Ben Fletcher

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  • Ben Fletcher


Chapter Five


The Sino Pauper Edo Recondo Mammonas Bank


It was still early when Billy woke the next morning. He could feel the warmth of the sun shining on his face through a hole in the wooden that covered one of the windows, but he kept his eyes shut.

“None of it was real,” he told himself. “It was all a dream. I had a dream that a giant man called Barry came and stood up to the Moustaches. When I open my eyes, I’ll be staring up at the ceiling in my cupboard.”

He heard a sudden tapping noise.

And there was Mrs Moustache coming to wake him up, he thought to himself, his heart sinking. But still he didn’t open his eyes.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Okay,” he mumbled. “I’m getting up now. I’ll make breakfast.”

He opened his eyes, but instead of the low cupboard ceiling he was expecting, he was staring up at the damp and rotting wooden beams that held up the roof inside the hut on the rock. He sat up and Barry’s heavy coat fell off him. The whole hut was filled with sunlight, and the sea outside was both calm and inviting. Barry was still asleep on the sofa. Presumably, the Moustaches had been too scared to come back out the other room, as none of them were in sight.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Over by one of the windows, an enormous pigeon scratched at the glass with its beak; it had a newspaper tied to a piece of string around its neck.

Billy jumped to his feet, filled with a sense of elation like he’d never felt before. He went over to the window and swung it open. Feeling as though he was in a fairytale, he had a sudden urge to start singing, but thought it better if he didn’t start parodying things from Disney, and giving their lawyers the opportunity to publicly defend hate and show they have no sense of humour either. The pigeon flew into the hut, catching Billy on the side of the face as it passed, and landed on Barry’s chest to drop the newspaper. As Billy watched, the pigeon jumped down to the floor and began pecking at Barry’s coat.

“Stop it, don’t do that!”

Billy tried to move the coat away, but the pigeon merely gave him an angry look and continued pecking at the sleeves.

“Barry, there’s a pigeon here,” said Billy loudly. “It’s attacking your coat.”

“Aye, it’ll want payin’,” Barry grunted.

“What?”

“It’ll want payin’ f’ deliverin’ paper. Check in coat pocket, lad. Theur will sure find sum’ brass in there.”

Billy looked down at Barry’s coat and noticed for the first time that it appeared to be made out of real fur. “Barry, is this coat made out of mink?” he asked in horror.

“Nah, ah dunt like feel o’ mink. It’s raccoon.”

“But Barry,” Billy began, remembering something he’d learnt at the zoo a few months earlier, “if humans keep hunting animals to use their fur for clothing, they’ll go extinct. It’s morally wrong. We have a responsibility to —”

“Eh! Wha’ did ah tell theur last night? — If ah wanted lecture, ah’d watch Ted Talk. Nah gerr’ on wi’ payin’ bloody pigeon before we die o’ old age.”

With disgust, Billy put his hand into one of the coat’s many pockets and began pulling things out.

“Tea bags?” he said to himself.

“Aye, n’ not jus’ any old tea bags, neither. Those are best tea bags theur can buy. Propa’ brew. Got t’ av’ fancy stuff wi’ me in case ah find sum’ place servin’ own brand, see.”

Eventually, Billy pulled out a handful of very strange-looking coins.

“Give it fifty cents,” said Barry sleepily.

“Cents?”

“Aye, cents. We use euro in’t magical world, lad. Much more stable n’ valuable than sterling these days, that’s f’ sure.”

Billy counted out five of the little gold-coloured coins with a number ten on them. The pigeon came forward and Billy put them into a small pouch around its neck. Then the pigeon flew off through the open window, leaving behind a small folded piece of paper.

Billy picked it up and unfolded it. “It’s a VAT receipt,” he said.

“F’ me expenses,” Barry explained. “Only, they dunt always remember t’ give ‘em out.”

Barry yawned as he sat up on the sofa and stretched.

“Well, we best gerroff, lad. We’ve got umpteen things t’ do t’day. av’ t’ get t’ London n’ buy stuff theur need f’ school.”

As he turned the euro over in his hand, Billy suddenly thought of something which made him feel qualmish.

“Barry,” he said.

“Aye,” said Barry, as he pulled on the first of his two heavy black boots.

“I don’t have any money — and, well, you heard my uncle last night… how am I going to afford to go to Frogsports?”

“Theur dunt need t’ worry ‘bout tha’, lad,” said Barry, laughing to himself. “Theur mother n’ old man left theur plenty o’ brass when they died.”

“But you said their house was destroyed —”

Barry laughed even more now.

“Please don’t laugh about my parent’s death.”

“Ah’m sorry,” said Barry. “Bur thee didn’t keep everythin’ in’t ‘ouse, lad. Nah, the first place we’re off t’ is t’ bank.”

“Magicians have banks?”

“Jus’ one o’ ‘em — the thievin’ lyin’ bastards — sorry, ah mean it’s called the Sino Pauper Edo Recondo Mammonas Bank — the thievin’ lyin’ bastards. It’s run by the most disgusting, rapacious, corrupt, n’ selfish people in’t world.”

“Who?” asked Billy curiously.

“Bankers.”

“Bankers?” Billy repeated.

“Aye — so tha’d be mad t’ think they’re there t’ ‘elp theur out. Never gabble wi’ bankers, Billy. It dunt matter wha’ they do, they always find ways t’ avoid accountability. Reight safe place, though, is Sino Pauper Edo Recondo Mammonas — the thievin’ lyin’ bastards. Probably only Frogsports, that’s safer. I’ve got t’ visit bank me sen anyway. Crumbleceiling wants me t’ pick summa’ up f’ ‘im. Frogsports business, y’ know.

“Theur got thy stuff together? Come on, then — n’ ah’ll av’ me euro back n’ all.”

