Sarah Jane stood with the other parents on the sideline, watching the game. Clyde and Luke were there, too, but Clyde was more interested in a handheld computer game than the inter-schools match on the netball court.
“Maria is very good, isn’t she?” Luke said as she evaded the goal defence and put the ball into the net very neatly.
“She’s very good,” Sarah Jane noted proudly. “Gets it from me. I was really good at netball when I was a girl….”
“Yeah, mum, but that was last CENTURY,” Luke joked.
“Yes, very funny. I bet Clyde told you to say that!” Sarah Jane smiled anyway. He was learning to be more like an ordinary boy every day, including giving her cheek.
“The other team are very good, too,” Luke pointed out. “They’re winning by 24 nets to 3.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane sighed. “That’s a pity. Maria and the others are working very hard. They’re doing everything right. But they’re losing to a team that seems unstoppable.”
“It’s the same in ALL the inter-schools sports,” Clyde said, looking up from his game. “Hockey, football, rugby, cricket, gymnastics, swimming. EVERYTHING that the schools compete in, Beaufort Academy is winning EVERYTHING this year. Should have seen it last week when our football team was here. And, I mean, we’re good. We took the inter-schools trophy four times in a row, and we only lost last year on goal difference to Acton Grammar. But this year… I mean, they put eleven goals past our keeper. It was embarrassing.”
“They’re winning EVERYTHING?” Sarah Jane queried. “Every sport?”
She looked around. Beaufort Academy was a very different school to the big comprehensive that Luke, Sarah and Clyde attended, along with almost every teenager in the neighbourhood. It was a private school, of course. It had excellent sports facilities, including indoor pitches, their own swimming pool, and every advantage money could buy. That would explain why they were achieving such a lot.
“Do you notice something, though?” Luke said as Beaufort netted the ball again, despite the best efforts of the visiting team’s defence. “When they score, they never look happy. They don’t celebrate, even with a SMILE.”
“That was the same with the football,” Clyde confirmed. I mean, we were told off for having too many Premiership style celebrations on the pitch, but at least we look HAPPY when we score. And there’s another thing. They’re the HOME TEAM. But look around you. All the supporters, they’re all from OUR school. That woman over there… She’s the deputy headmistress. That’s the ONLY person watching who comes from THIS school.”
“Really?” Sarah Jane looked at the faces of those watching the game. And yes, she did vaguely recognise most of them from the sidelines of other sports games, from parent-teacher evenings and other activities.
“Well, that’s STRANGE, to say the least!” Sarah Jane commented. “Maybe…” She ran a few possibilities through her head. None of them made sense. “No, there’s no maybe about it. That’s REALLY odd.”
“Maybe they’re all androids, programmed to win all the competitions,” Clyde suggested.
“You’ve been hanging around in my attic too long,” Sarah Jane answered him. “Androids!”
“Well, it COULD be,” Clyde protested.
“Androids are heavier than humans,” Sarah Jane pointed out. “If that girl, for example, was an Android, then she would have crushed our Goal Defence’s foot when she accidentally stood on it just now.”
“Ok, aliens who look like us and are really good at sports.”
Clyde came up with several more fanciful ideas. Anyone else would have laughed them all off at once. Sarah Jane knew better than that. But while she knew that aliens often did come to Earth and disguise themselves as Humans, while she knew there were such things as Androids, cyborgs, artificial lifeforms, shapeshifters, and all sorts of things out there…
She could not think why they would go to such effort just to win an inter-schools netball championship. It wasn’t even a national competition. It wasn’t even London-wide. It was for schools in the Borough of Ealing.
Even aliens who want to take over the world usually had more ambition than that.
Maria as Goal Shooter and a girl Clyde said was Mandy Traynor, in Goal Attack, scored four more nets between them in the time left over. But their counterparts on the Beaufort Academy team scored 15 more. The final result, Beaufort Academy 30, Park Vale Comprehensive, 7, was, Sarah Jane thought, not as bad as it might have been. The comprehensive school had some very good netball players, especially in the defence positions. They stopped the score being even more embarrassing, while Maria and Mandy had fought a strong defence at the other end to score the seven nets they HAD managed.
Park Vale looked despondent as they traipsed off the netball court. The Beaufort Academy girls stood in a neat line watching them.
“Let’s have a big hand for the gallant opposition,” said the deputy headmistress and as she blew a whistle the Beaufort girls clapped. Sarah Jane watched them. They didn’t look as if they were particularly triumphant about their win.
“There are refreshments in the dining room,” the headmistress added. “For both teams and their friends and supporters. This way…”
“Do we have to?” Luke asked as Sarah Jane began to follow the small crowd towards the school.
“It’s a chance to infiltrate the school, find their secret!” Clyde enthused.
