And all ‘Aunt’ Pearl had to say was, “Is that quite tight enough, Susannah?”
Setting aside the fact that my ribs were being bent the wrong way, my internal organs were almost certainly being unceremoniously crushed and my boobs were almost certainly being pushed out of my back, I almost didn’t answer just because I didn’t realise she was talking to me.
I haven’t responded to being called Susannah in, well, ever.
So, thinking she was asking a second person for their opinion on this torturous contraption that she called a corset, I concentrated on gasping for air and blinking away tears of pain.
“Susannah?” She repeated, a slight tone of impatience. Apparently English ladies didn’t like being kept waiting.
“What? Oh, Susannah.” I finally managed to respond, albeit not intelligently. “Me. Right. It’s, um… Well I can’t, like… fill my lungs…”
“Perfect.” The scary thing is, she wasn’t joking. I stifled a yelp as she yanked the stringy, ribbon things once more before briskly tying it in a painstakingly neat bow.
“It does make her waist look fabulous,” ‘Aunt’ Pearl’s daughter, Felicia commented, casually, from her perch on the loveseat. I wondered how she was able to sit dressed in one of these things without her face contorting in pain. I couldn’t move a freaking inch.
Funny, as well, how she wasn’t ‘Cousin’ Felicia, when I was instructed to call this other non-relative my Aunt. Funny. I wasn’t laughing.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Aunt Pearl agreed, “She has a natural curve to it just like her mother did. At first I thought it was a little too curvy to be befitting in such a gown, but now…”
I wasn’t particularly affected by the way they spoke about me, in particular my flaws, as if I wasn’t there. They’d been doing it for the whole week that I’d been in England, now. It had been a little unnerving to begin with, having two stunning, elegant blondes picking apart your physical features, but I’d gotten used to it. They even threw in the odd compliment now and then.
I couldn’t have told you if my waist looked ‘fabulous’, because quite frankly I had no idea what a fabulous waist looked like. But I could tell you it looked abso-bloody-lutely minute. I could practically get my hands around it, all sucked in by this monstrosity they’d dressed me in. Not content with flattening my boobs, which had been deemed ‘a little too generous for this type of event’, they’d sucked in my waist as well. Too bad they couldn’t shave the bone from my protruding hips or I’d bet they’d trim them down too.
I would have been happy in the loose-fitting summer dress I’d pulled out of my travelling case, but Aunt Pearl had laughed with such frivolity when I suggested it that I assume she thought I was joking.
It was my own sodding welcoming banquet, surely I should have been the one to choose the dress code? In which case it would have been: sweats – the holier the better.
“So do you wear these… often?” I asked, attempting to adjust my posture to something more comfortable. Nope. Not working. It seemed I was stuck in ‘stick-up-my-arse’ stance all evening.
“Wear what, dear? Oh, you mean gowns such as these? Not too often, really, just for the formal events you know, the balls, banquets, that sort of thing. What would you say, Felicia…?”
“Once a week or so, Mother?” Felicia supplied, idly inspecting her long, polished nails. I didn’t dare hazard a glance at my own short nails, not bitten but cut short just to be more practical. No doubt they wouldn’t be deemed ‘appropriate’ either.
Once a week?! I was thunderstruck. I would have to force myself into one of these agonising things once a week?
“Something like that.” Aunt Pearl was now busy arranging my skirts to fall gracefully. “Why do you ask, Susannah?”
Because I’m being slowly asphyxiated, here...
“It’s just so… pretty.” I winced. She took it as a smile.
“Indeed, and don’t you look just radiant wearing it?” Aunt Pearl beamed, “So sad, really, that you’ve never had this sort of thing growing up. I know your mother would have dressed you just beautifully… Oh, I haven’t upset you, have I dear?”
She blinked anxiously at the tears in my eyes. They were from the bloody killer-corset, but I wasn’t about to tell her that.
