Ammonite by RT Young

Dina starts awake to the sound of the phone ringing, and before answering she knows Ken has gone out again. She can feel the absence of him in their shared bed like a cavity, the room still and silent as a forest, and the roaring klaxon of the landline is a chainsaw, teeth biting through living wood. Still, to confirm she is alone, she lets her hand search around the empty space beside her, roving over the landscape of pilling cotton sheets. They are cool to the touch. The digital clock on his bedside table reads, ‘02.37’. Next to it are two books borrowed from the local library, spines fissured and pages earmarked: Fossils of Britain, and Geology of the Jurassic Coast

She sits up. Swings her legs over the edge of the bed and lingers there a moment before peeling off the damp headband holding back her hair, which is the grey-blond of used bathwater and sleek with leave-in conditioner, and slides on her slippers. The curtains are drawn but there’s a sliver of lambent, electric light bisecting them which she can’t bear to squint in the direction of. Dina thinks she feels faintly hungover, never mind the fact that it’s creeping up on forty years since the last time she inflicted that particular brand of misery on herself.


“Dina, hi,” returns the sheepish voice. “It’s Sam. I’m really sorry about the time, but Laura has a meeting in the morning and look, I know this means a lot to him – ”

“Sam, say no more.” Dina cuts him off, forcing a smile which she hopes he can hear through the phone. It was such a peculiarly British idiosyncrasy to begin a phone call, the purpose of which was to complain about the eccentric behavior of your neighbor’s husband, with an apology. ‘I’m sorry, but you woke me up, and now I’m forced to wake you up, for which I’m sorry.’ Dina massages the bridge of her nose between forefinger and thumb and adds, “It’s unacceptable. No, no, I’m going to go right down.” There is so much more she wants to say, to explain so that they would understand, but maybe it isn’t her place. Not now, not to them. Not until. “Please pass on my apologies to Laura. Thank you for calling, Sam. I’ll deal with it. Goodnight.” 

Ken is at the far end of the garden. He’s kneeling close to the fence, toiling away at a patch of earth that she can’t see for his torso, but she can smell the bitter brown petrichor and hear the rhythmic shush of bristles as he strafes a brush backwards and forwards in the soil. Dina is less surprised than she should be to find her husband outside at a quarter to three in the morning. He’s wearing the striped flannel pajamas she bought him for Christmas last year beneath a thick jacket, solid boots, and her own floral-print gardening gloves, which are caked to the wrist in mud. At least, she thinks absently, he remembered to wrap up. It relieves her to see he also has on a woolly hat, one of the ones with a small LED torch attached to it, powered by two AA batteries. The back of his neck is red and glazed with sweat like frosted sugar on a doughnut. This, she can see, even from the doorway, as Ken has rigged a floodlight—so large and so bright that she can only suppose her husband has misappropriated it from a local sports stadium—to illuminate their garden, and consequently both of their neighbors’ on either side of them as well. A little way beyond the far fence is a narrow strip of shingle beach and the ocean, endless and black, and there is no separation between it and the night sky, so it feels a little like being encased inside of an unfathomably large snowglobe, with stars pinned to the inside of the dome. Ken’s artificial moon silvers the crest of each rippling wave as it rushes toward the shore. 

“Darling,” she speaks, softly.

Ken looks around, startled, as if woken from a dream, to see her standing in the doorway, arms folded and worry etched into the lines of her face.  

“Dina?” he returns, genuinely bewildered, as though it’s her and not him who is somewhere she shouldn’t be. Confusion becomes concern and he asks, “What are you doing up so late?”

It is hard for her, sometimes, to see what the years have done to the young man with the boyish smile that she knew from the tennis club down the road. She has to wonder whether it’s the same for him, and whether there was a half-heartbeat’s hesitation as he looked past the laughter lines and silvering hair, trying to recognize his wife. She tells herself no, but the doubt is a seed, a spore, it is mycelium. 

“Ken, what are you doing? I was worried about you. I woke up and you weren’t there.”

Her husband runs the back of one gloved hand across his forehead, leaving behind a streak of dirt. Earnestly he gestures to the hollowed-out depression in the grass in front of him while Dina tries not to display her disappointment. 

“I know, Dina, I know, but I just want to get this thing out of the ground. There’s a whole process to go through – ”

“Ken – ”

“Registering the find, official classification, and then – ” 

“Ken.” Dina feels the frustration bubbling up from her belly to her throat. Her composure is filament-thin, and fraying. “Please. Come inside. Come back to bed.”

“In a minute or two,” he replies on the exhale, already turning away from her, his shadow long across the lawn. In silhouette she sees him take up a pair of absurd brushes – one intended for interior decorating and the other for applying shaving cream to one’s face – and resume work on the patch of dirt before him. “I’ve nearly exhumed the fourth septa.”

