The Journey on the Rail Replacement Bus Service
Billy’s last month living with the Moustaches wasn’t fun. In fact, it was almost alarming. True, Yate was now so scared of him that he wouldn’t spend longer than a few moments in the same room as Billy, but those few moments were always filled with him howling and screaming about how everything was unfair. His aunt and uncle, meanwhile, seemed to be making sure to ignore him as much as possible.
Still angry with him, but also terrified of what he might do to them, Mr and Mrs Moustache acted as though Billy simply wasn’t there. While he thought this was in some way an improvement on before, Billy did after a while start to feel a little broken down about the situation.
Most of the time, Billy stayed out the way in his bedroom upstairs, his new pigeon keeping him company. He had decided to call her Yodel, because so far, she had done little more than annoy him and give the impression she had no idea where she was going and wouldn’t be very good at delivering anything. He spent the days reading his new school books long into the early hours of the morning, Yodel flying in and out of the open window. It was a good thing Mrs Moustache never came into his room to clean up anymore, because Yodel kept bringing him packages addressed to someone Billy had never heard of, and they were starting to pile up in all corners of the room. At the end of each day, just before he went to sleep, he crossed out another day on the calendar he had pinned to the wall, then counted down the days remaining until the first of September.
When he woke on the last day of August, it occurred to Billy that he didn’t yet know how he would get to Euston Station the next morning. So he decided to ask Mr Moustache if he could take him into London. Billy went downstairs to the living room where his aunt, uncle, and cousin were all watching a new ITV game show on the television, and talking about how they could do much better than any of the contestants, even though they kept shouting out wrong answers. Billy coughed gently to let them know he was there. As he had expected, Yate responded by starting to cry and then running out of the room screaming.
“Erm — Uncle…” Billy said cautiously.
Mr Moustache gave a grunt of acknowledgement.
“I need to get to Euston Station tomorrow to — to catch the train to school…”
Mr Moustache let out another grunt.
“Would you be able to take me into London?”
Another grunt. Billy supposed that meant yes.
He was about to go back upstairs when Mr Moustache called after him.
“I’m surprised you want to go by car. I thought all you woke lefties hated pollution and wanted to take public transport everywhere instead?”
Billy didn’t say anything. He had never once discussed politics with his uncle, but he knew Mr Moustache liked to call anyone a woke lefty if they had an opinion different to his own.
“Where is this school anyway? Which part of the country?”
“I don’t know,” said Billy. He pulled the ticket Barry had given him out of his pocket and realised for the first time he seemed not to have changed his trousers for over a month.
“My ticket just says I have to take the twelve o’clock train from platform nine and three-quarters,” he read.
His aunt and uncle stared at him, but Billy didn’t think he’d said anything unusual.
“Nine and three-quarters.”
“There’s no such thing as platform nine and three-quarters,” said Mr Moustache.
“It’s on my ticket.”
“It must have been created because of the engineering works for HS2,” said Mrs Moustache.
“Barking,” replied Mr Moustache, shaking his head. “The whole project is a complete waste of money and will never have anywhere near the economic benefits people claim it will. Who actually wants to get to Birmingham half an hour quicker than they can now?”
“And think of all the natural beauty in the countryside that’s going to be destroyed,” added Mrs Moustache.
“Yes, well, that I don’t mind so much,” said Mr Moustache. “But the entire project had already gone over budget while the developers pocket billions, and I don’t understand why honest and hardworking taxpayers like myself should have to pay for something in a different part of the country, especially when it’s going to create jobs that people make money from — I mean, if these people want money that badly, they should work hard, get out there, and create their own jobs.”
“Erm —” said Billy, hoping to bring the conversation back around.
“You just wait until it’s finished. You’ll see. All right, we’ll take you to Euston Station tomorrow. We’re going into London anyway, or I wouldn’t bother.”
Billy woke much earlier than he needed to the next morning, but he was too excited to go back to sleep. He got up and pulled on a pair of jeans and a clean shirt because he didn’t want to walk into the station in his dressing gown — that sort of behaviour was only accepted at Victoria Station, where trains were so often delayed, commuters had begun sleeping upright in the packed train carriages because by the time they finally got home, it was time to set off again. He checked his school list a final time to make sure he had everything he needed, put Yodel into her cage, and then laid back on the bed staring at the ceiling, waiting for the rest of the house to wake up. A few hours later, Billy’s heavy suitcase was loaded into the boot of Mr Moustache’s car, Mrs Moustache had bribed Yate into sitting next to Billy, and they set off for London.
