Drink and the Dragon
It was a damp and misty classroom: that was best for all concerned, although the boys complained about it, as towards the day’s end their bones would start aching from the moisture that had seeped into their frames.
Outside the Sun was shining. It was bad for any child to be indoors. Especially in a room that had an infernal machine that pumped water vapour into the air.
The teacher’s tail kept knocking the school cat off the cupboard, which was in a patch of sunlight that had struggled through the murk. A charred corpse of a pupil stood in perpetual astonishment by the classroom entrance.
The lesson was Mathematics and the topic was the quadratic equation. One of the boys, a wiry specimen who was always on the fidget, glanced at his bitten fingernails:
“How dare you look at your hands, Spadgeling! Look towards the board please.”
He did so immediately: he was the younger brother of the charcoal statue. It was hard to be taught by a Dragon. He looked at the creature and thought of revenge.
The Dragon was middle-aged and on the small side. He had a red skin. His eyes were shrewd but kind. He was an efficient teacher who could inspire his clever pupils, coax the average, and intimidate the worthless. When throwing his piece of chalk at an offending scholar, he would first lodge it in the tip of his tail, so that it could arrive at its destination with maximum force. Once he had thrown the chalk so swiftly, it had disintegrated on impact on the chin of Wickins Major, leaving the lad with a painful jaw and a blanched visage.
His first weakness was his temper. When he was furious, there was always the risk of the fire-bolt. The school authorities had taken the measure of keeping the classroom atmosphere as moist as possible. This not only dampened the natural ardour of the Dragon, who like all his kind thrived in dry, hot conditions, but moderated the effect of any blaze that might break out.
It might seem bizarre and malign of the Headmaster to tolerate such a dangerous master. But he was proud to have a Dragon as a teacher, children were plentiful, and Mathematics teachers were scarce. It had been the Headmaster’s idea to install the burnt relics of a victim by the classroom door, to encourage the rest. The Dragon felt secretly ashamed to confront daily the evidence of his impulsiveness, but relished the ease it gave to his maintenance of discipline. He had vowed never to roast another schoolboy again. But who could be sure where a Dragon was concerned?
His second weakness was growing all the time: he had a passion for Irish whiskey which he had kept, until recently, for the evening hours after marking homework. But now he was having a jolt first thing in the morning, to face the rigours of the day. To disguise the whiff of his indulgence he resorted to strong mints. But he needn’t have bothered, since the predominant smell of a Dragon is, and always will be, sulphurous.
He realised his dependence on the “Water of Life” was endangering his career when he flung a piece of chalk at Spadgeling, and it missed! The vile look of glee on the urchin’s face had almost caused him to spit fire. He decided to consult the Headmaster after the day’s lessons.
The Headmaster’s study was suffused with brown furniture. Even the carpet and the wallpaper were brown. The books on the shelf had ochre bindings. The ornaments on the mantelpiece were miniature wooden statues of famous executioners, including the present one, a hunchback called Aloysius Heaven. The disappointing odour of mildew hung heavy in the air. The Dragon stood uncertainly in front of the mahogany desk.
“Sit down, my boy, sit down.”
The Dragon sat down on the floor, curled up his tail and gazed at the open fire for the relief it offered from the uniformity of colour in the room.
The Headmaster was a wizened rogue who had gained his post by the assassination of his predecessor. (He had suborned two former pupils with grudges to ambush the poor man on his way home.) His clothes were always slightly too big for him, as though he had borrowed them. His most remarkable characteristic was the singular length of his nails. The longest of them all, that belonging to the right index finger, was fully three inches long. This demonstrated to everyone that he did no manual work, not even writing. He had a secretary to whom he dictated his letters and a valet who dressed him.
“Now what’s it all about, eh? Why have you come to see me?”
The Dragon was reluctant to confess; the more so because his opinion of the Head had been declining ever since he had known him.
“Come, come. There’s an execution at six o’clock in the town square and I’ll not miss it on account of a bashful saurian.”
“Well, I’ve become too fond of whiskey. I believe it’s affecting my ability to teach.”
The Headmaster burst out laughing. The nail on his left little finger broke as he clutched the arms of his walnut chair in an effort to brace his shuddering body. This mishap halted the mirth. He looked intently at his employee.