If this is meant to serve as an explanation, it is unsuccessful. She hasn’t a clue what a ‘septa’ is. Of course, a week ago, neither did he. But then one morning he came home from a doctor’s appointment and went straight into the garden to reset the dislodged paving stone he’d been promising to take care of since April. He’d pulled it up and began levelling the earth underneath, and when she went out thirty minutes later to bring him a cup of tea and see how he was getting on, she barely recognized the man looking back at her. He was in the grip of something, that much had been clear, as he took her by the wrist and brought her excitedly to the shallow pit he’d dug by the fence backing onto the sea. The errant paving slab stood upright against one of her raised vegetable planters, cast aside and forgotten, and around their feet lay an assortment of gardening tools: microshovel, trowel, and hand fork, as well as a rubble sifter, a dustpan, several more brushes of various sizes and intended uses, including the old toothbrush they kept in the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink for scrubbing around the dog’s teeth once a year, and, most alarmingly of all, one of Dina’s suitcases, which lay wide open and half-full of transplanted soil. 

“There”, he’d said, “do you see it?”

I couldn’t see anything, Dina thinks, just as I can’t see anything now. He’s carved out a few ridges which look to her like the contours of some large stones stacked beside one another, and yet—and yet—he’s convinced himself that he’s uncovered a—what did he call it?—a fossilized cephalopod, of all the nonsense. The memory awakens anger within her anew. But before she knows it, the irritation subsides and she’s immediately overcome with guilt for resenting her husband. It isn’t fair to be angry at him for this, just as it isn’t fair that she has to feel so alone because he’s checked out, surrendering himself to a fantasy where he’s reinvented himself as the next Mary Anning and is too busy finding an identity he prefers in the mess he’s made of their back garden. It isn’t fair that he’s making her worry herself sick about him. 

Somewhere along the row of gardens, a neighbor’s dog begins barking, probably at a fox or a pigeon or the irregular shapes of the light dappling on the ocean’s surface, and another dog, some way further off, starts responding in kind. In the back of her mind, a voice is reminding Dina of the phone call that roused her from her bed and of Laura’s early start, but by now she’s too far gone to care. 

“You need to tell them, Ken.” She has to grit her teeth and bite down hard to prevent the words from coming out in either a garbled rush or a small, frightened whisper. “The boys deserve to know what you’re going through—what we’re all going through, so they can begin to—”

The thought hangs in the crisp night air, incomplete. Saying more is irrelevant. There aren’t many ways this can go, according to Dr. Rispin. Treatment is possible, to a degree, and incomprehensible phrases like monoamine oxidase-B inhibitors and dopamine agonists have been thrown around alongside reassurances like best case scenario and early intervention, but it takes a real ‘glass-half-full’ person, in Dina’s opinion, to see the fog of confusion descend over her husband’s eyes as he tries to remember why he entered a room, or to listen to him repeat the beginning of a story three times in the span of a conversation because he lost the thread of it midway through, and still feel hopeful of an outcome that doesn’t ultimately involve appointments in antiseptic rooms reeking of disinfectant, tours of nursing homes, and meetings with solicitors to discuss power of attorney.  

“I’m going to,” Ken insists, but he won’t look at her. “Of course, I’m going to. But it’s too soon, too sudden, it’ll only worry them.” He swaps the brush he’s been using for another, smaller, with softer bristles, its handle shaped like a hedgehog. Dina recognizes it as a clothes-brush that once belonged to Ken’s father. “Come and look at this, dear. This outer ridge here is called the siphuncle, see how you can follow that round? Well, you’ll see much more of it once I’ve cleared a little more of the earth, but if you use your imagination…” 

Dina has yet to move from the doorway, where the pull of gravity has become so strong she’s unable to lift one slippered foot, so she can’t see the parts her husband is referring to. She doesn’t need to; she’s already lost count of how many times in the preceding week she has stood over him, peering past his shoulder, trying to make sense of whatever it is he’s seeing in the carved-out grid of earth. There are a couple of curving striations in the center of the pit that resemble the brown ripples made by blowing on the surface of a hot cup of coffee, which in a certain light might look like the ribcage of a small creature. But, then again, they could just as easily be the desiccated roots of the old hedge that they pulled out five summers ago. In any case she doesn’t want to hear it. 

“Ken. Enough.” Her voice is tight, fear disguised as calm. “I know it will be hard. But they can’t hear it from anyone else, and they need time to come to terms with everything. There’s Fiona, too. She’s old enough now that she’ll start to notice changes in you before long.” 

As if to underscore that very point, she notices the tremor in his fingers wrapped around the brush handle, and it knocks the wind out of her like a punch to the stomach. 

