George was a bully, no doubt about that. Looking back I can see it quite clearly but at the time… At the time Georgina was much admired, by many. After Lights Out she held forth on many subjects, albeit in whispers, and nobody contradicted her. A hefty girl, with early-sprouting breasts, she assigned tasks and issued orders to the rest of us, her dorm-mate foot-soldiers, with the confidence of a Napoleon or a Nelson.
She didn’t like new girls, George, and she didn’t like small people. Unfortunately Arabella was both. She came from a background several notches above George’s – you could tell by her accent. She had a pony, in a paddock, at home. His name was Randolph. Foolishly, she mentioned this in George’s hearing. George – as we all knew – had neither paddock nor pony. George’s parents came from Eastbourne and had made their money from a bed and breakfast establishment.
Arabella was easily spooked. If you crept up behind her she would inevitably jump or scream. This made George laugh. Arabella was a sensitive and imaginative child. On all these counts she was grist to George’s mill: the perfect victim.
It started with the stories. After lights out, George began to refer, casually, to the dragon that lived in the box room. The box room was at the end of our corridor. It was used to store suitcases, and the wooden sea-chests belonging to girls whose parents had packed them off “home” from overseas – from the Empire, as we said in those days.
George did not address her dragon tales to Arabella, but made sure she would overhear them. It was not a Loud Roaring dragon, she explained, but one of the Silent Types which are so much worse. Its scales were sometimes blue and sometimes green – iridescent, like mother-of-pearl. It was not a terribly big dragon, she said – but quite big enough to swallow a small child. Whole – she said – a child of, say, Arabella’s size – in one gulp.
Anaconda-like, for at least a week after feeding the Silent dragon would have a bump in the middle, said George. That, of course, was the child, still alive and in the process of being digested by its stomach juices. If you were foolish enough to creep up and lay your head on that dragon’s belly, said George, you would hear it gurgling disgustingly. Those were its juices at work. You might even hear a faint gasp or scream if what was left of the trapped child were to sense you there.
Then she started on the dares. She dared any one of us to go, at midnight, along the corridor to the box room. We could take a torch, she conceded. “Any one of you,” she said “can confirm that I am telling the truth. Who will be brave enough?” Nobody volunteered. This charade went on for several nights until George decided enough was enough – someone jolly well had to verify her story and she would select a volunteer. “Arabella,” she said, in a brisk, condescending tone. Off you go. You’d be about the right size to fit inside a dragon.”
She handed Arabella the torch. We couldn’t see the poor child’s face in the darkness but could guess ‘the colour had drained out of it’ as they say, in ghost stories. Then, twisting the handle silently, she opened the dormitory door and tiptoed out.
I don’t think George had really expected her to go. I suspect the idea was for Arabella to refuse, in terror, giving George a chance to mock, or maybe punish her. George could be inventive, when it came to punishments. We waited, in silence, for a minute or two.
“She must have reached the box room by now,” said George. “Unless she’s run away. Silly little squirt.”
“Maybe you should check, George,” I said. “As our leader.”
There may have been a smidgeon of malice behind this suggestion. I didn’t like George.
Arabella returned a little later, with Matron. She had gone straight to Matron’s quarters and spun her some tale… or maybe just told the truth. At any rate, she had snitched on George. Snitching was entirely infra dig, of course, but for some reason Arabella’s popularity was increased rather than decreased by this particular transgression.
But of George, no trace. She went to the box room. She did not come back. A search was made of the school, and of course of the room itself. There was nothing to be seen in there of anything but sea-chests and suitcases.
The excitement of the night before had rather upset my digestion. Rising from my bed in the cold morning light I tied my dressing-gown tightly around me and shuffled to the bathroom. The door of the box-room was ajar, and there, on the threshold was something rather large, blue and iridescent. I bent to pick it up. It appeared to be a scale, even tapering to a point. Part of some tessellated pattern. I tested it with my finger. It was needle-sharp. I secreted it in my dressing-gown pocket and when the hols came round I took it home with me for safe-keeping. I collect… interesting objects. Have done so all my life.
And yes, my dear, here it is in my cabinet. Strange, is it not – how the glow has never dimmed…?