The Wrong Impression

by sticky

dino-1 - Copy

Collingworth usually ate lunch in the refectory, but this day had walked into town to do some shopping. He was late getting back, and due to give a lecture in ten minutes, so he ran up the wide steps to the building, and walked hurriedly through the foyer.

“Prof Collingworth?”

He stopped, and turned towards the reception desk.

“Yes, Jack?”

“A lady left something for you. I told her you wouldn’t be long, but she said she couldn’t wait.”

Collingworth stared at the brown cardboard box sitting on the desk.

“Did she say what it is?”

“No, but she wrote down her name and phone number.”

“Thank you, Jack.” Collingworth picked up the package, and took the lift to the second floor. He guessed that it contained a specimen, and judged its weight at about five kilos. He dropped the box onto his desk, grabbed his notes, and headed for the theatre.

An hour or so later, he got a coffee and returned to his office. The box was fastened up with tough plastic binding tape, but the serrated blade of his Leatherman made short work of it.

He lifted the lid, and found the contents to be a roughly-triangular piece of rock about half the size of a flagstone, and somewhat thicker.

And embedded with what appeared to be a fossilised human hand.

Collingworth’s head jerked back, though the slap had been an intellectual one.

Somebody’s idea of a joke. Maybe Rag Week’s coming up?

He peered again into the box, then lifted out the piece in order to examine it more closely. The ‘hand’ was palm-up. He observed that the fingers were slightly bent, causing the tips to project above the rough stone surface, and giving the thing a macabre sense of realness. He noted that the surrounding area and the underside were covered with masses of smaller fossils; mostly crinoids and small ammonites, which would be normal in a piece of stone this age.

Of course, it was a fake. You would expect something like this to have been laid down during the lifetime of the dinosaurs, when Mankind wasn’t yet even a twinkle in God’s eye (he mused that his old mate Richard Dawkins would have chuckled at that one). It was an extremely good fake, though.

He picked up the lid, looking for the donor’s details. He found the name ‘Mrs Parrish’, and a local telephone number.

* * *

Hello?”

“Mrs Parrish? It’s Gordon Collingworth from the university.”

Oh, hello Prof Collingworth. Thank you for calling me“. Her voice sounded shaky.

“I’ve just looked at your specimen, Mrs Parrish, and I must say I’m rather . . . “

Yes, Prof Collingworth, it’s very strange, isn’t it?

He decided to play along: “Did you find the specimen yourself?”

Yes, we were walking the dogs on the beach, and my son spotted it.”

“And where was this, exactly?”

Just outside Bridport, in Dorset: we go there often.

“Ah, the Jurassic Coast!”

A World Heritage site that, for the past two hundred years, had been giving up its palaeontological treasures as the sea relentlessly eroded the 90-odd miles of cliffs and shoreline. Collingworth had chosen his university partly because of the relatively easy access to this area, and had spent thousands of hours there himself.

That’s right, we’re there most weekends, as we all enjoy fossil-hunting. We have a caravan in the area.

“Do you think somebody could have placed it there?”

Well, it’s possible, but it was quite early in the morning. It had been raining heavily overnight, and it looked as though it had been washed out of the cliff.

“Mrs Parrish, I’m going to perform some tests on it. I’ll call you again in a few days’ time.”

* * * 

Despite his initial conviction that the fossil was a fake, Collingworth was experiencing an uneasy, internal intellectual challenge to all that he knew about his field. As a small boy, he had been excited to discover his first fossil amongst some rocks on the Yorkshire coast, and had been given a book for his next birthday. He knew then that he wanted to spend the rest of his life studying this subject. That he had become one of the world’s most respected palaeontologists confirmed his belief that his aptitude was somehow encoded in his DNA.

Unusually, perhaps, for a scientist, though, Collingworth was somewhat open-minded. Outside his own field, he was interested in a broad range of subjects, and had always had a fascination for the unexplained. This, and a sighting he’d had of a ‘UFO’ had led him, as a young man, to avidly read such controversial authors as Erich von Daniken; prompting him to research further about UFOs, and other mysteries such as cryptozoology, strange human powers and time-travel.

The arrival of the internet, and subsequently YouTube, had been a gift, and he had spent many nights watching videos of bizarre, and seemingly impossible, phenomena. He read about ancient races of giants; he saw pictures of weird creatures, even finding a video supposedly of a faerie skeleton, discovered at the side of a road in Brazil.

Much of his time online had been occupied with looking at pictures of crop circles, and reading the reports. As something in plain view, and tangible, they couldn’t easily be denied. And he couldn’t believe that they were created by fakers, due to their usually large size and incredible complexity.

