The Petrifying Problem with Princess PetronellaAuthor: L M Moriarty
Imprint: Pan Australia
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Honeyville Primary School , Honeyville Sydney , Australia , Earth
Nicola Berry sat as still as concrete. Even when the fan at the front of the classroom rotated in her direction and everybody's hair whooshed back as if they were sticking their heads out of car windows, she didn't flicker an eyelash.
She was trying something new.
Her subject was her teacher, Mrs Zucchini, who was scribbling furiously on the blackboard and shouting something about oceans and seas. Nicola didn't know why Mrs Zucchini was so upset about oceans and seas. They should have made her feel cool and refreshed.
Mrs Zucchini's real name was Mrs Zukker but everyone secretly called her Mrs Zucchini. It suited her, as she generally had such an ‘eeeeuuuuw' expression on her face you would think she'd just that minute been force-fed a plate of mashed zucchini. She was in a bad mood every day of her life because she disliked children and she had a severe allergy to chalk. She also hated hot weather and was particularly cranky on steamy, humid days like today. Once, Nicola had written her an anonymous note:
Dear Mrs Zukker,
1. Jail warden (in an air-conditioned jail)
Nicola's dad said she should definitely send Mrs Zucchini the note and then laughed so hard he choked on his ham and pineapple pizza and had to be thumped on the back. Nicola's mum said she thought Mrs Zucchini might be offended and think that Nicola meant she wasn't a good teacher. Nicola said well, actually, that was exactly what she meant. Then her mum told her a long story about a horrible teacher she'd had at school, who turned out to have a kind heart, and who gave her a lemon meringue pie recipe or something. Nicola knew that Mrs Zucchini actually had an evil black heart but she didn't want to upset her mum, so she just patted her on the shoulder and said, ‘Thanks, Mum, that was really interesting and helpful.'
Yesterday, Nicola's older brother, Sean, had told her that whenever he didn't want to be picked by his teacher to answer a question in class, he just used mental telepathy. He said this was absolutely one hundred per cent true and that he would do a lie detector test if she wanted. Nicola said she didn't have a lie detector handy and Sean said that was her problem, and did a somersault in midair (they were on the trampoline in their backyard at the time).
Nicola was pretty sure that Sean was making it up but it was worth a try. If Sean could do mental telepathy, she could too.
‘WHAT IS THE NAME OF THIS SEA RIGHT HERE?' hollered Mrs Zucchini as if they were all a million miles away instead of sitting right in front of her. She banged the chalk next to the squiggly map she'd drawn on the blackboard.
A few people put up their hands but Mrs Zucchini ignored them. She didn't like it when someone knew the answer because that meant she couldn't yell. Her pink piggy eyes darted around the classroom searching for a person who would get it wrong. Her chalk allergy made her skin red and flaky and, as she tapped the chalk in the palm other hand, pieces of skin showered to the floor. It made Nicola itchy just looking at her.
‘EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU SHOULD KNOW THE NAME OF THIS SEA!'
Nicola's eardrums throbbed.
‘I SAID IT JUST FIVE MINUTES AGO. IF YOU DON'T KNOW, THEN YOU WEREN'T LISTENING!'
Nicola did not know the name of the sea. There wasn't even a name on the tip of her tongue. The only thing on the tip of her tongue was a frosty strawberry sensation from the iceblock she'd had at lunchtime.
If ever she needed mental telepathy, it was now. She tried as hard as she could to beam her thoughts directly into the dark, swirly depths of Mrs Zucchini's brain:
Don't pick me. Don't pick me. Don't pick me. Pick Greta Gretch. Pick Greta Gretch. Pick Greta Gretch.
Greta Gretch was Nicola's Worst Enemy.
Unfortunately Greta was waving her hand frantically like a drowning swimmer, so Mrs Zucchini was pretending not to see her.
Nicola saw Mrs Zucchini dart a suspicious look at Tyler Brown. Tyler was one of Nicola's best friends and he was smart. Nicola guessed he probably knew the answer but was deliberately not putting up his hand. He looked back at Mrs Zucchini with wide innocent eyes behind his round glasses and scrunched up his forehead as though he was trying to remember the name of the sea. Mrs Zucchini would be thrilled to catch him out with a wrong answer, but would she take the risk? What if Tyler was bluffing?
Don't pick me, don't pick me. Pick Tyler ! Don't say Nicola Berry. Don't say Nicola Berry. Say Tyler Brown. Don't say...
Nicola nearly jumped out of her skin. She couldn't believe it. She had been convinced the mental telepathy was working. It just went to show you couldn't trust a single word her brother said.
‘Up to the blackboard young lady!' Mrs Zucchini could tell by the expression on Nicola's face she had a winner (in other words, a loser). She brandished the chalk. ‘Write down the name of the sea right here. If you've been listening, it should be a snap.'
Nicola sneaked a look over to the far side of the classroom and saw her other best friend, Katie Hobbs. Her face was filled with despair, as if Nicola had been sent off to fight in a dangerous battle. Katie's heart was as soft as marshmallow.
Nicola looked back to Tyler, who was slumped back in his chair as if he was all set for a midday nap. Hmmph. He wasn't very sympathetic! She stood up slowly behind her desk. Her arms and legs felt all droopy like stretched-out plasticine.
‘Oh dear, you poor thing, I'm so sorry. It's such a terrible effort to walk all the way to the blackboard!' Mrs Zucchini mocked.
Nicola looked back at Tyler and saw that he'd slumped even further in his seat and was tipping his head back and squeezing his neck with both hands. What was he doing? Was he making fun of her? Nicola shot him an ‘I'll get you later' look but then she saw his eyes rolling about wildly. Was he trying to tell her something? He shut his eyes and stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth as if he was playing dead.
Of course! Part of her brain must have been listening after all. The answer was the Dead Sea !
Apparently the Dead Sea had the saltiest water in the world. It was so salty, floating was incredibly easy. People bobbed happily about like corks and you could lie on top of the water as easily as lying on an air mattress. Nicola remembered thinking that this was one of the more interesting things Mrs Zucchini had ever said and that she'd quite like to try swimming in the Dead Sea .
Nicola grinned to let Tyler know she got the message and went to take the chalk from Mrs Zucchini's outstretched hand. Then she saw Mrs Zucchini's face had turned a deep, triumphant purple.
‘TYLER BROWN! DID YOU JUST GIVE NICOLA BERRY THE ANSWER? HAVE I JUST CAUGHT THE TWO OF YOU... CHEATING?'
Nicola saw Tyler blink rapidly and Katie press her fingers to her mouth. Her own knees started to shake.
And that's when it happened.
There was a loud, urgent tapping on the classroom door.
Everybody turned to look and suddenly the air in the classroom felt different, like that magical moment just after the lights on a Christmas tree have been turned on.
Something fantastic and unexpected and unusual was about to happen. Nicola was sure of it.