chapter eight - an abundance of tartan
It wasn’t that I disliked
call-me-Mary-Sue. For all her fluttery eyelashes and improbable perfection, it wasn’t like she made me feel like a worse person, and it wasn’t at all like she came between me and Scorpius. I doubt she really came between anyone. She hovered on the outskirts, pouting and fluttering away like the freak cross of a duck and butterfly.
It wasn’t even like I felt all that sorry for her. Sure, she seemed to lack the substance that the rest of us had, and I couldn’t help but feel a slight pity in imagining that she was like a shell, and that there was nothing beneath the eyelashes and the textbook prettiness. I was mostly confused by her. She was a total mystery. Despite us knowing her name, occupation, and occasional hobbies – well, that was all we knew.
After a few misunderstandings, Scorpius and I had pretty much been welcomed into New New Elgin with open arms. But if the village was a metaphorical castle, then call-me-Mary-Sue was well outside the keep.
Fortunately, she was perfect inspiration.
I’d been working hard at my prospective smut for Amortentia Publications. I had a vague plot, at least, and a mess of an opening chapter (a snip at five hundred words, natch), both of which had been owled off to Euphemia Flitter as if to say: give me my five hundred Galleons. I want it now.
I had Fauna Hewitt, a mawkish, tearful blonde, and her love interest Buck Blair, a dangerous and enigmatic private detective built like a mountain. And then there was Eugene Gilbert, Fauna’s loyal but wimpy best friend, who was obviously her true undying love and made a point of telling her that every few pages or so, taking time to complain about how nice guys always finish last.
But that was it. The sketched-out plot focused on the Buck-Fauna-Eugene love triangle, and that was about it. Meanwhile, Scorpius was busy as a bee, working in his various assistanty jobs across the nation, and drifting home each night in a vague fog of developing chemical with his hair sticking up at the back.
It was around about this time that Scorpius started his comic book project. He’d claimed he’d got the idea from a magazine he’d read, and set about laboriously scribbling away in his sketchbook for a few days. It transpired that these were just the sketches; the real thing would be on brown wrapping paper, which he had to cut down to the right size and then iron flat right after ironing his work shirts. When he described it, it sounded like a pretty naff idea, but, on paper, it looked pretty neat. It was, in his words, ‘an exploration of the past including, but not limited to, how we met, through illustration primarily, executed through the medium of cost-effective ink pens on a subtle and similarly cost-effective paper’. Once you put this through the artistic bullshit decoder, it came out something like ‘basically, I’m going to draw my life story like a cartoon using cheap pens on cheap paper’.
I must admit that, at first, I was a little sceptical. It sounded a bit twee. But when he was done with the first few pages, it was a bit mindblowing. He’d been a photographer so long that I’d actually forgotten that I was quite fond of his drawing style. It wasn’t perfect, and it was stuck somewhere between total abstraction and wibbly realism, and it was more than a bit surreal. Yet it sort of made perfect sense when you looked at it. It was almost as if he saw the world through a weird, distorted lens, and by looking at his drawings, I could see through that lens too.
And the way he saw the world – well, it was something else. It was weird, it was twisted, it was cramped and it was a little claustrophobic. The paper was wrinkled from the sheer amount of drawing on the surface (drawing that often ended up all over his hands too). Everything was slightly warped – buildings, for example, leaned over at alarming angles, like the whole world was on the verge of tottering over. I know it just sounds like he was awful at drawing but, in reality, it was the opposite. Somehow it was perfectly imperfect.
Sometimes I’d peek at these drawings when he was out at work, even though he’d forbidden me from looking at any art stuff until it was properly finished. He was out at work so often that I got a good chance to really sit down and admire the drawings, what with his two jobs and all. He wouldn’t be dissuaded from looking for a third, even though he was dead beat in the evenings already. On more than one occasion he’d no sooner walked in the door than he was asleep on the sofa/bed/laundry pile/floor, evidently a little worn out by Cameraderie.
