Read Matty and Bill for Keeps Online

Authors: Elizabeth Fensham

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Matty and Bill for Keeps

Elizabeth Fensham lives in Victoria's Dandenong Ranges. She is married and has two adult sons.
Elizabeth has been writing in earn
est for the last twenty years. Her first novel
The Helicopter Man
won the CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 2006. Previous young adult novels include
The Invisible Hero
,
Miss McAllister's Ghost
and
Goodbye Jamie Boyd
.
Matty Forever
, the first book in this series, was shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 2009. The companion
Bill Rules
was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards in 2011.

Also by Elizabeth Fensham

The Invisible Hero

Goodbye Jamie Boyd

Miss McAllister's Ghost

Helicopter Man

Matty Forever

Bill Rules

For Aunty Lila Kirby

and

Molly Giles-Kaye

Matty and Bill were wrestling with the crocodile. It was thrashing about, nudging them with its nose and flicking its black tail so that droplets of water sprayed all around. With a cunning writhe of its body, both Mat and Bill lost their grip and the crocodile leapt from the bath.

‘Uncle Len!' shouted Mat. ‘Come back here!'

But the Grubs' large, bedraggled dog made a beeline for the side of the verandah and disappeared into the darkness under the house.

‘He's sick of our Crocodile Hunter game,' said Bill, flicking leaves and bits of fur from the dirty, doggy bathwater.

‘He wasn't to start with,' said Mat. ‘He was grinning like he always does when he's having fun.'

‘Well, we might want the game to go on and on, but Uncle Len can't be expected to understand about heroes.'

‘You're right,' said Mat. ‘Besides, we're into respecting the rights of all living creatures, so we need to accept that Uncle Len has had enough fun for today. It's sort of like Actors' Equity.'

‘Actors' what?' asked Bill.

‘Equity,' said Mat. ‘It's a union for actors. You know, rules and regulations to protect actors from getting overworked, tired out and underpaid.'

‘How do you know all about that stuff?'

‘Just do.'

Bill shrugged and looked at the bathwater. ‘It's Monday tomorrow and it's going to be hot like today. Wish there was a union to protect kids from having to go to school when they don't want to.'

‘There is, sort of.'

‘You're kidding!'

‘I kid thee not,' said Mat. ‘I happen to know that in Victoria, if the weather looks like it's going to be really hot and a high fire risk, then schools in the bush like ours have to let kids stay home.'

‘Are you for real, Mat?' quizzed Bill. ‘This isn't one of your dreamed-up things?'

Mat crossed her heart. ‘It's called a Code Red day. Scout's honour,' she said, and then her mouth twitched with a smile, ‘or should I say, “Guide's honour”?'

Bill grinned and splashed water in Mat's face. ‘I'll stick with
Scout's
, thanks very much.'

‘Fair enough,' giggled Mat and splashed him back. ‘Anyway, the verandah thermometer only got to thirty degrees today. I don't like our chances of having a heatwave at this time of year.'

‘Yeah,' agreed Bill, ‘the really boiling weather is usually after Christmas. November is usually hot, but nothing over the top. Anyway, I wouldn't want people in danger just so you and I can have a day off school.'

‘Too right,' said Mat. ‘Anyway, this term there's important stuff on that you wouldn't want to miss.'

‘Like?'

‘Like the Hills Inter-Primary Extravaganza.'

‘Oh, that,' said Bill. ‘That has nothing to do with me.'

‘Well, I'm auditioning,' said Mat. ‘It's only open to Grades Five and Six. I've been waiting for years and years to be in it. Mrs Facey said first auditions begin in a week's time and she wants Dewey Creek Primary to play a big role.'

‘And my bit,' said Bill firmly, ‘will be to sit in the audience and cheer you on.'

