This is the third and final part of chapter 1 of 'The Broken Boots Guide to Astlavonia':
...the car drove away, leaving the old man and myself outside the green building. I approached him.
'Urr hello, is it Professor Augustus? My name is Mark King. I sent you an email.' I quickly shook his right hand which was smooth and cold. It fell off. I was left holding a false hand that was pink.
‘The first lesson in Astlavonia is to be mindful when shaking upon an agreement. It is likely that an Astlavonian will steal your hand, good sir. Do not be alarmed. I lost my original in a farming accident.’
I apologetically gave the fake one back to him. Screwing it onto his wrist, he looked at me and said, ‘So you are the Mark.’
At the same time, I thought, ‘So you are Augustus’: a long, grey, streak of hair was firmly pressed on top of closely trimmed black hair. Thick brows hung over hazel eyes and a creased but soft face ended in a jutting chin.
Looking like he’d been dragged through a jumble sale backwards, he wore a large, beige raincoat rolled–up at the sleeves, a khaki, army shirt, tomato red tracksuit trousers and wrinkled trainers. An old fashioned hearing aid was attached to a metal box on a belt that also held a dagger and sheaf. The dagger looked opulent against such rags. There was some sort of carving on the handle and a precious stone at its head.
Was it unethical to meet Augustus? Yeah, probably, but I was up the creek. I planned to pay him to do most of the research for a guidebook I had to write but hoped that a king’s ransom to him would be a pauper’s luncheon voucher to me (outsourcing?). I knew that sounded horrible but I had no choice about the book or the money. I was in serious, serious debt.
After a day of cataract-inducing searches in an internet café, I’d found Augustus’ name under ‘thepilgrimagetour@Astla.com’. Entering ‘Astlavonia’ into the system had been useless so finding Augustus had been pure luck.
'Hmm. I have never spied such a Britisher before. Do most of you possess blue eyes and red hair?'
He re-lit his cigarette. The filter was made of cardboard and the cigarette paper was so thin that the dark tobacco made it look wet.
'Nah. Most of us have brown eyes and brown hair.'
'But your hair is so orange.'
I didn't take offence because I was new and strange to him. Besides, English people (particularly kids) felt the need to tell me I was ginger in case I had a bout of amnesia. My mouth was coated in travel.
'So is the hotel far from here?' I asked.
'There is no boarding establishment in this town.'
'But where am I going to stay?'
'Worry not. You can accommodate in my apartment and we will gladly nourish you. In exchange for this, you will teach English in my school for twenty-five hours a week.'
'But that wasn't the deal. We agreed I'd pay you for information about Astlavonia.'
Augustus wiped his mouth, 'I am simply trying to assist you with a complication: there are no Inns in Broiklario. Do you have any qualifications?'
'Urr three O Levels in English, Maths and Art,' I said, blushing.
There was no need to blush but I'd dreamt of progressing further. It hadn't panned out but then nothing really had.
In fact, I was almost expelled from school at the age of fifteen. My best friend was moving away from me, showing interest in someone sportier, tougher, taller so I moved fast and stole the skeleton from the Biology lab. After showing my friend, I returned it but got caught by the caretaker.
Somehow, I’d managed to lose one of the feet. The headmaster, who was originally a Biology teacher, was not impressed, stating that I could be charged with kidnap rather than theft 'in a court of law'. Luckily, after much begging from the school psychiatrist who said that the missing foot symbolized adolescent emasculation, I was suspended for a week rather than expelled.
When I returned to school, my friend had moved on and I only passed three O Levels. My dad didn't speak to me for four months. He finally broke the silence to give me an application form for Tesco.
Augustus looked at me and said, 'Three O Levels? Three degrees, yes? Three degrees in English, Maths and Art. That is exceptional! I have two degrees in History and Philosophy but three degrees is enlightened, cognizant, cerebral.'
'Thank you,' I said, looking at the ground.
I was angry with myself because I'd vowed to stop lying but was too embarrassed to point out the difference between a GCE and a degree.
'You will make a splendid teacher, an erudite professor. English is of revived interest now that we have freedom and it is better to have a native speaker as an instructor, yes? Why, it will become the selling point of my industry. Please follow me into my school and humble abode.'
Augustus turned. A fat backside didn't make sense on such a skinny body. We crossed the doorway where there was a wooden sign, with peeling paint, hanging from two shoelaces. Augustus translated it.
'"Oxbridge-Wells School of Language with a specialization in English: Approved by A.J.D". Now we can add "Qualified Native English Speaker" to this signage, yes?'
Did he mean I was qualified because I'd been born in Britain? I could barely speak English let alone teach the thing. My gut churned. I badly needed the lav.
'Behold, my empire,' said Augustus as we stepped into a hallway that smelt of institutional bleach and entrenched cigarette smoke.
His empire was obviously more than the hallway but there were no gestures of giving a tour. Oh god, where was his bog?
'Now, fellow scholar, most of your lessons will be in the morning, leaving you plenty of time for your book research in the afternoon and evening. Naturally, a convenient break will be allotted for a cup of sugary Earl Grey tea with a spot of milk and a plate of cucumber sandwiches.'
'I'm sorry but we didn't agree on how much you want to charge for helping me with the book.'
There was a high-pitched whistle from Augustus' hearing aid.
'How much do you want to…'
The hearing aid shrieked. If it carried on like this, packs of rabid dogs would stampede the school. All of a sudden, my stomach threshed in a way that demanded immediate attention.
'Can I use your toilet?'
A telephone rang.
'Lavatory?' said Augustus between the squeal of his hearing-aid and the caclang of the phone. 'Yes please.'
He pointed upwards as if I'd asked him where the second storey of the house was located and then hurried off to the phone. Leaving my luggage in the hallway, I bolted up the stairs. I hadn't eaten any foreign food but my insides were ready to explode. It must be tiredness. I yanked open doors until I found the loo.
END OF SAMPLE
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