Rose had a way of getting things wrong, and that’s why nobody ever asked her to do anything. She didn’t mean to. Things always just seemed to work out wrong for her. When she was asked to make tea, she nearly flooded the kitchen. When she was sent to the shops for milk, she either lost the money or the milk or her little brother or forgot what she went for and brought back toilet rolls. Not everything she did went wrong, just anything she was asked to do, because she got nervous and worried and anxious, and that made her flustered and forgetful.
Once her Granny asked her to give her a kiss, and she ended up knocking poor Granny out of her chair and breaking her reading glasses, and that made Granddad laugh so hard he had to go lie down for the rest of the day. Granny never gave her any more Christmas presents after that, but Granddad always gave her an extra one to make up for it.
But she so wanted to help! She so wanted to be useful! She was always begging for something to do: Please give me a job, please give me a job! But every time someone did, it all went wrong. The washing machine overflowed when she filled it with too much powder. The library books fell in the river when she tried to take them back. The important message she carried during the summer festival got mixed up, and a crowd of a hundred turned up at one end of the village and the pipe band played at the other to an audience that consisted of one small dog who whined a lot.
So, to be safe, nobody ever asked Rose to do anything.
Until George’s birthday party.
The day before George’s birthday party.
“Oh no!” Mum said. “Dad has to go to town to pick up the bike and the cake, and we have to get all the sandwiches made and the bouncy castle set up and all the balloons inflated and the party bags all made up! I know there’s something I’m forgetting! What is it? I can’t remember! I’ve lost the list! Rose, have you seen my list?”
“No,” said Rose. “But I know what it is you’re forgetting!”
“You do? Oh, good girl, what is it?”
“It’s okay, I’ll do it!”
“Uh, that’s very nice of you to offer, Rose, but—”
“No, no, it’s easy, Mum, it’s just a small thing, a very small tiny thing, it’s sooooo easy, Mum, I can do it, please, please?”
“But what is it, Rose, dear? Can you not just tell me first and then we’ll see?”
“No! If I tell you what it is, you’ll go and do it and leave nothing for me to do, and I want to do something!”
“But Rose, dear, honestly, do you really think that’s such a good idea?”
“Yes. Yes I do. This time it’ll be totally different!”
“And anyway, I’m not going to tell you what it is, so you either let me do it, or it won’t get done, and you won’t know what it is until it’s too late, and you’ll be kicking yourself soooooooo hard!”
Rose’s Mum knew from the set of her that there’d be no arguing, so she had to decide between the likely horrible disaster from whatever it was not happening, or the likely horrible disaster from Rose making it happen. It was not an easy choice.
“Rose,” she said at last, “whatever you do, do nothing, okay? Don’t. Do. Anything. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Rose, who had decided that no matter what Mum said, she would surprise her by doing it anyway, and she would be so pleased, and it would all go brilliantly, and there would be no horrible disaster, not this time for sure!
What Mum had forgotten to do was book a magician for the party.
George loved magic, so it couldn’t be a clown or a cowboy on a horse or a ninja or anything other than a magician, and no, clowns or cowboys or horses or ninjas who were also magicians wouldn’t do. It had to be a proper magician with a bow tie and a top hat and everything.
Rose went into the hallway, took down the phone and the phone book, sat cross-legged on the carpet, and began phoning all the magicians in the Golden Pages.
“Sorry, dear, all booked up.”
“Sorry, dear, can’t do tomorrow.”
“Sorry, dear, I already have three parties and a christening.”
“Why, yes, I could do tomorrow. What time?”
“Oh,” said Rose. “Um, that’s great, but aren’t you a girl?”
There was a pause.
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, I think my brother wants a boy magician and not a girl magician. I’m sorry, he can be really stupid about that sort of thing.”
“I see. If you didn’t want a girl magician, why did you ring me? It says right there in the phone book that I’m the Numberwitch. Witch, you see? A girl?”
“Oh,” said Rose, blushing. “I just rang the next number after Norman the Nasty Necromancer. He couldn’t come because he’s doing a wedding, you see.”
“Yes, I see.”
“Nobody can come to our party tomorrow! I can’t find anyone!”
