Chapter 18 : February I.
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“I don’t think the wizarding world is ready for your rants about sexism.” I countered, smiling slightly as I sat on one of the bar stools in the Leaky Cauldron feeling rather strange about everything. It was hardly a common occurrence for me to be actively social, but after another of the long and difficult conversations with Max, I’d actually agreed to join them at the pub. I’d continually turned down their offers, although I never was quite sure why exactly, because any chance to drink was fine by me – but drinking with two work colleagues, perhaps, had not appealed to the side of me which like to ruin every chance of happiness I ever had.
“I’m certainly not.” George countered, ordering a dark ale and shaking his head slightly.
“I was only using you as an example,” Jill said irritably, pulling at another of her altogether rather intriguing outfits – this time a T-Shirt displaying a rather alarmingly glittery snitch saying ‘I’m still playing hard to get’ and a floral skirt that went down to just above her ankles. I’d often thought that Jill had either fallen into her wardrobe and decided to wear the first thing that she ended up choking on, or she was trying to emulate something of the muggle fashion world and had just flat out missed. It was nice though. I liked how Jill was such a quite extrovert, “I didn’t mean it necessarily had to be you.”
“Aw, George, don’t you want to snog all the hot Quidditch players?” I asked, running my finger over the top of my glass and smiling slightly.
“I’m sorry,” George said, “but the last time there was a hot female Quidditch player was Ginny Weasley, and anyway it would more be the writing that’s the issue. We’re not all like Grace here, who’s perfected the art of writing about graphic snogging.”
“But if there’s a Snogalicious article about men then there should be one for women!” Jill said finally.
“Start another protest.” George suggested to her, elbowing her and quirking up his eyebrows.
“What was the last one about?” I asked.
“Max,” George said, “and his blatant and rather horrific sexism. You know, I still think that’s why they transferred you here in the first place. So at least someone would complain about it.”
“Well,” Jill said, running a hand through her hair and downing her glass, “at least Max likes Grace, here.”
It was slightly surreal that the more Jill drank the more, well, normal she seemed. It was undeniably odd, but she seemed less ditzy and less... high.
“Your little fight over then?”
“Something like that,” I said, thinking about Max kissing me in his office earlier, “I think he felt bad.”
“Doubt it,” Jill said, rolling her eyes, “what business is it of his if you’re tight with James Potter? Technically, he did pay you to kiss him and write about it anyway.”
George laughed, draining his bottle of ale and placing down onto the desk. It was slightly uncomfortable, to be drinking with these two people that I’d spent almost every day cooped up in an office with – but it was sort of nice, I supposed, it I ignored the part of me that seemed to be screaming that this wasn’t right.
“How’s your therapist-fiancé?”
“He’s a bloody idiot,” Jill said derisively, “thinks we should have an expensive wedding and it should be the best day of my life, or something.”
I exchanged a look with George. He looked just as amused as I did.
“What about you Grace, how’s the mystery bloke of yours doing?” George asked.
“Why, you interested?” I smirked, taking another sip of my drink. “Well he was ever so slightly pissed by the whole James fiasco, but... I think he might be over it now.”
Jill shook her head and ordered another Vodka and coke (fair to play to her, really).
“Really?” George asked. “Blimey.”
“James was more upset that the mystery bloke.” I added, feeling strangely self conscious about talking about James. Talking about Max was different: those conversations felt more superficial and easy, but James was... well, the closest thing I had to a friend in the world. Admittedly, I hadn’t called him since he walked out in the middle of our breakfast but I was definitely going to. I was going to call him and say, well, I hadn’t decided that yet.
Which was why I hadn’t called.
“You ruined his image?” George grinned. “I had to interview James about a year back. He was quite a nice bloke, actually.”
“Yeah.” I agreed, pursing my lips slightly.
“He’s hot,” Jill added, “what?” She said defensively when George sent her a mock-surprised look. “I spend half my life arranging photos of him on bloody layouts, I’m not blind – he is hot.”
“Grace has tapped that.”
“Shut up,” I returned with an eye roll, “I haven’t. Anyway, he’s not talking to me. It’s all very dramatic. Let’s move on and talk about Jill’s therapist fiancé. Better yet, how’s your ex-wife George?”
“Other than pregnant?” George asked, drinking half his drink and placing it back down on the bar. “No idea.”
“God, talking about our respective love lives is depressing,” Jill said, “Grace will think this is what we always do.”
“What do you normally do?” I asked
“Last time George ended up singing karaoke,” Jill said, pulling her hair of its hair band and running a self conscious through her frizzy locks, “well, singing might be a strong word.”
“She spiked my drink, Grace. I think she was trying to take advantage.” George said in a faux-whisper, leaning across Jill to inform me of this story. I found a smile pulling at my lips and shook my head slightly. It was quite nice, actually. Just sitting and having drinks and a little banter.
