Did you not understand my howler warnings? This is your last
chance, mate. That letter may have been a slight improvement
on the last one but it essentially contained no information on
what I’m missing out on, which is what I want to know. I suggest
you take a diary out and about with you and jot down what’s
happening every minute or so. That would be sufficient. Thank
I miss home. I’ve never been away for this long before. It’s only
been three weeks but I kind of thought it’d be ok by now. And it’s
not. It’s steadily getting worse. I don’t know if I’m fitting in or not.
It’s hard to tell. Sometimes when I don’t have a clue what they’re
chatting on about I think I’m not, and I wish I was. But sometimes
when it seems like I am, I wish I wasn’t. Because it’s not me,
being like that. I said something awful last week. I wish I could
take it back. Or, alternatively, run away to you lot. You wouldn’t
care what I said. You’d probably laugh - it is ridiculous. I’d have
laughed if I’d heard it at home, but here there’s something more
serious about it.
Anyway. It’s fine. Two weeks till I start school, that should be
interesting. If I’m honest I’m just looking forward to getting away
from Aunt Pearl and Felicia, it’s a nightmare cooped up here
with them. Do you know I have only left the grounds to go to
these bloody balls or functions? It’s like being in prison. But
with posh clothes and wine and food. Sounds horrific, right?
So. An adequate response, please. Pronto.
Lots of love,
“Look what I have, Susannah!” Aunt Pearl was besides herself with excitement, flapping a piece of parchment in the air.
I shaded my eyes against the midsummer sun, leant back in my chair towards where she was hurrying out of the patio doors and called, “What?”
She gave a small frown, “’Pardon’, dear. Not ‘what’. And where is your bonnet?”
“Oh. I’ve misplaced it.” Read: I buried it. That frilly lilac monster was going nowhere near my head again. It physically repulsed me.
“But Susannah, you’ll surely burn in this sun!”
“I’ll be alright,” Even though I was getting a little more on the pale side than usual, this unexpected August heat wave was a little more like the weather I was used to in Delhi. I hadn’t felt the warmth of the sun on my face since I’d arrived in England, what with the constant cover of clouds, ballrooms and bonnets.
God forbid I should get a freckle.
“Ah well, perhaps we shall have to treat you to another one,” Aunt Pearl smiled generously.
“Oh. Er… you’re too kind. But really, it’s fine. You don’t have to go to such trouble -” Whilst my excuses were getting a little smoother - further proof of my ‘fitting in’ - I still wasn’t the pro that I suspected I would be by the end of the summer. Practice makes perfect, after all.
“Nonsense. It’s no trouble at all. While you’re here you’ll be treated as my own daughter. It’s what your mother would have wanted.” Aunt Pearl’s eyes misted over as she talked of my mother, as they always did. It was times like this that made me feel a little guilty for not being the fake-daughter that she wanted me to be. It was obvious she’d cared so much for my mother that it made me forgive her for being such a complete fool.
Still, I did consider reminding her that my mother and father’s will had named my uncles as my legal guardians, should anything happen to them. Not Aunt Pearl. So perhaps my being here wasn’t exactly my mothers wish.
Nah, I couldn’t do that to the old dear.
I’d just have to ‘misplace’ whatever new travesty was forced onto my head as well.
“Thank you ever so much,” I smiled, sweetly, before reaching for a second croissant. I may have complained about things here, but at least the quantity of food was getting a little better. Aunt Pearl seemed to have understood that I ate more than the typical English girl and had subsequently informed the house elves of this. They’d been serving me practically double what they served Aunt Pearl and Felicia ever since.
“You’re quite welcome, dear. As I said, it’s absolutely no trouble at all, we have some shopping to do anyway,” She sank neatly into the chair beside me and handed me the parchment she’d been flapping, “Here. Your first Hogwarts letter!”
“Oh, thanks. Why are they writing to me?” I asked, slightly worried that this was a polite letter informing me that there was no space at the school for me anymore, and that I’d have to stay at the manor and be home-schooled by Aunt Pearl or something equally hideous.
Aunt Pearl chuckled, “Every student receives a letter at the beginning of the school year, sweetheart. To tell them what they’ll be studying, when to get the train, and what equipment they’ll need to buy for school.”
“Oh, of course,” That sort of thing was obvious, I guess, if you’ve always been to a school like that. If you’ve spent you whole life being home-school by your struggling uncles in your tiny, boiling living room or back yard with your idiot of a cousin… then you’re not so used to these formalities.
Caldrons, potions ingredients, quills, ink… all these little things that I’d never had to worry about buying before. That was all the sort of stuff that Uncle Nigel - the most competent of my three ‘teachers’ - had sorted, without bothering Walt and I.
“Robes? Hat?” I asked, incredulously. What was it with these bloody English people and their hats? What was wrong with having a naked head for the love of God?!
“Your uniform,” Aunt Pearl sipped at a small glass of tonic water, “Everyone wears the same.”
“No one actually wears their robes,” Felicia spoke up from where she was flicking through a Witch Weekly magazine underneath the shade of a tree. “Or hats, apart from where you have to. At the end of year feast, and suchlike. The uniform apart from that isn’t so bad. A skirt, shirt and tie.”
“Tie?” Ties were for boys!
“You’re so odd, sometimes, Susannah,” Felicia commented, without looking up from her magazine.
Me? They were the odd ones. Them and this whole country.
Ok, perhaps I wasn’t fitting in so well. I seemed to oscillate between doing well and doing not so well. I wasn’t even sure I cared anymore.
“Anyway, this is all fairly straight-forward. I’ll just write to Madam Malkins, Flourish and Blotts, the apothecary…” Aunt Pearl had plucked my letter from my hands and was scanning the list.
“Write to them?” I asked. How posh. You had to write and reserve or something…?