As usual, Mr Moustache spent the entire journey complaining about something. Today, it was the congestion charge he would have to pay for driving into the capital.
“It’s just another tax on the successful,” he said. “We pay our fair share already, and we shouldn’t have to pay more now just because we can afford to drive a car instead of taking the Underground. It’s a matter of freedom.”
Mr Moustache’s rage only increased when he discovered he also had to pay an additional charge to drive into the city’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, because his petrol card didn’t meet the Euro 4 criteria of the European emissions standards, as set out in the European Union’s European Council directive 2003/76/EC and European Council directive 2006/96/EC, which would have exempted his vehicle from the charge.
Despite Mr Moustache spending the remainder of the journey concentrating more on complaining how disgraceful it was that as a British person, he was still being controlled by the rule of the European Union and explaining why it was all Sadiq Kahn’s fault — even though Boris Johnson actually first proposed ULEZ while he was Mayor of London — than where they were going, they reached London in good time, and when Mr Moustache finally worked out how to follow the diversions around the HS2 engineering works to the new station drop-off point, Billy had just under an hour until his train departed.
“You see,” said Mr Moustache, as he and Billy got out of the car. “What did I tell you? Look at all this mess,” he continued, pointing at some nearby high fencing adored with a large banner showing what Euston Station will never look like once the redevelopment is complete. “And it slowed us down. We’d have been here half an hour quicker if we didn’t have to drive around it all. What’s the point in the train being quicker if we lose the same amount of time getting to it?”
Billy was surprised when Mr Moustache helped him lift his heavy suitcase out of the boot and onto a luggage trolley. He was even more surprised when he appeared to want to see him off as he pushed the trolley into the station with Billy following behind.
Mr Moustache’s motives soon became clear — he wanted to enjoy this. “Well, here we are then. There is platform nine and there is platform ten next to it. Your platform should be somewhere in the middle of it, but it doesn’t appear to exist, or maybe we’re just at the completely wrong station.”
Billy looked up at the platform numbers above them. Sure enough, on one side was a large number nine, and on the other side of the tracks, a large number ten.
“Have a pleasant journey,” said Mr Moustache, patting Billy on the shoulder before walking away towards the station exit with a smile on his face.
What was he going to do now? There were no signs pointing him in the right direction. He felt his mouth go dry all of a sudden. He looked around and noticed a large board advertising the opening of a new Starbucks, just next to the station’s existing Starbucks, and across from an old Starbucks that had recently become a Costa Coffee after the Starbucks that was there had relocated to a larger unit on the upstairs concourse. Even though he needed to find his train, Billy felt he had enough time to queue up and buy a coffee priced high enough to raise questions about the ethics of the company when considering how little tax they choose to pay.
Once he’d bought his coffee, still unsure of where to go, he decided to stop a nearby person who looked as though they worked for one of the train companies. The man had never heard of Frogsports before, and when Billy couldn’t even tell him where it was, he started to get angry. Feeling as helpless as the passengers boarding the eleven fifty-four London Overground service to Watford Junction, Billy asked for the train that departed at midday, but the man said there wasn’t a train departing at midday. Eventually, the man walked away, muttering something to himself about how he wasn’t paid enough to deal with people like that.
By now, Billy was starting to panic. According to the large clock above the main departure board, he had just ten minutes left to find the correct platform and get onto the train, but he still had no idea how to do it. He was stuck in the middle of a large station with a heavy suitcase, an overrated coffee in his hand, a pocket full of euro, and a pigeon that kept calling out to another that was pecking at the floor nearby.
He looked around. There was a large group of strangely dressed tourists getting in everyone’s way as they waited to have their photographs taken in the wrong place and buy overpriced souvenirs. Barry must have forgotten to tell him something he needed to do to find the platform. He wondered for a moment if he should simply jump into the space between the tracks that served platforms nine and ten, but then he remembered something from school. An official from Network Rail had come in to give a morning assembly about staying safe on the railway, and according to them, jumping onto the tracks was one of the most dangerous things a person could do. Billy didn’t know if any of the rails were electrified, and the noise of the surrounding crowds was sure to make it difficult to hear if a train was coming.
At that moment, a group of people passed behind him, and he caught a few words of what they were saying.
