“Did She Say Live and Die?”
The door swung open to reveal a stern looking woman sat on a small wooden stool at the other side. She was wearing a long green dressing gown and had a pen sticking out of her mouth. She was so engrossed by something in the newspaper on her lap it took a moment before she realised anyone else was there.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, looking up at Barry and the first-years. “I was just finishing a crossword while waiting for you all — incidentally, does anybody happen to know what four down is? I thought it might have been ham sandwich, but then I looked again and noticed it only has seven letters, so now I think perhaps it might be origami — no? Never mind then.”
“First-years f’ theur, Professor McDouglass,” said Barry.
“Yes, thank you, Barry,” said Professor McDouglass. “You can hand them over to me now.”
“To me, yes.”
“T’ you then, Professor”
“To me then, Barry.”
“T’ you —”
“I think perhaps it would be best if you just went away now.”
“Reight theur are, Professor.” He turned and gave Billy a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Good luck, Billy.” And with that, he left.
Good luck? What was he going to have to do that he needed to have good luck for? Billy started to feel suddenly quite worried.
“Follow me, please,” said Professor McDouglass to the group, and they followed her down a tight stone passageway and up a set of stairs. When they reached another door, she pulled it wide open and led them into a giant entrance hall with a ceiling so high it could have fit twelve double-decker buses or approximately two-thousand and sixty-four Cadbury Double Decker chocolate bars stacked on top of each other.
The first-years followed her across the hall until they reached the middle, where they came to a stop as she turned to address them all.
“Welcome to Frogsports,” she began. “I am Professor McDouglass, the deputy headmistress.”
From the way she spoke, Billy got the sense that Professor McDouglass was not a teacher he wanted to get on the wrong side of, and indeed, only moments later she snapped at another boy who was too busy looking around at the flickering torches on the wall to pay any attention to what she was saying.
“… as I was saying,” continued Professor McDouglass. “The start-of-year feast is set to begin shortly, however, before you can take your seats inside the Banquet Hall, you must be sorted into your new houses. While you are at Frogsports, you will live, die, and study alongside the other members of your house. Together, you will earn credits for your house, but be warned, you may also lose credits if you do not follow the school rules. At the end of the year, the house with the most credits will be given an under-catered pizza party and a pointless certificate to note down on their résumés.”
“Did she say live and die?” Billy heard another ask their friend behind him.
“Pay attention, please,” said Professor McDouglass. “The four houses are, of course, those which make up our school coat of arms. They are: Osphranter house; represented by a kangaroo, Gluteal house; represented by a donkey, Eudyptula house; represented by a penguin, and finally, Crocodilian house; represented by an alligator. Each of these four houses has a long and proud history, and each has produced outstanding magicians — well, expect for Gluteal house anyway, but they do try their best and provide some excellent comic relief for the rest of us.”
There was a nervous sort of laugh among the group.
“The sorting shall begin shortly in front of the rest of the school. I ask that you all wait here patiently and quietly until I return.”
She turned her back on them and went through a pair of high double doors at the opposite end of the entrance hall.
“How do they sort us into our houses?” Billy asked Ed.
“Chad told me it’s some sort of contest between first-years.”
Billy felt his mouth go dry all of a sudden. A contest? In front of the whole school? But he hadn’t learnt any sorcery yet — what were they going to have to do? He looked around and saw everyone else looked just as terrified as he did, but he took little comfort from it.
And then something unexpected happened so suddenly that it scared them all much more than the prospect of an unknown contest ahead.
A group of about fifteen ghosts floated through the wall at the far side of the entrance hall. They had a translucent complexion to them, but were all still quite easy to spot. They seemed to be in conversation with one another. What looked to be an aged man with a sword through his whole body was saying to the ghost next to him, “I say we just hide down in the dungeons. It’s too dark for him to see much down there.”
“What about if we just turn ourselves invisible?”
“It’s not very sporting of us, though, is it?”
A ghost wearing a top hat and a monocle noticed the first-years gazing up at them.
“I do say, new students,” he said, floating down to greet them all. “Well, one would simply be most honoured to see the finest of your group meet my acquaintance later on, should you be sorted into Osphranter house — it’s my own former band of brothers, don’t you know?”