“Yes, to order the packages,” Aunt Pearl answered, absently.
“Order? I thought we were going shopping…” I asked, feeling disappointed.
Aunt Pearl and Felicia burst into laughter.
“Shopping?” Aunt Pearl sounded half horrified, half amused.
“Go to Diagon Alley?” Felicia asked.
“Well, you said we had some shopping to do…” I said, dubiously.
“So odd.” Felicia shook her head and went back to her magazine.
“Oh, Susannah,” Aunt Pearl shook her head, smiling, “Diagon Alley is no place for a young lady. Why should we go through the hassle of flooing to that grubby place and mingling with the sorts of people that frequent there, when we can order from the comfort of out own home?”
“Oh.” Well bollocks. I thought this was going to be my chance to actually get out of the house, and not just to go so another house too posh for me to relax for even a second. Seriously, the only sodding time I’d been able to leave was to go to some ball or banquet or another.
I wasn’t used to being cooped up like this. Back home, Walt and I had been given free reign of our neighbourhood from the age of twelve. I think my uncles had just been glad of a little peace and quiet, if I’m honest. So they’d encourage us to play outside with the other neighbourhood kids. No one had forced a bloody bonnet on my head, or decided that I’d had enough sun for one day and sent me inside. Not once.
And I’d especially loved shopping. I was a girl - alright, raised a little controversially, but still - I loved to shop. Surprisingly, Walt wasn’t too bad a shopping partner. My cousin was so easy-going he’d quite happily spend an afternoon perusing the shops in the city centre just as long as there was food involved at some point. And the markets…
I felt a fresh wave of homesickness as I remembered the bright, bustling markets in Delhi, the smell of cooking meat, of fresh fruit and vegetables, the tiny stalls lining the winding streets selling everything under the sun, Walt at my side chatting and pointing things out…
I’d been here three weeks now. A couple of weeks ago, in this situation, I’d probably have just said without thinking that I’d be happy to go and do the shopping to save Aunt Pearl the bother of ordering. But three weeks. I wasn’t that slow a learner. I knew that speaking up wasn’t an option. Shopping, along with practically everything else I loved, apparently just wasn’t done here.
I wanted to stamp my foot like a child. That worked on my uncles. But it wouldn’t here.
It just wasn’t fair.
I wanted to go home.
“I’ll just go inside now, and get these ordered,” Aunt Pearl stood up, “Don’t be too long outside, Susannah. Your skin is darkening every day at the moment, you don’t want to catch too much sun.”
I gritted my teeth in imitation of a smile as she hurried inside.
In fitting with my childish desire to throw a tantrum, I also irrationally wanted to cry. So bloody unfair. I’d had enough of being here. I missed my uncles, I missed Walt, I missed Delhi. I wasn’t allowed to do anything I wanted here, wasn’t allowed to even leave the bloody house, wasn’t allowed to even bloody sit outside.
And just to top it off, I was bored. There was nothing to distract me from the fact that I wasn’t with my family or in the city I loved. Nothing to stop me being miserable. And I hated miserable people. Great, they were making me hate myself.
I let out a great huff of a sigh and stretched out my legs in front of me. Well. If I was on some sort of a time limit I was going to enjoy the sun while I could. Before I was forced inside to do… oh, nothing.
I jumped as my toes touched something fluffy. Something fluffy that mewed at me.
“Oh hey, kitty,” I relaxed when I saw the small bundle of fur rubbing it’s face against my legs. “Where did you come from?”
Another wave of nostalgia as I remembered the number of stray kittens running about our street in Delhi. I’d not seen any cats around the house here. I was sure Aunt Pearl didn’t own one.
I bent down to stroke the little tabby and it swatted at my hand with its tiny paw. So cute.
It didn’t have a collar on, perhaps it was a stray. After batting my hand a few times the kitten tottered off onto the lawn. I followed it. I don’t know why - pitiful really. Even a cat didn’t want to be friends with me. I truly was lonely. And pathetic.
“Where are you going?” I asked it, in a stupid talking-to-babies voice. Oh blimey. I was one of those people.
I crouched down besides it and it swatted at me again. No. Not me. I realised I still had the envelope from my school letter in my hand.
“Oh, you want to play,” I flapped the envelope about its head and watched it jumping up. So cute. The cat will be my friend. Even if no one else -
Oh wonderful. I’d caught Felicia’s attention. She looked faintly horrified.
“Mmm?” I asked, stroking my new best mate. The cat.
“What are you doing?”
I took in a calming breath. For crying out loud, it seemed I couldn’t do anything without people questioning my sanity.
“Playing with the cat.” I informed her, thinking it was really quite obvious.
“Playing with the…” She repeated under her breath, shaking her head, “Susannah, that cat could be disease-ridden! Look at it, it’s a filthy stray.”
“It’s not filthy,” I felt very defensive and protective of my new buddy, “You’re not dirty, are you?” I scratched behind its ears.
“It’s certain to have fleas or something. Susannah! Susannah, put the cat down!”
I cuddled it close, “Felicia, it’s fine! It’s not doing any harm -”
“Your going to ruin your dress!”
Oh, God forbid.
I ignored her prattling on and continued to make a fuss of the cat. I wasn’t sure if it was a girl or a boy. I had no idea what cats… erm, private parts… looked like. I decided it could be a boy anyway, and named it Bruce.
After a few minutes of looking on in horror, something Felicia said did actually get my attention. “Susannah. Put the cat down now. I’ll… I’ll tell my mother.”
Did she really just threaten to tell on me? I’m sorry, were we six and nine instead of sixteen and nineteen?
“I’ll do it,” Felicia said, piously.
I sighed. I could tell Aunt Pearl would be positively horror-struck if Felicia was reacting in this way.
