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Chapter 19: Tea, Custard Creams, and a Cat
Rose looked thoroughly put-out when I picked her up from the bus stop. I mean, she was never the most cheerful of girls and hadn’t had the happiest of times before coming to visit us, but this was teenage Scorpius levels of put-outness, from the absent frown to the hunched shoulders, right down to the scuffed shoes. And Rose had never been the sort of person to leave shoes unpolished before.
Caught up in her thoughts, she didn’t seem to notice me for ages, and when I grinned and said, brightly, ‘Hello, Rosie! How are you?’ She flinched, gave me a taut smile, and told me that she was absolutely fine, thank you. Which of course meant that she felt absolutely wretched.
Somehow, I judged that a fifteen minute walk through New New Elgin back to the flat would not be a good idea - so I offered her my elbow, gripped onto her tiny suitcase as tight as possible, and tried my best to apparate back into the flat as neatly as possible and with a minimal amount of splinching. We missed the coffee table by inches, and, after a moment or two of Rose coughing and wibbling about by way of side-effects, her shoulders hunched over again so that, once more, she looked like a poor, wilted copy of her usual self.
‘What’s the job interview for?’ I asked, as she stood miserably in the middle of the room and I filled the kettle.
‘Some tax work,’ she said. ‘One of the northerly Ministry outposts.’
'Oh. How northerly?’
‘Wick,’ she said gloomily. ‘Only thing that was going.’
I smiled. ‘At least it isn’t the Shetlands?’
‘I’ll have to do some flat-hunting too. London,’ she added, with a humourless laugh, and I could see her eyes were welling up. ‘So expensive. Might go back to Exeter.’
‘Tea?’ I offered.
‘Yes please. Just milk, thank you,’ she said, and it sounded like she was just reeling off rehearsed phrases from memory.
‘Go on, take a seat,’ I motioned to the sofa, but then the lock clicked, the door swung open, and Scorpius blundered in back from Robert Bruce Primary, as bleary and paint-besplattered as usual.
‘Oh, hi, Rose,’ he said, shutting the door with his foot and dumping the two hefty carrier bags he was holding.
As the kettle hissed up to a crescendo and we all stood about looking helplessly at each other, I realised that it was possibly only the second time all three of us had been in a room together since the fiasco that was the Devon holiday.
‘I picked up some groceries,’ Scorpius nodded to the bags on the floor.
I checked the closest one. ‘This is full of pipecleaners.’
‘Yeah, but the other one-’
‘It’s full of beer.’
‘I did say I got some groceries. The pipecleaners are for school, sorry.’
‘Are you teaching now?’ Rose said, her voice a little hoarse.
‘Not really,’ he said.
‘I’m…I’m going to put these away. I was in the middle of changing my typewriter ribbon too, better finish that,’ I said, lifting up the bag of pipecleaners. I figured it was best to disappear into the bedroom because I was only making it awkward; ignoring the fact that they’d once actually been a couple - each other’s first love, no less - and despite the fact that me and Rose were actually related, Scorpius had always known her better than I had and I got the feeling she’d rather have her impending hysterical sobbing fit in front of him than me.
My typewriter was totally fine – I hadn’t used it in a month, and was being kept temporarily under the bed, but I knelt on the floor and reached in to rub my fingers on the ribbon to get the full, inkstained appearance of actually having changed it. Through the half-shut door, I could hear Rose and Scorpius exchanging all sorts of stilted small talk about work and the economy.
It all felt a bit ridiculous. I’d abandoned my highly-strung cousin who was probably on the verge of a breakdown in the kitchen with my boyfriend who was, coincidentally, her ex-boyfriend; it felt like a plot for Amortentia Publications if there ever was some (could have used some zombies, though). And I was crawling about on the floor of the bedroom with ink on my fingers. My experience of the romantic genre told me to expect to find Rose and Scorpius attached by the lips when I returned. My experience of life generally, and of Rose and Scorpius themselves, told me to expect to find them at least three metres apart.
‘I’m really sorry to intrude on you like this,’ I heard Rose say, her voice considerably higher than usual. ‘Just…too expensive to book a hotel and-’
‘It’s no problem.’
At that moment, Mr Andrew Socks leapt down from the bed and crouched in front of me.
Meow? He said. I translated it as: oh dim-witted slave that feeds me, why are you here?
‘I don’t know, Andy,’ I whispered.
Meow, he said, as if telling me to get up, you coward. Your cousin is falling apart at the seams and you’ve left her in there with your equally dim-witted mate who feeds me more and is more deserving of my felines.
You know the zombie smut is probably getting to you when you start talking to your pet cat.
Scorpius must have crossed the room at that point, because I heard the kettle click off the boil and the sound of three mugs being filled. Then Rose said-
‘Is that smoke?’
Meow, Mr Andrew Socks said, or: yikes, he’s in for it now.
