Sylvia Spruck Wrigley is not an elderblogger, but she is a gifted writer and my sabbatical is a good time to repeat a two-part story of hers first published here two-and-a-half years ago.
Sylvia is a true citizen of the world who currently lives on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain with her now 14-year-old son, Connor. She was born in Germany, spent part of her childhood in Los Angeles, moved to Europe full time as an adult and lived in England too before settling in Spain seven years ago because she missed the sunny warmth of southern California.
She blogs in her own old-fashioned style at Can’t Backspace where she talks about writing and about stories.
Here is Part 1 of the delightful Steven’s Dragon. Part Two can be found here.
I ignored the small voice behind me, my meddling little sister, and continued to push the spade into the hard earth of our garden.
"Mom's going to be upset with you when she sees what you've done to the grass."
"Irene, go away," I said in my meanest voice and carried on digging.
"Tell me what you are looking for or else I'm telling Mom!" Her voice had that telltale whine; I knew she meant it.
I took a deep breath and put down the spade.
"Will you help me dig if I tell you?" I didn't want the help, but if she were a part of the digging then she'd be much less likely to rat me out.
Irene sat down in front of me and picked up the spade and started stabbing it at the shallow hole I'd created. She turned 6 last month and since then she's been convinced that she's my equal.
I lay down in the grass, my chin in my hand, and watched her. It took about five minutes for her to realise that I hadn't answered her question, such was her glee at tearing into the dirt. Eventually, though, her energy ran out and she looked at me.
"Well? I helped you." A trace of that whine threatened to re-enter her voice.
"China," I said, trying hard not to grin. "China is on the other side of us, down there. I want to dig a hole and pop my head through and say hello."
"Steeeven!" She made my name sound horrible, drawing it out like a scream. "You don't speak Chinese!"
Smart aleck. I'd never even thought of that. Irene was a pain but I had to admit she was clever. Not as clever as me, though. I'm almost four years older and know loads more than she does.
"I'll take one of those phrase books, like Dad has for Spanish." She nodded, happy with this, and carried on striking at the ground with the spade. It wasn't doing much, just loosening up the bottom, but it didn't matter. She'd keep her mouth shut. Now I just needed to get rid of her.
The sun was hot on the back of my black t-shirt as I lay watching her blonde head bent over the hole. I'd let her dig a bit more until she got bored and then send her in for some lemonade. She'd probably get distracted on the way and forget to come back for an hour, by which time I'd be finished. Meanwhile, she wasn't doing any harm and I could rest my arms.
I had just lost myself in a daydream of Valerie looking at me with rapt awe as I walked down the street, the hero of the neighbourhood, when Irene spoke again.
"My wrist hurts. This is too hard." She was back to a full-blown whine, time to get rid of her.
"Give me the spade then." She handed it to me. "Why don't you go inside and get us some drinks so we can keep going?"
I allowed myself one last vision of Valerie begging to be my best friend, then sat up and started digging in earnest. I needed to be finished before Irene got back.
I'll be ten in October, the big one-oh, just in time for Halloween. Even though I'm the oldest in my class, people don't take me seriously. I don't have any friends. The other kids call me Stupid Steven just because it sounds funny. Ha ha, I say. I don't want to play their silly games anyway.
But I'm going to show them all. When I come to school with my pet dragon following behind me, well, then they'll change their minds. I won't be Stupid Steven anymore I'll be Stupendicific Steven the Great Dragon Tamer.
The hole is almost big enough now. Irene hasn't shown up, she's probably watching cartoons, so I have plenty of time. I already collected a bunch of mown grass from the park to act as an incubator. I read up all about it at the school library, I even got a nice note home from the librarian for doing extra study. The only thing I don't know is how long it's going to take, but I can check every day. As long as it hatches before the weather turns cold, it's a flawless plan, or my name isn't Steven Johnson.
"Mrs Johnson? It's Kate Hartman, Steven's history teacher. I'm so sorry to bother you, but it's about your little boy. Well, I put on a special display yesterday at school and, I'm very sorry, I'm not sure how to put this. He was very interested in a knick-knack of mine, a carved jade egg I got in Indonesia years ago. It's not valuable, just a memento from the trip, but I'm afraid to say it's missing. I didn't notice until un-packing everything back at home this afternoon but it's definitely gone.
I did check at the school to make sure it hadn't been misplaced. No, I don't know what he'd want with such a thing either. But he was the last person seen with it. I'm sure the boy didn't mean to steal, but he did express an interest in it and kept going back to it. Do you think you could check and see if he's got it? I don't want him in trouble, but it's best to nip this sort of thing in the bud.
Thanks, just send him over to my house with it and I'll talk to him. Yes, yes, of course, if he has it. I have to say, though, I'm sure he must. Boys will be boys, no harm done if he brings it back over."