“But what if it hasn’t got a home to go back to?” I put Bruce down and he looked up at me beseechingly with his big yellow eyes. It was kind of creepy. In a cute way.
“It’s a cat, Susannah.” Felicia was looking at me in that way that said ‘you are an absolute head-case’ again.
I didn’t want to abandon Brucey. Abandonment wasn’t nice. I knew first-hand what it felt like to be just dumped somewhere you didn’t want to be and just left there to struggle through.
However, Bruce didn’t seem as affected as me. After a moment or two of his adorable/creepy staring, he wandered off to the other end of the garden, wriggled through a gap underneath the fence and disappeared.
Wonderful. Even the cat doesn’t want to be my friend.
“You’ll have to change your dress now,” Felicia informed me.
I stood up and looked down at my cream summer dress. There wasn’t a spot on me.
I didn’t even have the energy to argue.
“And where are your shoes?” She asked.
I had to take in my millionth steadying breath that morning. I was far too highly strung.
“I didn’t have any on,” It was amusing to see the bewilderment grow on Felicia’s face. I smiled, “I’ll go and change. I was just heading inside anyway. I’ve had far too much sun.” Apparently.
I managed to maintain my composure as I made my way through the patio doors, through the drawing room and upstairs to the privacy of my bedroom.
When I got there I flopped onto my bed in the most unladylike manner I possibly could and groaned loudly.
I couldn’t do anything.
I was bored.
I missed Walt.
Rolling over, I reached for the quill and roll of parchment on my bedside table. I could write to him, at least. Just to pass the time…
Nope. I’d just written to him last night.
I groaned again and threw it onto the floor.
Time was passing so slowly. And no matter how much time passed by, I felt no more at home than I had the moment I arrived.
Even my bedroom didn’t feel like my own. I mean, looking around, it just wasn’t me.
Not the four-poster bed with the laced hangings. Not the ornately carved dressing table, not the hundreds of pretty bottles filled with beauty potions and various oddities that I daren’t use without the supervision of Felicia or Aunt Pearl.
This was the fake-daughter than Aunt Pearl wanted. The fake-sister for Felicia. The person she wanted to mould me into.
I wasn’t sure if that was possible.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be possible.
Of course I wanted to fit in. I’d accepted by now that I was stuck here. Once Uncle Nigel made a decision he was unlikely to change his mind. He’d decided that I was going to spend the next two whole years in England, that I was going to go to an actual school, that I was going get married. So that was how it was going to be.
That was my life.
That was how it was going to pan out.
Then why couldn’t I imagine it happening? I just couldn’t picture myself becoming the lady that Aunt Pearl wanted me to be. I wish I could. I wish I could fit in, just to make life easier for everyone. If I could somehow happily fit in and stop giving Aunt Pearl and Felicia daily heart attacks when I do something wrong, I’d do it.
But it just wasn’t that easy.
It was too different.
Everything was different. There were different rules here. Well, that was the initial problem, wasn’t it? The fact that there were these social rules in the first place. I’d not really had any boundaries in place living with my uncles. I’d certainly not been told how to act.
Surely that sort of thing was what you learnt for yourself as you went along?
You shouldn’t get told how to act, how to speak, how to eat, how you’re not allowed to sodding do anything fun.
That word again.
Different always seems to be a bad thing.
I was different because I was… what had Rosier said? Because I was ‘innocent’. And ‘real’. To him, I’d been different because I had no idea what he meant by that word. Mudblood.
Then to Sirius Black, I’d been different to how he thought I was. He’d acted so disappointed, so disgusted, when I’d said it. That word.
I couldn’t win. There would always be someone who thinks I’m different. Why should I even bother?
“You’re not so similar yourself though, are you? 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.”
Those were the words he’d said to me in our first (rude) encounter. Sirius Black.
That was why I had to try. Because, as he said, if I didn’t fit in I was going to have a rough time here.
With a sigh, I hauled myself up from my bed and went to sit on the bench in front of my dressing table. Even though I knew I was being a depressing git, my miserable expression shocked me a little. I bared my teeth into a forced smile. Some idiot once told me that if you smile at yourself in the mirror it tricks you into thinking you’re happy. That idiot was wrong. It was probably Walt.
I took in a deep breath and composed my face into the serene expression I so often seemed to wear, trying to be like everyone else. There. If I just smoothed down my hair into the sleek up-do that Felicia so often had deftly twisted it into, I’d look the part perfectly.
I let my hair drop through my hands so it fell back around my face. It was all very well that I was able to look the part. But I needed to be the part. I needed it not to be a part. I needed it to be me.
But it was so boring.
In an instant, I had an idea. An idea that contradicted my every plan to fit in; my every plan to try my best. Fitting in, being good… that could start tomorrow. For now I needed some excitement.
For now, I was going to go to Diagon Alley.
From the moment it crossed my mind it was like I could physically feel the exhilaration, the anticipation. Something to do. Something risky. Not something Susannah would do. Something Annie would do.
Before I could chicken out, I dropped to my hands and knees and yanked out my case from underneath my bed. My case was the only part of my room that really had any essence of me. It was where I kept all the important things. All the things that didn’t fit into this world, but I felt the need to keep.
Like my old clothes. The ones that Aunt Pearl had deemed absolutely inappropriate for a young lady. My joggers. My hooded sweatshirts. My t-shirts, my baggy pyjamas and my scruffy shoes.
I rifled through them all, searching for a pair of matching shoes and came out with my oldest, off-white pumps that clashes atrociously with my cream dress.
Before stuffing it all back under my bed I grabbed my red shoulder bag, and most importantly, the tiny leather pouch that contained my key. My key for my Gringott’s bank account. This was one of the most important things my parents had left me, and I’d obviously had no access to it before, being in a different country. I’d had plans that, when I ever did have access to it, that I’d use some of the money to buy some really amazing presents for my uncles for being the substitute father and even mother to me my entire life. I still planned to do that. If they’d buck up their ideas and rescue me from this place, anyway.
