Today is a day of joy: I have the Blood-red Dragon running scared. Oh, she’s not dead, but never again will she drive me to despair, poison my thoughts, sour my life. I have conquered her, after Maureen and Colleen showed me how.
I am free.
The Blood-red Dragon moved in when I was five years old. I didn’t know what she was then, of course, just that something started gnawing at my heart after Mama told me, “Jimmy, Dad isn’t coming home anymore.”
I lay awake night after night, worrying about what I’d done to stop him from loving me. Mama wouldn’t talk about it, and for two whole weeks I wondered if he was dead, or gone away forever, or… I just didn’t know.
Then Friday evening when she tucked me into bed, Mama said, “Tomorrow your Dad is coming to take you for the weekend. You behave yourself with that woman, you hear?”
I wanted to ask what woman that was, but her face crumpled up, and for a shocking moment I thought she’d cry, so I said nothing.
The doorbell rang at nine in the morning. That was odd — didn’t he have a key? Mama opened the door and there he was! I raced past her and jumped. He caught me and swung me up like always. He carried me to the car and strapped me in. As he drove off, he said over his shoulder, “Jimmy, I’m taking you to play with two wonderful kids. They’re going to be your friends. They told me they’re really looking forward to meeting you.”
He stopped at a house with a nice garden. A lady stood at the door, two giggling big girls behind her. They all had dark curly hair and blue eyes. Dad said, “Darling, this is my Jimmy.”
That confused me. Who was “Darling?”
But then Dad looked down at me, saying, ‘Jim, this is Aunt Katrina. She’s sort of your second mother. And those two beauties are Claire and Leonie.”
The two girls giggled again.
Aunt Katrina had cake and soft drinks ready, and I did my best not to drop crumbs. This was great! Mama never gave me cake, because she said sugar’s bad for you.
The girls finished theirs before me. Leonie grabbed my hand and told me to come with her. I didn’t know what to do, but Aunt Katrina shouted, “Let the boy finish his!”
I happened to be looking at Leonie’s face, and became scared, just for a moment. Then she smiled. “OK, Jimmy, enjoy your cake, then come on, we want to play with you.”
I ate as fast as I could, and as I stood, Claire gave me a grin. “Come on, Jimmy, to our room. We’ll play,” and she walked off. Leonie giggled and skipped after her, then waited for me at a door with cartoons cut out from newspapers stuck all over it. “Come on, slowcoach,” she called, and I knew she laughed at me inside.
The room was all pink frills and dolls and books, with a double bunk in one corner. I knew about double bunks because my best friend Mike had them, and I’d slept at his place.
Very seriously, Claire told me, “Jimmy, I’m twice your age. You know what that means?”
I didn’t know how to answer such a silly question. Should I say “ten?”
“Listen stupid, that means that you have to do what I tell you. You must be obedient. OK?”
“Good boy!” She smiled at me. “Come and give me a kiss.”
She bent down and I kissed her cheek, the way I did with Mama, but she grabbed my head, put her mouth on mine and her tongue tickled my lips as she sucked.
When she stopped, she said, “That’s how they do it on TV.”
I’d never seen anything like that on TV, only Sesame Street and Play School.
“My turn,” Leonie shouted. I had to kiss her like that, too. I didn’t mind, though I didn’t like it very much either.
I wanted to stop after awhile because my lips got sore, besides it was boring.
Claire said, “I’ve got boobies, did you know that?”
Again I said nothing. What could I say?
“Stupid, I’m talking to you!”
“You want to see them?”
“No.” I just wanted to go home. I would have cried, except I didn’t want them to laugh at me.
Leonie said, “Play mothers and babies! Claire, give him a titty.”
They laughed until both had to bend over and tears came from their eyes. I didn’t see anything funny, so just stood there.
At last, Leonie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and looked at me. I could see she was trying to think of the next tease. “Hey Jimmy,” she said, “have you ever seen a girl’s bottom?”
I wanted to go home, to my safe world with Mama, and play with my Lego set, and have nothing to do with these strange, dangerous, unpredictable creatures.
Claire spoke in a very teacherish voice, “James, you were asked a question.”
Both roared with laughter at that.
“You g-g-got any toys to play with?” I managed.
“Little baby is stuttering!” from Leonie.
“I want to go home.”
“Hey Jim,” Leonie said as if I hadn’t spoken, “You show me your dickie and I show you my pussy.”