“— the place is as packed with commoners as ever, of course —”
Billy turned around. The person speaking was a short and rather plump woman — because describing someone as plump is nicer than calling them fat, even though they both mean the same thing — and she was leading what looked to be her sons: a large group of boys, all of who had vivid ginger hair. Each of the boys carried a suitcase similar to Billy's, and one of them had a pigeon in a cage.
“Now, there’s been a last minute platform change… again… and so we all need to go over to platform four and two-thirds instead,” the woman told the group at large.
Thinking he might finally find where he needed to go, Billy pushed his trolley after the group. They stopped near the ticket barriers to platforms four and five. Billy stood a little away from them, but close enough that he could eavesdrop.
“Okay, so is everybody ready?” the mother asked.
“Can I go too, mum?” asked a small girl Billy noticed for the first time. She was wearing a fluorescent gold coat, and like her brothers, she had fiery orange hair.
“You’re not old enough, Gertrude. Now let us get on with his.” The mother turned to her boys. “Who wants to go first? How about you, Jacob?”
What seemed to be the oldest boy stepped forward. He was wearing a top hat and a pretentious expression on his face.
Billy watched as the boy reached into his pocket, pulled out a ticket that looked just like his own, and then walked towards the ticket barriers with purpose. Billy tried not to blink, so he wouldn’t miss it, but it wouldn’t have mattered either way because a large crowd came walking past in front of him, and by the time they had cleared, the boy had vanished.
“And now you, Chad,” the mother said.
“I’m not Chad, I’m Larry,” said the boy. “Honestly, you’ve been our mother for thirteen years and you still can’t tell us apart.”
“Sorry, Larry, dear. I didn’t mean to mix you up.”
“I’m only joking, I am Chad,” said the boy. He too pulled a ticket out from his pocket and then walked towards the ticket barriers. Just before he disappeared — seemingly into thin air — he called back for his twin. A second later, both had gone — but how had they done it?
There was nothing else for it, Billy would have to ask.
“Excuse me,” Billy said to the woman, who here you again seemingly need to be reminded was fat.
“Hello,” she said. “Is it your first time going to Frogsports? Ed here is new, too.”
She pointed at the last and youngest of her sons. He was much taller than she was, and much thinner as well.
“Yes,” Billy told her. “But I don’t know — the thing is, I don’t know how to —”
“To get onto the correct platform?” she asked with a smile on her face, and Billy nodded.
“Don’t worry. It’s confusing, isn’t it?” she said, patronisingly. “Especially with the mix up and platform change. It’s easy enough to find your way, though. All you have to do is hold out your ticket and then walk straight at the ticket barriers leading to platforms four and five. Don’t stop and don’t worry about walking into them, that’s very important. If you’re feeling nervous, it’s best to do it at a bit of a run and then you’ll be through before you know it.”
“Why don’t you go before Ed? Go on.”
“Okay,” said Billy, sounding uncertain as he tried to remember everything she had just told him.
He turned his trolley around and looked forward at the ticket barriers. They looked very solid.
He held his ticket out and then started to move towards them, gaining speed with each step. He knocked an old woman over as he passed, but thought screw her — the youth of today! Leaning forward on his trolley, he broke into a run as the barriers got closer. He was going to smash into them and be flipped over the top of the trolley, and he was sure it would probably hurt — he was only a few steps away — he wouldn’t be able to stop now — he closed his eyes, ready for the impact — he felt nothing… he opened his eyes again and found he had come to a complete stop just short of the barriers.
“Ah, this sometimes happens, dear.”
He looked around. It was the boy’s mother speaking. She approached him and took the ticket from his hand.
“Sometimes these tickets just don’t read well. Not to worry, though, there’s an easy trick.”
Billy watched as she rubbed his ticket on her leg as though cleaning the magnetic strip on the back of it.
“There you go,” she said, handing him back the ticket. “Now why don’t you try again?”
Billy nodded, then closed his eyes. He held his ticket out a second time and took another step closer to the barriers.
He felt a sudden breeze hit his face. He opened his eyes again. In front of him was an ancient looking diesel train waiting next to a platform filled with people. Billy looked up to where a sign overhead read Frogsports Express — Delayed and next to it another with the words Platform Four and Two-Thirds written in thick black lettering. He had done it.
But just as he made to move towards the train, he felt a hand close on his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” said a voice, “but do you have your ticket there?”
