Ben Fletcher

Chapter Four (“Couldn’t This Have Been an Email?”)

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CRACK! Whoever was outside was knocking to come in.

“It’s the North Koreans,” said Yate stupidly. “They’ve started a nuclear war. We’re all going to die.”

There was another loud bang behind them as Mr Moustache came into the room, armed with a shotgun — now they knew what he was carrying with him the night before.

“Who’s there?” he shouted, aiming the gun towards the door. “I’m warning you — I’m armed.”

There was a moment of silence. Then — SMASH!

Whoever was there had knocked on the door so hard it came clean off its hinges, flew a little way inside the hut, and then landed with a deafening crash upon the cold stone floor.

“Oh, bugger,” they heard a voice say in a strong Yorkshire accent.

Mrs Moustache entered the room behind Mr Moustache, and they, along with Billy and Yate, watched with fear as the silhouette of a giant figure of a man appeared in the doorway. With each flash of lighting outside, the man’s face was illuminated just enough for them all to see he had a long, unkept mane of hair and an even more tangled beard.

The man attempted to squeeze his way into the hut, but got stuck, as the door was at least a foot shorter than he was tall.

“Eh? Now what’s goin’ on ‘ere then?” the man said, pushing himself free. On his second attempt, he ducked so low he was practically crawling as he crossed the threshold of the door and entered the hut.

“Ah chuffin’ wish they’d mek doors a bit ‘igher, y’ get wha’ ah’m sayin’?” he asked the room at large as he stood up straight and caught his head on one of the wooden beams holding up the ceiling. “Be nice if they’d give bit more room f’ noggin n’ all.”

The man looked around for the door, and then picked it up and put it back into its frame. “Ah’ll be wi’ theur all in a mo’,” he told them all as the door fell straight out again. It took at least another four or five attempts before the door finally stayed in place long enough for him to turn back and look at them all.

“Sorry ‘bout that. Nah then, what’s bin ‘appenin?”

He made his way over to the sofa where Yate was sat frozen solid, unable to take his eyes off the giant.

“Come on, lad. Budge up. Theur dunt need all that space, do theur? Thas not that fat yet.” The man looked up at Mr and Mrs Moustache. “No offence meant by that, mind. Jus’ ‘asn’t bin mentioned this chapter n’ ah wanted t’ mek sure no ‘un had forgot.”

Yate let out a little squeal and went to hide behind his mother, who herself was hiding behind Mr Moustache.

The man looked around the room and spotted Billy sitting on the floor, staring up at him.

“Ey up, Billy, lad. ‘ow theur bin? Ah’ve not seen theur since theur wor reight small.”

Billy focused on the man’s face and saw his eyes and mouth were creased into a smile.

“It must be ten-year since ah saw theur last,” said the man. “Theur sure do look a lot like old man. Except f’ eyes, they look nothin’ like ‘is or theur mother’s.”

Mr Moustache cleared his throat. “Sir, I hereby demand you leave this place at once,” he said, attempting to sound as authoritative as possible. “You are breaking and entering.”

The man turned back and stared down the barrel of the shotgun Mr Moustache was now aiming straight at his face. “Or what? They’ll shoot me brain out of back o’ noggin’?”

There was a small pop as Mr Moustache pulled the trigger, but all that happened was the man started to laugh at the small red flag with the word pow written on it that had appeared out the end of the shotgun.

“Now jus’ calm down, reight. There’s ain’t a need t’ gerr’ all mardy ‘bout owt, is there? This ain’t America,” said the man. He reached out to take the shotgun from Mr Moustache, bent it in half as easily as if it had been one of those cheap knockoff items flooding the market without meeting the required safety standards, and threw it across the room where it hit the door, knocking it back out of its frame.

“See wha’ theur gone n’ made ‘appen now?” said the man. “Ah’m not puttin’ door back again. If theur parky, theur can do it thy sen.”

Mr Moustache made a rather defeated sort of noise.

“Nah then, Billy, lad,” said the man, turning away from the Moustaches. “Ah ain’t forgot it’s theur birthday. Ah’ve got summa’ for theur ‘ere n’ all.”

From an inside pocket of his giant overcoat, the man pulled a large brown padded envelope which he handed to Billy. Billy began to open it… “It’s a magazine,” he said, looking inside and noticing a bulge of pages.

“Is it? ‘old on. Must av’ given y’ wrong one,” said the man, taking the brown envelope back. “These are… they’re erm… it’s me readin’ material for y’know… before ah go t’ bed.”

He pulled another envelope, this time red, from his pocket, and handed it over. “This is yours.”