I actually took a step toward the door when I felt my arms grabbed from behind. Then Claire held me around the chest, and she was much bigger, and Leonie stood in front and unzipped my jeans and pulled them down, and my underpants.
I saw the door swing open, and Aunt Katrina coming in with a tray that held steaming cups.
Instantly, the two girls were well away from me, and Claire said in an outraged tone of voice, “Oh Mum, I was just going to call you. Look what Jimmy is doing!”
The tray crashed to the floor, the lady screaming at me, “You evil perverted child!” On an on she went, a great wave of shrill meaningless sound, and Dad was there and roaring, and picked me up with one hand, and a great stinging slap on my bare behind, and he said not a word on the drive home, and when we got there and he told Mama, she beat me with the wooden spoon, and for days she told me how I shamed her and who’d want to have a child like that?
And so the Blood-red Dragon moved in to stay.
I am now 35 years old. For 30 years, I have hated myself. For 30 years, I have known that I was ugly, and stupid and evil, and that no-one could possibly love me.
Somehow, everything went wrong after this. I didn’t want to go to school on Monday, although until then I’d loved it. I didn’t want to go, but didn’t dare to say so to Mama. At school, I knew that everyone could see what a terrible boy I was, and pulled into myself. When other kids wanted to play with me, something within said, “You’re an evil perverted child!” I didn’t know what “perverted” meant, but it had to be awful. After awhile all my friends left me alone, and so did my teacher.
At the end of the year, they kept me down in first grade. And the something inside told me, “See! You’re stupid.”
When I was old enough for high school, I still couldn’t read all that well, and maths was a mystery. I made sure not to try at anything, because that way I wouldn’t fail. And girls were a terrible, threatening danger I stayed away from.
Strangely, I forgot all about Claire and Leonie and Aunt Katrina. In fact, until yesterday, I had no memories of my early childhood at all. Dad never called for me after that day. I know he stayed with Aunt Katrina for several years, then they split up and he went interstate. He could have been dead for all the contact we had, and it was all my fault, and so somehow I put it all from my mind. There was just me and Mama, and I was a sad disappointment to her.
I left school at 16, which is the youngest you can, and got a job as a builder’s labourer. Digging ditches, carrying lengths of timber, wheeling barrowloads of concrete — I was smart enough for that, barely. But I was uncomfortable in the rough, friendly world of men. After awhile, they left me alone too.
Then the company expanded. Glenn and Dino joined the team. They were mates, perhaps two years older than me. Glenn had red hair, a ready smile, and stories about a different girl each week. Dino looked like a bodybuilder, with olive skin, jet-black hair and eyes, and a quick brain that questioned everything. Although still a teenager, he soon convinced the foreman to do things differently, and as a result our team improved in productivity and we all got bonuses at the end of the year.
That was the good part. The bad part was that Dino noticed that there was something wrong with me. And this made me a perfect target for his sense of humour.
I’d be wheeling a barrow full of sand, when suddenly two huge shovelsful of sand landed within it, one next to each handle. Glenn and Dino then laughed uproariously as the sudden shock jerked the handles from my grip and I lost the load. I’d open my lunchbox, to find a picture of a nude inside, and everyone howled with laughter as my face burst into flames. Dino delighted in mental arithmetic, working out quantities in his head before others could do it on paper, and he often shot questions at me, showing everyone what an idiot I was.
I lay awake at night, with waking dreams of murdering Dino. I saw myself ramming the sharp edge of a spade into his throat, and seeing his head severed off his neck, blood spurting. I saw myself pulling a ladder away, with him on top. I saw him buried in concrete, me holding the end of the hose of the pumping machine, playing the thick grey heavy stream all over his face.
But the voice inside me said, “You? You don’t have the guts to do it.”
So, after the Christmas break, I didn’t return to work. I had plenty of money, hadn’t spent it on anything except board to Mama.
I took it all from the bank and hopped on a bus. I didn’t care where it went. I didn’t even bother to say good-bye to Mama. After all, we barely talked to each other anymore, just two people sharing a house. I thought she’d be relieved that I was gone. She was an attractive lady. Without me, she could perhaps start a new life.
I became an agricultural labourer. That suited me: going from crop to crop, place to place, up and down the land from one climatic zone to another, part of a shifting population of loners. No one cared if I kept to myself. Next week, we’d be going in different directions anyway.
