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Chapter 2 : Chapter 2: Lessons in Black and White
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Chapter 2: Lessons in Black and White
Harry Potter had very few memories of his early life; soothing voices and warm happy feelings drowned by flashes of lightning and extreme pain were about the first conscious records kept inside his mind, followed by the now daily feelings of abandonment, inadequacy and worthlessness he was subjected to while living under the care of the Dursley family, from whom he was given a place to sleep and clothes to wear, was fed occasional scraps of food and was demanded to perform quite a few hours of house chores. They taught him he was their nephew, and Harry clearly remembered learning the names of his enormous uncle Vernon and his horse-faced aunt Petunia, as well as the name of their son Dudley Dursley, the latter being a blond and rotund child who stood in sharp contrast against the thin, smaller than average child with coal-black unruly hair and emerald-green eyes that Harry was.
He had no knowledge that his last name wasn't Dursley, nor did he know anything regarding his mother and father until he entered primary school, when he was reprimanded for not answering the teacher after the name Harry James Potter was called out loud in class, prompting him to scan the room looking for whomever had been given such a long name. Harry was further punished by his uncle for asking too many questions that afternoon regarding what the older man called "his good-for-nothing parents", forcing him to drop the subject entirely after receiving a one time only explanation that his mother and father were undesirable people killed in a car accident.
While searching for some recollection of good memories from his early childhood, Harry sighed at the understanding that he was an nothing more than an unwanted inconvenience, yet not hated but rather feared for reasons he was only going to discover so many years later in life. A brief tingle of panic and fear crossed his body as he revisited his earliest memory of waking up in a dark, enclosed space under the staircase of the Dursley home, that his relatives had furnished with a thin foam sheet and an old, discarded tablecloth for covering himself at night. The cupboard was not only his sleeping quarters, but also the place where he would be banished to and locked into when he was accused of performing "unnatural actions" or for no other reason at all other than not complying with some unspecified demand of his uncles.
As far back as he could remember, playing with Dudley meant never touching his belongings and being kicked by him or hit by whatever he threw at him, be it a toy or a shoe among other household items like glasses or ashtrays, with the implicit risk that Harry could be accused of breaking them himself whenever those items hit a hard surface. This made Harry resort to playing alone and hiding from his cousin whenever possible, either among garden vegetation or inside his tiny sleeping quarters where he would keep broken toys or discarded boxes to play with until aunt Petunia found and threw them away. She never did bother to clean the spiders, however.
What he could now at almost eleven years of age clearly discern as blatant discrimination and child abuse was but the normal way of life for Harry, he firmly believed every house and every family had worthy and unworthy children and he often wondered who or how many children were kept inside the cupboards in his neighbours' houses. This notion wouldn't be shattered until many years later when realizing none of his first grade schoolmates were of the worthless kind, and yet even now, while sitting with his legs spread on top of the battered foam board that served as a bed for him inside the cupboard under the stairs, Harry still believed orphan freaks like him somehow deserved to be treated in this manner.
Spring had given way to summer and Harry was told to work on the flower beds early. He continued to revisit his life and sighed when remembering how he had learned of yet another important event in his life, his own birthday, because of a school assignment where he was asked to draw a picture of his party, including cake and candles. Children in class had laughed at him because he didn't know on what date he had been born, and therefore had no birthday. Harry asked aunt Petunia about it that evening and received a reproachful glare, followed by the usual punishment for asking anything related to his own family. Since that day he would be given smelly socks or coat hangers, or the occasional old Sunday newspaper every thirty first of July as a birthday present by his relatives.
A bang from aunt Petunia interrupted his musings and the metallic clicking and sliding sounds indicating his cupboard being unlocked told him it was time for his chores. Potting rosebuds in the front yard, Harry felt confused, angry and betrayed, yet he smiled because he had hope, if nothing else he owned that sentiment and nobody could take it away from him. Since that day in the British Library more than three years ago he had felt something beyond the ever present feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness his relatives showered him with, because he understood that somehow, somewhere, there is someone who can give him a true smile, a little girl of enchanting brown eyes with whom he shared his soul for the briefest, yet most marvellous moment in time.
Life since entering primary school had roughly followed a same routine: Wake up under aunt Petunia's banging and yelling, make breakfast for angry uncle Vernon and insatiable cousin Dudley, go to school, learn as much as possible under constant threat of bullying, hide from Dudley and his gang, try to consume his lunch in peace, run from Dudley and his gang, enjoy class while being careful not to outshine his not-so-smart cousin, arrive home to do whatever house chores aunt Petunia deemed him capable of doing, and finally be imprisoned inside the cupboard under the stairs again. The reason for all this, it would seem, was to prevent what his uncle called "funny business". Why it would be funny was beyond Harry's understanding; unnatural perhaps, strange and unusual most definitively but for Harry even growing hair overnight and popping on the roof of his school after being cornered by Dudley didn't feel so out of the ordinary. Hope had given him courage to dream, to believe that by some mishap of nature he was a good-for-nothing boy with a talent for unexplainable deeds and very musical ears and fingers.
Hidden from view, physically severed from reality, Harry remembered how he had turned his emotions and thoughts into prisoners of his heart and mind; with no one to blame for his condition since he knew no better, he had become someone who accepted things as they were, a conformist waiting for better days to arrive. It was then during his twenty minutes morning break one chilly autumn Tuesday in his first year of primary school, at the age of seven, that he found the door to the newly furnished Music classroom open with Mr Harper inside sorting and tuning the school's recently donated new instruments, who then motioned Harry to stay if he wished. The teacher had light-brown hair marred by white streaks that topped the thin face of a slim, six feet tall man who seemed to be already reaching retirement age.
"I don't want to bother you, sir, I can go away if you want," the boy said while observing the room and all the paraphernalia inside.
"It's not a bother, and if you feel safe in here, away from one Dudley Dursley that keeps bothering you around?" Lifting his eyes from the half-size children's violin he was tuning, the teacher observed Harry and evaluated his reaction.
Fear gripped Harry's mind, his uncle would be very angry if Dudley were to be admonished for anything, let alone if Harry had accused his portly cousin of something their Dudleykin would immediately deny and turn around to point himself as the victim, "No sir, Dudley didn't do nothing at all, please sir I've never said..."
"It's just the way it goes then?" Mr Harper asked with a knowing expression, "Fine then, nothing was said... What about this then Harry, you help me in here for the remainder of the break and then I'll walk you back to class?"
Without complaining, Harry picked up a cleaning towel and began dusting the gleaming brass instruments while Mr Harper looked curiously at him. The teacher had expected some form of verbal complaint, or at least grunting from the child and yet he simply began working as if used to such activities. Harry was so indifferent to the world around him that he seemed to be existing rather than living.
He continued to dust and wipe the instruments as Geography teacher Mr John Dee entered the room and began complimenting Mr Harper for attaining such wonderful opportunity for his primary school, Harry didn't understand what a charitable foundation was but learned that the school had been given a donation by the "H. J. Granger Charitable Foundation", established some seven years prior in honour of the single surviving child victim of some collapsed buildings tragedy in Ottershaw; these people, Mr Harper had explained, were committed to supporting small projects related to infant education and development. Music teacher Harold Harper's musical training and children's orchestra programme had been one of many selected and supported ideas that year, rewarding him with a full ensemble of instruments, enough for a small twenty performers orchestra.
"We've never had more than these battered recorder flutes and some guitars before this most welcome donation," the Music teacher told his work colleague and added with a crooked smile, "I've blundered my chances at being part of an orchestra so many years ago, and now I've got my own!"
