Chapter 5 : A New Start?
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Neither Greg nor Daniel uttered a word between the Oxford estate, where the eleven-year-old had just seen his mother slam the door in his face, and the small London flat that the teacher now called home. Greg only broke the silence as the hatchback ground to a halt outside the converted Victorian house. ‘Come on in, Dan,’ he offered. ‘You can stay here for now.’
Daniel looked across to the man, his hazel eyes narrow underneath his dirty fringe. ‘Okay,’ he muttered, pushing himself up and following the man up a flight of stairs into his apartment.
‘Theo?’ Greg called out. ‘You in? Guess not...’ The teacher shrugged. ‘Come on, Dan,’ he repeated, ‘have a seat.’
The eleven-year-old limped across to a black leather sofa, which Theo and Greg had chosen for its likeness to those in the Slytherin common room, and dropped his bags at its base, leaving Greg to join him a couple of minutes later. ‘I’m sorry, Daniel,’ Greg offered, tamely.
‘It’s fine,’ the boy choked, turning to look up at the teacher as his eyes began to fill with tears, before burying his head into Greg’s shoulder as a series of sobs wracked his body. The teacher shuffled awkwardly, shifting his arm from behind Daniel’s back and onto the boy’s free shoulder as the sound of his crying filled the flat, uninterrupted until the main door clattered open.
‘Greg?’ Theo’s voice startled the eleven-year-old as he entered the room. ‘Good trip, mate?’ He asked, without properly looking around. ‘Bloody hell,’ his eyes locked onto Daniel’s disconsolate body. ‘You didn’t tell me you were going shopping as well,’ he joked. ‘How much did that one cost?’
Daniel snorted as he heard the other man’s comment, and Greg was grateful for the distraction as he got to his feet. ‘Long story, mate, long story...’ he shook his head. ‘Anyway, Theo, this is Daniel Hamilton. Muggle-born wizard like we were. Dan, this is Theo Forrest – my best friend from school, now beater for Wimbourne Wasps.’
‘Nice to meet you, Dan,’ Theo grinned, and the boy wiped his eyes, struggling to manage a smile in reply.
‘Hi,’ Daniel offered.
Greg smiled. ‘Your turn to cook tonight, Theo,’ he announced. ‘Dan can give you a hand. I’ve got a whole heap of stuff I’ve got to sort out.’
‘You’re on tomorrow and Wednesday, then,’ the other man shot back.
‘Fine,’ Greg shrugged. ‘As long as you’ve got tonight,’ he stood up, heading for the fireplace, ‘and have a bloody shower first!’
‘I’ve just had four hours of Quidditch, and it’s nearly thirty degrees out there,’ Theo protested, watching his friend disappear into the flames. ‘What do you fancy then, kid?’
The August sun had just dipped below the horizon, lending an orange glow that coloured the front room of the flat, by the time that Greg returned to his London home.
‘There’s a curry in the fridge, mate,’ Theo looked up from a television set that broadcast a rugby match into the men’s flat.
‘Thanks,’ Greg sighed, following his friend’s instructions to seek out a plateful of chicken and rice, and reheating it with a lazy flick of his wand. ‘What a day,’ he groaned, sinking onto the sofa beside the other man. ‘What a bloody day.’
Theo smirked, reaching out television’s remote control and fading its volume down to a whisper. ‘It’s just a replay,’ he explained. ‘Fill me in, then.’
‘How much has he told you?’ Greg dug into his supper eagerly as he waited for his friend to answer. ‘Actually, scratch that,’ the professor corrected himself. ‘How’s he been?’
‘Quiet,’ Theo answered, honestly, ‘but I don’t blame him. He said his Mum didn’t want him to go to Hogwarts, that was about it.’
‘Did he say that she ended up telling him to “go to his fucking school, the treacherous little shit”?’
Theo winced. ‘No, mate,’ he swallowed. ‘Shit. No wonder he’s so down. You can’t blame him, can you?’