Even more surprising than the sudden appearance of the ghosts, the soulful rifts of a popular television theme tune started playing from behind one of the doors that led off the hall. As the first-years looked towards it, a voice started singing from the other side. “IF THERE’S SOMETHING STRANGE IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, WHO YOU GONNA CALL? — damn! The door’s locked. Hold on a moment.” There was a loud bang, and the door swung open to admit entry to an old man with long hair and an even longer beard. He was wearing a purple dressing gown, which seemed to compliment the colour of the star-shaped party glasses he was wearing over his eyes.
“WHO YOU GONNA CALL? GHOSTBUSTERS!” he finished singing as he stared up at the ghosts. “Aha! Found you — I win again.”
“HEADMASTER!” said a sharp voice, and the man jumped about a foot in the air.
Professor McDouglass has returned.
“What do you think you are doing? The sorting is about to begin, and we very much require your presence in the Banquet Hall.”
“Ah, yes, right you are — I knew there was something going on this evening,” said the man. With a pop, he disappeared on the spot.
“Who was that?” Billy asked Ed under his breath.
“I think that was Professor Crumbleceiling,” Ed replied.
Professor McDouglass shook her head, then addressed the group. “Please form a neat line,” she instructed them. “We are ready to begin.”
Unsure how he could still walk when his legs felt more stone than flesh, Billy got into line behind Ed, and they filed silently behind Professor McDouglass as she led them all through the double doors and into the Banquet Hall.
Never would Billy have been able to dream a place like this existed. Four long tables were set with golden crockery, which gleamed brightly in the firelight, coming from the hundreds of lit lanterns which seemed to be floating in midair above them.
Each of these tables was filled with students; Billy assumed they must have been sorted by house. At the furthest end of the hall, a fifth table ran across its width, where the teachers — all wearing top hats and dressed in different coloured dressing gowns — sat expectantly as Professor McDouglass led the first-years down the middle of the hall towards them.
Then quite suddenly, they all began to bang into the back of each other as Professor McDouglass came to an abrupt halt halfway up the hall. “Well, where has he gone now?” she thought aloud.
There was a pop, and Crumbleceiling appeared on top of the teacher’s table. “Here I am,” but then he wasn’t, because he’d just slipped on one of the golden plates and fallen backward off the table to hit the floor with an alarmingly echoey crash that reverberated around the hall like a sharp note being played on a didgeridoo in a zero-gravity wind tunnel.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Professor McDouglass. “Please somebody give me the strength.”
“I’m okay,” Crumbleceiling announced to the room as he got to his feet. “I meant to do that. I was only spooning down here,” he said, and he picked up a tablespoon from in front of him.
As Crumbleceiling took his place in a regal throne-like chair in the centre of the teacher’s table, Professor McDouglass continued to lead the first-years towards a giant inflatable surface that had been set up on a raised stage between the teachers and the students. As they formed a group by the side of the inflatable, Billy noticed the top of it had four rows of coloured dots; a row of green, a row of yellow, a row of blue, and finally a row of red.
Billy looked quickly down again as Professor McDouglass went to fetch a golden bell and placed it on top of a wooden table that stood a little away from them.
What were they going to have to do? Billy’s mind began race, and he was only more confused when Professor McDouglass then placed a board with a plastic spinner attached to it on the table next to the bell. For a moment, there was complete silence. Then Professor McDouglass cleared her throat. “Students, teachers, and ghosts of Frogsports, welcome to the sorting of the students. Now, following complaints that last year’s game of Ludo was not an entertaining spectator sport — and after rejecting suggested alternatives including poker, British Bulldog, and The Hunger Games — we have decided that this year, the sorting shall be conducted by the playing of a competitive game of —”
“TWISTER!” The whole hall burst into applause as Crumbleceiling got to his feet.
“Here we go again,” Professor McDouglass told herself.
The applause only grew in volume as Crumbleceiling made his way down from the teacher’s table to stand beside Professor McDouglass.
“You always have to take it too far, don’t you, Headmaster?”
“So we’ve only got to play a game,” Ed whispered to Billy. “I’ll kill Larry, he was going on about how much it hurt… mind you, it sounds like it nearly could have.”
Professor McDouglass stepped forward with a long sheet of parchment.
“When I call out your names, which I shall be doing in groups of three, you will join the headmaster on the board and the sorting shall begin,” she said. “Once you are eliminated from the game, the colour on which you lose shall correspond to your new house.”
The first game to be played was between “Jones, Eleanor”, “Harrison, Helen”, and “Sutherland, Lewis.” Eleanor Jones and Lewis Sutherland became Eudyptulas when their heads collided on “right hand on blue,” but Helen Harrison continued for five more rounds against Crumbleceiling until she finally slipped up on “left food red,” and became a Osphranter. She made her way over to the Osphranter table, and Billy watched as Ed’s twin brothers catcalled, because that is apparently a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to write about two men doing towards an eleven-year-old girl in a children’s book, even though it should obviously not be.
