Sunday 2 May 2021

Fiction - Serial - Barry Botter and the Sorcerous Phone - Part the Third by Will Nuessle



Part the Third


            Barry read the old, dilapidated sign in front of the older, more dilapidated four-story building. (Well, as we shall perhaps see, it’s more of a seven-story building, assuming the overall joke, much like Ermine, has long enough legs to sustain interest through seven entire parodies. Only time will tell, and the clock in this particular room isn’t working, which means it’s only right twice a day, and I already asked it both the time and how to spell dilapidated.)

            Where was I.

            Oh yes, the sign. Thank you.

            Barry read the old, dilapidated—speed past this part? Right.

            Carfax Asylum for the Humorously Wacky and Likely Fairly Harmless.

            “Oh, bloody hell,” he said again, either for effect or, more likely, forgetting he had done so at the end of the previous chapter.

            Underneath the official, badly hand-painted wooden sign was an unofficial, badly handwritten paper one: Hogwash School of Whizzcraft and Witchery.

            “Don’t mind the big sign,” Don said confidently. “That’s just to maintain the illusion. Don’t want the Marbles to know what we’re up to, here.”

            “Which is?” Barry asked more out of innate politeness than any real desire.

            Ermine laughed, which was a bonus. “Whizzcraft, of course.”

            “Like the sign says.”

            Figuring he’d be sorry for asking, Barry nonetheless asked, “Can’t the, er, Marbles see the ‘real’ sign?”

            “Naw,” Don grinned, “we’ve watched and they don’t pay any attention to it. Walk right by like it weren’t even there.”

            “Which is too bad,” Ermine agreed. “How surprised they all would be to know what goes on behind these walls.”

            “Real, honest-to-Baum, no-foolin’ Magick.”

            They were walking up to the lightly rusty iron double gates, but Barry paused at this. “Did you say Magic, or Magick?”

            “Magick,” Don repeated.

            “I thought so,” Barry nodded.

            (Note to the Editor: best of luck with that passage on the audio version.)

            As they approached the gates, Don pulled his drinking straw ‘wand’ out of his pocket. “Stand back,” he warned. Pointing it carefully at the gates, he said “Ate-gay open-yay!”

            As Barry quite understandably thought to himself Really? Pig Latin? Don stepped up to the gate and pushed it open easily. He threw a look over his shoulder that was without question very smug, holding the gate for Ermine and Barry.

            “Was the gate locked, then?” Barry asked.

            “You know? I’ve never checked.”

            Strongly considering snapping his apparently astonishing wand in half and making a break for it, Barry found himself being drawn forward through the gates by Ermine’s warm, gentle hand, and before his higher functions recovered, he was standing in the large foyer.

            Carfax Asylum had probably been the pride of a well-to-do family, or perhaps even a posh boarding school; Barry eyed a formerly lovely sweeping staircase flanked by formerly lovely marble pillars. Formerly Lovely was likely the entire text of the real-estate ad, he had time to think before being descended upon by a passel of what he could only assume were fellow ‘Whizzards.’ He had an immediate impression of thumping feet, smiling faces, and immense noise—the hall was awash with cacophony.

            “Is that—”

            “It’s him!”


            “Where’s my beanie?”

            “Is it an African or European swallow?”

            Cutting through the din precisely the way a cream puff would fail to cut through an acacia tree came a strident, authoritative voice. “If’n you hooligans will put a sock in it fer two seconds,” and though the steps, bannisters, balconies and crenellated topiaries remained draped-over with grinning fellow teenagers, the general uproar ceased.

            “It’s Professor McDonaldgull,” Don whispered in his ear.

            Standing a few steps above him, looking over pince-nez that Barry could not help but notice contained no glass, was a thin stick of a female-type person. “Barry Botter, I presume.”

            “Speaking,” Barry offered in return.

            “Well, let me have a look at you.” While she was looking Barry returned the favor, eyeing the floppy, shapeless hat and sagging, shapeless dress. The Professor looked nothing so much as a coatrack with lofty ambitions. She did a passable impression of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase,’ save for the nude part, for which Barry was grateful, and peered at him. “What did Haggard tell you, boy?”

            “Precious little, um, Professor,” he answered honestly and eventually politely.

            “Well if he thought it best to keep you in the dark, I won’t be the one to cry over spilled milk,” Professor McDonaldgull responded confusingly. “But we’ll want to get you sorted into your house. Must’nt put the cart by halves.”

            “Please,” Barry attempted, realizing that he was being drawn ever deeper into this particular rabbit hole, “there must be some mistake; I was supposed to be Forward against Kings today. They’re our biggest rival—”

            While she had turned away muttering, the mention of football (the real version, not the twaddle Americans do with that ridiculous egg-shaped thing) brought McDonaldgull’s attention swooping right back. “Forward, you say? You any good?”

            “I should think so,” Barry responded without thinking, dismally noting the interest this received from anyone within earshot.

