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Chapter 21: March 5th - March 12th
My sister died and the aftershocks still running through my body were the only things that were keeping her significant. My parents were still living, her old best friend had grown up and was probably married, no one else had known her – not really – and they missed her, but she was no long prominent. And then there was me and that one event, her life, had twisted my whole being into this mess. If I was okay, then Hope had no legacy to speak of. I wasn’t much of a legacy, but I was proof that a girl called Hope Whitehall had lived and breathed and died on the tarmac. That once, years ago, there was a squib girl who couldn’t work the slots, that made her little sister hold her hand when they crossed the road to get fish and chips, who’d crawl into her bed at night and read her stories because she couldn’t sleep.
And she’d have hated me for dragging out such a legacy for so long, but I wasn’t selfless enough to give her up just yet.
But what would my legacy be? Less than Hope’s, certainly, and she’d lived for a mere nine years – nothing at all, a speck of history – and I’d had much more time than that. And what would there be left of me? A bunch of funny stories about a messed up teenager and an equally messed up twenty-something.
My landlord would have to find a new tenant. That was the sum total of my life – an occupation in a flat I couldn’t actually afford and my parent’s strained and slightly distant affection towards something they were obliged to love. My untimely death was sure to have an effect on James, too, but he was more resilient than he realised if only he’d stop wading around in his anguish because he felt he had to. He’d get over it in that way you do with grief – when you stop thinking about it all the time, and then you stop thinking like you should be thinking about it all the time.
And then Francis said something that made me think that there was a way out. My stupid Uncle Francis, who’d I’d called because I was slightly drunk and riding on a significant amount of nicotine, and I’d wanted something that I could find funny.
Other than Francis having an utterly ridiculous name he was generally quite a ridiculous person. I generally blamed the fact that by wizarding law Francis didn’t need an actual qualification to become a therapist, instead he just decided that he might be quite good at it (possibly on the advice of some slightly deluded girl who fancied him when he was twelve) and opened a practice. And that was it.
So, normal advice from Francis usually involved growing some sort of plant (apparently supposed to create a sense of achievement, apparently you were supposed to bond with the plant – if that’s how his clients were leaving, I hated to think how they were turning up) which was why I was generally quite surprised when Francis’s advice hadn’t had me in stiches.
Own your life, Grace.
And my heart had seemed to stop in my chest and then if felt like it was breaking. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d believed hearts could break, but then the accumulative weight of years of living without hope (in any sense of the word), without changing anything or doing anything, without feeling and just being seemed to hit me all at once. And it hurt.
Because maybe there was a way out.
“How?” I’d asked; my voice had cracked, the ash of my burnt out cigarette scattered into my lap, the wine seemed to sour suddenly.
And then Francis told me.
It didn’t start with a plant which was probably good considering my record with keeping anything living in my apartment – after the time I’d set fire to my cactus before falling into the still-sharp smoking thing in an attempt to put the fire out with a bottle of nail varnish remover I’d given up on co-inhabiting my flat with anything that wasn’t either dead or had never been living. It summed up my life quite aptly, I thought. I hadn’t watered the plant Dave had given me for my birthday once, instead choosing to watch its slow progression as it withered and died.
No, this time it started as a list.
Well, actually, there were several lists.
“So,” George said, “you’ve quit.”
“Indeed,” I agreed, “enjoying navigating the realms of the unemployed.”
“Knew it,” Jill grumbled, “soon as Max said you’d quit I bloody knew. When did you find out?”
“Last week,” I admitted, rolling the confession over in my brain and shrugging my shoulder slightly.
“What, sorry?” George asked.
“How did you..?”
“Oh,” Jill said, spontaneously popping a piece of bubble gum I hadn’t known she’d been chewing, “I know his type.”
“Anyone want to explain this in a language I can understand?” George suggested, casually ordering himself another pint before turning fully in his seat to stare at both of us. “What’s Grace done now?”
“Max,” I said.
“Oh, Christ,” George said raising his eyebrows, “no, actually, that makes a lot of sense. Damn, Grace. Drink?”