“Aren’t we all?” I returned.
“Speaking of James Potter.” Jill muttered quietly, nodding towards the door where the entire Potter family seemed to be filing through the door: James, Albus, Liz/Beth, Lily with a guy I recognised from the wedding, with the added addition of Harry and Ginny Potter.
“Christ, it’s a regular family outing.” I muttered, turning back to face the bar very quickly and hoping that James didn’t know me well enough to recognise me from my back.
“James is the only one without an extra, Grace, you’re still in there!” George said in a whisper that carried over to Hannah the bartender, who raised her eyebrows at me slightly.
“Leave her alone,” Jill said ordering yet another drink (my respect for her was increasing with every vodka and coke she seemed to drink like water), “Grace won’t come out with us again if you keep being such an idiot.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head slightly, “just say alcohol and I’ll probably be there.”
“Why did you agree to come out with us today, Grace? We were just about ready to stop asking.” George said, turning his curious gaze back to mine. Both him and Jill assessed me, both continually drinking their drinks – and how fast they were drinking was somewhat alarming. And Cherry had accused me of having a drink problem.
“That’s probably why,” I said, shrugging my shoulders slightly, “I’m a bit... self destructive.”
“You should definitely have been coming, then,” Jill said, “I’ve never felt so destroyed after that rendition of ‘I’ll be your seeker’ from George...”
I smiled slightly uncomfortably at that, finishing my first glass and suddenly wanting to rip my hair out of my skull and explain everything. “No, I mean...I’m really messed up.”
“You don’t seem too crazy.” George said.
“Did Cherry not tell you why I had that week of work?” I asked curiously, “I mean, I thought Max or Dave would have told everyone...”
“What?” Jill asked. “There was an actual reason? I just thought Max liked you and let you have a holiday.”
“Erm yeah, in fairness that was an accident... I er, I ate blue pizza. I’d been trying to clean my oven, see, and then I just... I accidentally consumed more than the advised amount of Oven Cleaner Potion,” George and Jill seemed to blink at me simultaneously, “anyway,” I continued, feeling a slight smile pull at the corner of my lips, “my whole family was convinced I’d tried to do myself in, I got put into this rehab ward and...”
“Because you accidentally ate blue pizza?”
“Yes,” I muttered, smiling properly now, “and no one would believe that it was an accident,” George let out a shaky laugh, shaking his at me with an expression of incredulity, “not even James, really, and he should have know better than that, considering he was the one who helped me when I accidentally apparated on top of my kitchen cabinets. Then of course, I fell on him and...”
“Grace,” George said, eyes wide and smile widening by the second, “slow down, you apparated on top of your kitchen cabinets?”
“I was in a rush to escape playing monopoly with Cherry and then -”
Jill folded her fingers neatly over her vodka and coke and was slightly shaking with laugher. She exchanged a look with George. They both looked back to me (and it was only now that I was out with them that I began to realise the extent of their bizarre friendship – normal, sane George and the kooky Jill going out for drinks, bitching about colleagues and winding up singing karaoke – it seemed so damn normal) and then they were both laughing out right.
“You need to write this shit down,” George said appreciatively, “it’s solid gold.”
“After the Snogalicious thing, I helped with the photography a bit too, because I’m a mouthy bitch who can’t keep her mouth shut, and then... he sent me one of the photos and his phone number and, I attacked his owl with an ink well and then he had to ask why it was blue and... then my muggle neighbour -”
I tailed off, because George had already been reduced to giggles – legitimate and actually giggles – where as Jill favoured the silent, breathless laughter. I expected the alcohol they’d consumed had something to do with that, but I almost wanted to please them. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I suddenly decided to disclose this information, but suddenly I wanted to make these people laugh. I wanted to be a part of their strange, perfect friendship.
“You haven’t proved you’re messed up, Grace.” Jill said when she’d finally recovered and had ordered us all drinks (doubles for her and me, and something strong and smoking for George which he drank in one).
“I don’t believe a word of it.” George said, ordering another drink and nudging Jill with his elbow – she sent him an irritated look and rolled her eyes.
“No, honestly,” I implored, finishing half of my drink in one go, “I haven’t cried in ten years.”
“You definitely need to see George sing Karaoke.” Jill giggled and then they were off again, laughing madly – Jill silently, George loudly – sending each other meaningful looks and exchanging this easy banter.
“I’m going outside for a fag.” I told them, pulling my jacket off the bar stool and slipping it over my bare arms. I was putting on weight again. I’d lost some recently due to lack of interest in food, but that had returned again. And so was the weight.
