high. Its shoulders were an impressive eight feet wide. It was green and brown all over, and gnarled like a tree come alive. Its arms were massive branches and its legs enormous roots.

Zack let out a long, low whistle. “Whoah! You’ve outdone yourself there, partner.”

Was it a forest troll, or maybe some kind of ogre? It brandished a club the size of a battering ram. In its other hand, it held some kind of gun. The barrel on it stretched a good twelve feet with the thickness and bore of a cannon. It was attached to a wooden stock some six feet long. The whole thing must have weighed three hundred pounds. One of the creature’s clumsy, woody fingers was wrapped around a trigger the size of a small child’s slide.

Raising its foot, it stamped down with a thud that shook the ground and echoed through the air. Its roar rattled the inside of Gordon’s skull. It was definitely angry about something. It turned towards the castle, and set off with a grim, determined air.

Gordon and Zack flew on ahead and touched down on the ramparts. The soldiers on sentry duty gave them a hearty cheer. Alarm bells clanged, and the air was filled with whirring wings in flight. Fairies darted in all directions, but mostly the opposite one, having realised this wasn’t a social call.

Gordon stared at the approaching catastrophe. They didn’t have much time, but there was something about the club that jogged a memory. He zoomed in with his newly acquired bionic lens. “That’s a giant Action-Man it’s got there!” he yelled. “That weapon is a mega ping-pong gun! It’s a Ten-Ton-Tom, the Terror from Next Door!”

Zack laughed. “So it is. I recognize that brain-dead expression now. I know just what to do with him.”

“That’s it, Zack”, Gordon thought, “you sort him!”

His trusty companion leapt down from the walls. Gordon poured all his power into him, and Zack grew rapidly, bracing himself to meet the mega-lump. Of course, Tom couldn’t see him. He was intent on harm.

“WHEEEAAAOOOUUU!!” he yelled. The terrible cry rent the heavens. Gordon heard screams of terror from behind and below. His attention stayed with Zack, who straddled the narrow ground like a Colossus.

As the tree troll raised its huge right arm, ready to drive its awesome action-ram into the castle wall, Zack placed both hands on its chest and gave it a massive shove. The forty-foot figure toppled backwards. Its momentum turned the tumble into a backward roll. Its two-foot head met the earth with a satisfying thud, and its massive bottom landed on a pile of rocks.

There was silence for a few seconds, the dust settled, and then with a howl of pain it struggled up. There was a small crater where its head had been. Noticing Gordon standing on the ramparts, it drew back its lips in a snarl of rampant rage. It snatched up the biggest rock it could find at a moment’s notice. “YOU PUSHED ME!” it roared, and drew back its massive arm. Clearly it intended to hurl the boulder right at Gordon.

 “NO!” yelled the sentries on either side of him, but they need not have worried. Zack had wrapped both hands around the rock-filled fist, and the stone stayed where it was. Momentum carried the arm down in a perfect arc and drove the rock into the ground, fingers first. The grievous howl that issued from it then easily broke all previous records.

The ogre had no clear idea what had happened. What was clear was that it had a sore head, a sore bottom and sore fingers. It seemed to pause for thought – or at least the closest form of that mental activity it could manage. Lumbering to its feet, it began to shamble back towards the wood where the other wild things were. Gordon heard it muttering: “I don’t like it there. ’E’s weird!”

“He won’t be coming back here in a hurry,” Zack said. “What now? Shall we receive the praises of the king, and fly in triumph over Fairyland?”

“No,” Gordon decided, yawning suddenly. “I think this dream has lasted long enough.”

The scene dissolved, and soon the senses of the tired little boy were safely steeping in forgetfulness. He knew Zack would get him home safely. He always did.

NOTES: “YOU SORT HIM”; COLOSSUS OF RHODES; SHALL WE RECEIVE THE PRAISES OF THE KING, AND FLY IN TRIUMPH OVER FAIRYLAND? STEEPING IN FORGETFULNESS.

 

Chapter 13

Using The Force

(September 2005)

Gordon drew up his own job description in the Infants: assistant teacher in the classroom and deputy sheriff in the playground. He enjoyed the challenges Mrs Jones threw his way. He plunged himself into Zack’s rigorous training programme and discovered there were interesting abilities he hadn’t known he had. Telepathy was the tip of an iceberg.

When he was six, his mum found out about an after-school activity called Enjoy-A-Ball. The sessions took place in a local sports hall and were good fun. It gave him and Zack a chance to practise his speed and power control. It also gave him a bit of one-to-one time with his dad, who made an effort to get home on that day in time to take him.

One sunny afternoon in late September, they arrived at the Sports Hall car-park five minutes early. Victor was never late for anything if he could help it. There was no point in waiting in the car when they could wait outside in the fresh air and sunshine, so they clambered out and shut the doors. Victor was struck by how tall Gordon was getting. He seemed to have shot up recently. The time was flying! How could he be six already?

An ice-cream van pulled up at the pavement by the entrance. The driver switched on its cheerily amplified jingle. It announced his presence to all children within a quarter of a mile.

“NO KIERAN, I SAID NO!” yelled his mum. That was the normal volume she used when arguing a point with her son. She had Dean in tow as well. She and Dean’s mum took it in turns to lug their equally naughty boys to Enjoy-A-Ball. Where was the point in both of them being inconvenienced?

“But I WANT one!” Kieran howled, “I really really DO!”

“AND I SAID NO. WHAT ARE YOU, DEAF?”

“BUT YOU SAID WE COULD HAVE AN ICCCE-CREEEAAAM!!”

“I SAID ARFTER ENJOYABAWL, NOT BEFORE!”

“I want one NOW! He might not be here THEN!!”

Gordon was well aware that Kieran could keep this up all day.

“OH, ALL RIGHT THEN, THERE! She shoved some money into his greedy little paw. “GO AND GET YER BLEEDIN’ ICE CREAM!” Several adults within earshot shuddered and turned away.

Kieran handed one of the cones filled with Mr Whippy’s creamy concoction to Dean. They smirked their self-satisfied way through the car-park entrance, ready to take their first triumphant licks. Kieran already had his tongue out and his eyes closed in anticipation. Gordon couldn’t help himself. From twenty-five metres away, he sent a quick pulse of power through Kieran’s elbow. It was just enough to drive the ice cream past his mouth and up his nose.

Kieran stopped dead in shock. Dean, whose eyes had also been closed, cannoned into the back of him. “LOOK WHAT YOU DID!” Kieran snarled, ice-cream dripping off the end of his nose. He lunged at Dean in an attempt to drive Dean’s ice-cream a similar distance up his nose. Dean jerked his ice-cream out of harm’s way, and his softening dollop of Mr Whippy plopped out the top of his cone. It slopped on to the tarmac.

“LOOK WHAT YOU JUST DID!!” Dean yelled, staring at his empty cone.

Kieran pointed at the rapidly melting mess on the floor and jeered. “NA NA NA-NA NA – SERVES YER RIGHT!” He brought his ice cream up to rub Dean’s nose in the fact that he still had some ice cream. This time his arm went straight past his face and threw what was left over his right shoulder.

The pair of them stood and stared at each other, each clutching an empty cone with a soggy top. “SEE!” Dean said, with sensitivity and tact. “YOU CAN’T SAY I DID THAT, YER DIV!”

“’OO ARE YOU CALLIN A DIV? – YER DING!” Gordon was suddenly reminded of the trolls arguing about how best to cook dwarves. His dad was reading The Hobbit to him at bedtime each night.

“SHUT UP THE PAIR OF YER! SERVES YER BLEEDIN’ RIGHT! YER GET NUFFIN’ NOW, NEEVER OF YER!” Kieran’s mum drove them towards Mark, the Enjoy-A-Ball instructor, who was standing at the entrance to the Sports Hall.

Victor and Gordon started out after them, a safe distance behind. “Whoops,” Victor said, before they had gone more than six steps, “forgot to lock the car.” He patted his trouser pocket to check the keys were there and heard the car lock behind him. “Whoah,” he said. “It’s never done that before.”

“You must have hit the lock button when you slapped your pocket,” Gordon suggested innocently.

His dad nodded. “I must have.”

This ability to move things from a distance was turning out to be fun, now that he was trained up a bit, and getting the hang of it. “Just be careful,” Zack warned him. “Don’t get carried away!”

 

Chapter 14

Sticking To The Rules

(September 2005)

Mark started the session as usual by throwing his large bagful of soft balls all over the floor. The rule was: you brought one ball each back to him. He congratulated each child as she or he brought their ball back and put it in his bag. For some children, however, rules are made to be broken. He didn’t notice Kieran shove the smallest girl in the group to one side and grab her ball. She went sprawling as he ran back yelling “I’ve got TWO!”

“How many times, Kieran?” Mark asked him. He looked up to see who didn’t have one, and spotting Susie picking herself up and rubbing her knee. “Only one each.” He threw a ball to Susie, who bravely scooped it up and scampered over with it.

“Forgot,” said Kieran, adding the lie to his list of offences with the session only one minute underway. He ran to the line of eagerly waiting children and shouldered his way into it next to Dean. The whole line shuffled backwards to accommodate him. Susie ran to the end of the line farthest away from Kieran.

“What a toe-rag,” Zack growled.

Gordon agreed. “Is it ‘Lessons will be learned’ time?”

“I don’t know if they’ll be learned,” Zack muttered, “but we can certainly have a go at teaching them.”

“Just remember,” Gordon warned him, “we’re being careful.” He knew Zack had a thing about bullies. There was just a chance he would get carried away.

The first game was simple and good fun. Everyone had a ball. The idea was to chase another person and throw your ball at them. If you hit them with it, they had to stand still with their legs spread out. You could ‘release’ them by clambering between their legs. The game went on until Mark called time.

Gordon looked out for the smaller children while doing his best to hit the bigger, rougher boys with his ball. With Zack on rear-view recce and his extra turn-of-speed, he could dodge, hit and release in quick succession.

Kieran thought it was more fun to slam-dunk his ball as hard as he could on a smaller child’s head. The balls were soft, but it made the more anxious kids flinch and fear for their eyes. Gordon had just released one of the smaller ones when he saw Kieran rush at Susie and launch himself into the air.

Gordon’s eyes narrowed, and Kieran found himself held, just for a fraction of a second, at the highest point of his jump. It was enough to make his ball whistle harmlessly over Susie’s head. The rapid swing of his arm pulled him forward while he was still in the air, and he ended up B-over-H on the floor.

“YES!” Zack yelled. He loved seeing justice done without the need for a lengthy trial.

It wasn’t long before Dean had grabbed a second ball. Gordon spotted which little boy was now without one. By this time, Dean was chasing down another child. He launched one of the balls he was carrying straight at her. Gordon caught it in his gaze and bent it through an impressive curve to fly back towards the little boy who didn’t have one. “Catch!” he called out. The boy stuck his hands out without much hope and was amazed when the ball stuck to them. He was able to grab it and hold on.

“I caught it! I CAUGHT it!” he shouted. His eyes shone with the pleasure of his achievement.

Dean had no idea why his ball had curved away like that. He followed its flight and saw the little kid catch it. “That’s MINE!” he yelled. He bore down on the kid, with Gordon heading in the same direction. Mark heard the yell, spun around and summed up the situation straight away.

“LEAVE IT DEAN!” he called out. “You’ve got yours. Only one each!” Dean skidded to a halt. While he was checking to see how far away Mark was, Gordon caught him with a beauty, bouncing it right off the middle of his forehead.

“You MISSED!” Dean cried. Lying came to him as easily as breathing. He went to set off again, only to discover that his left foot was stuck to the floor. He wobbled precariously for a moment before regaining his balance. He then discovered that he couldn’t move his right foot either. His legs were now seriously apart and at an awkward angle.

“K!” he yelled. Kieran, seeing his friend’s predicament, assumed that he was asking to be rescued and tried to dive between his oddly twisted legs. Gordon released Dean just as Kieran cannoned into the back of his right knee, and Dean was bowled over like a skittle. He rolled backwards on top of the under-passing Kieran. The extra weight caused Kieran’s four limbs to splay out sideways. For a moment, they were front<>back / back<>front. It was a spectacular tangle.

“DIV!”

“DING!”

Yep, most definitely: the stone trolls in The Hobbit.

 NOTES: RECCE; B OVER H

 

Chapter 15

The Enjoy-A-Ball Handicap Stakes

(September 2005)

“We’re going to have a relay race next.”

“ME! ME! ME!!” Kieran yelled. He jumped up and down with his arm stuck in the air.

“All right Kieran, you can be a captain this week, which means you won’t be next week, OK? Who’d like to be captain of the other team?” There was an absence of enthusiasm, so Gordon stepped into the breach. Cometh the hour, cometh the child.

“ME FIRST PICK! ME FIRST PICK!” Kieran shouted.

“How many times, Kieran?! Gordon, you first pick.”

“Susie,” said Gordon. Normally the last to be picked, Susie was amazed and delighted. She scampered over to Gordon.

“Loser!” Kieran jeered at Gordon. “D!” Dean swaggered over to Kieran.

“Peter” said Gordon, pointing at the next smallest child.

“Walk-over!” Kieran boasted in advance. “Warren!”

And so it went on. All the bigger, stronger, longer-legged boys were on Kieran’s side. Gordon had every single younger, smaller, less confident child on his team.

“We’ll pulverise you!” Kieran exulted.

“No, you won’t,” Gordon told him calmly.

“Wanna bet?!”

“No need.”

“CHICKEN! SQUAWK! SQUAWK!” Kieran mocked, walking around with his elbows flapping.

“KIERAN!” Mark said, “This is meant to be a bit of fun.” He told the captains to line up their teams in the order each member would run.