And besides the Fauna-Buck-Eugene love triangle and Scorpius starting to draw that book, December brought us heaps of letters. The first was from Supreme Chancellor Tarks and Evil Overlord Gwen, fixing the date of their arrival to the twenty-sixth of January and wishing us a merry hello from Seattle, where they seemed to have ended up. It turned out that they were actually going to end up in Paris for Christmas, where they were going to rescue Lettuce, who had somehow become an underground pop sensation in his short stay in the French capital. And, knowing Lettuce, he must have been a really underground pop sensation. I mean, I’m picturing interpretive dance in subterranean caverns with added cowbell or something. I’m picturing something slightly mad and shiny and highly flammable.
The second letter was, surprisingly, from Rose. It was only short, merely to inform us that she’d moved flats, and listed an address in Vauxhall. What Rose was doing moving to Vauxhall I wasn’t entirely sure, but the letter didn’t elaborate. I didn’t write to Rose all that often, but I propped it up on the mantelpiece just in case. You can never really know when you might need spontaneous legal advice. Especially when you’re as accident prone as me and/or Scorpius.
The third and final letter came from my parents. In true mum fashion, it was about seven pages long and went on for ages and ages without really saying anything at all. It did, however, invite us to spend Christmas with them – something that had been planned since March but, no worries, it was nice to know she’d remembered. I wrote back immediately, guessing she needed quite the headstart to make sure she had adequate time to wash and iron the doily collection.
As much as I hated the doily-centric feel of being back at home, I was kind of looking forward to spending Christmas with my Mum and Dad. Molly would be there too, and Molly’s boyfriend, who I’d only met on once before. I’d spent the previous Christmas with Scorpius and his Mum, and as much as I loved Astoria, the short hour his Dad had visited for had been nothing short of excruciating. The elder Malfoy didn’t approve of me in the slightest, and he made this pretty clear. So I was kind of looking forward to being able to put my feet up and go back to my childhood home, and to parents who definitely approved of my significant other, no matter how clumsy and strange he was.
Along with the letters, December brought snow. And it brought snow in a big way. It sort of came out of nowhere, like a punch (or a snowball) in the back. All two feet of it. I opened the door onto Burns Lane on the Wednesday morning, took three steps forward, and then fell flat on my face. Then, I ran back upstairs again (dripping melting snow all over the carpets), grabbed Scorpius by the wrist, and dragged him down to see the snow too. This time, I remained standing; he took a single step out into the street and then fell over, landing with a sort of whumf noise.
‘Alright,’ he said, emerging from the snow a few seconds later, shivering. ‘I do need to go to work.’
‘Cool,’ I pulled my jacket tighter about myself – it really had got a lot colder. ‘See you later, okay?’
He went back into the flat and I stomped my way along the High Street, where someone had thoughtfully cleared a path through the overnight snowdrift. While Scorpius was off for the day to do a shift at Cameraderie and cover some thing in Dorset, I had an exciting day of Christmas shopping ahead of me. Christmas shopping in the closest thing New New Elgin had to a department store, which was a two-storey affair in the centre of the town called Thistle Dae Nicely. The sheer amount of punnery New New Elgin had to offer was a killer.
I’d made a list for my Christmas shopping trip. Item one was tartan
and item two was anorak
. The former was for gifts; the latter was for myself.
Finding tartan things in Thistle Dae Nicely wasn’t exactly hard. Every other thing on display seemed to be made of some eye-watering tartan pattern. Going into the shop was like walking into a Scottish vortex where everything was colourful and mad and made my eyes want to bleed, but in a good way. In half an hour, I’d managed to pick up a tartan tea towel for my mum, tartan doilies for my dad, a tartan bag for Molly, shortbread in a tartan box for each branch of the family, a tartan scarf for Scorpius, a cuddly tartan Loch Ness monster for Scorpius’ mum, and a tartan plant pot for Scorpius’ dad. I’m not sure the tartan plant pot would exactly be appreciated, but I figured that he thought so little of me anyway that it’d hardly hurt to offend him further.
The tartan theme continued up onto the second floor, where I’d intended to look for a new anorak in ‘contemporary ladies fashions’ – although, having seen the residents of New New Elgin, contemporary was somewhere back in the 1900s. Thing is, the sheer and bewildering amount of tartan made me a little bit disorientated and woozy, and I ended up blundering into the lingerie section instead of the anorak section. And everything was still tartan there.