            “He’s a Forward!” “He thinks he’s good!” “Anybody want a peanut?”

            He heard Don and Ermine in each ear; his confusion was such that he turned exactly the wrong way and found himself nearly nose-to-nose with the Weasel. “You’ll end up in our House, Barry, for sure!”

            Ermine’s voice was directly behind him, which was unfortunate, but he still made out “SpiffyDoor’s the best of the houses, by far.”


            Don grabbed him by an ear, determined to spell it all out as the crowd dissembled down the hallway. “There’s four Houses, right, and SpiffyDoor is the one you’d be wantin’, Barry.”

            “What are the other three?” he asked mostly to try and distract Don, maybe get his ear back. They dodged aside as a trio of boys swept through carrying a wooden table, calling “Gangway!”

            “Them’s from Huff’n’Puff House; the ones as gets to do all the grunt work. It’s real honourable,” Ermine said from somewhere tantalizingly nearby yet out of viewing range.

            “Yer, then there’s Cravenclaw; gotta watch yerself ‘round them, they’ll swipe anything what ain’t tied down.”

            As he heared this, Barry used his ‘wand’ to bat away a boy roughly his age who was eagerly going through his pockets, yelling “Ugger-bay off-ay!” at him for good measure.

            “Picked up yer first spell? You’re a shoo-in for SpiffyDoor. Only the best and brightest get in there. Professor McDonaldgull is our Headmasterstriss.”

            With a jerk, Barry managed to extricate his ear, rubbing it to determine if any skin was left. “Don’t you mean Headmistress?”

            “I most certainly do not,” Don grimaced. “You heard me and she’d better not hear you miss the extra syllables, mate.”

            Still rubbing his ear, twisting his neck to see where Ermine might have got to and if she was, er, stretching or anything, Barry ran bodily into someone not at all soft and yielding. Stammering automatic apologies, Barry belatedly looked where he was going and was confronted with a brass waistcoat button. He looked up, and found another, and yet another, and finally when he was stretching his neck about as far as it would go there was a face above it all. A glowering face.

            “Mr…Botter,” said a lowering voice out of the glowering face, a growl that they can hopefully get Steve Coogan for when the movie comes out, since dear Alan Rickman has gone on to his reward. “So we meet at last.”

            “Dreadfully sorry,” Barry managed as Don hustled him past the towering lowering glower. “Who was that?” he whispered once they were out of earshot.

            “Professor Nape. Severest Nape; he’s the Motions master.”

            “The what?”

            “Motions. Interpretive dance.”

            While Barry was still digesting this, his sleeve was suddenly clutched by yet another grasping, unable-to-understand-basic-British-rules-about-personal-space hand. “You.

            “Yes?” Barry addressed a boy who on first impression reminded him of himself; blonde, athletic, possessed of that innate ability to charm others that some people would give their eyeteeth for, despite how often their mothers told them that they were the handsomest boy in school.

            …oh yes, Barry. Yet another character introduction. This boy, to sum up, reminded Barry of himself. Save for the sneer on his chiseled face. “They said you’d be here eventually.” The unknown sneer-saver spat on the wooden floor at Barry’s feet. “I challenge you to a duel!”

            “No dueling inside Hogwash walls,” somebody called in passing.

            The still-un-introduced boy’s face twisted the way something does when it gets twisted somehow. “We shall go outside and I will challenge you to a duel!”

            “It’s raining,” somebody else called in passing.

            It hadn’t been raining five minutes ago when they’d all walked into Hogwash, but then again it was an English summer.

            His eyes snapping, Barry’s new friend retreated slowly, the set of his chin announcing that he was not in any way giving ground. “We shall wait until the rain ceases and then go outside and I will—hey!” Whatever his words might have been were lost as the boy was carried along by the rush of students.

            Barry found himself running to keep up, and looked to his right, hoping to enjoy the sight of Ermine running alongside. He’d picked the wrong direction; it was Don, which was not nearly as engaging. But still. “Who in blazes was that?”

            “Darko Tinfoil,” Don answered easily. “He’s your immediate and most-hated rival, for reasons that will never be adequately explained.”

            Determining to correct his mistake, Barry looked to his left, only to find Don somehow there as well. Cursing his luck silently, he went on, “You could bloody well have said something, you know?”

            “Plot’s gotta progress, Barry; can’t interrupt progress.” As Barry was considering this unexpected breaking of the fourth wall, he and Don (and presumably Ermine, I’m certainly not going to forget her) passed the wide-open double doors to a mediocre cafeteria space.

            “This is the Great Hall,” Ermine (there she is!) panted enchantingly, and we shall forgive her the exaggeration as we were worried she’d gotten lost. “And we’re just in time for Sorting.”

            “For what?”

            “For Sorting, Mr. Botter.”