Perhaps they wouldn’t end up with a present.
Still. I needed money. Obviously. I was going shopping. Another thrill of excitement coursed through my veins. I was getting out. Out of the house. I was doing something I wanted to do.
I slipped out of my room and down the stairs. Pausing at the bottom, I could glancing through to the drawing room, I could see Aunt Pearl seated at the desk writing.
Probably ordering. For a moment I felt a little bad. Would she be worried? I didn’t want to cause her any worry or stress at all…
Then I squashed the guilty feelings. Nope. I wasn’t being nice young lady Susannah today. I was being Annie. Annie lived in Delhi with her uncles who she loved and was allowed to do whatever she wanted with her cousin/best friend Walt.
Well. Today she was alone.
Before I could even consider it again I silently made my way through to the Entrance Hall and let myself out as quietly as I could manage.
I’d done it. I was out of the house. For the first time, unescorted.
With an exhilarated laugh, I ran down the driveway and out of the gate with a spring in my step. God. I was practically skipping down the lane.
I kept running for a good few streets, thinking of nothing but how the houses were getting less and less grand with every turn. More and more normal. God it felt good.
I was out.
It took me at least five minutes to realise that I had no idea where I was going.
“Bollocks,” I cursed to myself, slowing to a halt and looking around. I appeared to be on some kind of a high street. Muggle cars were passing pretty slowly, held up by the traffic lights and pedestrians crossing the road. Muggle. Hmm. This definitely wasn’t Diagon Alley.
“Excuse me -” I said as a woman walked past me… but she didn’t stop. Didn’t even acknowledge me. Well that was rude.
“Excuse me, Sir…” I lightly tapped a man on the arm and he jumped out of his skin.
“Oh. Erm. Sorry -” Before I could even finish my apology he hurriedly made his way across the road and away from me. Unfriendly.
What were these English people like?
I spotted two elderly ladies sitting on a bench set back from the pavement and approached them. They didn’t look as though they’d be able to run away from me. Or ignore me.
“Excuse me,” I used my ‘nice young lady’ smile, “Hi. I’m ever so sorry but I’m new to the neighbourhood and I was wondering if you could tell me where I might find Diagon Alley?”
It wasn’t until I finished my question that I noticed the extremely grumpy expression on the faces of the two ladies. Oh dear.
“You what?” The slightly more disgruntled looking of the two barked, loudly, “Are you being funny? What classes as a joke for you kids nowadays is -”
“No, no!” I assured her hastily, a little confused, “Not at all. I’m just lost and I’m looking for -”
“Diagon Alley?” The other lady screwed up her nose and squinted at me. The effect was a little scary with her greyish-purple hair and enormous spectacles. “Is that some sort of youth slang? What do you want from us?”
“I…” I was now just plain bewildered, “I just want to go to Diagon Alley -”
“Think you’re funny do you? I’ve never heard of that in my life and I’m sure it’s some kind of disgusting joke -”
“No! No, I -”
“Stop hassling two old ladies. Did you know I’m eighty-one? This is bad for my ulcers -”
I decided that now would be a good time to make my hasty retreat before I was battered to death by a pensioner’s handbag.
“I’m ever so sorry for wasting your time… I… erm, thank you for your help.” I backed away quickly, utterly perplexed as to what I’d done to offend them.
Unfortunately I backed too far. Forgetting that this was a narrow walkway, only separated from the road by a kerb, I took a step too far. My foot connected half with the kerb and half with thin air and I stumbled and tripped backwards.
It only took a split-second for me to realise I was falling, throw out my hand and squeeze my eyes shut, bracing myself for at the very least the impact of hitting the floor. At the worst… getting hit by a car…
But it didn’t come.
I opened my eyes, completely disorientated and became aware that I was being propped up.
I picked myself up - from the arms of a bloke, I realised - and spun around, coming face to face with my rescuer. A squat, balding bloke in a very purple uniform. A very purple uniform that matched the very purple…
“You alright, sweetheart?” He asked, looking concerned. Probably because I was gawping from him to the bus.
“I… what… yeah… who…” I gabbled, then shook my head. “Sorry. Thank you, I fell -”
“I noticed,” He chuckled. “Now, I’m assuming you were needed transportation?”
I gaped again. Then I caught sight of the gold lettering on the side of the bus.
“The Knight Bus,” I read aloud.
“That’s right,” The conductor man didn’t seem remotely fazed by my sheer idiocy. I liked him. He wasn’t the sort to call me ‘odd’, or give me looks implying he thinks I may be lacking in mental health, thanks Felicia Cunningham. “Emergency transportation for the stranded witch or wizard, any time, any place on land. Just stick out your wand hand and -”
Witch or wizard.
I jerked my head from side to side. Surely this was breaking that Statute of Secrecy?! A whacking great magical bus appearing from nowhere in the middle of a Muggle neighbourhood…
But it was as if no one even noticed. An enormous… I craned my head… triple decked purple bus in the middle of a bus high street and even my two grumpy elderly mates didn’t appear to notice. No one did. Their eyes just slid right by it. And the cars… the cars just manoeuvred around it without acknowledging it. Strange.
“The Muggles can’t see it,” I announced, cleverly.
“Nope,” The conductor confirmed cheerfully, “First time, is it?”
I decided to go along with it, “Yes. You said… you said it takes you anywhere?”
“Anywhere on land,” He nodded, ushering me on, “Where is it you were headed?”
My first thought wasn’t actually of Diagon Alley. Before I could even consider it I’d asked, “I don’t suppose I could get to Delhi…”
“Delhi? India?” The conductor scratched his head, “That’d be expensive, Miss.”
