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Chapter 16: Mandrakes and Post Owls
by à nos étoiles @ tda
It felt strange to go to bed so early that Tuesday night, but we were promised by Tarquin and Gwen that it would do us all good. When we unfolded the sofa bed and bade them a good night, I felt like the worst friend ever. They’d travelled halfway across the country only to find me hungover and Scorpius practically undead out of exhaustion. I half-entertained the fantasy that we were just doing research for my work and inflicting a two-person zombie apocalypse upon New New Elgin.
Thinking I wouldn’t be awake in time to see Scorpius leave for work, I promised to pick him up from his first stint at New New Elgin’s primary school at about half past three. But I actually woke up just as he was leaving, so I had time to kiss him and tell him that his jumper was on inside-out before he dashed off.
I was surprised to find Tarquin and Gwen already up when I staggered into the kitchen.
‘Early bird catches the worm,’ Tarquin said brightly. ‘Where do you keep your toast? And your worms?’
‘Uh…’ I made my bleary-eyed way over to the cupboards. ‘We might be out of bread. Bran flakes?’
Five minutes later, the three of us sat down to hot tea and half-filled bowls of bran flakes. The tea was taken up immediately but the bran flakes were a little unloved; I caught Tarquin’s eye and burst out laughing.
‘I’m sorry it’s so meagre!’ I giggled, shoving the cereal around with my spoon. ‘This is a really crappy breakfast, sorry. I’ll run down to the shops for bread in a bit.’
‘It’s like being a student again,’ Gwen smiled. My face burned with guilt.
‘We were going to go out today, anyway,’ Tarquin said. ‘Have a poke around, see what this corner of Scotland has to offer.’
‘Kidnappers and deceit,’ I said, before taking a huge mouthful of the bran flakes. It was a pretty naff breakfast, but I was starving. With some difficulty, I swallowed, then looked up and met their worried eyes.
‘Uh,’ Gwen said. ‘Sounds like the place to be, then.’
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ I waved them away. ‘Just a little misunderstanding with the townspeople. And then some graphic designers from up the road. That’s where we got the kitten from! But it’s all good fun.’
Their worried frowns didn’t go away, so I set down my spoon and explained the whole drama of the talent show from start to finish.
‘Wow,’ Tarquin said, once I’d finished. ‘Was that a dream or did it really happen?’
‘I liked the bit with the watering can,’ Gwen chipped in. ‘About time Scorpius got violent.’
‘Yeah, I know. We’ve got another band rehearsal tonight, by the way. You can pop along and watch, if you’d like.’
‘Of course. Even if only for the shortbread,’ Gwen said.
I went to pick Scorpius up from New New Elgin’s answer to education at the promised time of half past three. The school was a grim little prefab building on the beachfront that someone had painted in primary colours. A sign over the door read Robert Bruce Primary, and, beneath that, in small letters, the words if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again had been picked out in a flamboyant shade of green.
It was a pretty small school compared to the one we’d had for magical children back in Liverpool. I’d gone to the boringly named Liverpool Magical Primary until I was eleven, so that I could pick up the four Rs (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and responsible magical practice, of which we’d had an hour a week) and generally break things and get into fights. New New Elgin’s Robert Bruce Primary was basically the size of me and Scorpius’ flat, with a concrete playground extending out into fields and another small, grim, prefab building that served as a gymnasium.
I pushed open the front door and found myself in a classroom. Like most things in New New Elgin, it was visually overwhelming. The class had taken wall displays to a new level – the posters and bright border paper extended all the way up to the ceiling, where they continued and met in the middle, forming a vibrant circle of orange paper around the lampshade. The furniture was all tiny, which made me feel a bit wobbly. It was like being a very, very tall drunk. And being tall is not something I’ve had a lot of experience of in my short life. Pun intended.
At the other side of the room, a middle-aged brunette sat at the regular-sized teacher’s desk. I recognised her as the one who’d been in the pub on the night me and Scorpius had moved in. Trying my best to ignore miniature-furniture-induced wobbliness, I crossed over and said ‘Good afternoon. I’m here to pick Scorpius up?’