Billy handed back the euro he had in his hand, then followed Barry out of the hut and into the sunlight.

The sky was a cloudless blue, and the sea shone brightly. The boat Mr Moustache had brought them out on was still tied to the rock; it looked even less safe now than it had before the storm.

“How did you get here?” asked Billy.

“Ah came on tha’ boat, ‘course,” said Barry, pointing at a second boat, which appeared to be in considerably better condition than the first. It also had an engine.

They climbed into the boat, and Barry pulled the cord to start the engine. Moments later, they were speeding away from the rock and towards the land they could see on the horizon.

“Why is Sino Pauper Edo Recondo Mammonas so safe?”

“Tricks — bewitchments,” said Barry, unfolding his newspaper as he spoke. “They even seh there’s billionaires ‘oardin resources kept in’t most valuable vaults, n’ they’ll do owt t’ keep ‘old o’ stuff, even if theur dunt need it. n’ then there’s all money launderin’ n’ tax evasion stuff in place — that dunt apply t’ billionaires so much f’ sum’ reason, though.”

Billy sat and thought about eating the rich while Barry read his newspaper: The Riled Rag.

“Secretariat o’ Sorcery are screwin’ ery’thin’ up again — no change there,” Barry muttered to himself.

Billy had learnt from Mr Moustache that people often filled themselves with enmity and resentment by reading the tabloids, so he thought it best to try to save Barry from this terrible fate by keeping him talking.

“There’s a Secretariat of Sorcery?” he asked.

“‘course, there is,” said Barry. “Crumbleceiling ran f’ Secretary, ‘course. Bur even though ‘e got most votes, there’s ain’t no proportional representation, n’ then there’s election school t’ deal wi’. So old Rufets L. Flack got ‘is sen elected instead.”

“But what does the Secretariat of Sorcery do?”

“Nah that is bloody grand question, lad. Ah ain’t got foggiest — waste our tax brass n’ shun voters wishes most o’ time.” Barry turned the page. “It says man ‘ere tried t’ sue ‘is airline f’ losin’ ‘is luggage, bur ‘e lost ‘is case — oh, n’ ah can gerr’ me sen a free packet o’ seeds if ah send off f’ ‘em.”

At that moment, the boat came to a gentle stop as it beached itself on the sand. Barry folded up his newspaper, and they climbed out of the boat and walked across the beach to some stone steps which brought them out onto the street above. Barry seemed to speed up a little as they passed a rather threatening looking man complaining to a police officer that his boat had been stolen during the night.

People stared a lot at Billy as they strolled through the town. Billy couldn’t blame them because when he thought it about it, to most it must have looked as though Barry was trying to abduct him. After all, here he was, an eleven-year-old boy, following a mysterious man he’d never met before on the promise of riches and a better life. Was Barry perhaps on darknet forums with the Child Catcher, Willy Wonka, and Pumbaa?

“Barry,” said Billy, trying to think of something different. “Did you say there’s billionaires at Sino Pauper Edo Recondo Mammonas?”

“Aye — some seh they av’ successful businesses, bur most reckon they jus’ exploit those less privileged,” said Barry. “Blimey, ah’d love t’ run me own business, though.”

“You want your own business?”

“av’ done ever since ah wor a little kid. All tha’ financial freedom n’ work life balance tha’ go wi’ it — ‘ere we go.”

They had reached the station. There was a train to London departing in five minutes, but they didn’t catch it. Although he didn’t understand “common money”, as he called it, Barry still knew the price the man at the ticket counter had quoted him was ridiculous. “‘OW MUCH?” he shouted to general approval from those nearby. “Ah could fly t’ New York n’ back f’ that price!”

The ticket man explained that if they waited until the first off-peak train of the day, their tickets would be cheaper, so that’s what they did. They had been sat waiting on the platform for nearly three hours when the nine forty-two train arrived at eleven minutes past ten — conveniently just one minute short of being late enough for anyone to be compensated for the delay.

People stared more than ever on the train, though this was probably because, despite there being plenty of empty seats, Barry had still decided to sit next to someone else, who was now squashed against the window looking uncomfortable.

“It leaves pair o’ seats free f’ when others come along, see,” he explained to Billy. “Anyway, av’ theur still got y’ letter from las’ night? There’s list o’ ery’thin’ theur need f’ school in there.”

Billy took the cream envelope out of his pocket. He looked inside and found a second piece of parchment he hadn’t noticed the night before. He took it out and read:


FROGSPORTS ACADEMY of MAGICAL WHIZZING and KABOOMS LIST OF UNIFORM, SET BOOKS, AND EQUIPMENT FOR FIRST-YEAR STUDENTS  UNIFORM |  ALL FIRST YEAR STUDENTS ARE REQUIRED TO PURCHASE:  Four black dressing gowns for day wear Three top hats (without rabbit) that you shall never wear and which will never again be mentioned Two stage capes (black, silver fastenings) One body bag (non-vinyl polyethylene or similar) Please note all body bags should be named and contain a copy of dental records within.   BOOKS |  ALL STUDENTS ARE REQUIRED TO HAVE A COPY OF EACH OF THE FOLLOWING: — 101 MODERN CARD TRICKS by Q. Een O’Hearts — MY FIRST RABBIT: A GUIDE TO RABBIT CARE by Hare E. Foot — HOW TO SAW A PERSON IN HALF by Enid Stitches  — THE PRODUCERS GUIDE TO THE EDINBURGH FRINGE by Lucky B. Stard  — YEARBOOK by Seth Rogen — THE WORST WITCH by Jill Murphy  OTHER EQUIPMENT |  — Enchanted Celery — One dove — Three identical cups and one table tennis ball — Two die — One sparkly box with extendable legs  Students may also bring with them a pigeon OR a peacock OR a hamster (or if you wish to completely ignore this, something else like a rat, or perhaps an iguana).   As a reminder, first-year students are not permitted to bring their own space hoppers.

