Birdcage

[I wrote this story in the mid-1990s, for a workshop run by the late, great Aonghas MacNeacail when he was Writer in Residence at the University of Glasgow. It shows its age in the colour of the buses; in Glasgow now they are no longer orange. In the alternative Glasgow of this story, of course, they may still be.]

The central station of this northern city is built to resemble a harbour. The trains dock at the platforms like huge sea-monsters, gleaming fishes and breaching whales, electric eels and diesel-driven walruses which balefully study the land with great glass eyes. The concourse is awash with passengers who eddy here and there in brightly-coloured schools drawn back and forth by the immeasurable tides. On either side of the concourse ticket offices, supermarket outlets and coffee shops are housed in wooden buildings whose elegantly curved facades mimic the flanks of nineteenth-century merchant vessels riding at anchor. In the old days the shed was filled with the fog of steam, but now the air in the station seems crystal clear, like the air of the city it serves, and the stationary ships at the station are the only ships you’ll see apart from the hulks on the river which have been turned into casinos, restaurants and wedding venues.

The young man who sat on a suitcase in the middle of the concourse sighed and screwed up the paper he had been writing on. ‘Too fussy,’ he muttered. ‘There must be a way of catching a city in words that doesn’t involved turning it into the scenario for a second rate musical.’ He pocketed his notebook, picked up his suitcase and wandered out into the rain. This is why he failed to see the Flying Pict pull in at Platform One and a man get out carrying the future of the city in a violin case made of scratched black leather.

The tall thin man stood still for a moment on the platform. He was so tall and thin that the passers-by, who were mostly short, darted furtive glances at him as they hurried towards the concourse. His head was remarkable: flattened on top with a crest of black hair which spread out behind in a spiky ruff. He peered about with quick jerky movements as if he were spearing the air with his pointed nose. When he began to stalk after the other passengers dust rose from his shabby black coat and with every step his trouser-cuffs lifted to expose a length of yellow sock. The roof of the shed seemed to fascinate him. This was noticeable because to look at it he had to tilt his head sideways, as if his eyes weren’t mobile enough in their sockets to look upwards without assistance from his crane-like neck. His inspection of the roof had an odd effect on the passers-by. An urge to look up likewise possessed the people closest to the stranger, spreading outwards from them to their more distant neighbours like ripples on water. Some resisted the urge by setting their jaws and hurrying on, determined not to be tricked into showing interest. Others gave way to the impulse and raised their eyes. Each of these saw something different: a cage of girders, a metal cobweb, a harbourful of tilted glass sails. The ones who looked up collided with the ones who didn’t, muttered apologies and hurried on, looking foolish. One young woman bumped into the stranger himself. For an instant her gaze was filled with bright black eyes, a pointed nose, a crest of spiky hair. In that instant she noticed that his skin was raw and yellow as if it had been freshly plucked. The stranger said in a harsh voice, ‘I peck your pardon,’ but the woman only squawked and ran. She never travelled by train, had only taken the short cut through the station to escape the rain, and swore to herself she wouldn’t take it again if she could help it. You never knew what queer birds you might meet on the concourse.

Towards the station entrance stands a defused brass shell of the kind fired from naval guns in the Second World War. The rows of names on a brass plaque behind it betrays its function as a war memorial, but it also functions as a useful meeting place, an island amid the eddying crowds, and two men stood by it now with the bored but watchful expressions of professional loiterers. They both wore mackintoshes and unlit cigarettes hung from their long lean jaws. When they noticed the disturbance caused by the stranger they swung their heads in his direction and drawled to each other out of the corners of their mouths.

‘Would you look at that, Jeek. Walking this way, bold as brass. Must be – what, seven, eight feet tall?’

The younger man surreptitiously lifted his sleeve to look at a note he had written in biro on his forearm. ‘Black hair, yellow skin, dressed in black, carrying a bag. Fits the description, Bill.’

‘Jeek,’ said the older man, who was balding and wore his hair cropped short so the baldness wouldn’t show. ‘Jeek, you’re thinking again. Leave the thinking to me. Of course he fits the description. That’s because he’s the fella we’re here to meet.’

Jeek turned up the collar on his mackintosh to show that thinking was the very last thing on his mind. ‘What do we do, then, Bill? Do we grab him now?’

‘Jeek,’ said the older man with weary patience, ‘when I want your suggestions I’ll ask for them. Look around you, Jeek. What do you see?’

Jeek took the cigarette from his mouth and stared around him, trying to look haughty but succeeding only in looking haunted. ‘Eh – nothing, Bill. Nothing much, that is.’

‘People, Jeek,’ said the older man. ‘The place is full of people. We cannae grab him here, can we?’

‘Do we – do we follow him then, Bill?’ Jeek asked hopefully.

‘No, Jeek. I’ll follow him. You follow me. And try not to look so much like a fucking bent copper.’

At this point the stranger stalked past them and nodded amicably. ‘Coot evenink,’ he said, and continued his inspection of the roof. The two men froze into parodic statues of nonchalance, Bill suddenly absorbed in examining his jaw in the polished surface of the naval shell, Jeek thrusting his hands into his mackintosh pockets and growling like a dog. As soon as the stranger had passed they sprang into action. With hurried glances to left and right, as if calling the world to witness their anonymity, they trotted after their quarry. In his haste Jeek barged against an old woman who had come to look at the shell, as was her custom, and reminisce loudly about the war to anyone who cared to listen. ‘Well really,’ she shrilled after him. ‘There’s no respect among young people these days. Nobody behaved like that in the war, let me tell you. Manners counted for something then.’

By this time the stranger had stepped out into the porch of the station and was cocking one bright black eye at the ornate metalwork that framed the roof that guarded the station entrance from the elements. ‘Splen-tit,’ he cried, and plunged between two black taxis that had just roared into life at the taxi rank.

‘He’s headed up Slope Street,’ Bill bayed to Jeek as they narrowly avoided having their shins broken by one of the taxis. ‘Jesus he’s fast.’

And so began a game of tag up and down the streets of the northern city: an ungainly dance whose only rules were that the three dancers must avoid contact with each other at all costs. Either the stranger knew the streets like a native and was trying to shake off his pursuers, or else he was merely insane and his pirouettes and gyrations were the random products of a tortured brain. A little way up Slope Street he spun and seemed to be staring in ecstasy at a spot just above his mackintoshed followers’ heads. ‘Preathtakink,’ he trilled, and glancing round Bill saw that he was gazing at the massive corner tower of the Central Hotel, a mock-medieval chateau which dominated the north-west face of the station. Having vented his admiration, the stranger whipped round again and swooped up the incline of Slope Street, only to fling himself into the path of an orange bus a few blocks further on. The bus let out a screech of indignation and Bill gave a startled bark.

‘He’s nuts, I tell you! Where’s he headed now?’

The two men splashed impatiently in the gutter, looking for an opening in the traffic. When they finally stumbled into St Vitus Street they found the stranger performing a jerky triumphal jig in front of the building known as the Birdcage: a tall art-nouveau structure with many curved, barred windows that stoops over St Vitus Street as if it is melting. ‘Vot light! Vot crace!’ called the stranger to a group of little boys who had stopped under some scaffolding for a smoke. Then he was off again, waving one ungainly arm at the monolithic façade of a bank which looked as if it was aspiring to become the base of a Chicago skyscraper. ‘It traws your eye to the sky, sir, tuss it not?’ he cawed to an elderly tramp, who snarled in an unexpectedly pompous voice, ‘Go away! I don’t have any change!’ But by the time the tramp had shaken his torn umbrella at the stranger’s back, and almost been carried off into the sky himself by a sudden gust of rain-sodden wind, the tall thin man was already hopping down Renfield Street and pointing at the Casa di Vetro, which now houses a supermarket. It is modelled on a Venetian palazzo, but its slender columns, high arched bays and ornately decorated eaves are made of cast iron, a graceful marriage of Victorian engineering and Mediterranean exuberance, as the stranger did not fail to inform a woman who was pushing a shopping trolley towards the doorway on Eireachdail Street where she would spend the night.

The stranger stared for several minutes at the way the reflective windows of the Casa di Vitro mirrored the upper storeys of the neo-Gothic buildings that faced it and the racing clouds above their steeply-pitched roofs. Jeek and Bill were able to catch their breath, which was short and noisy from all the cigarettes their professional loitering forced them to consume. They noticed that when the stranger was still he was unnervingly immobile, as if his internal organs had ceased to move along with his limbs. They found themselves mesmerised by this stillness, so that when he suddenly sprang to life again and galloped eastwards towards Maskull Street it took them several seconds to react. Bill cursed as he set off after him. ‘If he’d packed a piece,’ he gasped to no one in particular, ‘and if he’d wanted to, he could have picked us off like bunny rabbits.’ The scenarios that presented themselves to Bill’s imagination were invariably savage.

They caught up with him on Maskull Street, craning his neck to get a better view of the pagoda-like structure that balanced on the highest point of the former office of a city newspaper. ‘Zere is another city, my frients,’ the stranger was explaining to a startled woman dressed in what looked like a lampshade, ‘up zere, apove your hets.’ The woman staggered off on high heels towards the relative safety of Argle street, with its crowds of shoppers, and for the first time Bill and Jeek found themselves alone in the street with the stranger. Maskull Street narrowed at this end to a kind of funnel, and just before it began to narrow, there was an opening on the left that led to an unlit cobbled alley. ‘We’ve got him now,’ Bill hissed to Jeek. ‘You take the right arm, I’ll take the left. We’ll have a nice chat with our long-legged chum in this wee side-street.’ With intense concentration the two men advanced on the exultant stranger from either side, their jaws thrust forward, their ears laid back. Bill was clenching and unclenching his gloved hands, which were as thick and clumsy as the paws of a bear. He had a mad gleam in his eye, and Jeek knew that this was one of the rare moments he had been living for through all those months – maybe years – of loitering. But before they could reach out to grasp the stranger’s elbows, the stranger took a long step backwards and wrapped his long, skinny arms around their shoulders, pinning them to his chest in a grip of impossible and terrible power.

Jeek found his nose pressed up against the stranger’s shabby coat. His nostrils were filled with a rank smell that reminded him of the time when his mother had made him pluck a well-hung pheasant on the kitchen table. His eyes filled with tears and he began to choke.

‘My frients,’ the stranger whispered in an intimate croak. ‘I luff ziss city already. I vill make it my home. Putt I vill need somevhere to liff. Somevhere high up, viz pig vindows and a coot few. Do you haff any suchestions?’

Jeek thought he was going to suffocate, and the pressure on his shoulders made his bones creak. He began to struggle and strike feebly at the stranger’s side. He could hear Bill struggling more violently somewhere close by. Fear seized him: this was a monster, only a fiend in human form could have such dreadful strength. With a sudden wrench he freed himself from the stranger’s embrace and stumbled aside. At the same time Bill broke loose, letting out a volley of colourful curses. He was fumbling for something under his mackintosh; his face was purple. The stranger paid no attention. He merely spread wide his arms, with the violin case dangling from one hand, and proceeded to leap and twirl like an ungainly ballerina.

‘You see, I haff such plans,’ he crowed. ‘Such clorious plans. Ziss place iss ripe for transformation. For example, ziss old puilding,’ and he struck the wall of the abandoned office. ‘It iss empty! It shoult be full off life ant noise! Consider ze soarink imachination that coult conceive off such a puilding, that coult erect it stone by stone ant top it off viz a pacoda, yes a pacoda so high up, so far from ze dirt ant sqvallor of ze street! It is ass if ze architect so long ago foresaw my arrifal ant ze gifts I voult pring! I vill make zis city great, I tell you. Greater zan it hass effer been!’

‘For God’s sake, no!’ howled Jeek, and it was not clear even to him whether he was shouting at the stranger or at Bill, who had pulled out something black and gleaming and was pointing it with trembling hands at the stranger’s head. Curses continued to stream out of Bill’s mouth like brightly-coloured ribbons. ‘Bill, Bill!’ wailed Jeek. ‘Don’t do it, man! Ye’re mad!’

‘Did I ask for your opinion, Jeek?’ Bill shouted back. ‘Can’t ye see he’s tanked up to the eyeballs wi some kind of junk the likes of which we’ve never seen? What do you think he’s got in that bag of his? He’ll make this city great, all right; but not before I’ve plastered his brains all over it.’ As he spoke he shifted his eyes momentarily from the stranger, the better to fix his young accomplice with a withering stare. In that instant the two men found themselves alone in Maskull Street. ‘You stupid ape!’ roared Bill. ‘You let him escape again!’

Before Jeek could answer back, Bill had rushed down the funnel into the buzz of Argle Street. Jeek followed more slowly, shaken by his recent ordeal and hampered by the weight of the rain that had soaked his mackintosh. He stopped at the mouth of Maskull Street, looking into the busy thoroughfare, and watched in horror as several things happened in quick succession.

The stranger was bounding down the middle of Argle Street, dodging the traffic with nonchalant ease. His black coat flapped behind him, his violin case swung wildly from his right hand, and his yellow socks flashed at the throngs of astonished shoppers who had stopped to stare as he bounded by. The oddest thing about him was that his enormous feet never touched the ground; they kicked and thrust at the empty air two or three centimetres above the gleaming tarmac. After him ran Bill, with heavy thumping strides, his shoulders hunched, right arm extended, right hand clutching the gun. Bill’s arm jerked, there was an explosion, and the stranger gave a mighty leap that carried him high over the wet black roof of a passing taxi.

A second later Jeek heard the obscene and unmistakable crunch that a heavy vehicle makes when it hits a man.

His first thought was that the stranger’s leap had carried him into the taxi’s path, but an orange bus obscured his view and he couldn’t tell. Shoppers began to scream in an almost matter-of-fact fashion, as if it was their duty as honest citizens, and the screams were taken up by other shoppers closer to Jeek who had no more idea than he did of what had just happened. He saw a man and woman look at each other inquiringly, pucker up their foreheads and start to scream with the perfect timing of opera singers. Jeek hurried along the pavement to where the screams were loudest, and saw that another orange bus had come to a standstill and that shoppers were now converging on it, again with an oddly businesslike air. A pair of scuffed black cowboy boots stuck out from under the bus. They belonged to Bill.

Something shiny lay in the gutter. Jeek picked it up. It was a life-size replica of a colt revolver, of the kind that Gary Cooper carried in ‘High Noon’. The stink of gunpowder still hung about the hammer: Bill had adapted the replica to fire blanks. Weighing the toy gun in his hand Jeek looked up and down the street. The stranger had disappeared: vanished into thin air. The young man had a fleeting vision of those nightmarishly thin and powerful limbs dwindling down to the width of a line drawn in ink on paper, then winking out altogether, leaving only a shadow behind. The rain plastered his hair over his eyes and dripped off the barrel of the revolver. Shoppers had begun to stare and point at him; those closest to him backed away, their mouths shaping little black O’s in their white faces. Men and women in official black with chequered hatbands forged their way towards him from left and right.

‘I saw him, officer,’ called a fat man in a yellow plastic anorak. ‘He gunned him down like an animal.’

Jeek contemplated brandishing the gun and making his escape after firing off a few rounds into the air; but that was exactly what Bill would have done. Suddenly the city felt heavy with menace. The dark clouds scudding overhead, the darkening concrete and stone of the sodden buildings, the merciless rain, the glare of headlamps which turned the raindrops into tiny flashing knives, the black of the tarmac that glistened like an underground river: the street had become a trap into which the dancing stranger had led them. Jeek dropped the revolver, lifted his face to the rain and began to howl.

‘Something about the devil coming to town,’ the fat man confided later to an anaemic policewoman. ‘Turned my blood to ice, I can tell you. Sounded just like a sad lost dog. I swear I won’t sleep a wink tonight.’

The policewoman wrote down his words very carefully in her notebook. Normally she would have taken little trouble to record such nonsense; but as she had pushed through the crowd towards the young gunman she too had seen and heard something remarkable. Perhaps it was merely some trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by the rain and the passing headlights; but she could swear she had seen over the young man’s head a dense black cloud in the shape of a bird, bigger than any she’d ever seen, maybe five or six metres from wingtip to wingtip; and before it vanished she could have sworn she had heard it laugh.

*****

The stranger stood in the topmost window of the Birdsnest. The window was curved like a Halloween lantern, and when it opened, the curve of the frame and the curves of the panes made the shape of a bird in flight. Dark shapes and lights mingled and moved on the streets below, which looked more than ever like rivers in motion as the rainwater splashed and spread across their smooth black surfaces.

When the stranger raised his eyes he met the eyes of an almost naked statue on the building opposite, the statue of a man who stooped beneath the weight of a sandstone portico incongruously perched on an upper storey far above any door it might have embellished – yet another of the pointless decorative features that encrusted the higher levels of buildings in this once prosperous city. The stone man glowered balefully at the stranger as if humiliated by the attention he was receiving. Leave me alone, his glower implied. I prefer to work unseen, as I always have.

