With a guest appearance from my lifelong love Polacanthus:
Once upon a time there was a king who believed in Doing Things. ‘Doing Things,’ he used to say, ‘is the most important thing in the world!’
Every night before he went to bed, he took a long piece of parchment, and a big bottle of ink, and made a list of all the Things he had to Do the next day. And every morning he got up before dawn, and lit a candle, and unrolled his long list, and rolled up the sleeves of his royal robe and prepared to Do Things.
You might think that such a dedicated monarch would be very good for his country. But in fact, the country was going to rack and ruin. The roads were full of potholes and tufts of grass, and wheels used to go flying off the carts on their way to market and send apples rolling for miles. Everything in the kingdom was dirty and falling apart. In the summer the air was thick with the stink of rotting rubbish and the buzzing of flies. The children fell ill, and there were no hospitals because they had all fallen down.
The king had been meaning to have them rebuilt. He’d been meaning to for years, but he never did. The sad truth is that the king who believed in Doing Things never did much at all.
He was a good man, and he cared about his people; in fact, he fretted about them so much that he tore his hair out, and was quite bald by the time he was twenty-one. The trouble was that whenever he sat down to Do Things, a monster would appear and torment him.
It was a monster in the shape of a monkey, a big black monkey with fur all bristling on end as if it had been struck by lightning. It was not ordinary black, but night-black, black as nothing, so that all you could see of its face were its burning eyes and its mouth full of sharp white teeth. When the king tried to Do Things the monster would pounce on him, and bite him, and screech in his face: ‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’
Of course, the first thing the king did was to take his sword and try to slay the monster. But being a spirit, the monster only screeched with laughter as the sword passed harmlessly through its body.
He consulted all his best advisors; but none of them could even see the monster, let alone tell him how to get rid of it. ‘If you want to Do Things,’ they said, ‘just Do them. Ignore the monster. It’s quite easy.’
But it wasn’t easy at all.
So he consulted all the best witches and wizards, who told him all the best spells for dealing with monsters and the best charms for getting things done. But every time he opened his mouth to recite one of them, the monster would drown out his voice with its screaming.
Every day, the king would argue with his monster. ‘Don’t you see,’ he would say, ‘Doing Things is the most important thing in the world! And this Thing I have to Do right now is the most important of all the Things! Everything depends on it! I absolutely have to Do it!’
But the more he argued, the angrier the monster got. It bit harder, it screamed louder, it tore around the room swinging from the chandeliers and yelling, ‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’ The king was at his wits’ end.
It all began to change on the king’s birthday. He didn’t bother throwing a party; he was too busy trying to Do Things. But out of politeness, he felt obliged to sit in his throne-room for an hour or two receiving gifts from foreign ambassadors. The throne-room was a very long chamber, so long that when the footmen opened the doors at the far end to admit the foreign visitors, they had to cup their hands around their mouths and shout for the king to hear them.
Not that the King really heard them anyway. He was too busy worrying about all the Things he had to Do. But then the footmen shouted:
‘A Talking Flower from the Coral Mountains!’
They held open the doors, and a girl walked in who was so beautiful, the King thought she must be the Talking Flower. She was dressed in colourful embroidered robes that fluttered as she walked. A hush fell among the courtiers as she approached the throne. She knelt before the king, and held out a golden flowerpot, in which was a very small, bright red flower.
‘Pleased to meet you, Your Majesty,’ said the flower.
The king thought this was definitely his favourite present of the year. But he had no time to enjoy it, because he had to get on with Doing Things. He went back to his chamber and put the flowerpot on the windowsill, and he unrolled his parchment with a sigh.
Immediately, the monster pounced. ‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’ The king clutched at his head where his hair used to be.
‘It looks as though you have a problem,’ said the flower.
The king spun round in astonishment. ‘You can see the monster?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘but I can see you. Tell me all about this monster.’
So the king told her.
‘Ah,’ said the flower, ‘that kind of monster.’
‘The kind that wants to help you. Actually, I’ll tell you a secret.’ The king leaned closer, and the flower whispered in his ear, ‘That’s the only kind there is.’
The king looked at the bristling, pitch-black, fang-toothed horror rampaging round the room and said, ‘Really? It’s got a funny way of showing it.’
‘I’ll tell you another secret,’ said the flower. ‘That’s the only way it knows.’
‘But it won’t let me Do anything,’ said the king. ‘It won’t even let me do a little charm to maybe possibly help me Do something. Watch this.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Thingalingaling, doodledoodledo -’
‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’ screamed the monster.
