Ben Fletcher

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Chapter Eleven


A Tale of Highs, Lows, And Then Highs Again


As winter began, the weather turned an icy cold. The mountains surrounding the school had become snowy, and the loch had frozen over. Every morning, students would watch from the warmth of the castle as Barry could be seen walking across the frosty grounds to grit the paths, defrost the school space hoppers, or place down warning signs reminding people not to run as surfaces may be slippery.

The change in season had also brought with it the start of the Frogsports one. On Saturday, the opening match would be taking place between Osphranter house and Crocodilian house, and it would be Billy’s first ever game.

No one outside the Osphranter team had seen Billy play yet, because as their new player, Plank wanted to keep his playing style a secret from the opposition. The news that Billy had made the team seemed to have become common knowledge around the school, however. Soon Billy didn’t know if it was the people telling him he’d be brilliant or those who shouted he’d be awful who were jumping to the wrong conclusion.

Billy was glad he could now call Elahoraella a friend. He wasn’t sure how he’d have been able to complete all his schoolwork each night while hopping between lessons and all the last-minute training sessions Plank was arranging, without her help. Elahoraella had also lent him Frogsports: A Tale of Highs, Lows, and then Highs Again, which he found to be a much more ribbiting read than she had.

Billy learnt that there was a Frogsports World Cup which was contested every leap year; that there were over three hundred ways to kermit a foul; and that the longest ever Frogsports match had lasted for over two months, during which the referee had to be regularly substituted every time their voice went croaky.

Elahoraella had become much more relaxed around Billy and Ed since they had saved her from the school inspector, and because it’s apparently important to allude to her being a bad and unpleasant person for not trusting them earlier, she was much nicer for it. On the Friday before the match, the three of them were outside in one of the castle’s many courtyards, keeping warm by a fire another student had lit. Elahoraella had reservations about letting the fire burn on and wanted to put it out, but Ed disagreed.

“I just don’t think we should be adding to global warming,” said Elahoraella.

“How can global warming be real when it’s cold outside?” asked Ed with the air of someone who knew much less than he let on.

Billy agreed with Elahoraella, especially since there were plenty of fires already lit inside the empty rooms of the castle, but he was too busy reading to join in their argument.

They were warming their hands on the fire when Professor Grape appeared at the other side of the courtyard and made straight for them. Billy noticed at once that Grape was limping as he walked.

“What have you got in your hands, Smith?”

Billy showed him the copy of Frogsports: A Tale of Highs, Lows, and then Highs Again.

“Five credits from Osphranter house. Surely you know that school books are to be kept within the school at all times?”

Grape took the book from him. Billy opened his mouth to argue, but Grape simply stared him down and said, “Many a man, Smith. Many a man.”

“He’s just making things up as he goes along,” Billy said angrily to the other two as Grape limped away from them. “What’s wrong with his leg?”

“Whatever it is, I hope it’s hurting him,” said Ed.

That night, the common room was full of energy. Billy, Ed, and Elahoraella sat around a table by one of the windows. Elahoraella was checking Billy and Ed’s Creationism homework. No one liked Creationism very much, but the Secretariat of Sorcery had passed a new law for it to replace accurate historical facts as a compulsory subject. For some reason, they took it more seriously than saving lives, creating jobs, or protecting basic human rights.

Billy was just staring out the window at the Frogsports stadium in the grounds below when he thought it would be a good idea to check if there were any tips he’d missed in Frogsports: A Tale of Highs, Lows, and then Highs Again. As he reached for his bag to get the book, he remembered Grape had taken it.

“Where are you going?” asked Elahoraella as Billy got to his feet.

“I’m going to ask Grape if I can have my book back.”

“Good luck,” said Ed, but Billy felt confident Grape wouldn’t murder him if there was witnesses nearby.

He made his way down to the staffroom on the second floor and knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again, and the door opened a little.

Perhaps Grape had left the book in there? He pushed the door open a little farther — what he witnessed scarred him for life.