“I’m convinced it’s an asteroceras,” Ken explains in an offhanded way, hasn’t heard. “I could be wrong, but the size of the chambers is in keeping with the small handful of specimens we already have.”

“Who is ‘we’, Ken? ‘We’ as in the scientific community? You are not ‘we’. Those are not your people. Your family, Ken, they’re your ‘we’.” She can hear how little sense she’s making, and it’s that much harder to stay calm, to will new bone to form over the fractures in her patience before it’s too late, and it breaks in dramatic fashion. “You’re a bus driver, for goodness’ sake.” 

“I’ve made a discovery, Dina,” he insists, gentling his tone. His arms fall to his sides, hands spread in resignation. “I have a duty to get this thing out of the ground and make sure it stays perfectly preserved. It’s millions of years old. Surely you can understand. Once I’ve done that, then… then I’ll tell them. Alright?”

This is a lie, but Dina’s tired, and she’s going back to bed. She watches the waves crashing and retreating over the glistening sand beyond their garden fence, again and again. Guerrilla warfare, she thinks, fight and fall back. But does that comparison apply when you can’t seem to win any battles? They’ll be right back here again tomorrow, arguing over the same patch of bitterly contested territory. And when he finally realizes he’s been toiling away with those brushes over an old car tire or the skeletal remains of somebody’s buried cat, well, then he’ll just move on to whatever the next thing is. The next excuse. 

She turns and goes inside without another word. Remembering her promise to their sleep-deprived neighbors, she pauses to remove the plug connecting Ken’s jerry-rigged floodlight to an extension cord trailing across the kitchen linoleum, plunging the garden into darkness. Questioning whether she’s being passive-aggressive, she stops one step from the door. Then she goes back and picks up the plug, examines it, then folds the cord over on itself and saws straight through it with a bread-knife. It only takes four strokes, and she carries the severed plug upstairs like it’s a trophy.

In the morning, Dina lets herself sleep late. Ten-thirty in the morning, she draws the line. She’s alone again, but at least she can tell Ken has been to bed. The pajamas he had on hang over the side of the laundry basket, and the loamy smell of him lingers in the air. There is a pillbox and a half-empty glass of water on his bedside table that wasn’t there the previous night, and a thin flotsam of soil adrift on the sheets. 

She rises, washes, caffeinates. Through the kitchen window above the breakfast bar where she scrapes marmalade on her toast, she sees him already toiling away. Digging up the past as a means of avoiding both the present and the future. She shakes her head to no one but herself, then goes out to him. For forty-three years, a kiss good morning, and another whenever either of them leaves the house. Fight or no, she’ll be damned if she’s going to break tradition now. 

“Well?” she asks, peering over his shoulder into the hole. The thing inside it is starting to appear more spherical, she has to concede, and strongly resembles a deflated brown football. “How’s Pompeii?” 

He chuckles, but wearily. Perhaps it’s the fatigue the doctor warned them to expect. She tries not to think about that. It wouldn’t be hard to consider every twitch a portent of things to come, to start looking at her husband like unexploded ordnance. 

“It’s getting there,” he sighs through a thin smile. He reaches for her ankle, her calf, to touch a piece of her, but she takes a step backward and raises her walls. 

“I have yoga,” she tells him, hinging at the waist and offering her cheek, but withholding her affection. “Will you need the car?”

Please need the car, she thinks. 

He scratches his chin thoughtfully and shakes his head.

“Wouldn’t have thought so, love. I’ll be here when you get back.”

Dina spends the entirety of savasena—a time of relaxation in which she is meant to be present in the moment with the sensations of her body, clear-minded and calm—wondering where it all went wrong. Why she can’t seem to get through to him now when they have surmounted a lifetime’s worth of obstacles together already. They survived raising two boys, for goodness’ sake, through teething and colic and every endless night where it felt as though getting them to sleep was like trying to learn a secret handshake, the steps to which were changed daily at the unfathomable whim of a tiny, fickle tyrant, through every teenage tantrum, every call from the school office, every slammed door. It’s not that she can’t understand why he’d be finding this difficult—it would be worrying if he wasn’t, frankly—it’s that he’s turned inward, and has chosen to deal with it this way. The man she married never withdrew from a problem, and in a rare departure from the norm among men of a certain generation, had always been forthcoming with his feelings. Emotional intelligence, they call it these days. 

He had always been able to make her laugh, to find and appreciate the lighter side of life. On their first date, he’d booked a table he could barely afford at the fanciest restaurant within fifty miles and showed up wearing his father’s best suit, which was a size too small for him in every direction. But from the moment Dina took his arm, he smiled so wide and so bright it would shame the sun. And although the maître d’ had made sure to hesitate long enough to convey his disapproval, looking through his nose and even—in a performance so snide and insulting that she still thinks about it to this day—demanded a cash deposit to cover their meal in advance, her soon-to-be husband’s smile never flickered, never waned. Once inside and seated at the smallest table, closest to the kitchen door, Ken had made the sommelier stand for an uncomfortably long time while he perused every bottle on the wine list, before finally ordering a glass of cola. 

