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How not to be a Woodley by NH Stadler
Chapter 1: Legacy
A/N: To new readers, welcome to chapter one. To old readers, I have changed the chapter a bit… not tremendously but a few tweaks here and there to improve it. The story stays the same :)
I was not going to go inside.
A cool breeze swept across my face as I drew the thick cashmere blanket a little tighter around my torso, but I was not going to go inside.
The sea was boisterous and the waves whipped against the cliffs with such force that now and then tiny drops of salty water would drizzle onto my face, even though I was up high at the edge of the bluff. My eyes were closed as I listened to the ocean, imagining – like so often – how it would feel to just jump off this cliff and dive into the unruly water. The thought intrigued me as much as it scared me.
I loved the ocean most when it was blustery like today; with fierce dark grey waves that didn’t stop until they crashed against the coast with such an impact that over the years the water had carved deep holes into the hard stonewalls. Since I had been little, I had been fascinated by the fact that something so smooth like water could be strong enough to mould the rigid cliffs of Cornwall like they were made of clay.
“Seth!” I heard a high-pitched voice calling out for me from further away.
“Seth! What are you doing?” Ella sounded terribly stressed, her breathing ragged from climbing the slight upward slope to where I was lounging in a sunbed, snuggled nose-deep into a warm blanket.
“Reading,” I said calmly, my eyes still closed. I had actually been reading before until my eyelids had gotten so heavy that it had been hard for me to keep them open any longer.
“You shouldn’t be out here in this weather! There’s quite a storm coming!”
I only shrugged my shoulders. “I like storms.”
“For heaven’s sake, girl; you cannot avoid them forever,” Ella sighed and I finally opened my eyes to look at her. She was dressed like always in a blue and white uniform; the wind had whipped strands of her ginger hair that had escaped her neat hairdo into her friendly, round face and her warm brown eyes looked back at me with a mixture of concern and despair. She always seemed to know exactly what I was thinking.
“I’m not avoiding anyone. I’m just getting started on some school work.”
Despite my fine display of contrived coolness, Ella looked unimpressed. “School doesn’t start before next week. It will be okay if you don’t know every book by heart. The other kids might think you are a nerd, you know?”
“Oh my, that would be terrible!” I exclaimed theatrically and touched the back of my hand to my forehead like I imagined Victorian women had done when they had been about to faint, which made Ella laugh.
“Come on Seth,” she said as she snatched away my cosy blanket and exposed me to the cold wind that had become quite strong by now. “Time to go.”
“Alright,” I sighed and, realising that I could not procrastinate any longer, pushed myself up from my comfortable lounging place. It was only now that I noticed how bleak the sky had become while I had been lying there; thick, black clouds loomed above the ocean and the horizon was nothing but a hazy blur. A storm that was about to reach the coast promised to be fierce, yet I would have preferred getting soaked to what was awaiting me inside.
Classical music filled the spacious room and mingled with the torrential rain that was lashing against the large round-top windows. The view was completely blurred by the thick drops that traced wet paths down the glass, yet I continued to stare. It was mesmerizing.
“Child, why are you staring out the window? There is nothing to see,” my grandmother’s voice sliced through the music and the rain like a knife and I winced despite myself, “Viola, why is the girl acting so peculiar?”
I glanced at my mother, who sighed, resignation written all over her face. “She is only fifteen, Cecilia. Girls that age act curiously.”
It wasn’t really an answer but knowing my family it could have been worse. I had been reprimanded for much more trivial things than staring out the window before.
The elder, severe-looking lady puckered her thin, blood-red lips, obviously not finding my mother’s answer satisfactory. “Cassandra and Vala have never behaved in such an odd fashion. Have they, Edward?”
“Not that I know of,” the stately, grey-haired man at the other end of the table supplied in a tone that suggested he hadn’t even been listening, but I could feel my grandfather’s cold, grey eyes resting on my face, which turned pinker with anger every second. I had to take a few sips of my tea only to keep myself from talking back; after all, experience had taught me that any sort of resistance to my family only made things much worse than just sitting through it.
“Of course, they also didn’t get themselves stuck into the wrong house.” The way Grandmother said ‘wrong house’ was probably similar to the way others would say ‘eternal damnation’. And she meant every meanly pronounced syllable of it.
