Chapter 11 : That Rare Commodity, Excitement
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James sat on the arm of my sofa, twirling his wand between his fingers absently, as Tonic ran from one end of my flat to the other - no doubt provoked by a piece of dust or something with a similar ability to drive cats completely loony. Despite the fact that the length of my flat wasn’t a significant distance, after a few laps she’d achieved enough speed that she was nearly off the ground.
James stared at her warily. “I wish I could get this excited about anything in life.”
He stopped twirling his wand, and Ogden, who had been sitting transfixed by the motion, raised a paw and batted at it.
“Oi, piss off, you!”
My cousin was supposed to be meeting the mysterious Andy in an hour. Suffice it to say he was a bit tense.
It was Sunday evening, which had been intentional planning on his part, as he reckoned it would give him an excuse to go home early, having to wake up before five the next day.
“Where are you meeting him?” I asked for the fifth time.
“You keep asking me that like I’m gonna tell you. The only person being creepier than you about it is Hugo.”
“Well, that’s because he wants justice, innit.”
Not more than two months prior, James had thwarted Hugo in the middle of one of his usually successful attempts to pick up a couple of girls. You have to understand, Hugo had a better record with women than James had with Snitches. Better record, even, than Ted had with zombies. And it was depressing to watch.
So we’d gone out one evening and made the mistake of taking Hugo with us. Per his usual habit, half an hour into it he was chatting up a couple of cute Muggle birds (Muggle girls loved his “magic tricks”… smarmy git cousin). Without a word to me in explanation, James slammed his drink down, crossed to where Hugo was sitting, then put his arm around Hugo’s shoulders and said, “Hello, love, have you been waiting long?”
I nearly fell off my chair laughing, the two girls probably went back to Spain or Italy or whatever beauty factory they came from, and Hugo hasn’t been back to that pub since. He says his reputation there is ruined.
So, as far as Hugo was concerned, Andy was supreme vindication. Karma, as his hippie sister would call it.
“Look,” I said to James, “wherever you’re going, I couldn’t follow you there if I wanted to. Having dinner with my grandparents tonight.”
He raised his eyebrows at me. “Dinner at the Johnson residence. Have fun with that.”
“Trade places with me?”
He wrinkled his nose. “On balance, I think I prefer the gay bloke.”
“I’ve been waiting my entire life to hear you say those words.”
Roxy called me shortly after James left, looking like a right creeper with the hood of his jumper pulled as far down over his face as it would go.
“Mum says to make sure you’re wearing something decent for dinner.” Roxy said it as if she’d rather just request my head on a stick.
“Tell Mum she can call me herself if she needs to whinge about my wardrobe. What, did you get tired of nagging Finnegan already? Told you it was a bad idea to move in with him.”
I’m positive that one day Roxy’s going to work out how to pour poison in my ear through the phone.
No sooner had I hung up with Roxy than my mum appeared in my fireplace.
It never ends.
“Is that what you’re wearing?”
I make lewd jokes during public radio broadcasts, and she’s embarrassed by my fashion sense?
“You can’t complain about this, Mum - what’s Nana really going to say? She’s the one gave it to me for Christmas.”
“Three years ago. Where’s the one she gave you last year?”
I glanced behind me. “Ogden’s sleeping on it.” Ogden likes sleeping on things that are ugly.
“God dammit, Fred.”
“Mum, you get way too strung out over what Nana and Gramps think.”
Her hand appeared along with her floating head in the fireplace, and she rubbed her temple like she had a headache.
“Seriously,” I continued, “do they realize we’re grown up now? I mean, really, have they figured it out? Because if what you’re concerned about is that they’ll complain you’re not raising us correctly, I hate to break it to you, but any damage has already been done by this point.”
She squeezed her eyes shut in a grimace. “Please stop talking like your dad. I can only handle one of you.”
But as far as I could tell, when I Flooed to my parents’ house shortly thereafter, Dad was behaving himself. On the surface anyway.
He looked up at me out of the corner of his eye as Mum wandered into the next room, muttering something about how to keep Roxy’s life of sin a secret from Nana and Gramps.
“Two hours,” he whispered. “That’s it. Then I’m buggering off.”
“On what basis?”
“Emergency at work.”
“You left after two hours last time,” I reminded him. “You have to stay at least an extra half hour this time.”
“Shit, you’re right.” He kept his face placid as Mum stalked by us again.
“And,” I continued when Mum was out of earshot, “I’m sorry, but you’ve already used the work emergency excuse once before, which is one time more than is really valid, considering your line of work.”
Dad was silent for a moment.
“House burning down?” I offered.
He grinned. “I like it.”
Roxy came strolling out of the fireplace at that moment. And by strolling, I mean raging and storming like a demon from hell.
She dusted herself off, then glared at Dad and me and announced, as if we really cared, “Denis can’t make it.”
I couldn’t tell from this behavior whether she’d just had a fight with Finnegan, or whether she was simply being her sweet self.
Dad made a face. “Was he invited to begin with?”
Roxy rolled her eyes, made some kind of primordial growl in the back of her throat, and flounced off in search of Mum.
“Did you have a fight?” Dad called after her. “Wait - didja kill him?? Please tell me you killed him!”
The truth was, Finnegan was actually a likeable guy. He was friendly, good-natured, knew when to keep his mouth shut (a trait that doesn’t exactly run in our family), and he was probably the first person you’d see buying a round for everybody in a pub. Dad put a lot of effort into disliking him.
As Dad went to find Mum, he muttered something that sounded a lot like “Stupid Irish arsehat.”
Of course, I could be hard of hearing.