“Can we find all this in London?” Billy asked, looking up from the list.

“Either London or IKEA,” said Barry. “Except f’ body bag, theur will av’ t’ gerr’ tha’ from Amazon.”

“Why do we need a body bag?”

“Oh, look, we’re ‘ere already,” said Barry, ignoring Billy’s question as he got to his feet. They had indeed just arrived into Charring Cross station.

Billy had never been to London before. Barry, meanwhile, seemed to know where they were going, even if he wasn’t happy about many of the things they came across on the way. As they went down the escalator into the Underground, he complained loudly about a piece of artwork that was clearly created on Microsoft Paint by an artist too lazy to even fit the writing on a single line.

“It’s reight daft o’ Mayor t’ commission multi-millionaire t’ create this shite while ignorin’ city’s own under-represented talent,” he said. “Especially at time ‘e’s breakin’ promise not t’ raise fares.”

Billy didn’t have time to focus on the artwork. He was too busy trying to stop himself from being sick after gazing at the new advertising screens, which gave the disorienting illusion that you were leaning forward while travelling down.

“Ah dunt know ‘ow these commoner fowk deal wi’out air conditioning on Northern Line,” said Barry a short time later when they came out of Tottenham Court Road station and onto a busy pavement lined with shops.

They set off down the street with Barry leading the way, passing by embassies and a Starbucks, theatres and another Starbucks, a third Starbucks, and Andrew Lloyd Webber begging passersby for money, so he wouldn’t have to sell one of his many theatres (despite being worth hundreds of millions and previously having used his position and privilege as an unelected Lord to vote in favour of cuts that would severely impact the disabled and most vulnerable in society). There was nowhere that looked as though they might sell magical vegetables, though. This was just an ordinary street filled with ordinary shops. Could there really be greedy and immoral people who cared about money much more than ever doing the right thing nearby? They passed a sign telling them they were entering Bloomsbury, and Billy suddenly felt it was a little more likely.

“‘ere we are then,” said Barry, coming to a stop. “The Whine n’ Milk It! This is us.”

They were outside a small, dirty-looking pub that didn’t seem to fit in with the character of the area. Billy was surprised the council had ever permitted it to be built, but as he looked at the people walking past them, he had the strangest feeling that none of them even knew it was there. It was as though only he and Barry could see it. Before he could ask, Barry had led him through the door.

For the entry point to a magical world, it was shabby and rundown inside, and the air was thick with the smell of stale urine. At a table in the corner, two Instagram personalities were busy influencing and discussing how tragic the menu was. As they stepped forward, Billy felt his feet sticking to the carpet, but he didn’t want to think about what might have been causing that.

A man who looked to be the barman came over to them. He looked relieved to see them there.

“Oh, Barry,” he said. “My best customer — am I glad to see you here. Business has been terrible. All these cases of Conjurors Condition going around — people just don’t want to go out, you know? And the Secretariat isn’t doing anything to help the situation.”

“What’s Conjurors Condition?” asked Billy.

“It’s jus’ this ‘ighly contagious virus that’s bin goin’ ‘round magicians,” explained Barry. “Killin’ us off, y’ know?”

Barry looked back at the barman and noticed him glancing down at Billy.

“Oh, ah ain’t introduced y’ both,” he said. Then he cleared his throat and said loudly enough for the whole pub to hear, “Mike, ah’d like theur t’ meet Billy Smith.”

This didn’t seem to have the effect Barry thought it might. No one seemed to care who Billy Smith was, though someone did shout out, “Hey, boomer, the naughties called, they want their popular culture back.”

“Anyway, said the barman, moving things along, “did you both scan as you came in?”

“I didn’t know I had to scan anything,” said Billy.

“Everybody must scan when they enter the pub. It’s the law,” said the barman, and he showed them both a poster on the wall with a large QR code in the middle of it. “It’s to help stop the spread of the virus.”

“Ah’m scannin’ nowt,” said Barry defiantly. “n’ neither is Billy.”

“Oh, well, I know you, Barry, I’m sure it will be fine. And as for your friend, I’m sure if you say he’s okay, there will be no problem — you will both stay for a drink, though, won’t you?”

“Can’t Mike. Got stuff t’ do n’ things t’ buy.”

The barman looked disappointed.

“Yes, I understand,” he said. “Maybe later or another time?”

Barry led Billy through to the back of the pub, then stopped as he passed a table where a haggard looking man was sitting alone, drinking a coffee and reading a book.

“Professor Quigley!” said Barry cheerfully. “Ah didn’t expect t’ run in’t theur in ‘ere.”

The man flinched.

“Oh, I didn’t see you there, Barry. How are you?”

“Ah’m doin’ grand, n’ y’ sen?”

“Very well, thank you.”

“Billy, this ‘ere is Professor Quigley — ‘e’ll be one of y’ teachers when y’ get t’ Frogsports.”

“Billy Smith,” said Professor Quigley, reading forward to shake Billy’s hand. “Very pleased to meet you.”

“What do you teach, Professor?”

“Vigilantism,” said Professor Quigley. “I suppose you’ve come to buy all of your things for school? I just came to pick up this book myself,” he continued, holding up his book he was reading. Billy read the cover: Brie and Me by Émile Arquette.

“Well, we must be gerrin’ on,” said Barry. “Got umpteen things t’ do.”

They said goodbye to Professor Quigley, then continued into a small room at the very back of the pub.

“Ah’m surprised ‘e ain’t talkin’ wi’ a stutter,” said Barry.

“I’m not,” said Billy. “That would just be making stuttering out to be a joke, and reducing it from something real to something evil people experience only because they’re bad.”

