Back to the future: a story

There were a lot of dinosaurs in Sam’s room, and nearly as many in Lola’s. They both had dinosaurs on their pyjamas, and their backpacks for school. But all these dinosaurs were small, and some of them were yellow, pink or mauve. That made them cute, especially if they were fluffy and meant to be cuddled.

   “We’ll never see a real dinosaur, Lola,” Sam told his sister. “They’re extinct.”

   Lola didn’t understand that word but she was quite pleased anyway, because the pretend T. Rex at the zoo was enormous and made a horrible roar. And she only realised it wasn’t real when Sam laughed at it and it didn’t chase him.

   Then one night Lola opened her eyes on the darkness and felt wide-awake. A diplodocus was leaning over her bed. It was so big that only its neck and head were in her room. When Lola looked out of the window, in case it would be a good idea to jump out, she saw that the rest of the diplodocus was outside. It was filling the road and making the trees and houses look smaller than usual. Meanwhile its giant face was close to hers in her bedroom.

   That was when Sam appeared, climbed over the dinosaur’s neck as if it was a fallen tree in a forest, and reminded Lola that the diplodocus was vegetarian. Which was good because otherwise it might eat their favourite cat, Buzz, who belonged to their favourite neighbours.  

   “If it was real,” Sam said, “it would smell like a swamp and its breath would be stinky.”

   “Oh,” said Lola, pinching her nose.

   Sam decided to touch the stretch of neck that rested on Lola’s rug just to show her he wasn’t afraid. But no matter how close his hand came to its skin, he didn’t feel anything at all. No scales and no bumps. His hand seemed to pass right through.

   The dinosaur whispered but that sounded like distant thunder:  “I haven’t been alive for billions of years.”

   “That’s what extinct means, Lola,” Sam explained.

   “But I’ve come back for a reason,” added the diplodocus.

   “To take us back in time?” suggested Sam, hopefully, because that was exciting in films.

   The dinosaur shook its giant head. It seemed to be fading away, like a playground bruise but a hundred times faster.

   “Don’t go!” cried Lola, raising her arms as if she wanted a hug.

   At that moment Sam and Lola heard footsteps. Their visitor must have heard too because it had disappeared completely. And in the morning, when they looked all around the garden, they couldn’t find a single massive footprint anywhere.

   “It’ll come back,” Sam told Lola at bedtime, when he kissed her goodnight.

   “Why?” That was Lola’s favourite question.

   “Why not?” said Sam. But he did wonder whether the diplodocus had other children to visit too.

Lola and Sam were invited as usual to their neighbours’ house the next Friday after school. That was what Daddy called a tradition, and nearly as exciting as Christmas, partly because Rajan and Ruth were as kind as pretend-grandparents and partly because of Buzz, who loved to walk with them, softly and slowly, his long tail stroking their legs.

   “Buzz isn’t very well, though,” Mummy told them as they crossed the road. “He may be asleep.”

   “Oh,” said Lola.

   In fact Buzz lay on the sofa with his legs tucked in, like a supersoft cushion. Rajan said they needn’t worry about waking him and it was all right to stroke him gently. The warm, round cushion moved up and down as Buzz breathed, silently and not very often.

   “We may not have Buzz much longer,” Ruth explained. “He’s been poorly for a while but we didn’t want to worry you. He’s getting old and tired.”

   “Like us,” added Rajan.

   While Lola helped ice some biscuits Rajan had baked for them, Sam stayed with Buzz on the sofa and told him a story he’d never made up before, about a dinosaur that was friendly and magic and wouldn’t eat him because it probably preferred broccoli. And peas – millions and millions of peas, a lorry load tipped down its throat by a JCB.

   Buzz didn’t stir all the time they were there, except for the small rise and fall of his breathing. When they left, for the first time ever he didn’t walk them back over the road with his tail silkily tickling their legs.

   “Is Buzz going to die?” Sam asked Mummy at bedtime.

   “Yes, I think he will, sometime soon,” Mummy said. “Everyone dies in the end.”

   “Even me and Lola?”

   “You won’t be old for a very, very long time,” Mummy told him, and kissed his forehead. “So long I can’t imagine what the world will be like by then.”

   Sam thought she sounded sad and he hadn’t meant to upset her so he said, “Not to worry,” like Grandad did something got broken by mistake, or paint spilled in the wrong places.

Sometimes nothing happens for a while but you know it will. Lola dreamed every night that Buzz felt cold and hard because his heart had stopped. So it was no surprise when Rajan and Ruth invited them round to see Buzz’s grave in a shady corner under their magnolia tree. Being there made Lola cry a little.

   “We’ve collected some pebbles,” said Ruth. “Would you arrange them in a heart while we see to some chocolate brownies?”

   Sam and Lola did that carefully without arguing, and when they’d finished, they just stood there quietly, held hands and closed their eyes because they’d seen a funeral on TV. The garden was quiet except for the birdsong and Lola sniffing, so neither of them expected to open their eyes and find the diplodocus filling it. The outline of its huge body was misty, as if it was melting in the sun. Lola and Sam smiled at each other, and raised their joined hands so that they touched it. Or rather, passed right through it.

   “Are you a ghost?” asked Sam.

   The dinosaur’s skin began to fade so fast that the garden was strung with gigantic bones, all of them connected and moving as one.

   “It’s a skel-e-ton,” said Lola, one syllable at a time because that word was hard to say.

   “Like the one in the museum!”

   But they could see these bones were not as rocky. The skeleton felt no firmer than air. It didn’t rattle and the feet made no sound on the grass. Sam nearly said he didn’t want Buzz to turn into a skeleton too but he guessed Buzz would never know.