The stranger nodded as if in agreement, turned his back on the street and went into the room. It was bare of furnishings. The Birdcage had stood for years now with advertising hoardings plastered all over it, urging passers-by to rent office space in its oddly shaped apartments, but nobody had accepted its invitations. Not, at least, till now. With a smooth single movement the stranger stalked to the middle of the room, knelt down on the wooden boards by his violin case and reached for the buckles with his long thin hands. The case sprang open. Inside, neatly packed in straw, lay six large eggs, glowing a mottled pale blue in the light of the streetlamps. The markings on the eggs made them look like pebbles from some distant beach, smoothed by tides for countless millennia. For the stranger they seemed to tremble with possibility.

‘Fery soon now, my little treshurs,’ the stranger murmured, smoothing their surfaces each in turn with feather-light fingers. ‘Fery soon you vill choin me in ziss place of empty nests. Togezzer ve vill fill zem, yes? And zen… and zen…’

Outside, the stone man continued to glower across the street at the open window, his shoulders bowed under the weight of the useless portico. It would be wrong to describe his work as loitering, but it was clear from his every curve that he had been doing it for many years. His glower had a world-weary look, as of one who refuses to be surprised by strangers no matter how tall, no matter how eccentric their movements, no matter how grandiose their plans. He would be watching, it seemed to say, till the moment came when he must spring into action.

It was hard to gauge what kind of action he had in mind.

 

The Face of the Deep

On the last day in May, when the sky is at its deepest blue at eight in the evening, when the yellow of the Oxford walls seems to shimmer where it is washed by the rays of the sinking sun, shadows float across the lawns, and windows flash like the revolving facets of some intellectual gem stirred by the currents of the mind – on the last day in May a sharp-sighted undergraduate noticed a tiny speck of scarlet in the zenith, directly over the pond in the centre of the Great Quad of Cardinal College.

A person who stares intently at a fixed point in the limitless expanse of the heavens quickly draws attention from passers by. A crowd soon gathered to watch the mote expand and flicker. It was a sultry day in the middle of examination season, and many were draped in academic robes: black, scarlet-and-blue, white-furred, ornately gilded, green with moss. The evening was a warm one, but only the boldest or meekest members of the congregation had chosen to remove their gowns and display themselves in the blinding whiteness of their rumpled shirtsleeves.

‘I expect it’s a meteor,’ observed a complacent astronomer.

‘Several thousand metres, I should say,’ corrected a deaf mathematician.

‘The Bomb has come,’ suggested a don wearing a dress which she had clearly put on back to front. ‘We shall have to postpone the guest dinner.’

Their curiosity was not intense. The day had been a dreamy one, undistinguished by powerful thoughts or high emotions. Punts had glided between willows to the accompaniment of guitars and sudden splashes. Those whom the gods had blessed with good looks or middle-aged shamelessness displayed their bodies in various shades of undress on the sun-soaked river margins. In the submarine coolness of the Examination Halls their less fortunate contemporaries sweated over theorems, theology and Thucydides, struggling not to be distracted by every scuffle, every cough, every rustle of the turning leaves of hidden dictionaries. These intellectual warriors watched the growing speck with comparative indifference. Their fingers were stained with the ink of immortal combat. After the battle of wits, when enough paper was used in a few hours to stock the College library twice over – an underwater forest of paper filled with parasitic scratchings, soon to be skimmed over by professors eager to return to their own scratchings, forests whose ultimate fate was to be pounded into pulp and recycled like the oceanic algae – after such titanic exertions a red ink-blot in the sky was of small importance in comparison with the red ink-blots that would pock the fateful leaves.

The sharp-sighted undergraduate who had first spotted the phenomenon moved to the edge of the small round pond and began to scatter breadcrumbs on the water, the remains of her dinner roll. The goldfish splashed and darted. A college porter – who wore a bowler hat to distinguish him from lesser employees of the college such as dons and principals – took the young woman gently by the arm and asked her to refrain, since the goldfish were well fed at regular intervals.

‘You see, miss,’ he explained, ‘if you feeds them a superfluity they swells and they swells till they is too monstrous uge for the pond. Then they thrashes their orrible tails and gnashes their orrible teeth and gobbles each other up, see, miss. Or else they bursts with an orrible pop and turns their poor stomachs to the sky, see, miss, God bless their tender arts.’

‘I have always understood,’ said the undergraduate, ‘that goldfish accommodated their growth to the limits of their environment. I mean, they grow no larger than their bowl or pond permits. I have heard, too, that they are sociable animals not in the least inclined to cannibalism; that they show signs of real affection to the human beings who feed them; and that they are capable of communicating with one another using an elaborate system based on touch and quasi-balletic choreography. Besides, they should be credited with an enviable philosophy; for what other creature would endure so narrow a confinement without chafing? A goldfish can live for forty years or more in a plain glass bowl with no other company than its meditations. Remarkable! Though as I said, the creatures are sociable, so it is kinder to give them friends in their enclosure.’

Here the don intervened, brushing past the porter with a flounce and drawing her doctoral gown more closely about her, as if to protect herself from the chill rising from the pond. ‘In the first place,’ she retorted, ‘there exist innumerable species which would as mindlessly submit to incarceration. And in the second, it is well known that the brain of the goldfish is so ineffectual that it forgets instantly each portion of the bowl as it swims by, so that in its imbecility each of those portions appears to be completely new terrain, and the universe it inhabits of a few fluid centilitres gives the impression of extending boundlessly in all directions. Impressive? Hardly.’

The undergraduate failed to wonder whether humankind might not suffer from the same delusion, because she was wondering instead how large a goldfish might grow given the bounds of the universe to swim about in. She therefore maintained a respectful silence as she returned her gaze to the meteor.

‘It’s getting larger,’ she pointed out.

‘How red it is!’ piped up a humble artist, much despised by his academic colleagues.

‘See where Christ’s blood streams from the what-do-you-call-it,’ recited an English Literature scholar, likewise snubbed.

‘It is an Unidentified Flying Object,’ declared a physicist, and adjusted his spectacles. At once everyone in the vicinity exclaimed ‘aha!’ as if they now knew exactly what the thing must be. Since it had grown in the last few seconds to the size of a cricket ball they could distinguish projections on either side like an aeroplane’s wings. It emitted the unrelenting bubbling noise of a proposition that refuses to be grasped. If the undergraduate squeezed her eyelids together slightly, applying pressure to her upraised eyeballs, she could even see what seemed to be bubbles emerging in a steady stream from a little hole in what she took to be the top.

For a while the full significance of the physicist’s pronouncement failed to sink in. But one whose brain was yet unclouded by toil or torpor, having spent the afternoon reading Archimedes in the bath, injected a sense of occasion by suddenly leaping onto the terrace that ran around the Great Quadrangle, pulling off his mortarboard and delivering the following oration in a tremulous but penetrating tenor voice.

‘OMG!’ he cried, ‘don’t you see what’s happening here? It’s a UFO! First Contact! The Arrival! From now on, humankind can no longer claim to be the sole intelligent life form in the universe! At last we are about to encounter our mental equals, our technological superiors if that UFO is anything to go by! The clash of two great minds on earth is witnessed with universal trepidation. How much more when race extends hand to race across the infinite reaches of the void? Gentlemen! Ladies! We must not let the college down!’

Roused by this exhortation the spectators raised their collective voice in a deafening babble of excitement. The don rushed off to fetch a deputation from the Senior Common Room, to greet their alien brethren with a suitable display of honorary degrees and peer-assessed publications. Graduates gathered together in a corner comparing notes on the languages and sign systems they could muster between them. Undergraduates scampered in and out of doors clutching cameras, bottles, musical instruments and little flags. The bustle was such as to bring many more undergraduates out into the sultry air, some clutching beer glasses, others binoculars, many with pens gripped between cramped fingers, several in dressing gowns having not yet risen with the setting sun. By the time the dons had assembled in gowns, hoods, mortar boards and white bow ties, the terrace that ran round the four walls of the quadrangle was packed with excited bodies. The grass by the pond lay empty, since that seemed the most likely spot for the spacecraft to land on.

‘I opes it don’t shrivel the grass with its orrible jets,’ commented the porter. ‘The staff only seeded it yesterday.’

At this moment a convoy of black limousines shot in through the front gate followed by a stream of military vehicles. The cavalcade screeched to a halt by the pond and emptied its occupants over the lawn. Camouflaged soldiers forced their way through the crowd towards staircase entrances and reappeared on the roof, waving automatic rifles and shouting into walkie talkies. Others positioned themselves in front of the throng to prevent it spilling into the arena. A corpulent figure squeezed itself out of one of the limousines and was recognised by a well-informed historian as the Secretary of State for Defence. An emotional don curtsied low to the ground. The artist struck up a rendition of ‘Land of my Fathers’ and was suppressed. All eyes strained upwards. All breaths were bated. All necks strained abominably. Heat throbbed over the compacted assembly.

‘I believe they think it’s going to land in the quad,’ whispered a geographer to her neighbour.

‘Do you think it’s dangerous?’ queried the English Literature scholar nervously.

‘I’m sure the Secretary of State for Defence wouldn’t be here if they thought so,’ answered a dubious politics graduate.

‘He’s an unpopular man,’ pronounced the Unclouded Brain. ‘Does anyone have a paper bag I could borrow?’

‘Hold onto your hats!’ cried a medical student. ‘Here it comes!’

With an insufferable roar the sky above the college rent asunder. The weltering heat became unbearable as the flames from the spacecraft’s rockets pierced the sultry air. The tips of the watchers’ hair was frazzled into tight, untidy knots, their breath whipped away, their robes, hoods, cuffs and tassels singed, windows blown in, flags set on fire, and the great red globe, the size of a hot air balloon, settled hugely down on the earth beside the pond, the tip of one wing compressing the roof of one of the cars.

Vapour eddied about its base, obscuring their vision. Everyone who possessed one raised a handkerchief to their eyes. The rest buried their streaming noses in a neighbour’s gown.  An aged professor sat down and called for smelling salts. Flocks of birds wheeled screaming across the sky, then swept away towards the distant ocean. Gradually silence settled once more, as each observer composed themselves to examine the vessel.

It was a winged sphere with a flattened top and three stumpy legs like those on a Victorian cast iron bathtub. Its diameter was about ten metres, its colour a reddish orange, its texture smooth. To one side and a little underneath there was a small round hatch or door. As they watched, this irised open. All was dark within. No ladder descended to the blackened grass. The Secretary of State for Defence cleared his throat and edged a little closer to the ship, a little further from the safety of the gate and the street beyond. A military man with a lot of medals bent over and whispered something supportive in his ear.

In every tale of visitants from outer space there comes a moment of tense expectancy, when the onlookers stand and gape like so many frogs, unable to guess what will issue from the hole in the side of the spacecraft. The vapours disperse, the cameras hover, the last rays of the setting sun shoot horizontally across the darkening heavens, whose fragile glass dome has been suddenly breached like the rim of a bowl sinking into the sea. Suddenly all eyes are turned outwards from the surface of the planet. Suddenly the stars seem instinct with potential.

Three quarters of an hour had elapsed since the speck was first sighted. Philosophers pondered the alien thought processes that might explain the vessel’s shape and colour. Engineers calculated the resistance it must have encountered as it breached earth’s atmosphere at various velocities. The college principal thought of press releases. The sharp-sighted undergraduate thought of eggs. At long last something stirred in the darkness behind the hatch and a being began to emerge.

It did not walk on legs, nor swing on arms, nor hover on pinions. It did not wriggle on its belly, stalk like a jackdaw, hop like a rabbit. It floated through the air as if it were swimming. The first thing to float out of the hatch was a see-through helmet, of the kind that is favoured by human cosmonauts. The head inside was flat on both sides, with a toothless mouth and bulging eyes. The creature’s body swam parallel to the ground, the size of a cow, the shape of a leaf. It had fins on either side like the ship that carried it, and a vertical tail that served as a basic rudder. Its flanks were protected by scales of reddish gold. Between its highly flexible forefins it grasped a second sphere, this time transparent with a hole on top.

This second sphere was large and no doubt slippery, but the creature’s forefins clung to the sides as if fastened to the surface with a strong adhesive. The Secretary of State for Defence stood staring at it with his mouth hanging open, overawed by the being’s dexterity. The military man gave him a none-too-gentle nudge. The Secretary gave a start, licked his lips once or twice, and declaimed in a high-pitched wail:

‘On – ah – on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty’s government I bid you welcome to the United Kingdom on – ah – Planet Earth!’ Here he paused to mop his brow with the air of one who has tried to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to a toddler who is eating a crunchy biscuit. He glanced round to seek help from the military man, but his former supporter was now crouching several metres away fingering the holster flap of his handgun and shouting into a walkie talkie. He clearly had his attention on other things. The Secretary sighed and cleared his throat again, wondering whether to continue.

The creature made no response. It was hovering under the spaceship, seemingly as uncertain about the next move as the Secretary. All at once it gave a flick of its tail and glided forwards towards the centre of the quadrangle. The Secretary backed away; the military man began shouting louder, though the instructions he was barking into the radio were either in code or symptomatic of a total loss of control over his tongue and larynx.

When it reached the pond the creature lowered its head and dipped its forequarters into the water, parting the lily pads. The action immersed the sphere it carried completely.

‘It’s drinking,’ conjectured a self-important zoologist.

‘We are but an oasis on some titanic voyage of discovery,’ murmured the English Literature scholar.

‘Fiddlesticks,’ snapped the Unclouded Brain. ‘What you see here is an act of self-abasement. This alien is obviously unintelligent, because it has shown not the slightest sign of curiosity, and curiosity is the first prerequisite of a rational life form. That and fear. This alien is either a remarkable bacterial growth which drifts through space, inside another growth shaped like a spaceship, as an amoeba drifts through a puddle. Or else it’s the equivalent of the dogs and monkeys which we humans sent into space in the experimental phase of extra-planetary travel, instead of hazarding one of our own superior species. Whichever it is, the creature is making a bow, having recognised the members of this college as its betters. How disappointing. I had hoped for a conversation worth recording.’

‘I suggest we catch it and perform a vivisection immediately,’ proposed the zoologist.

‘Everybody stand back!’ roared the military man with ribbons. ‘This could be an act of aggression. Any other suspicious movements and we’ll blast it into the stratosphere!’

At this the academics present fell silent, and gazed with renewed respect at the armoured flanks, impressed by the possibility that the creature might kill them. The soldiers shuffled their shiny boots and fumbled their gun stocks, impatient for action. Encouraged by the sound of boots on the ground behind him, the Secretary of State for Defence renewed his efforts at communication.

‘We are a peaceful nation,’ he asserted, running over in his mind the centuries of successful peacekeeping represented by the military man and his regiment. ‘If you surrender without resistance no harm will come to you or your vessel. We wish to establish friendly contact with other intelligent life forms across the universe. We are convinced that an exchange of knowledge will prove beneficial to both our species. If you understand me – ah – wag your tail.’

At this point the tail did wag, but for purely functional purposes. The creature slid backwards out of the pond and hovered with dripping helmet about three feet above the ground, still clutching the transparent sphere between its forefins. Inside the sphere the forms of goldfish could be discerned, hanging in the murky water.

At this the college porter took umbrage. His face went red, his bowler hat assumed a bullish stance on his lavishly-brylcreemed hair, and his eyebrows hid his eyes in a scowl that had been known to quell entire crews of muscular oarsmen. ‘Excuse me, sir or madam!’ he shouted. ‘Those are college property, those are! I’ll thank you to put them back in the college pond, you orrible thieving alibut, you!’

The halibut – if such it was – took no notice at all, but flicked its tail for a second time and shot over to the spaceship. The sudden movement startled the soldiers, so that six or seven of them emptied their guns at its vanishing hindquarters. The bullets bounced harmlessly off the hatch, which had irised shut behind the fish with astonishing speed. A zoologist, a physicist and a chemist began to struggle with the soldiers nearest them, the first to preserve the specimen intact, the second and third because they liked a bit of a scuffle. Within seconds the whole assembly was locked together in undignified combat, heaving, writhing, shrieking, biting and seething like a swarm of eels. Gowns were torn, hats hurled, books battered and knuckles rapped. In the meantime a gush of vapour obscured the base of the spherical spacecraft once again. Bullets burst on the reddish-orange carapace, their flashes combining with the flames that surged from hidden rockets underneath. The resultant reddish-orange glare cast enormous shadows on the walls of the quadrangle, transforming the ancient seat of learning into an apocalyptic vision. The grass caught fire and let off sparks, more windows blew in, a howling arose as of a million souls in torment, and the force of the blast as the ship took off knocked the furious company flat.

The sun had almost set. Only from the college bell tower – where the sharp-sighted undergraduate had taken refuge – could be seen a sliver of yellow, like the rim of a giant goldfish bowl disappearing beneath the waves of the distant ocean.

