I fall out of the fireplace clumsily, landing on the hard, cold floor. As I struggle to regain my balance- causing a blockage in the floo network- I examine the room around me.
I feel that familiar sense of my feet leaving the ground, distancing myself from my pale, lonely body. From afar I watch as healers hurry past in their identical, garish lime green robes. Their expressions are impassive. They are stony cliff-faces, being slowly eroded by the sadness which haunts them each day. They stare at their clipboards through dead eyes.
It’s the only way to survive here. If for a moment you were to believe in the suffocating white walls, in what they contained, then those fragile seams which are barely holding you together would unravel, leaving you as a million tiny pieces. When you’re a million tiny pieces you don’t want to be sewn back together again, you want to live in infinite darkness, because the light is too bright and the day is too real.
“Come on, Neville.” My Grandmother says gently, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder. My eyes are sore and stinging; I drag them away from the wall before me and follow her across the reception.
Grandmother - never Grandma - is always kinder on visiting days, though she retains her strict demeanour. I suspect this is how she copes. As long as she’s strong, as long as she remains in control, everything will be alright.
We’re an odd pair. I distance myself from the world, whereas Grandmother hurriedly immerses herself in everyone else’s business.
It’s hard for her to look after me. I am constant reminder of her brave son, my beautiful mother, both doomed to waste away inside the sterile walls of St. Mungoes.
I know she wants me to live up to my parent’s legacy. She wants to be proud of me. I wish she could be. I don’t blame her, I’m a mess - clumsy, forgetful, stupid. I’m useless. Everyone knows it; my Grandmother, the teachers, the students. Even I know it.
She loves me though, more than she’ll ever show. I see it in her eyes as she walks me across the entrance hall, comforting hand always on my back. So I let her stop me and adjust my tie, smooth my mousey brown hair.
“Let’s smarten you up dear,” She commands, wiping my face with a bright lemon handkerchief. “We wouldn’t want your mother seeing you look scruffy.”
Her eyes are watering as she abruptly turns away, but she walks to the main desk with proud, defiant steps. With her burgundy wine dress and imposing vulture topped hat, she is an impressive sight. I smile.
We join the queue for the main desk, behind which a large portrait of Dilys Derwent, an old headmistress of Hogwarts, is watching me. As I catch her eye, she gives me a sad, pitying smile. I look away.
At the front of the queue a tall, skinny man stands like a tree flailing its branches in a strong wind, making agitated hand signals as he tries to communicate with the plump blonde witch at the desk.
“Nt ‘bl t sy vwls!”
“Sorry, what was that?” The receptionist’s carefully shaped eyebrows furrow.
“Wait a second.” The witch produces a notepad and pen from beneath the desk on which the man begins to scribble eagerly.
“Oh!” cries the receptionist, “You’re unable to use vowels! Doesn’t stop you from reading the sign though does it? Fourth floor.” She waves an annoyed hand at the sign beside her.
She smiles as she sees Grandmother step forward. She knows us by sight.
“I just wanted to check that it’s okay to visit.” Grandmother explains.
“Of course, go right through.”
As we turn away, she gives me an extra large beam. We walk along the corridor which is lit with floating crystal bubbles that give off an eerie blue light, making patients and visitors a like seem ill. When we reach the fourth floor, we stop before the door. A small sign reads “Janus Thickey ward.”
Grandmother is wearing her most cheerful smile as we walk in. I shuffle nervously towards the end of the ward. Grandmother draws back the curtains surrounding my parents beds.
“Hello Alice dear!” She embraces my mum from where she is sitting on her bed. I close my eyes, wishing I was anywhere else but here. It hurts too much.
“Neville, come and give your mother a hug.”
I do, drinking in her scent and cherishing the feel of her hand against my cheek as she strokes it wonderingly. I know when I go back to school I’ll struggle to remember her smell, her smile. I never want to forget this moment. I want to have something to hold on to when I leave. She smiles absently at me. I hope that she recognizes me from previous visits, but I know that she’ll never understand who I really am. Her hair falls wispily round her shoulders, her gaunt face making her eyes seem innocent and child-like. She chews her robe happily.
Meanwhile, Grandmother is talking to Father. I hear her announce what a bad memory I have before I return to my mum. I don’t suppose he understands much of what she says, but I’m offended. Sometimes I wish I had my parents to stick up for me. I know they would love me, no matter how forgetful I am.
I hold mum’s fragile hand in my own. “I know I’m not much good.” I whisper, “But I try. I can’t help it that I forget. And I always write things down…” My eyes begin to water.
“Sometimes-sometimes I feel as though everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here at all. I just get in the way. I don’t want to be a failure… I don’t…And it’s so hard sometimes! I feel so lonely, even when I’m at school. There are a few people I’d like to call friends, but I don’t think they feel the same way. Their kind to me, all of them, but I can tell they don’t want to be around me. I think I must be boring.”
I look up at her, and am glad to find her gaze on me. I feel like she’s listening, even if she’s not. Her thumb rubs my palm comfortingly.
“I love Grandmother, I do. I just wish I could have you and Dad there sometimes. I wish we could be a normal family, even for one day.”
I’m crying now, and Mum’s smile falters. I don’t want her to be unhappy. I smile weakly.
“I love you.”
I embrace her in a tight hug, though her arms hang limp at her sides. She is grinning again as I release her. I forget how quickly her mood can change.
I stand up to speak to Dad, but feel her tap me. I turn around and she is hanging off the edge of her bed, rooting underneath it for something. She hands me a crumpled wrapper of Drooble’s Best Blueberry Bubblegum. I press her hand gratefully, unfolding the wrapper and placing it in my pocket for safekeeping. Some parents give their children racing broomsticks or glossy feathered owls, but I knew that none of those gifts meant as much as the slightly sticky piece of paper I had in my pocket.
When I hug her one last time, I have made a resolution.
“Next time you see me, I’ll have done something to make you proud. I promise.” I whisper.
Grandmother bustles over, pulling out of her deceptively sized handbag a large woolly jumper she has knitted for mum. She begins to chatter happily, oblivious to my mum’s vacant stares.
“Neville, we best be off soon. Go give your Dad your love.”
I walk over to my Dad’s bed and give him a large hug, which he responds to with equal affection. At least we have these moments, I think; some boys are too embarrassed to be seen hugging their Dad. In this hug I convey all the thoughts I had shared out loud with my mum, and mumble the same promise in his ear.
“Come on dear,” Grandmother fusses, re-arranging my mother’s bedside flowers one last time. As we close the curtains behind us, I fumble in my pocket for the wrapper and smile to myself.
My Grandmother opens the door at the end of the ward. I take one last fleeting look at my Mum and Dad’s beds before leaving. I know I won’t see them for sometime, but I don’t mind. I have a promise to keep.