“Beaversley, Edward.” Ed stepped forward along with “Hickinbottom, Austin” and “Drake, Justin.”
Ed went first, but fell early on “left hand red,” to be sorted into Osphranter house, while Austin Hickinbottom managed two more rounds before becoming a Crocodilian when he lost his balance and slipped over on “right food on green.” Justin Drake became the first to be sorted into Gluteal house, falling to Crumbleceiling in the next round. His walk over to the far left table was accompanied by jeers, which quickly turned into cheers as Crumbleceiling got to his feet and celebrated his win.
There were another three games before —
Silence fell across the room, save for a few whispers here and there as students asked the person next to them, “Did she just say Billy Smith?”
Billy stepped onto the game board and looked ahead at Crumbleceiling. “Ah, Billy, so glad to see that you’ve made it,” said the headmaster. “But my god, I was right, wasn’t I?”
Billy didn’t know what Crumbleceiling meant about being right, but he didn’t have much time to think about it, as they were soon joined on the board by an aggressive looking girl by the name of “Allen, Makayla,” and a less aggressive looking girl called “Bennett, Sophie.”
Professor McDouglass called out their first instruction. “Left foot green.” Billy, Sophie, and Crumbleceiling all managed it with ease, but Makayla Allen somehow managed to fall over straight away. As she sulked off towards the Crocodilian table, Crumbleceiling commented, “Slipped up on her sense of self-importance, that one.”
Billy thought he was doing well as the game continued. By now, he had both hands on blue, his left food on green, and his right foot on red. Sophie Bennett was the next to fall, and she became as Eudyptula when she tried to put her “right foot on blue”, but found there were no spots left she could reach.
“This is it, Billy, just you and me left,” said Crumbleceiling. But try as he might, Billy couldn’t keep his balance on “right foot red,” and tumbled over to become a Osphranter. “Excellent game, though,” Crumbleceiling said, standing up and patting him on the back. “You can be proud of that result.”
Billy went off to join the waiting Osphranter table cheering for him. “We’ve got Smith! We’ve got Smith!” shouted the twins.
“Parker, Elahoraella,” was up next, and she did the best yet, not only beating the other two students in her game (who both became Gluteals), but even managing after twelve rounds of sudden death to beat Crumbleceiling himself, who finally lost his balance on “right foot blue.” Laughter roared out as Crumbleceiling ran off to the Eudyptula table before Professor McDouglass reminded him that he was a teacher and not a student. Elahoraella continued on her own for another couple of rounds before deciding on purpose to fall at “left hand red” and become a Osphranter.
Only three first-years were left to be sorted now. “O’Connor, Patrick,” said Professor McDouglass, and a short haired boy with a freckly face stepped forward, “Jones, Simon,” and a black boy took his place on the game board, and finally, “Hansen, Joshua.” The boy who’d lost his hamster nervously got into position.
Patrick O’Connor and Simon Jones played well for the first few rounds, but then both fell on “left hand red” and joined the Osphranter table. Josh Hansen, however, seemed to be doing better than he’d expected. Then suddenly, he too became a Osphranter when he slipped up by making a stupid mistake on “right foot red.”
Billy joined the rest of the table in cheering as Josh joined their numbers. At the front of the hall, Professor McDouglass had pulled out her enchanted celery, and with a flick, the inflatable game board and stage disappeared into thin air.
Billy could see the teacher’s table properly now. At one end sat Barry, drinking from a gigantic steel tankard, while at the other end was Professor Quigley, the man Barry had introduced him to back at The Whine and Milk It in Upper Lower Upper Regent Street. He was busy talking to a very serious looking teacher.
After a brief argument with Professor McDouglass, Crumbleceiling climbed back on top of the teacher’s table.
“GOOD EVENING FROGSPORTS!” he shouted to roars of cheers from all four tables. “COMING UP FOR YOU LATER, WE HAVE GOT ICE CREAM, APPLE PIE, CHOCOLATE BROWNIE, AND OF COURSE, JELLYYYYYYYY!”
Professor McDouglass appeared embarrassed to be sat so close to Crumbleceiling, but the rest of the hall didn’t share in her disapproval and only cheered louder.
