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I knew it was the last thing I should do. I knew it would seal my fate, like signing my own prison sentence or burying myself in a grave. I knew it wasn't cool and it would only make things worse, but I couldn't help it.
I started crying.
Well, once I'd done that, there was no point in staying around. I left them to their football and walked, ran and walked to the market square. By the time I got there, the market was closing; men were rolling back canvas covers and poles were clanging against each other as they were tossed into open-backed vans.
But Ragadug was still in his usual place by the chip-shop counter, flirting from his motor chair with the lady at the till. A pipe, as ever, hung from his mouth and his beard was bursting with the grey bristles that always scratched my face when he kissed me hello. Jaffa, his grey (and not very exotic) parrot, was perched on his head, only his hat stopping the creature from clawing him in the eye.
When he saw me, he took his pipe from his mouth and held his arms wide. "Jack!" He cried. "Where have you been hiding all this time?" He smothered me in his arms and I felt his beard scratch at my eyebrow.
"Nowhere, Ragadug." I snuggled for a moment but he pushed me away and held me at arms length.
"I do believe my only Grandson has been crying." He said, studying me carefully. "Well, I never thought I'd see the day. Hop up on my chair. Let's go somewhere nice and quiet and talk about it."
I didn't need to be told twice. His chair was one of the best things about Ragadug. We whizzed smoothly away from the chip-shop counter and parked ourselves on a square of grass outside the church. And of course, I told him all about it, how I couldn't play football very well because of my asthma, how nobody wanted me on their teams, everybody blamed me when I let a ball into the goal, I didn't have any friends and the world was coming to an end because of it.
When I'd finished, I already felt a little bit better. Ragadug was good for talking to. Perhaps the world wasn't going to come to an end quite yet, after all.
Ragadug took a long puff from his pipe. His face was covered in tough wrinkles and one little earring hung from his right ear. He looked so old that I thought if he was going to die, he'd have done it already, so he must be one of those special people who live forever. But saints don't have earrings...
"Let me tell you a story." He said thoughtfully. Great! I thought. My problem was serious enough to deserve one of his famous stories. I nestled comfortably against his chest, with his arm wrapped around my heck and shoulder like a scarf.
"When I was a boy," he said. All his stories began that way, though I couldn't imagine him ever having been a child. "I lived in a village. On one side of the village, the earth was flat and unexciting, all farmland and a few straight roads. And on the other side there were the hills, green and high and beautiful. Nobody went into the hills though, because there were dragons there – huge, angry, fearful, fire-breathing dragons.
"Well! Dragons! That was enough for me. I waited until I was already in trouble with my mum and set off to explore the hills. I wasn't sure about the dragons but it's always nice to go somewhere forbidden, and at least it meant I was all alone." Ragadug took another puff from his pipe and was silent, as if remembering every detail of that journey into the hills and forgetting to speak it aloud. I prodded him.
"Ah, yes, the walk in the hills. Well, I came across Edward snoozing peacefully in a sunspot between some trees. He was HUGE. And pink. Pink! I mean, honestly, a pink dragon; I was quite surprised. Scales in every shade of pink glistened all over his body and tall golden spikes stood proudly from his back. His tail was so long that it disappeared from view into the trees.
"He must have been dreaming sweetly because little puffs of smoke exploded in different shapes from his nose and a big grin stretched across his face. I wasn't scared, perhaps because he was pink. I mean, the grown ups didn't say anything about pink dragons, did they? It still makes me laugh. Did you ever expect dragons to be pink? Eh, Jack?"
I shook my head, waiting for him to continue.
"Boys were the same then as they are now; they can't let the sleeping sleep. I was no different; I found the perfect reed of long grass, put it carefully between my thumbs and blew with all my lungs. It was like blowing a trumpet into the dragon's ear. Look – have a go." Ragadug leant down from his chair and grabbed a handful of grass from nearby. He picked out a thick blade and dropped the rest. He showed me how to stretch it between my thumbs and cup my hands behind. I blew as hard as my asthmatic lungs would let me and created a squawk that surprised us both.