“No, no, I’m quite alright,” I plastered a ‘brave smile’ on my face like the tragic, fragile little heroine she evidently thought I was, “It’s just hard to think what I’ve missed…”
Aunt Pearl was not actually my aunt. She was my mother’s best friend. Was being the operative word – my mother had been dead for twelve years, as had my father. On a trip visiting my father’s brothers, who’s business for International Magical Relations had moved them to Delhi, India, my parents had contracted Splattergroit. They hadn’t survived. So I, their four-year-old only daughter, had been left with my only living relatives; Uncles Nigel, Giles and Alard, and cousin Walter.
I’d lived perfectly happily in India with my very male family until I was sixteen. Until a very interfering and prying letter from my mothers best friend, enquiring what my Uncles were planning to do regarding my education, my culture, my marriage.
Marriage. Can you believe it? I was sixteen, for the love of Merlin. None of my Uncles had married ( a fact which caused Aunt Pearl to choke when I’d told her that Cousin Walt had been born out of wedlock ) and I had no desire to do so.
But after much crying, screaming and stamping my foot – my ‘hissy fits’ as Uncle Nigel frequently called them – I got nowhere. My Uncles guilt won over my free choice. I was flooed over to Aunt Pearl all in good time to ready me over the summer to go to school. School. Seriously. After a lifetime of home-schooling, they thus decided that it would just not do for me to be thrust into the adult world without at least one year of school.
So I was to do two. Years I mean. I was to complete Sixth and Seventh Year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as a young lady. You know, nothing too daunting or anything for a girl who’s spent the majority of her life living in a house where the most frequently uttered phrase was “Holy shit, that was a stinker”.
I was working on their manners, I promise. Well now it was their own fault they'd never meet any lovely ladies because they were the ones who sent me away when I'd been trying to improve their manners.
But I still thought the whole marriage part won on the Crappy Parts Of My Life competition. Aunt Pearl was adamant that I would be found a suitor within the first two years of being in England. I was, in her words, such a ‘beautiful, if unorthodox, young lady’.
“She would be so proud to see you now,” Aunt Pearl beamed at me in the mirror, still talking about the mother I barely remembered. “To see who you’ve become despite your… unusual upbringing. Of course you have much yet to learn, but it seems to be coming so naturally that I think you’ll do just marvellously at school. Particularly as tonight, and for many nights to come, you shall be meeting your future housemates.”
Coming naturally, my arse.
I’d never felt so out of place in my life. Even as the only girl in a house full of males, I’d felt like I fit in so much more easily than in this world of sophisticated, elegant pureblood society.
“Now, you’re a little younger than most, if I remember correctly,” Aunt Pearl carried on, “Bellatrix Black, the Lestranges, the Nott’s, they all left school in the last few years. But Narcissa Black – she should be around your age, wouldn’t you say, Felicia?”
“She’s seventh year,” Felicia nodded. She had now seated herself at the dressing table next to me and was inspecting her face for non-existent blemishes. “A year younger than me.”
“Well then, isn’t that wonderful? She’ll be a year older than you, Susannah dear. Who else will there be, Felicia?”
“I don’t know, Mother, I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to those younger than myself,” Felicia rolled her eyes as if the whole idea was ludicrous. I let my mind drift to spending my days in Delhi with Walt – my cousin and best friend – he was a year younger than me, as Felicia reeled off a list of meaningless names, “There’ll be Gloria Bullstrode, seventh year; Una Goyle, sixth year; Evan Rosier, he’ll be seventh year; and the Black brothers, fifth and sixth…”
As delighted as I’d acted when Aunt Pearl had informed me that she’d arranged numerous social gatherings to help ease me in with my future housemates over the summer, I couldn’t help but be aware of the small but noticeable ball of bile at the back of my throat when I thought about meeting all these strangers. I’d hated the balls, back in Delhi. Uncle Nigel had always had to physically drag Walt and I through the doors and hiss that we better smile nicely and if we were planning anything we sure as hell better not get caught or it’d be his arse on the line.
I was good at acting. That was what had gotten me through this week. That was what would get me through tonight. But how long, I couldn’t help but wonder, would I have to keep up the pretence. How long would it take for me to fit in? Would I ever?
“It’s very different over there,” Uncle Nigel had warned me, “You can’t just do what you feel, say what you please. You have to consider it all. You won’t be able to goof off with Walt in some corner at whatever ball or banquet you go to, ok? It’s not like here.”
