The Last School Trip
Gregory, Malcolm and Daniel had the beach to themselves. Actually, they had the whole island to themselves. The whole desert island to themselves.
That's why they were crying.
When Mr Gristle, their headteacher, first suggested a school trip, most people were surprised. School trips had been banished forever a long time ago, for a variety of reasons. There had been questions of cost for a start, and Mr Gristle didn't see why money should be spent on educational visits when his office hadn't been decorated for at least twelve months. Then there was the question of safety: When people were suing the school just because their children failed to return from a trip to the local swamp, well, he wondered if it was worth all the bother. Some of these people even had other children at home, so why were they making such a fuss over him misplacing one or two here and there? Honestly.
Things had changed recently, though. Some idiotic people from the government had been sticking their noses in, telling him he had too many stupid pupils in his school and that he had to spend a lot of money he didn't have to make them less stupid, as if that were possible. He firmly believed in the old saying: some people are born stupid, some have to work hard to achieve stupidity, and some people go straight from school into politics, and start telling everyone else what they can and cannot do. Mr Gristle didn't know who was most stupid: the people in the government, or the people who voted for them in the first place.
That was not the problem facing him, however. He had to find money to pay for extra help for a few ungrateful and usually very naughty children, or he had to get rid of them.
In the old days, of course, he would simply have waited for one of them to spill a drink in the dining room, or forget their PE kit, then permanently exclude them, or have them secretly transferred to another school, one which didn't share his own high standards. Finally he would inform their parents in a letter at the end of term, just before he disappeared to France for a few weeks, making it impossible for them to do anything but accept that he was right and had their best interests at heart. Sadly those days were long-gone and those solutions were closed to him.
That was why he revived the idea of a school trip, and that was why Gregory, Malcolm and Daniel were sitting on a desert island in the middle of nowhere.
Not that they were the most stupid children in the school, and I apologise now for using the word 'stupid' so often: that was just the word Mr Gristle used when describing anyone who didn't agree with his opinion on any subject you cared to mention. Even Gregory, who, like all children, was a valuable and delightful addition to the population of planet earth, could not accurately be described as stupid. He was just different. Maybe a bit slow in some respects, but
gifted in other, as yet undiscovered, areas. Part of Mr Gristle's job was to discover these gifts, to encourage and nurture them, to give Gregory every chance of developing into a happy and productive member of society.
Unfortunately, Mr Gristle's rules on nurturing and encouragement began and ended with shouting, and, where necessary, the bouncing of solid objects off the backs of children's heads. So, when he announced that certain pupils had been chosen for a sailing trip to chart the disappearance of polar bears from the Mediterranean, everyone was surprised. Also puzzled, since polar bears had disappeared from the Mediterranean several million years ago. Gregory found this mildly reassuring, since it greatly reduced his chances of being found responsible in any subsequent trial.
Right now, he would be happy to throw himself on the mercy of a courtroom, because even his poor eyesight could clearly make out the shape of a massive creature crawling from the sea and heading towards the three boys.
At least it was a nice, sunny day. The island was covered in sparkling, spotless sand, and the sea was a perfect shade of turquoise. It was like a photograph from a holiday brochure for very rich people. Apart from the gigantic, eight-legged crocodile standing half in and half out of the water, staring hungrily at the three terrified schoolboys. That was the sort of minor detail they used to leave out of the brochures until some government spoilsport decided to remove all surprises from everybody's summer holiday.
'Well,' Daniel thought to himself as he studied the crocodile's yellow teeth, 'at least we won't starve to death.'
He had noticed that the island was completely barren and knew, even if they somehow managed to catch fish or seagulls with their bare hands, they would still have nothing to drink.
He remembered a lesson they'd had,about different ways to die, in the highly unlikely event of being stranded on a desert island in the middle of nowhere. How they had chortled at the impossible prospect. He himself had been one of the chief chortlers, he remembered sadly.
Anyway, going without air was the quickest way to snuff it, as Mrs Dandruff had put it, though as far as she knew, most desert islands carried a sufficient quantity of air to keep several people alive for months, provided no one was greedy and tried to breathe more than their fair share.
Second came going without water. Mrs Dandruff insisted this was not a problem, because most desert islands were surrounded by acres of water. She also insisted, at different times, that the moon was a star, that the sun moved round the earth, and that melting ice caps were entirely due to Eskimos roasting their sea lions instead of eating them raw as their ancestors did.
Needless to say, most children thought she was talking nonsense, at least until they returned home and found some parents confirming her theories without even checking them in a book or on the internet.
Sunstroke was in there somewhere, Daniel thought, while going without food was quite low down the list. As far as he could remember, though. being devoured by eight-legged crocodiles didn't figure at all.
Malcolm was searching the horizon for the ship that left them there a few hours earlier. Surely, he tried to convince himself, when someone realised they were missing, the ship would turn round and came back. In the meantime, he edged himself to a position where Gregory and Daniel were in between himself and the armour-plated monster on the shore: no point in being eaten first, he figured, only for the others to be rescued before the crocodile came back for seconds.