Grape and Professor McDouglass were inside, alone. Grape was holding up a banana in one of his hands, while Professor McDouglass had a small wrapper in her own that Billy couldn’t make out.

“The headmaster wants us to teach the students sex education?” Grape was saying.

“Well, the school inspector did say we have to take it more seriously,” said Professor McDouglass.

“He wants me to show them how to put a condom on a banana.”

“I used a replica of — you know — the real thing, last time, but then a student recognised it as — you know — and asked why I had it. I had to explain that even elderly magicians have their needs.”

“I have just been sick into my own mouth.”

Professor McDouglass removed the condom from the wrapper in her hand and helped Grape slip it over the top of the banana. “There we go,” she said. “Though I must say, I’ve certainly seen bigger in my time.”

“More sick.”

“Oh, don’t be like that Gallienus. I’m sure you’ve had relations before.”

“I have only ever loved one woman, and she never loved me back. I thought I could win her over by fighting her husband after he defended her when I used a highly offensive prejudiced slur, but it didn’t work. And when I found out my boss wanted to murder her and her family, I only wanted to save her life and let the man and son she loved die. And because her son survived, I now dedicate my life to making his own a miserable existence.”

“Yes,” said Professor McDouglass. “When you think about it, it really is messed that you’re made out to be a hero in the end while all that stuff is overlooked.”

There was a long silence that was eventually broken by Grape changing the subject.

“What is cunnilingus?”

“I’m sorry?”

“It was on the syllabus to teach about the risks associated with oral sexual encounters.”

“Oh, yes, quite right. I have a book on that you can borrow.”

Billy decided he’d heard enough. He tried to back out silently and close the door, but — “SMITH!”

Grape looked dangerous as he strode over to the door and swung it open.

“I just wanted to see if I could get my book back?”

“MANY A MAN, SMITH!”

Billy left, before Grape could get close enough to harm him. He ran back to the common room.

“Did you get it?” asked Ed as Billy sat back down at the table. “What’s the matter?”

In a low whisper, Billy told them what he’d just seen.

“What?” Ed laughed. “We don’t need sex education.”

“Oh, but we do,” said Elahoraella. “It’s important to learn at our age.”

Billy went to bed that night feeling as though he was never going to be able to read any of the books or watch any of the movies in quite the same way again.

He woke early the next morning, but was too nervous about the match to go back to sleep. He lay awake until the rest of the dormitory had woken up, and then joined them to go down to breakfast. People patted Billy on the back and wished him luck as they walked through the common room.

“Come on, Billy, you need to eat something,” implored Elahoraella, noticing his plate was empty.

“I’m okay. I’m not hungry.”

“Not even a slice of toast?”

“I don’t want anything.”

Billy wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop himself from being sick if he ate. In just a few hours, he’d be walking out in front of the whole school, and he couldn’t feel more nervous about it. And then someone said something which made him do exactly that.

“Billy, you need some food in you,” said Patrick O’Connor. “Those blow darts take a lot longer to wear off on an empty stomach.”

“Thanks, Patrick,” said Billy, thinking it might be better if he was taken out for as long as possible as soon as the match began.

“At least have something to drink,” said Ed, handing Billy a bottle.

“What is it?” asked Billy.

Croaka-Cola,” said Ed. “It’ll give you energy for the match.”

By ten o’clock, the whole school had made their way out to the Frogsports stadium in the castle grounds. Ed and Elahoraella joined Josh, Patrick, and Simon in front of where some older Osphranter students were sitting in the stands.

Billy, meanwhile, was in the changing rooms putting on his frog costume — the technical name for which he was told was a jumpsuit — and blowing up his red space hopper (the Crocodilian team would be playing on green ones).

Plank came into the changing rooms from the captain’s office. “Okay, this is it,” he said. “This is the big one. It’s the first match, and we have to win it if we’re going to get off to a positive start —”

However hard Plank may have been trying to make his speech a serious one, it wasn’t easy for the rest of the team to receive it as such. Plank had already changed into his kit, so to the rest of the team it appeared as if they were being given a pep talk by a horse.

