Headmaster Doosy felt extremely small in his chair. He didn’t feel small usually. Usually he felt magnificent and powerful, as most headmasters do, but sitting opposite the bearded gentleman that he was sitting opposite made him feel insignificant.
“I understand you are interested in our year-six teacher, Mr Underwood,” said Headmaster Doosy, trying to sound magnificent and powerful.
“Yes,” growled the very large man.
“Well, I’m afraid he’s transferred, just last Thursday, actually.” Headmaster Doosy passed over a file folder. The large gentleman took the file in his large hand and opened it.
“Does this say ‘Wigpowder-Steele?’” he asked. He was visibly shocked.
“Yes, the Wigpowder-Steele Academy,” replied Headmaster Doosy. “One of the most prestigious schools in our district. It’s two towns over.” He was starting to feel slightly more at ease.
Suddenly, the big man stood up with such force that his chair flew across the floor. He reached over the desk and grabbed hold of the collar of Headmaster Doosy’s shirt, lifting him up so that his feet were dangling in the air.
“You’d better not be messing with me, because I’m a doctor,” he said softly.
Headmaster Doosy did his best to maintain his composure. “I am a friend of many doctors, sir. That doesn’t frighten me.”
“Do these doctors sneak into your room at night and put your arm where your leg is and vice versa?”
“Not to my knowledge, no,” squeaked Headmaster Doosy.
“Then you had better not be messing with me,” repeated the big man, and he dropped Headmaster Doosy back into his chair.
The headmaster sat, shaking with fear and rage. “I have half a mind, sir, to report you to the proper authorities. That is most definitely not the way to treat a headmaster.” His voice cracked. “I’m sure there must be a rule . . . or something. . .” Headmaster Doosy looked around his office as if searching for some sort of book of rules on the correct treatment and care of headmasters.
The large man took off his monocle and wiped it. “I don’t care much for your ‘authorities’, as you call them.” He replaced the monocle, keeping firm eye contact with the headmaster. “I answer to my Captain. And my Captain alone.” He turned his great bulk, inadvertently knocking Headmaster Doosy’s desk lamp off the table. The large man sighed fiercely, picked up the lamp and threw it across the room, where it shattered against a framed photograph of the headmaster shaking hands with the local dog catcher. The large man turned one last time to face the cowering Doosy, then with a slight squint, left the room.
Headmaster Doosy sat, dazed. When it seemed clear the gentleman would not be returning, he quickly turned to the school intercom and spoke. “Good afternoon, this is your headmaster speaking.” His voice shook slightly. “All students with a last name beginning with “‘S’” will have detention for the next two weeks. Thank you.”
Headmaster Doosy sighed and leaned back in his seat. He was starting to feel magnificent and powerful again.
The First Chapter
In which we meet Alex Morningside, her uncle and her year-six teacher
You would be forgiven for thinking Alex Morningside was a boy. In fact she would be the first to laugh at this, because, for one thing, she wasn’t, and for another, she didn’t mind people thinking otherwise. This was because she had an Excellent Sense of Humour. It wasn’t that she wanted to be a boy or anything, it was simply that she didn’t see much difference in being treated as a girl or boy. Because, after all, everyone is just people.
One of the reasons people thought she was a boy was her haircut. Her haircut looked like someone had put a bowl on her head and cut around it. Which is exactly what her uncle had done. Also, they thought she was a boy because her name was Alex. Of course, Alex was short for Alexandra, but neither Alex nor her uncle liked that very much, so they shortened the name. They could have shortened it the other way, I suppose – Andra – but she and her uncle preferred Alex.
Anyway, as you may already have guessed, Alex lived with her uncle. This was because, when she was very young, he had become her legal guardian after Alex’s parents had perished while spelunking in Iceland. Together they lived above his shop. The shop was very special because it was on the side of a bridge. It was also very special because it was very useful. A useful shop is a shop that sells something like fruit and vegetables, because you need fruit and vegetables to stay healthy and therefore they are necessary. Whereas a non-useful shop is a shop that sells things like antiques or jewellery, which are both lovely things, but are definitely not something you need to stay healthy, no matter what people tell you.
Alex’s uncle’s shop was useful because Alex’s uncle sold doorknobs, and what could be more necessary than that? If you didn’t have doorknobs you would find yourself trapped in your own home, or worse, unable to get into your own home, and you’d have to sleep outside on the street. And then your own home itself would become useless. Which would be horrible. At this point in her life Alex could only imagine the horribleness of not having a home to return to. Unfortunately, she would learn all too soon what being without a home was really like.
