The man who had frogs inside him

The story published here won the pounds 2,000 first prize in The Indepe ndent/Scholastic Publications competition for the best new short stories for six to nine- year-olds Illustration by Michael Sheehy
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Once upon a time, in a village by the sea, before there were any motor cars, there lived an old Gravedigger. His Sunday name was Mr Edward Hyde but all the people in the village called him Old Ned.

Old Ned had not always been a Gravedigger. He had been a fisherman and a farmer's boy and the-boy-who-holds-the-horses at the inn and a poacher and a gamekeeper and a soldier in the wars and a husband. He was still a husband. He lived with his wife Annie in a stone cottage near the church. They had been married for thirty-five years. He had been a Gravedigger for nearly all that time and hardly anybody in the village could remember the Gravedigger before Old Ned.

Old Ned was a very good Gravedigger and he always made the graves just the right size, fine big ones for big people and smart little ones for little people, and always so neat and tidy that they were a joy to behold. He took a pride in his work and many people complimented him on his grave-digging. Nevertheless he used to complain to his wife every morning and say:

Annie, my Apple Blossom!

My bones are so stiff,

My back is so sore

I don't want to dig

Any graves,

Any more!

And his wife, Annie, would always say:

Edward my Sweetheart!

Get up and be busy and swing your spade.

If you don't get digging we won't get paid.

If we don't get paid where shall we be?

We'll end in the Workhouse, you and me!

Now in this same village there also lived a very lively boy called Fred and his very lively sister, Matilda. Their father was the Curate and they lived in the Curate's house just by the churchyard where Old Ned used to work. These two, Fred and Matilda, were always playing tricks on Old Ned.

On digging days, Old Ned would go to the kitchen of the Curate's house for a large mug of small beer, and sometimes Fred, and sometimes Matilda, and sometimes their mother, and once or twice even the Curate himself, would give the old man a large mug of small beer to keep him digging. One fine spring day Fred and Matilda brought Old Ned a mug of beer and he swallowed hard and he swallowed something like jelly.

"What was that?" asked Old Ned.

"Frogs' eggs!" shouted Fred and Matilda together and they started to laugh and giggle and fall about and hug each other and jump up and down.

The next moming Old Ned said to his wife:

Annie, my Golden Honey!

My bones are stiff

My back is sore

But this time there is something more

I've swallowed some frogs' eggs

They're here in my middle

and some of the black bits

are starting to wiggle!

And his wife, Annie, said:

Edward my Sweetheart!

Get up and be busy and swing your spade.

If you don't get digging we won't get paid.

If we don't get paid where shall we be?

We'll end in the Workhouse, you and me!

So Old Ned got up but he did not go to work.

He sat in the sun in an old chair at the door of his cottage and when people came by they said to him:

"What's up Ned'? Why aren't you in the churchyard digging graves?"

And Old Ned looked very serious and said:

My bones are stiff

My back is sore

But this time there is something more

I've swallowed some frogs' eggs

They won't come out

and some of the taddies

are swimming about!

For the next days and weeks Old Ned sat every day in the door of his cottage and the people who passed by always stopped to ask him for news about his Curious Condition but Old Ned always told them that he and Annie didn't want to end in the Workhouse and then he would say:

There's lots of news if there's a penny

If there isn't a penny

There isn't any!

And because all the village people wanted to know more about Old Ned's Curious Condition so that they could talk about in the shops and in the pub and after Church on Sunday, they gave Old Ned something out of their pockets and purses. In this way there was always enough money for Ned and Annie to eat and be merry and indeed there was more money in the house than when Old Ned had been digging graves.

Then Old Ned would tell all about his frog's eggs, and nobody ever thought to ask how it was that he knew so much about what was going on inside him. He told the story of the tadpoles, how many there were. He told about how he could feel them swimming around inside him and how they liked best to swim in beer. At first there were thirteen tadpoles, then there were fewer and fewer every day because they were eating each other. He told how they were growing fat and lumpy and then he told how many legs each tadpole had. The story of their back legs lasted one week and the story of the front legs lasted another week. He told how their legs were getting longer and their tails were getting shorter and then one fine day Old Ned announced to the world that there were proper little frogs, five of them, hopping about in his stomach and eating everything he could get down. And the villagers were so pleased they brought him lots of food and beer to keep the little frogs happy.