Greg shook his head. ‘At least I know I got it right now,’ he reflected, glumly. ‘When I said our laws took precedence, that no one could stand in the way of a muggle-born boy who wanted to go to Hogwarts. I spent the whole journey back from Oxford praying I’d got that right.’ He sighed. ‘It’s not like that makes things any better for Daniel, though.’
‘What happens to him now?’ Theo’s attention had switched entirely from the rugby highlights on the television screen in front of him to his friend’s story.
‘Hogwarts on Friday,’ Greg answered, flatly. ‘Then Christmas and Easter holidays in the castle, which gives us until June to work something out for the summer.’
‘What about before Friday?’ Theo asked, and Greg looked down, guiltily, at his curry.
‘I said I’d look after him,’ he explained, forlornly. ‘I’m sorry, mate, I should have checked it with you and everything, but I’d been at the ministry for hours whilst they went through their files and tried to track his father or his grandparents, and they found nothing. I didn’t want him just chucked in a home somewhere for three days, not when he’s had so much shit going on anyway...’
‘Greg,’ Theo interrupted, ‘you knew I wouldn’t mind that, mate.’
The other man sighed. ‘It’s not just that,’ he admitted, ‘it still feels like my brain’s going at a hundred miles per hour. I’m thinking about lessons starting next Monday, trying to teach for the first time ever, as well as being Head of House. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do for that! Then I’ve got the muggle-borns to think about, as well as the two kids who are supposed to be their buddies. I just can’t help thinking that I’m going to fuck it all up...’
‘I don’t think you are, mate,’ Theo countered.
‘Me neither,’ another voice interrupted the two men’s conversation, and they turned over their shoulders to see Daniel leaning against the door that led to Theo’s bedroom.
‘Dan...’ Greg stammered. ‘I thought you were asleep.’ He swallowed. ‘How much did you hear?’
‘All of it.’
Theo smiled. ‘Including Professor Bennett’s potty mouth?’
Greg rolled his eyes as Daniel nodded. ‘Thanks for pointing that out, Theo,’ he groaned. ‘Just what I needed at the start of term. 1-0 to one of the kids already.’
‘I don’t mind,’ Daniel’s voice was quiet, and almost apologetic.
Greg sighed. ‘I take it you haven’t been to sleep then, Dan?’
The eleven-year-old shook his head.
‘It’s okay,’ the teacher reassured him. ‘I don't know why I thought you would have done after all that,’ Greg smiled, grimly. ‘Come here, mate,’ he offered, shifting along the sofa to create a space between himself and Theo.
Daniel edged forwards, shuffling the short distance from the bedroom doorway into the front room. ‘Sorry...’ he began, but Greg cut him off abruptly before he could manage any more.
‘Don’t say that,’ he insisted, firmly. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong.’
‘But...’ Daniel protested, his eyes watering beneath his untidy fringe. ‘If I... if I hadn’t have been magic, then you wouldn’t have had to do all this...’
‘Oh, Daniel...’ Greg dropped an arm over the boy’s bare shoulders, pulling him close to his own tired work robes.
‘But it’s true,’ the boy whimpered. ‘It’s the same as mum...’ he paused, swallowing, ‘the same as she said. I’m good for nothing, useless...’ his words dissolved into another film of tears against Greg’s chest.
‘Daniel...’ Greg squeezed the boy’s shoulder. ‘That’s not true. I swear it. I’d do everything I did today all over again if I had to.’
Daniel shook his head. ‘Why?’ he mumbled.
‘Cause that’s what Greg’s like,’ Theo interrupted, answering for his friend. ‘Cause he always gives everyone a chance. Even back when we were first-years, he was like that. I remember there were these two kids in Gryffindor who were total arseholes for almost the whole year, but Greg still helped them when they needed it,’ he explained. ‘I’d have told them to get lost... but Greg didn’t.’
‘Delicately put, mate,’ Greg rolled his eyes. ‘I always remember what the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts told me the first time I put it on. It’s your choices that show who you really are... and everyone deserves the chance to make the right choice.’
Daniel nodded slowly, wiping a tear from his left eye. ‘Sorry...’ he repeated.