I realised I had absolutely no money on my person, “Oh. I don’t have any money,” I said, not missing the fact that I did sound completely thick. “Sorry, I’ll just go…”
“Now, Miss,” The conductor flicked his wand and the doors shut, “I couldn’t let a poor, accident-prone young lady like yourself just wander off with no money, could I? Tell you what, I can’t take you to Delhi but I can take you somewhere where you could get some money. Do you need to get to Gringotts?”
“Yes!” I realised, overreacting a little with the excitement, “I do, actually. That’s actually where I was… Diagon Alley. Sorry, I’m not actually going to Delhi…”
It actually almost hurt a little to say it.
“So you are or you aren’t?” The conductor scratched his head.
“Sorry. I am going to Diagon Alley. Not to Delhi. Not… not today.” It filled me with hope that I could do though. If I got the money. And he’d looked a little taken aback when I’d asked. It’d probably cost and arm and a leg. Or, at the very least, all the money from my parents account.
“Right. Well, as you appear a little dazed, I’ll let you off this once. This trip’s on the house.”
“Oh, you don’t need to do that -” I protested. A little half-heartedly. This was working out all too well.
“I insist. Seems like you could do with a butterbeer, in all. I’d go to the Leaky Caldron if I were you.”
“Um. Right.” I had absolutely no idea what a butterbeer or a leaky caldron had to do with anything, but I was in no position to disagree.
“It’s not a problem, Miss. Now, take a seat. We’ve got a few stops to make first.” He waved me toward a large, squashy armchair.
“Thank you. Very much,” I sank into the chair, my head still spinning.
Ok. Wow. Emergency transportation for the stranded witch or wizard, he‘d said. Just stick out your wand hand…
I’d stuck out my hand. When I’d fallen. Wow. I wondered how many witches or wizards had tripped and found themselves almost run over by this monstrosity.
I wasn’t by a window so I had no idea where the bus was stopping before we reached Diagon Alley. All I knew was that I was lucky I had a pretty strong stomach because we were not moving smoothly. A fair few of the people passing me by to get off the bus looked extremely pleased to be disembarking.
“Here we are, Miss,” The conductor called from his seat across the row from me, “Leaky Caldron. This is your stop.”
“Leaky Caldron?” Why did he keep saying that?
A brief look of concern crossed his face again, “The entrance to Diagon Alley. You… you do know where you’re going, Miss. Don’t you?”
“Of course,” I nodded, knowledgeably, “A Leaky Caldron. Quite. Yes.”
The conductor stared for a moment longer, “If you don’t mind me asking, sweetheart, how old are you? Do your parents know where you are?”
What the hell did he think I was doing, running away? With only my small red shoulder bag? God, fair enough I hadn’t come across as the most intelligent woman on the planet throughout this journey, but I wasn’t aware I came across as such a complete moron. Running away with no stuff, really?
“I’m… seventeen,” I assured him. Well, it was almost true. “I’m just off to get my things for Hogwalls.”
He frowned, “Hogwarts?”
“That’s what I said,” I smiled brilliantly at him before quickly clambering from the bus, “Thank you ever so much, Sir. I don’t know what I’d have done without you,”
“No problem, Miss. You take care. And maybe if you’re heading to Delhi, you might want to be a little more prepared,” He waved, flicked his wand and the doors closed.
“He’s a nice man,” I commented to myself as the bus started up with a deafening roar before careering off down the street at breakneck speed. “Now. A caldron. A leaky caldron…”
I saw it immediately. And naturally, realised why the bus conductors judgement of me as a complete fool was fair enough.
“The Leaky Caldron,” I read, blushing even though there was no one around, “It’s a pub. Of course it is, Annie. Prat.”
I realised that, whilst the streets around me were fairly busy, I was receiving a wide berth. Ah. Talking to myself. Not entirely normal. But no one was looking at me in alarm or anything. They all just seemed to be staring determinedly ahead or at their feet. How very odd. I know if I’d seen someone I suspected of being insane I’d have asked if they were ok. Rude English people.
Still. I wasn’t insane. That was the point. Ahem.
I made my way over to the slightly dingy, grubby looking pub. The entrance, the conductor had said. The entrance to Diagon Alley. I pushed open the heavy, black-painted door and let myself inside.
The dodgy outside directly reflected the dodgy inside. The tiny pub was dimly lit, the orange glow of the lanterns not quite reaching the furthest corners, and the ceilings and walls seemed not quite straight. The tables, chairs and bar stools looked like they’d been gathered from a dump in all their un-matching glory, and the warmth was slightly humid and reeked of alcohol.
I loved it.
After weeks cooped up at Aunt Pearl’s, this was… amazing.
“Good afternoon, Miss,”
I realised I’d been spinning around on the spot in an attempt to take it all in, and came to a speedy halt facing an elderly-looking man, missing a tooth or two.
“Hello,” I said, in my best ‘ball’ voice, so that I didn’t appear entirely mad.
His dull brown eyes looked me up and down with an expression of curiosity. I suppose it didn’t matter how nicely I spoke, I did look a little odd in my attire of expensive cream-lace dress paired with soft, grubby old shoes and a cheap and cheerful red shoulder bag.
And I was spinning around like a child.
“Your first time to the Leaky Caldron?” He asked, in a hoarse, old voice.
Was it that obvious? I nodded and smiled politely.
“Are you stopping for a drink or just passing through? You look like you could use a butterbeer…”
Why did people keep telling me this? And what the sodding hell was a butterbe…
Oh. Beer. A butterbeer…
Did I look like a bloody alcoholic?
“No thank you, it’s quite alright,” I assured him, very politely I thought, considering he’d just implied I was an alcoholic, “I have to be getting to Gringott’s you see, I have no money -”
“Nonsense,” The old man shook his head, “This is on the house. You sit yourself down at the bar, Miss, and I’ll bring you one right out.”