“Nonsense, my boy! An alcoholic habit can be sustained for years without affecting the capacity for work. I’d far rather you were addicted to whiskey than something like fly agaric or Jupiter’s bean. Now go away and let me prepare for the evening’s entertainment.”
But the Dragon was a conscientious soul and would not be sopped by the lazy administrator. After a minute of argument, the Headmaster, conscious of passing time, exclaimed:
“Very well, I order you to visit the Leech.”
“But all he will do is bleed me! And anyway, his little bloodsuckers won’t have a chance with my thick hide.”
“No, my dear boy, he will cast a spell on receipt of the necessary chit. My secretary will furnish you with one tomorrow morning. Now, Good Evening to you!”
The Dragon went home and had an extra measure of whiskey, being confident of the Leech’s ability to cure his ailment. Then he had another one.
After school on the next day, before dark had reached the door, the Dragon set off for the high street, where the Leech lived. The school was on the outskirts, so he had a walk of about a mile through the slowly increasing density of buildings. It was unusual to see a Dragon in an urban setting, for they were mostly to be found in the remoter parts of the countryside. But this one had become familiar to the townsfolk, with his tweed jacket and Phrygian cap; so he passed unnoticed.
The house of the Leech lay just off the town square, so the Dragon was obliged to cross it. He fastidiously avoided the stains of blood on the cobbles: they could be from yesterday’s execution or one long past: it was impossible to tell. He idly wondered if a Dragon had ever been executed. He was inclined to doubt it. The risk to the general public, never mind the executioner, would be too great. He would ask the Headmaster at some point.
He turned into the street of the Leech. Being one of the oldest streets in the town, the dwellings on either side leaned towards each other, so that the upper storey windows were mere inches apart. People could look into each other’s business in intimate detail. This often led to fights in the street below. Suddenly, a shout of “Gardez loo” came and the Dragon instinctively swerved to the side to avoid the mixture of dung and urine that came hurtling from a chamber-pot emptied from an upstairs window.
He came to the green door of the Leech’s house. It had a sprig of mistletoe upon it. This cheered him up: he felt a kinship for the plant that was neither of the sky nor the earth. He rapped with the knuckles of his left claw. A shabby old man who smelt badly answered the door:
“Is the Leech at home?”
“I am the Leech.” Bits of food flew from his mouth into the Dragon’s face.
The Dragon, embarrassed and disgusted, entered the parlour, which opened immediately from the street door. He could see the beginnings of a meal on the table.
“I’m sorry to have interrupted your meal.”
“Never mind, what’s your business? Bleeding or Magic?”
“I want a spell cast.”
“Do you have a chit?”
The Dragon fumbled in his jacket pocket, brought out the chit and handed it over. The Leech scrutinised it for a while. Then he went out of the room and came back wearing spectacles. He looked at the chit again and the lines of his face relaxed.
“So what do you want done?”
“I want to be cured of my liking for whiskey.”
“That’s easy. Just a moment.”
The Leech went out of the room again and returned wearing a black cloak and a black felt hat with a wide brim. Then he swished up and down in front of the shelves of books arrayed against the back wall of the room. After examining and replacing several volumes, he found one that satisfied. It was placed on the table for reference.
“Now close your eyes,” he told the Dragon.
The Dragon did so and then felt a fist biff him on the right side of the jaw. He opened his eyes.
“Keep them shut!”
He closed his eyes again. He felt a kick in his belly and heard the Leech laughing.
“Now open them. It’s done.”
“I don’t feel any different.”
“You won’t for at least an hour. Now go home.”
The baffled Dragon went home. Later that evening, he poured himself a stiff drink and halfway through drinking it, he roared in anger and burnt the sideboard. The Leech had fooled him.
His mind began to run on all the dire things he would do to the Leech when he saw him again. He sought out the unused lyre that a doting aunt had given on his eighteenth birthday and began to improvise a dirge of retribution. To his amazement, he found he was singing in tune. This was something unheard of in a numerate Dragon. Much later, he went to bed, having filled a note-book with lyrics and their accompanying chords.