They came to a door. Barry opened it and led Billy out into a small walled garden.

“Barry, if there’s a deadly virus going around, shouldn’t we all be wearing masks?”

“‘course, not,” said Barry. “Wha’ does theur figure this is? Entire rest o’ world? Nah shurrup a mo’ so ah can concentrate.”

Barry pulled his umbrella from his coat and told Barry to stand back. Then he held it up in front of the wall and muttered a few words Billy didn’t understand.

Billy expected something to happen, but nothing did.

“Eh?” said Barry. “Tha’ not reight.”

He went up to the wall and pressed his ear against the brickwork.

“Ain’t even able t’ ‘ear owt.”

“Barry —”

“Shurrup, ah’ve got n’ idea,” and he stood back before taking a run up and crashing shoulder-first into the wall. But it made no difference.

“Barry —”

“Wha’ is it?” said Barry, getting back up on his feet.

“I think it’s that wall over there,” said Billy, pointing over at an archway which had just opened up in the middle of an adjacent wall.

“Oh…” said Barry, straightening out his coat. “Reight, come on then.”

They stepped through the archway and into the cobbled street on the other side. As he glanced over his shoulder, Billy noticed the archway disappearing.

“Welcome, lad,” said Barry, “t’ Upper Lower Upper Regent Street — though, we’re at top end, so officially it’s Upper Upper Lower Upper Regent Street.”

They began walking down the street.

Billy wised they could stop for a moment, so he could take it all in. He looked around in every direction as they passed shops he could never even have dreamed might have existed, let alone ever have seen before. They walked by a woman saying to her friend, “Bovum fimus, seventy-nine euro for seven! It’s out of control…”

A soft cooing sound came from a shop with a sign saying One Stop Pigeon Shop. At the next building down, several children around Billy’s age had their noses pressed against a window with space hoppers in it. “Look,” Billy heard one of them say to the others, “it’s the new BunnyRibbit Eleven — highest bounce ever —” There were shops selling rabbit food, shops selling spinning tops, a Starbucks, and more shops selling unicycles, juggling sticks, and fire eating equipment.

Next, they passed a cinema with posters outside advertising upcoming screenings of Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeny Todd, Alice in Wonderland, and all five Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Billy took a moment to wonder why anyone would choose that hill to die on.

“We ain’t interested,” said Barry, as a young man came up to offer them both his latest mixtape, and the man walked off. They didn’t have such an easy time from Elmo, who continued to follow them down the street until Barry agreed to pay him ten euro just to go away.

“Here it is,” said Barry. “The Sino Pauper Edo Recondo Mammonas Bank — the thievin’ lyin’ bastards!”

They had reached a tall white stone building that towered over the rest of the street. Sitting on the steps leading up to the bronze revolving doors, wearing the contents of a T. M. Lewis discount bin and eating a Marks & Spencer meal deal, was — “Aye, that’s a banker,” whispered Barry as they moved past him. Billy glanced back at the banker and noticed he had an Audi branded umbrella with him and a vape kit sticking out the top of his jacket pocket.

“Theur would think they might be goblins or summa’ in this world, wouldn’t theur?” said Barry.

“Erm… no,” said Billy.

Barry came to a stop just before the doors.

“Eh?”

“Goblins would likely be lazily depicted as having hooked noses and many other stereotypical traits that ignorant hate-filled people attribute to the Jewish community in an attempt to attack them. Writing them to be untrustworthy and greedy characters who act secretive and are segregated from everybody else would only be further playing into that. It would actually all be really anti-Semitic.”

Ignoring Billy’s point, Barry continued through the doors.

They entered a gigantic marble hall with a high ceiling from which opulent chandeliers dangled and doors — too many to count — leading off to other rooms in every diction. A hundred or more counters lined both sides, from where they were standing all the way down to a collection of yet more doors at the end of the hall. Sat behind each of them was a banker asking someone, “Would you like a mortgage with that?” Close by, another banker was busy explaining to an armed bank robber that they needed to push (not pull) the door if they wanted to get out.

Barry and Billy made for a free counter next to one where a woman was busy checking her balance by standing on one leg as someone attempted to push her over.

“Ey up! We’ve come t’ ten sum’ brass out o’ Mr Billy Smith’s vault.”

The banker looked down at Billy and with a suspecting voice said, “And does Mr Billy Smith have two forms of photographic identification and proof of address going back the past three years?”

“Oh, burger.”

This problem took a long time to fix. But eventually, after he had filled in multiple forms, confirmed the answers to his security questions, passed a DNA test, and recited God Save the Queen in reverse, both in tune and out of it, the banker was satisfied that Billy could make a withdrawal.

“Oh, n’ there’s summa’ else too,” said Barry, talking more seriously now. “Ah av’ t’ pick summa’ up from vault sixty-nine.”

The banker started to laugh.

“Wha’ so funny?”

“Well, it’s just — you said sixty-nine, didn’t you —”

“Oh, reight,” said Barry, and he too started laughing.

“I don’t get it,” said Billy. “What’s so funny about the number sixty-nine?”

Barry and the banker laughed even harder now.

“Anyway,” said the banker, “is vault sixty-nine in your own name?”

“Ah, it ain’t, no.”

“Very well,” said the banker. “If the account is not in your own name, I will be unable to carry out a security check, so I shall waste none of your time and have somebody take you down to both vaults straight away. Sebastian!”

Sebastian was yet another banker, though it seemed he only had the job because his parents were wealthy enough to help him buy a place at a top university. Barry and Billy followed him through one of the doors leading off the hall.

“I still don’t understand what’s so funny about sixty-nine,” said Billy.

“Theur will av’ t’ ask adult when y’ gerr’ older,” said Barry.

