The Challenge That is Tony

by Pedro

Ebrich Full

Late March, Year Eleven.

"…So now you know why they say 'God made the world and the Dutch made Holland'."

Miss Rutherford has been telling us about the geography of the country. She has explained that after a number of devastating storms in the North Sea in the thirteenth century, a large area became permanently flooded, which came to be known at the Zuider Zee, or South Sea. Over the centuries the Dutch built polders to reclaim areas of land culminating in the construction in 1932 of a 32km long dam and causeway to keep the North Sea at bay. Part of the resulting lake has been drained, to create the Province of Flevoland, increasing the land area of the country by around 5%."

When the ripple of amusement caused by her comment has died down, Miss Rutherford continues.

"Of course the Dutch are considering how to react to the expected sea level changes due to climate change. In addition to the obvious measures of higher and wider dykes and increased pumping capacity, there is talk of a massive engineering project to create an outer dam and barrier lake for the rivers to flow into before they drain into the sea. Again, pumping would be needed long term.

"A more radical proposal, and one that may need to be adopted in the longer term, is the development of salt-tolerant agriculture, elevated and floating housing, and moving essential facilities to higher parts of the country."

We know Miss Rutherford is nearing the end of the lesson when she asks if there are any questions. Mel puts her hand up.

"How does the UK compare, Miss?" she asks.

"Historically, there were several places where drainage schemes were run under the auspices of the religious houses, but many of these fell into disrepair after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. So, for example, the Bedford New River, draining part of the Fens, was not cut until the mid 1600's. Under the supervision of a Dutch engineer."

"I meant future flooding and are we prepared, Miss?" Mel interjects when the teacher pauses.

"Any low lying land is at risk especially that surrounding river estuaries. Such as the Humber potentially flooding into the land around Doncaster and York, the Wash expanding into the Fens, possibly as far as Peterborough and the A1, cutting the road to London, which will be flooded by the Thames…"

"No great loss!" I hear from somewhere behind me. I recognise the voice. So does Miss Rutherford.

"…Thank you, Donny! Also flooded will be parts of Cheshire and West Lancashire, not forgetting the Somerset Levels.

"As for preparedness? I don't want to get political. Let's just say this country doesn't do forward planning and the management of infrastructure projects very well."

There are no further questions, so the teacher starts to wrap up the lesson.

"We have now covered the syllabus for this term, so for homework for next week bear in mind the date, and that it will the last day before the Easter break." While she talks, she writes something on the board, which I copy down, although I don't see its relevance to what she is saying. "I would like you to prepare something that can be read out to entertain us, please. It must be connected to what we have discussed today, however obliquely."

I know we don't ever get much work done on the last day of term, but what's all that about?

Tony has had to go straight home after school so I have to do my homework on my own. Usually, he comes to my house and we do it together. It allows us to bounce ideas off each other and, importantly, make sure we —mostly me — have properly understood the concepts behind the work we have been set.

Because I am not sure of what Miss Rutherford is asking us to do, I leave it to last. I pick up the notes I made in her class just as Dad arrives home. I must look confused when he pops his head round the door to see what I am up to.

"You look as though you're struggling, lad. What's the problem?"

"It's Miss Rutherford's homework. I don't really understand what she wants."

"You don't usually have problems with her. What were you talking about in class and what has she asked you to do?"

I explain that she had been discussing the economic and physical geography of Holland.

"She said we had to write something to be read out next week. It has to be entertaining but only needs to be vaguely related to today's lesson. She put something on the board. I wrote it down but can't see the relevance."

Dad walks over and stands where he can read my notes over my shoulder. "Show me," he says.

I point to the place on the paper.

"Is that a 'one' or an 'i'?" Dad asks.

"I don't know. She didn't say and the way she wrote it, it could be either."

I can almost hear the cogs going round as Dad thinks. Then he lets out a little chuckle.

"It could be both. You know: Roman numerals. 'I' for one and 'V' for five." I grunt in acknowledgement as he continues. "You said entertaining. Use the one about the centurion telling his squad to number from the left: 'I', 'I,I', 'I,I,I', 'I,V' which point the centurion says 'Ivy, you're in the wrong place. Gather up your kit and go join the Amazons'."

If I didn't know what a 'dad joke' was before, I do now! I give him the groan I know he is expecting. "That's dreadful, Dad. I can't use that!" I add.

"Maybe not," he concedes. "Did Miss Rutherford say anything else?"

"Not really. Something about the date and the class being on the last day of term next week."

"Mm, l can see why she wants something entertaining. Nobody takes lessons on the last day of term seriously. Or at least we never did." Dad starts moving towards the door. "I'll leave it with you. Sorry I can't be more help. I'm going to see when your mother will have our meal ready."

He has to have a last word, though. "It's a one!" he states and then starts chuckling to himself again as he goes through the door. I swear he is getting worse!