“Oh,” I was taken aback. “Thank you, that’s very kind of you…”
Perhaps England wasn’t so bad. Kind of seemed like I never had to pay for anything.
Maybe I could put off money and shopping just for a minute or two. After all, people were friendlier in here than anyone I’d encountered outside the pub - first in the high street and then out there. This bartender was nice, and I’m sure the rest of the customers were.
I turned to smile contentedly at the person next to me at the bar. I say person, because I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman - they had their hood up. “Hello,” I said, in a courteous manner.
I heard some sort of a grunt in reply, and the person just lifted their tankard - of a mysterious black liquid - to their face and drain half of it in one go.
“Oh. Er. Lovely,” I said, half to myself. I took it back about the people being friendly.
Perhaps when the bartender came back he’d talk to me…
I looked up automatically upon hearing my name, and it was only a split-second after I met a pair of familiar grey eyes that I remembered that I wasn’t in Delhi. The only person who knew my name around here was…
“Sirius Black.” I was surprised that my mouth managed to correctly form his name rather than the only word that was actually on my mind, which was ‘bollocks’.
Because if he was here, that meant his family were probably here, which meant there was a good chance that I’d be carted back to Aunt Pearl’s just as I was getting my brief taste of freedom…
If Aunt Pearl thought shopping was beneath her, surely it was beneath the Black’s too.
“What are you…” What are you doing here. That was what I meant to say but I trailed off as I took in the people standing uncertainly behind him. A gangly, black-haired boy looking outwardly curious to the extent of rude, and a smiling, middle-aged couple. Definitely not his family. I couldn’t remember a genuine smile on even one of their faces.
Then my mind caught up with me and I realised what he’d said.
“It’s Susannah,” I corrected him, sharply.
The surprise in his face gave way to that tiresome smirk, “Oh yeah. Sure it is.” He said, making it obvious that he wasn’t convinced.
“What are you doing here?” I remembered my initial question.
“What are you doing here?”
“Shopping,” I said, promptly. Duh. Wasn’t it obvious?
“Shopping.” He repeated, “In secret, perhaps?”
I stared. Was that a threat? That he could tell Aunt Pearl? I decided to blag it.
“I can do what I want,” I told him.
“As long as dear Pearl doesn’t know,” He deduced.
Our eyes locked, mine defiant and his smug. I was the one that blinked first.
“What about you?” I asked, glancing back to the people waiting for him, “Surely you’re not supposed to consort with the sort of people that frequent here either…” I quoted Aunt Pearl’s words.
His eyes narrowed. What did I say? For the love of God, why were different things acceptable in different company? Why did that make me feel so bad?
I didn’t care what he thought, or what faces he pulled!
“I don’t understand you,” He said, looking at me as if I were some sort of a riddle.
That made me actually laugh, “And do you suppose that I understand you?” Or anything around here?
“Here, Miss,” The elderly barman arrived with a bottle of a golden liquid. My beer. My bubble-beer, or whatever he’d called it.
“Oh, thank you so much,” I said, taking it with a gracious smile, “Are you quite sure that you don’t -”
“Like I said,” He smiled. It would have been sweet were it not for the missing teeth, “On the house.”
“Thank you,” I said again, and took a sip from the bottle. Hmm. Not bad. Sweet and warm and sort of… buttery.
I settled back in my seat and realised that Sirius was staring at me. Drat. I’d almost forgotten about him.
“Yes?” I said, when he didn’t stop with that curious look.
“Nothing,” He shook his head. “I won’t even try.”
Try? Try what?
“Ok.” I said, bewildered but a little distracted by the buttery goodness of my drink. My free drink.
“Enjoy your secret shopping trip,” He shook his head again, for no apparent reason, “I suppose I’ll see you at the weekend.”
Argh. The weekend. I had no idea what was happening but at very least it would be some kind of a corset-requiring event. Just splendid, really.
Before he turned back to his companions I quickly called after him.
He turned back around.
I didn’t really want to say it. Didn’t want to ask him to keep it to himself, the fact that he’d seen me here. Especially as I’d just been quite adamant that I was allowed to do what I want. But to be honest I just wanted to put off Aunt Pearl’s reaction as long as possible.
He understood though, and for once his smirk actually looked quite… quite smile-like.
“Do you really think I’ll say anything?” He asked, pointedly.
Of course. I was here, but so was he. We’d both be in as much trouble as each other.
Oh hell, I came to a realisation. I really was becoming like Sirius Black. Different in a bad way.
This was not part of the plan.
“Your secret’s safe with me, Susannah,” He said, turning back around with yet another shake of his head. I hoped he’d get whiplash, infuriating little git.
I turned back around to enjoy the rest of my drink and noticed the hooded person staring. Or, well, I assumed they were staring. I couldn’t see their face. It was just that the dark opening of the hood was directed generally towards me.
“Just an acquaintance,” I said, “An unfortunate one,” I didn’t know whether I really expected a reply after the grunt to my last comment, and I was half talking to myself anyway.
The hooded person didn’t make any move, just continued to stare. Well, I wasn’t one to be rude. Hadn’t I said to myself just before I came in that if I suspected someone of being a little lacking in mental health that I wouldn’t just ignore them?
“Are you quite alright?” I asked, then looked down at the drink in my hand. Their glass was now drained of the strange black liquid. Perhaps they were still thirsty. “Would you like some of my drink?”
Oh, why in hell was Sirius Black still here?
“What?” I asked, too annoyed to remember that it was ‘pardon’ and not ‘what’.
He was stood a few feet away, looking from me to the hooded individual with a slightly strained expression on his face, “Could you come over here for a second?”
