Chapter 1 : Bootstraps
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Dedicated to the memory of my beloved Nanny, who lived with dignity, respect and kindness.
Disclaimer: I claim no ownership of J.K. Rowling’s work.
I couldn’t understand why Mum was crying. It was just a little tea…just a little tea on the table. There’s a saying, isn’t there? Don’t cry over spilled milk. Well, I’m sure the same goes for tea.
But she cried anyway, cried as she took the powder blue cups from the sideboard, cried as she searched for sugar cubes in the pantry. Cried as she mopped up the tea she had spilled with an old dish-washing rag.
I was frightened. “Mum?”
“Do you want any biscuits, Betty?” She dried her eyes on the cuff of her sleeve. “I haven’t been to the market in a week, so these might be stale…but you can make do, yes?”
I watched her place the square, green tin in front of me, her hands shaking, the knuckles already grotesque with arthritis. And yet I said nothing.
“These are fine, Mum.” The biscuits were stale, but I managed to choke one down. Just to make her happy.
And to make her stop crying.
Something akin to foreboding rushed through me, chasing a chill up my spine. It reminded me of when I ran night patrols for the Order in the Muggle underground, when I stood on the platform and watched the trains come in. Felt the whoosh of hot air, the clatter of the cars sounding a tattoo against my breastbone. I always imagined myself falling onto the tracks. Tripping over my own two feet by accident and falling to my death. It wouldn’t be a glorious end, but safe. Better than being blown to bits by You-Know-Who’s supporters.
But here in Mum’s kitchen, I couldn’t understand why I felt nervous. I put it off to the lousy weather and my exhaustion. Hopefully, Mum wouldn’t see how tried I was.
“I promised you I wouldn’t fuss,” Mum said. She was moving about the kitchen aimlessly. “But it’s not everyday you come home from London. We’ve missed you.” Her fingers lit upon mine.
They were ice cold.
“It’s all right,” I said, not knowing why.
I sipped my tea, let it scald my throat. Aromatic vapors, smelling of ginger and the Orient, kissed my cheeks. It was a small comfort in a quiet hour. Something I had begun to savor more and more as the days passed and the war deepened.
Although I couldn’t really admit to myself that we were at war. Maybe all this was just a passing bubble of conflict, something that was both fragile and impermanent.
Mum looked as though she needed the same reassurance, needed a hug, really.
But I wasn’t the touchy-feely type. She had raised me that way, after all. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and keep going, she always said. When I was little, I thought it had something to do with cowboys, but now I knew better. It was the sentiment that had carried my mother through all the small traumas every family went through.
When she finally sat down across from me, I felt the insane urge to hunch my shoulders and shrink away until I was no bigger than one of the antique thimbles she kept in a candy dish in the living room. My family’s cottage had never seemed so small. Since arriving yesterday, I had bumped my elbows in the hall, tripped down the stairs and dashed my head against the bathroom door frame. Had I outgrown my own home? Or had being in London suddenly made a giant of me?
I chewed on another biscuit, my jaw muscles stiff and sore.
Mum had her hands curled against her neck, the tips of her fingers digging into the collar of her turtleneck. She was waiting to say something, I could tell. Her tongue was nearly pushing the words out of her mouth.
She licked her thin lips nervously. “I’m so proud of you, you know.”
A short laugh from me. Oh God…she couldn’t know about the Order of the Phoenix, could she? I had deliberately kept my parents in the dark about it, not wanting to disappoint them if things didn’t work out, if I didn’t become the hero they wanted me to be.
They had high expectations for their only daughter…especially my father. He wasn’t the type of man to put direct pressure on his child. He never complained if my grades weren’t up to standard or if I didn’t make the Quidditch team at school after practicing with him all summer. In fact, I couldn’t really point to one instance in which he vocalized his disapproval. But he was a strong person…and I wasn’t. I wanted the easy way out. I wanted to work a soft, easy job and lead a soft, easy life complete with a cottage and a quiet husband and too many children.