‘You see?’ said the king.
‘I think it’s scared,’ said the flower. ‘It’s worried that you want to use this charm to knock it out, or chain it up, or shrink it down and shove it in a bottle, so you can Do your Thing.’
‘But that’s exactly what I do want to do,’ complained the king. The monster chattered angrily.
‘That’s no good. You have to reassure it that you’re not going to do that.’
‘Fine,’ said the king grudgingly. ‘I’m not going to do that.’ The monster put its head on one side.
‘It wants to help you, remember. It loves you. Try telling it that this is just an experiment. An act of curiosity. You’re going to use the charm to learn about your monster, not to hurt it. It doesn’t matter if you Do the Thing or not – with an experiment, as long as you’ve learned something, it’s a success.’
The king gritted his teeth. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to learn about you. It doesn’t matter if I Do the Thing or not.’ The monster threw back its head and howled with derisive laughter. ‘It doesn’t believe me,’ said the king.
‘I’m not surprised. Do you believe yourself?’
‘No! Doing Things is the most important thing in the world!’
‘Well, this monster must think it has something to teach you that’s more important than Doing Things, or it wouldn’t have been following you for – how long?’
The king hung his head. ‘Pretty much my whole life.’
‘Then unless you learn what it wants to teach you, it’ll stay with you for your whole life. And you’ll always be fighting it, and it’ll always win.’
‘No!’ cried the king.
The flower nodded on her slender stem. ‘I’m afraid so.’
The king squared his shoulders, and faced the monster. ‘All right, monster – out with it. What do you want to teach me?’
The monster stared for a moment, then shook its head sadly.
‘What’s that? Are you telling me you don’t know?’
The monster nodded.
‘Monsters can forget, you know, like people,’ said the flower. ‘Perhaps you both need a little something to remind you. Tell me, when was the last time you felt really curious?’
‘Oh, years and years ago,’ said the king. ‘When I was a little boy, before the monster came along.’
‘Close your eyes,’ said the flower. ‘Dream yourself back there.’ So the king dreamed. He dreamed of lying on his stomach on the nursery carpet, poring over a book as big as he was, full of rich illuminated drawings and outlandish words. Dinosaurs! His eyes grew round as saucers, drinking the pictures in. He spelled out the long names with stubby fingers. Turning a page was like opening a window into a different world, into seas full of ammonites and ichthyosaurs, into skies full of pterodactyls and volcanic smoke, into swamps where dinosaur mothers guarded their babies from Tyrannosaurus Rex.
‘Nobody told me to spend hours looking at that book,’ said the king. ‘It wasn’t a Thing I had to Do. It was pure curiosity. I was just – interested. I loved dinosaurs. I told my father that I wanted one for my birthday.’
The flower giggled softly. ‘And how does it feel, to be curious?’
‘It feels delightful! Like being a little boy again.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘Keep dreaming.’
So the king dreamed of his birthday, back in the days when birthdays were birthdays. He dreamed of the splendid party he’d had, with games and acrobats and a wonderful feast with a cake in the shape of a sailing-ship. And he dreamed of his parents taking his hands and leading him out into the palace grounds, to a little walled garden, and opening the gate – and there stood his very own dinosaur!
He was as large as life, carved and painted bright yellow, with painted eyes full of expression and a wide froggy smile. He stood low to the ground with his elbows out like a friendly crocodile, with a long tail a little boy could scramble up, and a broad flat back hedged about with rows of spikes. The king dreamed of when he used to lie secure between those spikes and wrap his arms around the dinosaur’s neck, and rest his chin on his affable, pattable head. He loved his dinosaur, and he knew he loved him back.
‘What happened to the dinosaur?’ said the flower quietly.
‘I – I don’t know,’ said the king. ‘I haven’t really had time to think about things like that. Long gone, I expect.’
‘He isn’t, you know,’ said the flower. ‘Not when you remember him so vividly. He’s a spirit just as strong as your monster. He can be a reminder for both of you. A symbol of curiosity. Snap your fingers, and he’ll come.’
Feeling doubtful, and rather foolish, the king snapped his fingers; and there in the room was his dinosaur, alive, smiling his old smile, and looking at the king like a huge placid dog recognising its master. He came ambling up to the king with his long tail wagging slowly from side to side. The monster stared.
The king patted his dinosaur, and grinned like a little boy, and tried to look as if he wasn’t crying. He was a king, so he was pretty good at it, but the flower knew.