Gordon gathered his team round him. “Susie, you go first, and I’ll go last. The rest of you, line up as you like.” Obediently they formed their line and were ready a full minute before Kieran’s team, most of whom were still arguing about what order they should run in.

Each leg was the width of the hall and back. Mark handed out the batons, and Kieran and Susie lined up for the first leg. The grin on Kieran’s face spoke volumes. “I’ll run it backwards!” he announced. He stood with his back to the course. Why simply win a race, when you can humiliate your opponent into the bargain?

“Ready, Zack?”

“Ready, Captain.”

A sharp toot on Mark’s whistle started the first leg, and Susie was off like a little hare. Kieran really thought he would be able to outrun her while going backwards, but it was harder to pick up speed with Zack on his back. Meanwhile, Gordon was providing Susie with a decent tail wind.

“TURN ROUND, YOU DIV!” Dean shrieked. Susie was already half the width of the hall ahead, to the excited cheers of her team.

“SU-SIE, SU-SIE!”

Kieran turned and tried to gallop. Gordon lightened his load a little, until he started to gain. All the same, he was ten shaming metres behind Susie when she flew over the line and handed her baton to the next runner. The rest of her team clapped her on the back and she beamed in triumph.

Zack leapt off Kieran’s back as he was approaching the line. The sudden lightening of his load sped him into Dean, who was tongue-lashing him for being so slow. They collided, cursing each other, and dropped the baton. Precious seconds were lost. Gordon’s second runner was also producing a turn of speed he hadn’t previously thought possible.

By now Gordon’s whole team had got the scent of unexpected victory. They were leaping up and down in excited anticipation. Dean finally got going, though his knees visibly buckled when Zack leapt on to his back. Gordon lightened his load a little, and Dean began slowly making up ground on the much smaller runner ahead of him.

The race was now a lot fairer than it would have been. Gordon encouraged and praised each of his runners, making them that little bit lighter on their feet. Kieran taunted, berated and insulted each of his team members in turn. Each bigger, stronger boy carried an appropriate handicap, so things were evened up.

When it came to the final stage, it was Gordon against John. John was a nice boy of about the same size and weight. The previous runners came in neck and neck. “Over to you, Gordon!” Zack yelled.

This was the hardest part, controlling the force he had at his command so it didn’t give him an unfair advantage. Both boys pounded across the hall and turned together for the final leg. It could have gone either way, but at the very end, John found an extra little burst from somewhere and crossed the line a stride ahead of Gordon.

“WE win! WE win!” Kieran yelled.

“Everybody won,” Gordon panted. “Well run!” he said to John, who grinned at him.

“You too; it was really close!”

“Gordon’s right,” Mark said. “Everybody won. That’s the best and closest race we’ve ever had. Congratulations to everyone, especially you younger ones. I think you all did a personal best.”

Chapter 16

Why Do People Care So Much?

(September 2005)

The final game also involved two teams. Small netted goals were placed at either end of the hall. There was one ball, and running was only allowed off the ball. Two different captains picked the teams, so they were more or less evenly matched. Even so, the older boys tended to throw to each other. Winning the game mattered more to them than giving everyone a fair chance to take part.

Kieran and Dean were on opposing teams. Both announced they were strikers. “I’M WAYNE ROONEY!” “I’M LUIS SUÁREZ!”

None of the bigger boys would be in goal, so John and Gordon volunteered. “After all,” Gordon said to John, “nobody wins if we both keep a clean sheet.”

The two teams went at it hammer and tongs. Mark, refereeing, was amazed how often the ball travelled through an impressive curve to end up in the hands of one of the smaller players. He was also impressed at how often they caught it cleanly, and how far they were able to throw it.

He wasn’t the only one. The smaller children themselves were delighted at how well they were doing. They were visibly gaining in confidence.

The only unhappy people on the pitch were Kieran and Dean. No matter how often they screamed “TO ME! TO ME!” the ball always seemed to curve away from them. They ran themselves ragged chasing it. They complained themselves ragged when they weren’t able to catch it.

John and Gordon both pulled off some good saves, and it looked as though the game was heading for a goalless draw. In the final minutes, however, Gordon let the game follow its natural course. First, Dean took a pass in the area he had been haunting close to goal. He spun round and lashed it past John into the net. “GOOAALLL!!” he yelled! Pulling the bottom of his tee-shirt up over his face, he ran in an arc through the players, his arms held out like aeroplane wings. There was a serious risk that he was going to mow someone down.

Gordon directed his run straight into Mark, who grabbed him and pulled the tee-shirt back down. “Watch where you’re going!” Mark told him.

“CLAP CLAP, CLAPCLAPCLAP, CLAPCLAPCLAPCLAP, SUÁREZ!” he crowed at Kieran.

“LAST MINUTE!” Mark announced. Kieran’s team threw off. Warren > Peter > Jim > Kieran who hurled it towards the bottom left hand corner of the net.

“SAVE IT!” Dean screamed. Gordon switched effortlessly into his speed-response mode. He did not want to make a mistake. The ball sl …ow …ed … He stretched his hand out to it in plenty of time, careful to make sure it just touched him without being knocked off course as it streaked into the net. To everyone watching, it looked as though Gordon had made a terrific attempt at a save and just missed it.

“GOOAALLL!” Kieran yelled, doing a curious version of the funky chicken. “ROOONEY! ROOONEY!” Mark blew time on a 1-1 draw.

Parents were clustered at the end of the hall nearest the entrance. They were a visual reminder that the hour had just drawn to a close. Many of the younger ones ran over to their mum or dad, full of excitement. They told them how fast they had run, how they had won their leg of the relay, how often they had caught the ball. It was gratifying to see so many shining eyes and hear so many confident voices.

Most of the parents smiled gratefully at Mark. It had obviously been a great session. “Dad,” Gordon said as they made their way to the car. “Why do people care about winning so much?”

“That’s the world we live in,” his dad said. “It’s all about competition.”

“Why can’t it be all about helping each other do the best we can? Then everyone can feel they’ve won because they achieved a personal best, or tried their hardest?”

“That’s a fair point,” Victor admitted. “I’ve seen someone gutted because they came second in the World Championships.”

“Exactly!” Gordon said. “For there to be one winner, everybody else has to be a loser.”

“No, I don’t think that’s quite right,” Victor said. “I enjoy playing golf, but I know I’ll never be as good as the pros on the telly. That doesn’t make me feel like a loser. Very few people get to be that good at any sport. Victor had got to the car and was patting his pocket. Gordon absent-mindedly flicked the locks up. There was something important about this discussion, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” Zack told him.

Gordon stopped dead. “Wow!” he beamed to Zack. “Is that true?” Zack nodded. Gordon climbed into his child seat and fastened the restraint. “You can add that to the list of things we need to talk about,” he telepathed to Zack.

“No problem,” Zack replied. He sprawled next to Gordon on the rear seat. He didn’t need a seat-belt. In the unlikely event of a crash or an emergency stop, he would simply pass through the front of the car and then pass himself back again.

NOTES: “THERE IS NOTHING EITHER GOOD OR BAD BUT THINKING MAKES IT SO.”

 

Chapter 16

Gordon The Enforcer

(August 2007)

By the time he was eight, it was his mum who truly appreciated how grown up Gordon had become. Zack was a distant memory. Edith enjoyed having her son to herself. She was so proud of him. When Zack had been around, Gordon seemed to set impossible standards for other children. Now he had a lot of friends at school. Angela said Nick was so much happier with Gordon in his class.

It was a Saturday morning, late in August. They had just set out for their nearest park, a ten-minute walk from their house. When junior school started up again in a few days’ time, Gordon would be in year 4. She smiled down at him as he strode along beside her.

“Your mum looks happy” Zack thought to Gordon.

“She is happy,” Gordon thought back. “I can feel it. Where are you now?”

Zack gave a little chuckle. “I’m hiding behind that tree in front of you.”

Gordon looked up in time to see Zack leap out and wave. He was dressed like a clown, with baggy pants, a white face and a big, red nose. Gordon burst out laughing, and then pretended to be coughing instead.

“Are you all right, darling?”

“Yes. I just got something caught in my throat.”

Edith was utterly content. The sun was shining, and she had nothing to worry about. Gordon was walking coolly alongside her, keeping most of his thoughts to himself. It was so different from the way it used to be when he chattered incessantly, conducting conversations with her and Zack at the same time. He seemed to have reached a level of maturity beyond his years. But that was her Gordon for you, streets ahead.

Zack ran on even further, a couple of streets ahead, until he got to a big oak tree on the corner. He hid behind it. “Can you still hear me?” he beamed back to Gordon.

“Yes, of course I can. You sound a bit like you’re on the phone.”

“That’s OK. You’re very good at this now!”

“What does ‘A’, heart-with-an-arrow-through- it, ‘ L’ mean?”

“What?”

“It’s carved in the tree in front of you.”

“Whoah!” said Zack. Gordon smiled to himself. He liked it when he could surprise Zack for a change.

A few minutes later they passed through the park gates and headed for the play-area in the middle. Whichever side of the park children lived on, they had an equal distance to walk to get to the swings and slides and roundabouts. It had never occurred to Edith that that was why the play-area was where it was. She saw at once that Gordon was right when he pointed it out. Wasn’t it just like Gordon to have spotted that?

Well no, actually. It was just like Zack, with Gordon cheerfully passing the information on. She reminded herself that Zack had been a figment of Gordon’s imagination, so it had been Gordon all along, really. She had lived with Zack for so long. It was amazing how real he had seemed, even to her. “Don’t grow up too quickly, Darling,” she thought to herself.

The sunny day had brought parents and children out in fair numbers. The play-park was busy. Gordon surveyed the scene calmly. He’d had a few years at school, and a lot of patient training from Zack. He was now really good at being around other children without saying or doing anything they were likely to think was odd. It still irked him that his normal had seemed so strange to them. He supposed it was fair enough. Their normal had often seemed totally bizarre to him. He was used to it now.

The swings were busy, but fairly well organised. There were parents on hand helping to push and making sure their offspring didn’t wander into the path of a rapidly moving swing. As often happened, however, there were also one or two older children standing up on swings. They urged them higher and higher, with no regard for the safety of the little ones running dangerously close.

Gordon normally made these swings his first port of call. It annoyed him that children who were old enough to know better should put younger children at risk like that. It was irresponsible, selfish and stupid. “OK Zack, usual routine.”

“Be right there!” came the answering thought. Gordon didn’t need to check on Zack’s progress. It never took him long to arrive. He was a bit like a Roman road in that respect: a straight line from A to B, passing through anything in the way at impressive speed.

“Which one?”

“Him on the end.”

With a self-satisfied smirk, the boy in his early teens had got the swing arcing as high as the frame itself. Mothers had scuttled to the protection of little ones who were in danger of toddling into its path and being beheaded. They had tutted and scolded, but this kid was a law unto himself. Nobody was going to tell him what to do.

Gordon stood facing him, just within range, and smiled. It was like a red rag to a bull. Lips parted, eyes wide, teeth clenched, the kid urged the swing to go that bit faster and that bit higher. As it arced backwards, he transferred all his weight to his left leg. His plan was to accidentally catch Gordon under the chin with a right footed kick on his way past.

“Gordon, LOOK OUT!” his mum yelled. She was too far away to intervene. Zack, on the other hand, was right there. He leapt up and grabbed the swing as it began its downward plunge. A second later, his feet were planted firmly on the ground and he was making a dramatic difference to the swing’s forward momentum.

The kid had been intent on lining Gordon up for the accidental kick, and wasn’t expecting that sudden deceleration. His left knee buckled and his right foot slipped off entirely, which transferred almost all his weight to his arms. The ropes on the swing twisted violently, dislodging his other foot, which left him in a hopeless tangle and hanging on for dear life. Zack picked that moment to pull the wooden seat back and give it a good shove into the back of the kid’s dangling legs. There was a painful clunk.

“Whoops,” Gordon said.

“Serves you right!” the nearest adult called out. “You’re not supposed to stand on the swings. Can’t you read?!”

Probably not. The older girl on the swing next to him jumped off. “You all right, Dom?” she asked. Dom muttered a word that Gordon was not familiar with. He couldn’t get away with strangling the kid who’d somehow made him lose his balance, so he aimed a kick at the swing instead and limped off, followed by his female companion.

Gordon sat down on the empty swing. He ran it backwards for a couple of steps to get it started. His mother had arrived by now. “Do you want a push?” she asked him.

“No thanks, Mum, I can manage.” His swing swung smoothly and rapidly to an enjoyable height. It took no apparent effort on his part.

“Your son ’s got that off to a fine art!” said one of the other parents admiringly.

Zack was a brilliant swing-pusher.

 

Chapter 17

Where Was I?

(January 2009)

Gordon had an enquiring mind. Luckily, he also had Zack who knew a lot. When he was nine, an important question occurred to him.

“Where did I come from?” he asked. Zack would know; he always knew.

“Oh, come on!” Zack replied, “You’re a mammal! Mummies’ tummies, you know the drill.”

“I know that,” said Gordon. “Of course, I know that. But what I mean is: where was I before that?”

There was a brief pause. “You weren’t,” Zack told him.

The universe-before-Gordon stretched a long time beyond the limits of even his imagination. It was a bit hard to take. “Are you sure?” he asked wistfully.

“Yep.” Goodness me, he almost sounded cheerful about it! “You weren’t, just like you won’t be. You are currently ‘passing through nature to eternity.’”

“That’s a good phrase,” Gordon said. He knew a good phrase when he heard one. You couldn’t be around Zack for long without hearing a good phrase – frequently more than one during the average day.

“Thank you. Actually, it’s a clause, Gordon. It has a verb, you see.”