“I… I’m trying to cut back.” I admitted, feeling oddly like everything about myself had been transplanted into someone else. Having decided that a new start would coincide with the new month, I’d spent the last evening in February very very dunk and informing a slightly confused bloke that I was going to start owning my life and was likely either going to start with a tattoo or a baby. In the morning both of these had seemed like pretty horrible ideas (the bloke at the time had thought so too and had run off when I said the B word) and ‘drinking’ became top of the ‘things to change’ list.
Shortly followed by smoking, excessive eyebrow plucking, my weight and lack of fitness. Those were the physical things. And then after I’d started writing the list just kept getting longer – improving my CV and therefore getting a serious, proper job (maybe to do with writing?), a whole list of relationships I wanted to patch up…
Apparently there were a lot of things I wanted and I hadn’t even realised. I was so intent on not thinking beyond the next week that I’d never really considered what I wanted from life. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there were parts of life that it was possible to reach out and grab.
“Did you hit your head really hard?” Jill suggested, raising her eyebrows and shrugging, “a double for me, George. You all right though, Grace? I could stage another protest.”
“Transparency in terms of marital status.”
“Well,” I said, grinning, “what’s your marital status, you mad woman?”
“Engaged,” She admitted grimly, “we’ve set a date.”
“Crap.” I said, raising my eyebrows slightly.
“Wanna come, Grace? Bring a hot date and got sloshed. Sure you don’t want another drink?”
“Well,” I said again, frowning slightly. When I’d said drinking I’d more meant sitting at home alone with a bottle of wine than drinking with two of the people I actually counted as friends, and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with going to a bar and having a drink… it was thinking drink could fix my problems and dull the whole sense of feeling things, “sod it,” I said decisively, “I’ll give up smoking today instead.”
“Complete life evaluation?” George suggested, ordering me a double vodka and coke and turning around to look at me. “Max induced?”
“Not really,” I admitted, taking my drink and considering changing the nicotine patch (rubbish things without that feeling of tar filling up your lungs and the impending healthy problems to come with it), “it was James.”
“Bring him to the wedding,” Jill said, “that can be my present – James Potter at my wedding. And tell him it’s a nudist wedding.”
“Not something you want to see.”
“Oh,” George said, “developments.”
“Please don’t make me talk about it,” I said, pressing my fingers into my forehead, “the basic frame of the story is a colossal argument and a phone call with my shitty therapist Uncle – and now I’m eating ‘Weight Witches’ ready meals and spending a fortune on nicotine patches.”
“You know, Grace,” Jill said thoughtfully, “if you need another therapist, I’m marrying one?”
“Mum?” I asked, frowning into the receive as I stubbed out my cigarette feeling mildly guilty. It was only one. “What… what are you calling about?”
“Grace,” Mum breathed, “Francis said that you called him.”
“Oh God,” I muttered, pressing my lips together and feeling my chest tightened. This really wasn’t something I wanted my Mum involved in. I couldn’t deal with the extra emotional pressure of having my Mum cheering me on when I’d already accepted the fact that this was going to fail and falling back down into the ugly pit was going to hurt way more than it usually did.
This was hope. And it was probably going to kill me.
“Can I come round?”
“It’s not a good time, Mum,” I said, glancing around my flat feeling oddly sick – I hadn’t actually thrown out my cigarettes, or any of the alcohol that was under the sink, or done any washing for about a month, and my list of things to improve was spellotaped to one of the kitchen counters and frankly I didn’t want my mother to see number eight ‘no one night stands’ or number nine ‘no relationships with shit men’ because she was sure to ask questions at the exact moment I didn’t want to talk about it. “I’m… about to go out.”
“Erm, James,” I lied, glancing round at my flat feeling a bit lonely all of a sudden. Maybe I should see James.
“James Potter?” Mum said, “okay, Grace love. But I have some things I’d liked to send over. I’m sending my owl, okay – so turn of the hob. I don’t want a repeat of last time.”