They were in a small grey room with a set of silver doors in front of them. Sebastian pressed a button next to the doors, and the lift opened. He gestured them both inside, then followed and pressed a sequence of buttons on a silver panel.

As the lift doors closed, light casual music began to play through a speaker above their heads. It had an agreeable medley and a pleasing drum beat, but quickly became repetitive and annoying; it reminded Billy of a UK entry in Eurovision. Then, as he sniffed, his mind was taken off the music.

“Barry —”

“It ain’t me,” said Barry flatly.

Barry and Billy both looked at Sebastian.

“Well, it isn’t me,” he said pompously.

They were all relieved when the doors opened a minute later, and they could step out into the fresh, but cold, damp, and dark stone passageway on the other side. Billy looked around; he thought they must be deep underground now. Their footsteps echoed around them as they walked.

Sebastian led them around a corner to where a dozen or so rusty metal doors stood side by side as the last line of defence protecting the treasures inside. He told Barry and Billy to stand back as he unlocked one of the doors, then moved out of the way as it opened and revealed its secrets to them.

“It’s all for theur,” said Barry.

Billy gasped — he couldn’t believe it. There were piles of coins stretching all the way to the back of the vault, bank notes — grey fives, red tens, blue twenties, orange fifties, green hundreds, yellow two hundreds even — sticking out as though colourful flowers in a bed of gold and silver. At the side of the vault, there was a cardboard box.

“Look at tha’,” said Barry. “Ah think that’s y’ old man’s stamp collection.”

“What’s that next to it?”

“Oh, that’s y’ mother’s — she used t’ collect fossilised cat shit.”

As Billy began filling a small bag with some of the money, Barry looked through the boxes.

“Look at this, she managed t’ collect Tiddles, Fuzz Aldrin, and Bustopher Jones — nah, ‘old on, tha’ jus’ a DVD o’ Lesbian Vampire Killers.”

When Billy was done, Sebastian closed and locked the door again. Then he led them back to the lift and took them even deeper underground. Billy expected it to be cooler when he stepped back out a few moments later, so he found it a surprise when the doors opened and a humid breeze hit his face. There was a strong burning smell in the air, then — he looked down the passageway and saw a burst of fire coming from something he couldn’t see.

“Barry, what was that?”

It was Sebastian who answered.

“Nothing to be concerned about,” he said. “It’s only rocket science.”

Billy remembered what Barry had told him about billionaires guarding the vaults down here.

Sebastian again told them to stand back as he unlocked the door to vault sixty-nine. As it opened, the burning smell was replaced by a strong scent of ammonia. Billy wondered where it could be coming from because the vault appeared empty. Then he saw it; a small wooden box was sitting on the floor of the vault. He leant in to look closer, but felt Barry pull him back by the shoulder.

“Barry, what is that?” he asked, pulling his shirt up to cover his nose from the smell.

Barry stepped forward to pick up the box.

“Ah can’t tell theur tha’, lad,” said Barry, putting the box in his pocket. “GDPR n’ all tha’ stuff.”

They had extra company on their way back up. Just as the lift doors were about the close, someone shouted for Sebastian to hold them. A man dressed in SpaceX branded shoes, a SpaceX branded hooded jumper, and a SpaceX branded baseball cap, with SpaceX branded sunglasses, entered the lift. Just in case they had any doubt about where the man worked, as the lift started moving, he turned to them all and said, “Oh, hey, how are you all doing today? I’ve had a busy morning working for SpaceX and now I’m just heading out, so I can call my boss, Mr Musk. Have you heard of Mr Musk before? He’s fantastic, isn’t he?”

The lift came to a stop, and the man rushed off ahead of them. Sebastian thanked Barry and Billy for their loyalty, then bowed them back into the marble hall. As they went to leave the bank, they passed a banker telling someone, “Yes, your balance is outstanding.”

“Thank you very much,” replied the woman he was talking to.

Outside the bank, a Black Lives Matter march came past them on the street. This seemed to make Barry feel uncomfortable all of a sudden.

“What’s the matter?” said Billy.

“Well, where’s white lives matter march?” said Barry. “Dunt all lives matter?”

“They’re not saying white lives don’t matter, they’re saying black lives matter as well. White lives aren’t under threat from institutional racism or a prejudiced society.”

“Does theur ever shurrup?”

“Does theur ever stop being wrong?” said Billy.

“Eh! Less o’ tha’ or theur will gerr’ y’ sen a smack ‘round face, lad. Respect y’ elders.”

“I don’t think you’re allowed to hit children anymore.”

“Is there anythin’ y’ can still do these days? Theurs lot av’ ruined it all f’ rest o’ us… can’t physically assault children… can’t racially abuse minorities… sexual assault is out n’ all… can’t fire people f’ who they love… wha’ ever ‘appened t’ freedom? — wha’ next? Will we not be able t’ go f’ drink wi’ a few friends or pick up a book?”

“Er, Barry… are you okay?”

“Ah’m grand,” said Barry. “Nah, let’s jus’ gerr’ on wi’ wha’ we came for!”

Barry shook his head.

“Best start wi’ y’ dessin’ gowns,” he said, nodding towards a department store a little farther down the street. “Listen, there ain’t much ah can ‘elp wi’ in there, so why dunt ah go gerr’ a few o’ y’ other things n’ we can meet up after? Save some time n’ tha’.” Billy agreed, so he walked off down the street alone.

Outside the shop, a couple of assistants who were on their break were discussing the recent news that the owner had run off with the pension fund and left the whole company bankrupt. What a selfish arsehole, Billy thought to himself as he passed them and entered the shop.

As Billy scanned a rail of black dressing downs for one in his size, a woman who looked as though she worked there came over to him.

“Are you Frogsports, dear?” she asked.

“Er, yes,” said Billy.