Billy opened the envelope and, for the first time in his life, pulled out a birthday card. He laughed at the picture showing one candle telling another they were going out tonight.

“Oh, n’ ah got y’ summa’ else n’ all — ah mighta sat on it on way ‘ere, bur it won’t kill y’.”

The man pulled a small, slightly squashed cardboard box from another of his many pockets and handed it to Billy. Billy opened it. Inside was a small chocolate chip muffin topped with buttercream icing. A single candle was sticking out the top.

Billy looked up at the man’s face. He meant to say thank you, but the words got lost on the way to his mouth, and what he actually said was, “Does this cake have palm oil in it?”

The man sighed.

“Youth of t’day. You just ‘ang around waitin’ t’ be offended by things. Yeh should jus’ gerr’ over y’ sens n’ get on wi’ life. Too much time on Twitter, tha’ wha’ it is.”

“Now you’re talking sense, sir,” said Mr Moustache in agreement.

“Shut it, Moustache,”

“I’m sorry,” Billy began, “but the production of palm oil is one of the leading causes of deforestation across the world — ”

“Listen, if theur want t’ argue, argue wi’ somebody who ‘as time t’. Ah just want t’ lead carefree life, so ah’m goin’ t’ seh what ah think, n’ then theur should just shurrup. Ah dunt need ‘ate n’ rubbish at my time o’ life.”

He shook his head.

“Anyway, ah ain’t introduced me sen, av’ ah? Me name’s Barry. Ah’m groundskeep’ at Frogsports.”

The man held out his huge hand and used it to shake Billy’s whole arm.

“Nah wha’ ‘bout a brew or whiskey if theur got it? ‘ospitality ‘ere so far is like stayin’ in Lancashire.”

Barry’s eyes fell on the cold and empty fireplace. He bent down in front of it. No one could see what he was doing, but when he got back up a moment later, a cosy fire filled the space. It lit up the inside of the hut, and Billy felt a satisfying rush of warm air flush over him.

Barry sat back down on the sofa, which creaked because he was even fatter than Yate and Mr Moustache combined (just in case you had forgotten), and began pulling things out of his coat pockets: a small thermal flash, some sausages wrapped in brown paper, a poker, a copy of the constitution for some gender critical campaign group, and a couple of broken mugs. Before long, the whole hut was filled with a homely warmth and the welcoming smell of sausages cooking. No one said anything as they watched Barry cooking, but as he slid the first sausages from the poker, Yate seemed to move on the spot a little. Mr Moustache put his hand on Yate’s shoulder and said, “Don’t have anything he gives you, Yate. We don’t know if it’s safe.”

Barry laughed to himself, then made a cruel fat joke about Yate, because apparently you need reminding it’s okay to do that.

He handed a sausage to Billy and said, “They’re not vegetarian, mind. Ah dunt believe in any o’ tha’ nonsense, so theur will jus’ av’ t’ man up f’ a bit.”

It was true that ever since a girl he liked told him about how the production of half a kilo of beef generates the same emissions as producing one hundred loaves of bread, and how it takes over three hundred gallons of water to produce one hamburger, he had thought about going vegetarian to impress her, but he hadn’t started yet, and he was feeling hungry. He took the sausage and bit into it. He had never tasted anything so good, but he worried about what the girl might say if she ever found out. As he finished the sausage, he looked up at Barry and said, “I’m sorry, but I still don’t really know who you are? Barry… who?”

The man finished his own sausage and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Well, ery’one calls me Barry ‘cos that’s me name,” he said. “n’ like ah told theur, ah’m groundskeep’ at Frogsports — surely theur know ‘bout Frogsports?”

“I’ve never heard of Frogsports,” said Billy.

Barry looked taken aback.

“Never ‘eard o’ Frogsports?”

“Sorry,” Billy said quickly.

“Sorry?” barked Barry, turning to stare at the Moustaches, who all seemed to shrink a little under his gaze. “It’s them tha’ should be sorry. By ‘eck, ah knew theur weren’t gerrin’ theur’s letters, bur ah never thought it would be this bad. Dunt theur ever wonder ‘ow theur’s parents got through life?”

“What do you mean, got through life?”

“WHAT DO AH MEAN?” Barry shouted. “WHAT DO AH MEAN? Nah wait jus’ a secon’.”

He jumped to his feet, his anger overpowering the warmth of the fire.

The Moustaches retreated a little into the shadows.

“Are theur tellin’ me,” Barry barked at them, “tha’ this kid ‘ere — this kid — he knows nowt ‘bout any o’ it?”

“I do know some things,” said Billy, feeling Barry was being unreasonable. “I learnt maths and English at school.” But Barry simply waved his hand.