‘I’ve just realised something,’ said the king.
‘Yes?’ said the flower. ‘Go on.’
But the king didn’t go on for a moment, because he didn’t trust his voice. Then he said, ‘When I was a little boy, I didn’t think Doing Things was the most important thing at all. And – I was right. I mean, Doing Things is important, but it’s not the point of life!’
‘Then what is?’ said the flower, with a smile in her voice.
‘I don’t know, just – the fact that I exist is the point. That I exist, and you exist, and the world exists – I mean, look at you. You’re a flower. You don’t Do anything. You -’
‘Toil not, neither do I spin?’
‘Exactly! And look at how beautiful you are. Nobody could possibly accuse you of not having a point! Why, you’re the most important thing in the world! And so am I! And so is everyone! Just – being is the most important thing in the world. Life is the point of life. It’s all so round-in-circles you might as well not say anything!’
The flower laughed. It’s a beautiful sound, the laughter of a flower. ‘Quite right, of course,’ she said. ‘Now see if you can explain that to your monster – now that you really mean it.’
‘Monster,’ said the king. ‘I promise you I mean it. Doing Things is not the most important thing in the world, and I don’t want to hurt you or shove you in a bottle, I just want to learn about you. Whether I Do the Thing or don’t Do the Thing, I want to find out what you want to teach me.’
‘Tell him why the dinosaur’s here,’ prompted the flower.
‘Um -’ The king smiled. ‘The dinosaur is here as a symbol of curiosity. To show that I’m curious about you, and to remind us both of what that’s like. See, I’m so serious about this I brought a big yellow dinosaur!’
The monster whooped with laughter, bounded across the room to pet the dinosaur’s nose, and then skittered away. The king had never seen it so playful before. Something in its movements reminded him of a child; and he remembered that he himself had been a child when the monster first came, a young prince whose days were suddenly full of schooling and etiquette and all the duties of a future king. He remembered how he’d missed the long hours of playtime, and how firmly he’d told himself that future kings didn’t have time to play. And how he’d never quite felt like himself, ever since.
‘Oh, monster,’ said the king, ‘of course you were upset. I’d turned into someone who thought Doing Things was the most important thing in the world! That wasn’t me at all! No wonder you kept trying to snap me out of it! And all I did was insist more and more on how important it was to Do Things. And you got angrier and angrier, and I still didn’t get it! I’m so sorry I was so slow. And I’m sorry I tried to kill you. I really am. I’m actually – I suppose I’m actually grateful.’
The monster leaped on top of the wardrobe and beat its chest with delight. Its fur didn’t look so prickly any more, and the king saw that it really was just a big black monkey, with a comically expressive monkey face. It bounded down and hurled itself at the king, and hugged his leg.
‘I told you he loved you,’ said the flower. ‘You’ll need to give him a new job now. They like to feel useful.’
The monkey scrambled up the king’s body to sit on his shoulder, picked up the king’s crown and tried to put it on his own head, and fell off backwards, winding up sitting in the upside-down crown with his arms and legs sticking out at all angles. He pulled back his lips into a monkey grin and squealed with laughter. The king laughed too. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a really good laugh.
‘Well,’ said the king, ‘since you’re a monkey, your new job is to play and make me laugh, so I never forget that Doing Things is not the most important thing in the world.’
From that day on, things began to get better in the kingdom. Sometimes the monkey forgot his new job and tried to scare the king instead of making him laugh, and sometimes the king forgot too, but the dinosaur never forgot. Over time the king learned that all he had to do was snap his fingers, and the dinosaur would come back to remind them both.
And the king realised that he didn’t have half so many Things to Do as he thought. His long parchment began to blossom with bright flourishes of coloured inks. Done! Bit by bit, everything that was dirty in the kingdom became clean, and everything that was broken began to be rebuilt, and the children began to grow strong and healthy.
For the king’s next birthday, he threw a tremendous party. He invited at least one person from every town and village in the kingdom, even the poorest. There were games and acrobats and a wonderful feast with a cake in the shape of a sailing-ship. And at the end of the feast, he announced that he wanted to give a present to every guest, and he wanted them to take the presents home and share them with their towns and villages.
He led them all out into the palace grounds, to the walled garden where the dinosaur had once stood. Candle lanterns shone all around the wall, filling the garden with light. He opened the gate, and the guests saw that the garden was full of little flowerpots, one for each of them, and in each pot a very small, bright red flower.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ said the flowers.