   “What’s it like being dead?” asked Lola.

   Sam gave her a disapproving look.

   “I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it!” cried the diplodocus, and the children supposed the rumbling, gurgling noise in their heads was a laugh.

   “I didn’t know dinosaurs were jokers,” said Sam.

   “Not so you’d notice,” it admitted. The bones in its chest stopped shaking. “But seriously, dying is fine if the time is right and you’re ready. It’s just part of the circle of life.”

   To their astonishment the diplodocus began to sing that chorus – loudly, but not very well. Lola would have covered her ears but she didn’t want to be rude.

   “Children aren’t,” she said. “Ready, I mean.”

   The diplodocus shook its skeleton head, and just as Rajan called out of an open window, its bones disconnected and gathered in a pile beside Buzz’s grave. Sam and Lola were about to bury them too when the sun grew so bright and the bones so white that for a moment the children were dazzled.

   And then the bones had gone. Magnolia petals gathered softly where they had been. And on the bright earth where they’d shaped a heart, the pebbles were drifting, making a word. L-I-V-I-N-G. Sam started to sound it out. But no… The first ‘I’ wasn’t straight any more. It rounded into an ‘O’ before the heart curved back in place. Now everything was still.

   Through the open window they could smell the brownies, so Sam and Lola ran inside.

After that, Lola and Sam still visited their favourite neighbours to make sure they weren’t sad without Buzz. Soon the magnolia flowers browned and mushed away but by summertime the jasmine on their back wall had opened out its little spiky petals to breathe all over the garden. Lola laughed when Ruth pretended to swoon because the scent was so dreamy. When Lola pretended too, she was so good at swooning that Ruth had to catch her.

   Because Rajan had stopped cutting the grass in the middle of their garden, it was a wildflower meadow buzzing with bees and decorated with butterflies.

   “So much life!” cried Rajan. “Don’t you love it?”

   “Yes!” cried Lola. She pictured the diplodocus smiling.

   “Loving!” cried Sam, looking at Lola and back towards Buzz’s grave. He would have felt embarrassed to shout that out in the school playground but here the word just settled like a bird on a branch.   “Lola, that was it. The word!”

   It was the only word he recognised on a painted sign lying in the sun. Lola opened her mouth and nodded as if she’d known that all along. Rajan laid his hand on Ruth’s shoulder.

   “You’ve got that right,” he said.

Towards the end of the summer term the air was so hot that the teachers had to ban football in the playground. Sam felt sticky and a bit cross as July grew fierce and lessons felt longer and harder. One Friday, when a fresh breeze helped everyone feel a bit more alive, Lola sat sleepily in the shade of the P.E. shed, wondering where her brother was. Sometimes she missed him.

   Lola was imagining the diplodocus, which made her smile. She wondered whether Sam was remembering too. So at first, when she squinted through sunlight at dinosaur back legs and a dinosaur back side rising up taller than a castle ahead of her, she just yawned. That was before she heard a voice: “Jump up!”

   Lola didn’t ask how, without a very long ladder. She didn’t have to, because the diplodocus caught her up, with its bendy neck wrapped around her, and dropped her in place. She didn’t seem to need a saddle or reins and she felt quite safe, as if she fitted.

   “Sam!” she called, and found him landing next to her, crying, “Whoah!”

   The children could see that the diplodocus had a bus-sized placard hanging and swinging from its neck but they couldn’t read it. Some of the older children could, though, because they cheered. From all around the playground children were being scooped up and whisked through the air. Dozens of them were gathering on the dinosaur’s back – as if it was a bus and they were ready for a magical school trip. And some of them didn’t wear Sam and Lola’s uniform. He realised they were being collected from the other side of the world, and they looked hungry, frightened or sad – until  they laughed.

   “Look!” cried Sam. “Mrs Grubb’s on the roof!”

    The head teacher and all her staff were all up where the view was best. The last few were scaling the fire escape. But none of them looked scared. They were waving wildly and giving thumbs-up to the giant placard.

    As the diplodocus swung its neck right round Sam caught a glimpse of big clumsy letters that might have been written in mud.

   “FRIDAYS FOR something,” he said. Not fun or football.

   “Who knew dinosaurs couldn’t spell?” chuckled Mrs Grubb.

   And then, as if time had suddenly run right out on a computer game, or the diplodocus had pulled out a plug with its tail, the dinosaur vanished – leaving children tumbling and spinning safely onto grass. Teachers and teaching assistants were scuttling down the fire escape. Then for a moment the only sound was the cooling breeze. It was so quiet that Sam thought he could hear everything grow. Well, not the teachers; they’d stopped.

   With fat coloured chalks, passed from one hand to another, everyone who could write wrote a message at their feet, or on the wall behind them. The younger children like Lola made criss-cross kisses. The teachers wrote some long words. Sam took care when it was his turn because he didn’t want Mrs Grubb to say dinosaurs weren’t the only ones that couldn’t spell.

   SAVE LIFE, he wrote, and drew a tree with a bird up in its branches. He thought about the children from faraway who might not have a home any more.

    Wiping the sweat dripping under his cap, Sam told Lola what the words said.

   “That’s why the diplodocus came,” he said.

   “I know,” said Lola.

At home time, Mum said all the parents had been sent a text from Mrs Grubb.

   “That’s good. The school is going to support Fridays for Future from now on.”

   Ah, thought Sam, FUTURE! It was funny that it took a diplodocus from the past to teach humans to take care of that.

   “The thing is,” said Lola, “the future starts with now,” and she opened her arms to the world.

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