Chapter Eight (Anhydrous What to What?)
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“I think it is.”
“Look, next to the tall guy with ginger hair.”
“Wearing the glasses?”
“Did you see the trademark on his forehead?”
“No, I don’t have a licence.”
Voices followed Billy everywhere he went from the moment he left bed the next day. As he walked down corridors, other students climbed on each other’s shoulders to get a glimpse of him over the crowds, or otherwise stop him and ask for an autograph or a selfie.
While he was happy to oblige one or two requests, after a while, he began wishing they’d stop, because he was too busy concentrating on trying to find his way around to focus on much else.
There were some two hundred staircases spread around Frogsports, and Billy had a hard time trying to work out where any of them went; it didn’t help that it often changed from one day to the next. Then there were the doors, which weren’t really doors at all, but would fall on top of you if you tried to open them. It was also difficult to remember where anything was when you did eventually find it, because even the walk down to breakfast each morning was disorienting enough to make you forget.
The ghosts which floated around the school didn’t help much either. While Sir Walter Melvyn Scrivener Esq. was always ready to point Osphranters in the right direction, the same couldn’t be said for any of the others. Karen the poltergeist whizzed around the castle, getting in the way of anyone she could, and acting as though she owned the place. She would push you out of line if you were queuing up for a lesson, threaten to call the police if you made her feel uncomfortable, throw anything she could reach at you if you told her to calm down, or sneak up in front of you, invisible, grab your shoulders and then start shaking you as she demanded to see your manager.
Even worse than Karen, if that was possible, was Kevin, the school caretaker. Billy and Ed had managed to get on the wrong side of him on their first morning, when they were unlucky enough to walk unprepared into a room where he was holding a Neighbourhood Watch meeting. They had stated to panic when the door locked behind them, but thanks to Billy’s quick thinking, they soon worked out that all they had to do was aim for Kevin’s weak spot three times. Once defeated, Kevin disappeared into a cloud of purple smoke and left behind a treasure chest containing a compass and map of the school.
The classes themselves were another experience still. Billy soon learnt there was a lot more to sorcery than simply waving around a magical vegetable and hoping for the best, even if Professor Crumbleceiling had told them that was all he ever did.
At midnight, they had to study the night skies through telescopes and track the movements of the planets. It wasn’t easy either, because this was Scotland and there was no such thing as a clear night. Three times a week, they had to leave the castle and go out to a collection of greenhouses in the grounds where they were taught how to make a flower squirt water in the face of anyone who got too close.
One of their most interesting lessons was History, which they had on Tuesday afternoons. Their teacher, Professor Canisters, had spent their first lesson teaching critical race theory; a subject Billy had found both engaging and accurate. He was disappointed to find out the next day that all future lessons had been cancelled, because Professor Canisters had been fired after an ignorant parent had written into the school to complain about him teaching their son to be divisive.
Professor Millbrook, the Domestic Sorcery teacher, was a short magician who could barely see over the top of his desk. While he seemed friendly enough towards students, his habit of throwing to a commercial break whenever any of them tried to answer one of his questions became annoying after a while.
Professor McDouglass was the most alarming teacher they’d had so far. Billy had been quite right to think she wasn’t someone to question or disagree with. They moment they had sat down in their first Transformation class, she had set down her rules.
“Transformation is the most complex sorcery you will learn during your time at Frogsports,” she had begun. “It is the skill to transform one thing into another. It is also highly dangerous and bad behaviour will not be tolerated in my classroom. I believe that is clear enough.”
Billy put his hand up to ask a question.
“Yes, Mr Smith — why, Professor Crumbleceiling was quite right, wasn’t he? Next lesson, please sit towards the back of the classroom.”
“Professor,” Billy began, “could a girl change into a boy and a boy into a girl?”
Professor McDouglass’ mouth seemed to shrink a little.
“Don’t be stupid, boy,” she replied. “Whatever gives you the idea that would be acceptable? No, my imagination does not stretch quite as far as to believe that girls can become boys and boys become girls. That would be preposterous and completely unbelievable,” she finished, then she turned her desk into a pig and back again.