But back to the doorknobs because there is so much more to tell about doorknobs. For example, your personal favourite kind of doorknob might be brass because you like the smell of brass and the fact that it’s always cold, but Alex’s favourite kind of doorknob was crystal because when the sun shone though it, it would make rainbows. Her uncle had all other kinds of doorknobs as well, though. Some looked like clear glass balls with butterflies trapped in the middle and some were shaped like letters from the alphabet and some were made of fluffy fabric. And because it was a small shop, there was barely any room for all the different types of doorknobs, so it looked rather magnificent, and Alex would always feel very special that she lived with her uncle in his shop.
To be perfectly accurate, Alex didn’t live in the shop, but above it. And even better, she lived in a tiny turret at the very top. And even though it was tiny, Alex just loved her turret and would spend much time up there developing photographs. Alex was a keen photographer – she had been ever since she was really little. She also liked making up stories, though she wasn’t sure if the Alex in her stories was as brave as the Alex in real life. Well, it didn’t matter, because her imagination was her own, and she could do with it whatever she wanted. Except of course when she had to go to school. Which I would like to tell you about. . .
. . .Now.
This school Alex attended was called The Wigpowder- Steele Academy, and it was very prestigious. What made it so prestigious was the fact that it had the word “Academy” in the title and the fact that it was one of those schools you pay to go to. This ensured a Higher Quality of Education and, more importantly, a Higher Quality of Pupil, because if you spend all that money it means that your child is therefore really special. Of course “special” doesn’t always mean “intelligent”, and in this case, as Alex had most definitely concluded after careful research, “special” seemed to mean, simply, “rich”. Anyway, because The Wigpowder-Steele Academy was so prestigious, it had a board of directors who got to meet and discuss things and eat iced pastries around a large wooden table. Alex’s uncle sat on this board. And for this reason, even though she and her uncle wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford it, Alex got to go to Wigpowder-Steele for free.
As much as she enjoyed learning, which she did – a lot – Alex did not enjoy Wigpowder-Steele. She didn’t enjoy wearing a uniform with a skirt. She didn’t enjoy her teachers, who were all very old and smelled funny and didn’t seem to know about any of the developments that had happened in the world in the last thirty years. And she most definitely did not enjoy her peers, who were more concerned with how their hair looked than listening in class, and who were quite simply ridiculous. However, that was OK because her peers didn’t enjoy her much either, and she spent most of her time on her own.
So you can understand why, on her first day back at school, despite her fondness for all things educational, Alex remained ever so slightly anxious.
“So, Alex,” said her uncle as they sat at the kitchen table for breakfast, “are you excited about your first day of school?”
Alex swallowed the bite of breakfast she had been chewing and thought carefully. “Well,” she said, “I am excited to be in year six, and I am excited to learn synchronized swimming. And I definitely can’t wait for maths this year. But I am not looking forward to Mrs Swinsky.”
Her uncle looked up and nodded seriously.
Mrs Swinsky was not only the year-six teacher but the vice president of the board. She was very, very old and she had very, very old-fashioned ideas. For example she was quite fond of the ruler – that is taking a ruler and smacking the hands of her students when they misbehaved. She would even smack the hands of the board members if they misbehaved, but Alex’s uncle had never been smacked because everyone liked him.
“You don’t worry about her, and you just focus on learning,” he said, playing with the tip of his long white beard. “And if she does anything to you, all you have to do is tell me and I’ll talk to her.” He leaned over the small table and with a devilish grin added, “I think she fancies me.”
Alex smiled because it was probably true. She also smiled because her uncle did not exactly look like a movie star. For one thing, he was very old, probably the same age as Mrs Swinsky, but instead of being old-fashioned, he behaved more like a kid. It meant that he liked to play hide-and-seek and tag. It also meant he appreciated really good stories, especially made-up ones. But he was also very well respected by adults. And anyone who ever met him found him Very Interesting because he knew a lot about many different things. He also looked Very Interesting as well. He was very small and skinny with a long white beard and wore tiny spectacles for examining doorknobs. And he always dressed very well in a suit and tie and brown shoes.
“I tell you everything anyway.” Alex smiled, wiped her mouth, said, “Excuse me,” and stood up and left the table to brush her teeth.
Having braces meant Alex needed to brush her teeth often and good dental hygiene was of primary importance to her. For that reason, wherever she went, she always carried her toothbrush with her in a little plastic oblong container to keep it clean. The container was blue and had her name written in thick black marker on it. Alex wondered if maybe it was because she brushed her teeth at school that her peers didn’t much like her. It was quite possible because, after all, they were ridiculous.
Once she finished brushing her teeth, she packed up her rucksack, said goodbye to her uncle and headed off to school. The walk to school was quite pleasant because the town she lived in was quite pleasant. Some people might have called it quaint. Some others might even have called it claustrophobic. Still others would have called it burnt sienna because the houses were all made of reddish brick. In her town there were ten small churches and one large cathedral that was incredibly beautiful. There was one outdoor market for textiles and one for food. There were also three schools and one large department store. On the other side of town was where the rich people lived in terraced houses. And the grandest home of all was up on the hill just beyond that.
