Helen Alexander had barely been able to concentrate for days. That last air raid had caught her just as she was going for a bath and she’d had to thank her lucky stars that she hadn’t got in yet, shove on her clothes and bolt down to the shelter. She’d only just made it before the shells started dropping. There were only a few; Kilben wasn’t exactly the Germans’ top priority. But still, the proximity in time was no less terrifying than the equivalent proximity in space would have been.
As her friend Penny passed around the biscuits she had brought with her, she clutched at some way to distance herself from her current situation. Digging through her memories, she alighted on a note she’d received from Josie the other day, who’d been passing on Eric’s letters so he didn’t have to send anything twice. Josie and Eric, the perfect team. Working together like twins even though they were two years apart.
She thought about when that had begun.
She’d watched from the kitchen window as her two children edged carefully up the garden path, barely letting an inch appear between the two of them. Two questions occurred to her: what had Josie broken, and why wasn’t Eric in here telling on her? She watched them disappear around the side of the house – the lock on the back door needed fixed – and imagined their progress around to the front. A moment later a key in the lock – Eric was so proud of his key that he locked and unlocked it for even the shortest trips outside – and the two of them were shuffling into the hall.
Helen turned back around and turned on the tap, even though she was out of dishes to wash. If Eric had decided it wasn’t worth Helen knowing what was going on, then it probably wasn’t. Maybe they’d squashed a particularly adorable bug, if such a thing existed, and they felt guilty about it. She would let them be.
Eric’s voice, not high-pitched like when he had something he was excited to tell her. So Josie hadn’t done anything stupid. She turned around to face them and immediately stopped her brain in its tracks. Something was seriously wrong. Josie’s brow was furrowed, which almost never happened. She just took everything in her stride, even gaps that were clearly too large to jump, or mud that was too deep or clothes that were about to rip.
“What’s the matter, honey?” she asked, looking back to Eric.
“We probably better show you,” Josie said, her voice as quiet as Helen had ever heard it.
The two of them finally separated, taking a few very careful steps apart. Josie, completely oblivious to her surroundings clattered into the nearest chair. Luckily not the one that Eric had carefully draped the damp tea towel over earlier, but still, Josie was almost never that clumsy. There wasn’t much time to reflect though, because Helen had noticed what hung in the air between them.
It was the orange, glowing, shimmering form of a dragon larva.
Helen knew very little about dragons, nobody did anymore. Well, the ban had only come in about ten years ago, as part of the Versailles Treaty, so there must have been plenty of people still around who knew lots and lots about dragons, and how to weaponise them. But Helen, and other housewives all around the world, knew no more than the basics. Everyone knew what a dragon larva looked like though; for a time you couldn’t move an inch for a poster telling you to keep an eye out for them.
“Children,” she said, keeping her voice as even as she possibly could, “Where did you find this?”
“Down the bottom of the garden,” Josie said. She paused then added, “Past the treeline.”
Eric tensed up and his eyes widened. Helen assured him, “Don’t worry, honey, you’re not in trouble. I keep telling you, the treeline rule was for when you were little. Now, does this hurt?”
They both shook their heads. Josie said, “It tingled a little at first, but we’re fine now.”
“Okay, what you’re holding between the two of you is sort of like a dragon egg, except dragons don’t come in eggs, they come like this,” she explained. She glanced back over her shoulder out the kitchen window, wondering who could see them from over the other side of the burn. “Actually, let’s go to the bathroom.”
She led them up the stairs, which creaked a little with the two siblings having to synchronise their steps. Then they continued forward across the landing, into the bathroom. The floor was covered by little black and white hexagonal tiles, which reflected the orange light as the larva hovered in the air.
“Alright, why don’t you two sit on the edge of the bath,” Helen suggested, “I can give you a history lesson later. Right now we need to figure out what to do about this.”
“How do you know about dragons?” Josie asked. “How are you so sure that’s what it is?”
“I don’t know more than the average person,” Helen said, hoping Josie wouldn’t ask too many more questions. “But trust me, that’s what it is.”
“What can we do about it?” Eric asked.
Helen reached into a cabinet and retrieved a pile of towels, which she then proceeded to lay out on the bathroom floor, quickly, industriously, focused.
“Mum?” Eric repeated, “What can we do about it?”
“I’m afraid not much,” Helen said, reaching across them to turn the taps of the bath on. “What I need the two of you to do is stay calm, take off your socks and get in the bath.”
Josie looked to Eric, who didn’t say anything.
“Come on, children, it’s going to be okay,” Helen said. “I promise. Just trust me, do what I say, and it will all be fine.”
They nodded, and carefully removed their socks and shoes with their outer hands so the larva didn’t move about all over the place. Eric winced as he untied the laces of a particularly dirty shoe, but he didn’t say anything. With complete focus, he rolled up the legs of his trousers, then followed his sister as they stepped backwards into the bath.
“What now?” Josie asked.
The larva fizzed and sparked a little on the edge closest to the water. Helen nodded, that seemed about right. “I really don’t know what happens next. I think we just have to wait.”
“Okay,” Eric said.
Helen smiled with one side of her mouth. Eric was always calmest when he had a direction to follow. Josie looked up at him, and set her jaw. The two of them stood there, barely moving, for the longest she’d ever seen them stand still at one time. A whole five minutes.
And then the larva had started to fizz again, sparks of green shooting out from all sides. The sparks got bigger, shooting out wider and wider. The colour shot inwards as well, further and further in until the strands of green all met in the middle and the larva had changed colour once and for all. It got wider and deeper too, and the particles making it up started to join together. It became a ball, it grew legs and a head and tiny little wings.
The three of them gaped as the details started to crystallise: the ridges on the wings, the horns on the head, the bright little eyes staring out at them. Then it stopped sparking, and dropped from the air to the water in the bath. It started to cry.
“Out the bath, out the bath!” Helen shouted.
The two children sprang forward, hurdling over the wall of the bath and falling into her arms. Their legs were soaking of course, including the bottom portion of Eric’s trousers and Josie’s shirt. But none of them could feel anything other than the hammering in the centre of their chests, a combination of fear, anticipation, and joy.
Right there in the bath, starting to calm down as it splashed around in the water, was a wee baby dragon.
From a mess hall, a munitions factory and an air raid shelter, Eric, Josie and their mother thought about the day that had changed their lives. For most people of their generations, that was the moment Neville Chamberlain made that broadcast. For them, it was that Wednesday evening after school.