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a/n: you might have noticed I haven't been updating my wips recently. I've had the worst combination of writers' block and a load of coursework so, mostly, I just haven't had the time or inspiration. But I have been writing during that time, and this is what I wrote. I'm not at all convinced it's good, but I want to post it so that it doesn't go to waste and, besides, it's nice writing short pieces again. Be prepared for nonsensical metaphors, poorly explained science, flowery description, flimsy characters, casual teenage angst and a jumble of half-realised ideas clocking in at around 8,000 words, and feel free to use the little box at the end to talk about irrelevant things because, let's face it, I'm in dire need of inspiration!
A wee note and disclaimer: the 'cat in a box' thing talked about throughout this fic is the fancy ~quantum physics~ paradox idea known as Schrödinger's cat, developed by the scientist Erwin Schrödinger: the idea is in no way mine and it is a lot more complicated and deeper than I even halfway make out here. I suggest you look it up, it's a bit mind-boggling. The three Laura Marling songs the quotes come from are the three that inspired the fic; I listened to them near constantly throughout.
Actually, I think I'm mostly just posting this so I can use the banner I made. It's a whim and a fancy of a fic and...well, I should really stop making excuses and let you read now.
I hope you enjoy it regardless.
it's hard to accept yourself as someone
you don't desire
as someone you don't want to be
- rambling man, Laura Marling
It was the loneliest time of the year, when the countryside had a starved, desperate look, when the air was a dull, damp cloak of fog, when the shy, sluggish sun barely shone for more than an hour a day. Winter: cold, the heavy threat of snow clinging to the clouds, breath turning to translucent silk on the air. Cold was a creature that nipped at fingers and stole into the corners of cottages, slept at the foot of beds, rendered the village pond comatose and stripped the trees bare. A carpet of leaves lay decaying on every path, a blanket for the beaten dirt. In winter, when it was dark, it seemed eternal.
Lucy woke at half past five. She left before anyone else had even begun to stir; it was half and hour’s walk to the village alone, and her shift started at seven. Half an hour in that eternal darkness, careful of her steps in case of ice, her fingers balled into blunt fists in the sleeves of her jumper. The bus, late as usual, shuddered and gasped its way along the narrow lanes, the windows weeping condensation. Lucy shifted in her seat as the bus climbed the flyover to see how the sky was turning from dusty velvet to opaque grey, fired from beneath by the sickly orange glow of the streetlights.
From the bus stop, only five minutes until she had to start her shift; she hurried her way into the worker’s entrance, lifted her fluorescent orange tabard from its hook on the wall, threw an apology at her supervisor. Work was the only place where nobody knew what she really was.
If Rose had inherited all the brains and Victoire had inherited all the looks, then Lucy was the Weasley who’d inherited all the bad luck. If she looked back into her past, back at the family tree that seemed so stretch out infinitely behind her, there was a definite thread of misfortune that seemed to run in the family. She’d inherited that thread as if it had been sewn through her shadow; it seemed to follow her wherever she went.
Perhaps it had come at its most extreme when she was the only Weasley in generations who hadn’t got her Hogwarts letter at the age of eleven. The only Weasley who wasn’t magical in the slightest. It was like being shown the gates of some fantasy land, and then, when finally permitted to enter it, being blindfolded.
Of course, there was a school for her sort. Special lessons, special dispensation, special treatment, special bursaries and schemes from the Ministry or the government, or whichever part of the country she even belonged to. She was not a witch, but she was not a muggle. Squib was the word, although it wasn’t politically correct these days. Non-magically able was the appropriate term for paperwork and newspaper reports. Not for day-to-day use.
She knew that she couldn’t be a Weasley. It wasn’t possible. She was supposed to be a half-blood. Instead, she was a squib. There was no way she could be related to them, a family of talent, of fame, of fortune. In her youth, she’d entertained fleeting fantasies of her past – she was a baby that had been found on a doorstep, or she’d been adopted, or rescued, or there had been a mix-up at the hospital – but, of course, there was no way of denying or concealing the truth. Aside from her black hair, she was the spitting image of her father. She was a Weasley all right. She’d just never felt like one.
It had started at eleven, when the others had gone off to Hogwarts, the magic school, and she’d had to stay at home. There was a special school in the next county that serviced most of Britain. She split her time between the magical arts and the muggle subjects. History of Magic, Ancient Runes, Herbology, Astronomy, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature. Art and Music if she so wished, although she hadn’t the inclination.
There was no way she could ever hope to get on with her cousins. They were also so hopelessly talented, so precocious, so clever, each gifted at subjects beyond her, subjects like Transfiguration and Charms. If they weren’t academic, they were good at sports, or they were good at painting, or they were even, simply, good-looking. Lucy wasn’t good at sport, nor was she an artist or even a pretty face. She was good at English Literature, good at the muggle sciences at a push, but what did this matter to her cousins when they didn’t know what those subjects were?