For 18 years, I’ve been a tumbleweed, a drifter, a hermit within the crowd.
I might have stayed like that for the rest of my life, if it hadn’t been for Maureen. She is 50 if a day, but with a lot of muscle under the rolls of fat. Her hair is a very artificial black, and I’m sure that the teeth exposed by that ready smile come out at night.
She advertised for a “hand to help on small dairy farm.” I phoned her from two towns away, gave her the names and phone numbers of my last three employers, and she said, “Jim, you’re on,” just like that.
“But… don’t you want to check me out?”
“Nah, I have a way of knowing about people, it’s never let me down.” She gave me directions.
It took me no time at all to get on top of the job. I’ve used milking machines before, and animals have never given me any grief, only people. On the evening of the first day, Maureen sat me down in her kitchen and put a fragrant beef stew in front of me. As she served herself, she said proudly, “Me daughter Colleen’s had to go to the city, she’s starting at the University, like. That’s why I need someone to replace her.”
“Thank you for choosing me, Maureen. But I never stay anywhere long.”
She plonked her broad butt onto the bench opposite me and spooned a mouthful. “What you running from, son?” she asked when her mouth was empty.
I usually clammed up when anyone asked a personal question, but somehow, to my surprise, I heard my own voice say, “Uh… from myself I guess.”
“That’s the most terrible monster there is. You winning the race?”
“Jim, my husband committed suicide, many years ago. My son Terry died in a tractor accident. I’ve survived all that, and still think life is good.” We continued eating in silence.
A chocolate pudding followed the stew. “You need a little fattening up,” she said with a laugh. I didn’t reveal my thought that she could do with a little less fattening up, but she looked in my face and laughed again. “Jim, I don’t have a man to keep me warm in bed. I need the padding on the cold nights.”
I got up at first light, but as I walked out to the kitchen, Maureen was just coming in, fully dressed, carrying a basket of eggs. “Five from yesterday,” she said. “Not bad for six hens.”
During the next few weeks, I mended fences, filled the shed with firewood, fixed a roof leak in a barn, as well as helping to run the farm. Maureen and I worked well together. She respected my need for silence, and yet successfully drew me out on occasion, like on that first evening.
Then she sprung a surprise on me. “Jim,” she said, again over dinner, “I’m upping your wages.” She gave her deep laugh at my amazement. “Look, mate, you’re worth it. I never have to instruct you on anything more than once, you even find jobs that need doing and just go and do them. You’re intelligent, and willing, and good to have around.”
This was the first time in my life anyone had called me intelligent.
“Thank you,” I said finally, “but it’s not necessary. I’m happy to…”
“It is necessary,” she answered. “I appreciate your work. I want you to feel appreciated. My guess is that hasn’t happened very often.”
I managed not to cry in front of her.
So, more weeks passed, and the months. For the first time, ever, I had a home.
Then Easter came around. On the Thursday evening, I was watering the standard roses Maureen has on each side of the driveway in front of the house, when a little red car went by and stopped at the front door.
A girl got out and called, “Hi, you must be Jim. Mum has talked about you on the phone. I’m Colleen.”
In the red light of sunset, she looked like a goddess — slim, poised, beautiful.
I was ready to run. I could say nothing, not even to return her greeting.
After waiting for a response, she shrugged, pulled a backpack from the car and went inside.
I turned off the water, walked around the back to my room, and packed my few belongings. The voice within, my enemy, told me I had to go. I could not stay in the same house with her.
Suitcase in hand, I opened the door. The two women were in the corridor, approaching.
“I thought so,” Maureen said. For once she didn’t smile. “Jim, put that down and come to the kitchen.”
I couldn’t resist the command in her voice.
Once I sat at my usual spot, with Maureen and Colleen on the other side of the table, Maureen said, “My dear boy, someone has hurt you, very badly.”
“No… I just… um…”
“You ever had a girlfriend?”
I had to get out of there. But Maureen’s eyes held me and I couldn’t move.
Colleen spoke up, but I avoided looking at her. “Jim, I don’t bite, you know. I’m a person, just like you, or Mum. I’m not going to do anything to give you grief. Please let me have a chance.”
Of course, she gave me grief, just by existing. Female, young, attractive, intelligent — everything that made me want to run. I didn’t know why I was terrified, this was just the way of the world. A stupid, ugly stuffup like me couldn’t even be a moth to her flame.