Billy looked up at the indifferent expression on the face of a man who was clearly a ticket inspector. He was wearing a uniform in the same colours as the Frogsports Express, and a badge on the lanyard around his neck was passive-aggressively asking Billy not to abuse him.
“I’m sorry,” said Billy.
“Do you have your ticket with you? I need to check you have the right ticket for this train. Tickets marked London North Western Railway only are not valid on this service, you see.”
“I just had to use my ticket to get onto the platform,” said Billy.
“Yes, but some people like to try and jump the barriers,” the man said in an accusatory tone.
“How could I jump the barriers with this trolley?”
“Your ticket please…”
Confused about why he was being accosted like this, Billy pulled out his ticket and handed it over.
“And do you have your Railcard with you?”
“I don’t know what a Railcard is,” said Billy.
“Oh dear — this ticket was bought with a Railcard discount. I need to see your valid Railcard, please.”
Billy looked at where the man was pointing on his ticket. The words Railcard Discount were indeed printed on it in tiny letters.
“I didn’t know that was there. I didn’t buy this ticket,” Billy tried to explain, but the ticket inspector was having none of it.
“Are you telling me that you found this ticket? Or perhaps that you stole it from another student?”
“This ticket was given to me by Barry…”
Twenty minutes later, the ticket inspector finally let Billy go, but not before issuing him a penalty fare and telling him how lucky he was not to be being prosecuted for fare evasion.
It was a good job the train was delayed, thought Billy, otherwise he’d probably have just missed it. He approached the nearest carriage to see how quiet it was, but noticed in the reflection on the glass window that the ticket inspector was now laughing and high-fiving with another man dressed in the same uniform.
This first carriage was already packed with students, some fighting for seats in overcrowded compartments, while others hung out of the doors and windows to talk to their families on the platform.
Billy set off down the platform in search of a quieter carriage.
About three carriages down, he passed a short and dim-looking boy who was crying as he said to an older woman, “Granny, I’ve lost my hamster again.”
“Oh, Josh,” Billy heard the woman sigh, “You really are such a stupid boy.”
Billy continued pushing his way through the crowds until he made it to the end carriage, which seemed much emptier than any of the others. He put Yodel inside the train first, then went back for his heavy suitcase. As he struggled to lift the suitcase onto the train, he slipped and dropped it onto his foot.
“Damn it —”
“Do you need a hand?” It was one of the ginger-haired twins he’d encountered at the ticket barriers.
“Oi, Larry!” the twin shouted to his brother. “Come over here and help a minute.”
With the help of the twins, Billy was soon sat in an empty compartment with his suitcase in the overhead racks, and Yodel sleeping in her cage on the floor.
Billy thanked them as he wiped away the sweat on his forehead.
“What’s that?” asked one of the twins suddenly, pointing at Billy’s forehead.
“OMFG!” said the other twin. “Are you…”
“He is,” said the first. “Aren’t you?” He added to Billy.
“You’re Billy Smith,” said the twins in unison.
Billy was relieved when a voice from outside the train stopped the twins from staring at his forehead.
As the twins left, Billy leant against the window, half hidden by an old nylon curtain. He could just about hear the conversation the ginger-haired family were having on the platform.
“Where has Jacob gone?” asked the mother.
“Here he is now.”
The oldest of the boys came towards them through the crowd. He was already wearing a long black dressing gown, which fell below his knees. As he watched, Billy noticed the boy had a small badge with a shiny letter L on it pinned to his chest.
“We need to make this quick, mother, dearest,” he said. “The other house leaders and I have our own private carriage at the front of the train —”
“Well, of course,” said one of the twins sarcastically. “We wouldn’t want you having to mix with the riffraff at the back, would we?”
“Oh shut up,” said Jacob.
“How come Jacob gets to go in first class?” asked the other twin.
“Because he’s been made Leader of the House,” their mother replied with pride in her voice. “Have a good year, dear,” she then said to Jacob. “And be sure to send me a pigeon when you’ve arrived.”
Jacob kissed his mother goodbye, tipped his top hat to the rest of the family, and then disappeared back into the crowd.
“Now, you two,” said the mother, turning to the twins. “Please try not to get arrested again this year.”
“It wasn’t our fault,” explained the first twin.
“Professor Crumbleceiling asked us if we wanted to help with something. How were we to know what he had planned?”
“Yes, well — just try to behave yourselves. And look after Edward, won’t you?”