“Ah mean real stuff — ‘ow can theur understan’ owt if theur can’t put it in’t context o’ our world. Theur’s world. My world. Theur’s parent’s world.”

“What word?”

Barry looked as though he should be covered in health and safety stickers, warning he was a pressurised container that shouldn’t be put near a naked flame in case he exploded.

“MOUSTACHE!” His voice made the whole hut shake.

Mr Moustache, who had gone a ghostly white, said something under his breath that sounded like, “Should read a different book sometime.”

Barry stared down at Billy.

“Bur theur must know sum’ o’ it?” he said. “Ah mean, it’s famous.

“Theur dunt know owt?… Theur dunt know…” Barry ran his fingers through his hair, fixing Billy with a bewildered expression.

“Bur ‘ow does theur understan’ everythin’ theur read n’ see in’t news?

“‘ow does theur know president who separates kid from family is bad guy if theur can’t compare ‘im t’ fictional character?

“‘ow does theur understan’ fight f’ racial equality if theur ain’t read ‘eroic tale o’ orphan lad who overcame evil magic man wi’ dodgy nose?

“‘ow does theur know t’ accept fowk for who thee are if theur ain’t read book series full o’ straight white fowk?

“Does theur not even known wha’ theur is?”

Mr Moustache suddenly found his bravery.

“No more,” he said. “Just stop. I forbid you from telling the boy anything else.”

“Telling me what?” asked Billy eagerly.

“NO! I FORBID IT!” Mr Moustache was panicking now.

Mrs Moustache gasped.

“Ah, shurrup, pair o’ theur,” said Barry. He turned to look Billy in the eye. “Billy — thas a magician,”

Silence fell inside the hut. Only the storm outside could be heard.

“ — I’m a what?” asked Billy.

“A magician, ‘course,” said Barry, sitting back down on the sofa, which almost snapped during this periodic reminder that he’s still fat. “n’ ah’ll tell theur wha’ else, ah think it’s time theur read y’ letter… assumin’ theur learnt t’ read wi’out magic book series.”

“I know how to read,” said Billy. “I learnt reading Twilight — ”

“Eh!” exclaimed Barry with a look of horror on his face. “We’ll av’ less o’ that filth, y’ little shite. If ah cop theur swearin’ li’ tha’ again, ah’ll be washin’ theur’s gob out wi’ soap.”

“I’m sorry,” said Billy.

“Aye, well jus’ get letter read n’ we’ll seh nowt more ‘bout it.”

Billy stretched out his hand to finally take the cream envelope hand addressed to him. He pulled the letter out and read:

Questions exploded inside Billy’s mind, like a TERFs’ head trying to comprehend that the Equalities Act isn’t pick n’ mix, and he couldn’t decide which he wanted to ask first. After a few minutes, he looked up at Barry and said, “Couldn’t this have been an email?”

“Eh, dunt start wi’ environmental bullshite again or ah’ll clip theur’s ear.”

Billy looked back at the letter and noticed another paragraph at the bottom of the page:

“What do the mean they await my pigeon?”

“Bugger! Theur reminded me of summa’ ah got t’ do,” said Barry. From yet another of his coat pockets, he pulled a pigeon — a real, live, and rather angry-looking pigeon — a long quill, and a sheet of cream parchment.

Concentrating hard and looking as though he was a cuttlefish confronted with a Rubik’s cube, he scribbled a note that Billy could read upside down:

Barry rolled the note up, gave it to the pigeon, went to the door, and threw the pigeon out into the storm. Then he came back and sat down as though this was as normal as tweeting your opinion on a subject you knew nothing about.

Billy, realising his mouth was wide open, closed it quickly.

“Reight, were wor we?” said Barry, but at that moment, Mr Moustache, looking angrier than Billy had ever seen him before, moved into the firelight.

“He’s not going,” he said.

Barry groaned.

“Reight, n’ sum’ great commoner li’ theur sen goin’ t’ stop ‘im?” he said.

“Commoner?” Billy questioned with interest.

“Commoners,” Barry repeated. “It’s wha’ we call t’ non-magicians like them lot.”

“When we took him in, we said we’d put a stop to that nonsense,” said Mr Moustache. “We swore we’d stamp it out of him. He’s different to us. For all we know, he’s dangerous, and we’ve got Yate to think about. Magician indeed.”

“You knew?” asked Billy. “You knew I was a magician?”

“Knew?” Mrs Moustache shrieked out of nowhere. “Of course, we knew. How could you not be with my freak of a sister being what she was? Yes, she got a letter just like that one, and off she ran to that school, coming home every summer with her pockets full of enchanted vegetables and her head full of ideas like — like the lefty she was. I was the only one who recognised her as different — an abomination! But for your mother and father, oh no, it was always Phalaenopsis this and Phalaenopsis that, yes, they were actually proud of having such an aberration in the family.”