“You’re looking in the wrong place here. These are all plain dressing gowns. You need the ones with the school logo on the front. They cost three times more and are much worse quality, but the school gets to keep some of the profits,” she explained, leading him over to an open space where another boy around Billy’s age was stood on a footstool being measured by another assistant. He had blonde hair and appeared rather uninterested in everything.

“You join this young man here and I’ll get you sorted out,” said the woman.

“Oh, hello,” said the boy, noticing Billy was there. “Are you going to Frogsports as well?”

“Yes,” said Billy.

“I’m here with my father, but he’s gone to the bank while I have my dressing gown fitted,” said the boy. He had a pretentious voice. “But afterwards I’m going to take him to look at space hoppers. I really don’t understand why first-years aren’t allowed to bring their own. I’ve got one at home that I’m going to try smuggle in somehow, though — have you got your own space hopper?”

“No,” said Billy.

“You don’t play Frogsports at all?”

Play Frogsports? What did the boy mean?

“No,” Billy said again, wondering how he was supposed to play the school.

“Shame — I’ve played since I was six. Naturally, my father thinks I will be picked for my house team, and I’m sure he’ll be right. Any idea what house you might be in yet?”

“No,” said Billy, starting to wonder just how long the list of things he didn’t know actually was.

“Well, nobody really knows until the sorting, do they, and they change how they do that every year. But I have a feeling I’ll be in Crocodilian house, all my family has been so far — I do feel sorry for those going with a history of their family being sorted into Gluteal house, though. I mean, imagine having that little to live up to?

Billy nodded, hoping the boy wouldn’t notice he didn’t understand a word he was talking about.

“I say, what’s going on over there?” said the boy suddenly, pointing over to the front window. Barry was stood outside, arguing with a bald man dressed as a fake monk who had just asked him to sign the book he was holding.

“That’s Barry,” said Billy. “He works at Frogsports.”

“Oh, yes,” said the boy. “I’ve heard of him. He’s a lonely old man who lives in the grounds, isn’t he?”

“He’s the groundskeeper,” said Billy.

“I’ve heard he’s picked up a lot of questionable views and probably shouldn’t be allowed to work in a school.”

The boy had a point, thought Billy.

“Why are you with him anyway? Aren’t your mother or father around?”

“They’re both dead,” said Billy bluntly. He wasn’t sure he felt like talking about them just now.

“Oh, well, they’ll live,” said the boy. “But they were, you know…”

“No, I don’t know.”

“Nuclear?”

“I think so,” said Billy, not really understanding what the boy was asking him.

“I know that what some might call, shall we say, non-traditional families are everywhere, and it’s a perfectly ordinary thing,” said the boy. “And I get this is supposed to be an inclusive world, and all that, but I really don’t comprehend why anybody should feel entitled to expect that sort of representation in the story — at least not explicitly. Don’t you agree?”

Before Billy could ask the boy what the hell was wrong with him, the shop assistant said, “You’re all done, dear,” and Billy, not sorry for a reason to leave, jumped down from the footstool and went over to the counter to pay before going outside to join Barry.

With the sun shining bright above them, Barry decided they should go for an ice cream to cool down. Billy was quiet as he ate, something which didn’t go unnoticed by Barry.

“Wha’ up wi’ theur?” He said. “Theur look as though y’ greyhoun’ got it sen disqualified.”

“Barry, what’s Frogsports?” Billy asked.

“Frogsports? It’s name o’ school, ‘course.”

“Somebody asked me if I played Frogsports earlier. They can’t have been talking about the school, can they?”

“Oh, nah. Theur on ‘bout sport. Frogsports is magical sport ery’one follows. It wor invented at school, see, so it got named after it.”

“Isn’t it just lazy to name it after the school?”

“Maybe — bur perhaps writer o’ book wanted t’ avoid bin sued f’ trademark infringement n’ couldn’t come up wi’ anything better. Maybe they’re jus’ ‘opin ery’one gives them break after keepin’ this thin’ up f’ ‘undred thousan’ words.”

“But what are the rules of Frogsports?”

“The rules? Kinda ‘ard t’ explain, bur there’s two sides wi’ eight players a piece. Six o’ ‘em dress up as frogs n’ they bounce ‘bout on space ‘op. Three o’ ‘em try t’ score points wi’ rugby ball, n’ they use ‘ockey stick t’ mek sure ball dunt ‘it ground. Oh, n’ there’s two goal keep on each team too.”

“Each side has two goal keepers?”

“Aye — front ‘alf n’ back ‘alf.” Barry explained. “O’ pantomime ‘orse,” he continued, off of Billy’s confused expression. “Goal keep av’ ‘ardes’t job o’ all as netball ‘opp thee av’ t’ protect is suspended above water n’ thee av’ t’ balance on inflatable unicorn.”

“I really want to try playing it,” said Billy. “But didn’t they think it through before inventing it?”

“Not before rememberin’ ‘ow many chapters they’d av’ t’ write ‘bout it later on.”

“And what are Crocodilian and Gluteal?”

“School ‘ouses — two o’ four. Ery’one says Gluteals are a bunch o’ asses, bur —”

“I bet I become a Gluteal,” said Billy downheartedly.

“Better t’ be a Gluteal than a Crocodilian,” said Barry darkly. “That-Evil-One was a Crocodilian — oh, sorry,” he added, as a cloud appeared above Billy.

Billy didn’t feel like finishing his ice cream now it was covered in rainwater, so they went off to buy his school books in Pickar, Waring, Jolly & Tull; a bookshop a little way down the street. While one of the assistants went into the storeroom at the back of the shop to check if they had any more copies of 101 Modern Card Tricks, Billy browsed the shelves in the history section. A book on Native American history caught his eye. He took it off the shelf and opened it. To his surprise, the text of the book had been entirely covered over with white correction fluid, on top of which someone had scribbled their own footnotes.