“Smarty pants!” Gordon shot back. Zack could be irritating at times, especially when he was putting you right. “One of your own, is it, by any chance?” He was getting good at sarcasm. He was also smarting from the notion that until just a few years ago he wasn’t, and in a few more years he wouldn’t be.

“Well, no,” Zack admitted, “but I was there when he wrote it. Always had a way with words, did Will.”

“Hang on,” said Gordon, as that last casual remark sank in, “If you were there when he wrote it, and I wasn’t, and I won’t be, what about you?”

“Ah,” Zack replied thoughtfully, “I seem to be a different matter altogether.”

NOTES: YOU’RE A MAMMAL; THE UNIVERSE BEFORE GORDON; PASSING THROUGH NATURE TO ETERNITY; IT HAS A VERB, YOU SEE; “ALWAYS HAD A WAY WITH WORDS, DID WILL”

 

 

Chapter 18

Forever Friends

(December 2009)

On Gordon’s eleventh Christmas Day, Victor Bennett was delighted to be given Jeremy Clarkson’s latest account of how many fast cars he’d driven that year, and how many slow caravans he’d destroyed. Edith understood her husband’s fascination with the big boys’ toys he would never be able to afford. She even quite enjoyed bits of the TV programme Top Gear. It provided valuable insights into the workings of the so-called “grown-up” male mind.

The “growing-up” male in her life was in another room, getting ready to tackle his biggest and most favourite Christmas present. It was a 4D Vision Space Shuttle 1:72 Scale Model Kit with 143 pieces. It had clear panels, so you could see all the high-tech inner workings. It had moving parts. The landing gear extended and retracted, there were working gear doors, and opening and closing payload bay doors. It had a movable robot-arm. There was a swivel stand to mount the assembled shuttle on. All the engine detail was accurate, as well as the cockpit, space lab, and other compartmental specifications.

It was a great practical way to learn about one of the most complex machines ever built. No wonder it had cost a small fortune. He was a very lucky boy, but of course he knew that. The minimum recommended age for someone attempting to assemble this complicated piece of kit was 14. That made it just right for Gordon (with a bit of help from Zack along the way). He was 10 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 4 days, and ready for a fresh challenge.

Victor settled into his comfortable chair and opened his book. “I’ll let him size up that model before I give him a hand with it,” he said. “I think it may be too much, even for him.”

Edith smiled. “Did you see the way his eyes shone when he unwrapped it?” she said. “I remember his first few Christmases with all those Lego models. He used to chatter away to Zack about the right way of putting them together. He was years below the recommended minimum age, even then.”

Victor nodded. He’d never admitted it, but even he had found some of those models a bit of a challenge. “You were right about him coming out of his imaginary-friend phase,” he said. “I must admit that Zack business had me worried for a while.”

Edith bent over and kissed him. “I never had any doubt. All the books say that imaginary friends are a good thing on the whole, and that children grow out of them.” She was so proud of her one and only son. “Gordon is such a special child. It wasn’t really surprising that his imaginary friend was special as well. He was bound to grow out of him in time.”

Victor dropped his eyes to his book. He was imagining that Jeremy Clarkson was a good friend of his – the sort of friend who would let you take the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 for a test drive.

In the next room, Gordon was carefully placing all the beautifully crafted pieces on their large coffee table. Its surface had been cleared for the purpose. “Is that true?” he asked.

Zack smiled across at him. “Is what true?”

Gordon gazed at the picture on the front of the box. That was what his magnificent, fully assembled space shuttle was going to look like. “Will I grow out of you?”

Zack routinely tuned in to what people were saying in other rooms. When he did, Gordon could hear them too.

“That depends.”

“What on?” His lower lip quivered a little. He pulled the assembly pictograms towards him and tried to focus on what he had to do first.

“On whether or not you decide to grow out of me.”

The picture Gordon was trying to look at had become blurred. He tried to get a grip on himself but was unable to stop a tear from splashing on to the table top. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and raised his head to look Zack full in the face. “I don’t want to grow out of you. Ever!”

Zack smiled, a warm, loving smile, and walked through the coffee table to stand in front of his young companion. “I’m here, aren’t I? Always?” he reminded Gordon gently. He placed his hands on the quivering shoulders. Gordon felt the warmth and the reassurance, but there was one more question he had to ask. It took all his courage to ask it.

“Will you ever grow out of me?” he asked Zack. It was the most important question he had ever asked, and Gordon had asked a lot of questions in the time he’d been on the planet.

“Oh no,” Zack told him. “I’ll never grow out of you. I’ll be with you just as long as you want me to be.”

Gordon smiled a watery smile. “That’s all right then.” He scrambled up and grabbed a tissue out of the box on the sideboard. “Let’s make a start on this shuttle.”

Zack nodded and went back to the other side of the table. He would let Gordon do the assembling, but would give him a helping hand whenever he needed it. He picked up two of the pieces and held them out. “How about starting with these?” he suggested.

Gordon nodded. He stretched out his hand to take them. Putting this amazing machine together was going to take ages. It would be great fun watching it grow.

In the other room, his father was turning a page. In the kitchen, his mother was putting together ingredients for a splendid Christmas dinner. Zack knew there was no chance of anyone else seeing two of the 143 pieces rise into the air and move towards Gordon’s outstretched hand. “And don’t forget,” he reminded Gordon.

“What?” Gordon replied. He carefully consulted the diagram and reached for pieces 3 and 4 himself.

“Your dad is going to come in here in a little while and say: ‘Nothing ventured nothing gained’, and you’re going to let him help you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Gordon said cheerfully. He loved his dad, and enjoyed his company. Anyway, Zack would make sure his dad didn’t make too many mistakes.

They’d got that routine off to a fine art.

NOTES: TOP GEAR; THE BUGATTI VEYRON 16.4; THE 4D VISION SPACE SHUTTLE.

 

 

Chapter 19

A Life Sentence

(late March 2010)

Normally once Spring was underway, the Bennetts were in the habit of going on safari to their local zoo. It was one of Gordon’s favourite places, and they had annual family membership. He loved going at any time of the year, but his absolute favourite time was in the spring. All the plants were budding in the welcome warmth, and many of the animals were at their friskiest.

“Do you know,” Gordon said as he clambered out of their car, “that a third of all animal and plant species face extinction in this century?” It was shortly after 10am on a sunny Sunday in late March.

“Who told you that?” his dad asked him casually.

“Careful!” Zack warned, but Gordon was used to these little tests from his dad. “It said so on Animal Planet.” he replied. That was the safe answer to any question his dad asked him about animals. His dad only saw the occasional programme, and he knew Gordon watched a lot of them.

“Our zoo ’s got 110 acres, 400 species and more than 7,000 animals.” He liked numbers, and was generous with them.

“What’s an acre?” his dad asked him. Do they still teach children useful information like that in school?

Gordon grinned at him. “Come on Dad, you know what an acre is!” Their annual membership card fast-tracked them in.

“Do you know how an acre came to be the size it is?” Zack asked Gordon.

“No, but I bet I will before I’m very much older.”

“It was the amount of ground a yoke of oxen could plough in one day.” Zack told him.

“Dad, do you know how an acre came to be the size it is?” Gordon asked.

“4,840 square yards” his dad said. When he had gone to school, they taught you useful things like that AND made you learn them. Learn it properly when you’re that age and you never forget it. Kids nowadays, it’s all computers and calculators. Ask them to give you change out of a pound when something costs 97p and they have to punch it into a bloody calculator. Don’t get me started …

“No, Dad, why is it 4,840 square yards?”

His dad paused. “I don’t know. It’s an odd number really, now you mention it. They never taught us that in school.”

“It was the amount of ground a yoke of oxen could plough in one day,” Gordon informed him.

His dad was amazed. “How on Earth do you know that?”

“It was on The History Channel.”

His mum arched an eyebrow. “That’s very interesting, Darling,” she said.

They followed the path left, past the elephants of the Asian forest, and walked over the bridge that gave visitors a great view of onagers, dromedaries and brow-antlered deer. Gordon loved all animals, but his current fascinations were big cats and primates. He was in awe of the big cats because they were such powerful predators. He was drawn to the primates because they are our closest relatives: so like us, and yet so different.

The tigers were restless. Maybe they too were filled with the joys of spring. They prowled in full view, shoulder muscles rippling. Gordon watched one swing its massive head from side to side, staring with baleful eyes at the prey beyond its reach. A little boy standing next to Gordon turned to his father. “Hasn’t that tiger got a big face, Dad? Is it as big as yours?”

With incredible speed and amazing grace, the huge cat flowed suddenly into the air. Before those watching had had time to gasp, its massive paw flicked out at full stretch and took a passing sparrow out of the air. A second later it landed without a sound, pinning its tiny prey to the ground. The feeble fluttering between its claws ceased almost as it began. The great cat sniffed it briefly before moving away, leaving the broken bird dead on the ground.

“Wow!” Gordon breathed out. What an awesome moment.

“That’s something you don’t see every day,” Victor Bennett commented, as they turned away.

“Perhaps it’s just as well, dear,” said his wife, whose heart had gone out to the sparrow.

“Where next?” his dad asked.

“Chimpanzees,” Gordon said. It was a disappointment that his zoo, wonderful though it was, did not have any gorillas. However, it did have plans for a spectacular new bio-dome. In a few years, visitors would be able to see gorillas in their natural habitat for the first time in the UK. Gordon was really looking forward to that!

“I remember being taken to London Zoo by my parents when I was about your age,” Victor said. His memory had been jogged by that tiger moment to recall a special moment of his own. “They had a big silverback called Guy. He was the only gorilla there. They found a female for him after about 25 years, but they think he’d been on his own for too long. They never bred.”

Twenty-five years in solitary confinement.

“That day, we went into the gorilla house. There he sat by the big glass screen between him and us. What a sight he was, with a massive head and huge shoulders. He must have weighed about 500 lbs. There was a railing to stop people going right up to the glass and banging on it, I suppose. It wasn’t busy. This little girl went under the railing and right up to the glass.”

Zack was nowhere to be seen, and appeared to have his eyes closed. Gordon could feel his pain.

“She put her hand against the glass. This incredible giant of a creature swung that great head round and looked at her with deep, black eyes.”

Gordon heard something then he hadn’t heard before. Zack was crying.

“Then he slowly lifted his right arm and pressed his hand against the glass, just where her hand was. And there they were for a few seconds, the human child and the lonely gorilla, getting as close as they could to holding hands.”

There was a catch in his dad’s voice. Gordon looked up to see a tear rolling down his face. His mum put her arm round his dad’s waist and gave him a squeeze. “That must have been a wonderful moment,” she said.

His dad found a tissue and wiped his eyes. “It was,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten it.”

“You were there, weren’t you Zack?” Gordon whispered, and got no reply.

Sometimes, words aren’t enough.

NOTES: HIS LOCAL ZOO; EXTINCTION OF SPECIES – AN INTERESTING QUESTION; ACRE; ONAGERS; HIS CURRENT FASCINATIONS WERE BIG CATS AND PRIMATES; BALEFUL; PLANS FOR A NEW BIO-DOME.

 

Chapter 20

So Near And Yet So Far

(late March 2010)

Gordon’s Zoo had one of the largest and most successful groups of zoo chimpanzees in the world. Gordon never tired of watching them. “Here we are,” said his dad, almost back to his normal cheerful self, “our nearest living relatives.”

“So near and yet so far,” Zack said. He was back, and at his usual place by Gordon’s side. “So near and yet so far, Dad,” Gordon commented cheerfully.

His dad shot him a quizzical look. “How do you mean?”

“It said on The Discovery Channel that human DNA and chimp DNA are 98.4% identical,” Gordon replied.

“That’s right it did.” His mum agreed. “I watched that programme with you. How do you always remember these numbers Gordon?”

“They’re interesting,” he said. He only had a vague idea of what DNA was, but he knew 98.4 was very close to 100. “‘So near’ because chimpanzees are so like us, and very clever.”

His dad nodded. “They use tools, and they work together when they’re hunting.”

Edith shuddered. She’d seen a programme where the chimps had caught a monkey and torn it apart without killing it first. There is a dark side to behaviour like that, much like the terrible cruelty humans are capable of. She much preferred the gentle, peaceful, vegetarian gorillas. We aren’t so closely related to them, only about 95%, the programme had said. In Edith’s opinion, something went wrong on the way to chimps and us.

“‘Survival of the fittest’ isn’t the best idea Nature ever came up with, is it?” she said. “Survival of the nicest would have been … nicer.”

“Predators and prey,” Gordon’s dad said. “’twas ever thus.”

“And yet ‘so far’,” Gordon said, “because look at the difference in the level of achievement between us and chimps. It’s huge!”

“That’s a very good point.” Victor agreed. He was enjoying this day out more than he’d expected to. It had brought back an important memory. “Only 1.6% different and we’re the ones landing on the moon while they’re the ones still swinging through the trees.”

“What differences could there be in just 1.6% of our genes,” Zack asked Gordon, “that made it possible for human beings to take such a great leap forward?”

Gordon was watching an alpha male stick a finger up his nose and transfer the pickings to his prominently round mouth. “I don’t know” he confessed.

“We’ll talk about it when we’re by ourselves,” Zack promised.

Gordon grabbed a parent in each hand. “I love this zoo.” He announced. “When I grow up I am going to help save the planet for every species, not just us.”

“That’s nice dear.” His mother said. She wouldn’t put it past him.

NOTES: QUIZZICAL; DNA; GUY; POUNDS AND KILOS; THE ANSWER TO AN INTERESTING QUESTION.

 

Chapter 21

We Have To Save Them

(early April 2010)

“Let me tell you a true story,” Zack said, a night or two later, “about one particular chimpanzee.” Gordon settled down contentedly. Zack’s stories were always interesting. “She was called Washoe, and she was the first non-human to learn to communicate using sign language. She was brought up by humans who treated her like a human child. They gave her love and companionship and helped her to learn. But instead of speaking to her, they communicated through sign language.”