“But you’re no good! You’re a girl! Hello? Hello? Oh, we got cut off.”
Rose put the phone down and stared sadly at the phone book. This was her chance to do something right, and she couldn’t even find a magician! At least they couldn’t blame her for this! Mum was the one who had forgotten, after all. Still, it would have been nice . . .
A squared-off box at the bottom of the page caught her eye. “Alphawizard!” it said. “The amazing Alphawizard will stun and awe you with his amazing and stunning alphabet magic! Available for parties! Hasn’t been booked for anything tomorrow! Wears a top hat and bow tie! Isn’t a girl!”
Wow, thought, Rose. That sounds perfect! Funny how I didn’t notice it before!
She dialed the number.
The next day, and George’s party was turning out to be a great success. All his friends came and stuffed their faces and ran around screaming. George tore the wrappings off about a million presents. After he opened each present, he threw it away and tore the wrappings off another one until Dad had to wrap him in a blanket to calm him down, and all his friends wanted to be wrapped in blankets, too, and they didn’t have enough blankets, so they had to use the duvets and someone had an accident in Rose’s duvet, but Rose didn’t mind because it was George’s special day, and she didn’t want to ruin it by getting mad just because someone went and had an accident in her duvet.
At one o’clock the doorbell rang and Mum answered it, and there on the step was a short, thin young man standing very straight, wearing a neat black suit and a bow tie and a top hat and white gloves and shiny shoes, and he had the tiniest of little mustaches over his lip, like something drawn with a black Biro. He clicked his heels, doffed his hat, and bowed.
“Madame,” he said. “If I may present myself. The Alphawizard at your service. I am here to stun and amaze your party.”
Mum looked at the Alphawizard, then back at Rose, who waved and jumped up and down with excitement, then looked up at the ceiling, her lips moving silently like they did when she prayed. She invited the Alphawizard in and asked him if he’d like to set up.
“No need,” he replied. “I require no equipment or scenery, merely myself and my amazing and stunning powers. Simply direct me to the space in which you wish me to perform and prepare to be stunned! And amazed!”
“Right,” said Mum, though she didn’t sound too happy, and Rose had expected her to at least say “Oh, thank goodness somebody remembered the magician because I forgot, and the party would have been ruined, and whoever remembered saved the day!”
It wasn’t raining and the sun was shining, so most of the party was in the backyard where George’s friends were screaming and running and screaming and bouncing and screaming and falling and screaming and eating and just doing an awful lot of screaming. Mum led the Alphawizard onto the lawn, and he looked so odd that some of the screaming stopped, and everyone turned to stare at him, some of them still screaming. Mum and Dad went around and pushed and shoved and pulled until all the children were sitting on the grass in a circle around the Alphawizard, and when most of the screaming had died down, particularly from George who was VERY excited at the thought of seeing a proper magician with a bow tie and a top hat, the Alphawizard lifted up his hands and doffed his hat and bowed.
“Prepare,” he said, “to be stunned! And amazed!”
He pulled up the sleeves of his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He pulled out all his pockets to show that they were empty. He turned his hat upside down and shook it. He took off his shoes and threw them away.
“Do a trick!” someone shouted, and George screamed. The Alphawizard looked annoyed.
“Yes. A trick. Very well. Does everybody here know the alphabet?”
“Could you all please say the alphabet for me?”
“OKAY! A, B, C, D oooooh!”
As they spoke each letter, that letter popped out of their mouths and floated across the grass to hover above the Alphawizard’s head. The letters were all different sizes and colors. Some were capital and some were small and some were straight and some were slanty and some had bumps and curls and some were all blocky chunks and blobs. Already there were twenty or thirty As, Bs, Cs and Ds flying around like a swarm of alphabet insects. Rose clapped her hands with delight! She had done it! She had picked a real magician! This was going to be amazing! Stunning!
“Keep going!” said the Alphawizard. “Keep going!”
They kept going, on down through the alphabet, and more and more letters flew out and crowded the air around the Alphawizard, drifting and bobbing and bumping together.