There was a pause from outside.
‘Yeah,’ Scorpius said, with an air of forced calm. ‘It is.’
Right on cue, as if he couldn’t quite stop himself, he let out a pathetic, wheezy cough.
A flash of the old Rose came back. ‘That’s foul!Not to mention bloody self-destructive - what about Lucy?’
‘I don’t think she minds-’
‘Have you ever asked?’
‘It’s a disgusting habit! Do you know what it does to you?’
‘You can’t throw away your life like that!’
‘I wasn’t really-’
‘Yeah, I know, hark who’s talking,’ Rose spat. ‘Like I’m the best person to take life advice from.’
Meow, Mr Andrew Socks said. I took it as: she has a point there.
There was another strained silence.
‘Rose…?’ Scorpius cautioned. Then there was the clatter of a teaspoon falling on the worktop. I swept up Mr Andrew Socks into my arms – despite being a cat, he seemed like the most sensible being in the flat – and went back into the kitchen. Scorpius had Rose in an awkward sort of hug, patting her on the back whilst she cried and cried and cried into the lapels of his jacket. He met my eye and gave me a grim smile.
‘Hi,’ he mouthed.
‘I’ll do the tea,’ I mouthed back, setting Mr Andrew Socks down onto the tiled floor. At once, he darted forward and came to a screeching halt next to Rose, sniffing inquisitively at her scuffed shoes.
I finished making the tea and carted the mugs over to the coffee table one by one as Rose sniffled and coughed herself into silence. Then I took a plate from the cupboard, put a handful of biscuits on it and, after a moment’s deliberation, emptied the entire packet out. Meanwhile, Scorpius tried to steer Rose over to an armchair; a bit tricky considering Mr Andrew Socks had taken a liking to her and was twining himself around her ankles.
‘Biscuit?’ I shoved the plate of custard creams into Rose’s face.
‘Thanks,’ Rose sniffed, taking three biscuits at once.
Meow, Mr Andrew Socks said, which was probably directed at Rose and probably meant cuddle me, you snivelling human fool.
Tea, custard creams and a cat: probably the best things you can give someone to cheer them up. Scorpius gave me the thumbs up before the two of us settled into the sofa opposite Rose.
‘I’m really sorry,’ she said, shakily, before hiccupping. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so weak-’
‘S’alright,’ Scorpius said, subtly pushing the plate of biscuits forward a bit.
‘I – hic – came up on the Knight Bus,’ she said. ‘Really busy. Had to stand to – hic – Manchester. Did you say you were teaching?’
For a split second, I wondered why Rose was so interested in what Scorpius was doing for a living, but then I remembered how she’d never particularly approved of his artsy inclinations and was probably both surprised and overjoyed at the thought that he might have a real job.
‘Er,’ Scorpius glanced down at a splodge of yellow paint on the sleeve of his suit jacket. ‘Just part-time. Wednesdays and Fridays now.’
‘Oh,’ she said. Then she started talking very fast. ‘I hear it’s a really good profession to get into, pay isn’t amazing but apparently it’s very fulfilling and it’s not like they’re ever not going to want teachers, and I was thinking of going into it myself but I’m hardly the – hic – right person for the job.’
‘I’m not exactly – hic – friendly, am I?’ she said, as fresh tears rolled down her face.
‘Well, neither am I-’ Scorpius began.
‘Oh, you’re – hic – you’re just shy!’ she blubbered.
‘Yeah,’ I chipped in. ‘Did you ever think about it?’
‘What, being a teacher?’ he said.
Me and Rose both nodded, the latter rubbing damp patches of tears into the fabric of her skirt.
‘Look, I think you’re both missing something,’ he said, looking between us. ‘Art isn’t on the curriculum at Hogwarts…’
‘Oh,’ I said, feeling a bit deflated, but Rose sat up a bit straighter.
‘You could teach in a muggle school,’ she said, suddenly brusque and purposeful, her swollen red eyes and the only remainder of her fit of sobbing. ‘It isn’t as hard as you’d think, I researched it for a bit. There’s just a few extra qualifications you need and, sure, you have to be good at acting and remember not to whip your wand out, but…’
She trailed off; Scorpius was shaking his head.
‘Me? Controlling a class? I’d be skinned alive,’ he said. ‘And you might want to rephrase that last bit,’ he added, a smirk twitching at the corners of his mouth.
‘Huh?’ Rose frowned.
‘Whip your wand out,’ I mouthed. ‘Genius. Sorry, can’t resist an innuendo.’
It was really me who started off the hysterical giggling, although I guess, given the whole ridiculous scenario of Rose breaking down in the kitchen and me talking to a cat, we all needed a good laugh about something. But it took us about five minutes to calm down again and probably repaired all the little splinters that existed between us; now it felt like we were just friends hanging out, having a cuppa and some biscuits together. No-one would even have to know what’d gone on between us in the past because we’d all started to forget it ourselves.