Instead, I lived in a two-room flat in London and worked for the Auror office. And my Dad, I knew, approved of me.
Mum didn’t surprise me then, when she said. “We are both proud of you…you’re father and I.” Her chin trembled. “Carrying on the family tradition.”
“I’m an Auror, Mum, not the Minister of Magic.” I felt as though my heart was swelling against my ribcage, crushing my lungs.
Mum wasn’t a sentimental woman. She was very much a Curtin, even though she had only inherited the name through marriage. We were an odd bunch…had been ever since my great-great-grandfather Alfred had entered the Ministry’s service as an Auror. It became a family institution, passed down five generations like a noble title.
My father himself had been one of the greats. Had been on the frontlines when Grindewald was afoot. And he had a Order of Merlin Second Class for capturing the serial killer, Black Jack Davey, in 1954.
I could never live up to him. Even if I tried. Dad had never shown his disappointment when I almost failed Herbology or was cut from the Quidditch team try-outs or found myself sorted into Hufflepuff even though he had been in Gryffindor.
But sometimes, when I was just a kid and home from school and it was early on a Sunday morning, I felt disturbed by the silence of the house.
“I don’t think Dad should be proud of me,” I said seriously. Mum had risen from the table to rinse our teacups in the sink. Only now did I notice that she wasn’t using practical magic so much anymore. My Mum had always been an efficient housekeeper and she knew her way around cleaning charms that the neighborhood women would sacrifice limbs to be able to perform correctly. Now, she was doing the dishes manually and I wondered to myself if perhaps she was getting old.
Or maybe she was just tired, like me.
“I haven’t done a damn thing so far,” I told her, eager to shake off her praise. “Nothing heroic, surely.”
Mum waited a beat before responding and at first I wondered if she hadn’t heard me. But when she turned to face me I saw the grey of weathered tombstones in her eyes. “You’re father has Alzheimer’s Disease, Betty. The healers just diagnosed him last week.”
It happened fast then. One minute, I was having tea with my Mum and the next, I was trying to pick her up off the floor where she had collapsed, sobbing.
I should have told her how much she meant to me. How much I loved her. Or I should have cried right along with her until no more tears would come. Instead, I said, “Mum, stop it.”
She seemed embarrassed then. In my thirty years, I had never seen her hysterical, not even when my younger cousin Richard was hit and killed by that lorry in Manchester.
I didn’t know what to do.
And I couldn’t believe Dad had Alzheimer’s.
“What healer did you go to?” I asked, as if it would make a difference. It seemed like the most reasonable question to pose and if I was going to comprehend this, if I was going to stomach this subject at all, I had to think it through.
And I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps and be sensible.
“Norris,” she said, settling herself back into her chair. She pulled a tissue out from her pocket and blew her nose. “I didn’t know what was wrong with him…your father…he got lost coming back from town one afternoon. Mr. Brackley and his sons went out looking for him. They found him all the way out by Henry’s old farm. He…he didn’t know where he was.”
I waited for her to continue on, but she didn’t. A horrifically awkward moment dragged by. I was supposed to say something, anything, but what?
My parents had never prepared me for conversations like this.
“Oh,” I grunted. All the blood had rushed into my neck. I slipped my hand past my collar and felt the skin…burning.
It didn’t help, of course, that my eyes were burning too.
“Maybe you should…take him to London, to St. Mungo’s.” I thought I was being helpful, but Mum’s eyes hardened.
She was mad at me. Not just mad, but furious. The thin lines about her mouth tightened as her lips drew upward, rendering her face ugly.
“What are you thinking, Betty?” Her accusation washed over me in bitter waves. The saltwater leaked into my wounds, causing me to wince. “I can’t take your father to St. Mungo’s. He would never forgive me. We could very well run into one of his colleagues and what would I say then? How would I explain. Never, never,” she added almost as an afterthought.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” I shrugged, although I knew Dad would be ashamed. His personal integrity and strength were legendary and I had spent my life admiring him, envying him, really.
