Geoffrey Heptonstall's publications include a novel, Heaven's Invention, and a poetry collection, The Rites of Paradise.
EUSTACE WAKES IN THE DARK
It was very dark when Eustace woke from his dream of being kidnapped and thrust into a cold, damp cellar where no-one could hear his protesting, pleading voice. ‘That was not a nice dream, Teddy,’ Eustace said. He felt for Teddy sleeping peacefully next to him. But Teddy was gone. And, as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness Eustace saw that all the familiar things of his room were not there.
What could this mean? It could mean one thing only: this was not his room. And if this was not his room it was somewhere he had been taken against his will. Someone in the night had crept into his room and seized him as he slept, taking him far away to this dark cellar with only a small, high window from which a little moonlight shone as he looked about him.
‘Help! Save me! I am being held against my will!’ Eustace cried. The walls mockingly echoed his pitiful anguish, and he knew there was no hope of immediate rescue. He might never see his home again. He might never sleep in his bed. He might never see Teddy again. The thought was too much. Eustace felt that the walls were creeping closer and that he was about to be crushed. Every plea for mercy resounded in the dark as an echo resembling a pitiless laugh. In all his twenty-seven years and two months Eustace had never known such misery. His life so far had not prepared him for this.
Nor what was to come next when the door in the corner opened and a beautiful woman with a lantern came in. ‘So there you are, my pretty fool,’ she said on seeing Eustace crouching in the corner fearfully. ‘I have you at last within my power.’
‘Who are you? Where am I? Why am I here?’ Eustace asked. ‘If, that is, you don’t mind my asking.’
‘Ask all you want,’ the beautiful woman said, tossing her long mane of golden hair contemptuously. ‘Ask all you want, but there’ll be no answers.’ And with that came a cruel laugh which the acoustics amplified until it seemed there was a chorus of wicked creatures entertaining themselves at poor Eustace’s expense.
‘I demand to be released at once. At once, you hear. Or, or, or I shall be very cross with you,’ Eustace said, somehow in his desperation summoning the courage to confront his cold-eyed captor. ‘You’ll never get away with this, you know. There’ll be people searching for me.’
‘They’ll never find you here,’ the woman said. ‘I can assure you of that. Once you are within my power there is no escape.’
Then the door closed and it was dark again but for the moonlight glimpsed through the small, high window. Eustace felt utterly alone because he was utterly alone. Or so he thought. In the dark no-one is ever alone for long. Think of all the strange beings hovering outside, hoping to get in. A door creaks. A curtain moves. And Eustace is frightened. Night after night. But this was no ordinary night.
‘If you’re lucky you’ll get a candle,’ said a voice. Eustace looked round to see a strange emerge from the darkness. ‘How do you do,’ said the creature who was large and reptilian with huge claws and wings. Eustace was alarmed to see that he was encountering a dragon. ‘My name is Augustus,’ said the dragon. ‘Don’t be afraid. Nobody’s afraid of me when they get to know me. I try to be fierce, but it just doesn’t work. I suppose it’s all to do with nature. If you’re born to be fierce, well, that’s what you what you are. And I’m not.’
‘How did you get in here?’ Eustace, not wholly assured that he was safe in the presence of a dragon.
‘Oh, the usual method,’ Augustus replied. ‘I simply made my way here. It’s all make-believe, you know, in Dreamland.’
‘Is that where I am?’
‘Of course. Didn’t they tell you? They really ought to have told you. I’ll have a word with them. People really need to know where they are. It isn’t fair otherwise, in my opinion. I’ve got quite strong views on that.’
‘So I’m not really here,’ Eustace replied. ‘Not if I’m in Dreamland.’
‘Of course you’re here. I can see you. I can hear you. So I may safely conclude that you are in fact here. I mean, it’s obvious. If you’re here you’re here. And if you’re not you’re not. And you are so you are.’
‘I see,’ Eustace replied, confused and downcast.
‘But it isn’t so bad. The first thousand years are the worst,’ Augustus explained. ‘After that it seems to get better somehow. Not sure why.’
‘A thousand years!’ Eustace cried in alarm. ‘A thousand years. I shan’t live so long, shall I?’
‘Oh, in Dreamland nobody ever dies unless they are very, very wicked. Every million years or so someone comes along who’s very wicked, just to provide a little variety in the routine, you know. We’re due another one in about fifty thousand years. It’s a wicked uncle this time. We had a run of wicked stepmothers, but there were complaints from the Equality and Diversity Department. Quite right, too, in my opinion.’
‘But,’ said Eustace, ‘what about the women who came in here? She looked cruel as well as beautiful.’
‘Don’t worry about Doris. She’s all heart really. It’s just her way. Once you get to know her she’ll be fine.’
‘So,’ Eustace asked, trying not to sound too dejected, ‘she’s not an evil seductress of innocent young men like me?’