But Fred and Matilda never came to see Old Ned and that was because the Curate had suddenly and unexpectedly been promoted to be a Parson in Australia and had gone away with his family to his new Parish. A new Curate came to live in the Curate's house and a new Gravedigger came to drink the small beer out of the large mug.

Very soon the people in the neighbouring villages heard about the man who had frogs inside him and people came from miles away to see Old Ned sitting at his cottage door. Sometimes there would be a queue half way down the street. One day a famous doctor in a tall hat came to the village and wanted to listen to the frogs in Old Ned's stomach with his stethoscope. Old Ned said that this was a good idea but that he and Annie didn't want to end in the Workhouse and so would the doctor please give him half-a- crown. The Doctor listened to the noises in Old Ned's inside and was very pleased with what he heard and he told everybody that he had heard Old Ned's five frogs croaking. The Doctor was so pleased and excited he gave Old Ned five shillings and the stethoscope. After that Old Ned charged visitors sixpence a time to listen to the frogs through the stethoscope, but the village people still only needed to pay a penny. After a time people began to say that it was very very lucky to listen to Old Ned's frogs and it soon became the custom for young people getting married, or women who wanted babies, or sick people who wanted to be cured, or poor people who wanted to be rich, or rich people who wanted to be very rich, to come from miles around to listen to the frogs croaking inside Old Ned.

Famous generals and admirals who were going off to fight battles came from the towns and cities to listen to the frogs and get some good luck. Merchants who wanted their ships to come home safely from long and hazardous journeys came to listen. Farmers who wanted a good harvest came to listen. Many of these were very rich men and they often gave Old Ned as much as a golden sovereign because they felt that the more they paid the luckier they would be. Soon, in all the three counties around, when somebody had very bad luck the people would say: "It was his own silly fault! He should have gone and listened to Old Ned's frogs."

These were happy comfortable days in the little stone cottage near the church and now every morning Old Ned would say to his Annie:

Annie, my Turtle Dove!

It's good not to dig any graves any more

It's good just to sit at the cottage door

It's good not to want for a shilling or two

And never the Workhouse for me and you!

And Annie would always say:

My handsome Lover!

There's more in you than I thought, Edward Hyde!

And I don't just mean those frogs inside!

And the happy days went on and on, and many years went by and Old Ned grew older and older and so did Annie his wife until there came a time when there were photographs and motor-cars and aeroplanes and Ned and Annie were both 99 and the oldest people in the village. A Photographer came and took a photograph of the man who has frogs inside him and this photograph was in all the newspapers all over the world and Old Ned was quite rich and famous.

One day an Australian Bishop came from Australia in a small private aeroplane with a lady Aviator who was his sister. They landed their aeroplane in The Big Field near the village. Old Ned was sitting at his cottage door as usual and the Bishop said to him:

"Old Ned, Do you remember us? We were both children here but now we have grown up! I am Fred, the Curate's son, and this lady Aviator is my dear sister Matilda, the Curate's daughter.

And Old Ned looked very serious and said:

If you want a go with the stethoscope

There's one frog left but Boy! can he croak?!

So Fred the Bishop listened to the frog croaking through the stethoscope, and Matilda the Aviator listened to the frog croaking and the Bishop gave Old Ned a twenty pound note and they both told Old Ned that it was the best croak they'd ever heard.

But when they were walking back to their aeroplane in the Big Field, Matilda said to Fred:

"But it was only jelly, wasn't it?"

And Frcd the Bishop said:

"Yes of course it was. It was raspberry jelly!"

Ralph Rochester, this year's winner, had a career in the Army before going into teaching. He is 55 years old and has four grown-up children. He lives in Lympstone, Devon, but is at present a reservist in Bosnia. The runner-up, Patrick Wood, wins pounds 500 for his story "The Button Tree". The judges made a special award to Nicola Loughran for "Bikes Can Git Ya Intae Truble", a brilliant piece written in Glaswegian dialect. 'The man who had frogs inside him' and all the other shortlisted stories will be published by Scholastic in October in 'Story of the Year 3', price pounds 6.99

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