‘Forget it,’ Greg smiled, ‘and don’t let me catch you saying that shit about being useless ever again... if you don’t believe in yourself, who’s going to?’
Daniel managed a weak grin. ‘2-0,’ he whispered, and Theo couldn’t keep himself from laughing aloud.
‘You’re buggered if he’s going to keep track of everything you come out with between now and Friday,’ he beamed.
‘You’re no better,’ Greg shot back.
‘So?’ the other man was unconcerned. ‘I’m not about to start working as his teacher!’
‘It’s okay,’ Daniel spoke quietly. ‘I don’t mind if you swear. I’m used to it.’
Greg nodded slowly. ‘I guess we were too, when we were first-years,’ he took a deep breath. ‘I mean, I’m not really bothered at all by it, but some people are. You’ve just got to be careful,’ he cautioned. ‘I don’t want you going round next week and telling everyone that your professor swears all the time.’
‘I won’t!’ Daniel insisted. ‘You can trust me, I swear it... oh,’ he grinned sheepishly, realising the accidental pun he had made.
‘I bloody well hope so,’ Theo grinned, as Greg rolled his eyes. ‘You’ll be in deep shit if we can’t.’
Daniel echoed Theo’s laughter. ‘Too bloody right,’ he beamed at the illicit pleasure of swearing in front of two adults.
‘It doesn’t need to be in every sentence!’ Greg baulked, playfully cuffing the eleven-year-old round the ear.
‘I know,’ Daniel smiled. ‘So,’ he continued eagerly, ‘what did you mean about a Sorting Hat?’
Greg allowed himself a wry grin, turning to make eye contact with his friend. ‘This could be a long night.’
‘Morning, Danny.’ Greg greeted the eleven-year-old with a laugh as Daniel forced himself to his feet the next day.
The boy groaned. ‘What time is it?’
‘Nearly eleven o’clock,’ Greg answered. ‘You fell asleep on the sofa last night just after midnight, and we figured we’d just let you sleep.’
‘Oh,’ Daniel nodded, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as he recalled blurry memories of the night before. ‘Where’s Theo?’
‘Quidditch practice,’ Greg replied, bluntly. ‘Leaves us with the day to please ourselves,’ he checked his watch, exaggeratedly. ‘Or half of it, at least.’
Daniel blushed, and Greg laughed again. ‘It’s okay, mate,’ the teacher smiled, ‘you had one hell of a day yesterday.’
‘Yeah...’ Daniel’s energy seemed to drain out of his body as he remembered the previous day’s events. ‘Sometimes, I still don’t think I really believe it all,’ he murmured. ‘But it’s got to be true, hasn’t it? I mean, I saw you walk into the fireplace yesterday, and then all that stuff that happened at the wand shop...’
‘It’s real, mate,’ Greg reassured the boy. ‘It just takes a bit of getting used to, that’s all. Eggs for breakfast?’ He changed the subject abruptly. ‘Fried or scrambled?’
‘You’re the boss,’ Greg wandered towards his refrigerator door, retrieving a couple of large eggs before cracking them into a frying pan as the gas of a hob ring flickered into life. ‘Anything you want to do today, Dan?’
‘I don’t know,’ the eleven-year-old shrugged. ‘I don’t know anything about this world.’ He crossed his hands defensively across his chest.
‘Worth finding out, then?’ Greg shot back. ‘There’s plenty to see if you want to,’ he offered.
Daniel’s expression didn’t brighten. ‘I guess,’ he grunted. ‘I don’t know what, though.’
‘It’s okay, mate,’ Greg tried to reassure the boy. ‘I remember.’
‘What did you tell your friends from school?’ Daniel grasped at a question. ‘What did you tell them when you went?’
Greg took a deep breath, playing for time as he turned back to the yellowing eggs. ‘I was lucky,’ he recalled. ‘I was going to a different school anyway – the Grammar School in Torquay – and they weren’t... so we were kind of growing apart anyway. Mum and Dad just said I was going to a boarding school instead, and that was it.’
‘Did you miss them?’