“Z!” they all yelled together at the tops of their voices, and a single huge Z, almost as big as all the other letters put together, formed in the sky above the house and blocked out the sun. All the children cheered and yelled and screamed and fainted and threw up and had accidents. The Alphawizard bowed and bowed again and smiled with satisfaction.
“How is he doing that?” Mum asked.
“Lasers,” said Dad. “They’re sort of holograms, I think.”
“Well, he’s got them all riled up now,” Mum said. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.”
The kids cheered, the Alphawizard kept bowing and smiling and looking pleased with himself. It wasn’t long before the cheering died down, but the Alphawizard just kept bowing and smiling.
“Isn’t he going to do anything else?” Mum whispered anxiously.
“He’d better,” Dad whispered back. “And soon.”
“Come on!” yelled George. “Make them do something!”
The Alphawizard stopped bowing and looked puzzled.
“What do you mean? Do something? They’re letters! What do you expect them to do? Isn’t it enough that I conjured them up for your amazement? Are they not stunning? Amazing?”
“NO!” yelled the children.
Rose slipped up to the Alphawizard and tugged at his rolled up shirtsleeve.
“Aren’t you going to do tricks with them? They want to see tricks and things!”
“What?” he said, looking down at her. “Tricks? What sort of tricks? I don’t understand!”
“Oh dear,” said Rose, with a terrible sinking feeling. Had she done it again? “What do you normally do?”
“Normally? Well, strictly speaking, as it were, not to put too fine a point on it, and to make matters plain, and to state the facts in the clearest possible terms, this is my first time doing this. This sort of thing.”
“Oh, no! You have to entertain them!”
“Entertain them? How? Why? Look what I’ve done!” He wiggled his fingers at all the flying letter. “Surely that’s enough to entertain anyone? It’s a marvel! It’s a miracle!”
“Yes, yes,” said Rose. “It’s stunning and amazing, but there really needs to be a little more. A lot more!”
“More?” he said, looking first at her and then at the crowd of children, who were already bored and annoyed with this boring and annoying magician and his boring and annoying letters which were stupid and they were stupid and he was stupid and this whole party was stupid. “What do you suggest?”
“Me?” said Rose, horrified. “You’re the magician!”
“Well, yes, but I’ve never done a party before, and it’s not what I was expecting. Come on, help me out!”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully. “You’ve got all these letters. Why don’t you make them into words?”
“Words?” he said, insulted. “I’m an Alphawizard, not a Thesaurceror!”
“Well you’d better do something or Mum won’t pay you! Last week she had the plumber come round five times before she was happy he’d done the toilet properly, and then she only gave him half what he charged for one visit because he’d made such a mess of it! The poor man was in tears when he left!”
“Oh all right, all right! Words, then words. Can anyone think of any words?”
“Rubbish!” someone yelled.
The Alphawizard waved his hands half heartedly, and the letters flew and jostled, forming each word as it was called out.
Mum began to look cross and Dad began to blush, but the Alphawizard kept waving his arms and the words kept forming and the children shouted louder and the words got ruder and cruder and more disgusting and all sorts of words began to take shape, words grown-ups prefer to think children don’t know about, all spelled out for anyone to see and read. Mum was pale as a sheet and her eyes blazed, and she stalked up to the Alphawizard and whispered fiercely in his ear, but he shrugged her off, not really caring. The children screamed and howled with laughter as more and more awful words appeared in the air above the garden. George was doing somersaults with excitement, and Rose covered her eyes and peeped through her fingers.
Finally Mum grabbed his hands to stop them waving and they struggled and Dad ran up to help. While they were all fighting, the children jumped to their feet and ran around, grabbing at the letters and chasing them up and down the garden, snatching them out of the air, stuffing them in their pockets or their mouths or fighting over them, pulling and tearing at them, throwing them to the ground and jumping up and down on them or trying to bury them or filling bags with them and then pouring lemonade into the bags. Soon there were letters flung and torn everywhere, ripped apart, drowned, twisted, broken, chewed, and swallowed.
The Alphawizard gave a high-pitched scream of horror. He shook Mum and Dad off and went staggering around with his arms outstretched.
“What have you done? You little monsters! My lovely letters! My beautiful alphabet! What have you done to my beautiful alphabet?”