He pushed to the back of his mind a memory that was nagging at him, telling him this whole situation was his fault, as punishment for something he did a long time ago…
They had been on a family holiday and he was sitting in the back of the car with his little sister. As usual, she was doing her best to annoy him, trying to make him lose his temper so he would get into trouble. That seemed to be all she had done for the past fortnight, if not the past eight years, and Malcolm had lost count of the times he had been shouted at, belted, sent to bed, or suffered a combination of all three, all because his sister was the most infuriating and nasty person ever invented. So, when Mr Eczema started to nod off at the wheel and they stopped so everyone could go to the toilets and stretch their legs, an opportunity for revenge presented itself, and Malcolm would have been a fool not to take advantage.
It wasn't like he planned to leave his sister stranded in the middle of nowhere. A combination of his parents' tiredness and his sister's typical selfishness were chiefly to blame, he honestly believed. When everyone was back in the car Mrs Eczema had drowsily asked if everyone had fastened their seatbelts.
Malcolm had grunted as usual and turned his attention to the comic he had just rescued from a waste basket, since his parents were too mean to buy him one, or they were too busy spending all their money on his sister to stop her complaining and crying all the way home.
When his dad started the car, and his mum didn't repeat her question when Jasmine, his sister, failed to reply, Malcolm looked up and realised his dreams may be about to come true. He felt like someone with a lottery ticket waiting for the last number to be called, knowing he already had the first five correct. His dad released the handbrake and looked right and left before easing the car out of the parking space. Malcolm put his head in the comic, ignoring the stale smell of grease and coffee it had picked up from the garbage, and waited to see if his parents would notice their daughter was not in the car.
As the car gained speed, and his heart pounded faster and faster, he felt a mixture of excitement, fear and guilt. It wasn't his fault nobody noticed Jasmine was missing, and it wasn't his job to check on her every five minutes. And while he would gain the most if she was never seen again, it wasn't as if he had actually done anything to bring this happy prospect about. On the other hand, he knew he would get the blame, because he always did, even when he was innocent.
Like that time she fell off the wall. Okay, she'd asked him to lift her on to the wall and he had done so. Just because he was too busy to get her down again for the next hour or so, and she had foolishly decided to try it herself, how was it his fault if she fell and nearly broke her arm? Or when someone set fire to one of her dolls with a magnifying glass, and he had come to the rescue with a bucket of freezing water he just happened to be carrying past, how was it his fault if Jasmine happened to get a bit wet as well?
To be fair to Malcolm, when he now pictured his sister panicking and on her own, he did feel a few pangs of regret, and think seriously about letting his parents know they were no longer a two-child family. He was picturing his sister being adopted by a someone from a circus, and while he couldn't stop his imagination picturing her eventually being eaten by the lions, he did imagine her being quite happy in her new life without them. However, deep down, he knew what he was doing was very wrong, and that he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't put it right...
So was it his fault, just as he breathed in air to fuel the words he was about to speak, that his mother turned around and screamed, and Mr Eczema slammed on the brakes.
"Malcolm. How could you do such a thing?"
He heard those words endlessly as they travelled home.
They had returned to find Jasmine, distraught and weeping by the wastebasket, to which Mr Eczema returned Malcolm's comic with an angry curse.
"There must be something wrong with you," they kept saying. "You're going to have to see someone."
Malcolm sat in the back, more miserable than he'd ever been, but he did touch Jasmine's hand and whisper he was sorry, and that he wouldn't have let them go any further without her, and it was the truth.
Gregory had seen the crocodile and at first had been as frightened as the others. As usual, however, it had not taken Gregory's attention long to wander away and find something else to think about. First his attention had been drawn to how hot the sand was when it touched his skin instead of his clothes or shoes. Next he considered how fine the sand was, as he let it run through his fingers.
Then his attention drifted back to the crocodile, noting that it had moved a foot or two closer to the boys and away from the water's edge. Then he followed the water's edge until he saw something bobbing about on the waves, trying to throw itself onto the shore but being repeatedly pulled back into the water, just when it seemed to have gained a toehold.
It was a bottle, and Gregory decided to go and give it a helping hand.
At first the other boys didn't notice Gregory standing up and wandering away, but when the crocodile moved its head to follow him with its eyes, they turned also, just in time to see him pluck the bottle from the sea.
"What is he doing now?" Daniel asked, as though Gregory had been finding odd things to do ever since they'd been stranded. Malcolm didn't really care. He was too busy being frustrated: if they weren't on a tiny island, Gregory's behaviour would have been enough to distract the crocodile while he and Daniel found somewhere to hide. As it was, the only place for Malcolm to hide was behind Daniel, so Gregory's antics were a complete waste of time.
"Throw it at the crocodile," Daniel shouted to Gregory.
Gregory looked at him as if he'd gone ADHD.
"You mad?" he asked him. "This could be worth a fortune." Daniel rolled his eyeballs.
"And when the crocodile's killed us, that will help us how?" he wanted to know.
Gregory pushed his glasses back up his nose and gave it some thought. He had to admit Daniel had a point.