The next day after school, he went to the Leech’s dwelling. This time the door was answered by a neat and tidy man who smelt of soap. The Leech was out of town on urgent business. The dapper man did not know when he would return. The Dragon cursed and went home to write more songs. This time the theme was disappointment.
Over the next week, the Dragon kept composing. He tried singing his current favourite to the Rhetoric teacher in the staff room:
“O whither is the dark lady of last summer gone?
Has she no regard for her pining one?”
“That is sublime stuff. Stuff of the angels,” said the other, and hurried out to his next lesson.
This put the Dragon off. He sang nothing that evening and read the town newspaper instead. There he saw an announcement that blew hope back into his scales. There was to be a night of non-lethal entertainment at the Town Square on the coming Saturday. At the end of the professional proceedings, opportunity would be given to anyone willing to brave the mob. This would be his chance. He began to write a lyric with the event in mind. He found that the more he drank, the better the words and tune became.
On the night of the extravaganza the Dragon stood at the back of the crowd in a state of tension. The people around him found it hard to concentrate on the performers because of the steam that kept issuing from his nostrils. The Dragon paid no attention to the dwarf juggler who kept five thumbscrews in the air at once. Nor did he relish the troubadour in purple hosiery who sang of his love for a lady locked in a castle. The tumblers were as nothing to him: he could only think of his approaching destiny. For his talent would overpower the multitude: he could visualise it.
Finally the tiresome preamble of the accomplished performers was over. The Mayor staggered to the middle. He wobbled and burped as the noise of the audience washed over him.
“Now citizens, is there any among you willing to delight us further?”
“Let me be the first,” called the Dragon in a mighty bellow that trod down the other claimants.
A path cleared for the determined beast. He stood in the centre of the open space with the expectant crowd all around him. He strummed the opening notes on his lyre and began:
“All things have their invisible assets in attendance
Only to be glimpsed by the one whose eyes are bright”
The crowd were stunned by fear and dejection. Nobody wanted to listen to the drivel, but no one wished to be the first to jeer: for he or she would surely be consumed by a fireball. Fortunately, Spadgeling was in the second row of the crowd and knew he was inconspicuous owing to his small size. He picked up a handful of horse manure and flung it over the shoulder of the blacksmith’s pretty daughter. It hit the strings of the lyre and fragmented into an excremental shower that coated the Dragon in little patches of brown.
This caused a spark of laughter that soon became a blaze of merriment. The Dragon flapped his wings in an access of fury, but held back his flame. He strode away in humiliation. When he got home, he had his man-servant heat up lots of water so that he could use his deluxe hip-bath in front of the open fire. Spadgeling made an entry in his diary:
“A good day for the avenger Spadgeling! Hit old Stink-Breath with a gobbet of dung when he was caterwauling in the square. He has no idea who did it. Satisfactory progress.”
Now, the Mayor’s daughter had been at the very front of the crowd and had not laughed at the noble Dragon at all. She had just finished an unsatisfactory fling with the corn chandler’s son and was looking for someone with a bit of fire in his belly. Like many worthwhile women, she was overly impressed by enthusiasm, even where it supported incompetence. She knew that the Dragon was the next one for her. She had a letter delivered by hand to the Dragon’s residence. It invited him to a tryst in the meadow by the water-mill. The Dragon sent back his acceptance using the treacherous Spadgeling as his emissary. Then he had another bath.
On the day of the rendezvous, while the Dragon and his new love were idling on the mossy green grass, Spadgeling was watching from a nearby oak tree with a twisted grin. This was his chance to gain revenge for his brother and all those hours of misery in the dank classroom.
He slipped down the back of the tree and sneaked towards the gate that would let Farmer Robinson’s bull into the meadow. Had the malevolent schoolboy only known, he had no need to be so surreptitious in his movements; for the happy couple were oblivious to the outside world. Having opened the gate, he jeered under his breath at the bull, but the creature was torpid from the afternoon sun and not inclined to move.
So Spadgeling got out his catapult and fired. By a miracle that he never forgot, he scored a lucky strike on the animal’s testicles. The enraged beast came charging through the opened gate. Spadgeling nipped up the tree again and the frustrated bull made do with charging at the only red object it could see.