He picked up fallen scraps of letters and tried to grab more out of the hands of the screaming children, but they ran away laughing, holding the letters high, skipping and dancing.
The poor Alphawizard, thought Rose. The poor letters.
The Alphawizard stopped running, drew himself up, and took a deep breath, looking grim and serious.
”Right,” he said. “You’ll pay for this!”
He raised his arms and wiggled his fingers and said something in a language Rose couldn’t understand. She suddenly felt a funny, ticklish feeling on the back of her neck as if a spider or a fly was scurrying around under the collar of her dress. Rose did not particularly mind spiders or flies, but she wasn’t thrilled about them taking up residence in her clothes. She absentmindedly slapped at the tickling, and some of the tickling stayed on her neck, and some of it came away on her fingers, and she wondered, looking at the little black things wriggling on her fingers, exactly how many insects were living in her dress. But they weren’t insects. They were letters: o n c m s h t w.
In the collar of her dress, Rose knew, there was a tag, and on that tag, Rose knew, were written lots of little things like the size and the material and a very serious warning not to set it on fire and a deadly serious warning that it was not machine washable, a warning Rose’s Mum cheerfully ignored. All the letters on the tag had come to life.
So had all the letters on all the clothes of all the children and all the adults—except for the Alphawizard. Letters bright, letters dark, letters big, medium, and small. Letters like lightning, letters like drops of blood, letters like clowns, letters like explosions, letters of every style and variety all leaped from t-shirts and shirts and shorts and jeans. From the house came an enormous fluttering, like a thousand moths dive-bombing the same bulb, as all the books and magazines and papers were forced open and knocked off shelves and all the letters filled the house and flew out the windows. There was a huge crash as all the drawers full of all the papers and letters and other boring stuff in Mum and Dad’s filing cabinet were forced open and sent crashing to the floor and all the letters gushed out.
All the letters on the posters in Rose’s and George’s bedrooms, all the letters in the schoolbags, even the squashed, cramped, twisted ones in George’s writing exercise book, all the instruction manuals, all the fridge magnets, all the tiny faded best-before dates and all the labels with all the lists of ingredients, metal and plastic letters from the oven and the washing machine and the car, all flew out and up and into the sky.
And not just their house. Letters streamed out of all the houses on the road and the shops and pubs and houses down in the village and the road signs and manhole covers and number plates. The sky went dark as all the letters filled it up like a big weird cloud and everyone stared up in stunned amazement.
“I am the Alphawizard!” roared the Alphawizard. “I will not put up with cruelty to poor, defenseless letters! I’ll teach you to treat letters badly! How will you manage now? I curse you all to a life with no letters! Nothing to read! No instructions on how to use anything! No letters from friends! No bills, so you won’t know what to pay when, and everything will be shut off or repossessed! No licenses, no contracts, no agreements! No internet, no computer games! No money because none of your money will have letters and no one will believe it’s real! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! That’ll teach you the importance of letters!”
There was silence as everybody stared at the sky and at each other and at the Alphawizard and at Mum and at Dad.
“No school!” said George, and all the children cheered wildly.
Well, that did it. The Alphawizard completely lost it.
“RIGHT!” he screamed. “FINE! IF THAT’S THE WAY YOU WANT IT! FINE! HERE! HAVE THEM BACK!”
And he raised his hands and wriggled his fingers, and all the letters came flying back down. Down, down, in a massive swarm of biting, buzzing, stinging letters. Everyone screamed and wailed and ran and hid, chased by hundreds, thousands of letters big and small
“Oh dear,” sighed Rose as she ran, doubled over, waving mad letters away with her hands, and headed for the house. “Why does this always happen to me?”
She slammed the front door shut and heard all the letters batter themselves against it, but a few letters got through and raced up and down the hallway. Rose grabbed the phone and the phone book, but when she flipped the phone book open, there were just rows of numbers and blank yellow spaces where all the words had been. All the letters were outside trying to eat her family.
“Curse this curse!” she said and dropped the book and began fiddling with the phone until it showed her all the calls made, and she went back through them until she recognised the one for the Alphawizard—she remembered because she’d been so excited that it had worked that she’d memorized it—and then she went back to the number before it and dialed that.