 

Two Poems: A Penny for your Thoughts

1.

The little man who sweeps the roads
Once dropped a penny down a grille.
At that appalling tragedy
He sat and wept, and sits there still

And rocks his body back and forth
While tears like small abandoned loads
Well out between his fingertips
And wash the litter off the roads.

2.

King Sam spent all his money in a vain attempt to wheedle
A dehydrated camel through the eyepiece of a needle.
Eventually, dying at the age of eighty-seven
In a poor but pious hermitage, the monarch went to heaven.

The Mountain Orchestra

When the villagers began the long toil up the mountainside they carried their houses on their backs like hermit crabs. Hampers, boxes, handbags, cupboards, tables and chairs seemed to have developed spindly legs and a taste for exercise, reeling along from bend to bend of the well-worn path as their owners struggled to outpace the bandits of Bist and Flumm, with their well-known thirst for gold and blood and delicate china. Half-way up the first steep slope the bandits caught them – as Granny Small had said they would – and at once the villagers let fall their burdens to protect their bodies. Chairs, kettles and mattresses rolled away down the spongy slope to fetch up against rocks or tumble into the burn. Soon the burn’s irregular staircase of ice-rimmed pools began to sprout long wavering strings of pale pink weed wherever the villagers’ blood spilled into it in rivulets and gobbets.

They had driven off the first attack and were about to retrieve their bundles when the old man called out: ‘Let them lie. It’s not often you get the excuse to throw out old rubbish. There’ll be better things on the other side of the mountain!’ So they left their kettles and mattresses littering the hillside, to act as an informal open-air reception room for sheep and wrens, and resumed their climb. But the little girl had already guessed that the old man had not been talking about pots and pans. In the attack he had received an ugly gash in the side from a bandit’s curtle-axe, and his feeble attempt to ward it off had resulted only in the smashing of the last of the Rebus violins. For a little while after that the old man had sat on a pile of sheep-droppings with blood and water soaking his trousers and let a tear roll down each cheek in tribute to the instrument. The little girl thought they must be carefully regulated tears, since he had always said you should allow two tears for every sad occasion: one for sorrow at your loss, the other for joy at the gift of life that allowed you to weep despite your losses.

He left the violin on the slope along with his favourite whisky glass – now smashed – and the mortal remains of Granny Small. The oldest woman in the village had died as she said she would, not of a curtle-axe wound but of a heart attack brought on by trying to brain a bandit with a lump of granite. For a long time as they climbed her thin shrill voice kept chattering on at them to hurry up; they were quite relieved when it died away, drifting off like a cricket’s chorus on a mountain breeze.

At one point the little girl and the old man took a rest on a tumbledown wall and looked back the way they had come. A feather of smoke unfurled from the village by the lake and the little girl fancied she could smell the scent of wood-ash on the wind. ‘Well, at least the houses are getting fumigated,’ the old man said; but the little girl was already shedding a good many more than the two small tears he recommended. They just kept welling out of her head like a burn from the side of a rain-drenched mountain. She finally stopped crying from sheer surprise that her head could be so full of water.

A little higher up they reached a stretch of level ground where the mountain path lost all definition in the sheep-cropped turf. At once the fog dropped down on them with what might have been a silent shout of laughter. Within seconds droplets formed in the girl’s brown hair and gleamed like eyes in the old man’s bristling eyebrows. Hills and mountain-ranges of fog rushed past at enormous speed, driven on by a wind that cut their flesh to the bone. The villagers forgot their fear that the bandits would follow them; instead they trembled because the ground beneath their feet was getting narrower, and the crags dropped into nothingness on either side. The wind tried to pluck them from the mountainside like an oystercatcher pecking at the shell of a stubborn mussel.

The little girl trembled with the rest but for a different reason. She was afraid of the Beast that lived among the mountains and left stories like bloody limbs littering the slopes for miles around. The old man patted her cheek and assured her that the Beast was far too large to bother with prey as insignificant as little girls. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘it’s fast asleep. Can’t you hear it snoring like the waves on a far-off shore?’ The little girl nodded but kept looking behind her uneasily. She could hear the waves on the shore whenever the wind dropped, but they sounded nothing at all like a monster snoring.

All the same, she was glad of the old man’s aimless prattle as he leaned on her shoulder. Although his weight was sometimes painful, she felt as though he were pulling her up the mountain instead of the other way round. ‘All my life I’ve wanted to visit these mountains,’ he panted. ‘It took an attack of bandits to get me up, and it’ll take a band of angels to get me down.’ By the time they reached the bottom of a slope of scree that swept up before them like a frozen wave into a foggy void, the rest of the villagers had disappeared. ‘You’re my guardian angel,’ the old man said, but it was he who pointed out where the little girl should set her feet. He seemed so sure of the way that it came as no surprise when they found themselves at the mouth of a cave, peering into the darkness to make sure there were no Beasts inside. At last they crawled through the narrow entrance, and at once the shriek of the wind dropped down to a whisper, as suddenly as if a door had shut behind them. From then on they only heard it from time to time, wailing disconsolately outside as if bereft of prey.

The cave seemed to run deep into the mountainside. At every movement echoes scuttled off and vanished into the stone entrails of the earth. But the roof was so low that the old man had crawled only a few yards before his head struck rock and he collapsed. He lay on his back as he had fallen, his head propped against the wall, his hands palm upwards by his sides. Every so often a breath escaped him in a little feather of smoke. The little girl curled up in the crook of his arm and busied herself with trying to forget about the Beast. Together they waited for night to enter the cave.

After a while the old man noticed that there was another old man lying beside him, whose breath likewise came in little feathers of smoke. He wore a tail-coat with fraying cuffs and a dirty white tie, and his face was as pale as his shirt-front except for a hint of yellow in the cheeks. The old man saw at once that the stranger was as sick as himself. He gave a chuckle at their shared predicament, then winced at the pain in his injured side.

‘We make a fine pair, I must say,’ he observed.

‘Eh?’ said the stranger, contorting his body to see who had spoken. ‘What’s that? Who’s there?’

‘Can’t you see me?’ asked the old man.

‘Indeed not,’ said the stranger. ‘You’re too strong, too alive. You’ll have to be a good deal closer to death’s door than that before I can see you.’

‘Is this better?’ asked the old man, moving a little closer to death’s door.

‘Yes, much,’ said the stranger, and twisted round to look at him closely. He had very bright eyes in deep sockets, as though he hadn’t eaten for a hundred and fifty-seven years and would stop at nothing for a scrap to feed on.

‘What’s that at your elbow, all wrapped up?’ he asked, nodding at the bundle.

‘It’s the ghost of my violin,’ replied the old man. ‘A genuine Rebus. I was clumsy enough to break it in a recent scuffle.’

‘That’s not all you broke, is it?’ the stranger said with a glance at the old man’s wound and a nasty grin. To his own surprise the old man felt insulted that such a sorry specimen should criticize the state of his body. It had served him for many years and he suddenly had a nostalgic affection for its failing organs. But before he could retort the stranger gave a sudden groan and started to writhe like an angry snake. It seemed he was trying to raise himself on one elbow.

‘So you’re a musician?’ the stranger gasped when at last he succeeded. ‘What a stroke of luck! I’ve been waiting for one of those for many years. You see, I too am a musician. My name is Colossus Retch. I expect you’ve heard of me.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Retch,’ said the old man. ‘We don’t hear much about modern music in the village by the lake. It’ll be different, I expect, when we reach the other side of the mountain.’

‘That’s DOCTOR Retch,’ the stranger snapped, ‘and my music is NOT modern.’

The old man didn’t hear him, because the little girl had sat up at the sound of voices and asked him who he was talking to. He said no-one and gave her a smile, which she put away at once and kept in a secret place for the rest of her life. She gave him a dazzling smile of her own in return, then took out an old linen handkerchief and started to wipe the blood from his forehead with gentle strokes.

The gentle movement drove everything else out of the old man’s mind. He had just managed to doze off when something buzzed in his ear and woke him up. It sounded like ‘A temporary pause’.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he murmured.

‘Nothing,’ said the little girl, still wiping.

‘I said, O tempora, O mors,’ the stranger said. He too had sat up and was looking much more sprightly. From nowhere he produced a large earthenware jug and poured himself a cup of something that emitted huge gushes of steam. A spicy fragrance filled the cave. Even the little girl felt the warmth invade her nostrils, steal down the back of her throat and invade her lungs, whence it spread throughout her body. The old man’s mouth began to water, and went on watering till he feared he would begin to drool.

‘Sorry I can’t let you have any,’ said the stranger. ‘This is Spirituous Liquor, strictly forbidden to anyone under the age of death.’ He sat back with an exaggerated sigh of contentment which brought back all the old man’s initial loathing of him. For a while all that could be heard were his appreciative slurps and the rumbling of the old man’s belly.

After some time Colossus Retch began to speak again. ‘Let me tell you about myself,’ he suggested. ‘Or at least about my posthumous self. You wouldn’t care to hear the details of my earthly life. Decidedly sordid, I’m afraid!’

He took another sip of the liquor. As he did so the old man saw his teeth flash in one of those grins that seemed to signal some private amusement, forever barred to the uninitiated such as the old man and the little girl. All at once the old man felt certain that if he let the stranger continue he would find himself trapped, forced to repeat some mechanical motion over and over again in the eerie solitude of the mountains. He opened his mouth in an attempt to protest, but his tongue remained frozen to the roof of his mouth as if rendered useless by some numbing potion or poisonous gas.

‘For a hundred and fifty-seven years,’ the stranger said, ‘I have had the honour of being the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. I see your eyes light up in recognition –’ (they had done nothing of the kind) ‘– as well they might. The Mountain Orchestra, you exclaim, that melodious muster of master musicians, that band of lonely virtuosi collectively conjoined in their determination to subdue the chaos of this savage world with the staves of harmony! Believe it or not, before my time they were no more harmonious than a roomful of angry gibbons. Some of them couldn’t read music, some of them held their instruments upside down, not one of them could tie a bow tie without assistance or fasten a cufflink. But with time and patience and liberal lashings of raw talent I managed to shape them against all odds into a passable resemblance of a real live orchestra. The Mountain Orchestra, my friend, was shaped from my posthumous blood and sweat and tears, I say this without exaggeration. You may congratulate me if you like.’ And the stranger blew his nose on the filthy sleeve of his tail-coat.

At this point a gust of wind blundered into the cave and buffeted its way from wall to wall. A burst of music seemed to be released each time it struck a surface. The old man shivered and turned towards the entrance, laying his hand on the head of the girl which had slowly drooped until it was resting on his knee. Outside, the fog still glowed with a greenish light as it always does for an hour or so after the sun has set. With a start the old man saw that the Mountain Orchestra had taken its seats in the void beyond: rank on rank of see-through musicians fading away into the foggy distance. Each musician had indistinct features, but they held their heads at a certain angle that conveyed a sense of implacable resolution in the teeth of adversity. Each musician was smartly attired in evening dress made of mist and cobwebs.

The old man found his voice again. ‘Do you have repertoire?’ he asked weakly.

The stranger gave a modest cough. ‘We do indeed,’ he answered. ‘A repertoire curated by myself in response to the special needs and challenges of our orchestral purpose. Most of what we play is music,’ he went on, nodding his head as he warmed to his subject, ‘although alas it has not always been recognised as such. Winds, fogs, planetary movements, ghost sonatas; anything insubstantial really. Water music is a speciality; our performances of burns, brooks, becks, and the ripples on highland lochans are justly celebrated. You may know the Incoming Tide by Moonlight? An old composition of my own, I’m happy to say. But my time with the Mountain Orchestra draws to a close. I am looking beyond, so to speak, to new horizons and fresh challenges: spiritual compositions for the most part, though I may try my hand at nullity, loss and irremediable absence. And here you are, a fiddler emerging out of the fog as if by Divine Decree, perfectly qualified to fill the vacancy. How would you like to be my successor? How would you like, my friend, to lead the Mountain Orchestra in my place? Does the prospect thrill you?’

While he discussed his music the stranger’s face had taken on a wistful air. The lines of suffering scored on his brow had disappeared and his large eyes swam like mountain pools in the wake of a storm. But now he leaned forward with disconcerting suddenness and resumed his expression of wolfish hunger. His teeth and eyes were almost too bright to look at. The old man would have recoiled if he had been able to move his body as well as his head.

‘Well now,’ he said in alarm. ‘I’ll need to know a good deal more about the job before I accept it. What’s the pay like? Who do we play for? What are the perks?’

‘The pay,’ the stranger repeated scornfully. ‘The perks. Let me see. A weekly wage in pain and frustration, a lamentable lack of understanding from the general public, all the Spirituous Liquor you can drink and a captive audience. Will that do?’

‘I’ve known worse deals,’ the old man observed. ‘A captive audience, you say. Who are they?’

‘I’d have thought you’d know all about that, since you’re such an expert on the Beast,’ the stranger said. ‘The audience is here. You’re in one of its ears.’

The old man gave a start which woke the girl from a dream about animated furniture. He soothed her by stroking her hair while every nerve in his body strained to detect some other sign of life inside the cave. The stranger’s voice droned on regardless.

‘Yours will be one of the highest and loneliest destinies in the profession. Night and day, year in and year out, the Mountain Orchestra delivers performances of genius to no other audience than the Beast of the Martoc Mountains. As you know, the Beast has lain dormant under these mountains for many centuries. Your job will be to make sure it goes on sleeping undisturbed.’

‘I haven’t accepted yet,’ the old man interposed. ‘It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to me. You mean to say that the Mountain Orchestra acts as a kind of musical rattle to keep an oversized baby quiet?’

‘That’s not what I mean at all,’ snarled the impresario. ‘You clearly haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation. Once not so long ago the Beast almost woke up; it opened one eye and breathed out through one of its nostrils. That was what brought about the Age of Ash. It happened because my predecessor’s fingers got so numb he dropped the baton in Loch Tothel. I trust you’re not prone to numbness in the fingers? He spent seven hours trying to fish it out with a piece of string tied round a stone. Eventually it was brought to him by the Tothel Carp, but by then the damage was done. Not a living thing was left on the surface of the earth within five hundred miles of the Martoc Mountains: nothing but ash and bone and a few charred twigs. When he saw what he’d done my predecessor went mad and impaled himself on Cardothen Crag. You can still hear his shrieks when the wind blows north-north-west.’

The old man listened, but he could no longer hear the wind. He could not even hear the little girl’s breathing or feel her warmth against his ribs. Unobtrusively the stranger’s voice had carried him onto another plane of existence. The painful squeaks and wails as the Mountain Orchestra tuned their instruments made the stone floor beneath his fingertips vibrate.

‘My own posthumous career has been more successful,’ observed the stranger, and his eyes took on the wistful expression they held when he talked about his art. ‘I began my reign as conductor with a simple funeral march for all the lost souls. You know the sort of thing, a lot of cold stars and blowing dust, nothing too complex for my newly-trained musicians. Little by little we progressed to something more complex: a green bud here or there pushing out of the ashes, a solitary bird sitting on a dead branch. Cellos and bassoons hinted at stirrings in the earth as it quickened towards new life. Piccolos monitored the movements of approaching rainclouds. I’ll never forget the moment when we launched into a fully-fledged allegro maestoso to celebrate the rebirth of Spring. Since then – well, to tell the truth I’ve never recaptured that moment of glory. The triumphal march of returning life was the overture, as I see it now, for my career’s decline and fall. We’ve had our ups and downs since then, wrong notes, fluffed passages, entire compositions played out of tune or back to front. And I’ve been getting very tired in recent years. I’m sorry for what happened to your lakeside village; I fell asleep at about the seventeen millionth bar of the Peace Pavane and the Beast must have twitched in its sleep. I woke up in the cave this morning, so stiff I couldn’t move a muscle. Fortunately the Mountain Orchestra has filled the gap with some courageous improvisation, despite their lack of experience in such matters. Nevertheless, I think the time has come when I must cede my baton to my successor. And here you are, ready and waiting to step onto the podium at the moment of need. The question is: will you take up the challenge?’

The stranger’s voice had got steadily fainter as he talked. When the old man looked at him again he saw to his horror that his legs had vanished from the knees downwards and his eyes had lost their light. He seemed to be gazing at some scene beyond the cave wall. The old man watched and listened intently, hoping for some clue as to what that scene might be. All he could see, however, was darkness, all he could hear the flutter of his heart, the steady breathing of the little girl, the murmur of the blood-tide in his eardrums. Or was it the clatter of cutlery on silver plates and the murmur of voices against a background of gentle music, somewhere deep in the heart of the mountain? For a moment he could not tell.

‘Wait, wait!’ he cried in panic. ‘I’m not qualified at all! I’m only a humble violinist! Shouldn’t the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra be a celebrated musician like yourself?’