Maureen interrupted my inner agonising. “Jim, when the tractor crushed Terry,” her eyes suddenly shone with tears, “I felt the world had ended. And if it wasn’t for my darling Colleen, who was just a kid then, it might have.”
Colleen reached across and squeezed her mother’s hand. I saw this from the corner of my eyes, for I was looking down.
“I felt that I was a failure. A failure as a wife, for what kind of a wife has a husband who kills himself? And what kind of a mother allows a 17 year old boy to do dangerous work that kills him?”
She stopped, then after a long silence, she banged the table with the flat of her hand. I jumped at the sound.
“But after awhile, I worked out that the blaming thoughts were not me, not the real Maureen. I thought of the voice that imitated mine so well as coming from a big, cruel spider that sucked the joy out of my existence, tried to keep me forever grieving. And I decided I had a life to live.
“So, I examined the evidence, like I was judge and jury, and the monster spider the prosecutor. Dermott committed suicide because of his problems, his inner demons. I was not responsible for his actions. And Terry had driven that tractor for two years, and he was a good tractor driver, and anyway he never listened to any warnings from me since he was ten years old. It was bad luck, or his bad judgment, or both.
“And anyway, beating myself over the head was not going to bring my two lovely men back.”
She smiled with her mouth while tears fell from her eyes, and I wanted to give her a hug. Only, I didn’t do thinks like that, ever.
Colleen said, “Jim, Mum’s monster was a big black spider. What’s yours?”
I closed my eyes, and I could see the monster. I answered, “It’s a blood-red dragon.” The dragon had a long, scaly body, black wings and a whiplike tail. A cruel, many-toothed grin split her face, and her blue eyes looked on me with contemptuous amusement. I knew she was a female, because, oddly, she had a pair of prominent breasts, like on the disgusting pictures Dino had put in my lunchbox.
“What’s the dragon’s name?”
“Leonie,” I said, without thought, surprising myself.
“Who is Leonie?” Maureen asked.
“I… I don’t know. I don’t know anyone called ‘Leonie’. Maybe that’s why I picked the name, so it’s not any person.”
“Jim, you’ve been here for awhile. Do you want to know what my considered opinion of you is?”
I just looked at Maureen, not knowing what to answer.
“You’re highly intelligent. When you see a problem, you work at it, and find a solution. You’re good at learning. You’re a meticulous workman, near enough is never good enough. And I’m willing to bet any amount you’d never have guessed anyone could think that about you.”
“Because,” Colleen cut in, “Leonie the Blood-red Dragon has told you terrible lies about yourself, for much of your life.”
“If I was so smart, why couldn’t I even finish school? Why don’t I have a life like everyone else?”
“Is your life so bad?” Colleen’s big brown eyes held mine. “You eat well, are fit and strong from all the exercise, you’ve seen more of this wonderful country than any tourist ever could, you have a great deal of knowledge about a whole range of topics. Why, I reckon you could make a good living as an agricultural consultant!”
We all laughed at that.
Maureen took up the attack, or that’s how it felt. “And are you so bad that you need to run from yourself all the time? After I hired you on the phone, I did ring up the people you gave as your references, and all spoke very highly of you. You’re a good worker, they said, don’t argue back or whinge, just do what you’re asked, never have any hassles with anyone. Never lose your temper, quiet, polite, don’t drink or smoke — a good fellow to have around. Pity he didn’t stay longer, they said.”
I felt as if they were twisting knives in my gut. I wanted to run, but couldn’t without being impolite. But neither could I answer.
After a silence laden with lead, Colleen said, “But, Jim, I bet it doesn’t feel like that, inside. I bet I know what you’re thinking, because Mum used to think like that.”
“Yes,” Maureen took it up, “if only they knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me at all.”
This was exactly right, of course.
Colleen reached out a hand toward me. “But you see, Jim, the real you IS what others see. What you feel about yourself is based on Leonie’s lies.”
How could a girl barely out of childhood be so wise?
“Anyway, go and wash up, you two. Half an hour to dinner. And Jim, unpack your bag or I’ll belt you with the broom!”
Even I laughed at that.
I woke in the middle of the night, my dream still vivid. I was in a room with dolls and pink frills everywhere, but somehow everything was gigantic. The huge door opened, and a female giant strode in. She wore a blue dress, and had curly black hair. She looked down at me from her great height and shrieked, “You evil perverted child!”