After the bell rang signalling the end of morning break, the Geography teacher Mr Dee who had joined them earlier said his goodbyes while Music teacher and student walked to the child's classroom. Harry politely thanked Mr Harper before parting company and left him alone in the hallway. Harold Harper sighed and turned back towards his own classroom, where the third-graders would soon arrive to wreak havoc on his beloved new musical gear.
By early May of that school year the weather had become warmer, the school patio's cherry tree was still flowered in pink and one given Monday Mr Harper was surprised to find a whistling Harry standing by the front of the class before the other children returned from lunch break, he was observing the upright piano and softly running his small fingers over the black and white keys. Afraid of stifling this unique show of interest and expression of feelings from Harry, the Music teacher leaned against the doorway and waited for the child to notice him instead.
"Good morning sir," Harry greeted while still looking at the piano with the corner of his eye.
"Morning Harry, nice to see you in a good mood for once!"
Harry shrugged and hesitated for a few seconds, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He then focused on his recent experience inside the British Library and drew his new-found willingness forward; "Sir? Would it be too much to ask if... If I could learn to play that?" he finished pointing over his back with his thumb.
"Have you been trying it already?" the teacher asked Harry to sit and press the keys from low to high and back again, then to jump along octaves. He noticed Harry's fingers moved with great precision, he had very good fine motor skills and a good ear for differentiating notes and understanding harmony.
The bell indicated time for class and the other children began to arrive, Mr Harper congratulated Harry and told him he would be sharing the piano during class with Annie Atkins despite the fact she had been learning to play since term started the year before. Dudley stared at his scrawny cousin and walked to push him aside.
"The freak can't learn the piano, I want to learn the piano!" Dudley demanded of his teacher, "Besides he's too small to reach the... The shiny things down there! And his arms are short too!"
Mr Harper looked at the chubby boy and blinked several times before replying. "But Dudley, didn't you ask to learn to play guitar, when Jimmy agreed to switch it for the violin you had demanded to learn after fighting Hugo for the recorder flute and finding out you couldn't hold your breath long enough?"
"Well now I want the piano! The freak got stuck with that boring square thing and now he wants the piano but I want it!"
"If you're referring to the instrument known as a triangle because of it's geometrical shape Dudley, yes Harry was content with playing it, but I believe something picked his interest and that's more important than wanting something only because someone else has it first..." Mr Harper tried to explain, however Dudley soon began a remarkable impersonation of his father, going red in the face and screwing his forehead in anger. The teacher finally gave up and looked apologetically at Harry, who simply shrugged and walked to the wooden stool where he usually sat to play the triangle.
After ten minutes of trying to teach Dudley to press one key instead of two or three at a time, Mr Harper gave Annie her time to exercise and approached Harry about his new enthusiasm. "So Harry, what made you take an interest all of the sudden?"
"I... I met someone last Friday when we had that school trip to the library. Then on the way out, there was this man playing on a very large piano and the melody reminded me of her," he recalled the girl's smile and the way they shared their secrets without words, "so I thought maybe if I learn to play, I'll never forget that feeling? But now you must teach Dudley sir, so I'll just stay with the triangle..."
"Harry you're thinking in absolutes and that's not good. Do you understand what I'm saying?" Harry shook his head, letting his teacher know he didn't understand, "This isn't about him or you, it can be him and you. When Annie finishes her ten minutes it will be your turn, and then Dudley and finally a rehearsal. Would that be good enough?" He managed to produce a feeble smile and nod, accepting to share lesson time and quickly learning a simple melodic exercise, instinctively gliding over all the correct notes much to Dudley's chagrin. Mr Harper took the time Harry's cousin wasted on his second turn at the keyboard to explain his newest piano student how the school trip to the British Library was an initiative for small primary schools around London, created by the very same people that donated all this equipment too, and that perhaps Harry was now twice benefited by them.
As time went by Dudley eventually grew bored of piano and fought his friend Piers for the tambourine, enjoying the feeling of beating something with teacher's approval other than smaller kids and their personal belongings. Harry instead felt at ease learning and playing the timeless musical instrument, even his grades had improved although he still took care to achieve lower marks than his cousin, or else he would suffer more of uncle Vernon's wrath. Such improvement could however also be attributed to the fact his Headteacher had demanded his uncles to provide him with corrective lenses, thus lessening his constant headaches and improving his reading abilities. The entire family including Dudley had been out shopping, his cousin would throw the mother of all tantrums if his parents bought something for Harry without adequately compensating him with food and presents of course. He remembered his uncle's bewildered face as a little man with a funny hat walked against them and nodded at Harry, who still had no eyeglasses and therefore barely saw his face at all.
Harry would dearly miss his lessons while enduring the summer in number four Privet Drive but he was surprised to find the electronic keyboard Dudley had received for last Christmas broken beyond repair while taking the trash out of the house, among other items such as a broken bedside lamp his aunt Petunia had accused him of pushing over of the table intentionally, as well as a set of depleted batteries and burnt-out light bulbs. He smuggled the mute keyboard inside his cupboard and even played with it during the night when he had no lights available, relying on his sense of touch only.
"You're playing beautifully Harry!" Annie said six weeks into term after an eight-year-old Harry had finished executing his five minutes long solo piece. He didn't look up at her feeling rather uncomfortable not knowing how to reply to a compliment since he had never received any from his uncles, resigning himself to nod briefly and hide his blushing face. Being a good-for-nothing orphan freak with a musical ear and funny-business abilities constantly weighed Harry down, he was never comfortable around people and he knew Annie would notice this and then drift away from him; either that or the threat of Dudley and his fellow bullies.
Sadly it was most likely that the latter would happen, and soon enough a scuffle that ended with a very tired and dirty Harry was the outcome of what seemed to be yet another routine day at school. It was a mildly cold morning and Harry had already performed his usual escape in the nick of time from Dudley, returning to the moderate safety of the classroom. When lunch break came Harry was hiding inside one of the large cement pipes that littered the playground for the children to play with, he listened to the chatter, laughter and yelling of the other children until a group of voices he recognized reached his ears.
"You're always speaking to the freak, aren't you?"
"Let's go Kate, we can sit over there and eat in peace!"
Someone snorted and several footsteps indicated they had either walked a way or rounded the two girls. "That weirdo's nothing but trouble, you stay away from him!" the voice belonging to Piers Polkiss warned as Dudley's unmistakable pig-like chuckling reached Harry inside his hiding place.
Peeking through a thin crack, Harry observed five boys and two girls. His piano partner Annie Atkins who was taller than him, with long braided deep brown hair and large hazel coloured eyes, and her friend Kate Clarington tried again to sidestep the annoying group and settle somewhere else but Dudley stood in their way. He watched as the large boy taunted Annie, telling her she was probably just a useless freak like Harry and stealing her lunch while the other kids pushed Kate to an empty bench; the blond, blue-eyed girl was too short to be of any help anyway. Harry felt his temper rise and remembered what Mr Harper had discussed with him a few weeks ago during his class.
"Harry, Harry stop, why are you trying so hard to play worse than what I know you can?" the teacher asked, effectively interrupting the piano lesson.
"I'm sorry sir."
"There's no need to apologize again, Harry, all I want to know is why are you holding back?"
He kept his hands over the keyboard and closed his eyes, "I... I can't play as well as Annie..."
"That's not true and you know it! Annie knows it too, so what is really troubling you?"
"Nothing!" Harry replied loudly, startling the rest of his classmates who silenced their instruments and stared at him, while Dudley pointed and laughed at him.
Mr Harper squinted his eyes at Harry and turned to the other children, telling them to continue their rehearsal before sitting next to his reluctant piano apprentice. "Sometimes, Harry, accepting one's talents and abilities demands courage. Courage to do what feels right, to act when others run away, to overcome what the world throws at you and achieve your fullest potential."