“Fine, Mum,” I said, shaking my head and pressing my forehead against the sofa, “oh, Mum…I lost my job. And, well, I was wondering if…”
“I’ve paid your rent for the next six months,” Mum said, with her slightly strained voice that I hated hearing, “don’t argue with me about that, Grace. Just… please, do something positive with that time.”
So, that was that. Six months to change my life.
Most people don’t understand what it feels like to fall into the depths of yourself and to believe with your whole soul that there is no true escape from that feeling – it didn’t matter whether I built a whole new life for myself, if I gave up the smoking and cut back on my drinking and truly invested in myself (which honestly I’d never done). Hope could still spring upon me and I might watch her die or else rekindle the survivor’s guilt that drove me to rendering myself half bald and friendless. That had led me to the unhappy conclusion that it wasn’t worth pursuing the idea at all: with the prospect of being given six months of my life to reinvent myself free of charge courtesy of my usually misguided mother, it seemed like it might be worthwhile – Muggle students were fiven their time at university to elarn for the sake of learning, to travel and to expreinece things that the responsibilities of real life simply didn’t permit. The magical world had Hogwarts to make friends for life to learn the magic which enriched their future lives and lead them to ceears – I’d left with little more than a lingering hanfover and a few embarrassing stories… then I’d ran away for years and years.
As I looked over my CV I began to wonder whether that was necessarily a bad thing – not many Wizards could have claimed to have travelled as much as I had, worked so many muggle jobs, taken some time off before pursuing a career. I’d picked up little more than my rudimentary language skills but that must, surely, lend me to something beyond one of those teenage part time jobs because, frankly, I felt too old to be squeezing into another waitress outfit… At least, thanks to Max, I had a few months of solid writing training and we could hardly give me a bad reference when he thought his wife was in the dark about the whole thing.
In some respects I was actually in a much better place than I had been months previously. Or, at least my eyes had been opened slightly to the prospect of change – at least, to the extent that I was now considering the leaflets my mother had sent me about OWL and NEWT refresher courses for mature students (although I very much wanted to object to being branded ‘mature’ and there was probably a fair amount of evidence to chase that label away from a near life time). The courses were free, they lead towards a qualification without taking a full two years as the courses nearly did… as a student I would be qualified for additional language classes and use of the gym and it’s facilities (mentally, I put a tick next to the ‘loose weigh and get fit’ part of my happiness list) – it seemed pretty in keeping with Francis’s mad suggestion.
Own your life, Grace.
And it seemed like my mother had been waiting for me to wake up and start trying to believe that there was still something worth fighting for.
It was oddly terrifying to start taking positive steps towards a future that I knew nothing about. This was well and truly going against my default mode so drastic that just, well, every time I thought about it there was an induced sense of horror – of the unnatural, of wanting to remind myself that the whole thing was going to end in failure and that opening myself up like this could only lead to utter ruin.
And all my application required was five hundred words on education hadn’t worked out for me the first time.
Where to start?
I think it was the sudden withdrawal symptoms that lead me to another phone call with Francis; my hands felt empty and useless when they weren’t sliding open a packet of fags and pulling out the lighter, or even rolling my own cigarettes (and Merlin knows I hadn’t bothered with that for years – economical it might be, but it was also a pain in the ass and I always got the flimsy paper the wrong way round) and after tearing off a nicotine patch and flushing it down the toilet without even thinking about the potential plumbing problems I’d grabbed the phone, had half dialled James’s number before cursing myself and punching in Francis’s number again.
“It’s not working,” I said irritably, “I’m not owning anything except a lot of those stupid ready meals you sent me and a lot of nicotine produce which are not the same as actual cigarettes!”
“Gracie,” Francis said in his frustratingly calm voice, “this just proves that you have an addiction. But that’s okay because…”
“- I don’t have an addiction,” I hissed, wringing my hands and closing my eyes briefly. I needed a damn cigarette. I could practically taste one if I concentrated hard enough and it wasn’t exactly like cigarettes even tasted good and yet… “I need to do something with my hands.”