“Why didn’t they speak to her?” Gordon asked.

“The lower part of a chimp’s face sticks out. The tongue, teeth, lips and palate don’t interact in the same way ours do. That’s a key difference.”

Gordon nodded slowly.

“But they can make signs and lots of different body gestures that they use to communicate in the wild. So to test her intelligence and memory they taught her signs, just as they would have taught a human child who had been born deaf.”

“How many was she able to learn?” Gordon asked.

“Around 350, over a five-year period.”

“350 is a lot”, Gordon said. “Did she remember them, or did she learn them and then forget them again?”

“She learned them just like we learn words. She had to use a sign herself without anyone prompting her, and use it appropriately for fourteen consecutive days, before they counted it as one she definitely knew.”

“WOW!” Gordon said.

“You might think learning 350 different signs is clever,” Zack went on, “but what she did with them was amazing.”

“What did she do?” Gordon wanted to know.

“She started putting them together to make words of her own.”

“Like what?”

“She learned a lot of signs for basic things: like bird,” Zack flapped with his two hands like bird wings, “and water.” He rippled one hand, like the surface of water ruffled by wind or disturbed by something. “And then one morning they decided to teach her a new sign for one particular bird: a duck.”

“She DIDN’T, did she?

“She did. They showed her the picture of a duck, and before they could show her the sign they’d thought of, she signed ripple-flap: water-bird.

“How clever is that?” Gordon breathed. “That’s fantastic!”

“The more signs she learned, the more she combined them to make words of her own. When she saw her humans using a thermos she signed metal-cup-drink.

“Brilliant,” Gordon agreed, “I’ll bet there are people who aren’t that clever.”

“That’s it, isn’t it,” Zack said enthusiastically. “She wasn’t just learning the signs parrot fashion. She used them to think. She was clever.” He beamed. “And that’s not all. The humans working with Washoe found out that she didn’t just think. She had feelings as well.”

“How did they know for sure?” Gordon wanted to know.

“One of the people who looked after Washoe became pregnant. Washoe saw her tummy growing bigger and was interested. “She knew the sign for baby, and understood there was a baby growing in the lady’s tummy.” Zack was suddenly sombre. “Then the lady had a miscarriage and was away from Washoe for quite a long time.”

“What’s a miscarriage?” Gordon wanted to know.

“It’s when something goes wrong, and the mother isn’t able to keep her baby inside her long enough for it to survive on its own.”

“Oh.” Gordon already knew that life had very sad moments as well as very happy ones.

“When she came back, Washoe gave her the cold shoulder. It was how she showed people she was cross with them for going off and leaving her.”

“What did the lady do?”

“She decided to tell Washoe the truth. So she signed: ‘My baby died’.”

Gordon shivered. “That must have been hard,” he whispered.

“Washoe stared at her face, and then at her flat tummy. Then she looked up again into the lady’s eyes, and very carefully signed ‘cry’, while drawing her finger gently down the lady’s cheek, following the path a human tear makes.”

Gordon felt his own eyes fill with tears.

“Chimpanzees don’t shed tears,” Zack told him. “The lady said that one gesture taught her more about Washoe than all her made-up words and long sentences.”

Gordon remembered Guy the gorilla reaching out to the little girl on the other side of the glass. “We have to save them, Zack,” Gordon thought fiercely. “We have to save them from us. Why don’t more people understand that?”

“That’s a very good question,” Zack said. “Time to sleep – school tomorrow.”

NOTES: WASHOE; COLD SHOULDERS

 

Chapter 22

R.I.P.

(early April 2010)

Tom wasn’t at school the following morning. Their teacher, Mrs McCarthy, sat them all down and said that she had some very sad news to tell them.

Tom’s daddy had been killed in Afghanistan.

Chapter 23

Reversing The Polarities

(May 2010)

Zack found himself standing on the observation platform of an enormous spaceship. Eye-level screens showed views of the ship’s exterior. It bore an uncanny resemblance to the starship Enterprise. They were in stationary orbit above an awesome, rotating Earth.

Looking round the bridge he saw that the interior had been modelled accordingly. Gordon was sitting in the Captain’s chair, looking smart in the uniform of a Star Fleet Captain. Zack looked down and found himself dressed in the blue uniform of the ship’s science officer. The way Gordon was grinning at him made him realise that for the duration of this mission, he was to have pointy ears.

“Well, Mr Zack,” said Captain Bennett, “what do you think of the Starship Velociraptor?”

Mr Zack clasped his hands behind his back and raised an eyebrow. “It looks remarkably like the Enterprise, Captain.”

Gordon’s grin grew broader. “Indeed it does. However, I have carried out key modifications to the ship’s engines.”

Zack raised the other eyebrow. “As Science Officer, I should familiarise myself with any changes to the basic design.”

“You’ll find all the specifications in the ship’s computers,” said Gordon. “Basically, it occurred to me that reversing the polarities in the anti-matter chamber would increase the rate at which the dilithium crystals released energy inside the hyperdrive.”

Zack had watched enough Star Trek episodes with Gordon to know that there were very few problems with a starship’s engines that couldn’t be cured by reversing the polarities in the anti-matter chamber and replacing the dilithium crystals.

“Assuming my calculations are correct,” Captain Bennett continued, “the ship is now capable of warp ten in measurable spacetime, and approximately 100 times that through a wormhole.”

“A human expression occurs to me,” Mr Zack said gravely.

“Which is?” the Captain inquired.

“’The proof of the pudding …’”

“Indeed,” replied the Captain. “Mr Nicholas, load the wormhole-detection software into the navigational hard-drive, and set the coordinates for The Oort Cloud.” Captain Gordon E. Bennett appeared to have the self-confidence normally associated with years of successful command.

“Aye Aye, Captain.” Flight Lieutenant Nicholas gazed at the screen in front of him and pressed several buttons in rapid succession. “Course locked in.”

“May I know the purpose of the mission?” Mr Zack enquired, with iron self-control.

“Of course, Mr Zack: it is to boldly go where no man …”

“I am familiar with the generic purpose of starship missions,” Mr Zack interrupted, “but I am intrigued by your coordinates. Why The Oort Cloud?”

“Top secret orders from Starfleet Command,” Captain Bennett replied mysteriously.

Mr Zack bowed his head. “As you wish, Captain.”

Captain Bennett raised his right hand and pointed his finger at the giant screen. Trillions of stars and billions of galaxies stretched fourteen billion light years right to the apparently expanding edge of the universe. “Engage!”

Mr Nicholas pressed the appropriate button and the huge ship got smoothly underway. Up here there was no atmosphere to contend with. The ship’s internal stabilizers ensured there was little sense of movement on the flight deck. Instruments confirmed that the ship went from 0-60 mph in 1 second, from 60-600 mph in another second, and from 600-6,000 mph in a further second.

By the time they were 7 seconds into their journey, the ship was travelling at 60,000,000 mph and the image of Planet Earth was rapidly receding in the rear-view monitors. “The final frontier,” Captain Bennett said.

“May I remind you, Captain,” said Mr Zack, “that ‘Space is very aptly named’. Even at this colossal speed, it would still take us 93.4 minutes to get as far as our own sun.

“I am aware of that, Mr Zack. Mr Nicholas, prepare for the transition to hyperspace.”

“Aye Aye, Captain.” Mr Nicholas flicked two switches and turned the central knob on a dial close to his right elbow, “Transition prepared. Wormhole-detection equipment locked in.”

“You might want to strap yourself in, Mr Zack,” Captain Bennett suggested.

Zack settled himself into a seat. He found to his surprise that its belt was indeed capable of securing him. Technicoloured balls of light began flashing at increasing speed across a large screen.

“On my signal, Mr Nicholas. Let’s find out what this baby can do.”

Mr Nicholas sat with his finger poised above the big red button. The Captain raised his right arm and brought it down with a flourish worthy of Daniel Barenboim conducting the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. Velociraptor leapt into the parallel dimension beyond light speed.

“Warp factor 2 … 3 … 4 …” Mr Nicholas intoned. The hum of the ship’s engines increased in pitch and volume. “Warp factor 7… 8 … 9 … AARRGGHH!”

The ship had suddenly taken on a trajectory of its own. The manoeuvre combined the twists and turns of an Xtreme rollercoaster with the swirl of water going down a massive plughole. All three passengers experienced alternating extremes of pressure. One moment it was forcing them through their seats, and the next it was trying to hurl them across the flight deck.

“OH … MY … GIDDY…!” Zack was vaguely conscious that his eyes were closed to prevent them from flying out of their sockets. His teeth were clenched, and his hands were gripping his chair so tightly that his knuckles had turned white.

This may have gone on for a minute, but to the intrepid crew of Velociraptor it seemed far longer. Then the plunging, whirling and looping stopped as suddenly as it began, and the ship righted itself. It had been hurled out of the vortex.

“Sub-light speed, Mr Nicholas, if you please,” Captain Bennett spluttered. He waited for his stomach to return to the part of his body it normally occupied.

Mr Zack’s imperturbable constitution had been severely tested. “I have never,” he began, his voice about an octave higher than normal, “experienced anything like that.”

Mr Nicholas had turned an alien shade of green. He seemed incapable of movement. His eyes were trying to focus on his hands. His brain was willing them to move, but the message wasn’t getting through.

“SUB-LIGHT SPEED, MR NICHOLAS!” his captain repeated. The spaceship had travelled a hundred million miles since he last gave the order. His eyes narrowed, and Mr Nicholas’s hands jerked into life. His fingers pressed a series of buttons, flicked several switches and adjusted a dial; after which, his hands slapped back on to the control panel in front of him and his body slumped sideways, eyes staring.

“His eyes are open, but their sense is shut,” Captain Bennett commented. The whine of the ship’s engines decreased in pitch and intensity. The external cameras flicked into life once more. “Where are we, Mr Zack?”

Zack checked the screens on the panel in front of him and shook his head. “I have no idea, Captain,” he said. He undid his seat belt and walked over to the screen on which the forward-facing cameras were projecting the view immediately in front of the ship. “One thing is certain,” he said. “We are nowhere near the Oort Cloud.”

The ship was coming up on a planet of Earth-like proportions. Its medium intensity star blazed at what appeared to Gordon to be a similar distance away from this planet as the sun was from Earth.

There was a groan from the flight desk. Nicholas struggled to an upright sitting position, his face getting back its normal pinko-grey colour. “Welcome back, Mr Nicholas,” Captain Bennett said. “Bring us into geo-stationary orbit round that planet. Attempt identification, if you please.”

“Mr Zack, check its composition and atmospheric conditions. Scan for evidence of life forms.” Zack found that he was familiar with the ship’s scientific instruments. Rapping short commands into the keyboard, he selected from the menus that scrolled down his screens.

“This star configuration is not on the charts in the computer’s memory banks,” Mr Nicholas reported. “We must be in a part of the universe not yet mapped.”

“Collect all available data for future reference,” Captain Bennett said evenly. His eyes were glued to the viewing screens. “We appear to have boldly gone where no man has …”

“The planet has a core of molten iron,” Mr Zack said. “It is generating a gravitational pull similar to Earth’s. 71% of it is covered in salt water, and there are significant amounts of ice at its poles.”

Gordon never ceased to amaze him.

“Its land masses are clearly capable of supporting life as we know it, especially in its temperate and equatorial zones. Its atmosphere contains 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, and small amounts of other gases.”

Gordon was excited. “There’s a whole new world down there. We can land and explore. Are there any signs of intelligent life?”

Mr Zack examined the images formed by the mapping rays the ship was bouncing off the planet’s surface. “Large cities,” he reported. “Some enormous buildings, and evidence of a technology far superior to our own.”

Gordon hesitated. Life of any sort could mean bacteria against which they would have no immunity. And how would an intelligent life-form react to visitors from outer space?

“The planet supports myriad carbon-based life-forms,” Zack continued. “It appears to be dominated by one in particular.

“Details?”

Mr Zack examined the stream of data and gave a low whistle. The findings had surprised him out of rôle. “A primate, with a DNA approximately 95% identical to that of humans.”

The ship shuddered. Mr Nicholas pushed buttons, flicked switches and turned dials, all to no effect. “We have lost control, Captain,” he reported. “We’re losing height.”

“Engage reverse thrusters!” Captain Bennett ordered.

Mr Nicholas tried. “It’s useless,” he said. “A surface computer has taken over the ship. We’ve lost power to the engines.” He stared at his captain. “An immensely powerful tractor beam is pulling us in.”

“Communications channel, Mr Zack, hailing frequency.”

Zack flicked the appropriate switches. “Channel open, Captain.”

“I am Captain Gordon E. Bennett of the Starship Velociraptor,” Gordon announced. “We come in peace. We ask that you release our ship from your tractor-beam immediately.”

The telecommunications screen flickered into life. It revealed a large room containing a long, low, polished table. Squatting on the floor at one end of it was a 500-lb gorilla. Its coat shone a lustrous black over its head, shoulders, arms and rump. Its back glowed with a grey-white sheen that was almost metallic. Gordon recognised it as a silverback, but there the similarity with its Earth cousins ended.

There were documents on the table and the creature was consulting them! Its nimble fingers were adjusting buttons, switches and dials on a console. This great ape radiated intelligence and authority. It looked up now, its huge black eyes staring into the camera facing it. Then its hands moved rapidly in a series of gestures that left little room for misinterpretation.

“I believe it just said resistance is futile,” Mr Zack informed his captain. His hands were once again clasped behind his back, his face imperturbable. He was back in rôle.