The stranger gave a ghost of his nasty grin. ‘Don’t kid yourself,’ he said. ‘I was no celebrated musician in my lifetime. I hung around at street corners turning the handle of a barrel organ and leering horribly at passers by. They would pay to make me stop leering. Sordid, I tell you! No, the Beast can’t tell an orchestra from a one man band. There’s nothing to worry about. Conducting’s easy; it’s merely a question of bobbing up and down with a little white stick to keep the musicians awake. Anything more is just a matter of pride. Start with something nice and simple like the grass growing, daylight filtering into the cave, or fish asleep in a forgotten pool at the mountain’s roots. You’ll have moved on to thunderstorms and the dawn chorus before you know it. And how about throwing in a violin fantasia from time to time seeing you’re a fiddle player? Everyone loves the screech of the highest note on a G string.’ And he leered again, even as his body was disappearing right up to his lapels.

‘Wait, wait!’ the old man cried again. ‘How can I be sure the Beast will stay asleep? And who are you anyway? How do I know you’re telling the truth?’

‘You can’t; you don’t,’ said the former conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. ‘And now goodbye. I’m due a hundred and fifty-seven years’ back payment of Eternal Reward.’ With that he vanished completely. For a moment it was as if a curtain of rock had been twitched aside. A colourful ball of jazz music bounced through the cave and out into the night, followed by a rich smell of roast meat and a mechanical canary. For the last time the old man called out, ‘Wait!’, but the cry only emphasized its own futility. He did not doubt that Dr Colossus Retch had already taken his first mouthful of everlasting soup.

‘It’s all right, I’m not going anywhere,’ said the little girl, waking up at the sound of his voice and taking his right hand. ‘But it’s so cold in here I think we’ll die.’

In the feeble light of a mountain dawn, the old man tried to examine her cheeks and pale cracked lips for signs of hypothermia, but soon he found that his aching eyes would not focus on her face. In fact he could see the front row of the Mountain Orchestra through her chest. She was fading from his sight, and other things in the cave were becoming visible. A carpet of luminous weeds decorated the floor, a curious chair stood in one corner, and Granny Small, about the size of a shrimp, was peering at him from a nook in the ceiling. He noticed a slender white stick on the carpet by his violin and flexed his right hand, ready to pick it up. Even as he rejoiced in the flow of blood to the fingertips he was aware that for the little girl they remained as cold and still as granite.

‘You won’t die, my dear,’ he told her, making a determined effort to use his tongue instead of his mind. ‘But I must go. I’ve just been offered a job with the Mountain Orchestra; an important job which begins at once; I really can’t say no. You’ll be musician for the village now. You’ll be magnificent.’

‘Me?’ cried the little girl. ‘But I’m not good enough! I don’t play anything!’

‘You’ve got your voice,’ the old man pointed out, ‘and you know all the songs. Will you sing to me now?’

The little girl couldn’t hear what he said, but she decided to sing for him anyway, partly because she thought he would like it, partly to see if her voice would do instead of a violin, and partly to stop herself thinking about the Beast, which had started to prey on her thoughts again as soon as she woke. That was how she pictured the scene years later: herself kneeling by the old man’s side with his hand in hers, music trailing out of her mouth in a silver thread as long and strong as a piece of twine spun by Granny Small. As the thread got longer it grew in size, bouncing off the walls deep down inside the tunnel at the back of the cave, lengthening and thickening until it became a clashing chain of notes, both sweet and harsh, as though the mountain itself were singing. After a while she stopped because the sound had started to scare her, but it continued to ring in the caves of her ears for a long time after.

The old man stood up with a sigh and stretched till his backbone cracked. Then he strode to the mouth of the cave with determined strides. He found he was wearing the stranger’s tail-coat with the fraying cuffs and the musty smell. It was too small for him, but now he remembered it hadn’t fit the stranger either. Underneath he still wore his own shirt, stiff with sweat and blood. ‘They could at least have provided a clean white shirt-front,’ he told himself irritably.

Before going out he took one look behind him to make sure he had left some suitable remains to keep the little girl company. He was shocked at how ill the corpse looked. The little girl had dropped off back to sleep in the crook of its arm.

With some difficulty he clambered up on his rostrum; each leg seemed to sink through each step to the height of his knee. By the time he reached the top he was submerged in fog to hip level and still sinking; at this rate, he thought, he would vanish into the abyss before he’d had a chance to lift the baton for the very first time. But then a flurry of clapping broke out among the violins, taken up with ghostly enthusiasm by the rest of the players. He rose a little, then rose some more when the cellists cheered. The old man graced them with a small, stiff bow, and when he straightened found that his feet were firmly planted on the boards of the rostrum. He struck the top with his little white stick to test its solidity. It gave out a satisfying clack, and the musicians’ eyes opened wide in anticipation. He smiled encouragingly – for his own sake as much as for theirs – and raised the baton.

‘Now then, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’

The little girl didn’t notice that the old man had died until the villagers found her curled up beside him the following morning. They buried him under a pile of rocks near the mouth of the cave. Then they walked on over the mountain, carrying the little girl with them on a worn-out armchair and accompanied all the way by a wicked wind. They found many things on the other side: things Granny Small had led them to expect and things she hadn’t mentioned; wanderings in woods and rests by rivers; cities full of noise and pain and the bright clean city where they made their home. By that time the little girl had grown up into a tall strong woman and her voice had grown to the size and strength of the mountain voice she had heard in the cave when she sang to the old man. Old and young men vied for her hand, and a musician won it.

But years later the woman wandered out into the city gardens and up onto the ramparts. As the fog rose out of the woods her mind wandered away to the distant mountains. She had often told the story of the old man’s death, sometimes taking out the smile he had given her, polishing it on her skirt and passing it round among her listeners. With the passing time she embroidered the story as he would have done himself. She insisted that he was still making music in the mountains, conducting a ghostly assembly of musicians called the Mountain Orchestra, who played till their bones ached and their insubstantial heads rang to make sure that the Beast stayed fast asleep. She said that if you listened hard enough you could sometimes hear soaring above the strains of the mountain wind and the chattering burns the silver thread of melody spun by the last of the Rebus violins. She prayed that the old man was not prone to numbness in the fingers.

One thing she had recently added to the story. Was it not possible, she would ask, that with time and the Orchestra’s diligent playing the nature of the Beast would begin to change? That the baroque musical architecture which she knew the old man favoured would enter its skull and impose a gentler structure on its savagery? Was it foolish to hope that next time the Beast stirred in its sleep it wouldn’t reduce the forests and villages to ash, but would instead murmur one of the Mountain Orchestra’s melodies back at them, as the mountain had done on the night she sang the old man out of this life and into the next?

The night laid cold dark hands on the woman’s face, and she let a carefully regulated tear roll down each cheek. One for sorrow, one for joy.

 

Stained Glass Windows in the West

Please click on each picture to get a better view!

The theme for Folklore Thursday this week is the folklore of our local places; and it coincides with the installation of three stained glass windows in the bay window of our flat in Glasgow’s West End. The windows are a family effort. My wife Kirsty thought of them, asked the makers of our windows if they were possible and made suggestions for details they might include. My grown-up children, Boo and Grace, designed two of the windows while I designed the third. And they represent local folklore in two ways: first because they reference Glasgow’s folklore by incorporating themes from a poem that’s become the city’s emblem; and secondly because they contain references to family folklore, that is, knowledge that only our family have and which we will read in the windows every time we look at them. It struck me, when I noticed Folklore Thursday’s theme, that the windows had something interesting to say about it, so I decided to write a blog post about them.

Glasgow City Crest

The poem, as all Glaswegians know, goes something like this:

Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam.

It refers to a series of miracles worked by Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow, who acquired the name Mungo when he was ordained a priest at the Monastery of St Serf in the gorgeous town of Culross on the Firth of Forth. The bird was a robin, a pet of Mungo’s mentor, St Serf, which was killed by one of the young man’s fellow priests in training, who promptly laid the blame for its death on Mungo. Mungo took the bird in his hands and prayed, whereupon the robin came to life and flew to its master, chirping sweetly. The tree is usually depicted as an oak tree, though according to Glasgow City Council’s website it was originally a hazel. Mungo was left in charge of the fire in the monastery’s refectory or dining room, but he fell asleep and it went out – put out, it seems, by those malicious fellow seminarians. When he woke up Mungo took a bunch of hazel twigs in his hands, prayed over them until they burst into flames, and used them to rekindle the fire. The bell, it would seem, is just a bell, though it may have been given to St Mungo by the Pope. But the fish has a longer story. To quote the City Council’s website:

The fish with a ring in its mouth is a salmon and the ring was a present from Hydderch Hael, King of Cadzow, to his Queen Languoreth.

The Queen gave the ring to a knight and the King, suspecting an intrigue, took it from him while he slept during a hunting party and threw it into the River Clyde. On returning home, the King demanded the ring and threatened Languoreth with death if she could not produce it. The Queen appealed to the knight who, of course, could not help and then confessed to St Mungo who sent one of his monks to fish in the river, instructing him to bring back the first fish caught. This was done and St Mungo extracted the ring from its mouth. The scene is represented on the counter seal of Bishop Wyschard, made about 1271.

The story of the fish, with its link to the Clyde, presumably dates from St Mungo’s time in Glasgow, where he founded a church on the site now occupied by the Cathedral. The site of the city was chosen by a couple of oxen pulling a cart containing the corpse of a holy man named Fergus; Mungo instructed the obedient beasts to take the body wherever God told them to, and they duly made their way to the proper location. All this happened in the sixth century, but the stories of St Mungo are commemorated in the city’s crest, which it acquired in the nineteenth century.

Boo’s Window

Each of the windows in the bay window contains elements of St Mungo’s legend: a bird, a fish – though not with a ring in its mouth – a tree, a bell – and in Gracie’s window you can see all four. But these emblems share space with elements of family lore which only we four would recognise. Boo, for instance, tells me he was inspired by ‘the Kelvin walkway and urban wildlife/fay’ – the walkway being the path beside the River Kelvin which has been thronged with walkers since the first lockdown. For his bird he chose the heron we see so often at the weir near the ruins of the old Flint Mill, while the dark green strips on either side of the main picture contain dark creatures which may or may not be shadowy West End foxes, of the kind that used to live in the gloomy spaces under Hillhead Primary School on Gibson Street. The steeple in the distance invokes the steeples on the Great Western Road, one of which – the steeple of George Gilbert Scott’s Episcopalian Cathedral of St Mary – you can see from our bay window, though the one in the picture looks more like the steeple of Lansdowne Parish Church, now Webster’s Theatre and Bar, where Boo once worked in the Box Office. Boo also thought of the University steeple when he discussed it with me; and the rural landscape invoked for me our many trips to the hilly country north of the city. There’s a frog in a pane in the bottom left hand corner and a toad in the bottom right; Boo is always picking up frogs and toads, most recently I think in the wildlife garden at Glasgow Uni. The sun and the moon share the sky with the heron, and to me the sun looks like the shell of a whelk, of the kind Boo was always gathering on the seashore as a child. But the heron dominates, because the heron is ours, a personal family friend who stands on guard at the side of the weir, hoping no doubt to snap up one of the salmon you used to see leaping up it in spring – though I haven’t seen the salmon leaping for several years, and can only hope the tall grey knight isn’t going hungry.

My Window

My window, which is on the left as you face the bay from outside, has a robin in it as if in deference to Mungo. But it was Kirsty who asked me to put it there, because in our family robins have come to represent lost loved ones, who come back in the form of a bird to keep an eye on the children and friends they left behind. The bell is the bell of St Patrick, and as I was painting it I thought of the time not long after I first came to Glasgow when I cycled along the Forth and Clyde Canal till I came to a place whose name I didn’t know. Fortunately I met an old woman on the towpath and was able to ask her where I was; and she answered, like an old woman in a fairy tale, ‘You’re in Old Kilpatrick. You’ll always remember the name because it’s where St Patrick was born’. She was right, too: I’ve always remembered the name, and the association with St Patrick, and the old woman, and that bike ride in fine weather. The decorations round the edges of the window are based on the Book of Kells, which may or may not have been made on Iona; and as I drew them into the picture I remembered another picture I drew and painted long ago for a family friend, which showed St Patrick sitting under an old Irish cross with his favourite wolfhound lying beside him. That picture too had decorative themes from the Book of Kells, and the wolfhound in it was modeled on our dog Gelert, the largest and sweetest-natured dog I’ve known. The hill in the background is Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells, up which I once walked carrying Boo in a backpack. And the strange yellow creature in the tree is a cat-bird fairy demon. I know you’ve heard about them, and now you know exactly what they look like, and where to look for them next time you’re standing by a twisted oak.

Gracie’s Window

Gracie’s picture is the most allusive of all. It shows a flying fish, of course; and she chose this kind of fish to commemorate a family holiday in Mallorca, when we saw the miraculous airborne creatures skimming across the waves ahead of the boat that was taking us to a swimming spot in a secluded part of the island, where much smaller, sea-bound fishes nibbled our toes. The fish is surrounded by water because this is Gracie’s favourite element, and also the element of her Zodiac sign, Scorpio. Hidden in the middle panel at the bottom is the Angelic tune symbol from Cassandra Clare’s Shadow Hunter universe, of which the Mortal Instruments book series is one. Grace is a manic reader of thick tomes and enormous book series, and Cassandra Clare and Leigh Bardugo are just two of the writers she’s obsessed with. St Mungo’s signs are all over the place in her window, from the rings at the four corners – four of them plain, four of them with jewels – to the oak trees in the side panels, the bells and the stylised wings of birds. Oak trees, by the way, are personal things to us as well as to Glasgow; outside our window stand the only oak trees planted in the street, the last to get their leaves in spring, the last to lose them in autumn. When their leaves come out in a few weeks’ time you’ll be able to see real oak leaves dancing behind the painted ones.

I suppose the point I’m making in this post is that folklore of a quite specific kind is present in all cohabiting communities, and that we all have objects and pictures that evoke for us things that no one else could ever guess at. What we read, where we’ve been, the things that have happened to us, weave themselves together into stories which get told and retold down the years, until they get lost among fresh skeins of story woven by new generations. Old stories reappear among the new ones, as St Mungo’s does in our pictures, and lend continuity to the narratives we’re part of. And for us, the window painters, fantastic stories (fairy tales, the novels of Cassandra Clare, invented supernatural fauna, the lives of Celtic saints) infuse our local landscape with light, so that we see the fantastic through it, and the tiny details of tree and bird, fish and water, grow magical as a result, capable of coming to life in strange new ways at different times of the day or night.

The greatest miracle of our windows, though, is how they were constructed by a master craftsman using our paintings as a map or blueprint. That’s something only we and the glazier can really appreciate: the amount of trouble he took to select the right textures for the glass he was using in each panel, the thought he gave to the question of how to translate the texture of pen and ink or brushstroke to the glass’s surface, the little inventive touches like a piece of red glass stuck on behind to make the robin’s red breast, the oak leaves created by scraping away the paint from the side panels in Boo’s window. We got the measurements for the middle window slightly wrong, and the glazier had to find ways to make Gracie’s design fit the space precisely. His name is Colin Stevenson, of Stevenson Stained Glass, and he worked on the windows in the evenings from December to late March, after the working day was supposed to be over. The love he put into this process has made itself part of the story they tell, and we’ll think of it every time we look at them.

That’s our contribution to Folklore Thursday’s theme for 25 March 2021, folklore of local places.

 

 

Dragon Scales: A Play for Children. Act Three

[For Act One, see here. For Act Two, see here.]

ACT THREE: THE PALACE

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, DOCTOR and PROFESSOR.]

CLARISSA: We had too much excitement
Last night, Melissa. We’re too old
For gallivanting round in forests.
MELISSA: O woe! O woe!
The Palace walls are melting into the floor,
There’s no difference between one room and another.
When I’m in bed I can’t sleep; when I’m awake I dream.
CLARISSA: Alas! There’s nothing lovely left in the land.
FRANCHISSA: My handsome Prince is gone.
CLARISSA: My poor Franchissa, yours is the deepest sorrow.
MELISSA: Don’t cry, Franchissa – I’ll give you my cosmetics –
Any of my best dresses, only don’t cry!
DOCTOR: I can’t understand it. My experiments
Have lost all lustre since the Prince was killed.
PROFESSOR: All night I was hungry, but now food tastes like ash.
Ladies, we’ve acted like a pair of pigs.
CLARISSA: You certainly have!
MELISSA: O please don’t blame them, dear Clarissa!
We must try to comfort one another.

[Enter EMPEROR.]

EMPEROR: Doctor, Professor, I’ve made a decision –
I’ve finally made a decision of my own.
Henceforth you’re relieved of the government!
PROFESSOR: Take it back, sire, with our thanks.
EMPEROR: But O, it wasn’t mine to give away!
Every trust I was given I betrayed;
Why didn’t the Dragon gobble me
Instead of my daughter, the sweetest, brightest girl
Ever to brew her father’s cocoa?