There was a future for her they’d never understand, either. It was either chance it in the muggle world with a handful of muggle qualifications and poor social skills, or join magical society. There would be a bedsit in London if she so wished to pursue one of the Ministry-approved plans for the non-magically able, a small sum in benefits, a guarantee of something suitably mediocre and low-paid for someone without any discernible magical talents. A guarantee of a label for life. There would be identity papers. Tests and assessments at the Ministry. They had to keep an eye on the squibs as a precaution. Its wasn’t joining magical society at all. It was being shackled to the welfare state. The thought of such dependence made her feel sick.
She planned to try her luck the first way. As soon as she was eighteen and legally an adult by muggle standards. She would have her driver’s licence and her few qualifications by that point. With any luck, she’d have a car. Lucy knew what she had to do. She’d pick a nice summer morning for it. She’d be up before anyone else in the house, just as if she was going to work. Then she’d simply drive away and never return.
Winter was always the worst time to work at the supermarket. It was busy, it was cold, and the managers insisted on playing something called The Best Christmas Album Ever…Ever! over and over again until the songs became a sort of mantra, a tinny, wailing chant.
Another blast of sleigh bells from the shop’s puny speakers; Lucy gritted her teeth, already crossing over to the far side of the car park. It was her break, and she had no wish to spend it inside. She had nothing in common with the muggle workers. Conversations with them inevitably ran into the ground. They called her things like socially awkward when they thought she couldn’t hear.
Ten minutes, though, at the very least, to be alone. She reached the furthest trolley shelter from the building, as far as she could go without leaving the premises. She wanted fresh air more than anything, and, inevitably, the further away she got from the supermarket, the better she felt.
The cold was bitter. Snow and ice had turned to slush, churned up by tyres in the car park so that little ridges of dirt ran neatly the length of each road. Lucy perched on the ledge near the bottom of the shelter, drawing her hands back inside her sleeves again. It was hardly the comfiest seat, but it was a relative sanctuary compared to the supermarket staff room.
She’d been there for five minutes when she had the strangest feeling of being watched. Just a prickling on the back of her neck – she turned, but couldn’t see a thing; the shelter’s thick plastic windows were opaque with scratches and graffiti. Perhaps she was getting too paranoid around muggles these days. She was just too afraid of being found out.
‘Hello,’ someone piped up. ‘I didn’t mean to stare.’
When she turned around again, it was like seeing a ghost. She jumped, clapped a hand over her heart, stared in disbelief – but the boy standing a little way from the shelter’s entrance just seemed to become more real the more she stared.
‘Sorry,’ he said, although he sounded far from it. ‘I know your sister.’
‘Molly,’ Lucy blurted out. ‘Er-’
‘And you’re Lucy.’
She wasn’t used to talking to strangers but, then again, she wasn’t really used to talking to anybody. Her face burned. ‘Sorry, who are you?’
‘I know your sister from school,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a really stupid name.’
‘I…Molly doesn’t talk about her school friends much,’ she said, although it was a complete lie: Molly talked about school all the time, it was just that Lucy never listened. ‘I don’t know you.’
‘Oh, no, she doesn’t like me,’ he said. ‘I’m Scorpius.’
‘Pardon?’ she said, and he repeated it.
He made her feel distinctly uncomfortable. ‘Yeah. Funny name,’ she said, and her face burned more than ever.
‘Yes, I know. I’ve wanted to talk to you ever since Molly said you were a squib.’
The word made her squirm, even though she knew it was just a simple fact. Non-magically able was considered more politically correct. But of course Molly would still say squib.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘What about it?’
He gave her a peculiar look, his head tilted to one side. ‘I think I might be too.’
Not just uncomfortable; she felt bitter now, too, as if the raw coldness of the day had somehow worked its way under her skin. Her lips twisted in a scowl. ‘You having a laugh?’
She was unnerved to see how unflinchingly serious he was. It creeped her out.
‘Anyway,’ he went on. ‘I wanted to talk to you about it.’
She checked her watch – another thing that set her apart from her colleagues, who thought she was archaic, anachronistic – and decided that she could do with a bit of a diversion from reality now and again.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘I get off at eleven. I’ll meet you back here.’
They had unkind words for her sort of work in the school. Shelf stacker, trolley dolly – she hardly had the energy to point out that the latter was an idiomatic phrase reserved for air hostesses, because the name had stuck to her ever since she’d taken the supermarket job at the age of fifteen. In an abstract way, Lucy appreciated the nicknames for their alliterative properties; she analysed them much like she’d analyse any classic novel in a classroom. The awkward ck sound of stacker, she thought, was perfect. Shelf stacker was sibilant and awkward and suited her perfectly.