“Hey, why the long face?” joked Larry.

“Yeah, come on, Plank. With a face like that, you look like a neighsayer,” added Chad.

“Be quiet, you two. Those jokes weren’t funny last year,” said Plank. “This is the best team Osphranter house has had for years. We’re going to win it this time, I just know —” He paused. The front half of the horse began to cough. “Daniel, I thought we agreed we wouldn’t do that inside the horse?”

Plank removed the head of the costume to give himself some fresh air. “Okay,” he said, after a few long deep breaths. “It’s time to get out there. Good luck to you all.”

Billy stood up and followed Chad and Larry out of the changing rooms and onto the pitch where they were greeted by loud boos from one side of the stadium and even louder cheers from the other.

Madam Webb would be refereeing the match, and she stood waiting for them in the middle of the pitch, trying to keep her balance on a hoverboard.

“Ah, Plank,” she said, as the team approached. “Unfortunately, you and your team will not be able to take the knee before the match begins. The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have decided it would create too much division and banned it. But don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll have had time to look over their poll numbers and decide they’re against racism before your next match.”

“What about the —”

“Unfortunately, we are not able to light the stadium in rainbow colours either. The governing body has ruled that not upsetting homophobes is much more important than standing up to that sort of hate.”

The Crocodilian team walked out onto the pitch to even louder boos than the Osphranters had. “Right then,” said Madam Webb as they joined them. “I want a clean and sporting match from all…” and she was off. Her hoverboard was out of control and took her straight through the middle of the two teams, before going round and round in small circles until she finally lost her balance and fell off. “Bloody thing,” she said, picking up the hoverboard and taking it back to where she’d started. “It was so much easier when we used Segways. Anyway — as I was saying. If you do insist on cheating, just make sure I don’t see it. Do it croak and dagger style.”

Billy attempted to swallow his nerves.

“Now get in line for the house anthems, please.”

Billy joined the rest of the team as they lined up on the edge of the pitch, facing the stand where the teachers were sat. It was their anthem up first, and as the music began as though being played through giant invisible speakers, Billy sang his heart out with the rest of the Osphranters.

“Osphranters all let us rejoice,

For we love our yeast extract,

We all adore our yeast extract,

We all enjoy our yeast extract,

For breakfast, lunch, and tea…”

Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap-clap, clap, clap.

There was an outbreak of applause from the Osphranters in the stands. Billy looked up at Professor McDouglass, who was sitting wearing a kangaroo hat next to Crumbleceiling with a tear in her eye.

“And now, the anthem of Crocodilian house,” announced Madam Webb, and the music started again.

“Never smile at a crocodile…”

Neither the players themselves nor the rest of Crocodilian house sat in the stands seemed to know much more than the first few words to their anthem, so they improvised with a series of “snap, snap, snaps,” that were all badly timed to the beat of the music.

With the anthems over, Plank and Daniel Foster (the back half of the Osphranter goalkeeper) went over to the team’s netball net to get in position afloat, the inflatable unicorn bobbing gently on the water. Billy went over to get in place on the halfway line — Plank had won the toss for them to kick off — and looked up the pitch to where the Crocodilian goalkeeper (made up of James Carter as the front half and Felix Cole in the rear) was getting into position on their own unicorn. Billy was glad it wasn’t his job to try and score, because the netball net the horse would be guarding looked a lot higher up now that he was on his space hopper.

Madam Webb made her way to the centre of the pitch — slowly so as not to lose her balance and fall off the hoverboard a second time — and opened a small jar to release the platinum fly into the open. Billy caught only a glance of it before it disappeared from sight.

“Are we ready? Three… Two… One…” Madam Webb gave a sharp blow on her kazoo, and the match kicked off with Amber Mackenzie, one of the Osphranter’s three Attackers, throwing the rugby ball high into the air and hitting it hard with her hockey stick into deep Crocodilian territory.

