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The Dragonslayer

By David Gardiner

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When the doctor first told me about this thing I tried to argue with him, ended up being quite offensive. I phoned him up afterwards and apologized of course. It was a ridiculous attitude to adopt, as if it were his fault.

I tried to force him to tell me how long I had left. You hear all these stories about people who were given three months and are still there years later. It's almost a cliché. But he wouldn't give me a figure like that. All he would say was months rather than years. And that I would probably continue to feel reasonably well until close to the end. Not an exact science, he said.

He and I were the only ones who knew about it for the first few weeks. Unless some of my friends guessed. There was one time when I caught myself telling someone that I live on a slope leading down to a cemetery. Such a powerful image, but I said it completely unconsciously. It stopped me in my tracks, reduced me to total silence.

The first few days were the worst, as you might expect. I didn’t sleep very much at the beginning. But in fairness to myself I don't think that I coped with it too badly. I didn't crack up. I didn't break down and cry or rush off to find a counsellor. I didn't run amok and smash everything. I just sat very quietly in my darkened room and did a great deal of thinking.

The Company owed me quite a bit of annual leave so I took it, stayed at home in the cottage. I lay there when I couldn't sleep and fantasized about what I should do with those remaining months, however long it was going to be.

My ideas became very grandiose. I thought about what might have happened if someone had walked up to Adolph Hitler in 1935 or 1936 and blown his brains out. Would the world have been a better place? Would that have been the best thing anyone could have done with an expendable life? Who knows? Hitler wasn't the only Nazi. Somebody else would have come to power. But it's hard to believe that whoever it was could have been quite such a monster. Maybe there are turning points like that in human history where one man can make a difference. Before I knew about my condition, such thoughts would have seemed like madness. But now they seemed to make sense. I had been given a kind of gift, a chance to do something worthwhile with the time left to me. It didn't have to be dramatic, but there had to be something that would give meaning to it all - to all those pointless years of sucking up to the boss and people being promoted over my head, trying to be the perfect husband and the perfect father and ending up alone in that little cottage with a rotten divorce settlement and children I never saw, who didn’t want to talk to me any more - never getting anything in return but kicks in the teeth. I suppose it hadn’t struck me so powerfully before because I had always told myself that things would get better, that there was time to change it all. Now I knew that there wasn’t.

But maybe I wasn’t destined to be a nonentity after all. Maybe there was something I could do in the world, some mighty task that would make them all turn around and say, “You know, we misjudged him. There was more to him than we ever knew…”

I started to buy four morning newspapers and to subscribe to all the news channels on satellite TV. I bought lots of writing paper and a few big loose-leaf binders and I started to take notes on what was going on in all the trouble spots of the world. Tin-pot dictators manufacturing biological weapons and hydrogen bombs. Arab suicide bombers blowing themselves up in crowded restaurants. South American drug barons with private armies and more income than the annual budgets of the countries they lived in. White slave traders smuggling women and young girls out of central Europe and the Far East to live lives of misery and exploitation in the hidden brothels of the rich West. African villagers cutting one another to pieces with machetes and burning each other alive in locked churches. Women and children starving to death because some war lord wanted to use their destruction as a weapon in his fight for power.

I began to wonder which of us was ill, me or the world out there. The trouble was there was only one of me. It wasn't enough. There seemed to be so little that I could actually do. In the fairytale world there was always just one dragon to slay and one knight to do the slaying; in the real world there were a million dragons but the knight was still on his own. I would have to change the scale of my operation.

I started subscribing to the local newspapers covering the villages within about twenty miles of where I lived. Stories about agricultural shows and new supermarkets and young girls competing for the title of Queen of the May. I seemed to have gone from one extreme to the other. That wasn't where I was going to find my dragon.

I had become a bit fixated on the idea that there had to be a dragon, an enemy of some kind to slay. Maybe that was the wrong model. Who had really made a difference in the world, I asked myself, those who had killed in a noble cause, or those who had died in one? Socrates. Jesus Christ. Thomas Moore. Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King. President Kennedy. But of course the dying had only been part of it, it had been the living that had really counted, and I wasn't going to have time for that. But maybe I could turn myself into a sacrificial lamb, like the student who had stood in front of the advancing tanks in Tiananmen Square, or the young boy who had handed out pro-democracy leaflets in full view of the troops in the streets of Burma, only weeks after his release from a Burmese prison on exactly the same charge. I wouldn’t be a real moral giant of course, only a pretend one, but I doubted if the cameras would be able to tell the difference.

The details of my new plan seemed even harder to work out than with my old one. Where precisely should I go to seek this martyrdom? I had a mental picture of myself standing straight and tall on a cratered battlefield between two advancing armies, arms outstretched, shells exploding all around me, press reporters peering out from a nearby bunker. But it was a total fantasy. To make an impact like that you had to be in the right place at the right time. Circumstances had to play into your hand. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could stage manage.

I felt myself sinking into a depression. Precious days were slipping by. The churchyard down the hill from my little cottage seemed to be moving closer. There was no way to make a difference, or if there was I simply wasn’t clever enough to think of it.

Despite what the doctor had said I could feel my physical condition deteriorating too. I seemed to have less and less energy, less desire to eat, a queasiness in my stomach that would not go away. I phoned the Company and told them that I was unwell, that I would send a medical certificate. I knew that I would never be going back.