The best nickname they’d ever come up with was Loser Lucy. Nobody ever applied it too maliciously – it was a teasing nickname, something her friends would call her. Downtrodden was a word they often called her. Loser Lucy, who wouldn’t complain if you stepped on her feet or pulled her hair or took the mick out of her for spending her Saturdays pricing up cans of beans. Mostly, they called her quiet. It was only natural, she thought. The little town in Fife she inhabited was getting rather down-at-heel these days. Most of her friends were from over the Forth, where they were close to the quaint and largely middle-class capital.
And so it was very odd when she met Scorpius by the trolley shelter after work, and he just called her Lucy again. No label, no alliteration, no sibilant s’s and awkward consonants. Just Lucy. And that was when she realised he couldn’t have listened to a word Molly had said aside from the single most important thing about her: squib.
To say that Scorpius was a strange boy would be to state the bleeding obvious. Even his parents had given up on him, and he was passed between them like a parcel neither of them wanted to open; Christmases with his mother, summers with his father, Easters at school. Those too kind to pick on him habitually avoided him. There were those that were weird in a quirky way, even in a fun way, and there were those who were liked even though, academically, they were failures. Scorpius was the brand of weird that made people uncomfortable, and of the sort of academic mind that drew sniggers and snorts of derision from the back of the classroom. He was more likely to blow up a cauldron than brew a Potion in it, more likely to take a rat back to his dormitory and feed it snippets from the breakfast table than transfigure it into a teacup.
He looked a lot like his father, although the two had very little in common. He was a tall, thin boy, with a mess of hair so blonde it was almost white, pale skin which showed bruises easily, and a funny way of walking that was the cause of most of the taunting. It was almost as if he had his feet turned inwards, so there was a slight, stumbling motion every second step. Even when he was standing still, he looked so haphazardly off-balance that he had the permanent appearance of being on the edge of toppling over.
Scorpius didn’t exactly have friends. There were people whom he could count on to be nice to him, to let him borrow notes for lessons he’d missed or allow him to sit on the fringes of their groups at breaktimes, but nobody he considered close. He couldn’t talk about Quidditch and Charms theory and Exploding snap. He didn’t understand a lot of it. Most people were already riding broomsticks when he was still wondering how exactly a broomstick stayed up. Somehow, the standard answer of ‘it’s magic’ didn’t quite satisfy him.
His marks had been at an all-time low in fifth year. He’d apparently set a record for the longest streak of ‘T’s in Potions essays ever obtained by a single student. Of his O.W.L exams, he passed Muggle Studies, History of Magic, and Astronomy. He didn’t get a single Exceeds Expectations or Outstanding. He knew something was wrong when he had to see his head of house on the first day of N.E.W.T lessons. They wanted him to have another go at the O.W.L year. He couldn’t quite find the energy to tell them that it was probably useless and he’d be better off outside of Hogwarts than in.
He’d repeated his O.W.Ls and hadn’t improved a single grade. With some reluctance, they let him into sixth year to study the three subjects he’d managed to scrape an Acceptable in. Most people had learnt to ignore him. By the time his sixth-year – which was, in fact, his seventh year – Christmas holidays arrived, he’d already decided he wouldn’t be going back.
I will come back here, bring me back when I'm old
I want to lay here forever in the cold
- goodbye england (covered in snow), Laura Marling
The sky wept down on them as they walked along the path that embraced the edges of the woods. Lucy put up the hood of her jacket and stared intently at the track beneath her feet through her sodden fringe: Scorpius acted like the rain didn’t exist and let it soak right through his unsuitable jacket to his skin.
It only occurred to Lucy once they’d turned off the path and into the woods that it was probably unwise to go wandering off with a boy she barely knew, although she felt she could trust someone who knew her sister. Her sister was clever and sensible and tended to associate herself with the sort of people who held study groups outside of school. Besides, it was more exciting than the alternative, which was taking the ancient bus back to the village and spending her afternoon on her holiday Chemistry homework.
They hadn’t spoken since their initial exchange, when she’d suggested they go somewhere a bit quieter if they were going to talk about magic. Life was already complicated enough without the added risk of getting done for breaking the International Statute of Secrecy. She cast a brief glance at Scorpius through the rain: he looked distinctly unthreatening. But she couldn’t help but feel threatened in any sort of company. She was just waiting for him to make some bumbling politically incorrect comment about how squibs were surprisingly alright, really, like some of Molly’s friends had done when they visited the house.
The sound of traffic from the town had all but vanished; all she could hear were their footsteps, breathing, raindrops tapping like agitated fingertips upon the leaves around them.
‘You said Molly doesn’t like you?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, without a hint of embarrassment.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Are you in her year or something?’
‘I used to be.’
‘I had to repeat fifth year,’ he said, again, without the slightest embarrassment. ‘And she’s a Ravenclaw. I’m in Hufflepuff.’
Lucy had heard enough about Hufflepuff from her parents: she raised an eyebrow. ‘Right.’
‘I should be in seventh year,’ he added. ‘But I’m in the year below.’
‘Oh, right,’ she said. ‘I’m in sixth year. Doing my Highers.’