It made me laugh. Mostly because I was reminded of going shopping with my mum when I was a lot lot younger, and mispronouncing lingerie as ling-er-yyy
¬, but also because, no matter how many tartan frills and bows you stick on it, tartan underwear will never really be sexy.
Of course, standing in the middle of a tartan explosion and giggling to myself, I stuck out like a sore thumb. So I probably can’t blame Jean C and Jean P for approaching me at that moment, arm in arm, matching little smiles on their faces.
‘Good morning,’ Jean C said.
‘Getting a present
for someone?’ Jean P asked, with a more than suggestive eyebrow waggle at the tartan underwear fiesta.
‘Er, no!’ I blurted out, before I could stop myself.
‘Just…’ I tried to salvage the mood. ‘This place is full of tartan! It’s…tar-tan-tastic!’
They each gave a weak laugh.
‘Christmas shopping,’ I held my basket up. ‘Stuff for…you know, family.’
‘I see there’s a tartan theme,’ Jean C said.
‘Well, there wasn’t a whole lot of choice in that matter.’
‘Have you got much planned for Christmas?’
‘Nah, just…family. You?’
‘Jock’s taking me to Paris,’ Jean P said. ‘It’s very fancy.’
‘Oh, I’ve got friends who are going to Paris!’ I said, without thinking. Then I remembered that one of the friends in question was, in fact, Lettuce. ‘Don’t bump into them,’ I added. ‘Please.’
‘They’re very weird,’ I babbled. ‘But a couple of them are visiting soon and I guess this place is pretty weird too, right?’
‘Well, we’ll be going now,’ Jean C said – which was just as well, as I was starting to feel like I was descending through a metaphorical trapdoor of social awkwardness. ‘See you later.’
‘Yeah, see you!’ I waved, and then they headed further into the lingerie (sorry, lingery) section, whilst I headed off in the other direction in search of anoraks.
After the Christmas shopping/anorak hunt was over, I returned home, my purse considerably emptier, but my chances of getting soaked in a downpour considerably less. I’d been moderately successful in finding an anorak that wasn’t completely tartan, although I’d ended up getting one with a tartan trim. It was a style much in the vein of the navy tent that Scorpius had, only a lot smaller and with a lot less pockets. It also actually smelt like it hadn’t been festering in a ditch since the sixties, which was a bonus.
That afternoon, it was onto the business of writing Christmas cards, sending Christmas cards, writing and sending the Christmas cards I’d forgotten the first time around and then, finally, at seven in the evening, flopping down on the sofa with the newspaper and a cup of tea.
That was the thing I disliked about Christmas. It was so energetic.
When Scorpius finally turned up from work half an hour later, he was evidently a bit miffed that I’d got ahead of him on the festive organisation front. Almost instantly, he set down to writing his own cards – before accepting a cup of tea, of course.
‘It’s awful, but,’ he said, shuffling through the pile of parchment held together with a rubber band that we called our address book. ‘Really don’t want to send a card to half these people. Henry!’ he said, plucking an address from the pile at random. ‘Why would I want to send a card to Henry?’
‘He sent one to us,’ I said, nodding to the card featuring an abstract print of questionable quality that now stood on the mantelpiece.
‘Oh, fine,’ he said, scribbling a message into one of the multi-purpose cheap ‘n’ cheerful cards I’d bought a few years previously. ‘Here,’ he passed it to me. ‘You sign it.’
I added my name to the bottom, quietly amused by the way that Scorpius had chosen to put a little x at the bottom of the card. ‘Henry only gets one kiss from you?’
‘It’s from both of us,’ he said, pointing the pen at me. ‘So technically he gets half from me.’
I was about to muse aloud on the logistics of giving someone half a kiss, but decided there were probably better topics of conversation to occupy my time.
‘The smell of developing chemical is especially potent today,’ I said, as he scrawled Henry’s address on the front of an envelope. ‘Did you trip over in the dark room again?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Better. I got promoted.’
‘You kept that quiet.’
‘Well,’ he stuffed the card into the envelope and sealed it. ‘It’s not big. Assistant sales assistant to second dark room assistant. Ta-dah!’