“Don’t worry, little Eddie will be safe with us around.”
“Shut up,” said the youngest boy, looking embarrassed. “I’m tuss enough on my own!”
“Hey, guess who we just met on the train?”
Billy pulled the curtain forward a little, so they wouldn’t see him watching.
“You know that kid who was stood near us at the ticket barriers? Guess who he is?”
“Is he really, Chad? How can you be sure?”
“We asked him.”
“Poor child — I wondered why he was alone. He was incredibly polite when he asked how to find the platform. But still, that means I owe Professor Crumbleceiling some money.”
“And guess what else?”
“We saw his trademark too.”
Their mother because suddenly very stern.
“Well, I forbid you to spend any more time looking at it. As if we can afford that.”
“Okay, boomer, calm down.”
The crowd on the platform seemed to be thinning now.
“You best all get on the train,” their mother said, kissing the twins and her youngest son goodbye. As the three boys climbed onto the train, their younger sister started to cry.
“Don’t cry, Gertie, we’ll send you a letter every week.”
“Yeah — we’ll even send you a bootleg of Billy Smith’s trademark.”
At that moment, a public announcement came from a speaker above Billy’s head.
“Good afternoon and welcome to this, the twelve-hundred Frogsports Express service to Frogsports. This service will be calling at Frogsports only. We apologise for our delayed departure today, this was due to overrunning engineering works in a different part of the country. Due to a shortage of train crew being hired by the company, there will be no catering on this service.”
There was a sudden jolt as the train began to move out of the station. Billy watched as the boys’ mother and sister waved. A moment later, as the train entered a tunnel, they disappeared from view.
“Any passengers not intending to travel on this service today should have returned to the platform five minutes ago,” the announcement continued. “My name is Christopher and I will be your conductor for today’s journey. If there is anything I can do to make your journey a more enjoyable one, please do not hesitate to keep it to yourself.”
The door of the compartment opened and the youngest ginger-haired boy came in.
“Do you mind?” he asked, gesturing at the empty seat across from Billy. “The rest of the train is full.”
Billy shook his head and the boy sat down. “Thanks,” he said.
The twins had returned.
“We’re off to go annoy Jacob at the front of the train.”
“Right,” mumbled the boy.
“Billy,” said the second twin, “did we introduce ourselves? I’m Larry Beaversley and this is Chad. And then this is Ed, our younger brother. See you both later then.”
“Bye,” said Billy and Ed together. The twins left, closing the door behind them and leaving an awkward silence as Ed stared at Billy. It wasn’t until they sped through Milton Keynes half an hour later that he actually spoke.
“Are you really Billy Smith?” he asked.
“OMFG!” exclaimed Ed. “That’s totally mental.” He began pointing at Billy’s forehead. “And have you actually got — you know…”
Billy pulled back his hair to reveal the trademark underneath.
“But I don’t remember getting it,” said Billy.
“You don’t remember anything?” said Ed, sounding disappointed.
Billy shook his head.
“So is everybody in your family a magician?” Billy asked, wanting to change the subject.
“All of them,” Ed nodded.
“So you must know a lot of sorcery already?”
“The rumour is you went to live with Commoners,” said Ed. “What are they like?”
“Awful — well, not all of them. But my aunt, uncle and cousin are — they’re all Daily Mail readers.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of that. It’s sort of like a brand of toilet paper where journalistic integrity goes to die, isn’t it?”
Billy nodded. “I wish I had three magicians for brothers instead.”
“Five,” Ed corrected him. For some reason, he looked as down as the price of a cryptocurrency following a tweet from Elon Musk. “I’m the sixth to go to Frogsports and I’ve got a lot to live up to. Two have already left — Issac got top marks and now works on a cruse ship entertaining passengers eight shows a week, and John does birthday parties. Now Jacob has become Leader of the House, too. Chad and Larry always mess around, but they’re really popular and they’ve already signed up for a Netflix special. Everybody in the family expects me to do just as well, but if I do they’ll just say I’m copying what they’ve already done. There’s never anything new, either, with a family this big. I’ve got Issac’s old dressing gown, John’s old celery, and Jacob’s old lizard.”
Ed reached inside his pocket and pulled out a sleeping green iguana.
“His name is Scampers and he’s useless. Jacob got a pigeon for being made Leader of the House, but my parents didn’t have enough for — I mean, I was given Scampers to look after instead.”