The rest of their night had followed the precedent set by that moment of frivolity, and both had nearly given themselves a stitch laughing when the hapless sommelier returned with Ken’s order. Still standing sentry at the front door, the maître d’ had shot them a look of pure scorn, to which Ken had cheerfully tipped his glass in a toast.

They eat dinner together that evening, saying little and speaking less. Once the plates are cleared and the dishwasher loaded, Ken thanks her for the meal, kisses her cheek, and announces that he’d better get back to work. By which, of course, she knows exactly what he means. At least he hasn’t got the damned floodlight anymore. 


Dina wakes, and the phone is ringing again. She doesn’t know what time it is, but there is light lancing through the gap in the curtains, and she doesn’t trust herself to maintain a facade of calm if she goes down and finds he’s erected another floodlight. The phone continues to bleat, as frustration and disappointment go to war within her. If this is to be the beginning of the end—and things are only meant to get worse from here—she doesn’t want this to be how she spends the last however long thinking of him. She wants to spend it laughing with him in restaurants they can’t afford. But that thought only makes her sadder. She isn’t ready to start considering endings. She isn’t ready to begin saying a long, drawn-out goodbye to the man she loves.

Distantly, Dina realizes that the phone has stopped ringing. She rolls onto her side and reaches for the landline, only to notice that the handset is not on the base unit. Strange, and stranger still is what’s in its place. Set atop her bedside table is a red plastic dinner tray. It strikes her that the smell in the room is unfamiliar; rich and buttery, bright and citrus. As her eyes adjust, she can make out a tall glass of orange juice and next to that, a plate bearing a short stack of crumpets. 

“Good morning.” 

Ken is seated at the foot of the bed. He’s already dressed in a clean cotton shirt, open at the collar, and his hair is combed. He smiles. 

“What time is it?” she asks groggily. 

In answer he raises a finger to his lips, and it’s only then that she notices that he’s got the phone held to his ear. Confused, Dina seeks answers from the digital clock, taking longer than she should to register the time. 

Half past nine. It’s morning, not the middle of the night. And… has he brought her breakfast in bed? 

“That’s alright, son,” Ken says into the phone. “I remember how it is—when they need you, you drop everything and go to them. I’m just glad you were able to call me back.” 

Dina pushes herself upright and tucks a pillow in between the headboard and her lower back. Clarity comes to her slowly; about the time, the breakfast, the fact that he’s here, that he hasn’t got excavated dirt outlining his fingernails. She reaches for the orange juice and takes a sip, but when she goes to set the glass back she sees there is a second tray on the floor. It is identical to the one bearing her breakfast, but the thing on this tray causes her to come uncoupled from her mooring and, for the first time, question whether she might still, in fact, be dreaming. It is off-white, porous, and roughly the circumference of a dinner plate. Comprised of a series of ridges that wrap around and turn in on themselves, like dominoes standing on end. Like a giant snail-shell, she thinks, and after that there is no better comparison to be made. Whatever a snail was two-hundred million years ago, that’s what she’s looking at. And it’s so clean. Nothing about it would suggest that it had recently been plucked from beneath her garden like a shipwrecked vessel being raised from the seabed. 

A fossil, after all. 

She glances at her husband, as words escape her, but he’s drawing the curtains open and letting warm sunlight into their room. It pulls greater levels of detail out of the ancient thing on the tray, and it’s hard not to become lost in the spiral of this long-dead creature, the ever-tightening coil preserved since a previous age. 

“There was something I wanted to talk to you about, Mark,” Ken says, and Dina had nearly forgotten he was on the phone, but the mention of their son’s name is like a cup of cold water tipped into her lap. She runs Ken’s words back and plays them again in her head, wondering. Hoping. “No, it’s nothing serious.” Dina holds her breath. “Well, no,” he corrects. “I suppose it is. The thing is, your mum had been pushing me to see a doctor for a while now, and last week I made an appointment—” 

The rest trails off into inaudible muttering as Ken leaves the bedroom, closing their door behind him. Dina doesn’t protest. The moment is theirs, father to son, and she’ll hear about it when all has been said that needs to be said. She shuts her eyes and sighs, thinks of the hole in the ground just beyond the window, and smiles. Then, without knowing why, she draws a hand up to her mouth and places a gentle kiss on the fingertips, before passing it down to the ammonite.

R.T. Young is a lover of magical books and the author of both novels and short fiction. Raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, he holds a degree in English Literature, and his writing is represented by Brianne Johnson of HG Literary. Find him on social media @rtyoungauthor or through his website,