She barely glanced up from the exercise book she was marking. ‘He’ll be out in five minutes. It’s afternoon break at the moment, he should be out on the playground.’
I thought she might have mistaken me for a mother coming to pick up her child, but when I leaned ever so slightly to my left and looked out of the window, I saw the love of my life running in circles and flapping his arms like a bird whilst a horde of small children copied him.
‘Yeah,’ I said, turning away. ‘That’s him alright.’
‘You must be Lucy,’ the woman extended a hand. ‘I’m Jean. Jean Auchinairn.’
‘Aye, that’s what they all say. He did very well, you know. Considering it was his first day. I mean, a lot of the bairns who come in here are a wee bit wild. I’m not sure they quite understood what I meant when I asked them to paint him, but he seemed to get on fine.’
I glanced around at the classroom. Paintbrushes, pots and scraps of parchment were piled neatly on the centre of each table. The paint, however, had been thrown around with reckless abandon, and there were splodges of it on every available surface. Even the ceiling had paint on it.
I somehow dreaded to think that Scorpius would look like up close.
‘Er…I can see that,’ I said.
The words had barely left my mouth when a bell rang overhead. Outside, a whistle blew, then there was the sound of a lot of little feet running at once. For a full minute, it sounded as if the great migration of wildebeest was taking place on the playground of Robert Bruce Primary, but when I looked out of the window again I saw the crowd of children disappear off into the gym and the thundering stopped.
A lot of girls my age talk about hearing the pitter-pattering of tiny feet. I heard the stampeding of midget wildebeest.
A moment after the mass exodus of children, the door flew open and Scorpius tumbled in, doing his best to smile whilst he was evidently in a good deal of pain. He was daubed in paint from loafer to fringe; a bright blue smudge underlined one eye. He had khaki-green freckles.
‘Alan and Toby were fighting but it’s all cool now,’ he said, sounding a little breathless. ‘And…and I think I’ll be off.’
He reached into his pockets, pulled out several paintbrushes, and dumped them onto one of the little tables.
‘See you next week,’ he told Jean Auchninairn, before turning to leave. I followed him outside.
‘How was your day?’ I asked, offering him an elbow as we strolled along the beachfront. He slid his arm through mine.
‘Can we sit down soon?’ he said, sounding weary.
‘Dear me, what were you up to this afternoon?’
‘Playing Post Owls,’ he said.
‘Post Owls? You never played it?’
‘Oh. Kids’ game. Used to play it all the time when I was little. Anyway…the point is that everyone is a post owl, and then there’s a letter, which is usually a leaf or a stick or something and…well, if you’re the owl with the letter, you have to run around with it so nobody else takes it off you, and the point is that you win by keeping hold of the letter for as long as possible.’
‘Oh. Never played that.’
‘Yeah, I played Mandrakes.’
‘Ah. I see.’
We spent the rest of the walk home swapping stories about childhood games we’d played; I got the feeling Scorpius was trying to pick up ideas for his next visit to Robert Bruce Primary. Especially when we got onto talking about survival techniques. Eventually, though, despite the plodding pace, we got safely back into the flat and within reach of a kettle and toaster.
‘I’m exhausted,’ he said. ‘And starving.’
‘We’ve got the band rehearsal tonight,’ I reminded him. ‘Tarks and Gwen said they’d come.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ he frowned. But then a smile flickered onto his weary face. ‘More late nights! We’re hellraisers again!’
‘I wouldn’t call hanging out at the town hall hellraising.’
‘If we’re drunk enough…’ he started.
‘I’m not repeating Burns Night.’
‘It was pretty funny when you punched Prentice.’
A short silence passed. I felt pretty chipper; I could only imagine the eyelid-drooping tiredness he was putting up with. He did his usual hurdling routine to get onto the sofa (I gave him a nine for effort) and I joined him a moment or two later, having taken the long route round the coffee table.
Maybe it was the blue paint beneath his eye, but I could have sworn that, in the clear, neutral light of the afternoon, he looked a bit ill.
