‘He gets it from his parents,’ was what his guardian – Aunt David Morrisey – would say. ‘It’s their fault, saddling him with such a ridiculous moniker. What kind of a name for a boy is Benjamin?’
As a schoolboy, Benjamin was haunted by haunting images of Julian Sands, haunting him during class. Once, during assembly, he leapt to his feet and relayed a terrible prophecy that ‘the death of narrative cinema is at hand!’
He also developed a taste for something called ‘skiffle music’.
‘Wittertainer, Ben,’ said Pentagle, bits of the hamburger he was eating spilling out of his mouth. ‘The males are called wittertainers. The females are called lindablairs.’
It had been just six hours since Pentagle had plucked him out of class and revealed to him the truth – that he, Benjamin Sniddlegrass, was really a wittertainer, descendant of an ancient tribe of sorcerers, mystics and BBC radio personalities. It was just starting to sink in.
‘Even if I am a wittertainer, how does that explain the visions I’ve been having?’
Pentagle frowned, his wild Sam Elliot-style tache and purple zoot-suit clashing with the dingy speedboat they were travelling in.
‘They’re not visions, Ben,’ he explained. ‘They’re premonitions – of events yet to come! Events so terrible that they could lead to the death of narrative cinema!’
‘I had a prophecy about that very thing you just said then,’ said Ben, ungrammatically.
He looked out at the forbidding island looming in front of them.
‘Is that Warthog Island?’ Ben asked.
Pentangle had told him of the land, impossible to locate by mortals – even with Google maps.
‘That it be,’ the older man confirmed. ‘Home to the great Fairport Academy, where you shall receive your instruction in wittertaining. First will be your initiation. Every year, the staff and pupils come together for a special gathering we call: the Fairport Assembly.’
Ben thought about all the revelations of the day. He had so many unanswered questions: How had his parents really died? What would come of his terrible prophecies? Was that an Omega watch Pentangle was wearing?
‘It’s a Timex,’ the older man answered, reading Ben’s mind. ‘All I can afford on a BBC salary.’
‘One thing’s been bothering me, Pentangle.’
‘Ask away, lad.’
‘Well, you and I are the only people here, right.’
Ben’s brow furrowed. ‘Then who’s driving the boat?’
‘Don’t ask stupid questions,’ Pentangle replied tersely.
‘You know what you need,’ said Ikea, pouting, as they sat in study hall together.
‘No, girls, I don’t know,’ Ben replied.
‘You need a new bass!’ shouted Erma.
‘I do?’ Ben asked.
‘Of course you do,’ Ikea told him.
Erma nodded in agreement. ‘You can’t keep playing that ratty old thing you found in the broom cupboard!’
‘But where can I buy a double bass on Warthog Island?’
‘M&S, of course!’ the sisters cried in two-part harmony.
‘Marks and Spencer?’ Sniddlegrass queried.
Erma kneed him in the gut, playfully. ‘No, silly – Marks and Simons!’
A little while later, after the news and traffic report, the three students found themselves wandering through the doors of Warthog Island’s largest bass emporium. A natty jukebox stood in the corner of the shop, pumping out Elkie Brooks tunes, while Mr Marks and Mr Simons stood behind the counter, surveying their domain.
As the new arrivals passed into the shop, Mr. Marks stuck his hand out to greet them. He was immaculately attired in a black suit, with black shirt, black tie, black shoes, black socks, black cufflinks and a black Fez perched atop his head.
‘Can you I help you, ladies and gentlemen?’ he inquired. ‘Are you looking for a bass today?’
‘Isn’t that all you sell?’ asked Ben, quizzically.
‘Not at all,’ Marks responded excitedly. ‘We also sell many items of magical property: Bay-Away Spray, a DVD cleaning liquid; the Kermodrifier, which can alter your voice to sound like any celebrity you choose; and ImmersoVision Specs – special glasses that allow you watch films in two dimensions, even if they were originally made in three!’
‘But why would you-‘ Benjamin began.
‘Just go with it,’ Mr. Simons whispered into Ben’s ear.
‘What was that?’ Mr. Marks asked tetchily.
The shop owners stared at each other fiercely.
‘You’re always like this with new customers’ said Mr. Simons. ‘Ranting on about your harebrained theories and crackpot inventions.’
‘Here we go again!’ Mr. Marks responded. ‘You’re just jealous because I have a real doctorate, and yours is just honorary!’
‘Jealous?!’ Mr. Simons exclaimed. ‘You have a PhD in ‘Slade In Flames’ studies!’
Professor Bacon’s real job was maintaining the Blue Peter Garden, but he had been filling in as headmaster - ever since the previous one left to run the Chris Evans Driving School.
‘Well, well young Sniddlegrass,’ he smiled, ‘aren’t you the inquiring mind. The Cauldron of Penguins-‘ (Ben adjusted the capitalisation in his head) ‘- is one of the great unanswered questions of wittertainment lore. You know, like ‘How long is a piece of string’ and ‘What kind of grown man goes around calling himself McG?’ How many penguins can you fit in a cauldron? No one knows! But why do you ask?’
Ben handed him the note. He’d found it stuck under his pillow when he awoke that morning. It was scrawled in a semi-legible hand.
‘Dear Sniddlegrass,’ the Professor read. ‘If you value your life, you must solve the riddle of the Cauldron of Penguins before it’s too late.’
He furrowed his brow. ‘Oh dear, that doesn’t sound good.’
Ben stared at his with mild incredulity. ‘Professor, it sounds like my life’s in danger! What should I do?’
The Professor considered this for a moment. ‘Well, young man, I know what I would do if I suspected I could be murdered at any moment.’
Ben looked at him hopefully. The Professor reached into a desk draw marked ‘POTIONS, POISIONS, MISC.’ and took out a… DVD. He handed the case to his bemused pupil.
‘Of Time and the City,’ Bacon explained. ‘Cracking good film. If you see one movie before you die, see this one.’
Ben read from the blurb on the back of the case: ‘A depressing black and white documentary about Liverpool.’
Bacon rose from his chair and moved to usher the be-quiffed youngster out of the room. ‘Now, leave me in peace. I want to be alone with my Comsat Angles albums.’
‘But Professor,’ Ben protested, ‘my life is in danger!’
‘Who do you think I am? Batman? Now, bugger off out of my office!’
‘So tell us, Ben,’ said Pentangle. ‘How did you escape?’
Erma Dodge chimed in. ‘We all thought you were done for after evil Lord Emmerich banished you to Development Hell!’
Ben smiled at the assembled crowd. ‘It was quite simple, really. All it took was for me to answer the riddle of the Cauldron of Penguins. Then the demon gatekeeper had no choice but to send me back to Warthog Island and reverse Emmerich’s hex on Fairport.’
‘But that’s amazing, Ben!’ said School Matron Michael Sheen in admiration. ‘The riddle’s meant to be impossible to solve.’
‘How did you do it, Sniddlegrass?’ Stephen Fry asked eagerly.
‘That’s not important, friends,’ declared Ben. ‘What’s important is finding Lord Emmerich. He’s still out there, and he may very well strike again. When he does, we must be ready!’
‘And movie of the week?’
Ben thought for a moment. ‘Of Time and the City’.
‘Told you so!’ piped up Professor Bacon, from the back of the room.