“Barry, is this book meant to look like this?”

Barry wandered over from the bargain bin.

“Wha’ it called?”

Billy showed him the cover of the book.

“Aye — in this magical world, there ain’t such a thin’ as Native American ‘istory. It’s jus’ a myth created by commoner fowk t’ demonise those who think their fictional world is more important than real one.”

“That’s not how things work, Barry. Native American history doesn’t cease to exist just because somebody excludes it from their imagination.

“Dunt mind that now,” said Barry. “Have y’ seen this book?” He showed Billy the book in his hand: The Art of The Deal. “Ah think there’s summa’ wrong wi’ it. It’s got too many chapter elevens.”

“Yes, it’s the only thing saving it from the fiction section.” The shop assistant had returned with a copy of 101 Modern Card Tricks.

With his school books bought, they left the shop and Barry checked Billy’s school list again.

“Reight, jus’ y’ enchanted celery t’ gerr’ now — oh, n’ ah need t’ get theur a birthday present.”

Billy suddenly felt very embarrassed.

“You don’t have to do that —”

“Okay, ah won’t then,” said Barry. “Ah’m kiddin’ — ah know ah dunt av’ t’ get theur owt, bur ah dunt imagine y’ got much livin’ wi’ those Moustaches. Ah’ll tell theur wha’, ‘ow ‘bout ah get y’ an animal? Theur dunt want n’ hamster, theur would get laughed at wi’ hamster — n’ peacocks would mek book more complicated t’ write. Ah’ll get theur a pigeon. Ery’one needs a pigeon in this world.”

Half an hour later, they left the One Stop Pigeon Shop with Billy now carrying a large cage that housed a fluffy white Jacobin pigeon, looking around curiously at everything and everyone else on the street.

“Jus’ Olivehandlers left — best place t’ gerr’ y’ sen an enchanted celery, Olivehandlers, n’ theur has t’ av’ the best vegetable theur can gerr’!”

An enchanted celery… this seemed a little unnecessary to Billy, but then you never know what someone will try trademark or claim they were the first to invent next.

This last shop was small and rather rundown looking. Old-fashioned lettering painted in gold onto the wood above the door read Olivehandlers: Greengrocers Since 402 B.C., because apparently, magicians still recognised the birth of Christ. In the window, a long stick of celery lay on top of a velvet cushion.

They went inside and found themselves in a dark shop front, which was completely empty, except a tattered red rug on the floor, the counter in front of them, and a small chair which Barry went over to sit on. Billy approached the counter and pressed the top of a brass bell. He was just gazing up at the dusty chandelier above his head when —

“Cashier number one please!” said a voice from the darkness. Billy jumped, then watched as a man stood into the light behind the counter. “Good afternoon,” said the man.

“Er — hello,” said Billy, somewhat unsure.

“Ah, yes.” The man smiled. “Billy Smith, yes, I thought I would be seeing you sometime soon. I must say, your eyes are most different to those your mother had.”

Billy thought this was a strange comment for the man to make, but he didn’t know what to say, so he let him continue.

“I remember your mother. Yes, she came in here one time to buy her first enchanted vegetable when she was the same age you are now. Eleven inches long, very streamlined at both ends — made it opportune for performing sorcery at speed.”

As he spoke, Mr Olivehandler began pulling boxes from the shelves behind him, then placing them on top of the counter.

“As for your father, well, his was much more ordinary, though still offered sufficient capabilities for his magical needs.”

Mr Olivehandler looked at Billy now, but as Billy glanced up at him, he noticed his gaze seemed focused on his forehead.

“So it really does exist,” he said softly. “I feel I should apologise to you, Mr Smith, after all, I am the one who allowed that trademark to be created. Sixteen-and-a-half inches. I remember it well. Powerful, too powerful, and in the wrong environment… well, if I had known exactly what that vegetable was going out into the world to do…”

To Billy’s immense relief, Mr Olivehandler now noticed Barry sitting by the window.

“Barry! How wonderful to see you again… Yes, I remember you well. Yours came from an especially good crop following a prolonged summer of rain.”

“Ah remember theur tellin’ me, sir,” said Barry.

“Very powerful vegetable, that one. But I assume it was blended into a smoothie after you were expelled?” said Mr Olivehandler.

“Yeh, it wor,” said Barry in an unusually quiet voice.

Barry had been expelled? He hadn’t mentioned that the night before.

“Why were you expelled from Frogsports?” asked Billy.

Billy expected Barry not to answer, but to his surprise he said, “Well, t’ tell theur truth, there wor this big problem wi’ this creature goin’ ‘round n’ killin’ students back in my day, n’ ah got blamed f’ it all. Ah wor innocent, ‘course. Bur they could never find real culprit, so ah got kicked out, see. Bur Crumbleceiling let me stay on as groundskeep’.”

“A creature was killing students?”

“Now y’ know why theur need a body bag!”

Mr Olivehandler brought the conversation back around to enchanted celeries.

“Now then, Mr Smith, every magician must have an enchanted vegetable with which they can channel their sorcery. In this country, we prefer to use celeries over alternatives such as carrots, cucumbers, asparagus, and spring onions; I have even heard of some especially bitter men who choose to use green beans.”

Billy watched as Mr Olivehandler opened one of the boxes on the counter and took out a long stick of celery.

“Myself, I have always used the finest celery — organic, of course. And each and every stick is hand treated with a special coating that will preserve and protect the vegetable through a lifetime of use.”

He handed Billy the celery, leafy end pointing down.

“Just give it a wave and say Legalese.”

Brownmark Films LLC v Comedy Partners, 683 F.3d 687 (7th Cir. 2012),” said Billy, but nothing happened.

“Ah, no, Mr Smith, you have misunderstood me. I meant for you to say the word Legalese.”