After making them write down pages of notes that Billy couldn’t even begin to understand, Professor McDouglass had given them each a red passport and told them to turn the cover blue without sacrificing the national economy. By the end of the lesson, only Elahoraella Parker had made any difference to her passport, turning it a dark navy colour that looked almost black. While it wasn’t exactly what she was looking for, Professor McDouglass nevertheless showed it to the rest of the class and commented how it was an impossible task that only a complete idiot would ever attempt anyway.
The subject everyone had really been looking forward to was Vigilantism, but Professor Quigley’s lessons proved difficult to get to. His classroom was located in the middle of a large courtyard and surrounded by a deep moat. While there was a bridge across the moat, it was guarded by a troll who asked a riddle you had to answer correctly before being allowed to cross.
It took Billy multiple attempts, but after he eventually gave “Teach it to slalom a canoe” as the answer to “You can lead a fish to water, but you cannot what?” he was allowed to continue to class where he was relieved to find out he wasn’t as behind everyone else as he’d feared. There were many people who had come from Commoner families, and they all knew just as little as he did.
Friday started well for Billy and Ed. That morning, on their way to breakfast, they had discovered two chests containing arrows and a third, rather ornate looking chest, which contained a boomerang.
As they began eating their breakfast, Chad and Larry Beaversley, Ed’s twin brothers, came over to them. Larry was carrying a large piece of folded parchment under his arm.
“Good morning,” said Chad, as he and Larry sat down at the table. “We’ve got a question for you, Ed.”
“I haven’t done anything,” said Ed.
“We’re not accusing you of anything,” said Larry.
“We’re just curious about something,” said Chad.
“Well, we’ve got this map, see,” said Larry, waving the parchment he was carrying.
“And it shows us the whole school and where everybody is inside of it,” explained Chad.
“Yes, and we were looking at it last night and noticed there was a boy called Peter sleeping next to your bed.”
“What?” said Ed. “There isn’t a Peter in Osphranter house.”
“We’re only telling you what we saw, because it seems like something we would definitely notice and bring up straight away,” said Larry.
“Anyway, we’ve got to go,” said Chad. “We need to go ask Quigley why he’s spending so much time with That-Evil-One — oh, sorry,” he added, as the cloud rained onto Billy and Ed’s plates.
“Do you think we should tell Crumbleceiling?” said Larry. “It would be the logical thing to do.”
“No,” said Chad. “It might shorten the story too much.”
“What was that about?” asked Ed as the twins wandered off.
“I’ve no idea,” said Billy. “What have we got today?” he asked, shaking his toast dry.
“Alchemy with the Crocodilians,” said Ed. “Grape’s head of their house. People say he always favours them.”
“I wish McDouglass favoured us,” said Billy, noticing her striding over to them. Professor McDouglass was head of Osphranter house, but that hadn’t stopped her from continuing to berate Billy for knowing that trans rights were human rights.
At that moment, the post arrived. Billy was used to this by now, but it had given him a surprise on their first morning when dozens of pigeons had flown into the Banquet Hall during breakfast to deliver letters and parcels to their owners. He had also been most unfortunate to discover afterwards that it hadn’t been a chocolate chip in his cornflakes.
“Ah, perfect timing, Mr Smith,” said Professor McDouglass as Yodel crash-landed on the table in front of him. “I have a letter for you here that my pigeon delivered to me by mistake, and I believe yours may have my letter also.” While Yodel had brought him something every day so far, none of it was yet to actually be addressed to Billy. This morning, as he took the letter Yodel clutched in her beak, he noticed Professor McDouglass’ name on the front.
The swapped letters, then Professor McDouglass held up a magazine. “And do you by any chance happen to know to who this belongs? It was also delivered to me by mistake — ”
At that moment, there was the clinking of a knife on glass, as Professor Crumbleceiling attempted to get everyone’s attention from the top table. “Has anybody seen my reading material?” he shouted out.
“No matter, Mr Smith, I believe this particular mystery may have just resolved itself.”
As Professor McDouglass made her way back to the teacher’s table, Billy tore open his letter and read:
Billy scribbled his reply on the back of the letter, then gave it to Yodel, who took off again.
It was a good thing he had tea with Barry to look forward to, because the rest of the day turned out to be the worst he’d had so far.