She stopped to take a breath before ranting on. It was clear she had wanted to say all this for years.

“And then she met that Keith Smith at school, and when they left they had… relations, and then you came along, and of course, I knew you’d be just as abnormal and strange. And then they just had to go and get themselves killed by not wearing their seatbelts, so we got left with you.”

Billy started to feel sick. He swallowed and said, “Not wearing their seatbelts?”

“Too stupid to listen to any of the warnings.”

“You told me an angry swan ate them.”

“ANGRY SWAN!” Barry roared as he got to his feet again. Mr and Mrs Moustache retreated back into the shadowy corner of the hut. “‘ow could swan kill Phalaenopsis n’ Keith Smith? It’s slander. Scandal. Wha’ do theur think theur are? Contributor to Mail Online?”

“But then what did happen?” Billy asked urgently. “What killed them?”

The anger left Barry’s face as he looked at Billy with a worried expression.

“Ah wasn’t expectin’ theur t’ know so little,” he said, in a low soft voice. “Ah dunt know if ah’m reight person t’ tell theur owt, bur thas got t’ know summa’ before theur go t’ Frogsports. Especially when every other kid knows wha’ ‘appened. It’s famous.”

He threw a disapproving glance at the Moustaches.

“Reight, well sit theur sen down n’ ah’ll tell theur as much as ah can, bur ah can’t tell theur everythin’, mind. Ah dunt think anybody know all details. It’s a great mystery, bits o’ it, n’ who knows when it’ll be retconned,” he said, sitting back down. “Well, ah guess it begins wi’ guy called — by ‘eck, it’s incredible theur dunt know ‘is name, ah thought ery’one knew it.”

“Who is it?”

“Ah dunt like t’ seh name if ah can avoid it. No ‘un does.”

“But why?”

“Why? T’rah t’ jammy lass wi’ parky butty f’ dinner, Billy! Fowk still scared o’ name, lad.” He shook his head. “See, theur wor magician who went reight bad. As bad as theur could go. Worse. Worse than bin a Conservative. Worse than bin a Republican, even — ”

“Worse than Nick Clegg?”

“Eh? That’s grand point theur made there. Nah, not that bad. No ‘un is as bad as that smug bastard… Anyway, ‘is name wor…”

Barry gulped, but no words came out.

“Why don’t you write it down?” suggested Billy.

“Can’t spell it… Reight — it wor Steven.” Barry shuddered as though he’d just taken part in the ice bucket challenge. “Dunt mek me seh it again. Anyway, this — this magician, ‘e wor reight bad guy n’ ‘e started lookin’ f’ mates t’ follow ‘im. Sorta like club, theur could seh gang even. ‘e certainly found members — ah guess sum’ wor too scared t’ refuse, bur others just wanted t’ share ‘is power. n’ ‘e wor gettin’ ‘imself power alight. Dark days, Billy. Dark days. Bur it wor not all bad.”

Barry had a reminiscent look on his face, as though longing for the days when racism, homophobia, and transphobia were still accepted and commonplace.

“Bad things ‘appenin n’ ‘e wor takin’ over. Anybody who dared t’ stand up t’ ‘im, ‘e killed. ‘orribly. Only safe place wor Frogsports. Most fowk think Crumbleceiling wor only guy That-Evil-One wor afraid o’.

Something Billy wasn’t expecting happened. There was a roar of thunder and a flash of lighting not from the storm outside, but directly above his head. Before he could look up, the cloud rained on top of him and disappeared.

Barry laughed as Billy looked up to see if he was sitting under a hole in the roof. “Sorry, should av’ warned theur ‘bout that,” said Barry.

“Anyway, ah knew theur’s mother n’ old man,” Barry continued, “n’ theur wor the best magicians ah’ve ever known. Could av’ gone on talent show n’ won is wha’ ah’m sayin’. Leader o’ theur ‘ouse at Frogsports, n’ all. Bur ‘e wanted ’em out o’ way, ‘e did, n’ so ‘e turned up in’t village where theur wor all livin’, ten-year ago on ‘alloween — theur wor just a baby — n’… n’ ‘e killed ’em both.”

Barry took a handkerchief from his pocket and used it to wipe below his eyes. “Sorry,” he said, “bur ah knew theur’s parents n’ thee could av’ chuffin’ gone places if they’d av’ just learnt t’ calm theur gobs a bit n’ be respectful t’ older generation.”