“I’m having a conversation,” I informed him. Albeit a rather one-sided one.
He exhaled in a bit of frustrated way. Odd. “Annie would you just come here, please?”
“Sirius Black I’m -” I was abruptly cut off as he evidently abandoned the request and dragged me towards the back door by my wrist. “What do you think you’re doing? Unhand me at once -”
“The real question is what do you think you’re doing…”He muttered, “Chatting away to someone who won’t show their face? Is that really a good idea?”
“They may have been perfectly nice,” I protested. Really, how discriminating. Judging people on how they dressed…
He stared again. In that puzzled way. It lasted for far longer than was comfortable. “You really believe that, don’t you?” He said, in disbelief, “You really… You weren’t just doing it to piss me off.”
“To piss you off?” I echoed, a fair bit of disbelief colouring my own tone, “Not everything I do revolves around you, Sirius Black. On the contrary -”
To my surprise he laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“Like I said, I don’t understand you,”
“And as I said, I sure as hell don’t understand you,” I assured him.
“Good.” I firmly wrenched my arm from his grip and put my hands on my hips. “Did you want something?”
“Apart from rescuing you from what was quite possibly a vampire, hag or ogre in disguise? Yes.”
How rude. Just because my bar-chum had their hood up, didn’t mean they were a vampire, hag or ogre. I expect he/she was just misunderstood.
“I don’t need rescuing,” I informed him.
“And I don’t need to go around rescuing damsels in distress, so if you could go ahead and figure out just who you are, that’d be great.”
I recoiled a little from his heated tone but stood my ground as well as I could.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not to you, maybe. Not yet.”
I stared at him, then sighed. “Just tell me what you want and stop talking in riddles, please.”
“It’s not what I want,” He assured me, quickly, with a glance toward the black-haired boy and the elderly couple, “Believe me, I know this is just bound to end in a headache for me.”
Was he implying I caused him a headache? I wasn’t the one talking in some sort of pathetic code all the time!
“Look, that’s my mate James,” He gestured to the bespectacled boy, “And his parents. They’re… they don’t want you wandering around Diagon Alley on your own because they’ve sussed out in two minutes that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. Don’t pretend you do…” He added, wearily, before I could even open my mouth in protest, “So look, just to keep Mrs P off my back, will you come with us?”
I’m fairly certain my mouth was gaping open in shock.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then.”
It definitely wasn’t the afternoon I’d expected.
Alright, I haven’t a clue what I was actually expecting. I mean, I hadn’t got a lot further than the ‘freedom’ part. But this? Not in a million years.
It wasn’t like being with Aunt Pearl and Felicia, or any of the other families I’d met since I’d been in England. Mr and Mrs Potter were far too… I didn’t know how to explain it. Far too comfortable, warm and genuine to be compared to any of the other families.
But it wasn’t like being with my uncles and Walt. The Potters were too… well, too comfortable, warm and genuine to be compared to my uncles and Walt, either.
Before I’d just seen it as Aunt Pearl, Felicia and the ball crowd at one end of the spectrum - the grand, elegant but cold end - and my uncles and Walt were the other end - messy, chaotic and carefree. I’d assumed that was the difference between life here and life in Delhi.
But now, the Potter’s threw something else into the mix. They were kind of something in between the two ends of the spectrum, but at the same time something else altogether. Something friendly and caring where the English weren’t, and yet level-headed and contented where my uncles weren’t.
“Susannah, is it? Susannah Vaisey?” Mrs Potter had smiled and shook my hand as I followed Sirius over to them. I’d followed him still a little in shock, but fully intending to thank the Potters and make my excuses…
But I couldn’t. They were just so nice.
“Yes,” I smiled as Aunt Pearl had taught, “So nice to meet you,”
Sirius had sighed loudly, “You don’t have to do that now.”
I looked at him in surprise. I seriously needed to stop being surprised at his every strange comment if I wanted to get anything done in life. I couldn’t very well get my shopping done if I was in a permanent state of astonishment.
“Do what?” I asked.
“The whole ‘so nice to meet you, I’m a perfect little pureblood’ thing.”
Of all the cheek!
“It’s called manners,” I said, in indignation. I immediately wondered if that was too rude in front of nice Mr and Mrs Potter, but to my surprise they both laughed heartily.
“You tell him, Susannah, dear.” Mrs Potter chuckled.
That was my first indication that the Potter’s were different from Aunt Pearl and co. Aunt Pearl would have been mortified that I’d answered in such a flippant manner.
“I’m sure you hear this all the time Susannah, but -” Mr Potter began, but Sirius cut him off.
“I wouldn’t tell her how much she looks like her Dad if you value your life.” He advised.
That stopped me. I hadn’t realised that anyone had noticed how irritated I’d gotten at being reminded that I looked like a balding bloke with dieting issues.
I found that I almost smiled at him, but I managed to change it into a toss of my hair instead.
“You knew my parents?” I asked Mr Potter.
“We met,” He said, in a considered manner that invited no questions.
Perhaps it was just a boring story.
“Shall we be getting on?” Mrs Potter asked, “I expect it will be quite busy today, and Sirius can’t be out for long…”
I wondered if he was house-bound like me. I wondered if he hated it as much as me. He couldn’t very well like it, if he’d snuck out with his mate…
It turned out James Potter was a nosy bugger. He’d found the idea of me joining his school in my second to last year frankly bizarre, and had asked the hundred or so questions that I probably would have asked if roles were reversed. Well, I’d have wanted to ask them. But it probably wouldn’t have been deemed ’good manners’ by Aunt Pearl.
I explained as best I could, though leaving out anything that might make me anymore homesick than I already was. And anything that might make me sound ungrateful to Aunt Pearl after all she’d done for me. Alright, I didn’t want to be here, but Aunt Pearl was trying her best.