At the feast on their first night, Billy had got the impression that Professor Grape didn’t like him, but by the end of their first Alchemy lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Grape didn’t dislike Billy — he hated him.
Alchemy lessons were held in one of the dungeons underneath the castle. It was colder down here than the rest of the school, except for an area surrounding a mysterious locked door marked with the number four hundred and twenty, which led to a chamber that seemed to be producing a lot of unexplained heat. Billy thought it would have been creepy enough down here without the strange chemical scent that filled the damp and dingily lit corridors.
Grape started his class by taking the register, and just like every other teacher, he paused for a moment when he came to Billy’s name.
“Ah, of course,” he said slowly. “We have a new celebrity among us. Mr Billy Smith.”
Austin and his friends Alastair and David laughed behind their hands. Grape finished taking the register, and then looked up from his desk to survey the class. His eyes pieced anyone who dared look into them.
“My name is Professor Grape — no relation to Professor Plum,” he began. He spoke in little more than a whisper, but his very presence made certain everyone in the room remained silent enough to catch every word he was saying. “Though like Professor Plum, I did once kill many a man because I am a psychopath… even so, I am still somehow allowed to teach in this school full of children…”
A long, still silence followed this admission.
“You are here to learn the subtleties required to master the art that is alchemy,” Grape continued. “There is little need to wave your blasted veg-e-tab-les in this class, and consequently, I expect many of you shall never appreciate the exact science that goes on within these walls. But if you choose to listen to what I say, then I can teach you how to trick the senses… to confuse the mind… to see something which isn’t really there, even — so long as you aren’t all as big a bunch of snowflakes as I usually have to teach.”
A longer silence followed this speech. Billy and Ed exchanged looks of bemusement. Elahoraella Parker, however, was on the edge of her seat as though desperate to prove to Grape that she wasn’t a snowflake.
“Smith!” said Grape suddenly. “What would I get if I were to mix pseudoephedrine, anhydrous ammonia, phosphorous, and lithium?”
Anhydrous what to what? Billy glanced at Ed, who looked just as confused as he did; Elahoraella’s hand had shot into the air.
“I don’t know, sir,” answered Billy.
Grape’s mouth curled into a cruel smile.
“Well, well — clearly fame is not everything, is it?”
He ignored Elahoraella’s hand.
“Shall we try again?” said Grape. “Smith, where would you find me a bong?”
Elahoraella stretched her hand as high as she could without leaving her seat, but Billy had no idea what a bong even was. He tried not to look over at Austin, Alastair, and David, who were all openly laughing behind Grape.
“I don’t know, sir,” he said eventually.
“Did you not think about doing any reading before you came here, Smith?”
Grape stared into his eyes and Billy forced himself not to look away.
“What is the difference, Smith, between papaver somniferum and papaveraceae?”
At this, Elahoraella jumped to her feet, her hand reaching for the dungeon ceiling in a desperate attempt to be given the chance to answer.
“I don’t know, sir,” said Billy quietly. “Maybe you shouldn’t be a teacher if you need me to tell you.”
A few people around the room laughed silently. Grape, however, was not pleased.
“Sit down, you stupid girl,” he snapped at Elahoraella before rounding on Billy. “For your information, Smith, pseudoephedrine, anhydrous ammonia, phosphorus, and lithium are the key ingredients of methamphetamine, along with two Golden Globes and twelve Primetime Emmys in the form of a hit series. A bong is a filtration device often used for smoking cannabis. As for papaver somniferum and papaveraceae, papaveraceae is the family of plant to which papaver somniferum belongs. Papaver somniferous also goes by the name of the poppy herb and is a common source of opium… Well? Why aren’t you all copying that down?”
There was a rush as everyone went to grab parchment and ink from their bags. As grape returned to his desk, he said, “And as for you, Mr Smith, that is two credits from Osphranter house for your snark.”
As the lesson went on, things didn’t get any better. Grape has separated them all into small groups and set them the task of creating a Canadian by mixing the DNA of a British person with the DNA of an American. While Billy and Ed thought they were doing okay, even with Grape glaring over them every few minutes as he swept around the classroom, the same couldn’t be said for Josh, who appeared close to tears again. And then, just as Grape was about to tell everyone to take in the welcoming smell of Tim Hortons coming from Austin’s table, a bolt of lighting came from nowhere and hit test tubes in front of Josh, creating not a Canadian, but James Corden.