Harry kept his head down, however his hands visibly relaxed when he thought about these words. He felt inadequate and worthless, fear was his motivation and the pain repressed inside him was only bearable because he knew somewhere in the world there was someone just like him, a girl who looked inside his soul in a fleeting moment in time and made his heart learn the meaning of hope. Would that hope give him courage to do what his teacher proposed? To be good at something and act for what feels right?
"You have a talent Harry. Is playing and bringing joy to people the purpose of your life? I can't make that decision for you, but I wish you the courage to acknowledge that gift and to always act upon purposes that will benefit everyone, including yourself."
The eight-year-old child took a deep breath, his eyes still closed while looking at the memory of a beautiful smile behind thick glass. Swift melody translated from sheet notation into live music spread around the room, not only a flawless interpretation but a vessel of emotions, everything Harry felt, thought and hoped for at that moment was instantly conveyed from his body to the world around him through the string instrument. Harry struck the keyboard with all his might, fingers flying over black and white as if every pressed key was another hammer blow to shatter the invisible walls imprisoning him.
His reminiscence was interrupted by Annie's pleas to have her lunch back, she was jumping to catch it while Harry's cousin Dudley held it high above his head. "To do what feels right" Harry remembered as he slid out of his sheltered cement pipe, crouching behind a few bushes to have a better view of what was happening. His classmate was on the verge of tears while the bullies continued to taunt her and call her names. A feeling of guilt spread over Harry for putting Annie in this situation, had she not been talking to him during Music class she would have never been targeted by the five "lords of the playground".
Harry mustered his recently found courage and yelled at Dudley and his four friends. "Leave her alone!" he demanded from them.
"Look, it's the freak!" Piers said looking down at Harry who was doing his best to keep from trembling, anticipating what would happen at home after his cousin told uncle Vernon and aunt Petunia his own version of this situation.
Dudley, Piers, Dennis, Malcolm and Gordon broke into a race to see who would catch the freak first, a game they would appropriately call "Harry hunting". The overweight Dursley child darted behind him still holding Annie's lunchbox in his left hand and Harry ran and jumped over the bushes, turning right towards the open courtyard and across a group of children playing football with his three pursuers on tow. Angry yells at them for invading the playing field were heard before the long and thin legs belonging to Dennis McKenny stepped and tripped on the tattered ball, making him fall flat on his freckled face, crying for his mummy while Malcolm helped him to his feet; Gordon, Piers and Dudley continued their hunt after their scrawny, black-haired schoolmate. Harry managed to look back over his shoulder and twisted to his left, running along the narrow path between the school building and the wall separating the learning centre from the foul-smelling fresh fishery next door. The produce they sold was not really that fresh at all, and the place was crowded with vagabond felines who, in turn, contributed to the unpleasant aromas that usually wafted through the open classroom windows when the weather was warm.
A few yards away Harry rounded another corner, this time running alongside the school kitchens. Piers was closing on him, and Harry was cornered when Dudley appeared on the other side panting and extremely red in the face. Harry stopped for a second and then ran against his cousin, hoping to grab Annie's lunchbox on the way and reach the classrooms where he could find a teacher and lose the bullies. His heart was beating furiously, him head was throbbing with every hurried sprint and his body felt cold from the fear and excitement. Being taller than him, Dudley simply lifted the metal container and Harry flew past him, tripping over his foot and falling on the bare ground.
"Did you want this, you good-for-nothing freak?" Dudley asked, taunting him just like he had done with Annie.
The three boys approached and laughed, cornering a very dirty and scraped Harry against the large green metallic containers where the school kitchen's trash and organic waste was dumped daily. Harry stood with his back against the hard metal siding and felt the blood leaving his body while Piers, Dudley and Gordon gestured their fisted hands against him. Food aromas drew Gordon's already limited attention span away from his current activity, he lifted his nose and followed the trail inside the building, licking his lips in anticipation. Only Piers turned to look over his shoulder when a sudden clatter of broken plates followed by a woman cursing loudly came from the kitchens; Harry took that distraction as a chance to reach for the lunchbox and jump away.
Physical stress, fear and determination to escape pushed Harry's body to the limit, he was ready to do what felt right, returning Annie's lunch to her and apologizing for putting her in this situation. As the box slipped from Dudley's chubby hand into his own he felt himself being painfully squeezed from all sides and his feet leaving the ground, Harry believed Dudley and Piers were giving him the beating of a lifetime so he closed his eyes and waited for the painful, grinding sensation to stop. Feeling suddenly whole again, he managed to open his left eye, surprised to find Annie's bright pink box in his right hand and his feet on the tin roof over the kitchens. He let a loud exclamation escape his lips while staring down at the trash containers twenty feet below and the two bullies he had somehow escaped from.
"Where'd the freak go?" Piers asked Dudley after turning from the kitchen door to face the now empty space where Harry had been only a few seconds before.
"He... It... T-The... He..." a pale, trembling and empty-handed Dudley stuttered, without managing to finish a single coherent pair of words. He looked around and then heard something above him, Dudley snapped his head to the roof where Harry stood with the captured lunchbox in his hand, then he turned to look at Piers and ran away, crying for his mum and yelling about disappearing freaks and funny business in the school patio.
Harry looked down at the hastily retreating large and round form of his cousin tripping twice on his own feet before slowly peering over the edge of the roof to see Piers shrugging and walking away with Gordon, who exited the kitchen holding a half-eaten large portion of shepherd's pie in a paper napkin. He waited for a full minute before dropping his legs over the side of the roof, looking for a firm step and crawling down on a window ledge before finally jumping backwards to the ground, tumbling and falling on his buttocks. He dusted himself a little and ran back to where he hoped Kate and Annie were still sharing lunch.
"Annie, I... I'm sorry, it was my fault Dudley picked on you..." Harry said while approaching them and handing Annie her recovered lunchbox.
Kate started to look around with a look of fear in her eyes, while Annie just reached for her box and thanked Harry in a very tiny voice without looking at him. Harry understood their hesitation and walked away with mixed feelings, he was happy for standing up to Dudley but sad because no matter what he did, his schoolmates were still frightened of being around him.
History class with Mrs Philomena Knoll at first hour the school-day after next was a blur while Harry still tried to understand what had happened for him to jump from solid ground onto a roof in a single second. He had tried to do it again but failed, only managing a sprained ankle after aiming for the cloned roofing of his uncle's house in Privet Drive, where all houses repeated an orderly and repetitive architecture. Dudley had lied to his parents about Harry hitting him unprovoked and then disappearing right in front of him, landing on the school's roof. Nevertheless, the stupefied and panic-stricken face on his cousin was more than worth the retaliation from his uncles; they had locked Harry inside his cupboard for a full day, sending an excuse that he was too sick to go to school. Aunt Petunia had also demanded that Harry spent all his time outside, only going in for his household chores or to walk inside his cupboard besides the obvious bodily needs that require the use of a loo.
The rest of the school year continued under the same routine, except for Dudley being rather panicky whenever he found himself alone with Harry, preferring to always walk the playground or the patio escorted by his quartet of bully friends. Music class continued and Mr Harper had Annie and Harry sharing the upright piano, although Harry showed a more natural ability than the repetitive mechanical performances Annie would display; he avoided speaking with her, or anyone else for that matter, in order to keep her out of trouble. Harry continued to be ignored in all other classes, only receiving praise from Mr Harper who had a pointed interest in having him develop his talent, which blossomed during the summer holidays even in the absence of a real keyboard since aunt Petunia had discovered Harry's smuggled mute electronic piano and thrown it away.