And yet? And yet! If Dad is right and what I copied from the board is a one, I can see a link back to something she said towards the end of the lesson. Maybe I can make something of it.

The last day of term arrives, and with it the need to present my piece in Miss Rutherford's class. I did manage to put something together using the ideas I got from talking with Dad. And I've even covered both the 'one' and 'i' versions of what the teacher wrote on the board. My piece has involved a surprising amount of research. Probably more than most homework assignments! It's not very long, but if everyone in our class has to read something out, there won't be time for any lengthy pieces. And if my piece is short nobody will have time to get bored if they don't like it. That's my theory anyway.

As Dad forgot to put the recycling out for the bin men this morning, I have to do it. It means I am running late and don't have time to meet up with Tony before lessons begin. When I try to catch up with him at break, he is in a funny mood. He keeps avoiding me. To make matters worse I can see him talking to some of our friends and I am getting suspicious looks from them.


I see Mel break away from the group, heading in the direction of the loos. Mel is straight talking. She'll tell me what's going on if I ask. I intercept her.

"He's got the idea you're two-timing him," she says in answer to my query. "Said it's something he's found on someone's social media."

"Whose?" I challenge.

"I think you should ask him yourself. But calm down. I told him it might be an innocent misunderstanding. Remember last year and that picture of Speedy!" Mel holds up a hand to stop me asking any more questions. "Sorry, I must go before I wet myself." I knew she can be blunt but that takes the biscuit.

I go over and push my way through the cordon around Tony.

"You seem to be avoiding me. Why?" I ask him.

"Why do think?" he retorts.

"No idea. What am I supposed to have done wrong this time?" I will admit it is not the first time we have fallen out over something.

"You know perfectly well!"

"No, I don't!" Trying to keep calm, I sigh before continuing. "Although Mel did say you think I'm also seeing someone else. That's a load of bollocks. You know me better than that!"

Thankfully the group around us has retreated enough to give us some space. They are still keeping an eye on us though.

"I've seen it. A picture of you titled 'My boyfriend'," he accuses.

"Whose boyfriend?"

Tony doesn't answer and as I look at him I can see he is upset. Not surprising. I remember that I was when I thought he had dumped me. I don't press him for an answer.

I can't anyway, as the bell goes and we have to get to our next class.

Afterwards, in the brief break before Miss Rutherford's lesson, I manage to ask him again.

"Donny," comes the reply.

"Donny? Really?" There is no faking my incredulity.

Okay, I'll admit Donny is quite cute to look at and can be fun to have around. But I wouldn't want him as my boyfriend; he is far too impetuous.

"You said he has a photo of me as his boyfriend? I think we need to ask him what he's playing at. We'll grab him at lunch."

Tony mumbles his agreement.

After her opening remarks, Miss Rutherford is looking around the class, deciding who will be the first lamb to the slaughter. I try to look inconspicuous. She calls out a name. Mine.

Obviously I'm not inconspicuous enough!

Going first does have some advantages though. No time for my anxieties — both about my presentation and about this thing with Tony — to build up while I wait to be called and nobody before me for Miss Rutherford and the rest of the class to judge me against. Instead, I will set the bar, no doubt a low one, for everyone else.

I pick up the papers I have prepared. As I walk to the front of the class, I am thinking of what I will say to link my report to last week's lesson. I take a deep breath to calm myself before launching into my speech.

"Last week we heard how several storm surges in the North Sea in the thirteenth century resulted in the permanent flooding of a large area of Holland. Significant storm surges have occurred both before and since. These have not only affected Holland but England too. For instance, I have here a copy of a very early newspaper report…"

I show one of my sheets to the class. I have made it look like a page from one of the tabloids. Complete with a picture . The red top banner says 'SOL DIVRNA'. I turn the page back around so that I can pretend to read from it. In fact I have my notes on top.

"…Ex Sol Diurna, Londinium, Anno IV. C.Hadrianus Aug. Ingens currus casus in Via Armenius.

"From the London Daily Sun, 4th year of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian — thanks to the AI magic of Google, I can translate as I go.— Massive chariot accident on Ermine Street.

"Recently, on the Ides of March, there was a massive accident involving several chariots on the A one, in the vicinity of Durobrivae — which was near modern Peterborough.

"Travelling at speed, and unable to stop, they fell upon wagons and others who were unable to proceed due to flood waters blocking the road.

"An eyewitness said it was a 'shipwreck' — a pile up — worthy of the circus Maximus — the stadium in ancient Rome where chariot races took place.

"The inundation was the result of great storms and high tide in the Mare Germanicum —the North Sea — carrying water across the vast area of marshy lands to the east of the road. That is from the Wash extending across the Fens," I explain.