“Idiot boy!” said Grape. “Now there’s two of them. Oasis will never get back together with twice the chance of him hosting their reunion.”
As James Corden began handing out copies of his rider and Googling his own name, Grape turned his attention to Billy and Ed, who had been working on the next table.
“You — Smith — why didn’t you warn Hansen about the lightning? Thought people hadn’t learnt their lesson from Jay Leno, did you? That’s another two credits you’ve lost for Osphranter house.”
Billy opened his mouth to argue, but Ed stopped him with a well hidden kick underneath the table.
“Don’t,” he warned Billy. “Remember, Grape’s killed a man.”
“Many a man,” Grape corrected him, leaning in close to breathe down their necks.
A short while later, they were ascending the staircase out of the dungeons and back into the main school. Billy’s mood was low and his mind was racing. What sort of school was this place? And how were any of these people allowed to work with children?
“It could be worse,” said Ed. “Chad and Larry told me Grape actually poisoned a student in their first lesson with him.”
Grape had appeared behind them.
Billy and Ed remained still as Grape pushed past them and continued up the stairs. They waited until he’d turned a corner and disappeared from view before continuing.
“So, anyway — can I come meet Barry with you?”
After their final lesson of the day — in which they had learnt how to make an object disappear under a silk handkerchief — they left the castle and made their way across the grounds to a small wooden hut that stood near the edge of the loch.
As they approached the hut, they heard a voice shout, “Eh, gerr’off me land.” They looked up. It was Barry, and he was walking a giant Labradoodle. “Oh, it’s theur. Come on in f’ brew.”
They walked over and Barry led them inside his hut. There was only one room. A wooden bed stood along the far wall, and an open fire crackled against another. Above the fire was a sign that started with In this house we…
“Tek seat n’ mek y’ sens comfortable,” said Barry. “This is Charlie.” He took the lead off the Labradoodle, and it made straight for Ed, jumping on him and starting to lick his face. “Dunt worry y’ sen, ‘e won’t ‘arm theur.”
“This is Ed,” Billy told Barry, who was now preparing tea for them.
“Ey up, lad! Ah’m glad theur two o’ y’. Ah’ve got summa’ t’ discuss.”
He placed a mug of tea down a coaster which said Let the Evening Be-Gin for Billy, and a second for Ed on a coaster which said It’s Wine O’Clock. Sitting down with his own mug, Barry reached for a catalogue on a nearby shelf and handed it to Billy.
“Is theur owt theur want t’ buy from book?”
Billy turned the cover of the catalogue and examined the first page. There were pigeon cages on sale for half the normal price, a glow-in-the-dark toilet seat, a collection of bobble heads depicting the cast of a long-forgotten 1980s sitcom, a toaster which printed the face of Steve Buscemi on your bread, and for the garden, a life-sized statue of a zombie climbing out of the ground.
“Barry, what is this thing?” said Billy.
“It’s me new business, ‘course. Ah gerr’ paid ery’ time somebody buys summa’ from book. Only, ah ‘ad t’ buy book in first place n’ ah ain’t ‘ad a sale yet. Ah wor ‘opin theur might buy summa’ n’ ‘elp out.”
While Ed took an interest in a nice collection of plastic food containers themed around the English market town of Stratford-upon-Avon on page two, Billy picked up a copy of the Riled Rag and read the front page:
“Barry, this break-in happened the same day we were in Upper Lower Upper Regent Street. It might have been happening while we were there.”
“Oh, dunt worry ‘bout tha’,” said Barry, avoiding eye contact as he took the paper from Billy. “Now, ‘ow ‘bout one o’ these novelty dino noggin trophies t’ ‘ang on y’ wall?” he continued, pointing at page three of the catalogue.
As Billy and Ed trekked back up to the castle for dinner an hour later, Billy couldn’t help but think about the break-in and how eager Barry had been to change the subject. Barry had emptied a high-security vault that day. Was it the same one? Had Barry taken whatever it was the thief had wanted before they could get to it? And if he had, where was it now?
A Small Ask
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