The gorilla examined the images it was receiving from the flight deck’s inboard cameras. It stared straight at Gordon and its upper lip wrinkled to reveal massive, brilliant white teeth. It extended an enormously muscular right arm and pointed straight at him, then it turned its hand over and flicked its fingers back towards itself in a similarly unmistakable gesture.

“I think we’re about to experience a close encounter of the third kind,” Captain Bennett said.

NOTES: WORMHOLES; PROOF OF THE PUDDING; THE OORT CLOUD; GENERIC; FOURTEEN BILLION YEARS; “SPACE IS VERY APTLY NAMED”; 93.4 MINUTES; BEETHOVEN’S FIFTH; “HIS EYES ARE OPEN, BUT …”; A SIMILAR DISTANCE AS THE SUN WAS TO EARTH; PINKO-GREY; MYRIAD; OUT OF RÔLE; BRILLIANT WHITE TEETH; GORDON E. BENNETT; CE3K

Chapter 24

A Meeting Of Minds

(May 2010)

Velociraptor passed through the planet’s upper atmosphere to emerge beneath scant clouds. Its steady descent was entirely controlled by guidance systems on the planet’s surface. The terrain below rapidly became clearer. It resembled Equatorial Africa, but from a period on Earth maybe 100,000 years ago. Almost everywhere, the forest was lush and dense, with massive trees. Where areas had been cleared, they were luxuriant and fruitful, with extensive orchards.

Smoothly the starship made its rapid descent, held by a crimson tractor beam shining from an opening in one side of a huge pyramid. The pyramid appeared to be made of stone. There was a laser-hard edge to the light spreading outwards from its apex inside the structure. It flowed into space as an expanding pyramid of energy, cutting through the planet’s atmosphere and easily engulfing the starship.

As they came closer, the enormity of the structure became evident. It was perhaps ten times the size of the largest pyramid in Egypt. There were no visible openings other than the one through which the beam shone. When Velociraptor had come within a mile, an enormous rectangular section slid open to reveal a docking bay the size of a small airport.

With dramatic suddenness, the red tractor-beam switched off. It was replaced by several blue-green pencils of light shining from various points within the opening. They measured the dimensions of the ship and brought it with amazing precision to a designated docking area.

The hangar contained a number of very large, saucer-like craft. Each was a hive of activity. Hundreds of gorillas and thousands of chimpanzees were working in teams: building, repairing, fuelling and maintaining the vessels. They were using tools that seemed more advanced than any yet developed on Earth. The work was progressing at astonishing speed.

Velociraptor came to a halt, suspended 20 feet or so above the ground. The blue-green light pencils disappeared, and a warm, white light shone up from beneath the ship, cushioning its descent. Gordon heard the whirr of his ship’s landing gear being lowered and locked. When the ship finally came to a halt on the floor of the hangar, there was no impact at all.

The communication screen flicked back on. That long table was now surrounded by silverbacks and somewhat smaller females in approximately equal numbers. They were seated on the floor as the first male had been, staring at images of the starship’s flight deck and its tiny crew. The signing between them was rapid and urgent. Their body language suggested consternation.

“They appear to be some kind of Council,” Mr Zack commented. “I think they are trying to decide what to do with us. An experiment, Captain, if I may?”

“Proceed, Mr Zack.

Zack stood in front of the ship’s camera and raised his right hand in the Vulcan greeting. “Live long and prosper” he intoned. The effect on the gorillas was immediate. Their grunting became louder and more staccato, almost like Morse code. The gestures flew between them at an even greater rate.

“Fascinating,” Zack said.

“In what way, Mr Zack?”

“Clearly, they can see me, Captain.” Mr Zack commented. “Perhaps their instruments detect brain-waves and reconfigure them as some kind of hologram.”

Mr Nicholas was staring at the monitor with mounting concern. “Captain, I advise caution! They’re huge! They could tear us apart in seconds.”

Gordon shook his head. “Gorillas are peaceful vegetarians. They use aggression only when threatened. I have no intention of threatening them.” He glanced over at the monitors showing activity outside the ship. Under the watchful eye of a supervising gorilla, chimpanzees were manoeuvring a ramp into position immediately under the ship’s main hatchway. “Chimpanzees, on the other hand …,” he mused, leaving the sentence unfinished.

A high-pitched squeak sounded somewhere near the back of Mr Nicholas’s throat. He was, however, the ship’s pilot, and determined to keep a stiff upper lip. Gordon stood at Zack’s side, and stared straight at the camera. The magnificent male at the end of the table raised one of his massive arms and the assembly fell instantly silent. There were no chimps around that table. On this planet, gorillas appeared to be the dominant species.

“Merge with me, Zack.” Zack slid smoothly into Gordon. There were clamorous responses and rapid signings from the watching gorillas. Gordon remembered a greeting that Zack had told him was polite in India. He placed the palms of his hands together in front of his chest and bowed his head in respectful greeting. “Namaste,” he murmured.

He looked up, and saw something truly remarkable. The male at the end of the table was bowing his head and pressing his massive hands together in a replica of Gordon’s gesture. It seemed to be the signal for every gorilla round the table to stand and do likewise. The male in authority then held out both hands, open palmed: an expression of welcome and invitation.

“Now that’s what I call a civilised response.” Zack murmured. Even Nick was reassured. He smiled bravely at Gordon.

With a hiss the hatch doors swung open, and in seconds the pressure had stabilised inside the ship. The air outside was clean, fresh and invigorating. Perhaps no creature on this planet had been polluting it in the name of progress and the pursuit of profit.

“Phasers on stun, Mr Nicholas,” said Captain Bennett. He drew his own and convincingly adjusted its intensity level. Mr Nicholas did the same. Both weapons were securely holstered before they emerged at the top of the ramp. Gordon led the way, with Nick rather hesitant in the rear.

“Fascinating,” Zack said. “They have completely encased the ship in a force-field. Presumably, they are checking for alien micro-organisms.”

“Sensible,” said Gordon. He would have done the same, had the technology been at his disposal.

The force-field looked like a clear, glass dome. He could hear a low hum. It may have been coming from a generator supplying the power for it. Presumably, scanners were analysing their physical composition, brain structure, DNA …

They stood at the bottom of the ramp and looked around. The enormity of it all was overwhelming. What they had thought was stone was obviously nothing of the sort. The inside was a maze of interlocking poles, rods, blocks and sheets of a material that looked like plastic. It must have been incredibly strong.

Sunlight streamed in through transparent panels in the outer sloping walls. Rather like one-way glass, the panels allowed those inside to see out, while seeming impenetrable from the outside. Perhaps they were impenetrable to anything larger than light.

Their docking bay was close to one of the building’s inner walls. A set of doors in that wall now slid open, revealing a spacious compartment approximately ten feet high and twelve feet wide. It looked like a lift. The silverback they had seen first on the Velociraptor’s communication screen emerged from it and loped majestically towards the force-field surrounding their ship.

He was followed by two females and, curiously, a young gorilla. The youngster could not have been more than two years old, if the rate of growth in this species on Earth was anything to go by. Instead of a formal reception committee, this group appeared to be a family coming to see a closely related but significantly different creature.

Captain Bennett walked towards them, followed by his flight lieutenant. He stood as close as he could get to the glass-like barrier, stared out at them and smiled. The little gorilla jumped up and down with excitement, making a flurry of signs to her parents. Then, tugging free from her mother’s grasp, she scampered over to the glass and put her hand against it.

She and Gordon faced each other, similar in size and a world apart. Gently Gordon brought his hand up and pressed it to his side of the glass. The two hands were aligned, separated only by the thickness of the force-field.

“Way to go,” Zack whispered.

The force-field vanished. The humming stopped. The two hands met.

NOTES: CONSTERNATION; THE VULCAN GREETING; HOLOGRAMS; NAMASTE; ZACK’S POLITICAL LEANINGS; HER LITTLE HAND.

 

Chapter 25

Now You’re Talking

(May 2010)

Gordon and Nick stared out of the windows on either side of a massive carriage. The monorail ran through a lush delta with high mountains on either side. There were no seats in the carriage; the species that had designed and built it didn’t need them.

They were sharing their compartment with the infant and one of the adult females they had met an hour or so ago. The carriages behind and in front each carried an adult male and female and several items of equipment. Gordon got the distinct impression this was an equal opportunities planet. He had seen them carry on a large basket piled with ripe, inviting fruit. There was a general air of excitement and expectancy.

The whole area teemed with animals of every description. They had apparently been ordered according to species and behavioural patterns. For several minutes, they passed through open prairies with grazing herds of bison, buffalo, wildebeest, onagers, gazelles, zebra and elephant, to name but seven. The rivers must have been teeming with fish and shrimp. Herons, cormorants and flamingos waded, darted and fed in their thousands. A profusion of hippos and crocodiles wallowed, rippled and basked. Rhinos ploughed along the muddy banks.

The infant gorilla jumped up and down, pointing at each animal. She made her signs for Gordon and Nicholas to copy, while they made the sound of the sign in their own language. When she wasn’t pointing and signing, she held hands with both Nicholas and Gordon, clearly delighted with her new playmates.

They saw sheep and goats clambering over rocky slopes covered with tough grass and thorny bushes. They passed through an enclosure at least a mile in diameter, where big cats, hyenas and other predators prowled. The monorail then entered a wooded area where troops of monkeys ran along branches. They were eating the fruit that grew there in profusion, and anchoring themselves with their prehensile tails. Brightly coloured birds and butterflies flew and fluttered everywhere.

A few minutes more and the ground on their left dropped steeply away into a vast crater. The rail kept to the mountain slopes, affording the passengers an excellent view right across a sunken valley, several miles wide. By now, Nick and Gordon had decided they were passing through an immense National Park, though they didn’t know why. They were not, however, prepared for the sight they now beheld.

“WOW!” said Gordon, in awe. “I told you they were that colour.” He pointed at a huge dinosaur, contentedly grazing in a clearing below them.

“It’s Jurassic Park,” Nick breathed, and scanned the sky for incoming pterodactyls. The infant gorilla, whose name was something like Circle-squiggle-comma, capered around the compartment with great glee, pointing and signing at the vast creature below. “Dip-lo-doc-us” Gordon said slowly, and repeated her sign to show that he had understood. Clearly, there had been no extinction event on this planet.

The monorail ran around the edge of the crater. It gave them a chance to observe several species of dinosaur before sweeping through 180˚ and heading back along the other side. They left the cratered valley behind and came to an area of open plain, dotted with trees and bushes. Their compartment slowed and came to a halt at a platform. The occupants of the car in front were waiting for them. The car behind drew up, and the group assembled.

The adult female placed a forefinger on C-S-C’s lips and the child was instantly solemn and silent. One of the other females led the way. They walked a short distance along a tree-lined path before coming to a clearing. It was encased in a huge dome with the appearance of thick glass, exactly like the one that had surrounded Velociraptor when they docked. The same low hum filled the air.

Just outside the dome was a large control panel, set into a post. The lead female placed her nose on a clear plate in the middle of the panel. A thick, metallic rectangle rose smoothly from the ground at the base of the force-field, creating a wide doorway, through which the party passed, all but one. The adult male at the rear pressed his nose to the panel, and the rectangle sank, making the force-field intact once more. He would wait there for the party’s return.

The group made its way further into the domed area. Gordon looked around warily. It was dotted with thick bushes and clusters of trees. Animals could remain hidden if they wanted to. Nick had got over being scared of the gorillas, but he was keeping very close to Gordon in their current location.

“What do you make of this, Zack?”

“It seems there is an animal in here they want to witness your close encounter with.”

The gorillas set up their equipment. The male with the fruit basket set it down about twenty feet from the group. Standing briefly on his hind legs, he beat out a signal with his hands against his chest. The response was immediate.

Three hominid children of different ages and sizes came running from the bushes. The boy was probably around fourteen years old, the girls perhaps twelve and ten. Clearly, they were conditioned to respond to the great ape’s signal. They expected food, but not so many gorillas, and they certainly hadn’t expected to see other young hominids. They skidded to a halt and went into a huddle. Gordon could hear their staccato mutterings.

Gordon looked round at the gorillas. Two were directing their equipment at the muttering trio. One was clearly focusing on Gordon’s and Nick’s reactions. Those with clipboards were making rapid, hieroglyphic notes.

Gordon made up his mind. “Give me a hand with that basket, Mr Nicholas.” He walked up to it and gripped one side of the handle. The need to respond in rôle seemed to steady Nick’s nerves. “Aye aye, Captain,” he said, and gripped the other side.

Together they lifted it and started across the intervening space. The response of the huddled children was immediate. The boy turned to face them and began to walk in their direction, holding his head high. The two girls followed his cue and caught up with him, one on either side.

They were all dirty and dressed in ragged skins. Their hair was matted and their teeth crooked, soiled and yellowing. They came to a halt perhaps ten feet away. Gordon could smell them as they eyed the contents of the basket hungrily. He signalled to Nick to set it down, and they retreated a respectful distance.

Gordon smiled and raised his two hands in a gesture of invitation. The three children fell upon it and began cramming their mouths with the fruit, sighing and grunting with satisfaction. Gordon watched them in silence and mounting pity. It seemed they had no parents to look after them, or to teach them anything.

He turned to the watching gorillas. Between two highly intelligent species sharing 95% of their DNA, certain mimes and signals are immediately recognisable. Gordon pointed at the feeding children. He raised one arm above his head to indicate adult height. He swept his arm round the surrounding territory and made the hand and facial gestures which signal ‘I’m asking you something’. He was able to make himself crystal clear. “Where are their parents?”