He frowned. ‘What are Highers?’
‘Muggle N.E.W.Ts. I’m doing some of them too. Do you take History of Magic?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, and a hint of colour rose in his pale face. ‘Not very good at it.’
They reached a bench beside the path, sheltered by an overgrown holly bush. It was hardly dry, but seemed a better alternative to wandering listlessly on in the rain. Lucy sat on the right, Scorpius taking the seat at her side.
‘It’s freezing,’ she said.
He simply nodded.
‘So,’ she said. ‘You think you’re a squib, huh?’
There was no hesitation in his answer. ‘Yes.’
‘You need to take a test before you know if you’re a squib or not,’ she said, feeling a little impatient. ‘I was in and out of St Mungo’s all year after I didn’t get the letter.’
‘Wouldn’t they have known before?’
He was sharper than she’d thought.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But people always get magic before their letter. Things used to vanish around me.’
A weak memory she wasn’t even sure was hers surfaced in her mind; she bit her lip and tried to suppress it.
‘Well, maybe nobody was watching me closely enough.’
There had been something, but only once. And only fleeting. It was the sort of electric tingling Molly had talked about. Veins and arteries becoming circuits. Evidently, in Lucy’s case, her brain had failed to complete the circuit. And it had only been once. Just the one time.
‘Yeah, well, I know I’ve got magic,’ he said. ‘I just don’t get it.’
He spoke so simply and plainly that she wondered if she was missing something very obvious.
‘But…’ she trailed off. ‘You can’t be a squib if you’ve got magic. Simple as.’
‘I can’t think of any other explanation.’
Silence apart from the rain’s agitated tapping on the leaves.
‘I’m telling the truth,’ he said.
She noticed, for the first time, how he barely blinked. His sincerity, his otherworldliness – it had all knocked her a little senseless. Half of her wanted to leave. The other half was compelled to stay. If there was a possibility that someone might understand…she checked her watch, more looking for a distraction from his unsettling gaze than for the time.
Ten minutes until the next bus home. And the bus only came every hour.
‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I believe you. But I have to go home now.’
‘Can I see you again?’
She considered it. ‘Two days’ time?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘The solstice. Weird things happen then.’
It had only been once, but it had been something. Vases barely smashed of their own accord in quiet, empty rooms. She had been sitting at the kitchen table on her own when, suddenly – crash – and then shards of pottery had fallen to the floor like rain.
Her parents had been arguing just before. They argued all the time, but it had been an unusual disagreement that had been brewing for days. Lucy couldn’t remember the details but, then again, she had been very young.
She would never forget, however, what magic felt like. Something surging in her head, like – and she was reminded of her sporadic physics lessons at the Academy for the Non-Magically Able – a power socket with multiple extension cables plugged into it, wires so thickly layered in a heap that they resembled some alien wig. An overload. A hot, bright feeling, something sparking in her limbs. For a second she’d seen stars. The vase smashed. And when she fled from the room she happened to pass by the mirror in the hallway and noticed that her hair stood on end, as if she’d rubbed it with a balloon like they sometimes did at parties.
Magic was electric. A little unexplained. It helped to think of it as electricity; it made more sense to her that way. Like magic was mains electricity that wizards and witches could somehow connect to, to draw upon. She was like a plug with a broken fuse, a gap in the connection that could not complete the current. When she explained this to her granddad, he told her it made perfect sense. Magic was illogical and irrational and difficult to get her half-muggle brain around.
Above all, magic was anger.
She resented it.
The second time they met, there was nowhere better to go than the woods again. It hadn’t rained again, but the sky had remained a sullen, heavy white. The air, though cold, was perfectly still. It was almost as if there was a total absence of weather, a suspension of nature. The solstice. Weird things happen then. December the twenty-first, day of superstition, day of magic, longest night. She reminded herself to be home before half past four, because the last bit of the walk was always more difficult in the dark.
Weird things never happened to her on the solstice. It was the sort of day she might have spent reading at home, or maybe taking on an extra shift at work. She counted their second meeting as the first weird thing to happen to her in months, perhaps years. There was no way Scorpius could be considered anywhere near normal, even despite the name. He was so unusual that, had he told her he actually came from some barren rock of a planet a million light years away in space, she might have been willing to suspend her disbelief and ask if she could visit.
She spent three hours at work before she met him. The first thing she did after she left the supermarket perimeter was to tear off her orange tabard and shove it into her bag. Then she tried to be formal about it, talking about the tests she’d been through to prove she really was a squib and not some anomaly, some blip in the Hogwarts’ records impeccable history. He didn’t want to know about any of it because, as he said, it was all rather useless. It was obvious he had magic. He just didn’t use it. Or want it.
Instead, he asked her about physics.
Perplexed, she explained as much of the basics as she could until they reached the bench they’d sat on that first day. About her first year physics lessons, which had been muddled up with biology and chemistry and she could only really remember studying the solar system.