Ed looked suddenly out of the window. He seemed to think he’d said too much.
Wanting to make Ed feel better, Billy started telling him about his life with the Moustaches and how he’d always had to wear old clothes and was never given anything for his birthdays. This did cheer Ed up a little, because apparently he found enjoyment in other people’s suffering. It even seemed to lighten Scampers’ mood as he was now awake and staring at Yodel in her cage.
“… and until a month ago, I didn’t even know that I was a magician, or who my parents were, or anything about Steven —”
Ed seemed to choke.
“What’s wrong?” asked Billy.
“You said That-Evil-One’s name!” said Ed. “Oh, sorry,” he added a moment later as the cloud appeared above Billy’s head.
“I’m not trying to show off by saying the name,” said Billy. “I’ve just never learnt that you shouldn’t — hold on, what’s Scampers eating?”
They both glanced down at Scampers, who was chewing on something bulky in his mouth. Billy looked quickly at Yodel to check she was still safe in her cage.
“I don’t know,” said Ed, picking Scampers up. “But it’s got a tail.” He forced open Scampers’ mouth and set free the hamster he was attempting to eat. Billy watched as the hamster limped out of sight under the seats.
While they had been talking, the train had taken them through the West Midlands, but as they looked out of the window to watch the fields passing by, it was hard not to notice they seemed to be slowing down.
There was a knock on the compartment door, and the dim-looking boy Billy had passed on the platform came in looking tearful.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he said, “but have either of you seen a hamster?”
“Erm… no, sorry,” said Ed, moving his jacket to cover Scampers.
The boy started to cry. “I’ve lost him again. He keeps escaping.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up,” said Billy.
“Yeah,” agreed Ed. “He’ll just be hiding somewhere, that’s all.”
“I hope so,” said the boy through his tears. “If you see him…” and he left without finishing his sentence.
Ed waited until the compartment door had closed and the boy had disappeared, before pulling his jacket off Scampers.
“I can’t believe it. He almost never wakes up, and then when he does, he goes and eats somebody’s pet,” Ed said in disgust. “Larry gave me a spell to turn him blue yesterday, want to see?”
“Yeah,” said Billy eagerly.
Ed pulled a rather wilted looking piece of celery out of his pocket. He was just pointing it at Scampers when the compartment door opened again.
The boy was back, but this time he was joined by a girl who had already changed into her new Frogsports dressing gown.
“Has anybody seen a hamster? Josh has lost his,” she said. She had a rather commanding voice, dark messy hair, and incredibly large front teeth, which gave her the appearance of a quokka trying to pass itself off as a human, just in case you’d forgotten it’s perfectly acceptable to target someone’s appearance in this world.
“We’ve already said, we haven’t seen a hamster,” said Ed, glancing guiltily at Billy, but the girl wasn’t listening. She was staring down at the stick of celery he was pointing at Scampers.
“Oh, are you trying some sorcery? Show us, then.”
She sat down and stared expectantly at Ed.
“Erm — okay, sure.”
Ed cleared his throat and raised the celery. “Jiggery-pokery,” he said, swishing the celery down, but nothing happened except Scampers waking up and biting off the end of the celery.
“Hey,” said Ed, pushing Scampers away as he came back for a second bite.
“I’m not sure that’s a real spell,” commented the girl. “If it is, it’s certainly not a good one. I’ve only practised a few myself, but I’ve got Alakazam, Open Sesame, and Hey Presto! to work for me. I didn’t think I’d be able to do any sorcery at first, though. No one in my family was a magician before me so I thought it would take ages to learn. But I’ve spent all summer reading our books and I guess I’m just a natural. I just hope that doesn’t make anything too easy at Frogsports, but I’ve heard it’s the best school of magical whizzing and kabooms there is, so I’m sure I’ll still be challenged — I’m Elahoraella Parker, by the way, and who are both of you?”
She spoke very fast, and Billy was relieved to see Ed didn’t seem to understand much of what she had said either.
“I’m Ed Beaversley,” replied Ed.
“Billy Smith,” said Billy.
“OMG!” said Elahoraella. “OMFG, even. Maybe OMFGROTFOMFG-ing! Are you really? I know everything there is to know about you, of course — I even have a mug with your face on it.”
“My face is on a mug?” asked Billy, feeling slightly creeped out.
