Up at 5am writing this year's Christmas story. I was convinced that if I carried on sleeping I was going to forget it. Three hours scribbling by lamplight and I think I've written pages of crazy nonsense. It's called - get this - The Christmas Trilobite. Hurray! Coffee now.
Knock knock. Scritchy-scratch. Thump thump thump.
It’s 5.15 am – who is that?
Can’t be the cat. He’s already pushed his paws into my face and clicked his claws on my pillowcase. He’s already woken me up and made me go downstairs to feed him. So who is this, knocking on the bedroom door?
There’s a hard frost outside. The first dark morning of December. White Rabbits! Open the first little door on the calendar.
Oh no! It’s the Christmas Trilobite.
What? There’s no such thing.
He comes skittering into the room on his long insect legs.
‘Hey, Paul! Remember me? From when you were a kid? Wasn’t I your favourite? Get up out of that bed and talk to me!’
This is what it’s like when something takes hold of you before it’s even light. I go through to my study, pulling on my dressing gown. The house is chilly and I sit at my desk. He jumps onto my laptop and preens beneath the spotlight of my anglepoise.
There can be no doubt about it. He’s definitely a Trilobite.
He smells funny – crabsticks? Lobster bisque?
‘Look, kidda,’ he says, being serious. ‘You remember me. Now I’m calling on a favour from you. I want my very own Christmas story. Make it happen, can’t you?’
As it happens, I do remember the Trilobite. He was in one of the first books I remember reading.
When I was very small we lived in Peterlee, in an estate of boxy houses set upon a hillside. Every time we went to the grocery shop my mam would buy me a new book. She couldn’t afford it, but we loved reading them together.
For some reason, the Trilobite stood out for me in the book about Prehistoric Life. There he was, back in the Early Cambrian period, 521 million years ago, when the sea was azure and gorgeous. All the other deep sea creatures looked like twirly sundaes and items of gaudy jewellery with tentacles and suckers. But down on the sandy sludge of the ocean bed was where the Trilobites were hanging out and flourishing in their own little way. Scuttling about in two dimensions only: back and forth, left to right.
They were around for quite a long time in the story of the Earth and, even as a small kid, I felt that they were written out of the narrative quite brutally. Flashy fish came along, and fangy sharks and then things with arms and legs. Amphibians went sashaying out of the water onto the beach and soon they grew scales and feathers and then they were dinosaurs.
Later on they grew fur, etc.
And what about the humble Trilobite then? Who cared about his trials and tribulations?
We know lots about them. That’s because they left lots of evidence about themselves with their Easily Fossilized Exoskeletons.
But, unlike many other creatures, even squishier ones, they didn’t have many adventures. There aren’t actually very many stories about Trilobites.
‘That’s what I want putting to rights,’ he tells me, cavorting up and down my desk. ‘I’m bursting with ideas!’
How about Red Riding Hood and the conniving, vicious Trilobite who disguises himself as Grandma, having eaten her first? ‘Oh, Grandma! What great big feelers you have! And what a beautiful Easily Fossilized Exoskeleton you have!’
But wouldn’t that only work if Grandma was plankton?
‘I can act! I can be a villain! What do you think..?’
Or what about Beauty and the Trilobite?
Goldilocks and the Three Trilobites?
Snow White and the Seven Trilobites?
Ali Baba and the Forty Trilobites?
Could I really put him into a fairy tale?
Maybe he’s the son of a nobleman, the youngest of three Trilobites, who sets off to make his fortune? Or to slay a jellyfish?
Maybe he’s a venal, bossy character who gets his awful comeuppance at last?
Or perhaps he’s a princess and she’s waiting for a beautiful fate?
A Trilobite who’s been cursed by a goblin, an ogre, a wicked witch…
Or is it a fable in which he falls in love with some unsuitable creature? A Pteradactyl? They come from such different worlds…
The winged one has to resist dreadful hunger pangs in order not to devour his beloved. Snap snap. Love can be gone in a flash. Especially slippery seafood.
‘Oh, come on,’ he groans. ‘There must be a fairy tale ideally suited to one with my talents…’
Three lobes, three segments, lots of spindly, waving legs and feelers. They dominated the seas for many millions of years. Not bad, considering.
Once upon a time…
But what did he do..?
‘I would love to be a figure in history, having adventures…’ he suggests. ‘And I could teach children all about the key roles I might have played in the past, perhaps?’
