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U3A Writing: Dragon Lore

“Uncle, do you know about dragons?” he asked, to change the subject.

“Almost everything, mi’ boy. Why, I am regarded as an expert in dragons.”

Robin Harward tells a warm-hearted tale about a young boy, a dragon and a wise, understanding uncle.

The shop was full of people drifting round in crumpled summer clothes. It smelt of ice cream and hot people and it wasn’t very appealing. Peter, a little boy, was hot, hungry and very bored. But it was a shop and he wanted to buy something. His mother had said that there was nothing but junk in the shop and had only reluctantly allowed him to go in, out of the sun. Now she was impatiently waiting for him at the door.

He looked round at the displays, the garish ornaments, plastic toys, brightly coloured books, the calendars and cards. He saw nothing he wanted. He was afraid that she was right. Then he saw the tray of dragons. They were little model dragons sitting on stones. He went over to them and picked one up. He delighted in the natural way the claws of the bright little dragon clung to the piece of rock. He looked into its eye and he wanted it.

“Mummy,” he called, “I want this.”

He persuaded her to come in with imperious waves and unwillingly she came. He knew his mother would be very compliant today as she was going away with Bill, her boy friend, and leaving him for the whole weekend. She was leaving him with his Great Uncle. She was always very nice to him on these occasions.

“Peter, Don’t be silly. You don’t want that. What on earth is the use of it? It’s just another thing to dust in your room.”

“Please, Mummy, I’ll dust it, really I will. Look it doesn’t cost much.” He pointed to the price tag, dangling from it. It clearly read 15.

She took it from his hands and looked at it cursorily. She saw it was well made. “Funny kid,” she thought. “He always goes for odd things.” She took the price tag in her hands. “Good God! Look, that is fifteen pounds. I can’t possibly afford that. Put it back quickly.” She saw the disappointment in his face. “Find something cheaper. I’ll go and see if the bus has come.”

His mother hurried out into the sunlight. Peter stood in the crowded shop and was jostled by the uncaring crowd. Tears appeared in his eyes as he carried the dragon back to its shelf.

He looked about him and saw that there was no one paying him any attention. A large red-faced woman began arguing stridently with the shopkeeper, and everyone’s eyes went to her.

Peter quickly put the dragon in his pocket, wrapping a handkerchief about it, and strolled out of the shop.

He went to the bus stop, where he joined his mother. They waited together for Uncle, as he was always known, although he was really a great uncle as he was his grandfather’s elder brother. He was coming by bus from Tavistock, which was where he lived, to collect the boy for the weekend. The mother put her arm around the boy and squeezed him to her.

Peter accepted her caress and kept his hand over his pocket. He was looking forward to his Uncle’s arrival. He had always been fascinated by his old Uncle, as he seemed to know everything interesting, and was willing to talk to the boy as man to man. He knew his mother was impatient with the old man and his antique ways, but she always sent him to his uncle when she went off with Bill. Peter would have liked to go with her as he liked Bill very much, but to stay with Uncle was great fun too.

“The bus should be here in a few minutes. I shall be furious if he’s missed it,” his mother grumbled in advance; but Peter knew his uncle would be on it.

He was. Peter saw him immediately as the bus growled in with a hissing of air brakes. His beard and moustache glowed Persil white under his Panama hat.

They watched the passengers get off, and then came Uncle, handing down an old lady as she nervously descended the bus steps. He stepped back and swept off his hat in both a bow and a salute. The old lady simpered and giggled as she watched the old man walk over to greet the mother and the boy. He put his hat on Peter’s head as he kissed the mother’s cheek.

“Well, mi’ girl. Off you go. Off to your shenanigans, and enjoy yourself. You know the boy’s alright with me.”

The Uncle dismissed the mother with a courtly but ironic bow. He put his hand on Peter’s shoulder and walked him away.

He left the mother feeling relieved, but guilty. Peter went off happily with the old man without a backward glance, and the mother went back alone to her car.

The old man and the boy walked up the street and stopped outside a pub. It had chairs and tables set up on the little courtyard in front.

“I’m thirsty. I don’t know about you. Would you like a fruit juice?” asked the old man as he settled himself in one of the chairs.

“Yes please, Uncle,” said Peter eagerly as he sat down opposite, where he could look at all the people going past.