“BUT FIRST, IT’S TIME FOR YOUR MAIN COURSE! PLEASE PUT YOUR HANDS TOGETHER FOR HAMS, TAP YOUR FEET FOR FISH, AND OPEN YOUR MOUTHS FOR MEATBALLS!”
Professor McDouglass suddenly got to her feet, “And don’t forget the vegetarian option,” she added.
“Is the headmaster — a bit insane?” Billy asked Jacob, Ed’s older brother, who was sitting next to him.
“Insane? Quite, yes,” said Jacob conversationally, “but he’s brilliant too. Are you hungry, Billy?”
Billy’s mouth fell open at once. The plates on the table in front of him, which had been empty a moment ago, were now piled high with food. Everywhere he looked, he saw something different. He couldn’t help but notice, however, that everything seemed to be labelled as coming from Britain.
“Not everything can be better when it comes from Britain, surely?” Billy said.
Jacob shushed him. “Don’t say that out loud,” he said. “You don’t want to offend anybody with sensitive feelings. But yes, I know what you mean. Apparently Crumbleceiling managed to get a good deal on a bunch of stuff that was about to go bad because it was stuck in a lorry park in Kent — something about a driver from London attempting to enter Canterbury with an expired passport.”
Just as Billy was starting his second helping, the ghost with the monocle and top hat who had greeted the first-years in the entrance hall appeared in front of him.
“It does smell good tonight,” said the ghost in a deflated sort of voice.
“Can’t you eat?”
“I haven’t done so since the day I died,” said the ghost. “It’s not that I can’t — it’s just I was enjoying such a lovely meal when they came to chop my head off, and the idea of eating once more brings back such harrowing memories. Anyway, one doesn’t believe I have introduced myself. I am Sir Walter Melvyn Scrivener Esq. and I am the ghost of Osphranter house. Charmed to meet your acquaintances.”
“Good evening, Sir Walter,” said Jacob, turning around at his voice. “How was your summer?”
“Dismal, good sir. Once more, my attempt to be cast in a touring production of Les Miserables was fruitless. One would think that having actually had your head removed by French revolutionaries would make you perfect for a role, but perhaps the producer believes I would just be a gimmick.”
“You had your head removed?” asked Patrick O’Connor as he reached for another helping.
“Allow me to enlighten your mind —”
“Oh, please, Sir Walter, not while we’re eating.” But Jacob’s pleas were ignored.
Sir Walter reached for a nearby pepper pot from the table, emptied a little onto his hand, then rubbed it below his nose. A moment later, he sneezed heavily, and his head came clean off the rest of his body and began rolling down the table. “Would somebody mind moving the gravy boat?” he said as his body began following after his head, “it’s an awful mess to clean up if it gets in one’s hair.”
“Cool party trick,” said Simon Jones.
“Yeah, but how do you put that on your Tinder profile?” Said Patrick.
Sir Walter caught up with his head and returned it to his shoulders before floating back to where they were sat.
Billy looked over at the Crocodilian table and saw the ghost of a rather austere looking woman holding a handbag in her blood stained hands. She was sat next to Austin, who, Billy was pleased to observe, didn’t look too comfortable about her being so close to him.
Sir Walter placed his hand on the top of his head and swung it round to look over at her. “Yes, that’s her,” he said.
“How did she get all that blood on her hands?” asked Patrick.
“A needless war here and there… killing a few hundred people… sowing the seeds of division and inequality… and starving some children, of course.”
Once everyone had finished their main course, the plates of food disappeared and desserts appeared in the place.
As Billy helped himself to a slice of chocolate cake — skipping over the treacle tart which he thought looked repulsive — the conversation turned to their families.
“Well I’m Irish, which is why I have such a stereotypical name,” said Patrick. “Me dad’s straight, but me mam’s a bisexual — and they say there’s no diversity in these books! We’ve also got some family in Australia because an ancestor was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for standing up to the British, but my back story is irrelevant — though maybe they’ll try flesh me out a bit in the movies by, I don’t know, doing something like making the Irish guy out to be the one who always makes things explode in a story set during the height of The Troubles.”
Simon Jones went next.
“I’m black, and so is my mother and father,” he said. “So that makes at least three of us, but you’ll never hear about them or much about me because I’m relatively minor to the plot.”
“What about you, Josh?” asked Ed.
“Well, I’m white and I’m also straight,” said Josh, “so my arc will probably be essential to the narrative, and a lot of time will be spent developing my character.”