Summer was spent as usual, wandering the street, doing gardening, hiding from Dudley and spending his cousin's birthday a few blocks away in the company of an old lady whose home smelled of cabbage and had an old, poorly tuned upright piano against an unused corner of her dining room, covered with pictures of cats and other knick-knacks. Harry truly enjoyed the smiles on the face of old Mrs Arabella Figg, who didn't seem to notice the off-key notes her instrument delivered and instead relished on whatever music Harry performed that day, from a simple romantic sonata he had learned in school to an impromptu jazz beat he had heard played on the telly while locked inside his cupboard.
September brought autumn along with the start of primary school term, Harry had once again celebrated his birthday, his ninth this time, physically alone but remembering a girl with chocolate eyes and clinging to the unwavering hope she gave him without a single spoken word. Children in school still kept their distance from him, Dudley and his friends were no less a threat than the two previous years and the fact that Harry had somehow erased all his classmates' written notes by the end of the first day of class, including those taken with ink pens, was yet another contribution to his lack of peer friendship. It happened because Dudley had started teasing Harry about him having to search the playground for some lost pencil stub because his good-for-nothing parents had left him poor and alone, he lost his temper and his hands trembled while his heart raced. Harry willed his rage to subside to no avail, peaking when his cousin commented how Harry's parents surely could not even read. "You're the one who can't read at all, Dudleykins!" he thought and a sudden wind rustled the paper on several spiral notebooks around the room, effectively erasing anything carefully written or hastily scribbled in them, including margin doodles.
Their history teacher Mrs Knoll, a plump woman who appeared to be as old as the Queen Mother herself in the opinion of most classmates, didn't believe what her pupils tried to explain about self-erasing notes, concluding instead that all students had decided to rip the pages from their notebooks and fake this odd event in order to be lazy and avoid working at home, prompting her to punish the class by tripling their homework, over cries of protest and deep whining from the children.
"This is your fault, isn't it? I'm telling mum and I won't do any homework," Dudley crossed his thick arms and scrunched his wobbly face. Closing his eyes, Harry let his head fall on his chest and resigned himself to whatever yelling and shouting he was about to receive from his aunt Petunia and his uncle Vernon that evening.
"Boy! I told you no freakish behaviour!" Vernon Dursley screamed the instant Harry's aunt Petunia closed the front door. "It's the first day of school and the useless boy's already giving us trouble!"
"The freak did it! He... He erased everything I wrote dad!" fake tears streamed down Dudley's wide face, who in fact couldn't care less about learning anything in class, and would only miss a dozen or so misspelled words.
"My little Dudleykins has never failed to be best pupil in school, and you boy are going to do his homework for him to compensate for this funny business of yours!" Petunia demanded.
Harry sighed and simply nodded at his aunt's horse-shaped angry face, thinking it was going to be a very long year indeed. He finished his cleaning duty and took Dudley's already crumpled and battered notebook to write the assigned homework for him and then his own, before being locked inside the oppressively small cupboard under the stairs. Nightmares invaded his sleep that night and Harry woke under the desperate echoes of a woman screaming inside his mind, he didn't understand the words but the feeling of anguish ripped through his heart, it was still dark and he pushed his knees up to his chest, turning on his left and huddling in the narrow space where the underside of the steps reached the floor, wishing for daylight to come rescue him soon.
Months flashed before Harry's eyes and he soon found himself celebrating Christmas, or at the very least listening to his aunt, uncle and cousin celebrating, eating and sharing presents, both of which Dudley was the major recipient. Harry often wondered if Dudley could perhaps continue to grow forever and would eventually consume all the available food in the world, causing the doom of mankind single-handedly.
The weather had unexpectedly turned very cold one Tuesday in early February, heavy snowfall forced the teachers to keep all their pupils inside the school building. They were playing games during morning break in the corridors when a thin, black-haired boy rushed downstairs and over a couple of second-graders clutching his spectacles in his right hand, followed by Dennis McKenny holding his hand up to his bleeding nose, Piers Polkiss slipping on the cold floor bare-footed and a red-faced, panting Dudley Dursley who seemed to emit a loud whistle sound with every heavy breath he took.
Harry had been wondering if he would find adventure someday, ever since the assignment Ms Victoria Vowel had given them from daily newspaper clippings, however as usual for him, it was only trouble that would quite soon manage to literally fall on his head! Their young English Language teacher Ms Vowel had arrived carrying a huge amount of periodicals and tabloids in front of her, effectively hiding her beautiful blue eyes and facial features, explaining they were to work in groups of three and extract all important information from an article of her choosing, later presenting a brief play of the reported event in front of the class. Harry was paired with Rose Meadows, whom he had never ever traded a single word with and avoided him like the plague just like all the other children, plus William Button, a wide-faced blond boy who never stopped talking, his greatest effort in class was to keep his mouth quiet but even then he was usually muttering something under his breath, either to himself or across the table to anyone who had the misfortune of sitting close to him.
Dropping a copy of the Sunday Times on Harry and William's desk, the thirty years old pedagogue pointed to an encircled headline: Child uncovers and disbands animal trafficking operation. The text reported how a girl aged ten had helped the Metropolitan police to identify and then imprison several people, in the United Kingdom and abroad, who were implicated in smuggling and mistreating rare animal species. Exemplars recovered included South American birds, Asian monkeys and African crocodiles, all hidden inside imported furniture and trunks.
While William, or Bill for short, continued to ramble about a story between his great-grandfather and a camel in Morocco, Harry tried to finish reading the article and had the idea of using the cello case from the school orchestra to hide an animal inside, and have Bill play the part of a policeman, using a whistle they could ask from the Physical Education teacher.
"Bill... Bill, listen..." Harry tried to have his partner's attention for a few seconds to explain his idea, "Bill!" he repeated, to no avail.
"Ye know, me and me dad 'ave always find that story kind o' strange but 'ere really are camels in Morocco!" the boy said, taking a deep breath to continue his tirade.
"I'm going to play the girl, of course, Harry will be the smuggler and you Bill are going to be the policeman. Is that fine with you?" Rose explained over the never-ending ranting.
"Sure, 'ere must be elephants too, but me grampa says that's got nuthing to do with camels. Did ye know them camels 'ave four legs just like 'em horses?"
With a deep sigh and shaking his head, Harry left his chair and walked over to Ms Vowel, leaving Bill babbling at Rose who had the misfortune of being behind him when the teacher chose the working groups. Harry saw her desperately burying her head between her arms while he explained his idea to the English teacher, asking her for permission to retrieve the necessary props for the presentation next week. Ms Vowel in turn was very pleased to see Harry excited about class assignments for once, she had always seen him quiet in his seat, introverted and never participating in class, or speaking at all for that matter. She agreed with him and told Harry to look for whatever materials he needed and she would speak with the rest of the teachers.
So it was that young Harry had been given permission to enter one of the school storage rooms during morning break, looking for the enormous cello case that would allow him to smuggle an endangered species, a kitten he had captured wandering around the fishery next to the school; keeping the tiny feline at his aunt Petunia's immaculate and sanitized house was unthinkable, therefore he had enlisted help from one of the elderly kitchen assistants to keep it well fed and hidden. This storage room was located next to a cleaning supplies closet, bur unlike the latter it had a small aluminium framed window that provided enough light to navigate inside the cramped space. Several rusty metallic shelves on the right wall held cardboard boxes and several cases, old footballs and moth-eaten mats, as well as dusty books and several lost-and-found items from pencils to trainers. Above one of the pair of wooden cabinets standing left of the small window sat the required larger-than-Harry instrument case he had been allowed to use, he shook the first cabinet once to see how sturdy it was and climbed up the first shelf, then placed his feet on the second and extended his right arm to find the handle of the case and pull it.