“I know,” I’d sulked, “Because Walt won’t be there. Because Walt doesn’t have to be shipped off to the other side of the world, he gets to stay at home. Which is incidentally my home, if you remember.”
“Annie, please. Do this for your Aunt Pearl. She’s convinced that it was your mother’s wishes and it’ll get her off my back. You know you can come back and visit whenever you want. Christmas holiday, Easter, next summer…”
“Why do I have to go this summer?” I’d wailed.
“Believe me, Honey, you’ll need the preparation. Like I said, it’s different over there -”
“I get it,” I’d told him, in typical stroppy teenager fashion, “Keep my mouth shut, act nice, be a ‘young lady’. That it?”
“I’m serious, Annie. The sort of functions you’ll be attending there… they’re like the Humphrey’s bash. But every week.”
I’d groaned. The Humphrey’s were the wealthiest wizarding family in Delhi, and had hosted an annual Winter Ball which my Uncles, Walt and I had attended every year. It was the worst of the lot – pretentious, expensive and full of breakable objects. Walt and I had been practically tied to Uncle Nigel’s side all night so that we didn’t cause trouble.
And, according to Uncle Nigel, that was what it was like here all the time.
I wouldn’t last a night.
“You’re almost ready, Susannah,” Aunt Pearl smiled at Felicia and I in the mirror. She was probably just happy that her daughter looked so serene and unflustered, sitting calmly next to the uncomfortable, pained mess that was myself. She and Felicia smiled expectantly at me. Was I supposed to respond? What was I meant to say, thank you? For the possibly fractures I’ve obtained in my ribs?
“Um. Great. Can’t wait.” I said, feebly. “What… er… time are the guests arriving?”
Aunt Pearl glanced at her slim gold wristwatch and gasped in surprise, “Good Heavens! The guests will have started arriving already! Girls, are you quite ready?”
“Just a second, Mother,” Felicia plucked a small silver box from the masses on the dressing table and flicked it open with a practiced ease, “Let’s just powder our noses…”
Let’s just what now? Powder our noses? I was perfectly fine without – Argh!
Without warning Felicia thrust something soft, puffy and emitting copious amounts of what felt like sawdust in my face. The powder settled in my eyes, up my nose, in my mouth – pretty much everywhere apart from on my nose, I expected. It was vile stuff, sickly sweet and musty smelling. Tasting. Whatever. Not pleasant.
“Now we’re ready.” Felicia declared.
Speak for yourself. I was still choking.
“Aren’t you excited, Susannah?”
“And this must be Miss Vaisey,” Yet another middle-aged, balding man seized my hand and brought it to his lips. It repulsed me every time. England was strange. Did they not know that kissing someone on the hand was a sure way to spread disease? I should tell someone, but I somehow sensed that that wasn’t what Aunt Pearl would call ‘appropriate dinner conversation’.
Not that we were even at the table yet. It seemed like hours that we’d been mingling in the drawing room, surely there couldn’t be more people to introduce me to? I distinctly remembered Aunt Pearl promising that there would be a select few guests, not a select hundred odd.
“Oh yes, Mr Malfoy. This is Susannah Leigh Vaisey. Susannah Leigh, Mr Malfoy.” Aunt Pearl didn’t seem to be as bored by the whole shenanigan as myself, she positively trembled with excitement every time someone new approached. It still didn’t even feel like me being introduced to these people. Susannah Leigh. Apparently this was what I was to be known as from now on, so I better get used to it.
I smiled charmingly at Mr Malfoy, whose receding hairline was almost impossible to distinguish, due to his hair being the same shade of white as his skin. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“But the pleasure is all mine, Susannah… May I call you Susannah?” He enquired.
I tried to imagine this man, or any of these people, calling me Annie. I didn’t know what it would sound like unless barked abruptly from Uncle Nigel, drawled lazily from Uncle Giles, scolded mockingly from Uncle Alard or whinged from Walt. They were not many people I’d met who called me Annie, because at the age of eight I’d had the cunning idea to introduce myself as ‘Suzy’ to anybody that I took an instant dislike to, therefore giving me a bit of warning as to who was calling me in the street. But Annie was who I was really. Susannah… that would take some getting used to.