I think there’s a law that says when you get old and retire and have more money than you know what to do with, you have to get a gigantic house near the seaside, so that’s what my mum’s parents had done. They lived in Dorset, where I presumed they spent their time playing bridge and attending stuffy luncheons, when they weren’t busy objecting to the way Mum did everything.
But Nana and Gramps (a.k.a. Imogene and Rupert Johnson) were far too genteel to undermine Mum and Dad in front of Roxy and me, so their direct attention at these occasional family dinners was focused primarily on the two of us.
It was very formulaic. They’d inquire into our jobs, talk about how incompetent Roxy’s boss was and how she should have gone to work for Linus Rackharrow instead, and complain about something I’d said on the show recently. They’d ask about Roxy’s relationship and claim to forget for the sixth time what her boyfriend’s name was. Then they’d turn to me and begin a Spanish Inquisition into such topics as “What I Was Going to Do with My Life” and “Settling Down.”
I’ve never understood the term “settling down,” at least as it’s been applied to me. It presupposes that my life is currently a lot more exciting than it is. What exactly am I settling down from?
Hugo, yeah, I can understand how it would be possible for that guy to settle down. I have my doubts about it actually happening anytime in the next fifty years, but at least in his case, settling down would constitute a distinct shift in the manner of his daily existence.
Tibbs was invariably listed as a subtopic under the general “Settling Down” category. Nana and Gramps were convinced within themselves that I was having a torrid, secret affair with “That American” (as Nana referred to her) or “The Yankee” (as Gramps called her).
Did torrid, secret affairs last for the length of time I’d known Tibbs? I think it would be a damn sight easier to keep something secret for four years than to keep it torrid for four years.
If Tibbs and I were having a secret affair, it was a dull, comfortable one that never brings you flowers anymore and only ever bonks on birthdays and Valentine’s Day.
That doesn’t sound right. At all.
“Let’s see,” I mused, as Dad and I hung back for a moment after Mum and Roxy had already Flooed to my grandparents’ house, “I think it’ll be Nana inquiring into Roxy’s personal life upon arrival, Gramps asking about her job over dinner after they’ve filled you and Mum in on all the goings-on in Dorset that nobody cares about, and then Nana interrogating me about everything in my life over dessert.”
Dad was fiddling with the band on his watch.
“You’re getting old,” he responded (which I thought was a bit rich coming from someone who’d passed fifty already). “They’ll start on you first, ask about your girlfriend - ”
Dad left me and my personal business alone for the most part, but he was very taken with Tibbs and liked to tell me how daft I was for not getting involved with her. I could put up with the occasional remarks about what a nice, good-looking girl she was, though at one point when he called her a “cute little skirt” I had to ask him to please stop being a creepy old man and discontinue perving on my friends.
“ - then immediately before dinner Imogene will pull your mum aside and ask why we’re still living in Essex, while Rupert professes his love for Linus Rackharrow and asks why Roxy’s working for Tugwood instead. You’ll be questioned about work all through dinner, whilst being reminded that you should visit your Great Aunt Eulah - ”
“What? No, I thought Aunt Eulah died - ”
“Nope, still very much alive and kicking in the West Midlands. Time permitting, I suppose we’ll get onto the subject of the Irish arsehat” - (I guess I did hear him right) - “during tea.”
“And by then the house should be burning down anyway,” I said.
Dad clapped me on the back. “Shall we?”
I gestured to the fireplace. “Age before beauty, sir.”
As it turned out, Dad didn’t get saved this time from the agony of socializing with his in-laws.
“No ‘emergencies,’ George,” warned Mum when we’d stepped out of my grandparents’ fireplace.
“What if the house burns down?”
“Then you can buy me a new one,” was her dry response.
Dad made a sardonic face and, as Mum led the way to find Nana, he whispered to me, “Go burn the house down to spite your mother.”
Yeah, right. I was staying out of this one.
Besides, he was the one who’d married her. It was his job to spite her. I wasn’t going to do his dirty work for him.
Dad’s projections for the evening’s order of events turned out to be almost one hundred percent accurate, which meant, sadly enough, that he’d been married to Mum for such a long time he was now able to predict what her parents were thinking.
The focus of my interrogation this particular evening was my flippant attitude towards the Snapper on my show. Nana and Gramps were convinced I was going to be murdered in my sleep if I didn’t stop with the off-color jokes.
It seemed to me that if the Snapper were going to start retaliating against someone, rather than just messing with innocent Muggles, he’d concentrate his efforts on, say, Harry, the Head Auror leading the manhunt. Or Ron, the Assistant Head Auror known to make public comments about how the Snapper was probably a eunuch with daddy problems and no real magical talent -
Wait. Scratch that.
It was me who said that one.
But knowing Uncle Ron, I’m sure he’s said something similar.
Regardless, I assumed the Snapper had much more important people on his hit list.
I also wasn’t sure how scared I was supposed to be of Exploding Snap cards, unless you counted the possibility of death by utter stupidity.
We were finally released from the clutches of pretension and boredom way past my bedtime. I’m not proud of the fact that my bedtime on work nights is the same as it was when I was eight years old, but getting a full night’s sleep is how I keep my sweet disposition and glowing skin.
I Flooed directly home from Dorset, feeling, as I usually did on these occasions, like it would be a great idea to go live in a cave somewhere and never speak the word “relatives” again.
Almost the second I stepped out of my fireplace, I was ambushed by a sound like a million firecrackers going off, and a great deal of smoke that completely obscured my vision. I swore something magnificent, took a great many people’s names in vain, and threw myself onto the ground covering my head with my hands. I am still not sure what this was meant to accomplish.
Somewhere nearby, I heard uncontrollable laughter.
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