Mum leaned across the table, grabbing my fingers and pressing so hard that I thought the marrow would be squeezed from my bones. “He wakes up in the middle of the night and asks for his grandmother. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
I pulled away from her, forcefully. Her fingernails scratched my knuckles.
Bile sat in my mouth for a moment. She suddenly seemed the antithesis of all she had taught me during my life.
“Is this why you wanted me to come home from London?” Something dangerous was awakening inside me.
I stared at my Mum and for the first time in my life, viewed her as the enemy.
She wasn’t the woman who had taught me how to crochet. Who spent the money she had saved for new bathroom tiles on a pair of dress robes for me. She wasn’t the woman I loved.
She was a creature. An old, distorted creature who had lured me home with promises of nostalgia and comfort to tell me these horrible things. These horrible things.
But then I realized that I was being ridiculous. Of course my Mum was still my Mum. And as quickly as the veil of mistrust had fallen over my eyes, it was swept away and I saw my mother sitting in front of me, frightened. Her fear left an unnatural, metallic taste on my tongue.
I couldn’t breathe.
“Sweetheart, please,” she begged, seeing me rise from the table. “We need to talk about this…really talk.”
“We will,” I promised, though I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow through. “Just…just let me get some air, all right?”
“I know this is hard…please, Betty.”
I pulled open the kitchen door. A damp breeze stirred along the rural road that bordered our property. When it entered the house, it made the room smell of mildew. A drizzle started and seeing the raindrops, I faltered.
I had no need for tears.
“I’m going to see Dad,” I choked out, leaving Mum alone in the house with only a whistling teapot for company.
I found him in the back shed, working on a Comet 260. He was sitting on an upturned milk crate, a pair of clippers in hand. Bits of twig crunched under my feet as I stepped inside.
The musty scent of old wood seeped through my pores and into the fabric of my clothes. There was peace in this. Calm and solace. I thought I could stand there forever…
And it was nice just to watch him work for a minute. His hands, still broad, still calloused, closed over the clippers and with his tongue stuck between his teeth, he carefully pared the end of the broom.
Dad had always loved brooms. Racing brooms especially. And even though he had been a proud Auror, he still entertained the fancy that he could have been a Quidditch player. The Curtins, after all, had a long family history of overachievement. It was woven into our genealogy, found amidst the dusty archive records that detailed marriages, births and deaths. From the womb we reached into the light and in death we reached for the shadow. But so long as we reached, yes, so long as we reached.
A lump worked its way into my throat. It was hard to believe that my parents were aging and I felt a little silly hoping that they would always stay young…and me along with them. Not that I had much to stay young for. Thankfully, I had outgrown the stage of adolescence that demanded I stare into the mirror and wish my brown hair blonde and my milky eyes a clearer blue. But still, even at the age of thirty, traces of feminine self-consciousness remained.
I touched my hair now, sweeping it off the nape of my neck and feeling the crown of my head, which had disturbed several cobwebs that draped down from the shed roof.
“Is that one for me, Dad?” I asked.
He looked up, slightly startled to see me there. I noticed that he had to squint harder to see me properly. He would probably need glasses soon…
“Got too much oomph for you,” he said. “Need to get you a Cleansweep. Is that what the Ministry has it’s Hitwizards riding today?”
“No, they get the old Nimbus 1000’s. I have a Silver Arrow.”
He smiled. “You’d be better off on a Cleansweep.”
I relaxed, listening to him. My muscles worked themselves out of uncomfortable coils and left me weak-legged. With some difficulty, I crouched next him, picking up a twig or two as I did so, my eyes hunting for any icky spiders that might move amongst the overturned clay pots and empty mulch bin.
