So. About them there crackleberries then…
As usual, if you want to catch up with Granny Battle from the beginning, or just jump in somewhere in the middle, Chapters 1 to 15 can be found here.
There was a loud rattle, and the door was flung open, making Ellis jump. The tiny owl struggled in with a large tray containing a teapot in a jolly knitted cosy with a train pattern on it, three mugs, milk jug, sugar bowl, spoons, and a biscuit barrel. They all watched, holding their breath, as he carefully hopped up a little stepladder by the desk and put down the tray carefully. Then he hopped back down the ladder, bowed politely and scurried out, closing the door quietly behind him. Ellis wondered how he’d managed to open the door with his wings full, but didn’t like to ask.
Mr Fishplate poured, milked, sugared, and handed round the mugs. Then he cleared his throat, turned his head to one side and stared hard at Ellis, who fidgeted uncomfortably under his gaze and felt himself go red.
‘Granny tells me you are rather upset;’ said Mr Fishplate, flicking an imaginary speck of dust from the desk in front of him with the tip of one wing. ‘You feel she has behaved unfairly by hiding the fact from you and your mother these past years that your father is merely lost, not dead.’
Ellis went even redder and mumbled a reply into his mug, the hot steam making his eyes water. He liked Mr Fishplate, but couldn’t squash the feeling that he was sitting in the headmaster’s office about to get a Proper Good Telling Off.
‘It may seem a little harsh,’ Mr Fishplate continued, ‘but believe me: it was Absolutely Necessary. The Undesirables you met earlier couldn’t be allowed to know the truth, and if she’d told you – or your mother – while you were over on the other side, they would have picked up on it immediately.’ He paused and took a slurp of his tea.
Ellis was so locked into feeling like a Very Naughty Boy that he forgot to watch how he managed this with a beak.
Mr Fishplate placed his mug back down on the exact centre of the coaster on his desk, and continued.
‘If that had happened, then everything we’ve been working towards for all these years – and that ‘we‘ includes your father – would have been rendered worthless.’ He leant forwards. ‘Do you understand?’
Ellis didn’t think he had any redness left in him, but he obviously had as felt himself go even redder. He did understand – in fact it seemed rather obvious now Mr Fishplate had spelled it out, and he was starting to feel very silly for loosing his temper. He nodded and mumbled ‘Yessir,’ into his mug.
Mr Fishplate leaned back in his chair, which squeaked. Ian’s ears pricked up briefly in his sleep, and he creaked to himself.
‘You are probably feeling a bit silly for loosing your temper,’ continued Mr Fishplate, and Ellis nodded vigorously, ‘but we understand. You’d had a shock, and you were as yet unaware of many, many things. Now you are aware of a bit more than you were, and you feel silly. It is to be expected. It shows how much you love your father and your mother, because your anger was also on their behalf. That is an admirable quality in one so young, and we are proud of you for that.’
Mr Fishplate reached for his mug, his steady eye still fixed on Ellis, who was looking at him in surprise. He looked over at Granny, who was grinning widely. She raised her mug to him in a salute and took a noisy slurp. Ellis relaxed and gave a little grin of relief.
‘Thank you,’ he said to Mr Fishplate, suddenly feeling rather more grown-up than he’d ever remembered feeling before in his life. And turning to Granny, he said ‘I’m sorry I shouted at you, Granny.’
Granny looked pleased, and a touch embarrassed. ‘Oh, piffle!’ she said, and Ellis could just make out a twinkle in her eye behind the massive glasses, which were steamed up due to the hot tea. ‘Now then,’ she said, taking her glasses off and wiping them squeakily on her cardigan, ‘That’s that all sorted out. Now down to business.’ She returned her glasses to her face and leaning forwards, looked intently at Mr Fishplate. ‘What’s the news Mr Fishplate? Is he still safe?’ she asked.
Ellis held his breath – ‘he‘ could only mean his dad, surely? Mr Fishplate steepled his wing tips together on the desk and looked thoughtful.
‘I think we must assume he is. After all, if they’d found him, I’m sure we would have heard,’ He took his cap off and scratched his head, then smoothed his feathers back into place again. ‘I must admit though, I am becoming increasingly concerned over the condition of his protection. It must surely be wearing a bit thin after all this time.’ He out his cap back on and adjusted it carefully.
Granny nodded thoughtfully. ‘I bought a spare one with me in case of that,’ she said, patting her bag, and Mr Fishplate gave a low screech of satisfaction.
‘A wise move,’ he said, ‘Chuntie Knowe may be giving him additional protection; but on leaving his old one may not be strong enough.’
Ellis couldn’t stand it anymore.
‘His old what? What protection!’ he asked urgently.
Granny reached into her bag and pulled out a bundle of dark cloth. She shook it out and held it up. It was a hooded robe – or a floor length hoodie – similar to the ones The Undesirables had been wearing, except this one was clean and new-looking. It was also a lot smaller than Granny in all directions.
‘Here you go,’ she said, tossing it to Ellis, who caught it in his feet. ‘It’s been soaked in Odour Eater – you know, the stuff I was making from the crackleberries? The stuff you trod in in the kitchen?’
Ellis had reached down to pull the garment off his feet, but recoiled as he remembered the strange, creeping gunk that had explored inside his shoes and around his toes.
‘Oh, don’t be such a big silly,’ said Granny, ‘It won’t hurt you. It’s your protection – those Undesirables have a very keen sense of smell, they can pick us up from miles off. But this’ll mask your smell, and it’ll also let you know if any of them are nearby. That’s what the crackleberries are for.’
‘How can a robe let me know something?’ asked Ellis, gingerly holding up the robe and giving it a tentative sniff. It didn’t smell of anything. In fact, he thought as he sniffed again, it really didn’t smell of anything. It had an anti-smell – a total absence of smell. So total, it made him feel a bit dizzy.
Granny shrugged. ‘It creeps,’ she said, ‘Only a little bit, but enough to let you know.’
Before Ellis could enquire further, a loud bell rang on a large, clock-like contraption on the wall.