“Well, maybe not ‘infiltrate’” Sarah Jane answered. “A bit of a look around wouldn’t hurt. Anyway, since we’re driving Maria home, and she would be expected to attend, as a member of the team, we really don’t have a lot of choice. Anyway, if they do a decent cup of tea, I’d be happy.”
The two teams headed for the showers, of course. By the time Maria and her friends joined them in the dining room Sarah Jane had her cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches and she and the two boys were looking at the notice board where the Beaufort Academy’s achievements were proudly displayed. The school had only opened a year ago, at the start of September. And yet they were top of the league tables in all of the competitive team sports – netball, football, rugby, cricket, hockey, lacrosse.... And a cabinet beside the board was already full of trophies from gymnastics and swimming competitions.
“And GYMKHANAS!” Maria said with scorn in her voice. “It’s easy when you have money!”
“And look at these,” Sarah Jane said as she noted that the school’s achievements were not limited to sports. “Inter-schools Maths knockout championships… Prizes at the schools science fair at Earls Court! Schools Challenge…” Sarah Jane paused and repeated that phrase again as if it meant something to her.
“It’s like University Challenge, but for secondary schools,” Clyde said, thinking that Sarah Jane hadn’t heard of it. “Park Vale got knocked out in the first national round. The third round onwards is on TV.”
“They’re in the third round…” Maria observed, reading one of the notices. “It’s going to be recorded on Sunday. The TV people are coming here. Oh, that’s not fair. I wish our school had got through. They should have had Luke on the team. But they picked all fifth formers.”
“Is there anything this lot are not good at?” Clyde complained.
“Smiling,” Luke answered as he looked at the group of netball players. The Park Vale girls had put on casual clothes afterwards, since this was an after school activity, but the Academy girls were in pristine school uniforms of grey skirts, neat white blouses and a candy striped blazer. They drank tea or bottles of mineral water but didn’t bother about the sandwiches. They didn’t talk much, not even among themselves.
“Stepford teens!” Clyde commented. “If a bell rings and they all start taking little tablets…”
“Your imagination,” Sarah told him with a smile. But again, she knew that such things were not impossible.
“Good afternoon,” said the deputy headmistress. “I see you are interested in our achievements?”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane answered. “They are quite remarkable. You’ve done so much in such a short time. Tell me… the school dinners… do you use any special oil on the chips?”
“I beg your pardon!” The deputy head laughed softly. “Chips? Our luncheon menu is specially selected based on the healthy eating programme advocated by the famous chef Sir Jamie Oliver. Chips are NEVER served.”
“I’m very pleased to hear it,” Sarah Jane answered her. “Is there an entrance examination for the students? You are selective, of course? Is there a waiting list?”
“There is no examination. We pride ourselves that even the slowest student can excel in our classrooms. But such excellence costs, of course. Our fees are considerably higher than other private schools. But can you put a price on your child’s future?”
“Indeed, not,” Sarah Jane answered. “May I ask what your fees ARE?”
The deputy headmistress smiled in what Sarah Jane thought was a thoroughly patronising way.
“If you have to ask you can’t afford it,” she said. “Which of these youngsters IS your child?”
“Luke,” Sarah Jane replied, putting her hand proudly on his shoulder. “He is a very clever boy for his age, and I really don’t feel that the state system can offer him enough stimulation. I would be prepared to pay ANY price. And don’t worry. I CAN afford it.” Sarah Jane smiled, too, and met the deputy headmistress’s stare.
“Shall we go and discuss this in my office?” the Deputy headmistress said.
“An excellent idea,” Sarah Jane answered. “Luke, you and Clyde and Maria wait here for me.”
“But… mum….” Luke protested. “I don’t WANT to change schools. I’m fine where I am.”
“Your mother knows what is best for you,” the Deputy Headmistress said, with another simpering smile as she steered Sarah Jane away.
“But…” Luke watched in horror as she left the dining room with the deputy headmistress. “Mum…”
“It’s ok,” Maria assured him. “She’s not REALLY going to make you change schools. She’s just trying to find out a bit more about the school.”
Luke relaxed. Of course she was right. His mum wouldn’t send him to a private school. She wanted him to be ‘normal’. That’s why he had gone to Park Vale in the first place. So that he could learn to mix with ordinary, average students and do the kind of things ordinary boys his age did. She would NEVER send him to a place like THIS.
He relaxed and made the most of the refreshments along with Clyde and waited for Sarah Jane to get back, then they could all go home.
Sarah Jane was away nearly an hour. Everyone else had gone. They were sitting at a table in the empty dining room when she finally appeared. She was smiling brightly.
“Luke,” she said. “Wonderful news. I’ve got you in. You start here on Monday.”
To Be Continued...