"He's in here!" somebody yelled from the corridor and tried opening the door. "C'mon freak, get out of there!"
Harry startled and only managed to whisper "Oh, bother!" before losing his balance and pulling the cabinet along over him, a mere second later he was falling backwards followed by a sea of unsorted heaps of boxes, sporting equipment and odd, mismatched clothing items. Painfully landing on his backside, Harry looked up to see the dangling cello case as it kept swinging back and forth on the edge of the remaining upright cabinet. He tried to crawl under the fallen cabinet and accidentally kicked the second standing wooden storage furniture in his haste, unbalancing the teetering case over the edge; feeling the impending hit Harry flinched and closed his eyes tightly, expecting the big instrument case to squash his head. The considerable pain he was anticipating never came, save for a slight ruffling in his hair and a crashing sound, causing Harry to wonder for a fleeting moment if he had actually died on impact.
Three boys kept pulling the door handle until finally remembering that it actually opened towards the inside of the room instead of outwards to the corridor. Piers pushed in and stopped, followed by Dennis and Dudley who bumped into each other. Harry sat frozen upright among piles of nondescript items and rubble, opened one eyelid to see who it was at the door and recognized only three lords of the playground as they elbowed each other for a good view; he was thinking that his cousin Dudley and his friends were the most unlikely people to greet him in the afterlife, if there was such a thing in the first place, before the tallest boy started to scream.
"My monies!" said another.
"My sweets!" complained Dudley.
"He's stealing our stuff!" the three boys finally said together, throwing angry glares and scrunching their faces trying to look frightening.
The big instrument case laid open on the floor, but instead of the expected emptiness it contained dozens of wrapped candies, die-cast miniature cars and worn-out coins among other toys and sweets. Harry understood he had unwillingly discovered where the bullies hid the things they kept stealing form the other children; generous lunch money from unsuspecting parents, hard-earned candy from well-behaved children and prized toy possessions that must have been forcefully taken from younger or smaller boys and girls who kept their silence out of fear or shame, perhaps even both.
"I'm not stealing anything, you are!" Harry stated, deepening his already flared temper.
"Shut up freak! I'm telling my dad--" Dudley failed to continue his yelling after a shining, small blur flew straight into his partially open mouth. He gasped for air and brought both hands to his throat, startling the other children inside the crowded storage room when every exhaled breath began sounding a high pitched whistle characteristic of a standard referee's instrument. The whistling became louder as Dudley became redder, his exasperation reflected by his stomping feet and throbbing temple.
Still cross-legged on the cold floor and half buried by boxes and innumerable things, Harry focused on escaping and wondered if the missing bullies Gordon and Malcolm were waiting to trap him outside. He crawled under the toppled cabinet and tied Piers' trainers together while he and Dennis kept hitting Dudley heavily on the back, trying to expel the whistle lodged in his windpipe. Harry was about to do the same to Dennis when they noticed him; he looked up at the three dumbfounded faces with a grin and turned, running as fast as he could down the slippery corridor.
"He's running away!" Piers tried to sprint after the thin boy but his left foot wouldn't advance, tripping him head-first into Dennis' rather prominent nose, who staggered backwards crying and pulling Dudley with him down to the floor. Removing his tied-up trainers, revealing a pair of very foul-smelling white socks with large holes in them, Harry managed to watch Piers lifting Dudley with his crying friend Dennis and calling for their two friends, who had been standing guard on the other side of the corridor. They told Malcolm and Gordon to take the coins, candy and toys and hide them somewhere else, while the other three bolted forward in yet another "Harry hunting" game.
The larger boys quickly used their longer legs to reach Harry, who had removed his round-framed eyeglasses from his face to avoid losing them. They ran through an assembled group of children who had been playing games and doubled another corner, this time headed for a closed secondary entrance door. Harry assumed the wind outside had knocked it open while he approached and ran straight to it, ignoring the loud screams behind him.
"I need to do it again! I need to fly to the roof!" was all harry could think of. He made it outside and descended the four snow-packed steps with his cousin only a couple of yards behind. Thinking now was as good a time as any, Harry closed his eyes and jumped, hoping to land on the roof as he had done one year ago.
Dudley continued his intermittent whistling all the way outside to the patio, following Dennis who was still crying and gingerly touching his bleeding nose; Piers had remained inside the building claiming his toes would freeze in the snow and "the freak" wasn't worth the trouble. They kept watching Harry after he leaped and twisted in the air, landing heavily over a puddle of frozen mud with a loud thumping sound, and took the chance to pin him down on the ground.
"You b'oke my noze, f'eak! I'm te'ing my mum..." Dennis whined, accompanied by a loud whistle from Dudley who also nodded in agreement, since he couldn't speak.
Harry felt the freezing mud through his thin clothing and tried to slip away from his chasers; the squeezing sensation he had expected before never came, nor did he land anywhere other than right in front of him. He was being held by two pairs of arms, with no possibility of escape until the life-saver ringing of a bell turned imminent doom into a stressful détente for a couple of seconds.
"You four," spoke Headteacher Jenkins in a loud, commanding voice, "walk with me, now!"
Mr Jenkins was a stern looking man, always wearing brown suits and sporting a short, respectable haircut. He had no name that Harry was aware of, and his nameplate on the desk simply stated his position, "Headteacher". The walls of his office had no certificates with his name or pictures of any kind either, nothing adorned the dull cream colours beyond a tall cabinet for files and a coat hanger to the left of the door.
Before anyone spoke, Harry told the Headteacher how he had been to the storage room to retrieve a cello case for an English class assignment and fell trying to reach it, at that moment Dudley and his friends had seen him and began to chase him around. The three larger boys simply nodded their heads in agreement, but then Dudley pointed at his throat and blew the entrenched whistle a couple of times, waving his arms around and jumping from foot to foot, resembling a curious sort of overgrown, pink and quasi-hairless chimp.
Harry failed to mention the stolen goods he had found, he knew the boys would deny it and besides, Gordon and Malcolm had surely hidden everything somewhere else by then. He also knew that his uncles would side with anything Dudley told them, and it discouraged him from revealing that information to his Headteacher. Courage to do the right thing had been promptly squashed by the prospect of a glum immediate future.
The following day, as expected, the large instrument case was devoid of any sweets, toys and coins. Nobody had bothered to organize the neglected storage room when Harry returned to gather the necessary props for his group's English class presentation. Dudley had been excused from school until the following week, pending a minor tracheal surgery to remove a silver metallic referee's whistle he had somehow swallowed during classes, as the Headteacher had explained the event to aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon, who nevertheless took an askance look and glared at Harry with a shaking moustache and a throbbing temple.
Locked inside the dark cupboard under the stairs once again for "hurting innocent little Dudley with his freakish funny business", Harry lay curled on his side and cried, hummed and dreamed of better days, of rescuing arms and caring eyes; he longed for a real home where people didn't fear or hurt him. Number four Privet Drive itself was a poor rendition of a home, it was of course an immaculately clean house with manicured gardens and discrete colours in conformity to the established expectations of its neighbours, but despite the living family of three plus one nephew, nothing reflected the existence of its inhabitants inside the sterile building. Vernon Dursley ruled his family to fulfil the standards of normalcy, unable to imagine a life outside the boundaries of what is ordinary, and therefore correct in his view. How normal it was to mistreat a little boy by locking and starving him never seemed to be a valid question for him, however.