Alright, he’d been a workaholic for a while, and he’d always held down a disproportionate number of jobs at any given time, and I completely understand that we were on the wrong side of humble when it came to money and that we were never exactly destined to make it big in the great scheme of things but – weren’t those all just excuses, sometimes? I loved him, and I was the tiniest bit scared. I’d kidded myself for a moment that the smudge of blue paint was just a really horrific sign of sleep deprivation, and that was easy to explain away, but it was obvious just by looking at him that the boy needed at least one less job.
‘I want to work more,’ I said, speaking so fast that the words ended up all tumbled together and it sounded more like Iwannaworkmore. ‘It’s not fair on you. I feel awful. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?’
This was the talk we’d never had. I was sure of it. This was talking later.
A strange, muddled silence passed. He dug in his pocket for a moment, and then produced a little cardboard box with a diagonal red stripe and the words Salamander Lights on it. Beneath that, in a far less jaunty font, was smoking kills.
‘Sorry,’ he said, sheepishly. ‘I was one bad habit short.’
This felt like a big anti-climax. ‘And?’
‘Well…’ he said, pointing to the words in the far less jaunty font.
I think I was more angry at myself than anything for failing to pick up on this. ‘Since when?’
‘Something the other blokes do at work. Doesn’t make me feel so hungry, you know?’
‘And if the other blokes at work told you to jump off a cliff, would you do that too?’
‘Probably,’ he said miserably.
I felt remarkably avoid of moral indignation, but managed to summon up a shake of the head and a disparaging remark or two.
‘Lucy!’ he looked outraged now. ‘You can hardly talk! You’ve been a social smoker since we met!’
Now I didn’t know who I was angry at. ‘Yeah, but I didn’t want you to start!’
‘Because – because,’ my arms flailed about, as if trying to pluck a response from thin air. ‘Because I’m the one who does stupid things, not you! You’re meant to be…good! You’re the good one!’
He gave a snort of derision. ‘This is hardly evil.’
‘Tell that to your lungs!’
‘Fine!’ he snapped, rising to his feet. I grabbed the cuff of his jacket.
‘Hey, no, wait – Scorpius-’
‘I was just going to put the bloody kettle on!’
‘No – sit down, come on…’
He reluctantly obliged. The packet of cigarettes sat on the table in front of us like a third guest.
‘What I mean is…’ I struggled to find the right words. ‘I mean…it’s okay, I’m glad you told me. You’re as much allowed to do stupid things as I am.’
He just sat there and breathed, evidently formulating nineteen different angry responses in his mind.
‘This makes us even stevens, right?’ I said. ‘I mean, my drinking…’
He rolled his eyes.
‘…is just a touch excessive at times,’ I said. ‘And I wasn’t planning to stop that, so, fine. I don’t mind. I won’t be a hypocrite. Look-’
I snatched up the packet and waved it in front of him, before withdrawing one and jamming it between my lips.
‘Er, Lucy,’ he said.
‘It’s fine,’ I mumbled, searching up my sleeve for my wand.
‘You don’t have to-’
I snatched the cigarette out of my mouth to talk properly. ‘Well, I’m bloody going to!’
He stared at his shoes whilst I lit it. ‘It’s just, you only smoke when you’re drunk.’
My words came out all jumbled with smoke. ‘I’m hardly going to be drunk at four in the afternoon, am I?’
‘Wouldn’t put it past you.’
Exchanges like this were usually stupid, teasing, but there was an oddly malicious feel to this one. It was like a sheet of glass had been placed between us, and we were incapable of hearing one another properly, and couldn’t see each other without our own reflections getting in the way. I breathed out smoke, and tried to imagine it collecting against the glass.
‘I smoked before I met you,’ I said. ‘I did a lot of things before I met you.’
It was stupid of me to say that, because it was acknowledging how much of a positive difference he’d made to my life, which wasn’t what I really wanted him to know when I was in a huff with him like this. I don’t think he took it that way, though; his expression seemed to sour, and he got up again.
‘Tea?’ he said.
‘No thanks. I…’
But the acerbic comment I’d planned to make about drinking alcohol instead faltered on my tongue, and I fell silent.