She skimmed over nuclear energy and radio waves, electricity and forces – things she hadn’t entirely understood herself at the time – and finished off with the more complicated stuff they tended to wind up their physics lessons talking about. The quantum stuff. She barely understood that either, but it was a lot more interesting than the things she tended to take notes on.
She was midway through explaining the theory they’d discussed so much in their last lesson that she realised it – certainly, he seemed strange to her. But she must have been just as strange to him.
He nodded, though, and asked a lot of questions. And when she was finished, he smiled and said:
‘I think it sounds pretty great.’
He didn’t mean for things to vanish around him. It just tended to happen. Most of the other kids talked about their magic cropping up when they were angry; most of the other kids were full of stories about teddybears exploding in the middle of a temper tantrum, windows shattering at the height of a screaming fit. Things just tended to disappear when Scorpius was around. They would always turn up, later, in some bizarre part of the house – a colander from the kitchen would materialise in the bathtub, a flowerpot would appear atop the chimneystack, a book would be placed by some invisible hand upon the swing in the garden.
The strangest thing was that he didn’t feel it. Most of the times, he’d barely even notice that something had vanished unless it was in his line of vision. Things would just…go. But it was unmistakeably him that made them disappear.
As soon as he got his Hogwarts letter and he was taken to buy a wand – the vanishing problem well, vanished. He supposed it was because he was learning to control his magic, even if he wasn’t especially good at it. In all the years he’d been practising magic, though, in lessons and even at some of the remedial one-to-one sessions he’d been forced to attend, he’d never once felt it like everyone else seemed to.
‘Sounds great,’ he said. ‘To be a cat in a box, you know?’
She couldn’t suppress a laugh. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, the way you explained it…nobody knowing whether you were alive or dead, so you just become a complete non-entity, something that’s dead and alive at the same time and therefore neither…did I get it right? Nobody can prove you exist, so existing isn’t a worry anymore. I mean, who would care if you just…weren’t? If they can’t see you then they can’t care.’
She got his point, and it was like a needle had punctured the air around them. She glanced at the floor, where the hem of her tabard peeked out of her bag. Fluorescent. Nauseating. If there was ever a colour for sickness, it was that fluorescent orange. It felt as if the colour consumed her; the more she wore it, the more the colour gobbled her up and the sicker she felt until she realised she was becoming it.
‘You couldn’t,’ she said. ‘Sooner or later some idiot like me would come along and try to prove your existence.’
‘You’re not an idiot,’ he said blithely. ‘You understand that…quantum stuff.’
Silence; they were mutes again. Lucy tore her eyes away from the bag, the tabard: what was the opposite of orange? Blue. The sky was white today. Off-white, with the smudge of a raincloud like a fingerprint on paper. It made her feel a little better. White was like a melting lump of ice in her throat, a stifling relief. The clouds were strangling the sky. She unfolded her hands from her lap and let them slip to her sides; for the briefest of moments, their hands met and it was as if they had completed an electric circuit.
‘You could do with some gloves,’ he said.
Quantum physics to gloves. Somehow their conversations, so far, had turned out to be so banal.
She turned to look at him and noticed, for the first time, how he had the most startling pair of blue eyes. Dark, almost navy, but in the tiny black looking-glasses of the pupils she saw that the sky was reflected twice, so it was almost as if even tinier pupils of the finest china white were dotted in the middle of his eyes. She had read, once, in a book, about how photographers always sought to capture a reflection on the eyes, a gloss of white that would make the subject look more alive.
He asked her more about muggle science, and she didn’t even notice when the hour hand of her watch passed the four.
The light of the streetlamps caught the snow as it fell through the dark, stitching the air with shifting white thread. The sky was a sullen, dirty orange, the path icy underfoot. Lucy was scared of the path over the railway bridge, where there was no lighting, no concrete path, only the stubborn darkness and a trail of frosted, skeletal leaves.
They had talked for hours and she still didn’t feel like they’d finished the conversation.
At the bridge, they came to a standstill. She’d walked the bridge path almost every day of her life but, somehow, she didn’t want to go over it tonight. The darkness looked too solid, like a physical barrier.
‘Where do you live?’
‘Over the bridge.’
Lucy glanced to her left. ‘You mean-’
Her smile faltered. ‘Edinburgh. Hearts or Hibs?’
He fixed her with a strange look. In the dull streetlight, he looked completely colourless. ‘Leith. And the Montrose Magpies.’
It was dark and she did not want to walk alone when he had reminded her how lonely she’d been.
‘I’m not too far away,’ she said. ‘Do you want a cup of tea before you get the train?’
Introducing Scorpius to her father was nothing short of surreal. There was some sort of ancient family feud between the Weasleys and Malfoys that Lucy only half knew about, but thought it was rather decent of her father to at least smile and make the strange boy with the strange name feel at home once he was over the threshold of their little cottage.