Spring arrived soon to perpetuate the life-giving seasonal cycle, giving a little black-haired boy a rare moment of peace and a moderate degree of freedom for an instant in time. Harry sat cross-legged, basking in the morning sunlight on top of the school kitchens, the place he had never been able to "fly over" again but found a way to climb nevertheless. He had another seven minutes or more before morning break ended and classes resumed with his cousin Dudley, who was still the usual threatening bully towards him and others in school, perhaps even more so after the whistle incident. Harry kept his eyes closed while facing the faint sun behind the sheet of clouds, replaying a beautiful piano composition by Schubert called Wanderer-Fantasie he had listened to in Music class the week before, and reaffirmed a conscious decision to surmount his inherited worthlessness, like Mr Harper had said "it takes courage to overcome what the world throws at you", and he was determined to do so, if not for his own sake, then for that of a smiling brown-eyed girl who visited his dreams and helped keep the nightmares away.
"Welcome class, let's settle in and rehearse," Mr Harper commanded as soon as Harry found his way inside the room, "and Annie, please remember Harry is learning only here at school, he doesn't have a piano at home like you, so keep pushing him forward, okay?"
"Maybe I shouldn't be-" Harry began his excuse but was cut by his teacher.
"Stop Harry! You have a talent, I'm sorry your family doesn't see it, but I'll say it again. You are a natural player and you aren't a burden for Annie or me! Now strike those keys and have fun!"
Harry did have fun until the very end of term, he was granted access to the Music Classroom during breaks for study purposes and now he could choose to either climb to the roofs or lose himself in the wonderful world of music to escape his ever bigger cousin. Only a week before last day of school, Mr Harper announced his intention to participate in a musical contest due to be held in the spring of the following year, and he wanted to form an infant piano and violin duet performing a piece by the notable Albert Ketèlbey, in an appropriate arrangement for the children's current skills, as well as present either Annie or Harry playing a very patriotic piano sonata by Sir Edward Elgar, Land of Hope and Glory. Everyone agreed, however Harry explained he wouldn't be able to rehearse at all during the summer, to what his teacher merely waved and told him not to worry, he turned and gave Harry a very old binder, a box of magnetic tapes and the school's tattered portable cassette player with a set of half-broken headphones.
"I've already discussed with your aunt to allow you to attend summer classes here, she said it'd be acceptable if it entailed no monetary fees and you managed to complete your house chores, whatever they are because she wouldn't tell me?" He expected an explanation from harry, but was forced to move on after none came from the child's sealed lips. "These scores were... Well they're a few of my books when I was a student, I want you to peruse them at your pleasure and enjoy the music in those tapes." He was still holding the binder, and let go of it reluctantly with a nod to Harry.
"Thank you sir."
"You may not feel like thanking me afterwards Harry, some of these works aren't easy... Not easy at all," he explained while looking away from his pupil, "so remember to let the music flow from yourself, never let it command you instead. Music is magic Harry, it can heal a broken heart as well as frighten it to death..." he trailed off with a distant look in his eyes.
"Magic sir? Uncle Vernon says there's no such thing. He'd laugh at you just for saying that Mr Harper!"
"He'd do more than laugh, wouldn't he? But then again, I guess he's never found it in himself to look beyond his own nose... To look at the magic you can offer, Harry."
Harry gulped and felt the blood leaving his face, wondering if Mr Harper had somehow seen how freakish things happened around him, or found him trying to repeat his flight up the school kitchens. "Do you believe in magic sir? I mean real magic?"
The teacher looked at him with a crooked smile. "Real magic? What could be more magical than Holst's ability to ferry us through the heavens above? Or our Englishman fellow Dowland's ancient yet timeless songs of joyful spirits and laments of the heart? No Harry, I can't say that I believe in greater or more real magic than that which I experience in music. What I do believe, is that you have the talent to express this magic, and that you must train very hard to win that contest for our school next spring, okay?"
"Yes sir. I'll do that," Harry answered with a nod, both relieved and saddened by what Mr Harper considered magic to be.
Meeting his teacher during the summer holidays was an opportunity to escape the Dursleys Harry couldn't refuse. Besides, he had access to a piano and that was more than enough incentive for him. They met on Mondays and Thursdays, the school was almost deserted except for those few children attending summer courses or sports classes; no one had been interested in music lessons despite the early announcement. It was during one of those bus rides with aunt Petunia that an old woman wearing strange green clothes nodded at him, he turned to ask his aunt but received a glare that conveyed "do not dare to ask" in return.
Happily for Harry his tenth birthday fell on Monday and it was a treat he would hardly ever forget to have had the happy birthday song played for him by Mr Harper for the very first time in his life. His uncles had surprised him as well with the usefulness of their present that year, he was given a worn-out curtain to use as a blanket, in replacement for his shredded piece of fabric that was once a flower-patterned over light blue almost hole-free tablecloth. Harry's new blanket was pink with broad yellow stripes, each one etched with rows of little chirping birds.
It was towards the end of August however that Mr Harper had began to arrive quite agitated to their lessons. Detecting mood changes had become an instinctive second nature to Harry as a defence mechanism, having grown up on the receiving end of uncle Vernon's temper, and the young boy soon began to believe he wasn't making enough progress or was simply not as talented as his teacher thought he would be, attributing his tutor's swinging between irascibility and euphoria to his own failure.
"Go on Harry, just play at large, whatever comes across your mind," Mr Harper instructed while wobbling a little and finally sitting on a backwards chair, elbows resting on the back and fingers massaging his temples.
The sad, almost despairing melody that sprang from the piano seemed to startle the old musician at once, Harry glanced to his left and noticed how Mr Harper seemed ready to ask something, twice opening his mouth without a sound, however he simply shook his head and rested his forehead over folded arms. Yes, Harry understood this as confirmation he wasn't fulfilling his teacher's expectations at all.
Only when the 1990 Fall School Term started did Harry feel his spirits lift, if just a little, because he no longer had to spend so much time meandering the short Little Whinging streets and embellishing its neighbour's gardens for little money while aunt Petunia's garden was free of charge, of course; nor doing absolutely nothing and simply steaming inside his cupboard listening to the same music tapes over and over again. Offering his gardening services had been a good idea for affording school supplies such as pencils and a notebook, and maybe the occasional treat, except uncle Vernon found out about it after the first holidays week and demanded his percentage as business promoter. His idea of promoting Harry to the neighbours was to present his nephew as an incorrigible young offender who needed something to keep his delinquent traits at bay, hence the cheap, heavy labour.
Young Harry's class had the misfortune of using one of the classrooms facing north this year, towards the very smelly fresh fishery that stood next to the school, a locale whose aromas permeated the area and wafted through the necessarily open windows, given the still warm temperatures. Sitting by the window and trying his best not to be overly sick, Harry bolted quick as lightning from his seat towards the welcoming, rotten-fish-smell-free corridor as soon as the bell rang. He was just walking by the teacher's lounge when a part of the conversation caught his immediate attention.
"...older Harold got I hoped the wiser he'd become, I've got no choice but to terminate him if he arrives like this again!" huffed a voice Harry could easily relate to his school's Headmaster.
"Surely Albert, but he's done so much for the school, what with the Granger donations he attained and all the benefits that came with it?"
"Yes, yes, now hush little kitten, and meet me in my office after four, would you? I must go before the teachers arrive..."
Harry chanced a glance through the half-closed door in time to watch Mr Bullion kissing Ms Flores, an assistant secretary who had taken care of him more than twice while waiting with Dudley for his aunt and uncle to arrive, summoned after whatever altercation the children had been involved in. Ms Flores used to give him a bar of chocolate or another delicious piece of candy he would never ever dream of affording or being given by his relatives, while Dudley usually received nothing but an earful from her, followed by something in her native Spanish that sounded like "ares deemaceadow gerdow", whatever that meant.