“Bur ‘ere’s strange thing ‘bout it all, ‘e tried t’ kill theur too, bur ‘e couldn’t. Ever wondered ‘bout tha’ trademark on forehead? That’s no ordinary trademark. That’s wha’ theur get from powerful, evil energy who wants t’ stop fowk livin’ ‘appy lives by deprivin’ ’em o’ rights.”

“A load of bollocks,” said Mr Moustache. Billy started; he had almost forgotten the Moustaches were still there. Mr Moustache seems to have gotten some of his confidence back. He stared at Barry with his hands clenched into fists.

“Now, you listen here boy,” he said half-angry, half-panicked to Billy. “I accept there’s something weird about you, but that’s our fault for being too soft on you. Now as for your parents, well, they deserved everything they got… I’m telling you, if they’d just listened and done what they were told to do — ”

Barry didn’t need to say anything. His look alone was enough to silence Mr Moustache.

Billy still had thousands of questions he wanted to ask.

“But what happened to Stev — sorry — I mean, That-Evil-One?”

Barry ducked out the way of the cloud. Clearly, he was experienced enough to avoid it.

“Grand question that, lad. ‘e vanished on t’ same night ‘e tried t’ kill theur. That’s why theur famous, see. Some think theur killed ‘im instead. Some think ‘e’s still out there waitin’ t’ come back. Bur all anybody knows is summa’ ‘bout theur stopped ‘im that night.”

Barry looked at Billy with admiration in his eyes, but rather than feeling that same pride in himself, Billy felt sure there had to have been some sort of mistake. How could he be a magician? He’d once performed a magic routine in a school talent contest and come in last place — he’d even lost to Yate’s recital of the chicken dance played in F-sharp on the ever popular ice cream tub and rubber band combo.

“Barry,” Billy said quietly, “I think you’re making a mistake. I don’t think I can be a magician?”

To Billy’s surprise, Barry started to laugh.

“Theur dunt think theur a magician, eh? Theur never made owt strange ‘appenin when theur stood up for summa’?”

Billy gazed into the fire. It was as if an occult hand had reached into his head and moved his memories into an order that suddenly made sense… every single thing that had ever made his aunt or uncle angry with him had happened when he, Billy, felt strongly about something or had taken a stand… all those times Mr Moustache had told him he should have more pride in his country, he had just pointed out it’s hard to be patriotic towards a nation whose entire history is built on racism and violence… and then there was the incident at the zoo when he thought the animal rights protesters had a point, hadn’t he befriended three penguins who then pushed the Moustaches into the water? Billy looked back at Barry, smiling, and saw Barry was smiling back.

“Nah theur gerrin’ it. Just ‘old on — theur will love it at Frogsports.”

But Mr Moustache wasn’t done yet.

“I’ve already said,” he began, “he won’t be going to that school. He’s going to Rafbat High, and he’ll be grateful for it. I’ve read that letter, and he needs all sorts of expensive things — books, vegetables and — ”

“If e’ wants t’ go, e’ll go. Nowt theur can do will change that,” said Barry. “‘is name’s bin down since ‘e wor born. ‘e’s goin’ t’ best school for magical whizzin’ n’ kabooms in’t world. ‘e’ll be around ‘is own sort for once. A place that accept fowk for who they are,” he glanced at Billy here, “Terms n’ conditions apply, subject t’ status, ‘course.”


But Mr Moustache had finally pushed Barry too far. “NEVER — ” he said cooly, “OUR EXAM RESULTS ARE MUCH ‘IGHER THAN AT ETON!”

Barry pulled an umbrella out from the inside of his coat and pointed it at Yate — there was a flash of bright light, a bang that sounded like a firework, and the next second, Yate had a lettuce for a head.

Mr Moustache roared in anger, while Mrs Moustache screamed in fright. Mr Moustache grabbed his wife and son and made straight for the other room, glancing back with a terrified expression on his face, before slamming the door shut behind them.

“Bugger,” said Barry. “Shouldn’t av’ lost me temper, bur it didn’t work anyway. Meant t’ turn ‘im completely in’t vegetable, bur ah suppose ‘e wor so stupid already, there weren’t much left t’ do.”

“Barry, isn’t that child abuse?” asked Billy. “And don’t you work at a school?”

Barry ignored him.

“Anyway, it’s gerrin’ late n’ we’ve got busy day t’morrow. av’ t’ nip t’ London n’ buy all theur stuff n’ that.”

He took off his heavy coat and threw it to Billy.

“Theur can kip under that. Should keep snowflake like y’ warm enough.”


A Small Ask

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Writer, comedian, actor, producer, publisher and former failed politician | part Jewish | |