She was unused to inviting people into her room, realising the implication of asking Scorpius to follow her upstairs only moments before her father told her to leave the door ajar. She blushed, gripped the bannister with her hand, sternly reminded him that the kettle would be due to come off the boil soon – as if he should suspect that this oddity she’d found in a supermarket car park only two days before could be anything but a friend!
Scorpius followed her in silence, watching the photographs that lined the stairs. Lucy, turning at the top of the stairs, could think of nothing better to say than ‘Yeah. Everyone in my family is ginger.’
Her room was uncharacteristically tidy. She half-wondered if she’d only tidied it in anticipation that he’d be coming back home with her, then realised that, until a few hours ago, she hadn’t even wanted to meet him that much. But he was interesting and, likewise, he seemed to find her patchy knowledge of muggle science interesting. So she let him have the chair before her desk so that he could look through her physics textbook, and she perched on the edge of the bed and watched him closely. It almost looked as if he was searching for something specific.
‘There isn’t…’ he came to the last page of the textbook and set it down on her desk. ‘None of that…quantum stuff.’
‘Oh, god, no,’ she said. ‘That’s not on the syllabus.’
‘I can’t get it out of my head,’ he told her. ‘It’s so complicated, but somehow it makes so much sense.’
‘What, quantum physics?’
‘The thing about putting cats in boxes.’
She gave him a piercing look. ‘It really isn’t, er, normal to be this interested in, well, quantum physics.’
‘Just the cat thing.’
Unlocking the door to face her father and say, hello, dad, this is Scorpius, he’s popped back for some tea had been nothing short of surreal, but his very presence in her room was close to absurdity. Her bedroom walls were a particularly bright shade of blue, the room made claustrophobic by the assorted photographs and paper mementos tacked to the walls. It all had the effect of making him look like a pencil sketch in black and white made physical; a living, breathing monochrome.
A knock on the door interrupted them and her father entered with a mug in each hand. They sipped at the tea in silence again as the footsteps retreated back down the stairs. Lucy wasn’t sure what else she could say.
‘Did you hang out in a car park just to ask me about science?’ she said. ‘Because, you know, a book probably could have told you all that.’
‘I’m not allowed to read muggle books.’
‘My dad doesn’t like them. And I don’t have a muggle library card or anything. You’re the only squib I’d heard of.’
She felt her face go red again. ‘We’re not that common,’ she muttered. ‘Just…a mistake in a million.’
He ignored her last comment. ‘You do muggle and magic stuff, right?’
‘Only the theory of magic. We’re…we’re not allowed wands.’
His face remained impassive. A welcome change from the usual feigned sympathy the we’re not allowed wands line got. ‘I wanted to see if I could do some muggle subjects, really.’
‘I’m only taking three N.E.W.T.s.’
‘And…’ Lucy frowned. ‘What do you want to do after school?’
‘Find a job. Something that doesn’t need spellwork.’
‘Do you know what I’ll get with half magic, half muggle qualifications and no wand? There’s…they say there’s a scheme the Ministry does that’ll get me a special job.’
Her tea suddenly tasted bitter; for a few hours, she’d thought he understood. ‘Do you…do you really realise what that is? Bit of menial work, but of manual labour, maybe I’ll be a secretary if I’m lucky. Benefits, a bedsit in Diagon Alley so they can keep an eye on me. Identity papers and check-ups and sometimes they make you take mandatory Kwikspell courses just in case you get your magic late or something – don’t you realise?’
He looked at her blankly. ‘No.’
‘I’d be shackled to the Ministry forever,’ she said. ‘If I don’t pick their scheme, I don’t get anything, I have to make my way in the muggle world but knowing everything that I know. And people keep telling me that I’ll be lucky, someday I’ll levitate my pet cat down the stairs by mistake and then I can take night classes, and even though the chances of that are so slim they’re negligible they tell it to us every week at school. Do you know how many times I’ve dreamt of making Weatherby float down the stairs? Sorry,’ she said, as his blank look turned to one of confusion. ‘That’s the family cat. But it’s just false hope, do you realise? You don’t want any of that. It’d be a waste of time to take muggle courses, believe me. It’s all just a huge waste of time.’
He looked impassive again; she might have just made a passing remark about the weather.
She shook her head. ‘You think you’re a squib. I get the feeling that you wish you were. But you aren’t and you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.’
‘Family’s the worst,’ she went on. ‘They look at me and mean to say something, but then they don’t know what to say, so they just end up looking at me and I’m tired of only ever seeing other peoples’ eyes and never hearing their voices. I feel like some insect that just flew into the room whenever I’m around them. Seriously. Please, just go back to…to magic school and get those qualifications and live the life everyone expects of you, because it’ll be so much easier.’
‘I already decided I don’t want to go back.’
‘Well,’ she said, then realised she couldn’t think of a single good reason for why he should return to Hogwarts. ‘Tough.’
‘I’m sorry. I just-’
‘You know,’ she interrupted. ‘I…I prefer it when we don’t talk about squibs and stuff. I like talking to you, but I wish you wouldn’t bring it up anymore.’