“Of course,” I said, graciously.
“Wonderful. Susannah I’d like you to meet my son, Lucius…”
The introductions went on and on. The sons and daughters were much the same as their parents, just with less commenting on how much I resembled my father. Which I’m not so sure is a compliment. From the one photograph I have of my parents, my father seemed to be a portly man with a neatly trimmed moustache and a protruding beer-belly. Well I suppose I had been told I had my mother’s waist, which hopefully ruled out Father Dear’s beer belly. Still you never know. Maybe these people were so used to seeing girls in these corset things that they could tell that my waist wasn’t normally the same thickness as a normal person’s neck. It still hurt like a bitch.
It seemed like an age until Aunt Pearl considered that I’d been paraded around enough in front of everybody and she finally announced dinner. I was ready to make a sprint for it along with the obviously more hedonistic, younger children, but Aunt Pearl seemed to guess this and kept her arm firmly looped through mine. Maybe she noticed more than I gave her credit for.
We were making our way to the dining room and I was sniffing the air appreciatively, although probably not appropriately, when there was a disturbance coming from the Entrance Hall. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention – there was food awaiting and I didn’t count that measly salad we’d been served for lunch as a real meal. It was only when I felt my arm being tugged in the opposite direction to the dining room that I reluctantly turned towards where Aunt Pearl was looking.
“Aunt Pearl, you just announced dinner. Didn’t you tell me it was rude to leave your guests alone in any room at any time?” I asked, pointedly, accompanied by my growling stomach.
“Felicia is there, sweetheart,” Aunt Pearl told me, distractedly, before swanning over to the large family of newcomers. I internally groaned at the eight –eight! – more people I was going to have to be introduced to before I could eat. “Cygnus, Druella. Orion, Walburga, you made it. How perfectly delightful…”
I choked halfway through breathing as a giggle threatened to erupt from my throat. Walburga. What a name.
“Do accept our apologies for our belatedness,” The tall, dark man said in a dry but strangely authoritative voice. He didn’t sound remotely sorry. “I do hope we haven’t interrupted the starting course…”
“Not at all, not at all,” Aunt Pearl beamed, “So glad you could make it. And Bellatrix, Narcissa – lovely to see you again, girls. And boys…”
I stifled a yawn, remembering how rude it was supposed to be. I didn’t see how – it was a natural bloody instinct. But when I'd yawned during supper the night before Aunt Pearl had been scandalised. Still, it was followed with an unfortunate stomach growl which was a little harder to conceal. I noticed one of the Black ‘boys’ smirk, which I ignored haughtily and pretended that my cheeks weren’t flushing scarlet.
“We would have been here sooner,” One of the girls’ Aunt Pearl had addressed said in a snide voice, “If it weren’t for someone -” She flicked her thick dark hair over her shoulder and frowned at the taller of the two boys; the one that had found my stomach rumbling amusing. The smirk dropped from his face instantly, replaced by a dour, sullen expression.
“Bella.” One of the regal looking ladies hushed her. Aunt Pearl looked quizzical for a moment but the lady swiftly changed the subject. To me, I was thrilled to hear. “Pearl, this must be the Miss Vaisey we’ve heard so much about. My, isn’t she just the spitting image of her father…”
Yes, yes, when the corset comes off, the beer belly is released. And I expect I’ll have to start shaving any day now…
“Isn’t she just?” Aunt Pearl gushed. How flattering. “But with all her mothers’ sparkle, I assure you.” I always got the distinct impression that my father wasn’t approved of. “Susannah, this is Cygnus and Druella Black. And their daughters – Bellatrix, Andro… Bellatrix and Narcissa…”
I distinctly noticed the stumble and how it made the smiles tighten on the Black’s faces, as well as Aunt Pearl’s blush in response.