‘Good job,’ I said. ‘On the…good job.’
‘Not that I get more pay,’ he added, sounding a little bitter, as he tossed Henry’s card onto the pile of those waiting to be sent. It overshot and went skidding across the room, coming to a halt against the skirting board. ‘Just, you know, I get to spend my time in the dark. More trip hazards.’
‘I better brush up on my first aid skills.’
We sat in companionable silence as he scribbled away in a few more cards. Then, he handed me three cards at once, saying ‘sign these.’
I glanced at the names. ‘Hey,’ I frowned. ‘These are your friends?’
‘And?’ he said, continuing his erratic scribbling.
‘Well…I don’t really know them.’
‘Yes you do. You’ve met them.’
‘But…but….I’ve never corresponded with them.’
‘And I’ve never corresponded
with Morgan Maule,’ Scorpius held up the card he was writing in. ‘But apparently he’s on my Christmas card list. Besides,’ he added, in a slightly softer voice. ‘It’s kind of about time.’
‘Well, we’ve been together for a while. Only makes sense.’
I shuffled the cards again, lifting my pen to sign my name on each. ‘Right. So…what’re they up to?’
‘Well, if I’m signing a card to them, I sort of want to know what’s going on in their life should the need to enter into further correspondence arise.’
‘Nah, I’m just nosy. So what’s…’ I checked the top card. ‘Ellery up to these days?’
‘Dunno, really,’ he shrugged. ‘Ministry stuff, I think. Has her own office, so it must be good. I think he works for one of the newspapers,’ he said, pulling out the middle card. ‘Or maybe he freelances. I can’t remember. Newspapery things, anyway. And her,’ he indicated the bottom card. ‘She owns a wool shop down the bottom of Diagon Alley.’
‘She was the one who sent you the jumper last year, wasn’t she?’
‘Shame it only fits me.’
‘It suits you more.’
‘Cool,’ I said, turning back to the cards and adding my name to each. ‘Nice to catch up with them.’
We worked away in silence for a few minutes more, until he suddenly spoke up again, putting his cards aside.
‘Look, I…I found another job, I think,’ he said. ‘I’ve applied, anyway, but it’s not for a while yet.’
‘Good,’ I said, although my heart sank a little.
‘It’s sort of,’ he ran a hand through his hair, sending it sticking skywards. ‘Well, you know the primary school they have down by the beach? They’re sort of looking for an art teach…ing assistant. Part-time thing,’ he added, quickly. ‘I figure it could fill that gap I have on Wednesdays…’
‘Oh, cool,’ I’d already turned back to my newspaper. ‘Don’t work too hard.’
‘I won’t,’ he smiled. ‘Just…just looking for something that might lead to something better, you know?’
‘I know. You don’t want to be an assistant forever.’
‘Yeah. I could be an art teacher.’
Another one of those short silences passed, although, this time, it didn’t feel quite so companionable. Just like there’d been a little change in the air pressure or something, only I knew it was more like a little change in the air pressure inside my head. Metaphorically. I’m sure that’s actually kind of dangerous.
‘You do realise,’ Scorpius said, breaking the silence. ‘We’re supposed to be helping Mary-Susannah put up a shelf in ten minutes?’
‘Ah,’ I nodded. ‘Well, must be hard to put up a shelf with only one arm.’
‘For her, anyway.’
We trundled out into the snow ten minutes later, bundled up in our anoraks, hands shoved in our pockets against the cold. This time, we managed to make it out onto the High Street without falling over; the Christmas lights glittered on the streets below.
‘It’s kind of pretty here,’ I said, appreciating the quiet for the first time.
‘Kind of?’ he elbowed me. ‘It’s great.’
Mary-Susannah buzzed us up to her flat almost the instant we’d rang the doorbell. I got the feeling she’d been lying in wait for us. She was waiting at the top of the stairs with the door open, leaning on the doorframe, her arm still in its sling, looking as vulnerably appealing as ever.
‘Hello,’ she said, mostly to Scorpius, fluttering her eyelashes all over the place. ‘Thank you so much for coming.’
‘It’s no problem.’