He taught primitive man how to make fire. He set off into the East with Alexander the Great and Richard the Lion Heart and Marco Polo. He was seduced by Cleopatra and he burned down the library at Alexandria. He was one of the few schoolmates who didn’t mock Napoleon, and was rewarded by the Emperor and attended his Coronation in Notre Dame. He was the only explorer to return from Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.
We could fake the fossilized record to say that he was there for all these things. We could say he was there when the atom was split, and the computer was created, and even when clocks and time were invented.
‘All that’s great,’ he nods. ‘But what I really want to be in is my very own Christmas story…’
What generally happens in a Christmas story? Is there mystery and romance? Often there’s a great journey… and flying.
The Trilobite can’t fly, but he can scuttle, and he’s marvellous underwater. But that’s not very Christmassy, is it?
Well… let’s see. Maybe Santa has a disaster on Christmas Eve? He’s streaking through the night sky with his sleigh and all his reindeer, crossing the ocean, when he has a disaster…!
And he has to be rescued by… a Trilobite..! An especially nimble, heroic and handsome Trilobite! One who fixes his sleigh and drags all the drowning reindeer back aboard. Santa is astonished and very grateful. ‘I’ve never met one of your kind before! Though I know all about you, of course, from your Excellent Fossil Record. How can I reward you? How about a trip to the North Pole..? Would that do..?’
The Trilobite’s eyes widen at both Santa’s idea, and at my suggestion. ‘I think I like it. Suitably heroic. I like the Santa angle. Maybe there’s some magic..? Maybe I get to actually help pull Santa’s sleigh? And I have a marvellous time helping to deliver toys all over the world?’
Then the Trilobite is picturing himself scuttling over snowy rooftops and squeezing himself down chimneys. Wouldn’t he love dashing around in strangers’ dark houses, filling up stockings... and occasionally giving early risers a wonderful surprise..! Could the Trilobite even become one of Santa’s little helpers on a permanent basis?
Santa isn’t sure. His elves are quicker. They’ve got hands. They can carry things. The Trilobite isn’t such a great assistant. He drinks all the sherry left out for Santa and makes high-pitched excited noises. Maybe this isn’t the right story for him, after all?
Is this just evolution? A natural process of exclusion?
There is no Christmas story about the Trilobite because he simply doesn’t fit in? He’s not the kind of creature who gets to be in such a tale?
Santa and I have to break it to him gently…
Look here, you’ve got a marvellous fossil record… Look at it! Not bad for one who’s been extinct for hundreds of millions of years! That brittle exo-skeleton of yours has stood you in good stead – and that’s why people remember who you were! How about that? They still remember you – up until this very day!
The Trilobite looks forlorn. Then he turns peevish.
No, it isn’t enough. He is ambitious. His feelers are restless.
‘I want a Christmassy story starring me! Something to teach everyone the true meaning of everything! Oh, do write it for me..!’
There were many different kinds of Trilobites. Twenty-five thousand different types. That’s diversity for you. And they never fought amongst themselves. They respected each other’s business and went about their prehistoric days very contentedly. Peace on Earth and good will to all invertebrates.
Not much tension or conflict in that story. So they had the perfect society for millions of years…? Huh. But where’s the drama? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the sexy stuff?
‘But we ruled the seas!’ the Trilobite gasps. ‘And in those days that meant we owned the whole world, because what else was happening on land but volcanoes going off and lava spurting everywhere? We were among the first living, sensible things on the Earth and we were the very first to realise that we were rocking it!’
The Russian Trilobite Asaphus Kowalewski had eyes perched on stalks that were two inches long.
‘Is it that we just weren’t pretty enough, by your modern standards? We would never be chosen to star in a festive adventure of our own because we aren’t attractive to your human eyes? Is it true that when you see us you can’t identify with creatures who look like this? Are you having trouble relating to us?’
There was a Trilobite from Morocco – Walliserops Trifurcatus – who had a three-pronged fork – a trident! – coming out of his head. Right out of his cephalon! I’ve no idea why!
‘But maybe there’s a story in that, eh? Maybe?’
The Asaphellus Cuervoca even had wings! He could guide himself better than most, cruising about on the ocean floor. ‘He also had very large eyes, and maybe you humans could identify with him and all his struggles?’
And Dicranarus Monstrous had handlebar moustaches! As well as long, flowing, rather elegant legs. He went sweeping through the darkness of the ancient seas… What if Santa Claus was rescued by him?