“Narcissa will be in the year above you at school,” She carried on regardless, patting the slim arm of the fairer sister, “I expect she’ll be happy to help you settle in…”
“I’d be delighted,” Narcissa said, in a rather false voice. Marvellous, how I was fitting in, wasn’t it? What was so wrong with me that even this albino-chick didn’t want to be hanging around me?
“And Orion and Walburga Black, and their sons – Sirius and Regulus. Sirius, won’t you be in sixth year along with Susannah?”
“Yes.” The smirker/scowler answered smoothly, “But I doubt I’ll be seeing a lot of her, will I?”
What was that supposed to mean? How rude? He was even worse than that Narcissa – at least she pretended to be ‘delighted’ to show me around. This arrogant tosser clearly didn’t even care enough for that.
“Oh… er, well of course.” Aunt Pearl seemed lost for words, for the first time that evening. She was probably shocked that this Sirius guy made me seem like the perfect, polite little princess. “Well, Regulus… perhaps…”
“It’s wonderful to meet you, Susannah,” Druella, the first of the haughty ladies who’d reprimanded Bella, swiftly cut in yet again. It was really quite impressive how she managed to change the atmosphere when it was getting so incredibly awkward. I hadn’t had a clue what to do; I’d stood there gawking like a lemon. And Aunt Pearl hadn’t been so smooth herself. It seemed that, no matter how much she reckoned I had to learn, she didn’t know it all herself.
“And you,” I rearranged my face into a serene smile that I’d copied from Felicia. “I’m so grateful to Aunt Pearl, especially, for making the arrangements for me to become acquainted with my future housemates,”
Again the smiles tightened. I kept my face carefully in the serene smile but eyed this odd family curiously. They were all vigilantly avoiding each others eyes, but for the merest second, Narcissa’s eyes flicked towards the older boy, Sirius. He caught her eye with a half-smile and a raised eyebrow, which she dismissed with a frown and a flick of her long, pale hair.
“Right.” He said, amused, into the awkward silence, with an emphasis on the ‘t’ at the end of the word. “So kind of her to arrange this for you, Susannah.” He switched his laughing, bright eyes to me from his cousin. I couldn’t help but notice the muscle in his, rather defined, jaw twitching. There was something very insincere about him that he wasn’t even remotely trying to hide.
“Right.” I echoed, distracted now. I sensed another stomach grumble about to erupt and I wasn’t sure my corset strings were sturdy enough to remain intact. “Shall we go through to the dining room, then?” I plastered my hideous, serene smile on my face again and saw Aunt Pearl positively trembling with pride again.
Merlin, I was good at this.
Shame the people were so bloody rude.
The moon was bright tonight. Bright, eerie and full.
Full and round.
I was bloody jealous.
The moon got to be full and my stomach didn’t?
Something’s not quite right there. It was this torturous monstrosity I was caged in; it wouldn’t let me eat! I’d managed about two agonising mouthfuls before I realised that I was going to have to choose between eating my fill and the ability to breathe.
I didn’t choose straight away. At first I tried to fidget subtly with the strings behind my back to maybe loosen the sodding thing a bit. It didn’t work. My ‘subtle’ fiddling involved my thumb getting caught and in the process of freeing it my elbow may have gotten a little out of control and dug that Malfoy bloke in the ribs.
They overreacted. All the commotion wasn’t at all necessary – he only choked for a second before I got the old Heimlich manoeuvre going.
I don’t know what Aunt Pearl was more traumatised by; the fact that an elderly man choked on her crab starters or the fact that her new doll (i.e. me) knew how to perform the Heimlich.
I apologised profusely to everyone involved and managed to stay put until dessert before I did a runner. A polite and unruffled runner of course, just to ‘get some fresh air’.
The smell of that cheesecake was just so freaking tempting I just couldn’t sit there knowing that it wouldn’t fit in my new reduced stomach.
I patted it mournfully as I contemplated the selfish shape of the moon and leant back against the doorframe.
“Nice exit back there.” A voice came from behind me, but oddly didn’t make me jump. I could tell by the tone that the speaker was grinning, and from the sheer inappropriate nature of the comment I was ninety-nine percent sure I knew who it was.