I could see my parents exchange quick glances over the untouched plate of biscuits and couldn’t but notice the default embarrassment that was always clearly discernible on their faces whenever the delicate topic of my house came up. I expected it to be the theme of my funeral speech, really.
“Well,” Cecilia continued with a sigh when no one at the table seemed to be willing to discuss my failure as a Woodley for once, “At least she doesn’t look like a boy anymore.” She gave me a scrutinizing look from across the table as she spoke and I was so surprised that the tea in my mouth accidentally ran down the wrong pipe.
It was the first time ever that I had heard something but disapproval about my person come out of her mouth and it was shocking, though I knew what she had referred to, of course: My usually amateurishly cropped hair that had given me the appearance of a scrawny ten year old boy, had grown out a bit and my clothes didn’t come from the boy’s section for once. It had been my own little rebellion, running around like that, knowing my family disapproved with all their hearts. This summer, however, I had decided that I didn’t want to be screamed at again when entering the girls’ bathroom. Also, the Woodley clan had grown surprisingly tired of harassing me because of my looks, which had taken all the appeal out of it, really.
“Yes,” my father said with something that came close to a genuine smile; it was the first time this afternoon that he had contributed to the conversation, “She has become quite a beautiful young lady.”
“Indeed,” Grandfather mused, his deep voice void of any emotion. He waved his empty cup at Ella, who had just rushed into the room with a fresh pot of tea and another plate of biscuits. She looked quite stressed out, which was undoubtedly due to the visit of Edward and Cecilia Woodley. My grandparents had that kind of effect on people that made anyone in their vicinity feel like inferior beings.
“Of course, she is still lacking the grace and the charm befitting a Woodley woman.” Grandmother frowned as she watched me still struggling with breathing after failing to swallow my tea. Of course she wasn’t finished with criticizing me yet; after all it would have been scandalous if she had just said that I was not appalling and then left it at that.
“OK,” I finally spoke up in between coughs, trying to sound as dignified as possible with my windpipe still irritated. Having sat through many gatherings like this I could feel the onset of the second round of insults about all the ways in which I failed as a Woodley and I was not going to take it. “I think I’ll just go to my room. Grandma, Grandpa; it was lovely as always.”
I pushed back my chair and tried hard not to look at Ella, whose eyes bored into my temple as though she was trying to telepathically tell me to stay calm but – and I was surprised to realise this after years of not daring to even move in their presence – I wasn’t scared of my grandparents; I was just irritated.
“If you will excuse me!” I hadn’t meant to shout my exiting words but thrill of defying the Woodleys made it hard to stay cool and so – knowing that it was only seconds before the last bit of my casual façade would crumble – I walked out of the tea room with my head held high and my heart beating in my ears.
“Preposterous. No wonder the girl was sorted into the wrong house, displaying an intolerable behaviour like that,” my grandmother’s voice boomed behind me but it became less distinguishable as I climbed the stairs to my room.
The branches of the tall maple tree that stood in front of my window rapped on the glass, shaken by the rough wind outside. When I had been little, I had been terrified by this particular sound, always thinking that something evil was knocking on my window, wanting to come in. I would stare at the tree for so long that the branches would begin to look like knobbly arms that tried to pry open the window.
As I had grown older, I had begun to distract myself with books whenever a storm would sweep over Cornwall and just read until I had fallen asleep. And even though I wasn’t afraid of thunderstorms anymore, I had kept up the habit.
“Elizabeth?” The door to my lofty room swung open and my mother’s head appeared in the small gap. “Are you reading again?” She walked in and carefully closed the door behind her. Her posture seemed terribly tense but she didn’t comment on my glorious exit and instead just sat down beside me on my bed.
“That was quite an evening, wasn’t it?” she sighed and tucked a strand of wheat blonde hair behind her ear. It was the same colour and wavy texture as mine but so long, she constantly put it up into a tight chignon.
“Sorry for losing it before,” I apologised half-heartedly and put away the heavy book that had been resting on my lap. I hadn’t even noticed that my legs had gone numb under the weight.