‘Oh, no,’ (flutter, flutter) ‘I really,’ (flutter) ‘appreciate it.’
‘Should be done in no time,’ Scorpius said, as we both shimmied past her into the hallway.
‘Oh, it’s alright,’ (flutter, flutter, flutter) ‘take as long as you want. Would you,’ (flutter) ‘like a cup of tea?’
She fluttered off to what must have been the kitchen, leaving us in the hallway. We stayed there, shuffling from foot to foot a little awkwardly, Scorpius squinting up at several watercolours that hung from the walls.
‘If these are hers,’ he muttered. ‘They ain’t half bad.’
We continued to shuffle.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘Maybe this is your prime chance to, er…do a bit of snooping.’
‘You know, to, er, see if she’s a spy or whatever,’ he said, casting a furtive glance at the door Call-Me-Mary-Sue had disappeared through.
‘Why can’t you do it?’
‘I’m too conspicuous. And I knock things over. You’re more…well, gravity doesn’t hate you as much.’
‘Oh, fine,’ I said. ‘But I still think you’ve all got the wrong idea about her. I bet she’s really nice and lovely and not a spy at all.’
He pouted at me, blinking furiously in a vaguely passable imitation of Call-Me-Mary-Sue. ‘Are you sure?’
I didn’t have time to respond. Call-Me-Mary-Sue fluttered back into the hallway at that point, took our anoraks, and then led us through to what appeared to be her sitting room. It was pretty nice, if a little minimalist; the furniture all looked as if it were brand-new, and there were no ornaments on the tables or anything – but there were a ton of paintings hanging on the walls, paintings I supposed were hers. And, if they were, then, wow: she was good.
The shelf that needed to be put up was in one of the corners. She’d left out the basic tools we’d need, including a spirit level (I had to fight to suppress a giggle). Scorpius, who had a lot more experience at putting up shelves than I had (although in a purely DIY sense, if one gets my drift) surveyed the scene with his arms folded across his chest, deep in thought.
I felt I had to seize the moment. ‘Er, Mary-Sue…sannah,’ I said. ‘D’you mind if I use your loo?’
She nodded. ‘Just down the,’ (flutter) ‘corridor. Last door on your right.’
As I turned to leave, Scorpius gave me this funny look that was halfway between urging me to go and snoop and panic at being abandoned alone in a room with call-me-Mary-Sue.
Her bathroom was suitably anonymous; I sniffed at her perfume and opened a tub of her moisturiser, but that was about the extent of my snooping in there. I guessed I had enough time for a bit of extra snooping, so I tried the next door down, being as silent as possible; a cupboard with a lot of shoes in it. Then I tried the door after that, tip-toeing in and squinting around in the semi-darkness. I made out the dim shape of a bed, a wardrobe, a cage that might have kept an owl, before I lit my wand and illuminated the room. The faint blue light only showed me that the room was impeccably tidy and well-kept. Either that or she just hadn’t had a chance to mess it up yet. I pointed my wand towards the bed, giving the area around it a cursory glance – nothing, not even a pair of pyjamas folded up on the covers or anything. There was a piece of paper on the bedside table, though. Still holding my wand out before me, I crossed the room and focused the light onto the paper, peering down at what was written upon it.
It was wrong to read it. It wasn’t one of my finer moments, as moral judgements go. But I read it anyway, and when I told Scorpius about it later, I completely blamed him for telling me to go and snoop in the first place. I had to read it quickly, but I can pretty much remember what it said.
I’m sorry and I miss you.
And that was it, apart from the name Alexander, which had been added to the end.
It could have meant nothing. I am pretty guilty of having an overactive imagination. But the letter seemed to unsettle me a bit, like the whole snooping-on-call-me-Mary-Sue thing before had been a joke, and now it had suddenly got all serious and dodgy. But, as I said, it could have been nothing. I got the feeling, though, that it meant a lot.
I extinguished the light and left the room, taking care to be as quiet as possible on the way out.
: I don't usually wait ages to update but, when I do, I update with a filler chapter. The name Thistle Dae Nicely
is actually a hyped up version of a tourist shop in Edinburgh with a very similar name. Always makes me chuckle when I pass it on my holidays there. I love a good pun.