Santa, caught up in a turbulent time storm, with a blizzard raging all around, and only this Trilobite can lead him back to his own time and place?
Santa glances at the picture of the moustached creature. ‘He’d give me the screaming ab-dabs.’
Strange-looking, funny-looking. Sinister, even.
‘We look like aliens now. Even to ourselves,’ the Trilobite laments. ‘Before coming out tonight I caught a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror and thought: “Crikey! Is that really me..?!”
‘You see humans everywhere, and you imagine fitting in… and then, all at once, you’re brought up short. When you notice your own mandibles. Catch a glimpse of your feelers. And you think: “Oh, yes. I’m a Trilobite, aren’t I? I’ll never blend in.’
‘It’s not even that I want to pass by unnoticed. Not really.
‘I was used to fitting in. I had two hundred million years of fitting in.
‘It might be rather nice to stand out in the crowd. I’d love to be remembered as, say, The Trilobite Who Saved Christmas. Or the Miracle Trilobite. Or the Trilobite in a Trillion.
‘My story could be about my visiting a family of Flat-Earthers? A dynasty of dinosaur-deniers? I could slip down their chimney one Christmas Eve and terrify them at first? Then I could win them over and steal their hearts? The whole dopey, fundamentalist, bigoted lot of them could come to love me slavishly and believe every word I said!
‘I would teach them – with infinite care and patience, perhaps through the medium of song – all about the fossil record?’
‘I can’t be cute,’ says the Trilobite. ‘Not a flopsy bunny or a kitten or a dewy-eyed, lonesome pony. How would I make myself cute?
‘Fur. Big eyes. Helplessness.
‘All that mammal stuff. Urrggh.’
But what if you pushed the lonesome angle, eh? He’s the very last of his kind? And he’s somehow survived hundreds of millions of years and now he’s alone in a very strange land?
‘Yes, I’m liking this,’ he says (using the continuous present, which is his favourite tense, being an immensely long-lived creature.) ‘Yes, yes, make me a miraculous survivor! People love those! A mysterious beast from antiquity! A lovely antediluvian animal!’
Santa glances at the top of the tree in his workshop. What’s that horrid-looking thing standing in for the fairy?
It’s the Trilobite, feeling fantastic. ‘Look at me!’
Well, he’s happy. Who can argue with that?
Mrs Claus rolls her eyes. She’s seen it all before. A Trilobite at the top of the Christmas tree? A Trilobite helping with Santa’s Christmas deliveries? Well, whatever. These aren’t the craziest ideas Santa has ever had. Live and let live is Mrs Claus’s mantra.
The fairy is livid, naturally. Supplanted and replaced. She’s plotting revenge on the creature from the dawn of time. It curdles her tiny, glittering heart, this furious resentment she feels, and it turns her to the bad. She gets her closest elvish friends to take the Trilobite captive. They sneak up on him and lash his feelers to his sides and though he struggles, he’s no good at fighting, and he can’t resist.
They take him off to the kitchens and pop him in the pot! They cook him in a seafood stew, which Mrs Claus is brewing on the stove for Christmas Eve’s supper. Now it’s a prehistoric broth. A primordial bouillabaisse.
Of course, the Trilobite was very old. Well past his sell-by date. And you have to be very careful with shellfish.
Christmas Eve is the worst night in the year for everyone in Santa’s household to come down with food poisoning. What a to-do. It’s not a pleasant sight. All deliveries are cancelled. Christmas is called off, the whole world over. No presents for anyone, on account of the Christmas Trilobite in the pot.
It’s not very festive at the North Pole this year, though the fairy is jubilant in her own bitter way.
The Trilobite frowns. ‘I’m not exactly loving this story,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure I want to be eaten up, or to ruin Christmas for everyone! That’s not the kind of thing I want at all..! Try again!’
Try and try and try again. It’s the writer’s eternal mantra.
He snaps his mandibles at me and glares across the desk.
‘I want a magical Christmas story! A lovely one! How hard can that be..?’
What about a kind of quest thing? They’re always popular. Something grand and sweeping and mythic. Perhaps set back in antiquity?
‘Everyone loves the dinosaurs!’ cries the Trilobite. ‘Perhaps I could crawl up onto land and warn the dinosaurs they’re about to be made extinct? I could lead them all to safety? It could even be a musical. Can I sing? Well, no. But I can hum. Is that no good?’