When ‘The Face’ on Mars hit the headlines several years ago, the huge public excitement had been countered by scientists’ claims that the phenomenon was merely a case of pareidolia – the human propensity to see faces in everyday objects such as clouds and glowing embers. However, he had bought a book about Martian anomalies, which showed photographs of the feature under differing lighting conditions – making it appear more face-like – and photo enhancements by a former NASA technician which seemed to show facial details and an ornate headdress. The book covered other aspects of Cydonia – the site of the ‘Face’ – including three pyramids whose relative positions apparently correspond exactly with the ones at Giza (and with the stars in the belt of Orion).

Then, back on Earth, there had been the documentation of artefacts found embedded in lumps of coal, and the discovery of what appeared to be human footprints alongside those of dinosaurs.

Despite being sceptical of much of the material he saw – and it going against his professional ethic – he felt there was still plenty that defied explanation by conventional scientific process, or current knowledge. What if there had at one time been an advanced civilisation living on the Red Planet? What if there had been previous advanced civilisations on Earth, even millions of years ago? What if scientists had, somehow, misread the geological time-scale?

He had, sensibly, kept these heresies away from colleagues and friends, but on occasion had discussed the subjects with his wife Jane, a biologist. The mainstream dismissed these things as pseudo-science, ‘creationist’ theory, and the realm of ‘conspiracy theorists’, so it was dangerous territory for a respected international authority.

* * *

“Hello, Prof Collingworth – it’s late for you!”

He was pleased to see that Mr Akindu was on duty, as some of the other security personnel could be officious jobsworths. He had spent several lunchtimes chatting with him in the refectory, hearing about his former life and career in Nigeria, before he had had to flee due to his political affiliations. He was working on the security team to finance his studies in material sciences.

“Hello Ade. Yes, I need to do some tests in the lab, and it’s always so difficult getting in there during the day!”

The guard raised the barrier, and he drove in.

* * *

“Hello, could I speak with Mrs Parrish, please?”

Nobody here with that name, mate.”

“But I called her on this number a couple of days ago.”

Look, mate, I’ve lived here for three years, and there’s never been a Mrs Parrish here.”

Despite his apparent annoyance, the man obligingly confirmed that Collingworth had entered the number correctly.

* * *

“Gordon! Gordon! Come on, you can’t believe this rubbish! What about everything you know? This goes against all scientific understanding!”

He was sitting in the Head of Faculty’s office. Sarah Hendricks was some thirty years younger than him, and his former student. Not an especially outstanding one, but she had other qualities. She had quickly moved on from her post-grad position, up the ladder on the administrative side. Her people skills, flair for PR, and her enthusiastic leadership had attracted the faculty major funding, and sponsorship from a couple of ‘blue chip’ companies; such that they had some of the best facilities in Europe.

Hendricks got up and walked over to the window. She pointed to where some building work was going on, across the quadrangle.

“See that skip? Go throw that piece of shit in there, forget you ever saw it, and we’ll all be better off for it.”

Collingworth’s mouth was dry as he spoke: “I’m thinking of writing a paper, Sal.”

Oh, come on, Gordon! What about your reputation – they’ll absolutely destroy you! Think what it will do to the university, to the faculty! What kind of impression do you think this will give?

His hand shook as he poured a glass of water. “It’s real. I’ve done the tests. The CT scan showed the structure of the hand; the bones, and even the tendons. I cut a section, and examined it microscopically. The cell structures are still intact. Have a look.”

“No, Professor Collingworth, I won’t have a look. Because what I’ll see is a world authority on the Mesozoic Period engaged in destroying his reputation, his career and his life. And bringing this faculty and this university into global disrepute.”

He had never seen her so angry. “I’m sorry, Sarah, but I feel I have a professional duty to bring this find to the attention of the scientific community, and if that means shaking up the foundations, then so be it. Science doesn’t advance by us sitting on our laurels, thinking how nice and neat things are. The major advances in any field have been made by those who dared to question the status quo.”

“The status quo is what keeps us in our jobs, Gordon; gives us a nice life, prestige, respect. Why would you want to throw all that away for a lump of old rock?”

A lump of old rock. Collingworth was shocked at how remote his boss had become from her former field of study, from her enthusiasm for the science, that he had helped foster.

“That ‘lump of old rock’ turns everything we know on its head. You ought to be excited about it. You should be thinking about what you’re going to write in your press release.”

“There isn’t going to be a press release. You write that paper, Gordon, and we’re all fucked. I order you not to do it!”

Collingworth rose, gathering up the box and the photographs.

“You can’t order me, Sarah, it’s an academic matter, not an administrative one.”

As he left the room, he still wasn’t confident that this was the case.