[Enter NURSE, bandaged.]

NURSE: It’s been the worst night I remember.
The wind howled, the raindrops were so huge
They smashed the window in the butler’s pantry.
EMPEROR: My poor dear Nurse, what has become of you?
NURSE: A clap of thunder made me fall downstairs.
I hurt my right arm, my left leg and my chin.

[Doorbell rings.]

Hark! There’s the doorbell!
EMPEROR: I’ll answer it myself.

[Exit EMPEROR.]

DOCTOR: Who can be calling at this hour?
I gave strict orders no one was to leave his bed
Till noon. The streets are empty. Only ash
Stirs here or there in little eddies.

[Re-enter EMPEROR with DRAGON.]

EMPEROR: So I wasn’t drunk when I saw you last!
Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce
This battered newt of my acquaintance.
DRAGON: Delighted to meet the company, I’m thure.
Forgive my lithp. In my panic thith morning
I fell down a coal-thute and knocked out all my teef.
CALRISSA: You were the beast
Who tried to murder the Prince!
MELISSA: You wanted us all to die in the forest –
I’ve half a mind to knock your brains out too!
DRAGON: Ladieth, it’th true I’ve been a thcoundrel –
Though I made nobody do anyfing
That wathn’t in their natureth –
But now, believe me, I’m an honetht Dragon,
Completeley reformed by my exthperientheth.
Without my teef I wouldn’t latht
Ten thecondth ath a villain anyway.
Tho I’ve come to athk if you have any
Thituathion for a willing reptile
Who will acthept the motht modetht thalary
With almotht thycophantic gratitude.
For inthtanth, I thtew thuper thauthageth!
EMPEROR: Snake, in the past my hearth has welcomed you
Too readily; but if you’re really reformed
And promise not to break the glasses when you’re cross,
You can be the thirty-first assistant chef.
DRAGON: I’m thtricken by your generothity.

[Doorbell rings again.]

NURSE: Hark! The doorbell again!
Who would have thought so many would be stirring
So early in the day?
PROFESSOR: This time I’ll go.
It’ll help to keep my stomach quiet.

[Exit PROFESSOR. Re-enter with CAT.]

See who it is! A black cat on two legs!
CAT: Emperor, could you spare a fishbone?
I’ve lost my friends, my happiness and my bet
And I’m almost dead with hunger.
CLARISSA: Come, poor Cat,
Lie down on this soft rug and lick your paws.
CAT: I’m sorry I bonked your nose, your Majesty.
EMPEROR: I earned it, Cat. You may do it again if you like.

[Doorbell rings again.]

NURSE: Will that doorbell never stop ringing?
DOCTOR: By the law of averages it’s my turn to answer.

[Exit DOCTOR.]

EMPEROR: I wish we could invite the whole country,
All the people, horses, cats and dogs
Into the Palace to warm themselves by the fire;
All the trees to take root in the carpets,
The fields to sprout from the ceilings,
The rivers to run down the staircases
And the stars to illuminate the chandeliers.
Then, perhaps, if they would come,
The Palace might be bright again at last!

[Re-enter DOCTOR.]

DOCTOR: By all that’s statistically improbable!
I’ll throw my logarithms in the lake!
Ladies and gentlemen, see who was at the door!

[Enter GEORGE, PAMELA and CHIEF OF POLICE.]

EMPEROR: All the miracles that ever were,
The cows, the cats, the forests and the stars
Dwindle to nothing beside this miracle!
FRANCHISSA: My constable! Where have you been?
CHIEF: We’ve been fighting the Dragon.
GEORGE: We defeated it.
PAMELA: It came leaping and squawking in this direction –
We were afraid it might have squashed the Palace.
EMPEROR: Come in, sit down, recover your breath,
Speak, breathe, move, show that you’re alive!
My daughter I thought I’d never see again!
Prince George, what can I say? Can you forgive me
What I shall never forgive myself?
PROFESSOR: Or I, Prince George?
DOCTOR: I can hardly define the word ‘forgive’,
But I surrender to your judgement, Prince.
GEORGE: My dear friends, there’s nothing to forgive;
I’m overjoyed to see you safe and sound.
EMPEROR: Your kindness shames us more than anger would.
MELISSA: But dear Princess, won’t you describe the fight?
CLARISSA: Yes, yes, describe the triumph of virtue!
If only my lumbago
Hadn’t prevented me from joining in!
PAMELA: There’s not a lot to tell.
The smoke and flame from the Dragon’s throat
Hid us as we ran towards it;
The Chief of Police reached the monster first
And struck it on the chin so hard
That its teeth snapped shut like the Palace gates.
MELISSA (hitting EMPEROR): What a blow that was! O, sorry, your Majesty!
CHIEF: Then I fell down and it gripped me
In its right foreclaw; the Prince rushed forward
And stabbed the claw so fiercely it let go.
CLARISSA (hitting DOCTOR): Well smitten, Prince! O, sorry, Doctor!
GEORGE: The Dragon twisted round to deal with me,
But the Chief Constable had dropped his knife
Which Princess Pamela snatched up –
Just as the cavernous jaws stretched to engulf us
She stabbed it on the left hind leg!
EMPEROR (hitting PROFESSOR): Coward that I am! What heroism!
Sorry, Professor, are you hurt?
PAMELA: It gave a bellow like a bursting oil-rig
And crashed away through the trees
Raising solid walls of smoke on either side,
Throwing up hillocks with its scrabbling claws,
Driving away the louds with its dreadful yells,
Its blood staining the earth bright red.
CHIEF: And as it went, colour came back to the land.
GEORGE: The hillocks grew to hills and mountains.
CHIEF: The scales that flaked off as it ran
Took root and sprouted into meadows.
GEORGE: The blood became carpets of scarlet flowers,
The tears it wept flowed down the hills like brooks,
The fire became copper beeches and maple trees,
The smoke became little white clouds
Drifting across the blue of its outstretched wings.
PAMELA: We followed it as far as we could.
CHIEF: And before we knew it
There we stood on the Palace’s front doorstep,
Panting for breath, still smarting from the heat.
FRANCHISSA: And welcome as raindrops to the desert!
PAMELA: There are still stretches of ash about,
Still a lot to do before the land is green,
But the change has begun!
GEORGE: I shall paint cows in the meadows again!
DOCTOR: And I shall smash my terrible machine
And apply my genius to healing the damage I’ve done,
A task as jolly as dissecting frogs!
CLARISSA: Melissa, Franchissa and I shall take our dusters
And polish every corner till there’s not a grain
Of ash left in the kingdom.
PROFESSOR: The lizard and I shall join talents to prepare a feast!
EMPEROR: I proclaim this day a public holiday!
I shall have to tell the people what that means.
CAT: And I shall spend a busy time
Licking my tired paws by the fire.
NURSE: My dears, a word before you begin.
Because you’ve made it clear
You can think of others besides yourselves
I can now tell the true story
Of how I hurt my arm, my leg and my chin.
PAMELA: Sit down and rest yourself while you speak.
NURSE: I’ve often told you how I watched
The Emperor’s ancestors fight with the scabulous beasts
Which have plagued this land since it rose from the sea.
Have you ever wondered how your old Nurse
Could have seen so many battles?
The truth is, I was the baleful Bish,
I was the Snipe snicked by the Emperor’s Uncle,
The garrulous Gargle that choked on his Grandpapa,
The streperous Tock with its purple-blotchy hide,
And moreover, I was the Beast in the vegetable patch
And the Dragon you chopped in the forest last night.
GEORGE: But that’s impossible! You’re our beloved Nurse!
NURSE: Haven’t you learnt yet
Never to judge by outward appearances?
I am the guardian of this little land.
In times of prosperity I wear human form
And hire myself as a baby-minder.
EMPEROR: To think I hired a fiend to mind my daughter!
NURSE: But when darkness clutched the land
Or ash plugged men’s ears and made their children sneeze,
Whenever colours faded, or the sky
Was smothered with evil-smelling fumes,
It was my doom to become a monster
And slither to the woods to fight a hero.
As long as someone would fight me,
As long as I was defeated, the land would live,
The fields grow lush, the pear-trees blossom;
But if once a hero failed to meet my challenge
Or fled when he felt the flame of my roar,
The dust would clog your ears and eyes for ever,
The land become a grave, and I be left alone,
A solitary worm wriggling in hollow places.
CAT: So when I tried to dissuade the Prince from fighting
I put the land in danger of destruction!
EMPEROR: And when I plotted the Prince’s murder
I was plotting the murder of my kingdom!
PROFESSOR: How precious a single life must be.
Perhaps when we squash a fly
A star bursts, or a planet detonates!
CLARISSA: Then how many solar systems died
When we wiped out mosquitoes?
DOCTOR: I kept a pair of mosquitoes in a test tube.
If I set them free, in a year or two
There’ll be as many as before.
CLARISSA: Then free them, Doctor dear!
Mosquitoes have such shapely legs, I feel;
Their bites are worth it just to watch them dance!
GEORGE: Nurse, forgive my bluntness,
But how can we tell if your tale is true?
NURSE: The truth is always changing;
Like a mosquito, it never stays in one spot.
But if you need proof, for what it’s worth,
Look at the battle-scars you gave me.
GEORGE: In exactly the places where we struck the Dragon!
Every word of your tale was true!
Come, Nurse, let’s celebrate with a feast!
NURSE: First let me prophesy that by the year’s end
There’ll be six weddings to sing about;
But who will marry whom I leave to you!
Marriage has nothing at all to do with magic.

[Exeunt ALL except CAT and DRAGON]

CAT: So, Dragon, after all I won my bet.
It’s always best to end with a feast and a dance.
You said I could have anything I wanted.
DRAGON: That wath when I fought I had thomefing to give!
CAT: I wonder now; she said six marriages;
And if my calculations are correct
Two people are needed to make each pair.
Twelve people in the Palace, six marriages.
Well, Dragon,
I’ll tell you what I want at the year’s end!
Come now and help me decorate the Hall –
We’ll make it the first bright room in the Kingdom!

 [Dance.]

[The End.]

 

Dragon Scales: A Play for Children. Act Two

[For Act One, see here.]

ACT TWO: THE FOREST

Scene One

[Enter NURSE]

NURSE: I’ve not seen a Prince off on an adventure
Since the present Emperor’s father
Set off to slaughter the streperous Tock!
The bells have all struck midnight;
The people have been told to stay indoors
So that the land is empty. Only moonbeams
Stalk dusty streets and stare between branches.
We’ve come to the forest’s edge
To see the Prince and Princess on their way;
I wonder if we’ll ever see them more?

[Enter EMPEROR, CHIEF OF POLICE, DOCTOR, PROFESSOR, CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, PAMELA, GEORGE.]

EMPEROR: I’ve liked this plot less and less
Since what happened in the cabbage plot.
DOCTOR: We assure your Majesty that by our calculations
And by the hoofprints in the earth
The beast was nothing bigger than a goat.
EMPEROR: A ghost, you say?
DOCTOR: A goat!
MELISSA: Of course I wasn’t scared, Clarissa.
CLARISSA: Nor I, of course, Melissa. It was a test.
We wanted to try our lovers’ courage!
MELISSA: We knew from the first it was a goat –
But we never guessed what goats the men would prove!
CLARISSA: Franchissa, what’s that object in your hair?
FRANCHISSA: A daisy, a daisy, I picked it by the way!
MELISSA: Why look, the ground is carpeted with daisies
Round the outskirts of the wood.
I haven’t seen daisies since I was a child
Before they were smothered by the ashes!
CLARISSA: Throw it away, at once, my dear,
You don’t know where it’s been.
If you want a flower to stick in your hair
You can have one from the Doctor’s greenhouse.
PAMELA: Aren’t you pleased with the shine on your sword?
GEORGE: Yes, but why can’t I use a gun instead?
PAMELA: Do you think a bullet could pierce a Dragon’s hide?
Only the strength of your arm can do that.
Besides, it wouldn’t be fair play!
GEORGE: You don’t think just a friendly pat would do…
EMPEROR: Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived.
The time has come to wish my nephew luck
And send him in after the goat, I mean Dragon.
Well, goodbye, young man, and may you get
What you deserve. Believe me, if I were younger,
Or you were older, or my daughter wasn’t mine,
Or the state of the country wasn’t what it is,
You, and I, and the country, and my daughter
Would be in different places, as it were.
DOCTOR: In the name of progress, massacre the monster!
CLARISSA: I wish I could lend an ounce of my virtue
To strengthen your arm!
FRANCHISSA: Good luck, good luck!
NURSE: Remember, if you’re eaten
We’ll have a beautiful funeral waiting!
GEORGE: Before I go, let me say this.
I haven’t been a very dutiful nephew,
But I’ve loved you all in different ways.
MELISSA: A secret apology meant for us!
CLARISSA: I could almost forgive him his rudeness!
GEORGE: I’d like to hope that if I killed the Dragon
The land would be green again, and happy,
But I can’t make that happen on my own.
DOCTOR: He wants us to revert to barbarism!
GEORGE: All I mean is, killing the Dragon hardly matters.
EMPEROR: He means it’s more important to kill me!
How right the Doctor was!
GEORGE: I’m trying to kill my Dragon,
But we all have Dragons to kill.
CLARISSA: He can’t surely mean he wants our help!
PROFESSOR: What a long speech!
Did anyone bring anything to eat?
PAMELA: Come along, George, they don’t understand.
Their heads are buried in the dust.
Goodbye everyone! Our quest has started.

[Exeunt PAMELA and GEORGE]

EMPEROR: At last they’ve gone. Now you all know your parts?
Chief of Police, you have your knife;
I have my blunderbuss; Professor and Doctor,
You have the map of the forest and a torch;
Then each to his position. Goodness me!
I’m enjoying this more than I expected!
Giving orders I feel almost like an Emperor!
DOCTOR [aside]: Tomorrow you won’t feel anything at all.

[Exeunt EMPEROR, DOCTOR, PROFESSOR and CHIEF]

MELISSA: These flowers give me the loveliest idea!
When I was a girl there was something we did
Each Midsummer Eve: we used to dress in green
And go singing and dancing through the forest;
We called it ‘maying’.
CLARISSA: No, no, that was in May.
MELISSA: Maying or Juning, I can’t remember which;
But this was the rather mad idea I had:
Why not pretend this is Midsummer’s Night
And dance and gambol as we did when young?
I’m sure I don’t feel a day older than fifty!
FRANCHISSA: Let’s go prancing, let’s go dancing!
CLARISSA: But Melissa, what about the Dragon?
MELISSA: The Doctor says it was a goat,
And the Doctor knows everything.
CLARISSA: The Professor says it was a cow,
And the Professor knows even more.
MELISSA: Whatever it is, it can’t hurt us.
My dear Melissa, surely you’re not scared?
CLARISSA: Melissa, I only had your nerves in mind –
You shouldn’t strain them at your age.
MELISSA: Of course, you know more about such things
Seeing you’ve six years’ more experience!
CLARISSA: Six! Five and a half at most, my dear Melissa.
MELISSA: Then follow me, my doves; just for tonight
We’ll run mad in white linen
And draw pictures in the sand!

[Exeunt MELISSA, CLARISSA and FRANCHISSA]

NURSE: So the forest has swallowed them all.
I’ve heard say woods can change folks overnight;
But this gadding about is for younger bones
Or crackpots like those crazy ladies.
It’s bitter cold at night in these wastes
And anything can happen in the dark.
No one knows that better than I!
I’ll home to bed with a cup of cocoa.

[Exit NURSE]

Scene Two

[Enter DRAGON disguised as CAT. Then enter GEORGE and PAMELA]

GEORGE: How dismal the trees are in their mossy cloaks;
This place is arched like an underground dungeon.
PAMELA: At least they’re well spaced out.
GEORGE: Don’t tread on dead leaves,
They sound like thunder.
PAMELA: It’s odd, but there are no dead leaves.
Everything’s clean as if it had been swept.
Have you noticed how the trees have changed?
Near the forest borders they were stooped and dead,
A tangle of charred fingers clutching the stars;
But here the trees are taller, straighter,
With little hand-like sprays of leaves.
Where should we start looking for the Dragon?
GEORGE: I don’t care where, so long as we don’t find him!
Some of these treetrunks are the weirdest shapes,
Almost like people, almost like reptiles…
Ouch! Pamela, I touched one and it moved!
PAMELA: That’s no tree, it’s someone dressed in black!
Whoever you are, don’t move an inch!
GEORGE: So still and silent;
Under the folds of his cloak his eyes are green.
Keep behind me, Pamela, I see claws!
DRAGON: Greetings, your Royal Highnesses!
PAMELA: Why, it’s only the Cat we met in the Palace.
What are you doing in this wilderness?
Hurry back to your warm hearthrug
Before your fur gets singed with Dragon-fire!
GEORGE: I don’t trust Cats with scaly noses.
What are those lights beyond the trees?