“And that was an excellent start to the match by Mackenzie there, that won’t be easy for the Crocodilians to defend,” came the voice of a commentator. “But no, captain Lucas Ramsey has hit the ball right back down to the Osphranters — how will they respond? — Sydney Jenkins of the Osphranters has the ball, taps it lightly across to Mackenzie, and she balances it nicely as the Crocodilians approach — AND OH THAT WAS CLOSE! — Mackenzie showing real talent as she passed the ball back to Jenkins while narrowly avoiding two blow darts fired at her by the Crocodilian bouncers — and what’s this? Jenkins is going for it, bouncing up the field with only one hand on her space hopper, the other on that hockey stick with perfect ball control — Evan Harrison makes a challenge for the ball, but no — that is a blow dart to the neck for Evan Harrison from Larry Beaversley of the Osphranters, and he is out of the match — but don’t look for too long as Jenkins is still on the attack — Ramsey bounces in but Jenkins passes it to teammate Clarissa Stewart who side bounces Crocodilian Vincent Chase, dodges a blow dart, and makes a short at the net — and, yes, James Carter makes a jump for it but his rear half just wasn’t ready — OSPHRANTERS SCORE!”

Boos rang out from the Crocodilians in the stands, but they were countered by the cheers of the Osphranters.

“Ey up — move up theur lad, give us sum’ room.”

“Barry!”

Ed and Elahoraella bunched closer together to give Barry enough space, but the people behind them were less than pleased about having their view blocked by a man twice as tall as any other. “Selfish.”

“Eh, ah ‘eard that, thy little shite,” said Barry. “Less o’ attitude. Theur should respect theur elders — we wor ‘ere first.” He turned his attention back the match. “‘ows Billy doin’? Any sign o’ platinum fly yet?”

“None yet,” said Ed.

Out on the pitch, Billy was having the time of his life as he bounced up and down on his space hopper, but there was no sign of the platinum fly yet. He’d had a rush of adrenaline a few minutes earlier when he’d given chase to something which flew past, but that had only turned out to be a wasp.

“Watch out, Billy!” It was Chad bouncing up and down behind him, his blowpipe aimed at a target past Billy’s head. Billy ducked and Chad gave the pipe a sharp blow. Billy felt the blow dart race above his head, and as he looked up again, he saw it strike one of the Crocodilian Bouncers in the chest just seconds before they could fire their own dart at him.

“And that is Anthony Cooper out of the match thanks to some quick thinking by Chad Beaversley there,” said the commentator, as the Bouncer succumbed to the dart and fell unconscious off his space hopper.

It was as Caleb Anderson, the Crocodilian’s other Bouncer, came to avenge his teammate that it happened. Billy had just dodged a blow dart fired by Anderson when he spotted a second coming for him. He wondered for a moment if maybe Anthony Cooper hadn’t been hit after all, but as it got closer, he realised it wasn’t a blow dart. And there was another one. Two sharp daggers were flying straight at his space hopper. If they hit their target, they were sure to puncture the rubber, and then he’d be out of the match. He bounced high, and they flew under him. But as he looked around, he saw a third, a fourth, and even a fifth coming after him. As Billy began bouncing for his life down the length of the pitch, the daggers followed.

The commentary continued, seemingly unaware of what was happening to Billy.

“And the Osphranters have the ball — it’s Jenkins to Stewart — Stewart charging down, a nice bounce over Ramsey who misses his chance to challenge — Stewart passed to Mackenzie — Mackenzie goes for the net and — the Crocodilian’s Keeper is in the water — Mackenzie scores for the Osphranters — that is one damp horse.”

Elahoraella didn’t join in with the cheers from the surrounding Osphranters. She’d just noticed Billy.

“What’s happening to Billy?” she asked Ed with concern.

“They look like —”

“Daggers, yes. But where from?”

She looked away from Billy and over at the teacher’s stand instead. “It’s Grape,” she said. “He’s controlling them somehow.”

“Should we do something?”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Elahoraella, and she left, pushing her way past the other students.

Billy found it hard to keep ahead of the daggers now. He bounced and he bounced, but they appeared to be getting closer. Sydney Jenkins and Clarissa Stewart both helped by coming alongside him and taking two of the daggers out with their hockey sticks, but the rest were closing in.