* * *

Collingworth had locked his office, having left degree submissions out on his desk. On his return, he found that the door had been kicked open, and the drawers and cabinets rifled, with some of their contents strewn over the floor. He checked the petty cash tin in his desk drawer, and found that the contents of around £240 were still intact.

Friday afternoons were always quiet, but he found a tutor and a couple of students in one of the workrooms. They told him that they hadn’t seen or heard anything unusual.

He got somebody up from security, who seemed embarrassed that a crime had taken place on his patch. He gave Collingworth an incident form to complete.

“The CCTV – they must have been caught on camera, surely?”

“We’ve had a power outage on the system this afternoon” replied the red-faced guard. “All the cameras were down for two hours. We’ve only just got them back.”

Collingworth took the ‘lump of old rock’ to the archive room and placed it in one of the hundreds of wide, flat specimen drawers, amongst the thousands of other pieces that the faculty had acquired over the years. He made a mental note of the drawer’s index number.

* * *

The wilderness cut through by The Path of Knowledge is littered with the burned-out corpses of those who dared step off the road, to head in a different direction, even to seek an alternative destination.

Collingworth couldn’t sleep, and his wife Jane was away in Nicaragua, on an expedition. He lay thinking about the ‘different drummers’ over the years – over the centuries – who had dared to think the unthinkable, to say the unsayable, to do, or attempt to do, the undoable.

Galileo Galilei was tried by the Inquisition, and subjected to house arrest for the rest of his life, for promoting the Copernican heliocentric theory, which he had confirmed by his own observations.

In more recent times, the peculiarly-named genius Royal Raymond Rife, who claimed to be able to cure any disease with his electronic resonance machine, had been destroyed by the US medical establishment.

And what about the two scientists who announced that they had achieved cold fusion – nuclear energy in a jar – some twenty years ago? Nobody could reproduce their results, sending them into disgrace and oblivion.

He could clearly remember the name of the English researcher who had insisted that the MMR vaccine causes autism in children. There had been a storm of outrage from the medical community, and his career had ended soon after (although he had recently reemerged in Texas, riding on the wave of vaccine suspicion favoured by the new President).

They’ll destroy you” Sarah had said. Who are they, he wondered. The defenders of the status quo. Big Money. Vested Interest. Eminences Grises. No names, but big influence, passing down their control from the anonymity of their ivory towers to the drones at ground level: keeping them on track, keeping them in fear of their livelihoods. Keeping things on the straight and narrow.

He jumped, as the bedside phone rang. Heart pounding, he reached to answer it, worried that something had happened to Jane.

Is that Prof Collingworth?“ The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

Who is this? Don’t you realise it’s one o’clock in the morning?“

I’m sorry to wake you, professor. My name’s Mangan. I‘m an artist. I’m a friend of Mrs Parrish’s.“

Now he recognised the voice. I think I spoke with you yesterday, Mr Mangan. What the hell is . . . “

Yes, I‘m sorry for lying to you. Can you meet me in about an hour? I’ve got some information that I’m sure you’ll be interested in learning.“

Look, can’t this wait until later today? I’m very tired, and haven’t managed to get any sleep yet.“

Later may be too late, professor. There are people who don’t want this to get out. We may all be in danger if we don‘t act quickly.

Collingworth‘s stomach churned as he felt himself spinning into the void that separated him from the caller. Now events seemed to be coalescing into the tragic format that had been twisting him with angst earlier. Maybe Sarah was right: maybe he should have thrown that lump of old rock into the skip. He felt a presence behind him; a shadow darker than the unknown, looming over his career, his life, his integrity.

Fuck them! Them. Fuck them, whoever they are. He was a professional, an academic. He had been handed the most earth-shaking, science-challenging evidence to appear in the last five hundred years, and he had a duty to present it to the scientific world, for the greater good of civilisation. He would march to that different drummer. He would publish and be damned. And if he was going to write that paper, he would need more information about the specimen’s provenance.

OK, Mr Mangan, where would you like me to meet you?”

I’ve got a gallery and workshop on the B4719, just before you come into Barnham St Peter’s. Do you know the area, professor?”

Only vaguely. Give me the postcode, then I can put it in my satnav.”

* * *

The screen indicated his proximity to his destination, so he coasted into a convenient layby.

He was some 50 yards short of the first of the street lights that lit the road’s approach into the village, but the yellow sodium light, filtering through the drizzle, was enough to reveal a solitary building across the road. It looked like an old barn, with a narrow shop front built onto about half of its length. Although the building appeared to be in darkness, he could read the name of the establishment, written in black script on a gold background: ‘Perfect Impressions – Art Interpretations’.