‘We can still talk about physics and stuff if you’d like, I just…stop wishing the worst for yourself.’
‘Okay. That’s okay.’
They lapsed into silence again. Scorpius lifted his mug and blew on the tea to cool it down.
‘It’d be nice if you could visit me,’ he said. ‘Over the bridge. Some day soon.’
‘What, so I can look at your Transfiguration textbooks?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I just think it would be nice.’
I'd be sad that I never held your hand as you were lowered
but I'd understand that I'd never let it go
- blackberry stone, Laura Marling
It was close to four o’clock when the train passed over the Forth Bridge. Not quite dark yet; the day’s leftover light glittered like cold coins on the surface of the water below, a ship docked at Leith like a tongue in the mouth of the river. On the left, the North Sea stretched out infinitely to the horizon.
Lucy couldn’t quite help thinking she should have got off the train at Kirkcaldy. She had a bad feeling about the arrangement. Leith, never the nicest of places, and a bit of a trek from her small, well-worn corner of Fife. But, then again, Scorpius seemed to have travelled from Leith to small pockets of Fife every day. She felt she owed him something.
In the claustrophobic comfort of her room with a mug of tea warming her hands, it had all seemed so sensible. Just a girl talking to a boy about schoolwork. Just a cynical squib trying to convince a wizard she’d found in a supermarket car park not to abandon his studies and sit Highers instead. Weird from the outset, although it hadn’t seemed so at the time. Molly had given her hell for it. Molly said she knew things about Scorpius that would make Lucy’s hair curl, but she wouldn’t tell and Lucy wouldn’t believe her.
Things had started to seep out after the Christmas dinner, when Molly was cosy in front of the fire with a glass of grown-up wine she’d been permitted to have with pudding. Someone told me he vanished his own mum after a fight. Stole rats from the Transfiguration department and kept them in his dormitory. I’ve seen him disappearing into the Forbidden Forest. He’s a vampire. He’s actually a ghost that used to live in the Astronomy tower, the Professors put a spell on him to stop him walking through walls. He just keeps turning up in weird places. Like the island in the middle of the lake.
I bet he’ll vanish you, Lucy. He’s so crap at magic. He'll just touch your arm and, poof, you'll turn up somewhere in Cornwall.
The rumour about him being a ghost was Lucy’s favourite by far. She thought she might tease him about it, make a joke of it, but then, in the dull, freezing daylight on the way to the train station, she thought better of it. She’d lied to her parents and told them she was going to see her friends in Edinburgh. They trusted her because she was exactly the sort of girl who wasn’t prone to spontaneous trips to Leith. She was dependable, downtrodden, Loser Lucy.
But there was someone across the river who half-understood how she felt and, even if was only half, she felt she’d rather be there than stacking shelves in Fife again.
His little terraced house on a busy road was not difficult to find, and he answered the door within seconds of her ringing the bell. Behind him was his father, anxious and pale: the two looked so alike it was startling, except the elder Malfoy was straight-backed, proud, holding himself tall. It was an almost exact copy of the night he’d taken a cup of tea at her house. There was a request for the kettle to be put on the boil, a request to come upstairs, it was just the second room on the left, but as they climbed the stairs she was acutely aware of wary eyes following them: she realised how the father was afraid of the son.
Inside his room (which was surprisingly ordinary, although a little bare) she tried to break the ice with the story about him actually being a ghost. He laughed and told her it was all true, then – look, my hand will go right through you – swept his arm through the air, his hand coming to a stop against her sleeve. Oh, I suppose I’m broken.
Her face split into a smile as she said something about how she didn’t usually associate with the undead, perhaps she should leave? But I did say weird things happened on the solstice. Although I suppose this is January.
Weird things did happen on the solstice. She’d made a friend.
A night in Leith that mirrored the night in Fife; he walked her to the train station at nine, when it was dark and the air was biting, where the houses began to thin out and her eyes strained to spot ice on the pavement. She wanted to thank him for just being around to talk to, but couldn’t quite find an appropriate way to express it when they were so bundled against the cold, hurrying down dull suburban streets. If she were to say it, it should be meaningful.
A particularly icy patch at the end of the road caught her by surprise and, in unsuitable shoes, she went tumbling to the ground, and it was only after he’d laughed at her that he leant out a hand to help her up. Stiff, numb, she rose to her feet, and he let go of her hand at once as if she’d electrocuted him.
‘Molly told me you vanished your mum once,’ she said, once they were on their way again.
‘Did you really?’
‘I don’t think it’s possible to vanish people, actually.’
‘Unless, maybe, you stick them in a box with…radiation, or whatever you call it-’
She elbowed him. ‘That’s just supposed to be a theory. I don’t suggest you try it out.’