Malcolm had an idea.
"Break the bottle and stick a sharp bit in its eye," he suggested.
Gregory looked around for something to break the bottle,
but all he found was very soft sand and Malcolm's head.
"Ow! You idiot," Malcolm complained when Gregory
tapped him on the head with the bottle to test how much force he might need.
"Shurrup you two," Daniel commanded. "You won't get near enough to stab it in the eye, even if you do manage to break it," he told them. "We need a proper plan."
They looked at the crocodile closely, trying to find a weak spot.
There wasn't one. The beast was enormous, about twenty feet long. Its hide looked impenetrably thick and its tail powerful and heavy as a tree trunk. Worst of all were its awesome jaws, open and inviting, with rows of teeth and an almost pure white tongue, fat and hungry, beckoning them to step inside.
The boys, quite wisely, rejected this kind offer. The crocodile responded by taking eight steps forward - one for each foot, obviously, otherwise it would have been on top of them and the story would end here, with bones and blood all over the place…
When the crocodile took its eight steps forward, the boys screamed and hugged each other. Or maybe they were all trying to hide behind the person next to them. Anyway, when the crocodile hesitated and the boys calmed down slightly, Gregory found his attention wandering again, back towards the bottle.
"Maybe there's a genie inside this bottle," he said, and started to rub it against his shirt.
"And maybe Martians will beam down from space and save us," Malcolm said, not thinking to clarify where else Martians might beam down from. This may well, under different circumstances, have provoked an interesting and lengthy discussion, but before anyone could speak, a terrific explosion and flash of light left everyone, including the crocodile, dizzy and half-blind.
When the smoke cleared, the three boys saw they had been joined not by Martians, but by a muscular Genie, at least seven feet tall, complete with turban.
"You have released me from my bottle," he announced, "therefore I am contractually bound to grant you three wishes, with no added sugar or artificial flavours."
The boys were overjoyed, as you can well imagine, but the same could not be said of the crocodile. It stamped its feet and snarled to the best of its limited ability, but the Genie raised a hand and glared into its pitiless eyes.
"Stay yourself," he ordered. "If these baboons choose unwisely, you will have your evening meal," he promised. "Until that time, remain at your distance."
"Excuse me," Daniel spoke nervously. "Do we have three wishes each, or is it three wishes between us."
The Genie glowered at them. "Three wishes," he boomed. "Didst thou not hear me the first time? Muppet!"
Gregory opened his mouth but Malcolm and Daniel, very wisely, pushed him to the floor and pinned him down.
"Don't speak," Daniel told him, covering his mouth with his hand. "We've got to be really careful what we say."
Malcolm agreed. "Yes," he said. "They try and trick you into saying something stupid, and before you know it, your wishes are gone."
The Genie was offended. "This is not a pantomime, you pigs. I care not what you wish for, just that thee gets a move on."
"Sorry," Daniel said, but kept his hand over Gregory's mouth before he wished for something incredibly stupid, like an ice cream. "Listen," he said to Malcolm. "You go first, and wish to be back at home. Okay?"
Malcolm didn't wait to be told twice. "Right, Mr Genie," he said. "I wish I was back at home…"
Before he could add "…and my sister has gone to live in New Zealand," there was another thunderous flash, and he was gone.
"Yes!" Daniel was ecstatic. Before he made his wish, he spoke to Gregory. "Right, we've got two wishes left. I'm going to wish that I was back at home, then when I've gone, it'll be your turn, okay?"
Gregory peered back up at him and tried to speak, but Daniel was taking no chances and kept his hand firmly over Gregory's mouth.
"Okay?" he asked him again. Gregory nodded frantically.
"Ymmmn," he said. "Urkurm."
Daniel nodded then looked up at the Genie. "I wish I was back home with my family…"
Before he could add, "…with a million pounds," there was another thunderous flash, and he was gone.
Gregory climbed unsteadily to his feet. He pushed his steamed-up glasses back up his nose and blinked around.
The Genie was standing impatiently to one side while the crocodile stood by the edge of the sea, furious to see the meal he had been looking forward to so much being snatched away from under his very snout.
"Well," said the Genie. "What is your command?"
Gregory looked up at him, then around his deserted island. Suddenly he felt very alone and very afraid. He felt tears beginning to gather behind his eyeballs, and his knees beginning to shake.
"Speak," the Genie barked at him. "Or forever hold thy peace."
"I wish," Gregory began in a trembling voice.
"Yes?" said the Genie.
"I, er, I wer wer wish…" Gregory stammered.
"What is it?" The Genie was growing more impatient by the second, which wasn't helping Gregory's brain at all. It was bad enough when Mrs Dandruff was standing over him with a hefty club, but even she couldn't compete with a Genie and a hungry crocodile.
"Hurry UP!" Now the Genie was screaming at him and Gregory burst into tears, his brains completely scrambled.
"I wish," he blurted, "I wish…I wish…"
"What?" screamed the Genie. "What do you wish?"
"I wish my friends were still here!" Gregory shouted back.
And in a flash, they were.