[GEORGE wanders off]

DRAGON: My last warning didn’t help you much,
So I’ve come to help you find your precious Dragon.
PAMELA: So you’ve decided Dragons do exist?
DRAGON: Not the big sort.
This Dragon’s little, but he’s deadly.
He doesn’t eat people, only their minds;
Nor burn haystacks, but withers corn at the root,
Nor squash palaces, but he froze the heart
That sold the palace bricks to build a prison.
PAMELA: Now there’s a foe worth fighting!
Where does he live, Cat?
DRAGON: In a slimy cave not far from here
Thick with the bitter chemicals he thrives on.
PAMELA: This time, Cat, you’d better be telling the truth!
Come quickly now, we must stick together –
It’s easy to get lost in the dark. Prince George?
What’s so funny, Cat? Where are you, Prince?
DRAGON: My poor girl, nothing can save him now;
You’ll never see the oaf again.
For all your eagerness to find the Dragon
You never guessed you were staring him in the teeth!
Look at me closely, girl! I am the beast!
PAMELA: You tatty bit of snakeskin!
Wait till I get my hands on your mouldy snout!
DRAGON: Stand back, or I’ll bite our fingers off! O dear,
I’m sorry I spoke so rudely, but I’m sure
We’ll meet in happier circumstances soon.
I didn’t lie, my cave’s not far away,
And I beg you to consider yourself invited
To breakfast there tomorrow morning.
You’ll make an excellent dessert
After a main course of Cat!
Goodbye for now; I’m off to watch the Prince
Being kippered by the Emperor and his men!
PAMELA: Don’t think you’ll get away with this –
My nails are sharper than your scaly eyes!

[Exit DRAGON, pursued by PAMELA]

Scene Three

[Enter PROFESSOR and DOCTOR]

PROFESSOR: Doctor Thumbscrew, let me see the map.
DOCTOR: Professor Dumbstew, I gave the map to you.
PROFESSOR: I’ve never touched it in my life.
DOCTOR: Then we must have dropped it somewhere. Hand me the torch.
PROFESSOR: But the torch was yours;
It was one of your inventions with a beam that went round corners.
DOCTOR: I deny that assertion;
It was one of your inventions, without a beam at all.
PROFESSOR: What a labyrinth this forest is!
I feel like a rat in one of my own experiments.
We should never have let it stand.
DOCTOR: First thing tomorrow we shall have it down.
Lucky I know the place like the back of my scalpel!
We sent the Prince in that direction;
Therefore, if we construct a triangle
With angle forty-five degrees at corner B –
PROFESSOR: Good thing my memory’s better than yours,
Otherwise by now we’d be in the Gulf of Bong!
My dear Doctor, the Prince went that way,
Along a radius X of circle Y
Which converges with diameter Z at angle Q…
DOCTOR: Professor, your geometry’s inadequate.
PROFESSOR: Doctor, your trigonometry needs examining.
DOCTOR: How dare you criticize my trigonometry!
It’s healthier than yours!
PROFESSOR: I had mine refurbished only last month.
DOCTOR: Then I have a simple solution. Since you’re so clever
You go your way to find Prince George
And I’ll go mine.
PROFESSOR: Simple but brilliant.
Your empiricism is unequalled;
Pity about the trigonometry!
DOCTOR: The first to see Prince George must whistle thrice.
Come quickly when you hear me whistle!
PROFESSOR: Except of course that I shall whistle first.

[Exeunt PROFESSOR and DOCTOR]

Scene Four

[Enter EMPEROR and CHIEF OF POLICE]

EMPEROR: Chief Constable, don’t walk so fast!
CHIEF: We’ll never catch him at this rate, sire.
EMPEROR: Don’t shout, Chief Constable. Give me the torch!
You never know what slinking thing
You might awaken in the depths.
O curse the dark! If I were Emperor
I’d plant steel rods across the plain
With light bulbs at the tips in clusters
And banish night to shadows under furniture.
CHIEF: But you’re already Emperor, sire!
EMPEROR: Why so I am, and you wouldn’t believe
How tedious it is!
Peace and quiet – what’s that noise?
CHIEF: Stop here a moment, sire. I’ll run and see.
EMPEROR: Don’t leave me alone!
CHIEF: Be calm, your Majesty. It might be the Prince.
You have your blunderbuss and the torch;
In fifteen seconds I’ll be back
With the Prince’s head in my hand, perhaps.

[Exit CHIEF]

EMPEROR: How true. I have the gun. I must be brave.
I think these trees would like to strange me
In their knobbly arms. I find I’ve got the map,
But lines on paper make no sense
In this wilderness. The torch only makes shadows
Leap at me angrily from either side.
These trees are the last in the kingdom;
They hate me for the death of their families!
Go away, trees! It wasn’t my fault!
I wish I was safe at home by a blazing fire.
See how they bristle when I mention fire!
The terrible things I didn’t prevent
Frighten me worse than the things I did.
Listen! Footsteps! Constable, is that you?

[Enter PRINCE GEORGE]

GEORGE: In the name of the Emperor, Dragon, show yourself!
EMPEROR [hiding behind CAT as tree]: The Prince! Quick – off with the torch –
Load up the blunderbuss – horseshoes, tintacks,
Nails, ball-bearings, hooks, electric plugs…
GEORGE: I hear the clatter of its metal scales!
EMPEROR: Aim in the direction of his voice,
Bracing the barrel on this useful branch,
This useful branch attached to this furry stump,
This furry stump with glowing eyes
And seven rows of yellow teeth – O help!
GEORGE: The Dragon’s roaring! Heaven preserve me!
EMPEROR: I’m leaning on a monstrous bear!
Save me, Chief Constable! Come back, come back!

[Exit EMPEROR]

GEORGE: Here it comes! Protect me, Pamela!

[Exit GEORGE]

[Re-enter CHIEF OF POLICE]

CHIEF: Emperor! Emperor! Where have you gone?
Feels like another thunderstorm is brewing!

[Exit CHIEF]

CAT: Not even a Cat can see in this darkness
Filled with roots and hissing twigs.
We can only follow our noses
And hope for near misses.
Why, here the Misses come!

[Exit CAT]

Scene Five

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA, singing]

MELISSA: This life is so jolly! The charms of spring!
FRANCHISSA: Hey diddle diddle the Cat and the Dragon!
CLARISSA: Cuckoo, jug-jug, peewit, tuwhit-tuwhoo!
MELISSA: I wish I could still get into that dress
I bought when I turned sixty.
Don’t you miss the colours there were then?
CLARISSA: Never, dear Melissa; we’re better off as we are.
No colour is more distinguished than grey,
And no girls greyer or handsomer than we.
At our age, we are versed in every accomplishment –
Really, the young hardly deserve their youth!
Let us join hands in celebration
That we are what we are, and nothing less!

[They dance.]

MELISSA: There were so many useless things when we were young.
I always thought the Doctor’s greatest triumph
Was the powder that wiped out mosquitoes.
A shame it wiped out all the birds as well,
But it was worth it just to be rid of mosquitoes!
FRANCHISSA: See how thick the flowers are at our feet!
CLARISSA: I never liked flowers. I suffer from hay-fever.
Bless the Professor! He couldn’t cure my hay-fever,
So instead he went to all the trouble
Of wiping out the flowers and butterflies.
So considerate! I wonder how this place was missed?
MELISSA: The Doctor says that by nine tomorrow morning
The world will be perfect. Isn’t that nice?
O Clarissa, why do I feel so sad?
CLARISSA: Yes, I could almost weep for joy myself.
FRANCHISSA: Sing hey, sing hey, the thrush and the jay!
CLARISSA: Franchissa recalls us to our merriment.
I know just the game we could play!
MELISSA: O bully!
CLARISSA: It’s a charm for finding out our future husbands.
MELISSA: My dear, what a simply mad idea!
CLARISSA: At school they called me ‘wild Clarissa’!
Here’s the charm; you have to do the actions.

Seven times we spin around,
Cross our legs and touch the ground,
Throw a daisy in the air,
Follow where it blows, and there,
If the moon is right above
You shall find your only love!

Can you sing that?
MELISSA: Of course!

[They sing it.]

CLARISSA: But it only works if we’re exactly
Underneath the moon. We should be
Further to the West, I think.
MELISSA: Isn’t this thrilling, dear Franchissa?
FRANCHISSA: I’ve already had three husbands.
CLARISSA: Follow me, my merry girls!
Skipping westwards in the moonbeams
To work our wild midsummer magic!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

Scene Six

[Enter GEORGE]

GEORGE: I seem to have trudged these woods for years,
Calling for Pamela, looking for the Dragon,
Starting at every footfall, falling at every foot.
I’m so hot my cloak is suffocating me;
I’ll leave it here for mice to nest in.
There was a cave a little way back;
I’ll retrace my steps and hide in that.
Heaven protect my poor Princess!

[Exit GEORGE, leaving his cloak on the ground. Enter EMPEROR.]

EMPEROR: Somewhere along this path I dropped the map,
So now I must retrace my steps to find it,
While every bush I pass becomes a bear.
Why, what on earth is this?
A cloak, just like the one the Prince had on!
The best way to escape nightmares
Is to wrap your head in a blanket.
I’m fed up with running from bears, so here I’ll lie
And wait in piece for daybreak.

[EMPEROR lies down. Enter from different directions DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

PROFESSOR: I know I’m hot on the Prince’s heels –
My tummy’s rumbling, a sure sign
That my prey is close. I’ve brought this ladle
To mash him with…
DOCTOR: I found a map a while ago,
But couldn’t read it in the dark
So I threw it in the brambles. But my calculations
Tell me the Prince is almost in my clutches…
PROFESSOR: I see a shadow over there
As tall and skinny as the Prince…
DOCTOR: Just where I expected, I see a silhouette
As short and chubby as Prince George!
PROFESSOR: He’s no idea what I’m about to do!
DOCTOR: He can’t foresee what he’s about to get!
PROFESSOR: Take that, barbarian! [Hitting the DOCTOR.]
DOCTOR: Take that, you anarchist! [Hitting the PROFESSOR.]
PROFESSOR: O my stomach!
DOCTOR: O my head!
PROFESSOR: Why, I recognize that voice!
DOCTOR: Professor Dumbstew!
PROFESSOR: Doctor Thumbscrew!
BOTH: What the Dragon do you think you’re doing?
PROFESSOR: It’s lucky you didn’t bludgeon me to death!
DOCTOR: No thanks to you I’m not a jellied pulp!
PROFESSOR: Then where in the name of Science is the Prince?
DOCTOR: Our common senses tell us he’s nearby.
We have only to search this glade
With our weapons and our wits alert…
PROFESSOR [Discovering the EMPEROR in PRINCE GEORGE’s cloak]: What’s that bundle like a pickled herring?
DOCTOR: It has a look of homo sapiens about it.
PROFESSOR: Isn’t it wrapped in the Prince’s cloak?
DOCTOR: I can’t see whether it’s breathing or not.
PROFESSOR: Shall I mash it?
DOCTOR: Shall I strangle it?
PROFESSOR: But – O Doctor Thumbscrew, what if it isn’t the Prince?
What if something crawled out of a hole
And knobbled him while we were in the dark?
DOCTOR: Nonsense, Professor, that’s illogical.
EMPEROR [Sitting up]: What men or beasts are these?
PROFESSOR: Thumbscrew! It spoke!
DOCTOR: Dumbstew! It’s not the Prince! It’s eyes are green!

[EMPEROR switches on the torch.]

PROFESSOR: O Lord, its left nostril has lighted up!
DOCTOR: Run, run, in the name of Science!

[Exeunt DOCTOR and PROFESSOR.]

EMPEROR: What a noise! Those must have been the ghosts
Of trees! I’ll wrap my head up in this cloak
And never be tempted to look out again!

[EMPEROR lies down again. Enter PAMELA.]

PAMELA: I think the Dragon was telling the truth
When he said I’d never see Prince George again.
If only someone would help me search!
What’s this? I tripped over a bundle.
No, it’s a body; in the Prince’s clothes!
Prince George? Prince George! No movement;
Stiff and cold…
He’s dead! Pistols and razorblades! I’m alone!
Why didn’t I bring my battle-axe? Where’s the Dragon?

[Exit PAMELA. EMPEROR gets up again.]

EMPEROR: It’s no good, I can’t sleep.
I thought I heard someone weeping beside me.
If only I had a friend to share my dreams with!
I used to think my nephew was my friend.
Well, I must find the Doctor and Professor
And ask them to report his death.

Scene Seven

 [Enter CHIEF OF POLICE.]

CHIEF: What luck to have found this map in the brambles!
I climbed a tree and read it by moonlight,
So here I am alone at the mouth of a cave.
I think I see the Prince inside; but traitor as he is
I can’t bring myself to use my knife. What’s that?

[Enter DOCTOR and PROFESSOR, running.]

PROFESSOR: Help, help! I hear the monster’s claws!
DOCTOR: Save me! Its breath is frazzling my hair!
PROFESSOR: Beware, Doctor, here’s another!
DOCTOR: Get out of my way, you clumsy pumpkin!
CHIEF: Professor Dumbstew, Doctor Thumbscrew, wait!
It’s only me, the Chief of Police.
PROFESSOR: Come back, Thumbscrew. He’s a colleague!
DOCTOR: O, it’s you, is it? No need to shout.
Any news of the monster, I mean Prince?
CHIEF: He’s in that cave, he can’t escape us.
But now we have him, why not let him live?
Life is precious in this wilderness.
DOCTOR: Don’t be a fool, Chief Constable.
This nation is on the very verge
Of a major technological leap.
Only the Prince stands in my way.
So draw your knife and follow me!
CHIEF: Stop! Do you hear that awful wailing?
DOCTOR: It’s coming this way!
PROFESSOR: There’s no escape!

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA.]

MELISSA: Hi diddle umkum tarum tantum!
FRANCHISSA: The snake and the pussy-cat went to sea!
CLARISSA: Hickory dickory dock!
Here we are, girls! The moon is directly
Overhead. Are you ready to chant?
MELISSA: Dear Clarissa, my heart is chanting already!
CLARISSA: Then all together, for our future husbands!

Seven times we spin around,
Cross our legs and touch the ground,
Throw a daisy in the air,
Follow where it blows, and there,
If the moon is right above,
You shall find your only love!

CHIEF: What do you think they are?
PROFESSOR: Just listen to the racket!
DOCTOR: Watch their behaviour! Whatever they may be
They’re clearly suffering from lunacy.
I suggest we go about our business
As quickly and quietly as possible.
CLARISSA: Melissa, Franchissa, there stand our husbands!
Run, girls, and catch them! It’s part of the spell!
FRANCHISSA: Run, run, as fast as you can!
MELISSA: See who I’ve caught! The Doctor!
CLARISSA: Mine’s the Professor!
FRANCHISSA: And mine’s a handsome Prince!
CHIEF: I’m not a handsome Prince! Let go!
DOCTOR: We have important business to transact.
CLARISSA: Don’t let them out of your clutches, girls!
The spell says we must dance with them all night!
MELISSA: The moonbeam magic holds you fast,
You won’t escape till morning dawns,
So relax, my dears, and enjoy the fun!
DOCTOR: You’re treading on my corns!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, DOCTOR and PROFESSOR.]

[Enter CAT.]

CAT: The Prince has never been in greater danger.
Excited though they are, the three old ladies
Can’t keep the murderers occupied for long;
And now the murderers know where he’s sleeping.
The Emperor’s approaching from the South,
The Dragon has mounted guard at the cave
To prevent me warning the Prince of his peril,
Princess Pamela I can’t find,
And over all there’s a feeling of tautness
As if an earthquake were about to burst.
I can do nothing on my own!
I begin to wonder whether any of us
Will survive the night.

[Enter DRAGON.]

DRAGON: Cat! Run away before my patience snaps!
My plans work beautifully; all’s confusion!
The Prince has twice escaped his enemies,
But their next meeting shall be the last,
And you shall witness it! Here’s the Emperor.

[Enter EMPEROR.]

EMPEROR: I heard a sound of revelry
Which took me back to my giddy youth
When I wasn’t so fond of peace and quiet.
DRAGON: I should avoid him, Cat;
He hasn’t forgotten that bonk on the nose.
I am invisible to the oaf, of course.
Next the Princess.

[Enter PAMELA.]

PAMELA: I was so eager to rush Prince George to his death!
I’ll never wish anything dead except myself
Ever again! If I meet the Dragon now
I’ll taste like sawdust in his mouth.
DRAGON: Poor girl! What a state she’s in.
Rest here, my dear, till breakfast-time.
By now the scientists have broken free;
Here they come puffing, hotter than ever for blood!