“Is that the Numberwitch?”
“It is she. How can I help you?”
“Well I rang yesterday looking for a magician for my brother’s birthday, and you couldn’t do it because you were a girl, so I got the Alphawizard instead, and he’s here and he’s gone mad, and I was wondering if maybe you could help me?”
“Alphawizard? Hmm. Are you sure you want my help? I’m just a girl.”
“Don’t be silly. I don’t mind you’re a girl, and anyway, everyone else was booked up for today.”
“Fair point. Hello.”
“Aaah! How did you do that?”
“The magic of numbers.”
The Numberwitch—a tall young woman in jeans, t-shirt and fuzzy slippers—had appeared suddenly in the hallway beside Rose.
“Sorry, my costume’s at the cleaners. Right, what’s this Alphawizard doing anyway?”
“He’s taken all the letters and made them attack everyone!”
“Has he, then? Well, two can play at that game!”
Now all the phone numbers lifted off the page of the phone book, and the temperature suggestions off the tag of her dress, and the numbers on the buttons of the phone, and all the numbers left behind in all the books, magazines, newspapers, files, tins, jars, math books all rose and flew out of the house as the Numberwitch flung open the door and strode out.
“All right, Alphawizard, you jumped-up amateur newbie! You think your letters are so great? Let me show you what numbers can do!”
The Alphawizard narrowed his eyes and waved his fingers, and all the letters flew up into a thick knot over his head. Numbers came flying in from the houses and shops and pubs and lined up in ranks and files and carefully arranged formations above the Numberwitch. The Alphawizard snarled. The Numberwitch sneered. They raised their arms and prepared to wriggle their fingers.
“Wait!” yelled Rose, running up to the Numberwitch. “This isn’t what I meant at all! I don’t want you to go to war!”
“Oh? Then what did you have in mind?”
“Well,” said Rose. “You see, it’s his first performance. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. I thought maybe . . .”
“You could show him what to do . . .”
“You must be joking.”
The Numberwitch glared at her, then at the Alphawizard, then rolled her eyes.
“Fine!” she said. “Fine!”
“Oh, thank you,” said Rose.
So the Numberwitch walked over to the Alphawizard, and they talked for a while, and the Alphawizard shook his head and stamped his feet and refused to listen and said he wanted a big fight, an epic battle that would destroy the whole world as numbers and letters had it out once and for all, and there would be no mercy and no survivors and definitely no quarter, and he went on like that until Rose went up and tugged his coattail and looked up at him with the widest, moistest eyes she could manage and begged him, and his heart melted, and he said, “Fine, okay. We’ll cancel the war.”
All the numbers and all the letters swirled through the air and joined together to form huge, thin figures with top-hats and walking sticks, and all the figures started to dance and whirl and jump and sing songs about incredibly complicated mathematical equations and how cool it was to be a letter and about how numbers and letters should just live together in peace and harmony. They sang and they danced, and the giant Z came down and gave rides to all the children, carrying them high up into the sky, and they kept falling off the sides and had to be caught by numbers and letters and put back on the Z, and it had to be stopped because the kids thought this was great fun and kept jumping off three miles up in the air. When finally the whole thing ended, there was massive applause, standing ovations, and six encores, and all the children had to be taken home wrapped in blankets and duvets.
When the party was over, the Numberwitch and the Alphawizard put all the numbers and letters back, and they shook hands, and the Alphawizard left as mysteriously as he had come, and the Numberwitch winked at Rose and slipped away in a peculiar mathematical conundrum. Rose breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone went home. Mum and Dad and George and Rose tidied up and washed up, and the Alphawizard came back as mysteriously as he had arrived and left, and they helped him find his shoes, and then he left again as mysteriously as he had arrived and left and arrived.
Later on, they sat down, and the other three all looked at Rose and Rose looked back at them, and finally George said from where he was wrapped in his blanket: “Okay, fine! It was the best party ever, and it was all thanks to you!”
Mum and Dad were forced to agree and Rose grinned from ear to ear.