Collingworth left the comfort of his car, and crossed the road, pulling up his jacket collar as he went. He stood for a minute, peering into the dimly-lit interior of the shop. It was long and narrow, with paintings and prints on the walls, and some small sculptures on stands. There was a counter halfway along the back wall, and he could see a door to the left of it. There was no sign of life, so he started to turn back to the road, but then changed his mind and decided to try the door. It opened, to his surprise, with the jingling of a tiny bell, mounted at the top. He stood apprehensively for a moment, then the warmth he could feel from inside encouraged him in. He closed the door, and noticed a faint smell of oil paint.

Hello!” he called, “Is there anybody here?”

There was no sound from within, so he stepped over to the door, which he assumed gave entry to the workshop, and pushed it open. It was sprung, but it caught on the floor, and stayed open. He stepped through, and waited to see if his eyes would accustom to the dark.

Hello! Mr Mangan? Are you there?”

There was no reply, only the faint rattle of what might have been a fan or an air conditioner, somewhere over the other side. With the dim light filtering through the open door behind him, Collingworth was able to make out some vague shapes in the large space: a couple of mannequins over to his left, a large mass in front of him, that might have been a sculpture in progress, and further in, to the right, what appeared to be a large, low wooden box, with some kind of platform or gantry around three sides. He stepped towards it curiously, at the same time feeling that he really ought to get the hell out of there. He peered down into it, noting a white substance in the bottom. He recognised the smell straight away, as he had used plenty of it himself. It was . . .

Collingworth span on his heels as he heard a noise from behind him. The spring on the door had won its battle with friction, and he was suddenly in total darkness, and filled with fear.

He cursed himself for not bringing a torch. How could he be so stupid! But then another noise; the sound of rapidly-approaching feet, and a shadow, darker than the surrounding ones, bearing down on him. He threw up his arms and staggered back, but the low wooden surround stopped his movement, and he fell over backwards into the box.

There was a sound like a blancmange falling onto a carpet as he hit the glutinous white fluid. He struggled to get upright, but the cloying sludge held him down.

HELP! PLEASE GET ME OUT! Mr Mangan?”

There was no reply. He heard a relay click, and a pump burst into life. The white liquid coursed into the box with force, splashing onto his face and chest. He coughed, to try and clear his mouth and throat, but he was now being covered, and was unable to raise his head. As the plaster of Paris filled his mouth, his throat, then his lungs, Professor Gordon Collingworth became as still as a rock.

© PJMcNeill 2017 All characters and events fictitious.

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19 Comments to “The Wrong Impression”

  1. omg! What a story!! You had me start to finish!! And have left me with lots of questions!! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. you’re fascinating storey is great, even though it lef me Stone Cold,

    My uncle Charles Flint was formally involved in Casting for the theatre, he was born in Mould, N. Wales but his parent’s was from Lime House in London. At this time this was a poplar center for artists & ect. and the like.
    He did is straining as a plasterer in Paris. It was poorly paid work, he had to work as a weighter to make end’s meat.
    He is credited with introducing portland cement into French cuisine and cooking and the like.
    In fact, he is credited with creating the popular expression, “Chaux Devant”

    Bye all intense and purposes Charles lead a very debouched life, but was eventually converted and there after worked on many religious eddy faeces, such as convents, cathedrals, bordellos and the like, in particular through this work he met the eminent orhtopologist TryHard des Chagrins, whom brought him to work in England on his epynomious excavations on the South Coast, which is how your artiocule was ringing a bell with me, like, upon just reading it. In fact me and several of my seabling was conceived during these momentious occasions.

    So well done ! it is important to retrieve the imprint of ones family and not be afraid to cast back into our passsed histories.

    By the way, I wonder if the good Professor on his Yorkshire travels had time to visit Mother Shiptons’ Cave in Knaresborough, where another sept of my family was conceiveed out of the limestone.

    Best wishes in your endeavours,

    Diana Sore,
    Piltdown
    E. Sussix

    Like

  3. Nice one mate.

    You have a real gift for the old fiction thing, don’t you?

    Maybe you should try writing the next Tory party manifesto. That would be a cracking read.

    Like

  4. Thanks for your comments, guys.

    Yes, I have considered that, Nobs, but I don’t think I could do them more damage than they are doing to themselves (and to the country).

    Like

  5. Thankyou PJ. Now I can’t get ‘plaster of Parrish’ out of my mind, and of course the ‘ang man. Any hints as to other gems I’ve missed?

    Like

  6. Didn’t you spot it, essobee?

    Collingworth cursed himself for not taking a torch with him, and his name is an anagram of Lord! No glowing torch!

    Like

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