“Glad to be home,” I said, trying to braid the slender sticks together. “London’s nice, but I think my heart will always be in Lincolnshire.” I didn’t bother to tell him how bad things were in the city, how the Death Eaters were gaining ground everyday and how Lily and James Potter had to go into hiding with their infant son.
“Not much use for an Auror in Lincolnshire,” Dad noted. He dropped the clippers back into his toolbox and selected a penknife.
A nourishing warmth spread throughout my body as I watched him file down each twig on the edge of the broom. God, Dad was meticulous. He never overlooked anything.
Mum must be wrong, I decided. And Norris was more of a backwoods quack than an accredited healer. But then again, I was a bit prejudiced against him. He had ruined my first summer holiday home from Hogwarts, when I developed a cold that wouldn’t go away and he had wrongly diagnosed it as asthma. The potion he gave me made my face blow up and my tongue swell and I spent three days in St. Mungo’s. My parents, who were perpetually worried, made me stay close to home for the rest of summer break and I couldn’t go to Ashley Smiton’s birthday party, which had a petting zoo complete with a unicorn colt.
Still, my parents swore by Norris and they were too set in their ways for me to change their minds now.
But that didn’t mean I thought he was right about my father. Dad was just the same as ever. Strong, smart, a hero. Immortal.
The thought of immortality had never appealed to me before, but right now, I thought I could settle for eternal youth, so long as I could freeze things and keep them exactly the way they were…or the way they ought to be.
But then I remembered You-Know-Who and his followers and the rumor that had begun to circulate around the Ministry that they were trying to make their master immortal as well. And I was disgusted with myself, for wanting the same thing that He wanted, the same thing that He would kill for.
It was an unrealistic, selfish desire on my part. And I hated myself for it.
Dad ignored my grimace of self-reproach. Or he didn’t notice it, I couldn’t decide which.
“How long will you be here for?” he asked. The penknife moved up and down the shaft of the broom, rolling in his fingers. Sawdust and curls of wood littered his shoes.
The shed smelled like a forest.
“Four days,” I said. “I wanted to get more time, but things have been busy at the Ministry.” I conveniently left out my nightly patrols for the Order. No reason to make him worry.
“Good.” Dad put his penknife away. “I wanted to Owl you this week, but that lady wouldn’t give me your address.”
And as quickly as the warmth had come, it dropped away. Ice formed in my veins. “What lady, Dad?”
“That lady who lives with me….she’s awfully bossy.”
“You mean Mum?”
He looked at me then and I saw the confusion in his eyes,
Dad deflected when I questioned him again. He waved his hand in annoyance and for the first time, I thought I heard the disappointment in his voice.
“Don’t keep at me, Betty. Don’t keep at me.”
I shot to my feet, nearly disrupting his toolbox as I did so.
He didn’t know where he was. Oh God, oh God….
But Dad always knew where he was. Auror Curtin, Order of Merlin Second Class.
“I think I’m finished here,” Dad said. He laid the broom across his lap and looked at it with barely concealed admiration. “Do you like it?”
The drizzle outside had become a steady downpour. And the rain was laughing at me, laughing because I was crying.
He had cut off half the twigs and left the tail pathetically bare. It would never fly again.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
He put the rest of his tools away and set the Comet 260 in a broom cabinet he had made himself. “We’ll test it tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” I held the shed door open for him. As we stepped out into the rain, I noticed Dad shivering.
“This bloody weather gets into my bones these days,” he told me, thrusting his strong hands into the pockets of his cardigan.
I looked at my own hands. They were still young and supple.
“It must be terrible, getting older,” I muttered, not quite sure what I was saying through my tears.
Dad laughed at me. “Well, what’s the alternative?”
“Nothing,” I said and the word was empty, nestling into the hollowness between my ribs and heart. Dad was walking towards the house and I saw Mum standing on the back steps by the kitchen. She looked once at my father and once at me…and then I understood.
Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, I thought and joined my family.
Author’s Note: Thanks for taking the time to read! All reviews will be cherished.