[Enter DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

PROFESSOR: That’s twice he’s made us look fools!
DOCTOR: I have a thousand lingering poisons
In a cabinet at home;
Would I had brought the most painful of all
To pay him back for the pain in my corns!
PROFESSOR: Keep quiet, Doctor, I hear the mad ladies.
DRAGON: That’s the way, friends; hide behind this tree.
Here comes a party of spectators
For the climax of my masterpiece.

[Enter LADIES.]

CLARISSA: Girls, as soon as you see them, pounce!
We must marry them now to preserve our virtues.
CHIEF: Madam, in the name of the Law release me!
FRANCHISSA: Anything for my handsome Prince!

[She releases him and he falls flat.]

DRAGON: And now for the last item in my entertainment,
The spark that’ll set off the gunpowder:
Ladies and gentlemen, I present – Prince George!

[Enter PRINCE GEORGE.]

GEORGE: I fell asleep listening to the mutter
Of a stream in the depths of the cave;
I woke, and dawn was yawning in the East.
Perhaps I shall see sunrise after all!
DOCTOR [advancing]: I’m afraid there’s little chance of that, Prince George.
PROFESSOR: But there’s one comfort: you won’t be needing breakfast!
PAMELA: Prince George alive! Then I can breathe!
Ruffians, keep your pincers to yourselves;
I’ll never let him out of my sight again!
EMPEROR [advancing]: I suppose this is the moment to act,
Before I begin to regret my decision.
Doctor, let’s get the foul deed over.
CHIEF [advancing]: I can’t stand by and see my master murdered.
He’s better than the three of you put together!
DRAGON: Then I see I shall have to interfere
And finish the tragedy myself.
CAT: No you don’t, Dragon. You’ve cheated once too often!
I trust you remember my claws!
VOICE [from offstage]: Excuse my interruption,
But has everyone forgotten the real Dragon?
ALL: The real Dragon?
DRAGON: What do you mean, impostor? I’m the only Dragon here!
VOICE: You, a Dragon? You’re just an overgrown tadpole!
DRAGON: Cat, this is some trick of yours!
VOICE: This is no trick, earthworm, unhappily for you.
You silly bunch of guinea pigs
Have blundered about my property all night,
Trampling my flower-beds, screaming and wailing
At every glimpse of imagined danger
Without a thought for the danger that’s real.
I was asleep here in my cave
When you woke me with your endless squabbling.
DRAGON: Why, that’s my cave, you fraud!
I don’t believe you’re bigger than a blue tit.
If you’re so grand, come out and show yourself!
VOICE: Here I am, lizard; look at me well!
MELISSA: Out of the cave-mouth a snout is gliding,
Longer than a bus, smoke pouring from the nostrils!
CLARISSA: A pair of eyes like swimming-pools…
PRINCESS: An endless neck…
CHIEF: A body big as the North Wing of the Palace,
Bloated and warty, squeezing between the rocks…
EMPEROR: Hooves sharp as atom bombs…
CAT: A tail that could crush a ship…
And to think I didn’t believe in old-fashioned Dragons!
VOICE: Can you all see me clearly? Aren’t I handsome?
DOCTOR: I’ll burn my books!
This monster defies all natural laws!
PROFESSOR: This monster could eat a forest in an hour!
DRAGON: This monster will eat me for my impudence!
Have mercy upon me, King of Dragons!
PAMELA: Prince, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for!
GEORGE: I’m so scared I can hardly breathe,
But I won’t shame my ancestors! Prepare yourself, monster!
PAMELA: Wait for me, George! I’m at your heels!
CHIEF: I shan’t watch them eaten unaided!

[Exeunt GEORGE, PAMELA and CHIEF OF POLICE.]

VOICE: Not since the death of the Emperor’s father
Have I met such impudence!
EMPEROR: Come back, you fools, there’s nothing you can do!
CLARISSA: The Dragon’s rearing up on its hind legs –
Its mouth is wider than a railway tunnel –
The three of them are running straight
Towards its lower lip! A gush of smoke
Sucks them out of sight – they’re gone –
Run for your lives, girls! All is lost!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA.]

EMPEROR: Back to the Palace before it’s too late!
DOCTOR: Back to the metal-walled laboratory!
PROFESSOR: Which way out of this dreadful wood?
DRAGON: Don’t hesitate! Run! My tail’s on fire!

[Exeunt EMPEROR, PROFESSOR, DOCTOR and DRAGON. Loud roaring recedes into distance.]

CAT: How could I have been so blind?
All the while I bickered with the lizard
The real Dragon crouched behind the scenes
With embers throbbing on his tongue.
I was too clever to see past my own whiskers,
And now the morning has broken to bits,
My friends are dead and I’ve lost my bet.
I’m not fit for a Dragon’s dishcloth!

[Music.]

The birds are singing.
I only hear birdsong when I hold my breath,
The endless music that reminds me
We’ll meet again when the dance is done,
For the planets are still spinning round the sun
Like honey-bees around a giant flower.
I’ve lost my bet. I must give myself up to the lizard.

[Exit CAT.]

[For Act Three, see here.]

 

Dragon Scales: A Play for Children. Act One.

[This play was performed by children in the Barn Theatre at Cumnor House School, Danehill, Sussex, in Winter 1983, under the direction of the Headteacher, Nick Milner Gulland. Nick invited me to write it, and I finished it in the summer vacation after completing my degree.

I tried at the time to achieve a measure of gender equality in the cast list, giving an equal number of parts to girls and boys. The focus on climate change remains relevant. But there are attitudes and assumptions here you might want to change in a 2020 performance: play about with the gendering of the couples, give a stronger active role to the Princess, offer a positive view of science to offset the negative ones, slot in some songs – Nick wanted songs! – etc. etc.

The verse was inspired by Ted Hughes’s use of verse in his plays for children, especially The Coming of the Kings. The plot draws heavily on my love of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ve acted in twice: once at High School, and once in the open air theatre at Cumnor House under the direction of Nick’s father, Hal. I put it here in memory of Hal and Nick, with thanks for everything they did for me.

All pictures are by the inestimable Robin Jacques.]

CAST LIST
In order of Appearance

CAT
DRAGON
NURSE
PRINCESS PAMELA
PRINCE GEORGE
MELISSA
CLARISSA
FRANCHISSA
DOCTOR THUMBSCREW
PROFESSOR DUMBSTEW
CHIEF OF POLICE
EMPEROR

ACT ONE: THE PALACE

Scene One

[Enter CAT, with DRAGON behind]

CAT: O, they’re spreading miles of tablecloth
And lighting chandeliers like palaces;
The ceiling hisses with paper-chains
And the goblets bubble with golden light.
But it’s a sad occasion just the same;
The servants go about with doleful faces
Because the Great Hall is the last bright room in the Kingdom,
And this is the last banquet
The Great Hall shall ever see.
It’s all the fault of that pestiferous Dragon!
DRAGON: What are you doing in my play, Cat?
Get out before I gobble you up!
CAT: I’m sorry to disappoint you, Dragon,
But this play doesn’t belong to you.
Go roast potatoes with your smelly breath!
DRAGON: Impudent hussy, you’re out of date!
Go back to your silly pantomimes
And leave the high art forms to Dragons.
CAT: You call yourself a Dragon!
You’re no bigger than a mouse.
Dragons are as big as palaces,
They shrivel haystacks and gobble princesses,
And what’s more, they’ve been extinct for centuries.
DRAGON: A popular misapprehension.
The giant, palace-burning kind
May be extinct, for all I know,
But these days Dragons are of another ilk
Of which I humbly propose myself
As a not infelicitous example,
Modestly scaled, sophisticated, suave,
With top credentials from the Dragon School.
Just look at my achievements in this land!
From a desert choked with trees and flowers
I’ve transformed it to a recreation-ground,
Flattened the hills, erected endless fences
And softened the vulgar shades of blue and green
To elegant tones of black and white.
Such are the powers of the modern mind. In fact,
The only way I’m like old-fashioned Dragons
Is, that I like to GOBBLE PUSSY-CATS!
CAT: Fiddle, I’m not afraid of lizards.
Go nibble maggots in your hole!
She who speaks the Prologue writes the Play,
And I’ve decided to make this play a comedy.
DRAGON: A comedy! Just hear the creature!
These days nobody wants to laugh!
Moonlight murders and noontime massacres,
These days that’s what draws the crowds.
But I like your cheek, Cat. Let’s make a bet.
If you can make the play end happily
I’ll give you anything you ask.
But if it ends badly, even for one person,
I’ll have your flesh for dinner. Is it a deal?
CAT: Shake hands, crocodile.
I’ll win this bet if it’s my last act.
DRAGON: It will be, Cat, it will be.
Ouch! You forgot to sheathe your claws!

CAT: Just wanted to remind you they were there.

The Emperor passes this way to the Hall;
We’ll wait for him in the broom cupboard!
Come on!

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON]

Scene Two

[Enter NURSE, followed by PRINCESS PAMELA and PRINCE GEORGE]

NURSE: Come in and let me see you both, my ducks.
O Princess Pamela, I do declare
You’ll taste better than plum cake!
PAMELA: Just let that monster bite my little toe!
It’s about time they changed that stupid rule
That girls are only allowed to watch;
I’d love to belt a Dragon round the chops!
GEORGE: Don’t mention chops, Pamela. I’m not well.
NURSE: And such a handsome Prince!
You’ll make a lovely corpse, if I may say so.
I watched the Emperor’s great-great-grandpapa
Carried home on his shield after bashing the baleful Bish;
So cold and handsome! I cried a fortnight after.
GEORGE: Dear Nurse, don’t talk like that. I’m ill!
PAMELA: I’ve never been so happy in my life!
Think of all those years they taught us
That Dragons don’t exist, and we must concentrate
On Maths and French and Physics; when hey presto!
Out pops a Dragon like a jack-in-the-box
And threatens to eat me up, the lovely creature!
How vexing I can’t bash it. Well, at least
I’ll get a grandstand view of the fight.
GEORGE: My tummy aches when I think what a grandstand view
I’ll get of the Dragon’s tummy!

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

MELISSA: Clarissa, dear, you look enchanting.
And to think you’re seventy-seven years old last Friday!
How have you kept so young and fresh?
CLARISSA: I’ve kept my virtue, dear Melissa,
Which was better for my skin than ass’s milk.
Imagine, we’re invited to a banquet!
It’ll be almost like old times again.
FRANCHISSA: We’re going to a blanket, we’re going to a blanket!
MELISSA: A banquet, dear Franchissa. Do stop capering
And remember you’re the Emperor’s aunt.
CLARISSA: Remember your age, Franchissa:
Eighty-seven if it’s a day.
Thanks heaven I have tend years left
Before I can call myself old!
MELISSA: Look there! The Prince and Princess, with their nurse!
CLARISSA: How fine the Prince looks in his velvet coat!
How can he bear to look at that plain Princess?
MELISSA: Have you noticed how young the girls are nowadays?
Pamela behaves like a two-year-old.
CLARISSA: Melissa, one need never be ashamed of looking mature!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

PRINCESS: It’s the first bit of fun we’ve had since the land went grey.
Isn’t being eaten better than emptiness?
Once there were colours, animals and flowers,
But now they’ve gone. This is the last chance!
There’s one dance left, the dance of battle,
One colour left, the colour of battle,
One monster left to battle, the Dragon –
And no hope left at all, except the Dragon.
If you won’t fight the beast, I will!
GEORGE: You’re right, of course, Princess. I’ll fight.
But I’d rather paint pictures of cows!
NURSE: Now ducks, the feast’s about to begin,
So hurry along or you’ll miss the soup.
And for afters there’s a juicy sucking pig
Born and bred in the Doctor’s test-tubes,
All in honour of our handsome hero!
GEORGE: O goodness! Soup and sucking pig! My head!

[Exeunt GEORGE, PAMELA and NURSE]

Scene Three

[Enter DOCTOR THUMBSCREW and PROFESSOR DUMBSTEW]

DOCTOR: Ah, Professor Dumbstew, are you heading for the feast?
A word while we’re alone.
PROFESSOR: Doctor Thumbscrew, let it be short.
My tummy’s rumbling like a washing-machine.
DOCTOR: Professor Dumbstew, we have much
To congratulate ourselves upon.
PROFESSOR: We’ve suffered for science, Doctor Thumbscrew.
I haven’t eaten for at least an hour!
DOCTOR: Think of the state the realm was in
Before we came, five years ago!
Wherever there weren’t mountains there were seas,
Wherever there weren’t flowers there were trees –
There were no rules! It was chaos!
But we soon changed all that with our golden rules.
Do you remember mine?
PROFESSOR: Could I forget it?
Every-man-is-a-cog-in-the-great-machine, you used to say.
And have you forgotten mine?
DOCTOR: That every-man-is-a-drop-in-the-primal-stew?
I have it engraved on a pedestal in my brain.
Why, these two rules transformed the land!
PROFESSOR: The air became soup!
DOCTOR: The fields became perfect squares!
PROFESSOR: The sun and the moon were lost in a permanent gravy.
But what was out reward?
Not so much as an extra course at dinner.
DOCTOR: Not so much as a peasant or two
To experiment on in the peace of our laboratories.
Yet we brought our research to fruition –
We invented that great machine in which every man is a cog.
From now on everything anyone does
Shall be a miracle of efficiency!
PROFESSOR: A triumph of taste!
DOCTOR: We simply plug them into our new machine
And nobody shall think, laugh, cry,
Eat sweets, or do anything that’s bad for them
For ever and ever. It’ll be Paradise!
Everyone in the world shall be a cog
Excepting you and I, Professor Dumbstew,
Whose task it will be to oil the joints.
PROFESSOR: But the Emperor will never let his people
Be plugged into this marvelous mechanism!
DOCTOR: The Emperor is one of the last of the backward race
We found when we first arrived in this backward land.
But Prince George is a different kettle of fish.
The lad is sharp – I tutored him myself –
But his consciousness has been preconditioned
To outmoded notions of morality.
I have therefore arranged for him to disappear.
This feast is the last Prince George shall ever taste!
PROFESSOR: The Emperor’s death will be easy to fix,
A drop of something in his porridge oats,
And then I shall marry his elderly aunt –
DOCTOR: And I shall marry his beautiful daughter –
PROFESSOR: And the rest shall be plugged into the machine –
DOCTOR: And I shall be King, and you shall be Queen!
PROFESSOR: And I shall be King, and you shall be Prime Minister.
DOCTOR: Not a word about this to anyone.
PROFESSOR: We mustn’t spill the beans. Look, here he comes!

[Enter CHIEF OF POLICE, followed by EMPEROR]

CHIEF: Make way for his Imperial Majesty!
EMPEROR: I wish you wouldn’t shout, Chief Constable!
Everywhere I go, make way, make way.
Peace and quiet, peace and quiet, all I want is peace and quiet!
DOCTOR: Good evening, sire. Is all prepared?
EMPEROR: The banquet’s ready, if that’s what you mean.
DOCTOR: No, your Majesty, I meant the affair of the Prince.
Will he be in the forest tonight, alone?
EMPEROR: Yes, unless he’s too frightened, in which case
He’ll run through seven kingdoms before he stops,
Which will serve our purpose just as well.
DOCTOR: Then by tomorrow, Emperor,
You may be assured of peace and quiet.
PROFESSOR: Yes, by tomorrow, Emperor,
For you, all will be silent as plum cake!
Come, Doctor, let us hurry to the table!

[Exeunt DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

EMPEROR: Now I wonder what those two were discussing
So privately when I came in?
Since I put the government in their hands
I’ve hated to see them talking on their own.
Thank you, Chief Constable. Leave me alone.
CHIEF: To hear is to obey!

[Exit CHIEF OF POLICE]

EMPEROR: I wish you wouldn’t shout, Chief Constable!
Now what I need is a drop of medicine
To strengthen me for the dirty deed ahead.