The kettle started to boil. Mugs and teaspoons clattered on the countertops. I was trying to formulate a different answer. A small part of me wanted to lecture him on being irresponsible, force him to give up. A smaller part wanted to indulge in one-upmanship, let him know what those things I’d done before I met him were. And most of me just wanted to sit in silence and let him find the comeback.
I stubbed out the half-smoked cigarette on a coaster and folded my arms over my chest.
Scorpius returned with the tea a few minutes later.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
That was it. That was the comeback.
‘It’s okay,’ I shrugged.
‘You’re unhappy,’ he said.
Forget runaway double-decker buses, that was a runaway freight train.
‘Everyone is,’ I said.
‘No, you’re really – miserable,’ he said, although I got the feeling he’d meant to say something else. ‘You look so sad. All the time. And sometimes I can’t help but think – actually, I think it’s something I’ve done.’
I had to think carefully about my answer, which was hard when I felt like I’d just been flattened by a runaway steamroller. ‘I’m…I’m a little bit unhappy because I’ve got a crappy job, I’m living in a crappy flat, I’m not filthy rich and rolling in Galleons and Pride of Portree are facing relegation but…if anything, it’s the somethings you do that cheer me up.’
His reaction was oddly formal. ‘Thank you for saying so,’ he said.
I sipped my tea and decided it needed more sugar, so got up and headed for the cupboard. Behind my back, Scorpius muttered something that sounded horribly like ‘I’m a failure.’
‘Pardon?’ I wheeled round.
‘Nothing,’ he said.
An extra half-spoonful of sugar added to my tea, I went back to sit beside him. Trying to erase the memory of the argument we’d been having up until then, I asked him how his day had gone, besides playing Post Owls and being doused in paint by small children.
‘Well,’ he shrugged. ‘They said they might have a permanent position for me.’
‘That’s great!’ I said, working my face into an acceptable grin.
He smiled. ‘Yeah. I might quit Cameraderie.’
‘But you like puns so much!’
‘I’d rather work in a school - erk.’
I’d thrown my arms around his neck, mostly out of relief that he was moving on to better things, but partly out of relief that we were swerving away from arguing. ‘That’s fab! Great! Awesome!’
‘Yeah, I can’t breathe,’ he said.
I loosened my arms a bit. In all fairness, my right shoulder had been crushing his windpipe a bit. So I gave him a congratulatory punch on the arm instead.
‘See? Not unhappy. Life’s getting better. Light up! No, not like that,’ I added, as he jokingly reached for the Salamander Lights.
‘Look, having a rubbish job and flat might get me down at times but I wouldn’t have it any different, you know? The two of us – we’re just rubbish, but in the best way, and we’ll be rubbish forever, especially when we marry for the sake of our finances and become Mr and Mrs Rubbish.’
His smile vanished. ‘I didn’t really mean it like that-’
‘No, no, you’re right,’ I said, desperately wishing that I hadn’t brought it up. So I kissed him, just once. ‘You know what’d cheer me up? A bit of shelf-related DIY…’
He looked a bit dumbfounded. ‘O…kay.’
See, this is why Euphemia Flitter picked me for the job. Me, Lucy Weasley, queen of Sexy Talking. I’m sure the awkward laugh I jammed onto the end of ‘shelf-related DIY’ was an absolutely killer, and did wonderful things for Scorpius.
I pushed his fringe back from his face, took off his glasses, and then smudged a spit-dampened thumb over the paint under his eye. It just went a fainter shade of blue.
‘You’ve got paint on your face,’ I said.
‘I know,’ he said.
On a scale of one to ten, one being about as romantic as a Flobberworm and ten being about as romantic as the entire literary canon of Amortentia Publications combined, ‘you’ve got paint on your face’ probably registered as a two. But I’m rubbish and I know it.
Ignoring the paint and, with glasses still held in one clenched fist, I leaned in and kissed him again. I wasn’t even sure I cared about the strange taste of bonfire with top notes of orange squash, nor the faintly painful scratch of a five o’clock shadow. Look, I didn’t care about anything, except reminding him that I actually cared a lot. And it wasn’t like I was in fantastic shape either.