That was the end of the conversation for two reasons. Firstly, Mat knew she didn't stand a chance of convincing Bill to take a part in a singing and dancing stage show performed for a huge audience from all the Hills' communities. A fluttering of excitement rose in Mat's chest. Each year, she and her family had watched hand-picked kids perform in the Extravaganza – talented children from the surrounding townships that nestled in the valleys or perched on the hillsides. Mat would be over the moon if she was chosen, but she accepted that Bill would be no more than a cheerleader.

The second reason the conversation came to an end was that Mat's mum, Tessa, stood at the verandah railing and called down to the kids as they lazed in the bath, ‘Nan's making pancakes and Dad is letting us have the first of this season's strawberries to—'

She didn't get to finish her sentence because Bill and Mat jumped out of the bath, wrung out their soggy T-shirts and shorts, bounded up the verandah steps and ran into the house.

Bill's mum, Pam, was there in the Grubs' all-purpose kitchen and family room.

‘I've had a go at making ice-cream in my new ice-cream maker,' said Pam, holding out a large container for their inspection. Bill hugged her and so did Mat.

‘A feast!' cried Mat.

‘Fit for kings!' added Mat's big brother, Tom, as he swept aside newspapers, books, pencils, paints, jam jars, telephone messages on scraps of paper and letters to make space on the long table for the pancake party. Bill and Mat helped him put out forks, spoons, plates and paper napkins. Next they laid out a blue china bowl of ruby-red strawberries, a bottle of golden-brown maple syrup and Pam's container of ice-cream.

Mat, Bill, Pam, Tessa, Tom and Donald (Mat's dad) sat down at the table. The smell of buttery, frying pancakes was almost unbearably delicious. Nan stood at the stove pouring her batter into the frying pan, expertly flipping the pancakes and stacking them onto a growing pile. After a long few minutes, she carried the plate of pancakes across to the table. This was followed by a whirl of plate passing and the serving of ice-cream, strawberries and maple syrup. Finally, everyone around the table called out their thankyous to the cooks and to Donald, the strawberry grower. Nan looked upwards towards Heaven and said, ‘And a big thankyou up there!' Then Tom yelled, ‘Two, four, six, eight. Bog in. Don't wait!'

As he ate, Bill looked happily around the table. Everyone there was incredibly important to him. But his dad was missing. Bill's heart pinched. This happened from time to time. He'd be enjoying himself and then he'd think of his dad away up in Sydney. Squeeze. Pinch. It was like a dark cloud scudding across the sun. Nothing could be absolutely perfect unless Bill's little family of three were all together again.

Still, Bill's dad was doing well with his computer studies. And that was a miracle considering the criminal direction Troy O'Connell had been taking. The dark clouds in Bill's life had been much, much worse then. And thanks to the film night fundraiser that Mat and he had held in this very same room just two weeks ago, his mum, Pam, would soon be flying north to spend a few days with his dad.

At that moment, Uncle Len (damp and now dusty from his hiding place under the house) walked through the open verandah doors. He padded up to Bill, sat on his haunches and laid his heavy head on Bill's knee. Uncle Len's deep brown eyes gazed lovingly into Bill's blue eyes. It was as if he was telling Bill,
I know you're feeling a bit down. Just try
thinking of something else instead
. So Bill thought,
I hope something interesting happens at school tomorrow.

The new boy was the strangest-looking kid Bill had ever seen. He was short, had curly red hair and the whitest of white skin – like bread dough. He wore a neatly ironed shirt tucked into shorts that were very short, and long socks under open-toed sandals. The strangest thing of all was that this boy didn't look the slightest bit shy. While all eyes of the class were inspecting him in silence, he seemed to be inspecting them right back.

The boy stood at the front of the Grade Six class while Mrs Townsend introduced him.

‘Everyone, I'd like you to welcome Crispin de Floriette. Crispin has come many miles from across the world and is in Australia for just a few weeks.' Mrs Townsend paused and smiled. ‘I'd like our school to make Crispin feel at home so that he can take lots of happy memories back to England with him.'