A waiter came up and the old man ordered a beer and an orange juice. They sat back to await it. The boy felt very important sitting out here having a drink, just like any old person. He liked the way his Uncle treated him as though he was grown up too. So he sat quietly watching his Uncle who was searching his pockets.

“Oh Lordy me! Oh Jehosephat! I haven’t got any money.” He looked aghast. “What shall we do?”

Peter giggled uncertainly. He certainly didn’t know what to do.

“I shall have to borrow from you,” said the Uncle. He reached for the boy’s breast pocket and fumbled inside. Peter grabbed his hand to avoid the inevitable tickling. But the Uncle withdrew his hand, and in it was a £5 note. Peter snorted with laughter, as he knew he hadn’t got any money.

The waiter came and deposited the drinks and took the note. But when he came back with the change, Uncle was certain that the change belonged to Peter. The boy, laughing happily, put the money into his pocket. His face changed and the grin became a furtive expression as he withdrew his hand and put the money into his other pocket.

“Uncle, do you know about dragons?” he asked, to change the subject.

“Almost everything, mi’ boy. Why, I am regarded as an expert in dragons.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “They are compounded of earth, air, fire and water, and either crawl upon the ground like lizards, or fly through the air like birds. They used to be found all over the earth, and came in every size: little ones that hid under stones and hissed like tea kettles, to giant ones as big as houses.” The old man leant forward and gazed at the boy intently. “Some have two legs and are really Wyverns, but most have four legs. Some, they say, have an unreasonable amount of heads, but it is usually only one. Why do you ask? Have you seen one?”

The directness of these two questions disconcerted Peter, who had been listening rapturously to his Uncle. His hand flickered protectively to his swollen pocket and he looked up at the old man to find him staring intently back at him.

“Yes, I mean no. No I haven’t seen one.” The boy’s eyes slid away from the direct gaze of the old man.

“Tell me about this dragon that you haven’t seen.”

The authority of his Uncle’s voice was such as to make the boy dip his hand into his pocket and draw out the handkerchief. He unwrapped the dragon and handed it very carefully to his great Uncle.

He took it gently and examined it intently. He was very thorough, even to reading the now crumpled price tag that still hung from its leg.

“This,” he said, with an air of scholarship, “is a magnificent little dragon. This type of dragon is usually mild tempered and friendly. Not like the bigger ones that can be very fierce, cruel and treacherous.” Here he leaned forward and with a fierce frown said, “But you have to be careful of all dragons; you can’t trust them ever. The small ones are only mild and friendly because they are small.” He paused, smiled at the boy, then went on, “All of them are able to cast a spell on people and make them do things they shouldn’t. Things that normally they would be ashamed of. Things that make you become like them, like dragons, I mean, dishonest and greedy.”

He stretched back in his chair, turning the little dragon in his hands. Then he put the dragon on the table, pushing it away from him distastefully. He looked attentively at Peter and asked, “Is there anything you’ve done since you saw this dragon that you have to be ashamed of?” His eyes twinkled and became much kinder. “If you have, you must tell me as there may be enough time to put things right.” The old man took his beer, drank deeply and fastidiously wiped his whiskers.

Peter stared at his feet mulishly and didn’t look up.

“You see it’s their spell. They like to collect things, valuable things, and store them away in mysterious places. They say that there are some dragons, deep in hidden caves, asleep on huge mounds of stolen treasure. I don’t know if there could be any around here.” He stopped talking and looked speculatively at the surrounding heather-clad hills. “I shouldn’t think so. Too many tourists, you see. But deep in the moor there must have been, and might still be, places more suitable.”

Peter looked up at the hills hopefully, then caught his Uncle’s eye and stared down at the ground, shuffling his feet.

“Now in the olden days brave men used to hunt these dragons,” his Uncle went on, his eyes on Peter. “They would fight them and steal their treasure. It was supposed to be OK as the dragons had stolen it first. But of course, it is just as bad to steal a thief’s possessions as those of an honest man. But the gallant knights thought that if they found a dragon’s hoard they could steal it. There are heaps of such stories.”

The old man leaned forward again and laid his hand on Peter’s arm. The boy flinched. “But there was one thing the knights hadn’t bargained on and that was the dragon’s magic. That’s what you have to be careful of. Do you know what that is?”