He broke away after about five minutes to say ‘It’s weird. Sometimes I get really homesick for London and sometimes I don’t.’
Instead of asking whether he felt homesick or not now, I kissed him again, although a little voice in my head went oh, yes, Scorpius, I know exactly how you feel. Do continue this conversation later on; what you are saying is most interesting, although at the present moment it can possibly wait until after I have done things with you that will exhaust my entire back catalogue of euphemism and metaphor.
He seemed ready to shove me off again, but after I broke away for a couple of seconds to tell him in garbled whispering that he was an idiot but I really loved him and could I possibly put his glasses on the coffee table now, he gave up and let me get on with it. It wasn’t like it had been ages since we’d had time alone together or anything, but, you know, there’s not many times you find yourself getting horizontal on a sofa with the express aim of euphemistically putting up a shelf with only one arm, if you get the vague nub and gist of what I’m trying to say.
We’d been there for some time when he muttered something about how we should probably stop soon before Tarquin and Gwen got back from their travels, but when I told him that it was only half four by my watch and they weren’t due till six, he said excellent and his hands, which had been tangled up in my hair, went onto my shoulders and then slid down my back and just under the hem of my shirt.
It was then when I got the strangest feeling that we were being watched.
And that’s really not the feeling you want when you’re trying to snog your boyfriend in peace. On a scale of one to ten, one being about as romantic as a Flobberworm and ten being about as romantic as the entire literary canon of Amortentia Publications combined, it was probably about a minus five hundred. Give or take a few.
I sat up, silencing Scorpius’ protest by pressing a finger to his lips. Then, my eyes met the tiny green eyes of a cat. Mr Andrew Socks had climbed onto the little side table and was peering at us over the arm of the sofa.
Prrrrr, Mr Andrew Socks said.
‘Oh dear,’ my voice sounded very strangled. ‘Cat.’
Scorpius shoved my hand away and sat up too, twisting around to see Mr Andrew Socks.
Prrrrr, Mr Andrew Socks said.
‘Fuck me, that’s off-putting,’ Scorpius said.
‘Oh, yes, of course,’ I said. ‘Yes to the second part too. And don’t swear in front of the cat,’ I added, elbowing him in the ribs.
Prrrrr, Mr Andrew Socks said.
‘I bet that’s swearing in cat,’ Scorpius muttered, before reaching over and picking Mr Andrew Socks up. Then he held him at eye level and gave him a very stern look.
‘She’s mine, okay?’ Scorpius said.
Prrrrr, Mr Andrew Socks said.
‘I doubt he has a crush on me or anything…’
‘How do you know?’ Scorpius set Mr Andrew Socks down at the other end of the sofa, where he curled up on a cushion and stared at us with his green eyes. ‘He might have felines for you.’
‘You know I like puns.’
I took his hand, turning away from the still-purring Mr Andrew Socks. ‘You know, there are at least two cat-free rooms in this flat with lockable doors.’
‘You mean the bathroom and the airing cupboard? And the bathroom lock is broken. And as much as I love you, not the airing cupboard.’
‘Not the airing cupboard,’ I echoed, getting to my feet and pulling him up by the wrist. ‘I promise.’
It was him that kissed me this time, and it was almost as if the conversation we’d had earlier had never happened.
a/n: this is the bit where I make a ton of catastrophic plot decisions and character developments and you all get mad and throw oranges at me, and I welcome those oranges because they're pretty good snacks and - er anyway. yes. I hope this chapter is alright. Not, like, bad or boring or anything. There was supposed to be a lot more to this chapter, but it got too long and I split it. Also, to those of you who were asking for a romantic scene...do you see, now, how awkward I get writing them? Srsly I don't even know where the whole lol it's a cat wat do thing came from and I'm going to shut up now.
to come: hopefully less ~dialogue heavy~ chapters, more Tarks & Gwendibird, more ducks in the pint, Lucy's manifesto for troo wub and...perhaps a spot of lettuce in the side salad.
p.s the quote 'if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again' is, I believe, from the popular legend of Robert the Bruce, although I doubt that he ever said that and therefore I don't really have much of a concrete origin for the quote. but it's a good maxim to live by. trust me.