“Oh, didn’t you know? It’s not just mugs. I’ve seen pens, phone covers, shot glasses too. I’ve even seen tattoos — though why grown adults want to go around with a teenage boy’s face tattooed on their body…” said Elahoraella. “Do either of you have any idea what house you might be in yet? I hope to be sorted into Osphranter house, it sounds like the best,” and she began jumping up and down as though to imitate a kangaroo. “But I suppose being sorted into Eudyptula house wouldn’t be too bad.” This time she imitated the waddle of a penguin. “Anyway,” she said, sitting back down, “we’d better continue looking for Josh’s hamster. You two should put on your dressing gowns, we have to change before we get arrive.”
And with that, she left, taking the boy with her.
“What the hell was all that?” asked Ed. His whole face was twisted into an expression somewhere between confusion and amusement. “I just hope I’m not in the same house as her.”
“What house are your bothers in?”
“Osphranter,” said Ed. “My whole family has been in Osphranter house, so they all expect me to be as well.”
They looked out of the window and noticed the train seemed to be slowing down even more now.
“We can’t be there yet, can we?” Billy asked.
“Chad and Larry said the journey takes all day. It hasn’t even started to get dark yet.”
They came to a complete stop a few minutes later. Billy looked out of the window and noticed a platform sign nearby.
“We’re in a place called Crewe,” he relayed to Ed.
“It looks ghastly.”
Billy agreed. “I wonder why we’ve stopped here, though.”
He got his answer when a voice filled the compartment. “Good afternoon,” the conductor began, “on behalf of the Frogsports Express, I wish to offer my apologies for any inconvenience, but due to a broken-down train on the line ahead, this service will today be terminating at Crewe. Please collect your belongings, exit the train, and make your way to the front of the station where staff will be on hand to help you continue your journey by rail replacement bus services.”
Chaos and confusion followed. There wasn’t enough room on the platform for this many students and all their luggage, and there was even less room than there might have been because of the passengers waiting for the delayed Llandudno Junction service.
By following a few of the older students who seemed to know where they were going — clearly this wasn’t the first time this had happened — Billy and Ed found their way to the main road outside the front of the station where a member of staff told them that onward transport was on its way.
As they waited for the rail replacement buses to arrive, Billy and Ed continued their conversation.
“Which Frogsports team do you support?” asked Ed.
“I don’t know any,” Billy admitted.
“What? How can you not know any?” Ed almost looked offended. “Just you wait, you’ll love it. It’s the best sport in the world — and there he went, explaining all about balancing the ball on a hockey stick, how the back half of the horse was the hardest position to play because they had to balance on the inflatable unicorn without being able to see what they were doing, and describing the space hopper he’d like to buy if he had the money. He was just talking Billy through a few of the stranger rules when out of nowhere, a group of three boys pushed in front of them.
“Sorry, but we were here first,” said one of the boys, glancing back at Billy. “Oh — so I guess it really is you?” Billy immediately recognised the boy as the blonde-haired one he’d met while buying his dressing gown. The boy seemed to have a lot more interest in Billy now than he had back in Upper Lower Upper Regent Street. “Billy Smith is coming to Frogsports,” said the boy.
Billy glanced at the other two boys who were flanking the first as though bodyguards.
“Oh,” said the blonde-haired boy, “this is Alastair and this is David,” he continued, disinterested.
The other two boys looked at each other. “Are you Alastair or am I David?” one of them asked the other.
“I think I’m Austin,” the second replied.
“No, I’m Austin,” said the blonde-haired boy with an expression that said this wasn’t the first time this had happened today. He turned back to Billy. “I’m Austin. Austin Hickinbottom.”
Ed forced a cough to stifle his laugh, but it didn’t work. Austin Hickinbottom looked him in the face.
“You think Hickinbottom is funny, do you?” Ed coughed again, and Austin stepped forward with his chest pushed out. “Do you want to go right now? I could have you.” He pushed Ed back. “Yeah, come on. Let’s go. Right here.” He glanced back and noticed his two friends weren’t backing him up. “What are you doing?”
“No, I think you’re David and I’m Billy.”
“You’re both idiots.”
“I thought I was Austin?”
At that moment, a couple of buses arrived, and the station staff began sorting students to board them. To their immense relief, Billy and Ed were directed to get onto the first bus, while Austin and his friends were told to board a different one.