I took my time turning round, to maintain the small remains of my dignity, and addressed him haughtily. “I have no idea what you’re talking about… Mr Black, is it?” I knew his name. I just wanted to sound condescending for once.
“Sirius.” He corrected. He was on the opposite side of the room. I hadn’t lit any lanterns so the only light was thrown across the floors from the French windows I was framed in, and it didn’t quite reach his face.
“Sirius.” I repeated.
“Right. So why the exit?”
“Why not?” I countered.
“That’s not an answer.”
“I needed some fresh air.” I gave my same excuse.
“Of course. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the Heimlich Incident at all, then?” My cheeks flushed a little against my will. I could see his teeth gleaming white in the dim light. Twat.
“Pardon? I… I don’t…” I scrambled for a response but my brain was registering nothing but outrage at his bloody cheek. “You… are rude.”
He barked a delighted laugh. “Excuse me?”
“You’re rude. You don’t just follow people out into a darkened room and make all these… these inappropriate accusations.” I blustered.
Who did he think he was? Sure, if anything of this nature would have happened back in Delhi, Walt would have taken the first opportunity to use it against me; he’d have found it side-splittingly funny. But he was cousin – practically my brother. This bloke was a complete stranger and he was cocky and he was weird. I hadn’t forgotten his strange insincerity earlier.
“Accusations?” He found this even more hilarious than my labelling him rude. “Sorry, Princess. I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything; please accept my humble apology.”
“Oh ok, now you’re taking the piss.” I glared at him. “See, rude.”
Another bark of laughter. This guy was insufferable.
“’Taking the piss’?” He smiled. “There’s a phrase I haven’t heard all summer. Don’t get a lot of chat like that from these clones.”
Damn it. Another example of me fitting in oh so well.
“I didn’t mean that.” I protested, my 'dinner voice' back as I composed myself. Or tried.
“No?” He was smirking. Definitely. Git.
“No. I… you! You're being most inappropriate. Please leave now.”
Oh, great. Really smooth there, Annie. Really proving yourself to be 'fitting in'.
“You’re not going to tell me?” He asked, not moving.
“Tell you what?” I folded my arms impatiently, then unfolded them. Damn it. That was another thing that wasn't 'ladylike'. There was a lot to remember.
“The reason you legged it. The Heimlich? Or the cake? I noticed you didn’t eat a mouthful of it. Not that that’s weird in this crowd. But you wanted it. I could tell.”
I stared at him, mouth open in a mixture of bewilderment that he could see right through me and outrage that he was so improper as to call me on it.
“You.. are weird.” I said, after opening and closing my mouth a few times.
“Thanks, I pride myself on being different to this lot.” He grinned again.
“What?” Something prickled over my skin. Dismay. Dismay and anger at this guys complete disregard for my acting skills. I’d been doing good; I knew I had. They were all convinced. Why was he not?
“You heard. You’re not. I think, anyway. And if I’m right, you’re going to have a bit of a rough year. But if I’m wrong, you’ll be just fine.”
He opened his mouth but then paused and cocked his head as if he was listening to something.
“Susannah.” He said, out of nowhere.
I stared at him to see where he was looking.
“Susannah.” He repeated.
I stared again.
“They’re calling you.”
He was now looking at me as if I was slightly lacking in mental capacity.
“Of course, I knew that.” I swished past him in my torture-contraption but felt myself pulled to a halt. I looked down and saw his hand on my wrist.
“What do you answer to, then?” He asked.
“Pardon?” I asked, tugging at my wrist. He didn’t let go.
“Clearly you had no idea who I was talking to when I called you Susannah. So what do you answer to?”
I opened my mouth. ‘Suzy’ was on my lips, I swear. But then I heard Aunt Pearl’s lovely nasal tone and it addled my brains or something, because that wasn’t what came out of my mouth.
“Annie.” I answered. “My name is Annie.”
A.N. Hey! So I shouldn't really start a new story when I've been so behind on updating the others... but I was having posting withdrawal, and I've had this written for a while! I just needed to post something alright?!
Anyway I hope you like it. Let me know what you think of Annie, Sirius, Annie&Sirius... anything! I'd love to hear what you think!