C-S-C’s mother gave her head a slight shake. She traced the line of a tear from her eye down her cheek. Gordon turned back to the feeding children. “Hey!” he said. Simultaneously, three pairs of jaws stopped chewing and three sets of eyes stared at him suspiciously. Gordon tapped himself in the chest. “Gor-don” he said, slowly and carefully. “We’re one of a kind, like …”

The boy snarled something that sounded like: “Dip da-dip da-dip, doo-wop a doobee-doo!”

Gordon was not a lad who gave up easily. Perhaps signing would work better. He pointed at his lieutenant, whose nervous expression was undermining their position somewhat. “Nick” he intoned, with increased volume and perfect clarity. “Our names are signed as…”

The taller of the two girls spat out a mouthful of fruit and stuck her arm straight out, her forefinger pointing menacingly at him. “Boog-e-dy boog-e-dy boog-e-dy boog-e-dy, shoobee, doo-wop she-bop!!”

“What do you make of it, Zack?”

There was a second’s silence. “Hard to say,” Zack replied. Seemingly, Gordon would have to continue acting on his own initiative. “Oh well,” he thought, “nil desperandum …”

“WE,” he said, pointing first at Nick, then at himself, “are – here – to – help – YOU.” He pointed his finger at the three of them. That didn’t go down too well at all.

“CHANG CHANG, CHANG-ITTY CHANG SHOO-BOP!!” the younger girl screamed. All three were now pointing fingers at him, their eyes blazing.

“This is definitely not the way it should be.” Gordon thought. “Do you recognise any of their words?” he asked Zack. “They don’t sound like Latin.”

“No,” Zack agreed, “They’re not from Greece either.”

The boy darted to a fallen branch lying in the grass and snatched it up. Whirling it round his head, he began advancing on Gordon. His lips wrinkled back to reveal just how disgusting his teeth were. There was a bark of alarm from one of the watching gorillas. Gordon stuck his hand up at them, palm out. Don’t interfere.

The two girls began to shriek encouragement. “WA-WA-WA-WAAA!” yelled the smaller one. “SHA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA, YIPPITTY BOOM DE BOOM!” howled the bigger one. There seemed to be a tonal quality to their spoken language, but it conveyed nothing to Gordon of any real significance. The threatening body language, however, was all too plain.

“At least he’s using an elementary tool,” Captain Bennett commented to his flight lieutenant. Mr Nicholas was keeping his skipper between himself and the advancing humanoid.

“A wop boppa loo-bop, a wop bam BOOM!” cried the boy, and charged. That last syllable rang a bell. He bore down on Gordon, swinging the thick branch with lethal force, clearly intending to crush the life out of this smaller fellow creature that had just brought him food.

The young, adolescent male launched himself into the air. Gordon’s eyes narrowed, and two things happened: the club shot twenty feet into the air, and the boy spun twice like a top before ploughing into the ground in a winded heap. The two girls stared at their crumpled companion. They crouched in wariness, their arms around each other.

“You need help” Gordon told them, “whether you want it or not. Do-wa-did-dy-diddy-dum-diddy-do!”

“What did you just say to them?” Nick asked.

“I’ve no idea,” Gordon replied, “but it seemed appropriate, in the circumstances. Mr Zack, get out here.

Zack slid out of him. “Yes, Captain?” The noise level from the watching gorillas increased significantly. Gordon felt his senses slipping.

“I think we have boldly gone as far as we can go on this particular mission. Do you think you can get us back home on your own?”

Mr Zack inclined his head gravely, with admirable self-control. “It will be my pleasure, Captain.”

NOTES: DELTA; EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES; GORILLAS’ NOSES; HIEROGLYPHS; NIL DESPERANDUM; GREECE AND GREASE; DOO WA DIDDY …; INANE.

 

Chapter 26

Why Do People Do Terrible Things?

(May 2010)

Gordon pointed the piece of toast at his mouth. It opened to receive it and opted instead for an enormous yawn. “You look tired,” his dad said. “Did you sleep all right?”

Gordon nodded. “Busy dream,” he explained. He did feel a bit jet-lagged.

“Goodness me!” he heard his mum exclaim from the hallway. “Surely you don’t need to take all these books with you?”

“’es ‘a ‘oo,” Gordon said. He’d taken his first mouthful of toast and added a spoonful of strawberry yoghurt.

His dad laughed. “You sound like Scooby Doo. You’re not doing a Ghosts and Monsters project, are you?”

Gordon swallowed and normal service was resumed. “No, I don’t have that many books on ghosts and monsters. We’re doing Hot and Cold today. Mrs McCarthy asked us to bring books about hot and cold things.”

He ticked them off on his fingers. “I’m taking two books on volcanoes, my book on the sun and the planets, my ‘Great Fire of London’ book and my ‘How Things Work’ book about making steel. Then there’s my book about Emperor penguins, the one about global warming melting the ice-caps, and the one about the Woolly Mammoth in the last ice-age from my Pre-History series. I’ve got The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe …”

“Whoah!” his dad said, “I’m sure she didn’t mean half your library.”

Gordon nodded vigorously. “She did, Dad. Some children never bring any. She relies on me because there’s always plenty to go round when we do a theme. She brings a lot and I bring a lot. Nick brings a few, and some of the others bring one or two.”

He finished off his orange juice. “Mrs McCarthy says having me in the class is like having another teacher,” he said proudly. “Sometimes I listen to reading, and help with spelling and arithmetic. Other times, I read to the whole class. Mrs McCarthy says they sit stiller when I read to them than when she does.”

“They do” said a familiar voice inside his head. Victor took the smile that appeared on his son’s face to be a sign of self-satisfaction.

“Well your mother and I are proud of you, son,” Victor told him. “But I hope they remember that you’re there to learn as well, not just to help the others learn.”

Gordon nodded earnestly. “They do, Dad. You really get to understand things better yourself when you try to teach them to other people.”

His father stood up: it was his time to hit the road. “That’s very true,” he said. “But who’s going to carry all those books? Your mum will need muscles on her muscles.”

“We take his old pushchair,” said Edith, briskly. “Right, coat; shoes on.”

Zack emerged, fetchingly attired in a striped, three-button blazer with a smart crest on the breast pocket, white flannels and a matching rowing cap. It was that time of year. “No problems getting home last night?” Gordon asked him as they set off.

“None at all. C-S-C wanted to keep you as a pet, but her parents told her that would be very wrong. She hopes you’ll go back and see her one day.”

“That would be good,” Gordon decided. “I’d like to see how their humans are getting on. Maybe they’ll reclassify us as apes.”

“Not likely,” was Zack’s opinion. “The apes have conquered Space, while the humans are still battering each other’s brains out in the jungle.

“How did we get home?” Gordon asked. “I don’t remember a thing.”

Zack was enthusiastic. “The technology on that planet is amazing. The Station Commander calculated the coordinates from data he found on the Velociraptor’s computers. He beamed it right back to the docking station above Earth. I got us home from there.”

Gordon dropped behind his mum so an oncoming lady would have room to pass them and the mobile library. “That’s a big improvement on going through a wormhole.”

“Tell me about it! Never a dull moment with you, is there?”

“Hope not,” Gordon said cheerfully; then his face saddened. “Seriously, though, what chances do those children have?”

“Better than before your visit. The gorillas were amazed at the level of technology a humanoid species has managed to achieve on our planet. I’m sure you’ve made them more determined to protect those that are left. They’re going to see if they can help them realise their potential.”

Gordon’s mum glanced back to check where he was. “Come on, slowcoach!” she called back to him. The pushchair jolted over an uneven piece of pavement, and she turned back to check the bag of books was still in place. “You don’t … Oh! How did you get there so fast?!”

Gordon looked up at her innocently. “Where?”

There! You were twenty feet behind me a second ago!”

“Whoops!” Zack said. He was still twenty feet behind her.

“Mum, why do people do terrible things?”

That was a tough question to be asked out of the blue on the way to school. “What sort of terrible things are you thinking of?” she asked him, buying herself a little time to think.

“Murders and wars and atrocities and suicide bombings?”

“‘What a piece of work is a man?’” Zack murmured. It never took him long to catch up either, or to come out with a handy quotation.

“Human beings sometimes do terrible things and sometimes they do wonderful things,” his mum said slowly. “There’s good and bad in everyone.”

“You and Dad don’t do terrible things,” Gordon said stoutly. “I don’t do terrible things.” They had reached the final corner before school.

“No,” his mum said. “But if I thought someone was going to hurt you, I’d kill them before I’d let them do it.”

“Human emotions,” Zack said, “are very strong. Think about that this morning when you’re doing your theme.”

They got a green man and crossed over to the school gates. “We’re doing ‘Hot and Cold’,” Gordon said.

“People talk about the fires of passion and burning with desire,” Zack told him, “And about cold hatred and icy contempt.”

Nick came bouncing up. “Hey, Gordon,” he said excitedly. “You’ll never guess what I dreamed last night.”

“Resist!” Zack warned Gordon. It was really tempting to come out with a mouthful of trekkytalk. However, resist he did, while Nick told him all about the journey into space and the Planet of the Apes.

It was actually quite interesting to hear it from his point of view.

NOTES: “WHAT A PIECE OF WORK …”; FIRES … ICY (METAPHORS AGAIN); TREKKYTALK.

Chapter 27

Making His Dad Proud

(May 2010)

Tom slouched into the classroom. He turned his chair away from the table so he didn’t have to look at anybody. He was lost. The disastrous, ear-splitting, loose-cannon, pain-in-the-backside mini-wrecker had gone. Since his father’s death he’d been withdrawn and subdued. He rocked without realising he was doing it. He muttered to himself while moving a toy soldier around in a game of his own.

Mrs McCarthy got their theme underway. In these final weeks before the summer holidays she was giving them more practice in making choices and in independent learning. It would help them cope with the much bigger and more complicated school experiences they would be facing in September.

“As you know,” she reminded them. “Our theme this morning is Hot and Cold. A big thank you to Gordon, Nick, Rachel, Susie, Peter and John for bringing in books.” She pointed at a box on an adjoining table. “I’ve brought a boxful from the local library. The books are there for you to get ideas from. There’s plenty for everybody.”

Her eyes strayed to Tom, who never voluntarily picked up a book and had shown no interest in learning to read. Despite the school’s best efforts, his reading age was three years behind what it ought to have been.

“You can draw a picture or do a painting. You can take words like fire, ice, volcano, glacier and make hot and cold shapes with them. You can write a story or a poem …”

She made sure she caught everyone’s eye – everyone except Tom. “But most of all, I want you to have picked one particular book and looked through it. Later this morning, each of you should be ready to tell the whole class something you have learned from your book.”

The array of faces displayed the usual range of reactions. “All right? Off you go.” Gordon made a bee-line for the box of books from the library. He knew Mrs McCarthy would have picked one or two just for him, and he wasn’t disappointed.

There was a book with real poems in it, rather than the usual rhymes for kids about finding clues in the news about shoes, or a fly in the sky ending up in a pie. Gordon still wasn’t totally clear what the differences were between real poems and ‘rhymes for kids’; but he knew there were differences and he knew they mattered. He looked at the list of contents.

“Try that one,” Zack suggested, pointing to a poem with an appropriate title, by a poet with an appropriate name.

Tom was painting. Zack wandered over to look at the picture. It was recognisably a Tom. Exploding red and yellow flames erupted from a black blob that you knew was a tank from the size of the gun sticking out of it. Next to it was a stick figure, also carrying a gun, also burning.

Once the painting was finished, he went back to his chair. He sat hunched over his soldier, rocking. Mrs McCarthy took his painting over to him and tried to get him to talk about it, but he’d locked his door. She reminded him gently about choosing a book, but then she was needed elsewhere.

Gordon got an idea. “Zack,” he whispered. “I want to try something.” He waited until Zack was facing Tom on the other side of his table, and then concentrated: “Look up, Tom. Look straight ahead of you.”

Slowly, Tom’s head came up. He appeared to be staring into space.

“Your daddy loved you, Tom. He loved you very much.” Tom didn’t move, but Gordon saw his eyes fill with tears. His hands cradled the toy soldier.

“Maybe he can see you right now, just like you can see him. Maybe he’s in your head and your heart, just like you’re in his.”

Tom’s head didn’t move. His hands set the toy soldier on to the table and moved it gently across the space in front of him.

“He wants you to learn, Tom. He wants you to be strong, and help your Mummy, and do well in school.”

Tom blinked, and a tear rolled down his cheek. He made no effort to wipe it away.

“Learn for him Tom. Stop hating. Make him proud of you. Let him see you learn now. Choose a book. Gordon will help you read it.”

A little frown appeared on Tom’s hurting face. He brought the soldier up to the level of his eyes and muttered something to it.

“He will help you, Tom. You could be friends and help each other.”

Tom brought the figure closer to his mouth. He whispered something to it, as if explaining.

“I’ll tell you what. Just try it. Go and choose a book and bring it back here. Start turning the pages. Let’s see what happens. You and me, eh? See what happens.”

Tom stood up. Almost as though he were in a dream, he went to the book corner and picked up a book about volcanoes. Mrs McCarthy saw him do it. She watched him carry it back to his place and sit down with it. He started to turn the pages.

“Can I look at that with you, please, Tom?”

Tom looked up slowly. Gordon was standing in front of him, smiling. He looked back down at the book, then at the soldier. “See? I told you he’d come. I’m proud of you, son.” Tom looked back at Gordon and nodded his head.

Gordon sat down next to him. “You look at the picture, and I’ll read the words,” Gordon said. “Then you can read the words and I’ll look at the picture.”

Tom looked at the first picture and his eyes went as round as saucers. The volcano was erupting all over the page! It was like magic. He’d never really looked at a book before and used his imagination. He found that when Gordon was sitting next to him he could read the words quite easily. It all made sense. It was interesting!”