[Enter CAT and DRAGON]

CAT: Good day, and better days to come, your Majesty.
DRAGON: Don’t mind the Cat, your Majesty. Good day!
EMPEROR: Goodness this alcohol works quickly!
I hope I haven’t overdone it.
CAT: Did I hear something about a dirty deed?
DRAGON: Sounds exciting! Tell us more.
EMPEROR: O, it’s not exactly a dirty deed.
I’m going to kill my nephew in a forest.
CAT: I thought there weren’t any forests left.
DRAGON: Of course there’s a forest, you ignorant Cat –
A single forest in the North of the Kingdom,
A dark damp forest fit for dark damp deeds.
Don’t mind the Cat, your Majesty. Go on!
EMPEROR: I’m sending him to save my daughter from a Dragon,
Though the last Dragon in the Kingdom died
By choking on my Grandpapa
And Dragons are therefore now extinct.
DRAGON: Except we subtle Dragons of the mind.
CAT: Shut up, fossil! Go on, Emperor.
EMPEROR: Well, though there are no Dragons left,
The air has gone so grey, the earth so ashy,
The trees so stunted and the rain so bitter
That one would think a Dragon had been ravaging the land.
So tonight the Prince goes off to the forest
To fight a beast that doesn’t exist,
And when he’s dead I shall have peace at last.
Now let me drink my medicine in peace.
Explanations give me a headache.
CAT: But why do you want to kill the Prince at all?
DRAGON: Remember, curiosity killed the Cat!
EMPEROR: If you must know, the Doctor says he’s dangerous.
Is that enough for you?
CAT: And you believe whatever the Doctor says?
EMPEROR: Anything for peace and quiet.
CAT: That’s not fair. In fact, it’s dictatorial!
DRAGON: Dictatorial! Where did she learn that word?
Did you hear the Cat, your majesty? Dictatorial!
EMPEROR: I can hear you both, crocodile. I’m not deaf.
DRAGON: But insult of insults! A common Cat!
Dictatorial, You? She should be shot!
EMPEROR: Nobody respects me any more.
The other day my daughter called me Pugface.
DRAGON: If I were Emperor I wouldn’t stand it.
After all the good you’ve done your country!
EMPEROR: By Jove, lizard, you’re right!
Her insolence has turned my medicine sour.
Why, I’ve never hurt a fly in all my life!
I’ll have the cheeky creature boiled and stuffed!
CAT: You wooden-headed puppet of an Emperor!
EMPEROR: O my heart! An insult!
CAT: Here you sit, dreaming of peace and quiet
While your kingdom turns to cobwebs round your feet!
I’ll give you medicine. Take that, and that!
EMPEROR: My nose! Chief Constable! Fire! Murder! Help!

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON. Enter CHIEF OF POLICE]

CHIEF: No need to shout, your Majesty. I’m here.
EMPEROR: There was a Cat-thing and a Lizard-thing,
And the Cat-thing upped and bonked me on the beak!
O! I have caught an everlasting cold!
CHIEF: You’ve taken too much medicine, sire, that’s all.
Your medicine always makes your nose go red.
A Lizard-thing, you say? That’s odd.
Earlier this evening, as I did the rounds
In a dark passage in the North Wing of the Palace,
I glimpsed a strange phenomenon at the window…
EMPEROR: What sort of strange phenomenon?
CHIEF: There was a fierce dust-storm at the time,
And you know when the dust blows these days
Nobody dares to leave the house;
It looked like clouds of smoke rolling from Earth to Heaven.
Yet there was another movement in the smoke,
As if the night were shifting in its sleep,
And the floor trembled under my feet.
EMPEROR: No doubt an earthquake.
There’ve been more since we went progressive.
CHIEF: That’s what I thought. I approached the window
And suddenly I could have sworn I saw
A scaly eye blinking among the dust-clouds.
EMPEROR: You’re not employed to swear.
CHIEF: I knew I was dreaming, because if it had been real
The creature would have been bigger than a haystack,
Bigger than the North Wing of the Palace.
EMPEROR: Don’t mention wings! The Dragons are extinct –
Only the Prince thinks Dragons still exist.
Your part in my plot is confusing your brains!
Is your dagger sharp? I’d hate to think
You were untrustworthy.
CHIEF: True as steel, your Majesty. I won’t mention it again.
EMPEROR: Then escort me to the feast, Chief Constable.
I must ask the Doctor to change my prescription;
This stuff’s too strong for my tender head.

[Exeunt EMPEROR and CHIEF OF POLICE. Re-enter CAT and DRAGON]

DRAGON: You see, Cat? You’re ineffectual.
I hear they need a Puss-in-Boots at Haywards Heath;
Why not apply for the job? They can only refuse!
CAT: Very clever, Dragon, but I’m not finished yet!
The Emperor’s a mouse hardly worth catching –
I’m after bigger fish.
DRAGON: Just keep out of my path,
Or I might find myself too hungry
To leave my dinner to the final Act!

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON]

Scene Four

[Enter NURSE]

NURSE: Bless my soul, can you hear the banquet?
Between the soup and sucking-pig there’s salmon,
Rosy-pink salmon on silver platters,
And eighteen different puddings that nobody will touch,
Made of a new kind of edible plastic
Invented by the Doctor.
But it’s a solemn banquet just the same;
People laugh with eyes glazed like jellies
As they did on the night the Emperor’s Uncle
(The one the poets nicknamed Beolamb)
Went out in his armour to savage the sedulous Snipe.
I’m here to light the ballroom lamps;
I haven’t waltzed since my second husband died!

[Enter CHIEF OF POLICE, EMPEROR, PAMELA, GEORGE, CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, DOCTOR, PROFESSOR, and behind them, CAT]

CHIEF: Ladies and gentlemen, take your partners for the waltz!
EMPEROR: I wish that fellow wouldn’t shout!
Well, Aunt, we had better set an example.
Madam, will you dance?
FRANCHISSA: With all my heart!
GEORGE: I feel a little better now, Pamela.
Will you dance? We may not get another chance.
MELISSA: Did you see, Clarissa? I’ve been snubbed!
There I stood on the other side of the room,
Waiting for a partner, radiant with beauty,
When George took the hand of that saucy trollop!
CLARISSA: Melissa, thank Heaven you saw him for what he was
Before your virtue was endangered.
Myself, I knew him rotten to the core
Since the first course of the banquet,
When he passed the rolls to Pamela
Before passing them to me.
MELISSA: Tush! We can do without the young.
Now observe that Doctor Thumbscrew in the corner;
Wouldn’t a woman break her heart for him?
CLARISSA: A dashing figure! But my tastes
Incline towards the thoughtful Professor.
Come, Melissa!
Beauty and Virtue offer themselves to Science!
BOTH: Good evening, gentlemen! Will you join the dance?
EMPEROR: My goodness, Aunt, how quickly you can waltz!
CAT: Round and round the Prince and Princess whirl;
Somehow I must speak to them before the evening ends.
The lizard is wolfing salmon scraps in the kitchen,
But the Doctor keeps an eye fixed on the Prince.
CHIEF: It’s odd, I feel a crackling in the air
As though a thunderstorm were building up.
Yet the dust has settled,
And the moon for once is clear as ice.
I think I’ll go the rounds again
To see that the guards are keeping their eyes peeled.

[Exit CHIEF]

CLARISSA: What do you think of Dragons, dear Professor?
PROFESSOR: A mythical beast reputed to swallow Princesses.
It must have had an excellent digestion;
I fear I’ve eaten too much sucking-pig!
CLARISSA: I think of Dragons whenever my virtue’s in peril.
A thousand Dragons dance with me tonight!
MELISSA: How rude the young are these days, Doctor Thumbscrew!
They need ruling with an iron rod.
DOCTOR: How pleasant to find we share an opinion!
You must visit my chambers one day and examine my blueprints!

[Re-enter CHIEF OF POLICE and NURSE]

CHIEF: Sound the alarm! There’s something in the garden!
NURSE: Call out the guards! It’s trampling the cabbages!
CHIEF: The second-best kitchen is on fire!
EMPEROR: Report to me in the cellar, Chief Constable!

[Exeunt in different directions EMPEROR, NURSE and CHIEF OF POLICE]

PAMELA: Come on, Prince George, we’ll chop its tail to shreds!

[Exeunt PAMELA and GEORGE]

CLARISSA: Save me, Professor Dumbstew!
MELISSA: Protect me, Doctor Thumbscrew!
DOCTOR: Dumbstew, you have the keys to the laboratories –
The walls are fireproof, we can hide in there.
PROFESSOR: Women aren’t allowed in the laboratories,
You’ll have to hide elsewhere.
MELISSA: But Doctor, the words that passed between us!
CLARISSA: Professor, the whispers we exchanged!
PROFESSOR: Now don’t be difficult, ladies.
We great men have a duty to survive
So that when all else is destroyed
We can restore celestial Civilization.
DOCTOR: Civilization has no need of women.
We hope the fire display is to your liking.
Good night!

[Exeunt DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

CLARISSA: You basilisks! We’ll scratch your eyes out!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

CAT: Now I wonder what this monster is,
Since you and I know Dragons don’t exist…
At least the alarm has broken up the party
So there’s more chance of speaking to Prince George.

[Re-re-enter CHIEF OF POLICE]

CHIEF: This is dreadful! The guards have run away
Swearing they won’t protect a cowardly Emperor,
All the Royal Family
Except the Prince and Princess Pamela
Are hidden in different cupboards in the cellar,
And the Doctor and Professor are locked in their laboratory
Refusing to answer the door. It’s chaos!

[Re-enter PAMELA and GEORGE]

PAMELA: We put the fire out in the kitchen, Chief Constable.
GEORGE: I burnt my finger. Look, it’s gone red!

[Re-re-enter NURSE]

NURSE: Thank Heaven I’ve found the three of you at last!
I’ve looked in every cupboard in the Palace.
CHIEF: I left you watching from an upstairs window.
What news of the monster? Did you see it clearly?
PRINCESS: Did it have wings?
GEORGE: Did it look poorly at all?
NURSE: I saw the baleful Bish bashed by the Emperor’s ancestor,
And the garrulous Gargle that choked on his Grandpapa,
And the sedulous Snipe skewered by his valiant Uncle,
But my sight’s not as good as it was;
I didn’t see the monster in the garden clearly.
I saw a pair of shining horns and two pairs of cloven hooves,
I heard its fearful bellow and the cracking of its teeth –
It was bigger than the North Wing of the Palace!
But I didn’t get a closer glimpse
Before it lolloped roaring back to the forest
Sending up clouds of ash at every stride.
PAMELA: How annoying of it to run off
Before we could give it a reason for running!
CHIEF: It’s gone! We’re rescued! Come on, Nurse,
We’ll inform the Emperor at once.

[Exeunt NURSE and CHIEF OF POLICE]

PAMELA: Wasn’t it fun to feel the beast so close?
I hope it wasn’t frightened by our racket;
It’ll be a shame if the beast’s too scared to fight.
GEORGE: It wasn’t too terrifying, was it, after all?
I thought I was quite plucky in the fire.
Do you think I’m getting braver, Pamela?
I’m almost looking forward to – O help!

[CAT approaches]

CAT: Good evening, your Royal Highnesses.
GEORGE: A talking Cat on hind legs! It’s a werewolf!
CAT: No, not a werewolf, just unspeakably clever.
I’ve come to warn you of a plot!
PAMELA: Are you the plot?
CAT: No, I’m the Cat, I tell you.
There’s no time for discussion, you’re in danger.
Listen: the Dragon you’re to fight tonight
Doesn’t exist, it’s merely a device
To get you in the forest on your own
And have you horribly murdered in the dark!
Prince George, don’t leave the Palace walls tonight!
GEORGE: The Dragon doesn’t exist? Then how do you explain
The monster Nurse saw in the cabbage-bed
With horns and cloven hooves?
CAT: What else has horns and cloven hooves?
GEORGE: A cow.
But I love painting what few cows are left
In their ashy meadows, and I know cows don’t breathe flames.
How could a cow set a house alight?
CAT: Kitchens are always catching fire;
Cook probably left a bun loaf in the oven.
PAMELA: But what about its size?
Cows aren’t as big as haystacks, let alone
As big as the North Wing of the Palace!
CAT: The Nurse was frightened, she exaggerated.
Besides, she said herself her sight is poor.
O Pamela, trust me for the Prince’s sake!
PAMELA: How can we tell you’re an honest Cat?
You’re probably trying to make us miserable
Like everyone else in this wretched Palace!
Nurse never told an untruth in her life.
CAT: Princess. It’s George’s life at stake;
You’d better let him decide.
Look at me, Prince! You know I’m telling the truth!
GEORGE: Certainly what you say sounds reasonable.
It’s possible she could have been mistaken;
And the Emperor hasn’t addressed me for several days.
PAMELA: O George, don’t trust the Cat!
What shall we do if we don’t go into the forest?
Shall we sit around and moulder like the Emperor?
Or murder the flowers like the Doctor?
Or sit at home pulling off spiders’ legs!
CAT: The Prince must make up his own mind, Princess.
Will you go to the forest and meet your doom?
GEORGE: Don’t think I doubt your goodness, Cat,
But it seems to me that whether I believe you or not
I’m likely to end up eaten or murdered;
And I’d rather act than sit in a dither at home.
I only hope I give the Dragon heartburn!
PRINCESS: Then you’ll fight after all! I knew you would!
O George, I love you better than a left to the jaw!
Come along, I’ll polish your armour to sunbeams!

[Exeunt PAMELA and GEORGE. Enter DRAGON]

DRAGON: Why, Cat, you’re looking down-in-the-mouth!
Have you failed again? Perhaps I should eat you now
And save you any further misery!
CAT: Shut up, serpent. You’re not playing fair!
I knew all along there wasn’t a cow in the garden,
Because the eye the Chief Constable saw
From the window of the North Wing corridor
Had scales! You’ve been up to your tricks again!
DRAGON: Now don’t you act the injured innocent!
I’ve been in the kitchen all the time
Picking the salmon bones. The cabbage-bed monster
Was you yourself, dressed in a Dragon suit,
Trying to scare the Prince into staying at home!
CAT: Don’t try to fool me, Dragon. It was you!
DRAGON: I’d scorn to lie to a Cat. I’d eat you first.
CAT: Then – what was in the cabbage bed tonight?
DRAGON: Suddenly I feel prickles all over my hide.
We sophisticated Dragons
Don’t like unexplained phenomena.
CAT: We Cats don’t like mysteries we can’t solve.
DRAGON: If I find you’ve been lying –
CAT: If I find you’re a double-crosser –
DRAGON: Well, we won’t discuss it now.
Whatever the answer to this riddle
It’s plain you’re rapidly losing the bet.
Soon the Prince will be stumbling through the forest,
And the forest is my kingdom, Cat!
CAT: There you go again, claiming what isn’t yours.
Anything can happen in the dark. Remember,
I said I’d win if it was my last act.

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON]

[For Act Two, see here.]


A Brief History of Fantasy at Glasgow

[This is the script for a five-minute talk I gave at the launch of the Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic on 16 September 2020. Ellen Kushner gave the keynote, which was followed by a discussion panel featuring Brian Attebery, Terri Windling and myself.]

Kinuko Y. Kraft, Cover Illustration for Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer

Once upon a time there was a child who loved to read. He only read stories about things that could never happen, often set in lands or worlds that never existed, full of creatures unknown to science. He liked these stories because he was at boarding school and they took him far away from the life he led there, in dormitories and classrooms and corridors smelling of cabbage.

Maurice Sendak, Reading is fun!

As he got older he went on reading stories about impossible things, but he did it in secret, because such stories were for younger children. He found there were also stories for adults of this kind, often of great beauty and complexity, though people told him that this sort of story was less grown up than other kinds.

Don Quixote in his library, by Gustave Doré

When he grew up he wrote a doctoral thesis about stories written in the sixteenth century. This was considered a serious subject because the stories were old, but they carried him away to lands that felt as if they had been invented, full of magic, and strange creatures, and vivid pictures painted in delightful words. He got a job at Glasgow University.

Arthur Rackham, Illustration for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

Later still he went to America, where he was allowed to teach a course on the books he most liked reading, about things that never existed and never could exist. When he got back he set up a course exactly like that, for undergraduates. His friend Alice Jenkins suggested he set up a Masters programme to teach the books to graduate students and encourage the world to take them seriously.

Leonora Carrington, And then we saw the daughter of the Minotaur

People like him from all over the world came to study on the programme. He hadn’t realized how many people there were like him in the world: people who loved thinking about invented places and things and creatures and asking questions about them, such as why they had been invented, what needs they fulfilled at different times in history, and how they might shape the world we live in.

Pauline Baynes, Map of Middle-Earth

Glasgow University saw how many people were interested in impossible things and created more jobs in the area. He was joined by new companions from places far away and magical to him, such as Greece and Wales and the British Library. The fellowship of staff and students grew quietly from year to year.

Brothers Hildebrandt, An unexpected party

Together we invented new ways to share the pleasure of the impossible. Night at the Museum, where imaginary people and things took over the Hunterian Museum for an evening. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, where more people were invited to join us and talk about books and films and comics and games. A conference for imagining climate change. Fantasy Reading Parties, where we could share the stories, scripts and poems we had written. Symposiums where we plotted events for the future.

Paul Lewin, The offering

Five years after the founding of the Glasgow Fantasy MLitt programme, here we are again, setting up a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, designed to make it easier to share ideas and dreams about the impossible with everyone who cares to join in.

Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon

Perhaps the impossible is not so impossible after all? Perhaps things can really be done with fantasy and the fantastic, and to the hearts and minds of people who enjoy such things? Perhaps fantasy and the fantastic can change the way we think of the world or the country or the town or the house we live in? Perhaps together we can build a future where the impossible becomes a template for the possible?

Remedios Varo, Creacion de las aves

Shall we find out?

Tove Jansson, Illustration for Moominland Midwinter