I also left out the part about me getting married. I didn’t know why. As it was all part and parcel of the deal I was going to throw it into the conversation as part of the explanation but something stopped me. I didn’t know what. Maybe it was the Potters. Maybe it was Sirius. I don’t know.
“This is the best ice-cream in the history of the world,” Sirius commented.
We were sat on the kerb outside Madam Malkin’s Robes For All Occasions, while James was being fitted for a new pair of school robes (“Every year we’ve had to get him new ones,” Mrs Potter had said, good-naturedly, “Shoots up like a bean-pole every summer…”). I’d had mine sorted quickly but James’ were taking longer, so Mrs Potter suggested that we ran across the street and got an ice-cream while we were waiting.
“Nope,” I shook my head. The strawberry-chocolate-goodness was amazing, but it could be beaten, “Definitely not the best.”
“Yeah? I don’t believe you,”
“Believe what you want, but you can’t make claims like that till you’ve had a Double Chocolate Caramel Mixed Fruits Sundae from the market down my block in Delhi,” I practically drooled at the very thought, “It’s amazing. An enormous cone bigger than your head, filled with a scoop from every different flavour - and there’s like twenty of them all in different colours - with frozen berries in between the layers and topped with caramel sauce and dipped in two different types of chocolate.”
“That sounds completely sickening,” Sirius said, “But I want it.”
“We used to save up our pocket money to buy one,” I remembered counting out coins with Walt, “My uncles used to deliberately not give us enough pocket money to buy one every week or else we’d have probably had a heart attack each already.”
“Oh, Walt. My cousin. But we used to pool our money together in secret,” I smiled at the memory, “And get one to share. Even then we’d end up feeling sick for the rest of the day. And then we’d get home and usually have to force dinner down our throats so that Uncle Nigel wouldn’t guess that we’d had one.”
Sirius gave a low chuckle and then we were both quiet for a minute. It was peaceful, sitting out there in the warm. I didn’t know what he was thinking but I was reminiscing about the market days with Walt, where the only thing that worried me was whether we had enough money to buy an ice-cream…
“Finished!” James interrupted the peace with a flying leap out of the door. “Now do I get my ice-cream?”
“Good grief, son, how old are you?” Mr Potter grumbled genially, but followed their son over the road.
Sirius and I got up to follow. I was still very much away in my thoughts but clearly that was too much for him to manage.
“So, which one’s the real you?” He asked.
It took me a couple of seconds to process the question, so I naturally asked him to repeat it.
“What?” I truly didn’t understand it.
“Which is you?” He repeated. Having finished his ice-cream he had nothing else to focus on by me. And with enough intensity to be unnerving. “The ‘Annie’ that says ‘what’ instead of ‘pardon’, and talks about the most disgusting and brilliant ice-cream I’ve ever heard of? Or the ‘Susannah’ who carefully selects what she chooses to disclose, with all the ‘I beg you pardon’s and ‘unhand me at once’s thrown in here and there?”
I opened my mouth to reply but it was just left hanging there. So I closed it. Then opened it again, but again had no retort so had to shut it again.
I cursed myself for letting my guard down.
Because the absolute tosser had it spot on. After what, three brief interactions? After meeting three times he’d done what I’d been do afraid could be done. He had me figured out exactly. He’d differentiated between ‘Annie’ and ‘Susannah’. As if he knew me. He couldn’t do.
“Well?” He probed, obviously thrilled with my speechlessness.
I gathered myself together and wiped the shock, the annoyance and the alarm from my face. “You don’t know me, Sirius Black,” I said, perfectly collected.
A line formed between his eyebrows as my face composed, but he didn’t miss a beat, “That doesn’t answer my question,”
“Because your question is based on unfounded assumptions,” I said, calmly, “You don’t know me. I am who I am. It’s Susannah.” My heart was thudding quite worryingly, but in a manner that would have made Aunt Pearl proud, I was perfectly poised. I attempted to brush by him to follow the Potters into the ice-cream parlour but he was blocking the doorway.
He wasn’t saying anything. Wasn’t moving his arm from where it prevented me moving. Just looking hard at me as if that were going to change my mind.
“Excuse me, please,” I kept my voice steady. I was Susannah. Susannah didn’t allow herself to be distracted, to be disorientated or have her identity questioned. Not by someone like Sirius Black. The outcast.
After ignoring my request for a good few seconds, he released me from his relentless stare, lifting it above my head with his mouth set in a firm line and dropping his arm. It appeared he’d accepted it. I wasn’t so sure. It seemed it was only safe for the time being.
“Thank you,” I kept up the Susannah act as I crossed the threshold into the parlour, making my way over the black and white tiled floor towards the table that the Potters were now sat at. I swallowed in an attempt to sooth my dry throat and shook back my hair with a deep breath. Susannah didn’t allow herself to be ruffled.
I wish I’d had the quick-thinking to ignore it. The intelligence to recognise the test in an instant, and act as though I hadn’t reacted to the name.
But that’s not how it works. Someone says your name, you react. Before I had the time to stop myself I’d paused. I only managed to stop myself turning back around just in time, listening the ’no!’ screaming inside my head.
But it wasn’t enough.
My shoulder was knocked as he strode past me. I didn’t move.
He looked back over his shoulder as he passed, smirk apparent and an eyebrow raised.
“I thought so.”
A.N. Hey! Ok, so Annie hasn't been top of my priorities lately... but it was begging for a very belated update so I took pity. I'm really sorry!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that chapter - had quite a bit in it looking back...
Annie/Aunt Pearl/Felicia at home,
The boredom and the boundaries,
Annie being completely out of her depth but refusing to admit it,
And of course Sirius's attempts to understand her.
Please let me know what you think! I hope to keep the updates flowing a bit more now! Thanks for reading and please leave a review!