They sat there, engrossed in the book for the next half hour. Mrs McCarthy was reminded why she had chosen teaching as a career. Tom’s dad would have been proud of him. When it was his turn, Tom told them all about the different volcanoes in his book and why volcanoes happen where they do

“Thank you very much, Tom,” Mrs McCarthy said. “We all learned a lot from that, didn’t we?” There were nods around the class, and Tom actually managed a smile. He looked down at the soldier in his hand and seemed happier than he had for a long time.

“Your turn Gordon,” Mrs McCarthy said. The boy was worth his weight in diamonds.

“I’d like to read you a poem by a poet called Robert Frost,” he told them. “It’s called “Fire and Ice”:

FIRE AND ICE

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favour fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

NOTES: RHYMES FOR KIDS

Chapter 28

Do You Believe In Ghosts?

(July 2010)

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Gordon asked Zack. It was the final day of the summer term. They were walking home with his mum, and the school holidays were now all that separated him from secondary school. He’d been looking forward to it for some time. He was two weeks away from his eleventh birthday.

He would miss his teacher, but the time had come for him to move on. They were both philosophical about it. “I’m going to miss you, Gordon,” Mrs McCarthy told him. “I expect reports.”

“You shall have them,” he assured her. They had shaken hands on it.

“Interesting question,” Zack said. “Some people might consider me a kind of ‘ghost’.”

“I thought that,” Gordon said; “but in books and films and cartoons, most people are terrified when they come across a ghost. I’ve never been terrified of you.”

“And I haven’t ever been scared of you,” said Zack.

Fair enough.

“So, you’re not a ghost,” Gordon said, “and you’re not haunting or possessing me.”

“No, I’m not” Zack agreed, “any more than you are haunting or possessing me.”

“We surprise each other sometimes,” Gordon observed.

“That is certainly true,” Zack agreed.

“You’re quiet, Darling,” his mum said. “What are you thinking about?”

“I was just wondering,” he told her, “if you believe in ghosts.”

Edith was taken by surprise. She’d assumed he’d been thinking about leaving primary school. She gave herself a second or two to consider. “No, I don’t think I do,” she said.

“Did you know,” he asked her, “that our city is the most haunted place in the whole of the UK?”

“No,” she said, “I didn’t know that. I know they do ghost tours within the city walls. I’ve seen the posters.”

“There are at least 73 different ghosts.”

“Who told you that?”

“I looked it up on the internet.”

“We-e-ll,” his mum, said, “I suppose the city goes back at least two thousand years. All those very old buildings with Roman cellars and medieval crypts, you’re going to get a lot of spooky corners, creaking timbers and shifting shadows. Even more so in the old days – before electricity – when they used candles.”

“Lots of people do believe in ghosts,” Gordon said. “I brought it up in class today, when we were talking about cold spots. We had a show of hands. Nearly everybody in my class believes in them.”

“Lots of people think they’ve seen a ghost,” his mum acknowledged, “or been in the presence of something they believed was a kind of a ghost.”

“Like a poltergeist,” Gordon suggested.

“Yes, like a poltergeist, or a sudden cold spot: something that seems to defy rational explanation.”

“But if you don’t believe in ghosts, then ghosts don’t exist for you.”

His mum nodded. “That’s right, they don’t.”

“But,” Gordon insisted, “they do exist for people who think they exist.”

“I’m not sure,” Edith said hesitantly.

“… because,” said Gordon earnestly, “‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’”

“Who told you that?” his mother asked him.

“William Shakespeare.”

“Did he now?” said his mum.

“Mum,” Gordon said hesitantly, “I’ve never been to Cornwall, have I?”

That was when his mum got an inkling why they might be having this particular conversation. “No,” she said, “you haven’t.”

“Have you?”

“Yes, several times. Daddy and I went to Cornwall more than once before you were born. It’s one of my favourite places.”

“What do you like about it?”

“Oh, it’s magical,” she told him, dreamily. “Gorgeous, rolling countryside and little country lanes. The air smells wonderful. Then there’s the sea. It’s never far away in Cornwall.”

“Have you ever stayed in the bit of Cornwall where we’re going?”

Edith shook her head. “No, but I feel like I belong there, somehow. Your gran once told me that her gran had told her that we came from Cornwall, way back when.”

Gordon felt the hair stir on the back of his neck. He saw Zack shiver. “Mum,” he said, “you felt it, didn’t you?”

“Felt what?” his mum asked him. He had a feeling she knew what.

“When we first looked at that cottage where we’re going to stay, it invited us. It didn’t invite dad; it invited us.”

“I did find it … inviting,” his mum admitted. “I don’t quite know why. Maybe all that history. I don’t think it had anything to do with ghosts.” She was worried suddenly that Gordon might be scared about staying there.

“Oh, don’t worry mum,” he assured her. “I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait to get to Cornwall.”

“Good,” said his mum, relieved. “Neither can I.”

They were home.

NOTES: PHILOSOPHICAL; OUR CITY; POLTERGEIST; INKLING

NOTES

Abbreviations:

OED = Oxford Dictionary of English

ISOTI = It says on the Internet

 

CHAPTER 1

Palaeontology is ‘the branch of science concerned with fossil plants and animals’ OED. In Greek, palaeo means ‘old’ and onta means ‘beings’. The suffix -logy in English means ‘the study of’.

CHAPTER 2

Extant adj.: “still in existence” OED.

“her tail was up now”. This is what is known as a metaphor. Her tail wasn’t really up, because she is an ape, and apes don’t have tails. A metaphor is: “a figure of speech, in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable” OED. E.g. “The lady sailed into the room.”

Metaphor is one of the most important strategies language has for finding effective ways of expressing ideas. Being aware of them will help you be a better writer, as well as a better reader.

CHAPTER 3

Crenellations noun: “the battlements of a castle or other building” OED. From Modern Latin crenulatus, from crenula meaning ‘a little notch’.

Kamikaze noun & adj.: “in the Second World War, the word described a Japanese aircraft loaded with explosives making a deliberate suicidal crash on an enemy target.” OED. It is formed from two Japanese words: kami, meaning ‘divinity’ and kaze meaning ‘wind’. The word originally referred to the gale that in Japanese tradition destroyed the fleet of invading Mongols in 1281.

Mediaeval adj: “the period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (fifth century) to the fall of Constantinople (1453); or, more narrowly, from c.1000 to 1453 CE” OED.

Momentum noun: “the quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity” OED. In other words: your momentum = your weight times the speed at which you are moving.

CHAPTER 4

Middle Ages: the period of time sometimes described as mediaeval.

Most adults don’t believe in us. Adults coined the term “imaginary friend” and believe such a phenomenon to be a childhood phase. It is interesting, however, how many adults continue to have faith in an imaginary friend who knows what they think and can answer their prayers, and who moves in a mysterious way to perform wonders.

Telepathy noun: the communication of thoughts or ideas without the use of any of the usual five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch).

CHAPTER 6

This was an important test life was setting him. Such tests are called “rites of passage”. Gordon doesn’t know that yet.

CHAPTER7

Collaboration noun: “the act of working with someone to produce something” OED. From Latin collaboratio- (n-), from collaborare ‘work together’, ‘co-labour’.

CHAPTER 8

Apology to Toms. A this point I want to apologise to all children out there called Tom. There is no doubt that Tom is an excellent name. I’m sure many Toms are very like Gordon – at least in intelligence and outlook (otherwise they would not be reading this chapter) – and bear no resemblance to this particular character in the story. The thing is, he had to have a name, and no mother would ever pick the sort of monosyllable that you or I might have thought more appropriate at this stage in his life – like ‘Thug’ or ‘Smack’. He does grow up to be a much nicer boy.

Toe-rags. A toe-rag is “a contemptible or worthless person. From the mid nineteenth century: originally denoting a rag wrapped around the foot as a sock or, by extension, the wearer (such as a vagrant)” OED.

Unconfined joy. The phrase “Let joy be unconfined” seems to have been coined by Lord Byron: “On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined” (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1812-1818, Canto 3 stanza 12)

CHAPTER 9

Chastened adj: “restrained, reproved, with their behaviour moderated”. From an obsolete verb chaste, from Old French chastier, from Latin castigare (compare ‘chastise’ and ‘castigate’) OED. The word chaste means ‘morally pure’.

Triceratops. I expect you know what a triceratops looks like, just as you know what the dragon in Shrek 1 looks like. But if you want to be reminded, you have only to visit Google Images and type the relevant words into its searchbox.

Apology to Kierans and Deans. The apology offered to children called Tom also applies here.

‘terrible lizard’. A man called Sir Richard Owen coined the term in 1841. He combined a form of the Greek word deinos ‘terrible’ with sauros ‘lizard’.

Actually, as Sir Richard Owen was well aware (according to Bill Bryson in his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything), dinosaurs were reptiles, not lizards. Since then, palaeontologists have established that dinosaurs constituted two orders of reptiles: “the bird-hipped ornithischians and the lizard-hipped saurischians.” (Bryson, p112)

The Yucatan Peninsula in Central America. Google Images is a wonderful resource. If you’re not sure where this is, just type Yucatan Peninsula into its searchbox to see lots of maps. On some of them you may even see the tiny country of Belize nestling to the west of Guatemala, below Chetumal in the southernmost part of Mexico.

Palpable adj: “able to be touched or felt” OED. From late Latin palpabilis, from Latin palpare ‘feel, touch gently’.

I’ll swing for ‘im. This expression is left over from the time in this country when you would have been hanged for murder. The grisly image is of her body swinging at the end of the hangman’s rope.

CHAPTER 10

Where sheep might safely graze. You can find a performance of “Sheep May Safely Graze” by Johann Sebastian Bach on YouTube. Listening to it is well worth 4 minutes 40 seconds of your time. It is one of Edith Bennett’s favourite pieces of music. A dreamy expression comes over her face whenever she listens to it.

“I have a dream”. This is a statement made famous by Martin Luther King in his “I have a Dream” speech. It was delivered on 28 August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. Please read the whole speech online, as soon as you think you are old enough. It will blow your mind, and teach you some important things about human rights and the power of rhetoric.

Just like the one in Westminster Abbey. If you haven’t visited Westminster Abbey yet, or even been in a cathedral where there is a rose window, you can have a good look at it – and at other rose windows – on Google Images.

Coat of many colours. Gordon clearly got the idea for this garment from the bible story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. Andrew Lloyd Webber used it in the title of his musical: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. A dreamcoat seemed appropriate in these circumstances.

Silver buckles on his knees. Edith had often sung the folksong and nursery rhyme Bobby Shafto to Gordon when he was smaller.

Diamonds on the soles of his shoes. Paul Simon’s Graceland album was often played in the Bennett household. This was understandable, as it is one of the best albums ever made. Gordon knew all the words to all of the songs, including the one entitled Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes.

If you don’t know it, have a listen to it on YouTube. If you DO know it, have another listen anyway, as a mark of appreciation for the musical genius of Paul Simon.

Doublet noun: “a man’s short, close-fitting padded jacket, commonly worn from the 14th to the 17th century” OED.

Baluster noun: “a short decorative pillar forming part of a series supporting a rail or coping. The English word is related to French balustre, and Italian balustra, meaning ‘wild pomegranate flower’ OED. This is because part of each short, decorated pillar resembles the curving tube of the pomegranate flower. So the word itself is a metaphor. Isn’t language AMAZING?

Richard of York gave battle in vain. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. That is called a “mnemonic”: “a device which assists in remembering something” OED. That word came into English via medieval Latin from Greek mnēmonikos, from mnēmōn ‘mindful’.

She … was so beautiful that just to look at her took Gordon’s breath away. Of course, it could be argued that Gordon had not yet reached an age when his judgement on such matters could be relied upon. Do remember, however, that (a) he was very advanced for his age, and (b) most really good fairy stories have in them an astonishingly beautiful female, whether human or fairy, rich or poor, princess or servant.

Intervening adj: “being situated between things” OED. From Latin intervenire, from inter- ‘between’ and venire ‘to come’.

CHAPTER 11

He could have put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. The fairy Puck says he can do this in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 2, scene 1)

Thor is the God of Thunder in Scandinavian mythology. (“Thursday” is named after him.)

Mr. Benn is a character created by David McKee. He appears in several children’s books, and an animated television series of the same name transmitted by the BBC in 1971 and 1972.” ISOTI

CHAPTER 12

You sort him! Here, when Zack says “I know just what to do with HIM”, I think Gordon thought of Leslie Phillips saying: “I know just what to do with YOU!” as the voice of The Sorting Hat in the first Harry Potter film.

straddled the narrow ground like a Colossus. A Colossus is something which is colossal, huge. The original Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Classical World: “a huge bronze statue of the Sun God Helios – built c.292-280 BCE; it stood beside the harbour entrance at Rhodes for about fifty years” OED.

In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Cassius says of Caesar: “he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” (Act 1 scene 2).

Shall we receive the praises of the king, and fly in triumph over Fairyland? I think Zack must have been with Christopher Marlowe when he wrote in his play Tamburlaine the Great (first published in 1590): “Is it not passing great to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?”

steeping in forgetfulness.

 “… O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,

That thou wilt no more lay my eyelids down

And steep my senses in forgetfulness;”

William Shakespeare, Henry 1V Part 2, 111 i

CHAPTER 14

Zack on rear-view recce. ‘Recce’ is a British informal term for reconnaissance, a term adopted in the Second World War. It’s a French word, formed from re- ‘again’ and connaître (old spelling connoître) ‘to know’. Hence the use of the different vowel in ‘reconnoitre’.

B-over-H is short for ‘bottom over head’. Adults use a similar expression to describe the same manoeuvre.

CHAPTER 16

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 251-3. Gordon asks Zack whether that’s true. What do you think?

CHAPTER 18

You’re a mammal! Female mammals (typically) bear live young, and secrete milk for their nourishment.