It was a good job I hadn’t called James. He would have had a lot to say about that.
“Then do something,” Francis said, calmly.
“Bloody what? And if you tell me to start gardening -”
“-write something,” Francis interrupted, “that’s what you used to do at your old job, isn’t it? Write things.”
I wasn’t actually intending on taking his suggestion even remotely serious, but his voice was becoming too irritating and I really did need a cigarette so I hung up rather violently and began digging out my last pack of emergency cigarettes (I had eventually thrown them all out, but keeping one for insurance… because I did need them) and heading towards the bathroom so I could smoke out the window.
I’d disabled my smoke alarm when smoking in the flat was a given, but now I thought it best to reset it to ensure I couldn’t smoke… unless the bathroom door was shut and the bathmat was pushed up against it and I smoked up the window so…
Actually, I’d written about Hope, hadn’t I? And it had almost helped. It had, at least, sparked a visit to Whitby and the first time I’d even acknowledged certain things about Hope so maybe I could write instead of smoking.
With a sudden burst of inspiration I ran my nearly-lit cigarette under the tap, along with the whole packet, before throwing them in the bin with the lighter and slamming the lid of the bin down with a satisfyingly loud clang.
I’d written three lines about my first day of Hogwarts before my hand was shaking too much to continue writing. No, definitely definitely too soon. I placed down my quill irritably and summoned my keys with a flick of my wand – I might have managed four whole days without a cigarette and nearly a whole day with no consumption of nicotine, but that didn’t mean I was ready not to have the option.
The rain seemed to take the edge of my nicotine cravings on the way to the off licence, but I brought a ten pack anyway and slipped them into the deepest darkest part of my handbag. I didn’t smoke one though, so that was progress.
“Hi,” I said, pressing the phone into the crook of my neck and scrunching up my face into a wince, “it’s Grace.”
“Yeah,” James said, slowly, “I recognise your voice, Gracie.”
Well that was always nice. At least after going a bit psycho on James – enough to prevent him from calling for eleven days which with James-levels of persistence was quite the freak out – he hadn’t written me off as a bad job and blocked me from his memory. Although, in some respects I wouldn’t have too many objections if he chose to block some choice memories out of his mind for a significant period of time – that would be quite nice.
“Excellent,” I said, only slightly sarcastically, “ever tried to chat up a European girl, James?”
“Interesting line of enquiry.”
“So that’s a yes?” I suggested. “How did that work out for you?”
“A part veela French goddess slapped me round the face and I dumped an Italian girl after she wouldn’t make me pizza.”
“Because I really think learning French would be really helpful to your love life.”
“Why?” James said.
“I’m… okay, well…I’m going to a French class on Thursday nights and it would be nice to have some company.”
“And that will improve my love life?” James grinned. I could practically see the self-satisfied expression written across his features and shook my head feeling bemused. I had missed James. I really had.
“That’s not what I meant,” I sighed.
“But you’re not saying no?”
“James,” I said, trying to stop myself from laughing, “coming off the back of our first argument since we were teenagers, it’s probably best you don’t make me change your mind. Come learn French with me, Potter. Thursday evening, half seven sharp.”
“It’s a date.” James beamed.
Honestly, I don’t know what else I expected.
“Wow,” James said, raising his eyebrows as his regarded my flat, “you’ve… have you got a house elf now?”
“I am… owning my life,” I said, grimacing slightly as I looked round my slightly too clean flat – as much as I had to admit that my purge of all the dirt and useless crap had felt satisfying at the time, it returned my flat to its previous state of unlived in. I needed some photos or something, but I’d never taken any. I only actually owned three photos – one family photo that had been shoved on me and was currently been used as a bookmark for something, a photo of Hope and the photo of James’s blasted photo shoot that he’d sent with his phone number on the back. And the only reason I’d kept the last one was as proof to the outside world that James Potter had given me his number.