"In another incident thought to be related, contact has been lost with the ninth legion, the Hispania. The legion was in transit from York to London, and was last reported south of Lincoln early on same day."

My piece seems to go down well. After I have finished, Miss Rutherford asks a question to make sure I have my facts right.

"When was Hadrian the Emperor?"

"117- 138 Common Era," I reply. Thankfully I had written a crib sheet based on my research at the bottom of my notes.

"And the ninth is thought to have been lost in 120. Very good," the teacher comments. She is smiling so I must have done something right.

I am dismissed and Naveem is summoned. He makes a brief report about sport in Holland. Football, of course, but also field hockey, cycling, and speed skating; where they have a long distance race between eleven cities in the north on frozen canals —something that hasn't taken place since 1997 due to climate change. Then there is the quintessentially Dutch sport of Fierljeppen involving pole-vaulting across drainage canals. Being the spin bowler for our school cricket team, it is no surprise when he reports that there are cricket teams in Holland. Their national team has caused upsets by beating both England and South Africa on occasion.

As he makes his final remarks, Nav lays on a thick Indian accent. "Finally, although the Dutch may play cricket on pitches below sea level, only the English are mad enough to play actually in the sea, holding matches on the Goodwin Sands off the Kent coast when they are exposed at high tide." He gets a laugh.

Miss Rutherford works her way through the class.

When it is Tony's turn, he reports on the dairy industry; Holland being known for cheese production. He includes reference to how the use of AI has not only led to improvements in quality and productivity but has also resulted the virtual elimination of venereal disease in the national herd. Someone lets out a stifled snigger at that point and is promptly glared at by Miss Rutherford! Tony goes on to mention that the Dutch embraced the use of 'robot' milking machines and the use of artificial intelligence in herd monitoring and management.

Although Tony's piece is factual and informative, I'm not sure it is entertaining in the way I think the teacher was implying when she set the task. Especially his final comments:

"Unfortunately the use of costly technology to reduce labour costs and hunt ever higher yields has resulted in a situation where often the cost effectiveness of dairy buildings and their equipment is placed above the welfare of the cows themselves. Among the various complicated and intermeshed changes over the years, the individual animals have seemed to matter less and less."

A few more students take their turn to speak but there isn't enough time for everyone to read their work. The last person to be called is Donny.

"Gather round and I will tell you the tale of Ebrich Full, the last prince of the lost city of Withno."

There is something about Donny's manner and delivery that catches our attention. Miss Rutherford smiles and settles herself in her chair in anticipation.

"There have been many times the spirits of the oceans have been angry and conjured great storms and moved the waters to devour the dry land. We heard the story of the tempests that covered the lands of Holland and formed the South Sea."

Donny manages to infuse an air of malevolence into his words. He is a natural story teller.

"Indeed, many ages before, the spirits had been so enraged that the waters swelled and boiled with such violence that a great area of the plains to the east of the ancient lands of the Brigantes, even unto the mountains of Norway, was surrendered to the floods.

"Nor was the west spared the wrath of the oceans. Slowly the land between Inis When and Inis Werth, the white and green isles, was eaten away. The great king Gwithno saw the encroachment of the seas and, in the manner of the Dutch peoples centuries later, sought to protect his lands with dykes, drains and sluices. The land prospered and became known as the Lowland Hundred or the Plain of Gwithno. Such was the wealth of his realm that the king was able to raise a fair city, named for him as Withno.

"As he grew older and the affairs of state became more pressing, the king delegated responsibility for the defences against the incursions of the seas to two of his princely relatives.

"The king begat a son, Elffin, whom he would school in the arts of courtly politics. A number of years passed and the king begat a second son Ebrich. Although normally a welcome event in those times, being the insurance of the line of succession, the seers and soothsayers were uneasy, for the child was born, not with the red hair of the people of the land, but had hair of exceptional whiteness. This was taken as a sign of the sea: representing the white spume of the waves, and therefore was most surely an ill omen.

"Now one of the princes charged with maintaining the sea-defences was a certain Seithennin, who as the years progressed earned the sobriquet 'the feeble-minded', maybe inspired by his preoccupation with the well-maiden, Mererid, although most would say his fascination was with a different kind of spirit, one found in a bottle.

"Ebrich grew to be a handsome youth but in accordance with the fears at the time of his birth, he bore the air of the fey: one fated to die.

"Word had reached the king's ear that Seithennin was neglecting his duties on account of his love of strong drink, so he sent Ebrich to investigate, instructing him to learn all he could of the management of the defence works such that Seithennin might be relieved and he be appointed in his stead.

"Ebrich was not long in Seithinnin's house before Mererid took him and introduced him to the water sprite, Alwyn. Immediately was an enchantment cast over the youth such that he was continuously desirous of being in the company of the sprite.