“I hope you weren’t fighting out there,” said a voice as they took their seats. “You’ll be in trouble before we’ve even arrived.” Elahoraella was sat behind them.
“We didn’t start it,” said Ed aggressively.
“There’s no need to be like that,” said Elahoraella. “Anyway, I wanted to ask you a question. Do either of you notice anything about the other students?”
“No — what are we supposed to be looking for?”
“Well, I was looking around while we were waiting for the buses to arrive, and I noticed there doesn’t seem to be much diversity — no one has a disability.”
“Maybe somebody just figured it would be easier to pretend magic can cure anything?” said Billy. “Maybe they didn’t believe they needed representation?”
“Everybody seems to be white too,” said Elahoraella.
Billy looked around. Elahoraella did have a point; everyone he could see was white. But then he noticed a girl sat towards the front of the bus. “There’s a black girl sat over there,” he said, pointing her out to Ed and Elahoraella.
“Well, yes, that’s true. But will she still be black if she becomes more important in our sixth year?”
They were on the bus for a long time, and by the time they finally came to a stop on a countryside road next to a set of tall wooden gates, night had long since fallen.
While the temperature outside the bus was much cooler than on it, everyone was relieved the journey was over. For the final few hours, there had been a strange smell coming from the toilet in the middle of the bus after Josh had used it, and it didn’t help that people kept having to go in there to change into their dressing gowns.
As they looked around for some idea of where to go next, they heard a voice calling through the darkness. “First-years! First-years! First-years over ‘ere!” A lantern came towards them, cutting through the black. As it got closer, Billy recognised the man holding it as Barry. “Ey up, Billy, lad — first-years!”
A group of around sixty students gathered around Barry. “Is ery’one ‘ere? Grand. Nah all choose partner n’ ‘old ‘ands wi’ ‘em — ah’m only pullin’ theur’ leg.”
He led them through the gates and up a dark and narrow path. The only light came from the lantern Barry held at the front of the group, so they had to walk carefully to avoid slipping over on the wet ground.
“Theur all gerr’ first look o’ school jus’ aroun’ corner,” Barry called over his shoulder before following up a moment later with, “Nah, ‘old on. Maybe it’s next ‘un.”
It was a few more minutes and many more corners before they eventually reached the shore of a giant loch, but no one had any interest in the loch. There was a collective “Oooh!” as they all gazed across the water to where a giant castle stood atop a mountain, its windows offering a glow of welcoming warmth and light.
“Reight, theur all need t’ gerr' in’t groups. n’ dunt forget theurs’ oars,” Barry said, pointing towards a fleet of rubber dinghies bobbing in the water. “Ery’one ready?” he shouted once they were afloat. “n’ off we nip — FORWARD!”
And they began rowing across the smooth surface of the loch, following the light Barry was still holding up in his own dinghy at the front of the group. As they got closer to the mountain, Billy looked up at the castle — there were so many towers, turrets, and battlements, he simply couldn’t keep count.
“Careful now!” yelled Barry as they reached a small cave on the opposite cliff face. They continued forward into the cave until they came to a sort of marina underneath the castle. “n’ ‘ere we are.”
Following Barry’s lead, they climbed out of the dinghies and onto a damp stone surface.
“Nah ‘ow many boats made it?” said Barry, and he began counting the number of dinghies. “Nine… n’ we started wi’ eleven.” There was a pause. “Well, that’s better than las’ year, n’ it means Nessie won’t need feedin’ tonight,” and with that, he clapped his hands together.
But as he went to lead the group forward, he stopped. “‘old on,” he said, bending down to pick something up from one of the dinghies. “Whose ‘amster is this?”
“It’s mine!” cried Josh, stepping forward with his hands outstretched.
“‘e dunt look all that grand, does ‘e? Ah can do summa’ ‘bout that.”
“Can you?” Josh asked nervously.
“‘course.” And Barry threw the hamster overarm across the water. The hamster hit a damp stone wall at the other side of the cave, and then slid down into the water with a plop.
“‘e’s not feelin’ pain no more,” said Barry, patting a tearful Josh on the shoulder. “Nessie’s puddin’,” he then said to the rest of the group. “Come on then.”
Josh remained still, as the rest of the group pushed past him to follow Barry up a slippery and moss-covered stone staircase. At the top of it, they turned a corner and were greeted by a wooden door.
“Welcome t’ Frogsports,” said Barry, and he reached out his gigantic hand to knock three times.
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.