‘Guess who else is up for a visit,’ I said, once we were all done laughing and had had a biscuit apiece. ‘Lettuce.’
‘I’ve…heard about him,’ Rose grimaced. ‘Why?’
‘Somehow we managed to join a band and, somehow, we’re performing this tomorrow night. Lettuce is just…helping. Helping with cowbell duties,’ I said. ‘Really, it’s terrifying. Don’t worry, we stuck him in a B&B.’
‘Yeah, about that,’ Scorpius said. ‘You’ll have to have the sofa tonight, sorry, we don’t have a lot of room.’
‘Unless you want to sleep in the bath,’ I volunteered. ‘Or Mr Andrew Socks might let you share a radiator.’
‘I think I’ll pass,’ she said. ‘Sofa’s fine.’
We ended up taking Rose to the pub that evening. Hardly a surprise, given how small New New Elgin was and how the pub was pretty much the only thing open after five o’clock. As far as I knew, Rose had never been much of a drinker; the sort to indulge in a tequila and lemonade now and again, but I knew for certain that she’d never been drunk in her life. When we sat down, though, and I offered to go up and get drinks, she asked for whisky, neat, ‘Just to start off with’.
‘Well, I’m just taking advantage of the fact that I’m in Scotland,’ she said, when I raised my eyebrows at her. So I toddled off to the bar to get two pints and Rose’s whisky, where I found knitting Prentice, knitting on his own, a Butterbeer before him.
‘Hiya,’ I said. ‘Come and sit with us, my cousin’s up from London. I’m sure she’d like to meet a real Scottish person.’
He smiled. ‘Sure.’
He tucked his knitting under one arm and helped me carry the drinks back over to the table, where he took the spare seat next to Scorpius.
‘This is Rose,’ I said. ‘Rose, this is Prentice.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ she said, leaning in to shake his hand. ‘Are you knitting?’
‘Aye,’ he said, holding up the half-finished scarf for her to see. She smiled uncertainly.
We fell silent and drank. I was relieved to see Rose sipping at the whisky instead of knocking it back in one; I didn’t want to be the cause of Rose’s first drunk experience.
‘So,’ knitting Prentice said. ‘What brings you to this corner of Scotland?’
‘I’ve got a job interview in Wick,’ she said. ‘Some tax work at the northernmost Ministry outpost.’
‘Wick?’ he said. ‘My ma and pa live there – I’m actually going up on Sunday.’
‘Oh? My interview’s on Monday.’
‘I can give you a lift, if you want,’ he offered. ‘I’ve got enough room in my car.’
‘You can drive?’
‘Aye…it’ll be early in the morning, though.’
‘No, that’s fine,’ Rose said. ‘A lift would be very much appreciated. The fares for the Knight Bus have gone up recently, you see, and I don’t know the area well at all…’
‘Nae bother,’ knitting Prentice said.
At that moment, the door to the pub burst open and Lettuce strode in – I say strode, but it was something like a cross between a strut, a hop, a skip and a jump all at once. It was like he’d fitted springs to the balls of his feet (knowing Lettuce, he probably had).
His eyes scanned the pub and finally locked on us in the corner. Scorpius, to my left, was visibly cowering.
‘Helloooo!’ Lettuce crooned, throwing out his arms and galloping over to us. ‘I went to Urquhart castle today, it was fab!’
‘That’s nice,’ Scorpius said.
‘This town is fab!’ Lettuce continued, arms windmilling. ‘Fab-u-lous!’
‘Great,’ Scorpius smiled weakly. ‘Good to hear it.’
‘I met a friend,’ Lettuce beamed. ‘She’s called Mary and, look,’ he waggled his fingers at us; the nails were painted luminous pink. ‘She did my nails for me!’
At first, I had a strange moment of déjà vu – my chair was shaking a little bit, and it felt like I was in London again where, every so often, you could feel the distant rumble of the Underground in your bones. But this was New New Elgin, not London, and when I turned to find out where the shaking was coming from, I saw that Rose was laughing so hard that she’d had to grip onto the armrest of my chair to stop her face from smacking into the table.
Laughter really is the best medicine. So, when Lettuce waved his arms about a bit more and declared his shrill intention to get himself a drink and join us at our table, I thought: good. Rose needs all the laughter she can get.
At six o’clock on Saturday night, Scorpius was visibly nervous. Given that the two towns competing in the all magical all Scottish talent and variety show contest, region D, section A, fifth division, first round were Inverness and New New Elgin, the judging panel of aforementioned all magical all Scottish talent and variety show contest, region D, section A, fifth division, first round had decided that the contest itself would have to alternate between each town every year and, luckily, this year, it was in New New Elgin.