"Mindful of the task he had been set, Ebrich observed that the sea-defences were indeed neglected and reported the same to the king. The king commanded repairs to be made, but in vain, for the spirits of the oceans, hearing of the intended works, prepared a great storm to overcome the dykes while they remained weakened. Assisted in no mean part by the failure of Seithennin, in his drunkenness, to close the drainage sluices on the turn of the ebb tide, the flood claimed the city and all the Plain of Gwithno.

"Of the peoples of the land, only Elffin, who had been sent on a mission to the King of Gwynedd, survived. Hearing of the impending tempest, Alwyn pleaded that Ebrich may live on as a sprite so they might remain together. On certain days of the year, in accordance with local custom, Ebrich is permitted to return to the world of men and cause mischief amongst them."

There is a moments silence while we all digest Donny's tale. It is broken by Miss Rutherford, who clearly has an idea of the story's origin.

"Thank you, Donny. Answer me this if you would, please? Are all these names spelled with digraphs? DD, LL et cetera ?"

"Yes, Miss."

I guess I will have written them all wrong.

"Excellent." Miss Rutherford smiles. "Thank you, or maybe I should say diolch yn fawr . I think you are the only one who fully picked up on what I wrote on the board last week!

"Now, while you're here, will you help me dish these out, please? Before the bell goes for lunch."

The teacher gives Donny a full paper bag, she picks up another and they work round the room handing out chocolates - fish shaped chocolates. I am not surprised to be given chocolate by Miss R, but fish shaped ones?

The bell goes. It's twelve o'clock and time for lunch. We all thank the teacher for the sweets on our way out of the classroom.

If Donny is wanting to avoid Tony and me at lunch he is foiled. Paul and Mel intercept him and steer him to our usual table. Paul has an angry look. Mel is obviously in her schoolmarm mode as we can see her command those already at the table to make room for the three of them and to leave space for two opposite. She signals we are to take those places.

"What's this about you having a picture of me as your boyfriend?" Paul demands of Donny as soon as we are seated. "People have been taking the piss all morning. I get enough flack hanging around with these two as it is." He points at Tony and me. Donny just grins.

"Tony says you have another with me as the boyfriend." I accuse. Donny is still grinning.

When Tony doesn't say anything, Mel steps in.

"I bet you've got the pictures on your phone. Get it out!" she instructs. "Pass it round so everyone can see."

Donny does as he is told: opens his phone and brings up a picture.

It's not a photo though. More like an air brush painting. Very much in Donny's fantasy style too.

"You can't deny it," Tony accuses me. "It's you!"

It does look like me, except there are features I don't see in the mirror. The blond hair, for starters. That's more like Paul.

"That's not my hair," I reply. "If fact, the whole thing looks as much like Paul as it does me!"

"Don't you start!" snaps Paul.

"Where does it say I'm supposed to be Donny's boyfriend?" I ask Tony.

He scrolls the picture up to display a footer. It reads 'My Ideal Boyfriend'.

"So it's generic - just wishful thinking. I can see that parts resemble both of you, but it's neither," the ever practical Mel remarks.

Even if Tony hasn't come round yet, I'm satisfied that I am proven not guilty. I take another, more detached, view of the picture. The penny drops. I look at Donny.

"It's the prince in your story, isn't it?" I ask as I scroll the picture to reveal a header: 'Ebrill Ffŵl'. So I did spell all the names wrong.

Donny bursts out in a fit of laughter.

"Yes," he says when he gets over it. "April Fool! Got the three of you! Perfect!"

"But it's after mid-mid-day, so the fool is on you," Paul grouches.

Tony rejoins the conversation. "Except it isn't yet. It's after twelve, but summer time. Mid-day will be at twelve GMT. In fact after that: true local time is about six minutes later as we are to the west of the meridian."

Yes, I have a walking encyclopaedia for a boyfriend.

Mel changes the subject.

"April Fool's day? So that's why Miss Rutherford gave us all fish chocolates. From the French 'Poisson d'Avril'," she remarks. Trust her to know about the chocolates!

As we eat our now cold lunches, I quiz Donny about the picture.

"No, it isn't a painting. That would have taken far too long," he confesses. "I found this AI picture generator on line and thought I'd try it out. I fed pictures of you and Paul and that one of Simon from the cafe into it and this was the result. Good, isn't it?"

Disturbingly so!

It is Tony's turn to get some grief from me and Paul when Donny reveals that he nicked the pictures of both of us from Tony's social media.

I've finally worked out what Miss Rutherford wrote on the board. Not AI for artificial intelligence and definitely not artificial insemination. Nor was it A1 for top quality, nor, like I thought, the main road, but A1 for April the first.


© Copyright Pedro June 2024


This story is part of the 2024 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: I'm Better Than You and I Know It". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 29 August 2023 to 20 September 2023 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2024 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - I'm Better Than You and I Know It

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Ebrich Full

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