            The gentle yet authoritative voice came from behind them all, and Barry turned to see a portly, beaming, white-bearded gentleman who reminded him very much of Father Christmas, several days after yuletide when he and the reindeer had had perhaps a few too many celebrating another successful season delivering presents to billions of thankless children.

            “Hello, Headmaster Bumblebore,” said Don, Ermine, and anyone else within earshot with the exception of Barry, who got the idea and echoed them a second later.

            “Go on with you, lad,” the Headmaster said, his eyes twinkling, the broken veins in his nose catching the light. “You don’t want to miss this.”

            They found seats at a wobbly plastic-and-metal folding table. “Don’t get too comfortable, Barry,” Don grinned as Barry reflected that it would be literally impossible to do so. “You’re the one we’re here to Sort.”

            “And what does that involve, exactly?”

            Before either of his two immediate best friends could answer, Professor McDonaldgull called his name. “Barry Botter! Come to the front, please!”

            He walked past dozens of fellow teenagers sitting at similarly wobbly tables, all staring at him with expectation. Having been part of several boarding schools, Barry was braced for whatever character-building hazing awaited him, reminding himself schools weren’t allowed to leave marks that would show on Visiting Day.

            This was of little comfort when he reached the front and found the Professor standing in front of a lone red wellington. Barry thought he might have detected a slight gleam in her eye. “Put it on, Botter!”

            “What, the boot?”

            “No, an air of nonchalance, of course I mean the boot! It’s the Sorting Shoe, Botter. It’ll tell us all which of the four Houses you should be placed in.”

            Barry really hadn’t planned on being around long enough for such things as house placement, but in the end he was British and as such used to taking orders, even ridiculous ones.

            As he sat on the folding chair provided to remove his sneaker, shortly after which McDonaldgull whispered “Your other shoe, Botter,” and he got that sorted out, since she was so close anyway the Headmastermistress continued to whisper “Were ye really a Forward, in your old life?”

            “Yer,” Barry whispered back absently, hoping Ermine would find it endearing that he didn’t know his right from his left. Professor McDonaldgull leaned back, resuming her coatrack impression, as Headmaster Bumblebore heaved himself into a groaning, possibly-not-quite-overstuffed-enough armchair at the front of the room, flanked by Professor Nape and a fluffle of other adults, presumably all teachers or something.

            The ‘students’ at this unique ‘school’ all leaned forward as a body, intent as Barry, having finally gotten the wellington onto the correct foot, stood up at the ‘coatrack’s’ gentle urging.

            “What am I supposed to do now?” he asked quietly. Before anyone could answer he had to shift to regain his balance (wearing just one welly is no picnic; you try it yourself sometime) and as he put his booted foot down there was the slightest squelching noise. Being the land of eternal damp this was not at all surprising; as soon as the noise was heard in the pin-drop silence Professor McDonaldgull called out “SpiffyDoor!”

            One quarter of the room cheered while the other three-quarters looked respectively resigned, sneaky or cold. Being well-versed in the vagaries of the school caste system he knew he had been invited into the Proper group, and as such was welcome to ignore all those beneath him. Which he did, regaining his original footwear and retaking his waiting place by Ermine and Weasel.

            “You think you’re so great, Botter,” came a sneering voice from two tables over. Barry deigned to look at a non-SpiffyDoor and found Darko Tinfoil glowering at him. “You wait until the first Splidditch match; then we’ll see what you’re really made of.”

            “Yes, all right,” Barry responded pleasantly, turning back to people what actually mattered. “What’s his problem?”

            “I told yer,” Don shook his head. “He’s your de rigueur hated rival.”

            “What’s Splidditch?” Barry asked quickly before anyone checked to see if he knew what de rigueur meant.

            “It’s a game specifically for Whizzards,” a fellow SpiffyDoor chimed in, holding out a pudgy hand. “Neville Fatbottom, at your service.”

            “Splidditch?” Barry asked again, after releasing the sausage-shaped and -smelling fingers as quickly as convention would allow. Neville opened his mouth to speak further when from the overstuffed (in more ways than one) armchair at front came a loud coughing.

            Instantly the room was silent, save for said coughing; once Headmaster Bumblebore was finished he stood, with the assistance of several parties, and beamed at them all. “On this august occasion, as we welcome our newest student in some time, I wish to—”

            He stopped, and a shadow came across his face.

            Professor McDonaldgull’s eyes were wide, as Professor Nape’s narrowed.

            The room stayed silent, but the air of anticipation had soured to one of dread.

            Even eternally perplexed Barry Botter knew, somehow, that he shouldn’t speak and as a result, it was quiet enough in the ‘Great Hall’ for all of them to hear.

            Far off, down one of Hogwash’s deserted corridors.

            A telephone was ringing.

Will Nuessle holds a third-degree brown belt in ninjitsu; rides a Harley; primary care gives a five- and two-year-old (with the third arriving in April) and claims to be able to recite the alphabet backwards in less than ten seconds. He also writes occasionally.

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