The question lay on the air. Peter didn’t answer.

The old man crouched over the dragon and stared at it. “Ah ha! How very interesting.” He reared up. “Look, boy, just look at those markings. It’s a treasure dragon.” He pointed his gnarled finger at the dragon’s back.

Peter couldn’t help but look.

“There, you see. Those stripes. You see, if you left this dragon to sleep for a hundred years, you’d find him very much bigger and possibly asleep on an enormous mound of money. But if you were then to steal it, very difficult but it has been done, then you too would become a very nasty person.” He leaned back in his chair, watching the boy. He continued, “There is an answer to it. If you give the treasure away or spend it at once, you can prevent the spell sticking to you.”

The old man crossed his arms and put his chin on the back of his hands. He stared at Peter. “Are you sure, absolutely sure, that you haven’t done anything to be ashamed of. I mean just recently? You must have done, because this is a very powerful dragon and you don’t know how to cleanse the spell. Or do you?” After a slight hesitation, he asked, “Where did you get the dragon?”

This barrage of dragon lore, the probing questions as well as the subtle offer of a way out, broke down Peter’s resistance.

“I nicked it from the shop. I didn’t mean to, I just did it.” Peter at last looked at his interrogator.

“That’s it!” exploded the old man, seemingly unsurprised in his excitement. “You lay your eyes on this dragon and its spell is upon you. Nicking is just what dragon Magic is all about. Dragons nick the gold and the odd princess and the knights nick them back. If we don’t try to undo this spell you will be nicking all sorts of things, perhaps even Princesses, though they’re aren’t so many about now. Now this is what we must do to break this spell . . . Oh!” he interrupted himself, “By the way, has that dragon been in your pocket all the time since you nicked it?”

“Yes,” answered the bewildered boy.

“Then I had better have a look.” He then thrust his hand into Peter’s pocket and drew out the dirty handkerchief that he shook. Something fluttered out. It was a £20 note. “Is that yours?”

Peter stared into his Uncle’s face and shook his head dumbly.

“Then that is the beginnings of a Dragon hoard. You had better pick it up. I don’t want the spell on me.” His Uncle disassociated himself from the proceedings.

Peter gingerly picked up the note and spread it out. He stared at it dumbfounded.

“Finish up your drink quickly.” The old man set the example and drained his beer mug. “We must get that Dragon back to where he came from and apologise. Then we must spend the money fast and rid ourselves of the spell. Come on.”

He rose and took Peter’s hand and rushed him up the street before the boy could object.

They were back in the shop before Peter realised what had happened. The old man put the dragon back into Peter’s hand and introduced him to the benignly smiling proprietor. The smile didn’t remain long as Peter stumblingly told his story, but came back when he saw the £20 note in the boy’s hand.

“Can I buy my dragon back? Will that stop him spelling me?” Peter appealed to his Uncle.

“Well, yes it might. But you would have to try very hard whenever you felt the spell coming back. That is, whenever you feel tempted to nick anything. Now you have been under the spell and have come out. But it might come back. You’ll have to be very determined. Can you do it?”

The old man’s smile reassured the boy that his Uncle thought he could do it, so he nodded and proffered the note to the proprietor. This time the Dragon was wrapped and Peter received £5 change. He stood looking at the note. “I must spend this very fast or give it away,” he decided.

Uncle agreed.

Peter thought, “Can I buy a present for Mummy and give the rest to you?”

“That sounds a very sensible arrangement,” smiled the old man, and they searched for something appropriate for his mother.

Peter found a small stuffed mouse in a ball gown and chose that. But his Uncle found a similar mouse in a wedding dress and suggested that it would be more appropriate. So he bought it and gave the change to his Uncle.

They went back to the bus terminus, Peter chattering happily.

He had a lovely weekend walking the moors with his Uncle, learning a lot of natural lore from him. But the spell hadn’t entirely worn off, as he told his mother a lie, saying that his Uncle had given him the Dragon. But he promised himself that it wouldn’t happen again.

His mother married Bill. She told Peter that she had shown Bill the mouse, and that had given him the idea. She was very happy and so was Peter. He had always liked Bill.

The Dragon remained on his bedroom shelf, and always reminded him how easy it was to fall under a malign spell.


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