S08 OH, ALICE, ALICE, ALICE!*

Hi. My name’s James Rodger, but everybody except my mum and dad and Sherlock Holmes calls me Jam. If you’ve read the bit before Nemmacbeth, you can skip the stuff in the brackets, because it’s the same.

(A few weeks ago, I was just an ordinary boy, at school in a place called Milton Avon, near Edinburgh. Then I kind-of accidentally got a thing called an incorporator. It looks like a fat, dark grey e-book reader, but it can take me to any (old) story. Yes: I’m actually in the story, seeing the places, and meeting the people.

The incorporator was invented by a guy called Professor X. Unfortunately, crooks got hold of incorporators, and they go to stories, trying to spoil them, maybe by nobbling the hero. They’re called Wreckers.

Sherlock Holmes is chief of the Guardians, who try to stop the Wreckers. I wangled a job as a junior Guardian, mainly for children’s books.)

Somebody had made an unauthorised visit to a story called Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Professor X thought a Wrecker might be hoping to persuade a boy in the school, a bully called Flashman, to cause trouble in other stories.

Sherlock Holmes was in one of his don’t-trust-Jam moods, but Professor X insisted that I should investigate, since it was a boys’ school.

I met Tom Brown, and kind-of accidentally hid in Flashman’s study, where I overheard him plotting with the Wrecker to make trouble for a girl called Alice. I got a look at his incorporator, which listed Alice in Wonderland, The Children of the New Forest, and The Story of the Treasure Seekers. I thought the Alice trouble would be in Alice in Wonderland, but Sherlock Holmes said there were Alices in all three stories. I certainly had Alice trouble in all three, as I tried to keep the Alices out of the clutches of a pursuing Wrecker.

 

1

I think Professor X invented the incorporator. It looks like a small grey e-book reader, but it can take you to any place in any (old) story. You are actually in the story: you can meet the people, and explore the places.

Some people visit stories, wanting to spoil them. They’re called Wreckers. Sherlock Holmes is the leader of the Guardians, who try to stop the Wreckers. I wangled a job as a Guardian by suggesting they should have a boy to work in children’s books.

My name is James Rodger, but my mates call me Jam. I mustn’t tell Mum and Dad I’m a Guardian, because I’ve sworn to keep the incorporators secret.

 

2

Sitting at my desk, I checked my bedside clock. 5.00. Should I do my maths homework, or have half an hour on the computer before tea? If I…. Sherlock Holmes appeared, sitting on the bed. That made me forget maths homework, and even the computer.

He said, “James, I have been asked to offer you a mission. Give me your incorporator.”

I dug it from the darkest corner of the wardrobe. Sherlock Holmes set it, and gave it to me. The display on the screen read:

Title: Tom Brown’s Schooldays
Author: Thomas Hughes
Edition: 1995
Page: 157.

Sherlock Holmes said, “Professor X believes that a Wrecker intends to visit that story, perhaps to recruit a character called Flashman.”

I felt a tingle of excitement. “D’you want me to take a look?”

He frowned. “Speaking for myself, I do not want you to go near that story. However, it is set in a boys’ school, so Professor X suggested that you might be sent. Do you wish to go?”

“Yeah. I’ll give it a try.”

“Your instructions are simple. Check that story. Look for evidence that the Wreckers have recruited Flashman. That is all. Can I trust you to do that properly? I would prefer to send someone else. You take foolish risks.”

“That’s not fair. My other missions have been successful.”

“Only after you have given me great anxiety. I have asked Nicholas Nickleby if he would help. He might accompany you, and guide you. That would ease my mind.”

“No. Two strangers would make the people in the story suspicious, especially that character. What’s his name? Flashman.”

“Nicholas Nickleby has worked in a boys’ school. He would not arouse suspicion.”

“No. Don’t bother him. Leave it to me.”

“If you are certain….”

“Yeah. I’ll do it.”

He sighed. “If you insist. Please take great care. Try to think before you act – if that is possible. Make your visit brief. If you have not returned in two hours, I shall send someone to find you.”

“Thanks.” What would I find in Tom Brown’s Schooldays? I held the incorporator tight, took a deep breath, and pressed Go.

 

3

No flash. No bang. One moment I was sitting at my desk in my room: next moment, I was standing in a long, gloomy room. A dining hall? Two long tables sat along the room, with benches on each side of them. A row of high windows showed a grey winter sky, but most of the light came from two huge fireplaces, in the wall opposite the windows. Two big armchairs faced each fire.

The incorporator always gives gear to suit the story. What kind of story was this? I was dressed like a butler, or a penguin, with a white shirt, black jacket and trousers, and shiny black shoes. If this was a school, was I a pupil or a servant?

Nobody was in sight: the incorporator won’t let you appear or disappear in front of anyone who doesn’t know about it. I set the incorporator for the ‘story’ that would take me home, and slipped it in my right-hand trouser pocket. Who was I looking for? A guy called Flashman. How could I…?

“Hello, hello. Who might you be?” A boy appeared from the gloom at one end of the room. He looked a bit bigger than me – maybe fifteen or sixteen – and was handsome in a film-starry kind of way, with a round, smiling face, and dark, curly hair. His gear was the same as mine.

“I’m James,” I said. “James Rodger. I’m new here.”

“Welcome to Rugby, Rodger,” said the boy. “Would you like me to show you some of the customs of the school?”

Was it the way he said it, or the gleam in his eyes? I didn’t trust him, but I said, “Er… thank you.”

“Sir,” he prompted.

I hesitated. I’d hate to call him, ‘Sir’, but I didn’t want to fall out with him – partly because he was bigger than me, and partly because I didn’t want to get mixed up in any trouble: it might spoil my chances of finding Flashman.

“Sir,” he said, louder.

“Sir,” I said.

“That’s better,” he said. “Fetch my hat.”

“Eh?”

“You heard me. It’s the custom here for kids to fag. That means to serve the senior men.” He moved nearer, and grinned down at me. “I told you: fetch my hat.”

“But… I… I don’t know where it is.”

“Are you refusing me? It’s time you learned that fags must do as they are told.” He grabbed my arm, and twisted it up my back.

“Ow! I…. Ow! I… I didn’t….”

“Flashman! Stop that!” A boy stood up from one of the chairs, where we hadn’t seen him. He looked a bit younger than me, with the usual gear.

The bully was Flashman! I hadn’t taken long to find him, or, to be more accurate, he hadn’t taken long to find me.

His hold relaxed as he said, “Ah! It’s young Brown. You had better not teach this new fag your rebellious ways.”

“You’re a big bully, Flashman,” said Brown. “You wouldn’t do that if the Doctor was here.”

Flashman’s teeth gleamed in the firelight. “The Doctor is not here. So what is going to stop me?”

“Try this!” Brown threw a thick book. It hit Flashman in the face.

“You young villain!” Flashman let go of me, and went for Brown. I stuck out a foot. He tripped over it, and sprawled on the stone floor.

“Move, Rodger!” Brown ran.

I took my first step – on the shoulders of Flashman, who was starting to get up. With an “Oof!” and a bump as his face hit the floor, he went flat again.

I followed Brown at a run through double doors into a dim passage with two doors on each side, and a big one in the other end. He pulled open the first door on the right, dragged me through into darkness, and pulled the door shut. It must’ve been a cupboard: it was dark, with a soapy smell, and we were squeezed together, with something digging in my back.