It was a giant manor house that had once been privately owned but had been bought by the local authority. This was a Good Thing because instead of the house being destroyed to make a parking lot, it was preserved in its Original Condition. Which meant little old ladies would give guided tours to tourists and school groups through roped-off rooms. And in that manner Alex had already, even at her tender age of ten-and-a-half, visited the place on three occasions.
In no time at all Alex found herself standing in front of the imposing entrance gates that framed the drive up to the school. Wigpowder-Steele was a very impressive looking building made of red brick with a curved tree-lined drive. It was four storeys tall and sixteen windows wide, and written across the front in Latin was Graviora Manent which loosely translated as “Greater Dangers Await”.
This morning, like every other morning at the school, the drive was in chaos. Very posh cars were swerving this way and that, cutting in front of each other and lining up to stop in front of the school, where each would eject a very posh child from the passenger-side seat, all neat and pressed and in uniform. Alex’s uniform was wrinkled. And there isn’t much more to add about that.
She decided to walk on the grass as the drive was quite dangerous, what with all the speeding cars of parents who were not actually late for work but were too important not to think otherwise. Walking on the grass was actually quite rebellious of Alex since there was a sign clearly marked “Do not walk on the grass”, but, as it was the first day of term, everyone was too flustered to notice.
As is so often the case, however, when we think we are doing a harmless thing, it can turn out to be quite the opposite. And in this particular circumstance the grass was entirely the wrong place to be walking. But one could also just as easily point out that it was entirely the wrong place for a bicycle as well. Fortunately, Alex had excellent hearing, and the bicycle had an excellent bell, and the two put together meant that Alex managed to jump out of the way just as the bicycle was about to run her over.
“Oh my goodness! Are you all right?” said the young man riding the bicycle as he skidded to a stop. He jumped off and ran over to her in a panic. He was a thin young man with floppy short brown hair. He was wearing khaki trousers and an argyle-knit sweater and white tennis shoes. And goggles, which would have been more appropriate for riding a motorbike.
“Yes, I’m fine. But you shouldn’t have been riding on the grass,” she replied, catching her breath.
“No, I suppose you’re right. I was just worried about being late for my first day. But it was completely irresponsible of me, and I am so sorry.” And he stuck out his hand for Alex to shake. Alex was quite taken aback by this gesture, being offered a hand like a grownup. But, she reasoned, this could only be a good thing, and she took his hand in hers.
“My name is Alex.”
“My name is Mr Underwood.”
Alex could see herself reflected in his goggles. Her mousy brown hair (which her uncle insisted was ash blonde) was almost covering her eyes, and she could see she would need to ask her uncle for a haircut soon. And then she realized . . . “I’m a girl,” she said because she didn’t want to embarrass him.
“Yes, I know,” he replied, releasing her hand.
“Oh. But how?”
“You’re wearing a skirt.”
“Oh, of course.” She looked down at her grey pleated uniform. “I don’t usually wear a skirt, I just have to for school. Usually I wear trousers, and people think I’m a boy.” Mr Underwood nodded. They stood there quietly for a few seconds.
“Well, Alex, perhaps you could do me a favour. I need to find the year-six class, and, well, I haven’t a clue where that would be.” He looked at the towering building in front of him.
“Why do you need to find the year-six class?” Alex asked suspiciously.
“Well, because that is supposed to be my class.” Just as he said it the loud school bell went, making him jump. He instinctively glanced over his shoulder. Alex followed his gaze.
“What are you looking at?”
“What? Oh, nothing,” replied Mr Underwood, turning back.
“Gosh, you’re paranoid,” said Alex, shaking her head. “It was just the school bell.”
“Well, ah, the fact that you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you,” Mr Underwood pointed out and laughed nervously.
“I guess.” The two of them stood in uncomfortable silence for another moment. Alex saw that she would have to be the one to defuse the awkwardness. “So . . . ah . . . what happened to Mrs Swinsky?”
“Who? Oh, Mrs Swinsky. Yes. I believe she went to Portugal for the summer and never came back.”
“Oh.” Alex thought for a moment. “That’s odd.”
“Yes,” replied Mr Underwood, “I suppose it is.”
Alex shrugged, and started walking towards the school. “Well, let me show you the way,” she said. “Year six is my class.”
“Thank you very much, Alex.” He followed her up into the school, his bike in tow.
Alex smiled to herself. Year six at Wigpowder-Steele was going to be a good one. A little weird, but good.
From Alex and the Ironic Gentleman
. Copyright © 2007 by Adrienne Kress. All rights reserved.