At the train station, she hugged him as she might hug one of her school friends, only it went on a little too long, she was a little too sad when they had to break apart so she could buy herself a train ticket from the machine. She was on the verge of asking him to get the train with her too, had they not lived on opposite sides of the bridge. When he turned and made his solitary way down the street, she was ready to call him back.
In the dark, it was almost impossible to see the North Sea from the train.
The first day of the Hogwarts term came and went and nothing, nobody could shift Scorpius from his room at home. His father gave up after an hour and left to work; Scorpius quietly removed the chair from where he’d jammed it under the door handle and sat by the window, ignoring the owl that came to tap on the glass and hoot silently at him around lunchtime.
His mother arrived at seven and told him he was going back to school. He realised he had no idea what he’d have done instead anyway. And that was that.
It would be a year before he could return to Leith. The thought of that made him sadder than anything.
It was a fantasy she’d never fully realised because, from the outset, it had been so unrealistic, but somehow to be told that it would never happen was painful. Of course he would have gone back to school. It was the right thing and, besides, it was the law. But, for a moment, she’d actually considered that he might be able to get a special dispensation, a place at the Academy for the Non-Magically Able. Even if he was anything but.
It was the first time he’d written her a letter but, then again, they’d only known one another for a fortnight or so. It came, unusually, by owl post, just as letters from the Ministry about her education did. A messy scrawl told her that he had to be back for the start of lessons some two days away. And then he apologised and signed his name, and it somehow seemed so formal. She knew she had to see him again, somehow communicate to him the profound impact he’d had on the last fortnight of her life.
The note she sent back was brief. It was only a pipe-dream. I’m working tomorrow but it would be nice to say goodbye once my shift finishes.
She named the time and place of their first meeting, sealed it, and sent it back with the same owl.
It was only a pipe-dream, but there was one last piece of hope she felt she could hold on to. She stood there, in her break, and told him in a rush about how, one fine summer’s morning next year, she’d drive away. And, perhaps, she could stop by Leith and pick him up?
You and me, she sold it. We could make it as muggles, maybe.
It was hard to believe she’d only known him for a fortnight. If she’d known how to drive, if she’d had a car, she would have offered to drive both of them away that second.
He said he’d wait by the train station. Every morning if he had to. Even if the weather was horrible. And then he laughed and said he’d probably make a terrible muggle, but it was always worth a shot. You never knew if you didn’t try.
He promised to write letters, said he’d visit if he got the chance. Said it was nice to have something to look forward to. She promised, in return, to do her physics homework so he could have copies of it, but the joke fell flat and they were left looking at each other with nothing else to say.
The startling blue of his eyes again; it was like she’d been doused in cold water. Why should the colour of his eyes surprise her? Was it so shocking that the pale wisp of a boy before her had substance, had any colour at all?
A farewell passed between them like a binding cord; the more they bade each other goodbye, the closer they seemed to cling. She kissed him on the cheek because somehow it seemed more appropriate, and it was the sweetest, briefest thing either of them had known.
There had never been a better place, there in the miserable January chill of the car park, there in the wasteland – but if she put her arms around him again and shut her eyes, she could only see a dark infinity where she was only anchored by his hand on the small of her back. She couldn’t see the orange flare of her work tabard, nor the piles of slush that surrounded them; she had made herself blind and, why, if those definitions could not be seen, then surely, by his bizarre logic, they did not exist.
That moment of dark infinity: the sweetest, briefest thing either of them will ever know. There will never be a fine summer’s morning and, in the drudgery of the school routine, he will eventually run out of things to write to her about, and when her driving instructor takes her through Leith for a practice, she will miss his presence by the train station by mere minutes, and, besides, she will never pass the driving test she has only half a care about and she will never own a car, and his father will find a new job in Manchester and move the Malfoys away from Leith forever, and a new family will live in the house where, once, he managed to vanish himself into the garden on the winter solstice without feeling a thing.
The fine summer’s morning will never come but – one midwinter day – they do say strange things happen on the solstice.
There is a quiet, chaste existence in a bedsit in London for Lucy, a small sum of benefits from the Ministry to support her minor office job where she types and files and makes cups of tea for the witches and wizards in the room next door. There is a job in a bookshop on the West Coast for Scorpius, who can never quite scrub the feeling of her lips from his mind, and their paths run quite parallel and never meet.
Cats and radiation in boxes. She likes to read and there is a pub he likes to frequent with the few friends who tolerate his frank strangeness. The heating never works in her bedsit and he always picks stronger drinks for the way they make him feel warmer. Cats and radiation in boxes, pick your poison: will the cold get you, or will you drink yourself to death?
Either way, it is slow for both of them.
If you put a cat in a box with radioactive material then you cannot truly say whether it is alive or dead so it ceases to exist. Lucy never forgets her first love, and it gnaws at her over the years until she realises that she does not even know whether he is dead or alive. They have few friends and make very few impressions and it is as if they do not exist; they will vanish.
One midwinter day, when the year cleaves in two, they will vanish.