“And that’s quite a clean business, is it?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, subconsciously pulling off the list from where it was currently stuck to the fridge and placing it face down on the kitchen counter. Having only spoken to James once since the Hope related argument I was feeling oddly nervous around him, and ended up wondering around my flat straightening the slightly wilted potted plant that was sitting on the coffee table (a poor attempt – but I was trying existing in the same space as some other living creature… still, the purchase of the plant had cemented my belief that I was going utterly insane).
When I turned back James had picked up the list and was reading it. Course, the prat who’d asked my old best friend about the Hope business wouldn’t find any qualms with reading private pieces of parchment.
“I can suggest a couple of men which aren’t shit,” James said cheerfully and then, when he caught my eye, more seriously, “you look good, Gracie.”
“You’re just saying that,” I said, “because it says lose weight on the list.”
“Total… lifestyle change.”
“That’s the idea,” I said weakly, “My body is a bit confused. Keep ending up throwing up out of shock.”
“Your body is definitely confusing,” James said, before looking back up at me looking vaguely serious again, “I’m sorry, Gracie – I didn’t mean to pry, before. Well, I did actually – if I’m brutally honest – but I didn’t mean to… stir stuff up. I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, waving this aside, “just promise to distract me from the nicotine cravings if the French teacher talks too much about the imperfect tense.”
“The what tense?”
“Exactly, James, exactly,” I said, reaching out and pulling my cloak on, pulling my list out of his hand and screwing it up – it wasn’t that I was no longer following it, but more that I had it almost memorised by heart by now. I knew what I was aiming for. Maybe it wasn’t much – lord knows most people had achieved more in their lifetime – but I was doing something. And that counted for a lot more than most people seemed to realise.
“Is it just when you get your tenses wrong?” James suggested, holding out his arm for me to link mine through.
“Here’s hoping.” I said, offering him a smile and linking my arm through his. James apparated away with a distinct pop and I considered the merits of framing the photo of James and hanging it over my nearly-dead-pot-plant before discarding it – James would make too many far comments about it for it to be worth the view and, anyway, one photo would only highlight the lack of photo’s elsewhere.
Honestly, I was terrified.
That’s what my first draft of my application letter essentially consisted of – a surprisingly honest, much too raw to be appropriate account of this frightening tangible new future and how, sometimes, I felt like I was losing myself.
For such a long time I had been defined by this; the hollow feeling in my stomach and the sense that nothing could ever, ever get better.
I wrote about how I didn’t know who I would be if that was taken away. That I was terrified of becoming a new person that I didn’t recognise, as well as being oddly excited about reaching out and grabbing something for the first time in my life. I wrote about my mother sending me the application forms and the fact that I didn’t think I deserved a job better than a waitress, not really. I wrote about how little I’d learnt from years abroad and how I’d just been existing and watching my whole life passing me by without achieving anything.
I wrote about James, who made me realised exactly how messed up I was if only because he, himself, was such a mess. And I wrote that normally I’d have let that ship sink, because it was easier, but that I was going to call James at some point and let him back in – because sometimes people are rubbish and horrible but most of the time they’re worth it anyway.
I wrote about pulling my hair out and starting school bald and Hope and setting bridges ablaze.
And it was definitely more than five hundred words long and it was wholly inappropriate, so I started again and wrote a humorous account of how I’d squandered my time at Hogwarts (euphemistically referring to the gritty circumstances beneath) and that was the one I sent off.
I put them both side by side and stared at them for a long time. It felt like my whole life was cut into these two sections – the dry drunken stories of woe and the underlying issues beneath them. The vaguely amusing and the downright depressing.
Then my thoughts were quite rudely interrupted by throwing up one of Francis’s recommended Weight Witches’ ready meals (an obviously slightly dodgy Shepherd’s pie) and piled the first draft onto of the scrap of slightly crumpled paper about Hope.
Hello dear reader! I can practically feel the end now - mostly because I've nearly written all of this now. The plan is 25 chapters and for this to be finished before 2012 is (probably with lots of updates next month) and how exciting is that!?! But, yeah, thanks for reading and please keep reviewing! It honestly makes my day :D