“The universe-before-Gordon stretched a long time …” Astronomers’ latest estimate of the age of the universe is fourteen billion years. It is thought to be accurate to + or – 0.11 billion years.

passing through nature to eternity. This is from Hamlet, Act 1 scene 2. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, says to him: “Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.”

“It has a verb, you see.” If you didn’t know this already, it’s a useful thing to know. Take the sentence: “The lady, feeling herself insulted, left the room in a rage and a strikingly red hat.” The main clause is “The lady left the room”. “feeling herself insulted” is a subordinate clause (because “feeling” is used as a verb here), and “in a rage and a strikingly red hat” is an adverbial phrase, because there is no verb in it.

“Always had a way with words, did Will”. The incomparable William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

CHAPTER 19

Top Gear. Notice the “double-entendre” in the title of this show. “Top gear” means the highest gear in a car and also absolutely the best equipment money can buy. “Double-entendre” is a French expression, meaning ‘having two meanings’ (literally ‘double-understanding’).

The Bugatti Veyron 16.4: top speed of 253 mph; 0-60 in 2.6 secs, and equipped with 1001 hp. In 2009, its base price was $1,500,000.” ISOTI

The 4D Vision Space Shuttle 1:72 Scale Model Kit. If you type that into your browser, you can see a picture of the very one.

CHAPTER 20

his local zoo: Chester Zoo. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about it on the net.

a third of all animal and plant species face extinction in this century. What percentage of all species that have ever existed on this planet are now extinct? (You can find the answer at the end of the notes to chapter 23)

What’s an acre? The word “acre” comes from a root that is at least 5,000 years old. We know that because it is found in the Indian as well as the European branches of Indo-European, the early language from which many of the current languages in Europe and India have developed. It was spoken in Southern Europe around 5,000 years ago. Old English æcer is related to Dutch akker and German Acker ‘field’, Sanskrit ajra ‘field’, Latin ager and Greek agros (whence agriculture).

a great view of onagers. The Onager is “an animal of the race of the Asian wild ass native to Northern Iran” OED. The name comes from the Greek word onagros (a combination of onos ‘ass’ + agrios ‘wild’): so the ‘–ager’ bit is from the same root as the word ‘acre’. Now isn’t that interesting?

His current fascinations were big cats and primates. The big cats have long fascinated us humans. They are so beautiful and yet so deadly. In 1794 the poet William Blake published the poem “Tyger Tyger” in a collection he called Songs of Experience. The first verse is very famous:

“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

 In the forests of the night,

 What immortal hand or eye

 Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Later in the poem he asks two MORE questions:

“When the stars threw down their spears

 And water’d heaven with their tears,

 Did He smile his work to see?

 Did He who made the Lamb make thee?”

Those are three important questions.

Primate noun: “a mammal of an order that includes the lemurs, bushbabies, tarsiers, marmosets, monkeys, apes and humans. They are distinguished by having hands, hand-like feet, and forward facing eyes, and are typically agile tree-dwellers” OED. From Latin primas, primat– ‘of the first rank’.

Do you like climbing trees?

Baleful adj: “menacing, threatening serious harm” OED.

plans for a spectacular new bio-dome.

“The Heart of Africa biodome is planned to open in 2014 and the current timetable for the full masterplan is 2024. The biodome will be a third larger in size than the Eden tropical dome, 180 metres long by 90 metres wide and 34m tall at its highest point, and have one mile of footpaths. It will incorporate a river ride that will provide unique internal and external views of the rainforest and the animal exhibits, plus seating and refreshments.

Prof Reid said: “Heart of Africa will be a world-class, unique animal exhibit that through horticulture, temperatures and humidity will re-create a Congo Rainforest environment.”

Chester Zoo plans to immerse critically endangered species such as the gorilla into the zoo. It will house a large number of mixed species animal exhibits linked to the Congo, including gorillas, chimpanzee, okapi, mandrill, red river hog, pygmy hippo, as well as free-flying birds with internal and external paddocks representing the very best in animal welfare. It will be the first time people in the UK will be able to see gorillas in their natural context.” ISOTI (from an article by Barry Ellams, published January 20th 2010 in The Ellesmere Port Pioneer.)

CHAPTER 21

Quizzical adj: “indicating mild or amused puzzlement” OED.

He only had a vague idea what DNA was. “Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms (with the exception of RNA viruses).

The main role of DNA molecules is the long-term storage of information. DNA is often compared to a set of blueprints, like a recipe or a code, since it contains the instructions needed to construct other components of cells, such as proteins and RNA molecules. The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in regulating the use of this genetic information.” ISOTI (Wikipedia)

They had a big silverback called Guy. He was gorgeous. Have a look at him on Google Images. My wife and I took our son Toby to London Zoo when he was about 4 (he’s 47 now). It was a sunny spring day, and we saw a tiger take a sparrow out of the air. We also saw Guy make contact with the little girl. It still makes me cry when I think of that day.

he must have weighed about 500 lbs. That’s 226.8 kilos, if you’re more used to kilos. I weigh 69 kilos.

[What percentage of all species that have ever existed on this planet are now extinct? The current estimate is 99.9%]

CHAPTER 22

Washoe. Go on Google Images and pay your respects to her. She died in 2007, aged 42. A human named Roger, who had worked with her and who knew her well, gave the eulogy at her funeral.

Washoe gave her the cold shoulder. When one person deliberately turns away when another approaches, that is called “giving someone the cold shoulder.”

CHAPTER 24

through a wormhole. “A wormhole is a hypothetical ‘shortcut’ through time and space. [It] is much like a tunnel with each of its ends at separate points in spacetime.” ISOTI. You see an artist’s impression of one at the start of every Dr Who episode.

“’The proof of the pudding …’” The full expression, of course, is “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, you don’t know what something is like until you’ve tried it.

“The Oort cloud is an immense spherical cloud surrounding the planetary system and extending approximately 3 light years – about 30 trillion kilometres – from the sun. This vast distance is considered the edge of the Sun’s orb of physical, gravitational, or dynamic influence.” ISOTI

Generic adj: “characteristic of or relating to a class or group of things” OED. From Latin genus, gener- ‘stock, race’.

Fourteen billion light years. This is astronomers’ latest estimate of the age of the universe. It is thought to be accurate to + or – 0.11 billion years. This information also appeared in a note to Chapter 19.

‘Space is very aptly named’. This is a quotation from Bill Bryson’s book “A Short History of Almost Everything.” I recommend that you read it, whenever you feel ready.

it will still take us 93.4 minutes. The sun, as I am sure you know, is approximately 93,000,000 miles from Earth. It takes light, travelling at 186,000 miles per second, around 8 minutes 20 seconds to get from the sun to the earth. The next nearest star (Proxima Centauri) is 4.24 light years away. It is for good reason that very large numbers are described as “astronomical”.

Incidentally, did you know that the sun is more than a million times bigger than the Earth?

the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. Please type ‘Beethoven’s fifth symphony’ into your internet search engine and listen to a bit of it on YouTube.

“His eyes are open, but their sense is shut.” Zack had once quoted this line to Gordon, though of course it was her eyes (Lady Macbeth’s). It is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act V, scene 1: the famous sleep-walking scene.

a similar distance as the sun was to Earth. This, of course, was no remote coincidence. There are billions of galaxies in the Universe containing trillions of stars, many of which are likely to be orbited by a system of planets. There must be billions of planets out there of similar mass to Earth, made up of the same elements.

Not only is it likely, it is almost certain that the laws of physics controlling the motion of planets around their stars dictate that a planet of the constituency and mass of Earth will orbit a sun of similar energy output as our own at a very similar distance as does the Earth its sun, and that the conditions on that planet will be similar in most respects to those that exist on Earth.

pinko-grey colour. It was the English novelist and essayist E. M. Forster (1879–1970) who first pointed out that “The so-called white races are really pinko-grey”. The only really black people are the Ethiopians. The so-called black races are almost always differing shades of brown. This white/black nonsense is a very good example of how prejudice often impregnates language.

Myriad adj: “Countless, or extremely great in number” OED. Ultimately from Greek murias, muriad-, from murioi ‘10,000’.

The findings seemed momentarily to have surprised him out of role. An emotional reaction would not normally be expected from a Vulcan science officer, even one with an earthling for a mother. Zack’s parentage is still a matter of conjecture.

massive, brilliant white teeth. The gorillas on this planet have dental hygiene off to a fine art.

Captain Gordon E. Bennett. The E stands for Edmund. This middle name of Gordon’s is significant, as you find out later in the story.

a close encounter of the third kind. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (sometimes abbreviated to CE3K and often referred to as just Close Encounters) is a 1977 science fiction film written and directed by Steven Spielberg. The “third kind” is an actual face-to-face encounter with an alien.

CHAPTER 25

Consternation noun: “anxiety or dismay causing mental confusion” OED.

the Vulcan greeting. The Vulcan salute is a hand gesture consisting of a raised hand, palm forward with the fingers parted between the middle and ring finger, and the thumb extended. ISOTI (Answers.com)

some kind of hologram. A hologram is “a three-dimensional image formed by the interference of light beams from a laser or other coherent light source” OED.

Namaste: “a respectful greeting said when giving a namaskarOED. Via Hindi from Sanskrit namas ‘bowing’ + te ‘to you’. Sanskrit and Hindi are Indo-European languages. Gordon understood that a greeting that used gesture rather than just sound was more likely to be understood.

Put ‘Namaste’ into the Google Images searchbox if you would like to see images of people performing this simple but eloquent gesture. Try using it when you next meet a person from the Asian sub-continent and see what effect this simple demonstration of respect for their culture can have.

polluting it in the name of progress and the pursuit of profit. From a very early age, Gordon showed concern about climate change. He has discussed the possible effects of global warming with Zack on several occasions. Zack, it must be admitted, leans to the left in his political views, and thoroughly approves of Greenpeace.

put her little hand against it. It was at this precise point that Gordon knew with absolute certainty that the infant gorilla on the other side of the glass was female.

CHAPTER 26

a lush delta. A “delta” is “a triangular tract of sediment deposited at the mouth of a river, typically where it diverges into several outlets” OED. From the shape of the Greek letter: DELTA (Δ).

an equal opportunities planet. Zack had raised Gordon’s consciousness on this issue at a very early age.

The lead female placed her nose on the clear plate in the middle of the panel. “The shape and wrinkles of a mountain gorilla’s nose are as distinct and as individual as human fingerprints.” ISOTI

hieroglyphic notes. A hieroglyph is “a stylized picture of an object representing a word, syllable or sound” OED. From Greek hieros ‘sacred’ and gluphé ‘carving’.

“Nil desperandum…” is a Latin expression (taught to Gordon by Zack) which means, literally, ‘No need to despair. Don’t let anything put you off.’ It comes from an Ode by the Roman poet Horace: nil desperandum Teucro duce ‘no need to despair with Teucer as your leader’ (Odes 1.vii.27).

“They’re not from Greece either.” For those of you who do not recognise them, they are actually from Grease (an American film/musical made in 1978). Unaccountably, lots of people liked (and still like) it.

“Do-wa-diddy-diddy-DUM-diddy-DO!” This is a similarly inane lyric from Manfred Man. (Inane means “lacking sense or meaning”, from Latin inanis ‘empty, vain’)

CHAPTER 27

What a piece of work is a man? The incomparable Shakespeare, from Act 11 scene ii of Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man: how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Quintessence noun: “the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class” OED. From mediaeval Latin quinta essentia ‘fifth essence’.

fires of passion … icy contempt. Poets use metaphor a lot. Do you remember what ‘metaphor’ is? See the chapter 3 note on it if you have forgotten. There is also mention of metaphor in a chapter 11 note.

Metaphor is one of the most important tools language has. If I were to say that language is a great technicolour dreamcoat of ideas stitched together by metaphor, I would not have wandered far from the truth.

a mouthful of trekkytalk. Star Trek fans are known as Trekkies. They hold conventions, and speak Vulcan and Romulan.

CHAPTER 28

‘Rhymes for Kids’. Of course, there are a lot of quality poems for children out there, and I certainly do not want to offend anyone. However, I think children should be encouraged early on to distinguish between ‘verse’ (which has its place, and which can admittedly be clever and good fun) and ‘poetry’ (which says something important in a powerful way). If a child writes:

“I caught the flu

When I went to the zoo

And I saw a gnu

That looked just like you.”

you can find several encouraging things to say about it as light-hearted verse with rhyme and rhythm, but in my opinion it is not a poem. It falls instead into the ‘dollop of codswallop’ category of light verse.

WHEREAS, if a child writes:

“Hate consumes.

It kills the mind,

ruining the lives of

all who let it in.

Hate ferments in

death and destruction.

Boundless, it wrecks cities,

brings down countries.

And when all is gone,

it howls in the wilderness,

until, with nothing

left to feed on,

it dies alone.”

(Written by Ashley Brooks in 2007, in a primary school in Macclesfield, while in year 6)

it does not rhyme, nor does it have a particular rhythm; but it is clear that it is NOT a dollop of codswallop, nor is it any other kind of verse. It is a poem.

CHAPTER 29

Philosophical adj: “(in this context) having or showing a calm attitude towards disappointments or difficulties” OED. From Old French philosophie, via Latin from Greek philosophia ‘love of wisdom’.

Our city. Chester, a very interesting little city (in my opinion).

Poltergeist noun: “a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for physical disturbances such as making loud noises and throwing objects about” OED. From German poltern ‘create a disturbance’ and geist ‘ghost’.

Inkling noun: “a slight knowledge or suspicion; a hint. It first appears in late Middle English in the sense ‘a mention in an undertone, a hint’, and is from the rare verb inkle ‘utter in an undertone’, of unknown origin.” OED