“Oh,” said Billy, nodding.

He waved the celery a second time and said, “Legalese!

This time, something did happen; all the shelves with neatly arranged boxes in front of him collapsed and piled on top of each other, the counter fell apart, the chair Barry had been sat on split in half, sending him tumbling onto the floor, and the chandelier above their heads came crashing to the floor, narrowly avoiding Mr Olivehandler and sending a cloud of dust up into the air which made them all start coughing.

“I’m sorry,” said Billy, panicking. “I didn’t know that was going to happen.”

“All damages,” Mr Olivehandler coughed, “must be paid for, Mr Smith. It does say so on the sign.”

“What sign?” said Billy.

Mr Olivehandler pulled out his own enchanted celery and gave it a wave. Billy stood in amazement as the whole shop repaired and reformed itself around him, leaving not even a single trace of destruction.

“That sign,” said Mr Olivehandler, pointing at a notice on the wall behind the counter. Then he realised. “Ah, yes,” he said, turning to face Billy. “Well, it was worth a try.”

Mr Olivehandler took the first stick of celery from Billy, then handed him a second, slightly shorter piece.

“Same again please.”

Billy swished the celery and said, “Legalese!

This time, the glass in the shop windows smashed and flew out in all directions as tiny pieces of sand. A few people walking past outside jumped back in shock.

“Not that one either, I see,” said Mr Olivehandler, taking the second stick of celery back from Billy.

“‘ow the bloody ‘ell does theur gerr’ insurance on this place?” said Barry, brushing sand out of his hair.

Mr Olivehandler gave his enchanted celery another wave, and the window instantly repaired itself in front of them.

Billy watched as Mr Olivehandler picked up a third box from the counter. He didn’t open it straight away, but instead hesitated in thought. “I wonder…” he said, seemingly to himself. “Maybe… perhaps, yes… only one way to find out…”

He opened the box and took out a third stick of celery, which he handed to Billy.

“Try this one.”

This time, there was no ruined shop or smashed windows. Billy had barely finished saying “Legalese!” when the celery had started glowing in his hand.

“Aha! I think we have found the one for you, Mr Smith,” said Mr Olivehandler with a smile on his face. “How interesting though… how very, very interesting.”

“I’m sorry,” said Billy, “but what’s interesting?”

Mr Olivehandler gazed down at Billy.

“Well, you see, Mr Smith, it is most often the case that more than a single enchanted celery can be harvested from a single crop. Frequently, those from the same crop are best suited to those from the same family or part of the same bloodline. But it would seem that for yourself, the norm does not apply. It so happens that your own enchanted celery was cultivated during an especially difficult year and was one of only two to be collected from that specific plant. It is interesting that this should be the celery for you when the other, why, the other was used to create that trademark.”

Billy paid three hundred euro for his enchanted celery, and Mr Olivehandler put it back in its box and wrapped it up in brown paper for him.

Billy thought he liked Mr Olivehandler and his eccentric manner, but as they left the shop, he overheard him muttering to himself.

“Crumbleceiling was certainly right about him. I must pay him that bet.”

Back outside, the sun was now hanging low in the sky, and shops on the street were starting to close for the day. Billy had too much on his mind to talk as he followed Barry back up Upper Lower Upper Regent Street, back through The Whine and Milk It, and back onto the street outside. He hardly noticed where they were going as they trudged back past where they had encountered Andrew Lloyd Webber that morning — a spot now occupied by Cameron Mackintosh desperately searching in the gutter for his credibility — to Russel Square station, got on a train, and then spent an hour changing lines at Green Park. Eventually, they came out into Waterloo station where Barry glanced up at the departure board, then said to Billy, “‘bout an hour or so until theur’s train leaves, got time t’ gerr’ summa’ t’ eat. Wha’ y’ fancy?”

“My train? But aren’t we going to Frogsports?” said Billy.

Barry laughed then said, “‘course not. It’s only start o’ summer, ain’t it. Nah, y’ goin’ back t’ y’ aunt n’ uncles ‘ouse f’ a bit. It would really mess wi’ continuity if y’ went straight t’ school.”

They decided to buy sandwiches and then sit at a table on the upper concourse to eat them. As they went up the escalator, they passed a person meeting their destiny in quite a similar way who was going down.

“Everythin’ okay wi’ theur, lad?” said Barry after a few minutes of silence. “Theur dunt seem t’ av’ much t’ seh.”

Billy wasn’t sure how to explain it, but eventually he said, “I just don’t feel as though I fit in. I don’t know anything or anybody. I don’t even know what happened to my parents.”

Barry smiled at him.

“Dunt worry y’ sen ‘bout any o’ tha’,” he said. “Theur will learn soon enough, ery’one does. Jus’ keep y’ noggin’ down, learn t’ shut theur gob, n’ remember, adults always know best — that’s why we’re called adults, it because we ad… ad…”

“Yes?” said Billy.

“Never mind,” said Barry, and he waved his hand. “Not sure where ah wor goin’ wi’ tha’.”

A short while later, Barry helped Billy onto the correct train, then handed him an envelope which he put in his pocket.

“Dunt lose tha’,” he said. “It’s y’ ticket f’ Frogsports — first o’ September from Euston Station — n’ dunt be late!… See theur at Frogsports, Billy.”

As the train departed, Billy rose in his seat and pressed his face against the window to watch Barry; the security guard from the shop where they had bought the sandwiches from had just come over to him. Next second, Billy blinked, and when he opened his eyes, the train had turned a corner.


________________________________________________________________________________


A Small Ask

While there is no cost to read the book as it's being made available online, these posts are being published without adverts and they don't generate any income on their own. If you enjoyed reading this chapter, please consider sending a tip through ko-fi.com/bensfletcher.

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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