‘Oh, goodness me, no. She sings in the chapel choir. Rather a fine contralto. I’m afraid my singing isn’t quite up to it. The problem is that when I hit a high note I tend to breathe out fire. I can’t help it. So embarrassing - and dangerous, of course. I’ve been to the doctor’s but they say they can do nothing about it.’
A long pause while Eustace took in all that that his new friend had told him. Then a thought occurred to him. With a hint of irritation Eustace said, ‘If Doris isn’t cruel, then why am I being kept in the dark?’
‘Because it’s night, of course,’ Augustus explained. ‘It’s Dreamland, remember. That’s why you’ll need a candle until daylight.’
‘And when’s that?’
‘Let me see,’ Augustus frowned while he puzzled over the necessary calculations. ‘Only another few thousand years. Not too long.’
‘It’s too long! I want this dream to end. I want to wake up with my beloved Teddy by my side in my own bed in my own room,’ Eustace protested, expecting to hear a response from the friendly dragon. But there was silence. He could neither see nor hear Augustus now. The dragon had vanished as suddenly as he had appeared in the way of dragons in Dreamland.
For a long time [Eustace was not sure how many centuries had passed] there seemed no hope. The door of the dungeon was locked. No-one came to his rescue. He was all alone. And, despite what Augustus had assured him, he was not entirely certain that Doris was quite the well-meaning person Augustus said she was beneath the veneer of spite and malice.
Sometimes Eustace could hear footsteps outside the dungeon door. There were whispers and giggles. Then there was more silence in the dark of this long night. They hadn’t even given him a candle. If only the friendly dragon would come back. He might be able to advise Eustace further, or, failing that, provide him with some company and conversation. It seemed that there was nothing to do in Dreamland but wait until morning.
The years passed as Eustace waited in the darkness. He past the time by playing I Spy. The options were limited, and he had to guess the answer to his own question, but it was fun. Actually it wasn’t. It was awful. Eustace, however, had been taught never to make a fuss, and always to remember there was someone worse off than him. Yes, there were poor souls languishing in dungeons at this very moment, whereas he….
The situation was hopeless. Was this how the rest of his life was going to be? And the rest of his life in Dreamland was going to last for ever. That’s quite a long time. Eustace tried to calculate how long ever was. After a million billion trillion zillion years he gave up counting. It was going rather a long time.
And so that’s how it might have been, forever waiting for Doris to open the door. But in a moment of inspiration Eustace remembered the words of Augustus, his dragon friend. What was it Augustus had said: ‘It’s all make-believe, you know, in Dreamland.’ Eustace recalled the exact words. He almost could hear the dragon’s voice out loud. The more Eustace thought about it, the more he was sure he could hear Augustus speaking to him.
And the more he listened, the more he understood. It was all make-believe in Dreamland. That was the important thing to know. If Eustace tried very, very hard he could make-believe something. Of course it would be better if he put his thinking cap on, but a pretend cap would do. Now, surely it was possible to make-believe this was all a dream from which he could awake and be safe at home again just before the alarm rang in the morning? Yes, he was certain that was possible if he closed his eyes, keeping them tightly shut while he imagined himself back home.
And when he opened his eyes what do you think he saw? There in the darkness was Doris and the dragon. ‘So, my pretty fool, you thought you could escape me,’ Doris said, her lips curving into a cold, cruel smile as her eyes penetrated Eustace as if to pierce his heart.
‘Sorry, old chap,’ Augustus the dragon added. ‘I did the best I could.’
‘You know what I’m going to do now?’ Doris asked. ‘I’m going to eat you up. That will teach you a lesson.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Eustace said, questioning the logic of her actions with a maturity worthy of his twenty-seven years.
Suddenly there was a rumble like thunder in the distance. Doris, no longer proud and haughty, looked aghast. There was panic in her eyes. ‘No!’ she screamed. ‘He doesn’t believe me!’
The rumble of thunder grew louder, the dungeon floor and walls began to shake. And Doris quivered until she spun so fast she turned into a cloud of vapour that soon trailed away into the air.
There was daylight from the window, and Eustace saw that there was some of the furniture and toys from his room. ‘I don’t understand,’ Eustace said ‘Where am I? What has happened?’
‘Well,’ Augustus the dragon explained, ‘you said you didn’t believe. If you don’t believe it destroys the make-believe, you see.’
‘But you’re here, Augustus.’
‘Ah yes. That’s because you believe in me. Not many people do. So I expect we’ll see each other from time to time, old chap,’ Augustus said as he opened a cupboard door and stepped inside. When Eustace dared open the door there was nobody there. One day it would open again.
‘Well, Teddy,’ Eustace said, ‘that was quite an adventure. But I’ve made a new friend and the story has a happy ending.’
As Eustace looked into the sky of the early morning he saw clouds drifting by. One of them, darker than the rest, twirled into a curious shape that seemed to resemble a face. It was only for a moment, and then it was gone as the sun shone again. It was nearly time for the alarm to ring and for Eustace to go down the mine to begin another day’s search for gold.