“Hurry up, Elahoraella,” Ed muttered to himself, seemingly not wondering for a moment why he was leaving it all for Elahoraella to fix and doing nothing to himself.

Elahoraella had managed to push her way across to the teacher’s stand. “What on earth are you doing over here, Miss Parker?” asked Professor McDouglass. Elahoraella didn’t stop to answer her, nor did she stop when she pushed past Professor Quigley and knocked him over.

Stopping next to Grape, she bent down, pulled out her enchanted celery and said “Jiggery-Pokery!” under her breath. Flames shot out the end of the celery and set the bottom of Grape’s dressing gown on fire. She made her exit under the cover of the smoke that was now starting to fill the stand.

The cheers from the rest of the stadium told her she’d done what she needed to.

The other daggers had fallen to the ground, and Billy was bouncing as free as a bunny rabbit riding a pogo stick on a trampoline. And then he saw it. Just ahead was the platinum fly. He went after it, leaning forward and willing his space hopper to bounce faster. He held out his swatter ready to make his move, but then — he felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck and lost his balance. Falling forward, he hit the ground as his space hopper flipped over his head and rolled away from him.

Billy turned over and sat up. He noticed his teammates coming over to see if he was okay, then looked down to see the tiny platinum fly trapped under his swatter. And then, nothing.

When Billy came around again, he was lying on the bed in Barry’s hut. Barry, Ed and Elahoraella were sat around the table in conversation. He sat up and looked at them.

“Billy,” said Elahoraella, noticing he was awake.

“Ey up, lad. Come join us f’ brew,” said Barry. “Grand show out there — won match n’ all.”

“Ramsey wasn’t happy,” said Ed as Billy got up from the bed and joined them. “He kept complaining your swat shouldn’t count because a dart hit you, but Madam Webb said you didn’t faint until after you’d swatted.”

Billy rubbed his neck. It felt sore.

“You took it right to the neck,” said Elahoraella. “It looked painful.”

“It feels painful,” said Billy.

“Theur will gerr’ over it,” said Barry. “Theur not dyin’.”

“What happened?” asked Billy. “Somebody was trying to throw daggers at me.”

“It was Grape,” said Ed. “Elahoraella and I saw him. He was using that Hocus-Pocus spell to make them fly straight at your space hopper. Only, he didn’t seem to be using an enchanted celery.”

“Complete knackers!” said Barry, who seems to have missed everything that had happened during the match. “Why would Grape want t’ deflate Billy’s space ‘op?”

“I think he thinks we know something about him,” Billy explained to Barry. “And we do — we know he tried to get past that giant two-head duck on Halloween. It attacked his leg. We think he was tying to steal whatever it is the duck is guarding.”

“Who told theur ‘bout Waddles?” asked Barry.

“Waddles?”

“Yeh — ‘e’s me pet — bur Crumbleceiling asked t’ borrow ‘im t’ guard summa’.”

“What’s he guarding?”

“Ah’m not sayin’ nowt more,” said Barry. “It’s secret.”

“But whatever it is, Grape’s trying to steal it.”

“Bullshit — ‘e’d do nowt o’ sort.”

“Then why did he just try to kill Billy?” said Elahoraella, as though imploring him to see sense.

“Theur must be mistaken. Grape wouldn’t try t’ kill student — not after las’ time, anyway.”

“Last time?”

“No more. Ah’ve said too much. Jus’ listen — theur all stickin’ noses where they ain’t not wanted, reight. Forget ‘bout it all. Wha’ that duck is guardin’ is between Professor Crumbleceiling n’ Émile Arquette.”

“Who’s Émile Arquette?” asked Elahoraella.

Barry ignored her.


________________________________________________________________________________

A Small Ask


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Writing comedy like this is my job (and this is no short parody, it really is over 100k words) and like 99% of creatives right now, even the smallest contributions can make a difference to help us survive and continue doing what we do.

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