Early the next morning I forced myself to get dressed, pack a few things into a weekend bag, draw out some money from my Post Office savings account, and take the first train to London. I don’t know what I was hoping to find there but I knew that there was nothing worthwhile I could do in the village.

I staggered from Victoria Station just before eight o’clock, feeling as though I might throw up at any moment, a stabbing pain hitting the back of my eyes with every step that I took. I walked very slowly, steadying myself against the wall as I went, the weekend bag swinging like a limp pendulum, threatening to rob me of what little balance I had left. A gnawing dread formed at the back of my mind that I had left it too late. I wasn’t going to have enough strength left to change anything, the end was rushing towards me and I had done nothing.

As I felt my way along like a blind man I saw that my path was blocked by somebody who was sitting down and leaning his back against the wall. He looked up at me, an inquiring, interested look. He had an unkempt ginger beard and his jacket was torn. Nevertheless he was not old, probably no more than thirty, and had pleasant regular features.

“Yer lookin’ a wee bit rough mate,” he said in a thick Scottish accent, “are ye okay?”

“Not too good,” I said quietly, and felt myself slump down by his side. We looked into each other’s eyes. “I’m afraid I’m dying,” I said very quietly, seeing no point in trying to conceal it.

“Yer lucky mate. I wish tae hell I could die.”

I looked at him, shocked. “Do you have the least idea what you’re talking about?”

He ignored the question.

“Have ye got a drink, mate?”

“You just said that you wished you could die. What did you mean by that?”

Alex, for that was his name, told me what he meant. A lot of it I could have guessed. A marriage that had started out no different to any other, a young daughter, a decent enough job in an industry that looked safe, redundancy that came from nowhere like thunder on a summer’s day, redundancy money and no hope of another job, nothing to spend it on but drink; then the inevitable move to London on his own to find work. The months turning to years, the wrong kind of company, the landlady turning nasty, the drift into a rootless life dominated by the quest for the next bottle of spirits.

He wasn’t a very articulate man. It took him a long time to tell his story. I somehow expected a familiar, well-rehearsed account that he would have told many times, but I was wrong. Nobody had ever asked Alex for his story before. Nobody else had spared the time to listen. The early morning commuter traffic had passed by the time he finished. The roads around Victoria had become quiet again, few pedestrians, just the steady rumble of the heavy lorries down Vauxhall Bridge Road.

“Tell me Alex,” I said to him, “if you could have your wildest dream, something to make life worth living again, what would it be?”

He drew in his breath and shrugged cynically. “My wildest dream? A place tae live with Jeanie an’ the wean. A job tae go tae. A fresh clean shirt every morning an’ a decent pair a shoes on mae feet. A’m no a pig, ye know. I dinnae want tae live like this.”

I felt one of those moments of sudden insight that come to people only once or twice in a lifetime. Alex had shown me something that I hadn’t understood before. All my imaginings had been about me, about what would make me look good, about noble gestures that would win me attention, about pathetic self glorification. That was not a proper basis for making the world a better place. It was bullshit, a total illusion, the whimpering of an ego complaining of long neglect.

“Okay, Alex,” I said very quietly, “I think I can help you. But there are going to be conditions.”

oo OO oo

Jeanie is cooking something for me now as I lie here. A bit of scrambled egg. It’s about as much as I can eat these days. Their daughter is starting at the village school today, both Jeanie and Alex went down to introduce her and get her settled in. I think she’ll like it there. She’ll be made very welcome too. We haven’t very many young children in the village any more, it’s turned into a bit of a commuter town for the likes of me, or at least the person I used to be.

Alex is going to see Bill Kinnear this afternoon, the man who owns the big market gardening operation on the far side of the valley. I went to school with Bill, and I’ve had a quiet word with him. Alex will be okay for a job there. What he makes of it will be up to him. I’ve had a quiet word with Jeanie as well and she knows the score. She knows he has to deal with the drinking. She’s got him to detox and rehab as he calls it already. She’s a good sensible woman. He’s a lucky man to have her. A very lucky man.

It’s a bit of a squeeze in the bungalow at the moment. We just have the two bedrooms, but I’m better off in the sitting room anyhow, on the couch, where I don’t have to get up to go to bed. I don’t seem to be able to move around very much at all any more. Alex and Jeanie know that they’ll soon have plenty of room.

I look forward to wakening up and seeing each new day. I appreciate what it means to be alive, for the first time ever I think. It’s wonderful to see the two of them on such a high, making a new start. Maybe it will go wrong again, I’m not God, I can’t control other people’s lives. But I’m very hopeful. Both of them have seen enough of what the world is like when you’re down to understand the value of what they’ve got now.

So there isn’t much more to tell. My life ends, but it kick starts the lives of three other people. It’s their turn now, their responsibility to make something out of it if they can. I haven’t changed the course of history. But maybe I’ve made the world a better place. Just one tiny corner of it. But it’s enough so that I don’t feel that it was all pointless any more. And I really don’t care whether anybody ever finds out about it or what anybody else thinks. I know what I think, that’s all I care about. It’s a very good feeling. The name for this feeling might be freedom.