The Dragon’s first intimation of the bull’s presence was a startled look in his beloved eyes. Then she started screaming. He knew something was up. He turned around to see the bull nearly upon him. In fright more than anger, he projected a massive tube of flame at the bull. This incinerated the poor mammal, but the conservation of its momentum meant that its carcase collided with the Dragon’s bulk.
The Dragon had all the wind knocked out of him. He spent a minute alternately gasping for breath and howling with pain. His love emerged sopping wet onto the riverbank, having jumped in the water as a precaution. The farmer made the best of the tragedy and roast beef was served for his family’s evening meal. The diligent boy made another entry in his diary:
“A notable day for Spadgeling the nemesis. I set the farmer’s bull onto old Stink-Breath. And to do it I scored the best shot ever with my catapult – right on the bull’s particulars. Bull died, but Dragon survived. Can do better.”
The couple recovered from this peculiar start to their romance. The Dragon, being in love, became extraordinarily mellow. The Leech with uncanny timing showed up at the Dragon’s residence. He apologised and explained that he had cast the wrong spell. He should really have punched the Dragon on both sides of the jaw, instead of just the right. The Dragon laughed indulgently and said:
“Never mind, never mind. You have given me a great ability with the lyre. Would you like to hear some of my ballads?”
The Leech detected an edge to the Dragon’s voice that made him assent against his will. He got away after an hour by pleading a call of nature. Once in the privy, he thought desperately and remembered the counter spell. Coming back out to face the Dragon who was still lustily singing, he did a manic caper, clicking his heels together while snapping his fingers. The Dragon stopped in mid verse. He looked around as if he had just woken up, saw the Leech and being a polite host said:
“Would you like a drink?”
The Leech smiled the smile of a very relieved man.
The Mayor disapproved of the affair between his daughter and the Dragon; but did not act immediately because all Dragons are tough customers. After an anguished month, he appointed two ruffians to assault the Dragon on his way back from The Little Gem, a pleasant Inn which he often patronised. They were the same louts whom the Headmaster had used to eliminate his rival.
They remembered the torment of the Dragon’s lessons and were ready to do the deed without payment. With spears and buckets of water, they lay in wait around ten o’ clock along the alley that Dragon would use to return home. There was no street lighting, so they had to keep whispering to reassure themselves of the other’s presence.
Unfortunately, this gave away their position to an opportunistic gang looking for bodies for dissection by the local Physician. So while these two former pupils had never shown any academic leanings, yet they made their own small contributions to the advance of Medical Science.
The Dragon came to suspect the Mayor had designs on his life and decided to thwart them by becoming his son-in-law. So the Dragon and the Mayor’s daughter were married in secret by a renegade priest.
Their honeymoon was to be spent in a secluded cottage on a sheltered hillside. Unfortunately for them, the dogged Spadgeling had trailed them from the moment they had left the town. He climbed up onto the thatched roof and cut his way through till he had made a small opening. The couple were too busy to hear the noise of his entry. He took a small tin out of his pocket. He opened it and shook the contents onto the bed below. The fleas began biting as soon as they contacted the bare flesh on the bed. The Dragon’s scaly hide protected him from the bites, but his lady-love leapt from the bed and rushed around aimlessly, screaming at the top of her voice.
“What’s the matter, my love?”
“What’s the matter? You stupid red clumsy oaf! I’m being bitten all over by fleas. They must come from you.”
“No, no, my sweet. Dragons don’t have fleas. Our scales are impassable for the noxious brutes.”
At this point, Spadgeling, who had been laughing uncontrollably, fell through the roof onto the floor of the cottage. The naked lady shrieked and the Dragon roared.
When the pupils trooped in for the Dragon’s first lesson after his honeymoon, they noticed an additional charred corpse by the doorway. They looked among themselves and realised Spadgeling was missing. Then they realised that, in a way, he wasn’t missing after all. It must be left to me to compose the final entry for his diary:
“A bad day for the lamented Spadgeling. Got scorched by old Stink-Breath after dropping fleas on him and his missus. Worked well on occasion, but fell away at the end.”
A surprising while ago, John Lewis gave up a job as a software engineer to try his hand at getting up late and writing stories. He lives in Merseyside, England. His writing has appeared online in Inkburns.
Published by permission of the author.