Having witnessed adults kissing before, Harry understood this as a sign of affection. His uncles had never kissed each other, at least not in front of him, yet most other children's parents were keen to do so in the morning as they accompanied their sons and daughters to school. These two adults however were taking a very long time to kiss and they kept trying to hug one another in several different places, something he had never seen before at all.
He turned around and made his way to the playground outside, thinking about Mr Harper and what sort of troubles he had that made Mr Bullion threaten him with termination. Whatever his Music teacher had done, he didn't deserve to be killed, Harry thought while his feet carried him to the side wall of the kitchens and climbed to find his secluded spot on the roof, from where he had a laugh watching Dudley's recent haircut, which in his opinion made the veritable image of a pig-in-a-wig out of his blond, pink and rotund cousin.
Finding the Physical Education teacher substituting for Mr Harper in Music class gave Harry a rightful scare, he thought maybe Mr Bullion had already terminated him and his body would be found in the Thames within the coming days. Saddened by the apparent loss of the only adult to have ever noticed anything good in him, he went to his piano partner Annie and put a heavy hand on her shoulder.
"A-Annie? I think you should know, I heard the Headmaster talking about terminating our teacher... I think he's already dead..." he whispered while looking at the linoleum floor.
"What?" she asked while covering her mouth with her right hand. "Why'd you say that?"
"Because you know, termination means death..." Harry answered as if this was common knowledge and his schoolmate should be aware of such word.
To his surprise, she began to chuckle behind her hand, soon she brought both hands to her face and broke into a laugh. "Harry, that's not what it means. Termination means to lose a job, I listened to my mum say so this summer," she explained, "so don't worry, he ain't dead, probably just looking for work..." Annie took a deep breath and continued to laugh as Harry stared at her.
"But... But my uncle's always said termination is death, that he'd die if he got terminated and how it killed other people where he works..." he explained, feeling utterly embarrassed and withholding how he had overheard such conversation from his secluded space under the stairs.
As expected Mr Harper did return to teach his classes, very much alive. He was in a more gentle and amicable mood as was his usual self, unlike those last summer weeks when he seemed distraught, and within the month had selected the three most talented fourth-graders, two pianists and one violin player. Harry continued to put his best efforts and enjoyed playing from Beethoven's Für Elise to the latest pop music hit on the radio and back, while also rehearsing the chosen Elgar and Ketèlbey works with Annie and Clara Smith on the violin. Clara was from Harry's perspective a very, very tall girl with short, braided hair who had always vehemently refused to speak with him, but despite that lack of communication they still managed to rehearse and young Harry felt happy that his teacher was acting himself again after assembling what seemed to be a very promising group of child musicians, while also feeling a little more confident of his own talents.
Late September blew red and brown fallen leaves all over the school grounds, a sight Harry admired fondly through his class windows but dreaded as well, because of the effort it took to collect and dispose of the endless amounts of undesired leaves from aunt Petunia's garden. It was Monday morning and Mrs Knoll, the History teacher, was interrupted about a quarter of an hour before the end of class by a frantic looking Ms Flores suddenly opening the door and whispering urgently with the teacher.
The class was happy to be dismissed from the boring lesson ten minutes earlier to their morning break, Dudley and his two friends were even happier since it gave them more time to have their fun with the smaller children. Harry had taken the habit of diverting his cousin's attention whenever he picked upon those too young or too small to defend themselves, shouting at him and then making use of his lithe frame to sprint away around the patio and the school yard, careful not to run too fast or else they would lose interest and chase someone else.
As Harry rounded a school corner, he saw a group of teachers including Mrs Knoll and Mr Harper led by Headmaster Bullion greeting another group of fancy dressed adults who stood in a tight circle by the school gate. He was trying to see who would be so important as to be greeted by the Headmaster himself just before Piers threw an empty soda can at him, drawing his attention back to the fact he was actually being chased by his favourite bullies. Out of the blurry corner of his eye Harry saw Mr Bullion bending downwards to greet someone among the men dressed in business suits but he had reached the end of the building and needed to turn yet another corner, running for the secondary corridor just in time to hear the ringing bell signalling the true beginning of morning break.
"Hey! Watch it!" followed by shrieks of "Oh, my foot!" and "Out of the way!" were heard as young Harry, hunted by Malcolm, Dennis, Gordon, Dudley and Piers ran straight through the mass of children leaving classes at the time. One unfortunate little boy stepped in front of Piers as he was dodging a group of screaming girls and both fell hard on the floor, legs and arms entangled. Malcolm and the others jumped over them but Harry noticed that Dudley only managed to circumvent them; jumping was not his cousin's favourite activity and besides his highest gained altitude ever was about half a foot, achieved just this year when trying to reach for an appetizing chocolate cake his mother Petunia had brought home from the bakery for his birthday party. He frowned as he remembered being blamed for the mess on the floor after Dudley pushed the cake over, he was made to pay for a new one from his already scarce gardening earnings and clean up the kitchen, and remove chocolate cake footprints from all over the house, and apologize to Dudley, thus adding insult to injury!
As if fortune had remembered Harry's pledge, at least once, it was Ms Vowel who stepped out of the last classroom door of the corridor. She halted all four children and reprimanded them for running in the halls, separated Dudley and his two friends and with a wink for Harry pulled the three of them towards the Headteacher's office. Left alone in the classroom, he sat on the floor and picked a book from the small class library. Reading was always a difficult activity for Harry, he only managed to read and concentrate for a couple of minutes before developing severe headaches; to make matters worse, he would have to face his relatives for "getting Dudley in trouble again" and the anxiety kept breaking his feeble attempts at concentration.
The bell rang again and the black-haired boy popped his head out the door, watching out for his cousin in case he had already been dismissed by the Headteacher, and then swiftly headed for his classroom to sit through another Mathematics lesson. He grinned when noticing three empty chairs and the welcome absence of its usual occupants. Ms Marguerite Sewen, an strict German born middle-aged woman, also looked happy because her class was progressing smoothly without Dudley's constant disruptions, but it wasn't to last.
Harry had his one-fifth-length sharpened pencil on hand, hovering over some half-finished multiplications, when a cacophony of slamming doors and shutters made him jump out of his seat, his stomach twisted and his head shot upwards as darkness engulfed the classroom, reminding him of the worst nightmares he would wake up from in the middle of the night. Screaming, running children clogged the doorway as the large windows facing the fishery building next door shook and cracked under the force of the closing aluminium shutters. Only Harry remained calm, wondering if once again he had done something impossible and if he did, why would it happen now when there was nothing threatening or upsetting him?
"Quiet! Everyvone quiet down und please open the tuer!" Ms Sewen yelled over the frightened shouts of his pupils.
"It won't open!" answered young Bill, who was already crying for his grampa.
The startled teacher managed to overstep the twenty or so huddled children and tried the door herself, finding it locked and resisting every attempt at forcing it open. Harry was still staring at the now glass-less, obscured windows when something else flooded his mind, the exhilarating possibility that since this wasn't his doing, there had to be another person with freak abilities like himself in the school. In an instant the memory of those kind, accepting yet troubling brown eyes of a little girl he could hardly tell whether was real or a figment of his imagination had suddenly blossomed inside him. If she was real, truly real, than so was magic and that would explain every strange event that continued to happen around him!
Slowly but surely, Harry broke out of the trance and faced the southwest corner where the classroom door stood, staring at it without acknowledging the curious looks and terrified glances from his classmates. He walked towards the door while Ms Sewen tried to keep the other children away from the shattered windows and pushed the handle with all his might, then resorting to put one foot on the wall and pushing himself while pulling the handle with both hands in an effort to wrench the stubborn door open. The classroom was bathed in light again as Ms Sewen managed to pull the shutters open and clear some of the broken glass, and Harry felt rather than heard the lock being released. All the now unnecessary strength made him lose his grip on the handle when the door burst open, throwing himself over backwards and landing painfully flat on his back in the middle of the room.