I felt bad when I got off the phone to his mother. He's not a bad kid, I'm sure he didn't think what he was doing was stealing. But he's at that stage where you really have to watch boys. If you don't jump on the small stuff, they end up thinking that it's okay, and then you have real problems on your hands.
My son was a bit of a terror when he was small, I have to admit. Little Steven does make me think of him. If I'm honest, I like Steven better than the other kids in his class, although it's a terrible thing to say. But at least he's got a bit of spunk in him. Or maybe it's just that he looks a bit like my son did.
The boy came knocking on my door a few hours after the phone call, in a sweat and with an unhappy face, his fingernails full of dirt. I started to tell him to go straight home for a bath and talk to me after he was cleaned up. But he had the jade ornament in his hands, reaching it out to me.
"I didn't mean to steal it," he said. His bottom lip was quivering. "I mean, I did, but I thought you wouldn't mind when I came back to class and showed you the dragon."
I forgot all about his grass-stained jeans and muddy shoes and told him to come in. He sat stiff as a ram-rod on the couch while I got him a glass of milk and some cookies from a packet. Not that he looked starving but I thought it might help calm him down.
"What dragon," I asked, once he'd had a sip.
"From the egg." He pointed at the jade egg on the table between us. "I was going to hatch it."
I started to laugh, then I saw the how earnest his little face was. I bit back the first words and nodded at him, thinking fast.
"You reckon it's a magic egg?"
"It's a dragon's egg. I saw a picture of one, it looked just like that." Steven's eyes were big as he explained about the picture book of Chinese antiquities he'd seen at the library, including something called a dragon's egg that looked like mine.
"Ah, but you see, it's not Chinese," I told him. "It's from Indonesia, in Southern Asia." Never one to miss a chance to teach someone something, I got out the atlas. "Here, see? There's Thailand and Malaysia, and there is Indonesia."
He nodded seriously over the map. "But it's not far from China," he said. "Maybe it's still a Chinese dragon egg."
I smiled at his remark. I like that in the boy, he doesn't just nod and accept what grown-ups tell him, he thinks it through.
I was surprised to find myself interested in this new game: "find out about the dragon egg." The truth is, I picked it up travelling down a dusty road, from a wizened old man sitting on a blanket with various items spread out around him. It's certainly junk, aimed at the silly Westerners like my husband and me, travelling through the country looking to find some new mystical truth. But it could be interesting to find out what it was based on, what real treasure it was supposed to mimic.
"Let's find out," I told the boy. "Let's find out exactly where it's from. Maybe you are right."
He beamed a smile at me, thrilled to find a partner in crime, even though I'm over six times his age.
"I have to go home now," he said. "But I can come back tomorrow after school if you want."
"It's a date." I saw him to the door and then sat back down on the couch, nibbling a left-over cookie and looking at my jade egg in a new light.
She's not bad, old Mrs Hartman. She could have raised a big old stink about her egg, got me suspended from school and everything. I did just take it without permission. But she wasn't mad at me at all, asking me questions, and when I explained about hatching a dragon she really did listen to me, not just roll her eyes the way most teachers would do.
She's a lot different at her house than she is at school, that's for sure. She glares a lot in class and if you make just the slightest sound like dropping your pencil she's all over your case. Everyone is afraid of her, not just me.
But she didn't glare at me at all when I went back to her house. She's still a bit teachy but she showed me all kinds of neat things that she has and pulled out a bunch of books on ancient China and a nearby place called Indonesia. She's been to both places and all sorts of other places too, I never knew that. It kinda makes history more interesting when you're being taught by someone who's been there.
So that first day, she pulled out this book and found a whole chapter on Chinese dragons and she told me that the Chinese people refer to themselves as descendants of the dragon. This made me a bit nervous.
"I don't really want some Chinese person following me around everywhere," I told her. It made me think of Irene. "I don't even speak Chinese!"
"Well, I don't think they mean it literally," she said. "The Chinese worship dragons and not each other, so that's a good sign." She flipped through the pages and read me out bits of it.
"Dragons were believed to be connected to water and weather," she said, and a lot of other stuff about ruling the rivers that I sort of only half listened to. I was flipping through a different book that she'd given me about mythology and legends. I thought somewhere there must be a story about someone who hatched a dragon, but there was nothing like that at all, just weird stories about dragons helping emperors in the old days.
"Is there really any such things as dragons," I asked her. It seemed to me it was just a story, like Santa Claus, just one for grown-ups instead of for kids. I was surprised to see her nod yes.
"There is," she said. "There are a lot of things we don't understand. That doesn't mean they don't exist."
I wasn't sure whether to believe her or not. She's pretty old and maybe she's just a bit batty. But she told me to leave it with her and she'd see what she could find out. Meanwhile, she said, if I wanted to visit her again, I was welcome.
She's not bad, for a teacher. I kinda like her now, although I'd never admit that at school.
I still hear his voice as clearly as if he were sat across from me. All I have to do is close my eyes and he's there again. Our last conversation plays in my mind lately, like a broken record.