The teacher sighed. ‘I don’t think so,’ he frowned a little, ‘not really. I knew Matt anyway – I’d known him for ages, and it turned out he was in the fourth year when I started – and I made new friends really quickly.’
‘What are my friends going to think?’ Daniel slumped down onto a metal stool as Greg pushed a plateful of breakfast in front of him. ‘When I just disappear?’
Greg slipped onto the seat opposite Daniel, on the other side of a thin table. ‘There’s no easy answer, mate. You could do what I did... say that you’re going to boarding school instead.’
‘Mum... She would never,’ Daniel began to protest, ‘and anyway, they’d still wonder why I never came back.’
‘Some boarding schools stay in at Christmas and Easter,’ Greg offered. ‘People move on pretty quick sometimes. I know that sounds horrible, but it’s true.’
‘Can I tell anyone anything?’
‘Sorry,’ Greg shook his head. ‘Only immediate family are allowed to know about Hogwarts,’ he explained. ‘It’s the law.’
Daniel’s head dropped. ‘Even my best friend?’
‘I’m sorry,’ the teacher repeated. ‘You can still keep in touch,’ he suggested. ‘You can still write, as long as you’re careful what you say.’
‘Can I go and say goodbye?’
Greg paused. ‘I suppose so,’ he conceded. ‘Then I figure there are a couple of things we ought to do before we go.’ A wry grin spread across the teacher’s face. ‘Do you get travel sick?’
A fraction of a second later, Daniel found himself stumbling towards the bark of a wide oak tree, before pebble-dashing its roots with the remains of his breakfast.
‘What,’ the boy coughed, ‘the fuck was that?’ He wretched again, but there was nothing more for his body to reject.
‘It looks,’ Greg answered dispassionately, ‘like scrambled eggs.’
‘Really?’ Daniel turned to the teacher, and rolled his eyes. ‘I never guessed.’
‘You just Apparated,’ Greg ignored the eleven-year-old’s sarcasm. ‘That’s the way wizards get around,’ he explained, ‘but it does usually have that effect on first-timers.’
‘You could have warned me.’
Greg’s eyes sparkled. ‘Yeah,’ he admitted, ‘but that would have spoiled the fun.’
Daniel groaned. ‘So where are we?’
‘Don’t you recognise it?’ Greg asked.
‘Oh...’ A look of recognition dawned across the boy’s face as his eyes took in the greenery of the wide park that spread no more than a couple of hundred yards from the house he had grown up in.
‘Shall we go see your mate, then?’ Greg asked, as Daniel nodded. ‘Do you know what you’re going to say to him?’
‘I guess,’ the boy looked away. ‘That I’m going to boarding school in Scotland, and I’ll write to him.’
‘Easy, right?’ Greg smiled, wryly. ‘Do you want me to come with?’
Daniel shook his head, decisively, as he turned onto the side road that led to his friend’s house. ‘I’ll be fine. I mean, nothing can go wrong, can it?’
Greg shrugged. ‘Depends what you tell him. You could put the whole of the wizarding world in danger...’
‘I won’t,’ Daniel pleaded. ‘I swear I won’t.’
‘I believe you, mate,’ the teacher reassured the boy, ‘but I think I still need to listen in. Here,’ he dug around inside the pocket of his canvas shorts.
Daniel blinked. ‘Is that... an ear?’
‘Not a real one,’ Greg grinned. ‘It’s plastic,’ he explained. ‘It’s charmed, it’s called an Ear-We-Go. You put it in your pocket, and I stick this my ear,’ he fished a small, almost transparent clip from his shorts, ‘and I can hear everything that goes on.’ He paused. ‘Remember the joke shop in Diagon Alley, the one that Lou and Al’s uncle owns? I got it from there.’
‘Alright,’ Daniel considered the man’s suggestion, before nodding cautiously. ‘I guess that’s okay.’
Greg smiled, passing Daniel the plastic ear and subtly clipping his own earpiece into place. ‘I’ll wait back at the egg tree in the park,’ he grinned, leaving the eleven-year-old to roll his eyes as he turned to reach for Connor Norris’ doorbell.