"Whaaa...!" he screamed while flying through the air and then the unmistakeable sound of deflating lungs and perhaps broken bones filled the now silent room. Teacher and children encircled the fallen boy, some with their mouths open, others looking at him with tilted heads probably wondering if he was still alive after such folly.
At that very moment a group of people led by Mr Bullion walked by the classroom, Harry only managed to turn his neck slightly towards it looking at the half-height wall below the shattered windows as they passed by and heard the Headmaster talking.
"Yes, ahem, well... As you can see we-we... Well we are rebuilding a few of the classrooms, you see? Oh, watch out for the broken glass!"
"And having classes inside all the while?" a female voice asked, with a reproachful tone as Ms Sewen and the children waved innocently at them.
"Oh, no, these children were... Ahem... Learning about construction sites, that is!" and the school Headmaster added, "Maybe the foundation could, perhaps, help us in this matter?"
The voices faded away and Harry lost the will to continue his search, and judging by the now swollen lump on the back of his head he should have lost consciousness as well. Groaning and managing to lift himself up without anyone else's help, he walked to the cubicle that was the school's infirmary, a place he knew all too well for his liking.
"Again? What part o' yerself did ya bruise this time, Barry?" the Physical Education teacher Mr Barrow would double as nurse when not in class, he had always had difficulty remembering anyone's name or family name correctly, although he had seen both him and Dudley almost every single month, the larger boy always complaining about something the thinner, smaller child had supposedly done to him.
"It's my head, a nasty bump..." Harry stated while pointing at his back.
"Cor! That's a nasty bump!"
"Just what I said."
"Yer not very smart, huh? Always tripping over sumethin' or other..." Mr Barrow replied while slapping him on the back of the head, forgetting that it was precisely that area of his head that was swollen and bruised, in addition to his back and his pride, whatever little he had.
Saddened by a deep feeling of loss after failing to confirm the presence of the girl who lived in his dreams, she that could perhaps be real and maybe once stood opposite him in the gigantic hall of the British Library, Harry pressed the pack of ice cubes against his head and walked back to the now very ventilated and cold classroom, taking his usual place and ignoring Dudley's also usual finger pointing and snickering.
The swelling subsided after a couple of weeks, yet the headaches continued until well after the Christmas holidays, when Harry was left again under the care of old Mrs Figg for a full day so that Dudley could drag his parents to visit someone called Santa he would always visit this time of the year, all the while enumerating all thirty or more toys he wished to have. Yes, the smell of cabbage continued to permeate her home, yet the endless hours looking at pictures of her overgrown cats were long since substituted by grateful hours of piano playing and music listening. Mrs Figg thoroughly enjoyed cabaret and vaudeville music of the nineteen twenties, she had many old, dusty music albums and an antique record player, from where Harry learned quite a few merry melodies and some lyrics that made his face turn red, but had fun playing them back for her on the old, out of tune upright piano.
"Oh my, you have improved by leaps and bounds!"
The boy looked away from the old lady but kept playing, despite everything Harry still felt uncomfortable when complimented. "It's because I'm going to be representing my school at a musical contest, Mrs Figg."
"Is that so, Harry? Where, if I may ask?" she replied while scratching an giant obese grey cat with white paws that sat on her lap. This particular cat had taken the habit of meandering around aunt Petunia's backyard, whenever she saw it she would shout and throw water out the kitchen window, claiming "that filthy animal" was going to ruin her precious flowerbeds, as if she had planted and taken care of them herself!
"I'm not quite sure, Mrs Figg. I'd thought it was going to be at our own Music classroom..."
"Never mind, dear, perhaps you could inquire your professor if you're leaving the safety of your school again for this competition you mentioned," she then added, with a nervous expression, "it's a dangerous world outside, you should know..."
He found it strange when she mentioned leaving the safety of the school again, the only occasions he had ever been outside Privet Drive area and Little Whinging Primary School were one visit to the local hospital after Dudley had pushed him downstairs when he was four, and one school trip a year. His cousin however was a constant visitor to such hospital, he complained of having everything from imaginary broken bones to very disgustingly real and smelly flu symptoms, and come to think of it, Harry wondered how was it he had never ever fallen ill from disease like other children, and only suffered bruises when it should have resulted in severe fractures, caused either by physical interaction with others or by foolishly hurting himself as he had a few weeks before.
Such questions remained unanswered as the evening arrived and Harry walked back to uncle Vernon's house, waiting in the garden until his relatives arrived to allow him inside. Christmas came and went away as always, salivating over delicious food aromas that night and watching Dudley disdainfully open his quite extensive amount of presents in the morning.
As a new year arrived for little Harry, his anxiousness increased and his self-doubt redoubled. Was he good enough to perform music in front of an audience? Or would he finally disappoint Mr Harper, who had taught him so much more than hitting black and white keys on an instrument? Courage to do what feels right, understanding that there are more possibilities among two extreme options, and ultimately a sense of worth he had never experienced before, that people actually praised and appreciated how he, Harry James the good-for-nothing-freak, could convey the magic within music by letting his emotions run free over a piano keyboard! All of that had been the result of a simple chance encounter, real or imaginary didn't matter any more, because the nameless girl who wordlessly said "I'm just like you and you'll never be alone" with her chocolate eyes had driven him towards this path; where it not for her, he might still be existing in an even more miserable condition, hopeless and broken-spirited all the time instead of only occasionally.
As spring and the fated date of Harry's performance drew near, he put all his effort and spent all his free time rehearsing both Ketèlbey and Elgar music sheets. His temper was short and he found himself yelling back at his teacher one day, after already having an altercation with aunt Petunia over using too much cooking oil for breakfast that very same morning.
"I'm not playing it right..."
"Harry, maybe you'd better rest for a d--"
"No!" he screamed and clenched his aching hands, "I'll rehearse 'til I get this right!"
The other children stopped their folly as soon as Harry shouted, but Mr Harper quickly waved at them to continue. He was about to pull Harry away from the instrument when the door opened to reveal Headmaster Bullion, who walked up to the Music teacher and whispered something in his ear.
"What? Now?" Mr Harper replied loudly.
"Yes, now! I don't care what you do, just get those people away from here!" was Mr Bullion's forceful answer, then he lowered his voice again, but Harry managed to hear his threat, "Or would you like me to tell your precious star pupil over there just why exactly you have been wasting your talent as a primary school teacher all these years?"
Harry watched his teacher stand and tower over the Headmaster, a bald man with deep brown eyes who barely reached Mr Harper's shoulder height. Both adults looked intently at each other until the taller man huffed and left the room, giving the children free reign for the remaining twenty minutes of class. Needless to say the quiet room soon became a raucous party, but Harry simply shrugged and continued to study the sheet music in front of him.
Three weeks before the musical contest took place Mr Harper announced Harry as the one to play Sir Elgar's sonata, while Annie would play the piano joined by Clara on the violin, presenting an arrangement of Albert Ketèlbey's popular piece titled In a Persian Market as they had been training for the entire term. Time soared by until one last string of seven days passed in a flash and finally the day of the event arrived, on a Friday much to uncle Vernon's annoyance because he would have to fetch his "worthless nephew", from a music contest of all places, instead of watching his customary shows on the telly until midnight. Music playing was for lazy people who didn't have anything worthy to do in real life, Vernon constantly told Harry, and this pitiful so-called talent only made the child even more of a useless freak.
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