This was meaningless. I was covered in cold sweat, my bedclothes were in a tangle and I found it difficult to breathe.
I couldn’t risk going back to bed, back to that dream. I wanted a shower, but the noise would’ve woken Maureen and Colleen. So I quietly went out into the yard and used an outside tap for a cold wash.
Now was my chance to leave.
I returned to my room, and again started to pack.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I thought of someone else. Maureen would feel as if she’d failed another man.
I undressed, lay down, and counted the dark hours until dawn.
When I came back into the house after milking the cows in the morning, Colleen was waiting with breakfast for me instead of her mother. Seeing her, I turned in automatic response, ready to walk out.
“Jim!” she called. “Don’t go, please.”
“And Jim, it’s all right to look at me. You’re standing there like a flower in a drought.”
“C’mon. Have some bacon and eggs on toast. I made it specially for you.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled and sat down.
“You don’t look like you’ve had a good sleep.”
“No, had a nightmare.”
“Does that happen often?”
“No, usually I don’t dream at all, or at least don’t remember any.”
“Jim, there is something poisonous in your past, I just know it. Something has put that dragon there. And it’s so terrible that you’ve locked it behind a big steel door. And our talking yesterday disturbed it, and it’s bubbled up in your sleep. I’m sorry, it’s my doing.”
The door opened behind me, and Maureen said, “I heard that while taking off my boots. You know, the way to cure a boil is to squeeze out the pus.”
“Very appropriate, Mum, when we have nice yellow egg-yolks in front of us!” I couldn’t help laughing with them.
Colleen bounced up as Maureen sat, and served her mother. Then she returned to her breakfast, too. “Jim’s had a nightmare last night, Mum. That’s what we were talking about.”
“Jim,” Maureen said, “Please don’t take this the wrong way. I am not prying. But please, would you tell us the dream?”
I did, haltingly.
“I wonder if that was Leonie?” Colleen mused.
“No,” I said with certainty, though I didn’t know how I knew.
“She was a giant. And called you an evil perverted child. You know what? I reckon it’s a memory of a real event. It has to be.”
Suddenly, I choked on my food. I couldn’t breathe. Black spots swam before my eyes and I heard a faint roar in my ears, like distant surf.
When I became aware of my surroundings, I found my head cuddled to Maureen’s breasts, her arms around my shoulders, her hand patting me. “It’s all right, son,” she said. “It’s in the distant past, whatever it is. You’re an adult, and safe, and with friends.”
I sat up. “Sorry.”
“No, I am sorry,” Colleen said, her face wet with tears. “Me and my big mouth!”
“But you see… it must be true. I must have been an evil perverted child, or why would anyone…”
Colleen jumped from her seat, whirled out of the room and returned in a moment with a pen and a piece of paper. “Draw it,” she commanded. “Draw how big the door and the woman seemed, compared to your size.”
“It’s detective work.”
I did my best.
Colleen gave a little half-laugh as she looked on. “I expected some rough stick figures. Jim, you’re quite an artist.”
I looked up. “Me?”
“Well, that shows the door part open, in perspective, and the woman, I could almost recognise her from this if I ever saw her, and the way you have the dress. You always look away from people, and yet you must be an excellent observer. Anyway, looking at you there, I reckon you must have been no more than seven. Probably younger, what do you think?”
“I was five,” I answered, and then stopped in shock. “I didn’t know I knew that,” I added in wonder, too surprised to feel any distress. I lost awareness of my audience and said softly, to myself, “I was five because Claire was ten and she was twice my age.”
Everything became crystal clear within my mind. With my adult eyes, I looked at what I’d buried, all those years ago.
“Jim, you’ve changed, you’ve lost that constant tenseness,” Maureen said softly, pulling me back into the present. She sat close beside me, motherly, comforting.
“I was five,” I said. “My father left us, and I thought it must have been my fault. Then he took me to his new lady, and she had two daughters. Claire was ten, Leonie maybe eight. And they made fun of me, made me feel stupid. Then… then Claire held me and Leonie pulled my pants down, and their mother came in. And I was blamed.”
“How old are you now?” Colleen asked.
“So, you’ve been torturing yourself for 30 years about this?”
“No, I don’t think so. You see, I’d forgotten it all. Until now.”
“But that’s where the Blood-red Dragon comes from. And she’s been torturing you.”
“Well, Jim,” Maureen cut in, “Now you know where she comes from, you can fight back. Today is the first day of your life.”