Crispin? What sort of a name is that?
thought Bill. He'd grown perfectly used to Mat's name – Matilda Grub. But
Crispin
was something else again.

Mrs Townsend invited the new kid to speak to the class and tell them about himself.

‘Good morning, everybody,' said Crispin. ‘Thank you for your kind introduction, Mrs Townsend. It's a great pleasure to be here and I'm looking forward to getting to know you all.'

Crispin's voice was clear, high and sweet.
Like a girl
, thought Bill. It reminded him of the sound Nan's best crystal made when, at special family dinners, Mat, Tom and Bill would play orchestras. They would fill the glasses to different levels with water and then they'd lightly tap them with forks. Each glass would ring out with a different bell-like note. Now a voice like this was okay for Christmas choir music, but it might not go down well at Dewey Creek Primary.

Bill already felt a bit sorry and afraid for Crispin de Floriette. He was going to cop it. How could this pint-sized, red-headed guy with such a weird name and a girly voice survive? Bill gazed about the classroom. The boys looked suspicious. A handful of girls seemed as perplexed and curious as Bill was feeling. The remaining girls, particularly Isabelle Farquay-Jones, wore scornful and dangerous expressions. And did the kid have to sound so formal? Crispin's way of speaking made him sound like an old, grey-haired guest of honour at a school awards night.

Bill stared at Crispin's pale knees. He didn't want to look at his bright, hopeful face because he knew that sooner or later, probably sooner, Crispin was going to be mincemeat. He heard Crispin continue, ‘Rather than bore you with an autobiographical monologue, I thought you might like to ask me some questions.'

Autobiographical monologue? What on earth?
thought Bill.

Shane Storey called out, ‘Do you live in the city or the bush?'

‘The countryside.'

‘Do you live in a stone house?' asked Isabelle.

‘Actually, I do. But it's not a house; it's a tower. The remaining part of a ruined medieval castle.'

‘You mean like knights in armour sort of thing?' another girl called out.

‘Precisely,' said Crispin.

‘Are you for real?' someone called.

‘Absolutely. My family live on my uncle, Peregrine de Floriette, Earl of Greenthorpe's estate. In a manner of speaking, we're the
poor
relatives. My parents have renovated the tower.'

More questions began to rain down from all over the class.

‘What's an earl?'

‘A nobleman who in the olden days was supposed to serve the king.'

‘Do you have to call your uncle by that big long name?'

‘No, he's Uncle Perry to the family. Lord Greenthorpe to other people.'

‘How many kids in your family?'

‘Four.'

‘Where are the others?'

‘Boarding school for the older two and my little sister stayed back with our cousins' nanny.'

‘How come you're here?'

‘Because I don't go to boarding school until halfway through next year, and my mother and father wanted to see a bit of Australia. So rather than travel around with them, I'm staying with my great-aunt who lives near here. My parents thought it would be educational for me to experience Australian culture.'

Muffled titters rolled round the room.

‘Where do you go to school in England?'

‘I don't. I study at home with my cousins.'

‘Who teaches you?'

‘We have a governess who takes us for maths, literature, spelling, grammar and so forth. Other people also help out. Uncle Perry is a writer of historical fiction, so he takes us for history and writing. A retired professor who lives in the village teaches us Latin and botany. We learn graphics and art from Mother who is a book illustrator. We also have students come to stay from France and Spain, so we learn French and Spanish. And we're taught science by Daddy because—'

A roar of laughter rocked the room and stopped Crispin from finishing his sentence. Bill wished he could have met Crispin before he'd walked into the room. He would have given him a quick lesson in how to speak and how to dress. The boy needed a makeover. But Crispin looked confused rather than shaken.

‘What have I said?'

‘
Dadd
y
!
' roared various voices from across the class.

The laughter grew in volume.

Mrs Townsend stepped in. ‘I'm sure you have many more questions to ask Crispin, but they'll have to keep until recess. Maths books open to page thirty-seven.'

Groans and sighs quenched the laughter.

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