‘Dan!’ The other boy, no taller than his friend and with short, messy blond hair answered the chime with enthusiasm. ‘What happened? I heard your mum kicked you out...’
‘I’ll tell you what happened, mate,’ Daniel answered glumly, his voice bereft of any energy. ‘Can we go inside first, though?’
‘Well done, Daniel,’ Greg held out a consoling arm as the boy trudged back to the old oak a quarter of an hour later. ‘That can’t have been easy.’
Daniel shook his head.
‘Come on, mate,’ the teacher held the boy close to him. ‘Let’s go. It’s easier second time round.’ A crack echoed around the trees of Cutteslowe Park, and the two wizards returned to London.
‘Was he the boy you were playing with on the day I met you?’ Greg made an effort at conversation as they re-appeared in the living room of his flat, but the eleven-year-old only nodded. ‘I take it you were close friends, then?’
‘Best friends,’ Daniel answered, his voice hollow as he fought to blink tears back out of his eyes. ‘I wish I could tell him!’ He blurted out. ‘I wish he was coming too!’
‘You don’t understand!’ Daniel yelled out, losing his own internal battle as his eyes rimmed red and his cheeks began to burn. ‘You just don’t get it! Nobody does!’ He turned on his heel, storming away from the teacher and holing himself up in the sanctuary of the flat’s bathroom, leaving Greg speechless in his wake.
‘Give him time,’ the teacher whispered to himself, slowly sitting down on top of one of the room’s black leather sofas. ‘Remember your first year,’ he recalled the arguments his friends had endured, both with one another and the other Houses, ‘and you didn’t have half of what he’s got to cope with. Let him deal with it himself. He’ll come through.’
Greg settled onto the seat, flicking through the sports channels to find a re-run of the previous day’s football, and hoping that his intuition would be proven right. Half an hour later, it was.
‘Professor Bennett?’ A cracked voice wavered over the television’s background noise, and Greg immediately dimmed the set’s volume before he answered.
‘Dan,’ Greg answered, simply. ‘You alright?’
The eleven-year-old edged forward, brushing both his fringe and the shadows of his tears away from his eyelids. ‘I guess,’ he murmured, before hurrying into an apology. ‘I didn’t mean it,’ he blustered. ‘I...’
‘Dan,’ the teacher cut him off, gently. ‘I know,’ he smiled, patting the cushion beside him. ‘Come here, mate.’
Wordlessly, Daniel followed the man’s instructions before slumping, half against the back of the sofa, and half against Greg himself.
‘You were right,’ the teacher consoled. ‘I never went through what you’re going through, not exactly,’ he paused, resting a hand on the boy’s shoulder, ‘but between my friends and me, we’ve seen most of it.’
Now it was Daniel’s turn to nod his head. ‘I know, I’m sorry,’ he swallowed. ‘It’s just... I don’t know how I’ll cope there. What if I can’t do any of the magic?’
‘I remember feeling exactly like that,’ Greg managed a thin smile, ‘and I bet Theo did too. Look at us now,’ he reflected. ‘To tell you the truth, even the magic-born kids haven’t done much proper stuff before they start school. You won’t be that far behind. It’ll just be things like Quidditch – learning what everything means – and you’ll just have to ask questions when you’re not sure. Your friends won’t mind.’
‘I haven’t got any friends here,’ Daniel answered back, despondently.
‘You will,’ Greg insisted. ‘It’s a new start, isn’t it, and anyway, what about the boys you’ve already met? Al, Louis and Nathan? Do you want to go and see one of them tomorrow? I could take you all to go and play some Quidditch... at least learn to fly.’
Daniel grimaced. ‘Do they have to come?’
‘Well... no,’ the teacher blinked. ‘I just thought you might like it if they did.’
The boy shook his head. ‘Can I do it by myself, then?’ He repeated his question. ‘That way I can at least learn some stuff that they don’t.’
Greg smiled, recalling his conversation with Arthur Weasley the previous week. ‘Knowing what you want, and how to get it. That’s Slytherin all right.’
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