There had to be more diversity than this, thought Billy. He looked around and noticed a girl of Chinese descent with a stereotypical name from the wrong part of Asia, and sat near her, a boy he thought might one day turn out to have been Jewish all along. He looked up at the top table and noticed the problem was even worse among the teachers.
In the middle of the table, Professor McDouglass was talking sternly to Professor Crumbleceiling. Next to them, Professor Quigley was still having a conversation with the serious looking teacher Billy didn’t know. He was dressed all in black and had long hair that matched.
It happened very suddenly. The teacher with long black hair looked past Quigley and made eye contact with Billy. He pointed at his own eyes, then at Billy, and then finally he ran his finger across his throat as though threatening him.
“Who’s that teacher talking to Professor Quigley?” Billy asked Jacob.
Jacob looked over at the teacher’s table.
“Oh, that’s Professor Grape. He teaches Alchemy, but he hates his job — he’d much rather have Quigley’s.”
Eventually, the plates of desserts disappeared, and the tables were left clean and empty. At the teacher’s table, Professor Crumbleceiling got to his feet and the hall fell silent.
“Ahem — before we finish our evening, there are just a few reminders which I must give out to you all.”
“First, students remain banned from entering the forest in the castle grounds, performing sorcery in the corridors, walking around the castle at night, and from reading any of the works of Steven King.
“Trials for house Frogsports teams will be held starting next week. Anybody who is interested in taking part should let their head of house know this week.
“And finally, I must inform you that the passageway on the second-floor is this year proscribed for all students. Take this as your warning that should you fail to adhere to this rule, detention will be the least of your concerns.”
“Is he serious?” Billy asked Jacob.
“He doesn’t sound like he’s joking,” said Jacob, looking curious. “It’s strange, though. Normally he tells us why we can’t go somewhere.”
“And now, off to bed!”
The first-years got up from the table and began following Jacob through the crowds, out of the Banquet Hall, and up the giant stone staircase that led off the entrance hall. Billy, like the rest of the first-years, felt too tied to notice many of the things they were passing. They climbed staircase after staircase, dragging their feet as they walked. Billy was just wondering how much farther they had to walk when Jacob came to a sudden stop, and a pile up of tired first-years ensued behind him.
A Live, Laugh, Love t-shirt was floating on a hanger in midair ahead of them.
“Karen,” Jacob explained to the first-years. “She’s a poltergeist. A sort of crazy, loud, and negative spirit,” he explained. Raising his voice, he said, “Karen — show yourself.”
A rather privileged sort of huff answered.
Jacob pulled out a mobile phone and opened the camera app.
“Do you want me to post about this?”
There was another huff, and a short woman with blonde highlighted hair that was longer at the front than the back appeared floating ahead of them and holding up the hanger.
“I was looking at this t-shirt,” she said, with the sort of entitled tone belonging to someone who really enjoyed the sound of their own voice. “But it’s not my size. I’m sure you’d be able to adjust if for me, right?”
“Go away, Karen, or TikTok will hear about this, I mean it!” said Jacob.
“I didn’t want this rubbish t-shirt anyway,” and with that, she vanished, dropping the garment onto the floor.
“You have to watch out for Karen,” said Jacob as they set off again. “The risk of being outed on social media is the only thing that can control her. Anyway, here we are.”
They had reached the end of a long corridor where hung a portrait of a ballerina.
“We don’t have a password for our common room,” Jacob explained to them. “We have a passdance instead. Allow me to demonstrate,” he said, and he did a little tap dance in front of the portrait. The ballerina in the painting began twirling around on the spot, and as she did, a door appeared in the wall next to the portrait.
Jacob led them into the common room and directed them up a staircase to their dormitories where they at last found the welcoming sight of their beds. Their luggage had already been brought up for them. Yodel was sat in her cage cooing gently as she slept, while Scampers was sat on top of Ed’s suitcase, eyeing her while licking his lips.
Too tired to talk much more tonight, they got changed and climbed into bed.
“The food is good, isn’t it?” Ed muttered to Billy.
“Yeah,” said Billy.
“Get off, Scampers! He’s trying to eat the end of my celery again.”
As he turned over in bed, it occurred to Billy that something quite important seemed to have been overlooked.
“Hey, Ed,” he said.
“Professor Crumbleceiling said we aren’t allowed to walk around the school at night, didn’t he?”
“But what about if we need the toilet? There isn’t anywhere to go in the common room.”
“That’s a good point,” said Ed. “And what about if we need to wash? Only the house leaders have bathrooms.”
A Small Ask
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