I’m picturing Busby Berkeley routines on the ocean bed, with rudimentary life forms in frilly shells cavorting in formation. Even single-celled organisms joining the dance in geometrical displays, with lovely precision.
‘And I could be the glorious star in the centre of it all!’ trills the Trilobite. ‘Not tap-dancing exactly. More doing a soft-shoe shuffle. I could be twiddling my feelers elegantly…’
What about a disaster movie? An ocean cruise at Christmas time? A huge liner sinking to the bottom of the sea and everything looking hopeless. But look who comes leaping to help out the passengers! He’s saving the lives of the most interesting characters and leading them to safety (shirtless, six-pack on show, flexing his steely antennae.) A friend to all mankind!
But I’m a feisty beast as well as a hero, he thinks. I can at times be filled with vengeful thoughts. All those years of neglect and obscurity…! I feel hard done by, if I’m honest…
‘So, what if I was starring in a fantastic monster movie..?’
Somehow blown up to ninety feet tall. Trashing the skyline of Tokyo and lashing about and stomping on humans. Reclaiming the earth for his own humble kind.
Except… his arms, though numerous, are not particularly strong. They are frondlike and ineffectual. He can’t quite destroy the metropolis. He’s simply flapping around, stroking skyscrapers.
His thoughts turn glumly to apocalyptic stories. Earth in ruins. Radioactive wilderness. Mutants and nuclear winter storms and sheer awfulness. And the only living creature is the earliest and hardiest of them all.
There he is! With his proud and darkly-glittering exo-skeleton, dashing about on the dry-as-bone sea bed… Our friend the Trilobite!
He’s celebrating Christmas all alone at the end of time.
What if he was a time-travelling crustacean? And he went back to witness the birth of Christ?
‘I could smuggle myself among the sheep on the hillside and gate crash along with those dopey shepherds. They’d never notice…’
Or he could be with the oxen, lowing in the stall.
‘I could disguise myself as a tick, maybe. Shush, Mrs Moo. Or I’ll nip your udders. Don’t tell them I’m here. The Trilobite at the Nativity.’
Or what if he was one of the gifts brought by the Wise Men? Gold, Frankincense and a Trilobite? That could work.
‘Then at least I’d have an excuse to be at the stable. I’d be a part of that most famous of tales. Kids in school plays would one day dress up as me! They’d be proud to be me! They’d be like – “I don’t want to be a shepherd or an angel! I don’t even want to be Mary! I want to be the Christmas Trilobite!”’
‘Oh, here’s a lovely thought!’ the Trilobite cries. ‘What if I was among a whole bunch of pop stars who get together to make a charity record for Christmas? We put aside our egos just for one day and create a festive classic? Maybe it was all my idea and I’m the hero for a day?’
He still likes the idea of flying to the North Pole, though.
And he still thrills to think of himself scuttling about on the desert sands on the way to Bethlehem. Following that twinkling star. A star that glimmered its first, way back in the days when he lived underwater with all his trillions of chums.
He’s hoping to get a ride on a camel. He’s hoping to make it in time.
He’s thinking about sitting in Santa’s sleigh and saving Christmas for everyone and being a miraculous crustacean.
He knows he can do it. He can do anything.
He’s come this far, after all.
Couldn’t the Trilobite fall in love?
‘Love often features in Christmas stories!’ he points out, hopefully. ‘And learning a special lesson about selflessness and kindness to fellow creatures. Well, I can do that! I can do any of these things! I can be anything from any of these stories!’
‘But… why?’ I ask him. ‘Why do you particularly want to be in a Christmas story?’
‘Because… because… it will mean that you remember me. Paul, do you remember..? On Christmas Day, 1972? The year that you learned to read… do you recall? You were reading your book about Prehistoric Life. Volcanoes were erupting. Earth existed in a state of primordial soupiness and flux. It was cataclysmic and all history was beginning. You were three years old and the words and the pictures were starting to make sense to you. The book was in your Christmas stocking. Early in the morning. Reading by lamplight. In your own room, staring at pages.
‘Staring at the page with the Trilobite on. You realised that you weren’t just staring at the lines of words. They were sweeping you along just like the grand surges of the tide.
‘The words were moving you to understand and you weren’t even trying.
‘As the Trilobite and all his friends flickered into life and danced on the seabed you realised that you were reading, and all these little creatures were going to leave their footprints - and an excellent fossil record - inside your head forever.’