We were running a tad late, as it was, and ended up having to apparate there. Me and Scorpius have never been especially good at apparition, so I was a bit worried about the two of us having to take Lettuce and Rose apiece side-along. Miraculously, there were no casualties, severe splinching or otherwise, although Scorpius lost half an eyebrow out of sheer nerves.
‘Nobody will notice,’ I said, as he dithered back in forth in front of me outside the Town Hall, fretting about how only having one and a half eyebrows would apparently ruin his chances of successfully playing the piano that evening.
‘But I look weird,’ he whined. ‘I look so weird-’
I nodded pointedly in the direction of Lettuce, who’d decided to reprise his nebula-print catsuit for the evening.
‘Point taken,’ he said. ‘But-’
‘You’ll be fine,’ I grinned, knowing that his trembling hands probably indicated otherwise. ‘You’ve played in front of a crowd before, should be a breeze.’
‘Yes, but,’ he said. ‘I was a different person then. And drunk.’
‘You had no problem reading your poetry-’
‘Drunk,’ he said. ‘Drunk, drunk, drunk...maybe I should’ve had something before we came out-’
‘Absolutely not,’ Rose chipped in; she was getting some of her old cut-glass accent back, and it sounded more like ebsolutely. ‘You’ll be fine. Don’t panic.’
‘But I’m a panicky person,’ he panicked.
‘Come on,’ I sighed, and steered him into the Town Hall.
A small audience had assembled. A very small audience. Which was unsurprising, given that, after all, it was only region D, section A, fifth division, first round. I guess most of the crowd had come from Inverness; the vast majority of New New Elginers had been roped into the band, the dance act, or were blagging their way backstage to sabotage Inverness’ kit. New New Elgin wasn’t really a big enough town to provide a proper audience. In fact, as far as I was aware, New New Elgin’s contribution to the audience was an elderly man with an ear trumpet on the first row and his snoozing pet dog.
Scorpius, Rose and I were let through backstage without hesitation, even though Scorpius was the only one involved in any sort of performance whatsoever. Lettuce was nowhere to be seen; I kept my eye out for sparkles and hot pink nail polish, but it seemed he’d wandered off somewhere on a whim.
Backstage, it was chaos. For a concert/talent show, I guessed it was an ordinary sort of chaos – people fixing outfits and costumes, knitting Prentice lugging a bass drum in the direction of the stage, the five Jeans practising harmony together in a corner, Jock lovingly hugging a set of bagpipes to his chest. Except there was so much tartan – tartan in the everything, as Tarquin had put it – that the scene was eye-searingly painful to look at. Except for a tiny blot of monochrome in the centre, where call-me-Mary-Sue, dressed demurely in a white shirt and black skirt, stood, looking quite helpless and alone.
‘Holy cricket!’ Rose said.
‘Come again?’ I said.
The colour had gone out of Rose’s face. ‘I know who she is.’
It was a moment where time seemed to slow, to stretch, to expand and fold out like a concertina and burst out of the front doors, a moment where I was far too busy thinking to register, even in the chaos of tartan, anything more than the three people within my line of vision. There was Rose, her face indecipherable but pale. Call-me-Mary-Sue, with her perfect blood-red lips slack in a little zero and her doe eyes wide as if they’d been caught in headlights. And then Scorpius, who was evidently putting two and two together in his head and looked like he’d just had a glass of cold water thrown in his face.
It took me a while to figure it out, the rusty cogs of deduction grinding into action in my mind. Kensington, the high-flying Ministry work, the move halfway across the country, the enigmatic letter from the enigmatic Alexander. And what had been the name of Rose’s fiancé again?
I certainly remembered it now. And I think Rose was looking at the girl who her fiancé had run off with for the first time in months.
I was already cowering in preparation for the meltdown. Surely, Rose would go bonkers. Scream, stamp her feet, start throwing unforgiveable curses willy-nilly. She’d probably murder both me and Scorpius for the sheer cheek of breathing in the same air as her. At the very least, she would punch call-me-Mary-Sue in the face.
Rose stayed perfectly still, white as an exceptionally clean white sheet. Then she clenched and unclenched her fists.
‘I’m trying this new thing,’ she muttered. ‘It’s called f...forgi…not being a pillock.’
Then, quite unexpectedly, she walked up to call-me-Mary-Sue and hugged her.
a/n: just a wee short chapter, probably about three left to go in total (yikes, being so close to the end is a scary thought). hope you liked it regardless! also, when I was browsing old ministry of sound compilations on spotify in the wee hours of the morning the other day, I happened across a song called 'nice weather for ducks' by lemon jelly...so, I played it on a whim and...I can't even describe to you how vomit-inducingly cheerful that tune is. and the video, oh, wow, I can't even. the video is apparently about karl marx on an acid trip. whilst watching it, I couldn't help but think, oh, I'm in that corner of the internet again...
anyway, thank you for reading ♥