My mother gave me a small smile and shook her head. “They don’t really mean it like that. Everyone knows that you didn’t want to be sorted into-” Her voice faded abruptly and her eyes seemed to wander to the large, sapphire-blue poster that hung above my bed. A bronze eagle was stretching his long wings lazily across the paper as though he had just woken up from a nap, ready to take off.
“Ravenclaw,” I supplied unnecessarily, “I’m in Ravenclaw.”
It upset me that my parents couldn’t even say it, let alone be proud. All they ever contributed to my ending up in Ravenclaw was that ‘it wasn’t my fault’, but I suspected that they, too, contributed this grave error in history to more than just ‘bad luck’. It was said that the sorting hat took personal choices into account, which should make it fairly easy to end up in the house of your choosing. But – and that I was fairly sure of – my head had been uncharacteristically empty at my sorting; in fact, it had been so empty that it had taken me a moment to even realise that the ragged old thing had shouted ‘RAVENCLAW’ into the Great Hall.
Slytherin should have been my legacy. My destiny.
For more than 500 years, the Woodleys had prided themselves on being so exceptionally pure in blood that, even before the sorting hat of Hogwarts had been placed onto their heads, it had declared them to be in the House of Salazar Slytherin. For generations this had been the case without exception. Hence, when it was time for me to go to the school of witchcraft and wizardry, my parents – both of them Slytherin legacies – had me decked out with green and silver school attire before I had even boarded the Hogwarts Express.
I was glad I hadn’t been there to see their faces when they had received my owl the morning after the sorting.
“Your grandparents are leaving,” my mother said quietly, finally prying her eyes from the poster above my bed where the bronze eagle had flown out of view, “You should come say goodbye.”
She had gotten up from my bed again and smoothed down her smart Chanel trouser suit which suddenly looked like a carefully constructed costume.
When I walked into the great foyer, everybody had already gathered in front of the stately marble fireplace. My grandmother had pulled her long ruby cloak around her, which made her look like a giant bat and I shuddered inwardly; I was fairly certain that – as a toddler – I had firmly believed that she actually could turn into a bat and while it was somewhat funny to think of it now, it still made me slightly uncomfortable.
“Travel safely,” My father said in that typical rigid voice that he always used when he was talking to his parents and, in what felt like the most cringe worthy moment of the afternoon, they shook hands, looking awkwardly formal.
“We will. Goodbye.” As my grandmother spoke, her thin lips barely moved and her unforgiving eyes rested on me with what could only be described as palpable distaste. It was obvious that she disapproved of me – probably the entire concept of me – but I held my head high as I approached the green flames that were roaring in the fireplace by now. Quick, icy words of farewell echoed in the hall and I watched her walk into the fire, her cloak still wrapped around her like enormous leathery wings. Grandfather appeared to follow her lead after adjusting his hat and putting on his elegant dragon-skin gloves but, just before he would disappear into the fireplace, he turned around once more, looking straight at me.
His eyes were of a strange, dark grey: The colour of storm clouds. It was the ‘Woodley eyes’, as my father had so often told me; charcoal irises that looked like the ocean just before a storm.
I knew them well. They were my eyes too.
Shape-wise they were my mother’s, big and round; yet, the unusual colour was a genetic trait that neither my father nor my aunt or my cousins had inherited.
“I expect to see you at Christmas dinner.”
It sounded as though Grandfather was addressing all of us, yet his gaze lingered on me so intently that it grew silent for a moment.
“Um, yes. Of course,” I finally managed to say, feeling the heat rising to my cheeks.
Grandfather gave me a microscopic nod before vanishing into the green flames and with a great, loud swoosh the fire had died, leaving the fireplace empty.
No one said a word for what felt like eternity, the weirdness of the moment still lingering in the air like an odd perfume, clinging to the objects in the room. I was trying to remember the number of times that my grandfather had addressed me directly but the only image that came to my mind was a stately grey-haired man, sitting in a leather wingback chair in a vast library, reading a book and pretending to not notice me watching him as I crouched behind the large potted plant in a terribly poufy dress.
A/N: Dear reader, hope you’ve enjoyed this first chapter and forgive me for not plunging right into the action. I would love to hear your thoughts and I’m excited about every little word, phrase, sentence, paragraph(s) you leave me in the review section. Thank you for reading :)