"Yep!" He said, his eyes twinkling. "Just like that. Well, instead of leaping into the air, Edward opened one eye and looked straight at me. I was a little bit frightened, I admit. But I didn't need to be. ‘Hello,' he said. ‘That's a sweet sight to awaken to. I was dreaming about Tchaikovsky.'
"I didn't say anything. After all, it's one thing to stumble across a pink dragon on a Sunday afternoon, and something else to find that he speaks my language!
"Anyway, he seemed to stretch, because his scales creaked and the spikes on his back reached even higher into the sky. ‘Aaah!' He said. ‘That's better. Such beautiful dreams... it's always hard to wake up to real life. What's your name, man-boy?'
"'Harry.' I said, feeling really quite shy after being so brave before. I wasn't always called Ragadug you know, Jack. That came much later.
"'Well, I'm Edward, and I'd be a ballet dancer if only I had some music.' He winked, and I didn't know if he was being serious or not, so I kept quiet. I wasn't quite sure how to make conversation with a dragon. After a peaceful silence, he continued.
"'Do you play the piano, man-boy?' he asked. I shook my head. ‘Violin?'
"'Anything?' I began to shake my head again, and then paused... of course I played something! I picked a blade of grass and this time I really showed him what I could do. Get me some grass from over there."
Ragadug gestured to a clump of grass at the foot of a tree and obediently I climbed down from my seat of honour and picked a fistful. I held it out to Ragadug, and he selected a couple of blades.
And... wow! Now, this was music! You could never imagine the cacophony of sounds that came from that single blade of grass. It was like a whole jazz orchestra playing on one instrument. For a moment I was distracted from the story. Suddenly, he stopped playing.
"Now, where was I? Oh yes, the grass music. Well, as soon as I started, Edward came to life. His tail lifted slowly between the trees and began to sweep across the sky, a flash of pink lightning on a blue background. His spikes began to wave from side to side, and his whole body rose and fell in rippling arches, a bit like the Loch Ness monster. It was as if he could hear thirty other instruments inside my blade of grass and he was dancing for each one of them.
"When I eventually stopped playing, he fluttered slowly back down to earth, light as a feather, until he was lying in the same position I'd found him.
"'That was fantastic,' he said. ‘Thank you.'
"'That was fantastic, too.' I said. ‘Thank you.'
"We sat (well, I stood and he lay) in a contented silence for a bit until, with a small puff of smoke, he sighed and whispered ‘But it was only a dream.'
"I was surprised. It was real enough to me, I can tell you! He seemed to guess my surprise, because I didn't have to say anything before he continued. Maybe he'd forgotten I was there, and he was talking to the clouds and the winds and the trees, I'm not sure.
"'I was going to be the first dragon-dancer in history. It would have been amazing – my name whispered through the generations, dragons flocking to see me dance, child-dragons practising to become like me. And I – I just dancing and dancing and dancing, no more thought to it.'
"'So why didn't you?' I asked, and he jumped inside his scales at the sound of my voice.
"He closed his eyes as if in pain. ‘They threw me out.' He whispered. Then he was quiet, and I was getting a bit bored, curious and impatient so I took a stick and tickled him behind the ear. He seemed to like that because he began to smile and a dimple appeared on his cheek. I continued.
"'Why did they throw you out?' I asked, as I tickled. Another lo-o-ong silence. ‘Why did they throw you out?' I asked again, and this time I stopped tickling.
"I had to stand pretty much in his mouth to hear his answer. ‘No dragon is a dragon if he can't breathe fire.' He muttered. ‘I came of age, and still I had never breathed a single flame. All I could manage was smoke bubbles.' He puffed for a moment to demonstrate, and warm white smoke surrounded me, making me cough and splutter and leap away from him.
"By the time I'd recovered, he seemed a bit happier. ‘Sorry about that! He snorted, grinning to himself. ‘But I've got an idea... You can be my orchestra and the trees will be my audience. Let's put on a show!'
"At first, the idea seemed stupid – I mean, nobody performs for the trees! But then I began to think a bit further... I took another piece of grass and made a gentle call, like a bird. And another. And another. Nothing happened, but I didn't give up and I stayed as still as I could.
"And eventually, a small grey parrot flew out of the trees and landed on my shoulder. I didn't move. I just continued to call.
"After a few more minutes, a whole orchestra of creatures surrounded us. On the highest of Edward's spikes, a brown cuckoo perched patiently. In the trees nearby, a family of woodpeckers sat, waiting for their instructions. And hidden further back in the trees, I could see other signs of life... All silent, waiting.
"I took a few steps back, with the parrot still on my shoulder, and the cuckoo flew up from the dragon's spine. ‘May the show begin!' Edward whispered with a puff of smoke. He winked four times and then we began, I alone at first, then joined by the woodpeckers and the cuckoo and finally the parrot, building up the power and excitement of the music as Edward's tail flashed and flickered, his spikes shaking and small wafts of smoke emerging from his nostrils for special effect.
"We lost ourselves in the music. I closed my eyes and listened to the way the woodpeckers kept the beat, spiced with an extra ‘cuckoo' on every turn, while the parrot and I rose and fell in dramatic harmony.
"I could feel the wind on my face as Edward's body rushed past in swings and spins and excitement. The wind seemed to grow stronger and stronger, building with every turn he made. And as I listened, I could hear that the orchestra had grown, that other creatures had joined us – the clickety click of crickets and grasshoppers, the ‘toowit-toowooooo' of an owl and the whissssstling of the wind in the trees.
"'Clickety clickety wooooooo-toowit, clickety click cuckoo. Clickety clickety wooooooo-toowit, clickety whissssstle wooooooo...'
"Gradually we calmed the music down, and with it, the swishing and twisting of the dragon. Still playing quietly, I opened my eyes..."
Ragadug paused, a huge smile on his face, his eyes creased up in wrinkles and his mind obviously not in his chair with his Grandson.
I prodded him. "You opened your eyes..."
"I opened my eyes..." He paused again.
I wriggled restlessly. "Ragadug!" I whined. "Stop teasing!"
He winked. "How much is it worth, little Mister?" he asked.
"Nothing! Now tell me! You opened your eyes..."
"Okay, okay! I opened my eyes...
"And there, dancing before me with as much grace as any human dancer was, not only Edward, spinning and twirling centre-stage, but a tall, willowy, violet dragon with silver spikes and a curving tail, leaping and diving around him. They danced around each other, together, apart, drawn back in, and out again. They danced as though the sun would never go down.
"And as I watched, I felt eyes on me. I turned slowly to see hidden in the trees, the admiring eyes of other dragons, hundreds of them reaching far back into the woods, absorbed by the dance and music.
"I slowed down on my reed of grass, brought the music to a close, and watched while Edward and his friend took a bow. He had done it, Jack. His dreams had come true... Edward made history!
"And Jaffa and I, here," he reached a hand up to his head and the parrot pecked it affectionately, "we're the only ones who remember..."
I wriggled in Ragadug's lap. If only I could see that dragon... But I knew that wasn't part of the deal.
Something else was, though.
"Yes?" he said, half still in another time and place.
"What about my friends and the football?"
Ragadug sighed. "Jack, Jack, haven't you realised that anything is possible? We need to show them how amazing you are - we need to show them how much they need you!"
I frowned, biting on my thumb nail. I wanted to be clever and amazing, but, well – it's not such an easy thing to be. "How, Ragadug?"
He winked. "I bet they don't play properly, these friends of yours. They need a pitch, they need to organise themselves in teams, they need lines in the park so they know where to play. They need goalposts. And they certainly need a referee..."
A referee... ?
"Me!" I shouted, leaping up from the chair. "Me! Me! Me! Me the referee-ee! Me the referee-ee! Come on, Ragadug, let's go and get them!"
And that, my friend, is what we did. Me the referee...
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