Walking past the table where both James and Liz/Beth sat was difficult – partially because I didn’t want them to look up at the wrong moment and notice me and partially because I did want them to.
I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was feeling. It was hard to judge and get a hold of properly. On the one hand, the depression seemed to have loosened its hold over my stomach, but at the same time I was become acutely aware that it existed. It had been easy enough to talk myself into believing that I was okay, really, that this way of not really feeling and just existing was just part of my character – but with James sticking his nose in and reminding me of just how acute feelings could be before then walking out again because I wasn’t about to make the decision he wanted me too – I was beginning to lose a grip on who exactly I was supposed to be.
There was that old dream – of friends, of a husband and of children. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d ever wanted that. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing, really. But things seemed to me moving in the right direction.
I stood facing the wall which led to Diagon Alley, wondering benignly whether I’d even brought my wand today. I hated magic. I really did. Not least because on the occasions I did attempt to use it, mostly out of laziness, it went wrong and something catastrophic went wrong. Magic could have saved Heddy. Magic could have saved Hope. It didn’t.
I lit the fag clumsily, feeling the alcohol begin to roll over my mind as I inhaled. I was so accustomed to the way smoking increased the effects of alcohol that I could barely feel it. I could barely feel a lot of things, these days.
“Gracie,” James said, stepping out into the courtyard and leaning against the wall next to me, “you okay?”
“Yeah.” I breathed, pulling one arm around me and leaning more against the wall. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have another argument with James. I wasn’t sure if I had another argument in me. After the argument with James, I hadn’t been able to muster up more than just nodding and shrugging at Max – having so many people mad at me was exhausting, especially when a part of myself was still trying to filter through everything to ascertain which part of me was still self destructing and which part of me was on the right track.
Everything was too conflicted to make much sense. My own feelings were so deeply buried within myself that it was much too hard to work out which were the red herrings I’d planted for myself, which were the diversions used to stop myself and why I’d let myself get so distant from everything in the first place. I thought I hated England, yet James seemed to think I loved Whitby.
I did love Whitby, even I couldn’t deny that.
“Who were you with?” James asked quietly.
“Work colleagues.” I said quietly. I looked at him. I hoped he understood the significance of that: I didn’t want a congratulations, or anything, just an acknowledgment that I was at least trying to move in the right direction would be nice. A small I can see that you’re trying, maybe. But for all James knew I regularly went out with my work colleagues. It’s not like he’d know, really, how much I isolated myself.
Maybe he understood more than most other people because for some strange reason I’d let him in – whether it be because of his darn persistence or something else I couldn’t be sure. He knew I wasn’t okay, where as Max and all the other people in my life – as few as they were – seemed to think that I was doing okay. Cherry and Dave were different, instructed to keep an eye on me due to the fact that we were family and my Mum, well, she tried.
Was letting James understand a self destructive act, or a step in right direction? Or maybe it was something else entirely. I thought of my Mum: maybe James was my charity, letting him believe that I could be saved, that he could help me, that he could clear his guilt and change everything about me. You can’t fix people. They’re not machines.
“Sorry about last Monday.” James said quietly.
“Whatever.” I said, breathing in the cigarette smoking and closing my eyes. Smoking was so easy. Letting yourself fall apart – it was so simple, so self indulgent, so difficult to recover from. It was difficult to remember, with my shoulders hunched up from the February chill, why I’d brought that first packet of cigarettes. Because you wanted to fuck up. You wanted to know how it would feel to disintegrate. Because you knew it would make you die faster.
“I should have just left it.”
“Probably,” I agreed, dropping the finished cigarette to the floor and immediately lighting a second, “you know me better than that, James. You shouldn’t have tried to get in there first.”
“You shouldn’t smoke so much.” James said distractedly, watching as I finished squashing out the first under my foot.
“You know what doesn’t make sense to me?” I asked. “You’ve let me smoke in front of you a hundred times. You’re supposed to be an international Quidditch player James; surely you’re actually supposed to have a degree of respect for your health – I’m sure second hand smoke is against your health plan.”
“Yeah,” James said, “strictly forbidden, guess that makes you special?”
“Why try and muck everything up?” I retorted, purposefully breathing away from him.
“You’re mad at me.”
“I’m mad at everything.” I returned.
“That’s a good start,” James quipped, “aw, come on Gracie. Don’t be so cold.”
“You know I take the easy way out,” I returned, “you know that. I left England for nine years because I thought it would be easier. It was, actually. And so you made up that stupid breakfast excuse because you wanted to make yourself the easy option. The first option. Plan backfired, considering you ended up getting mad and storming off but, honestly?”
“I didn’t think of it like that.” James said, stepping away from the wall and hovering some point between the wall and the door back into the Leaky Cauldron. “I never thought of it like that, I swear Grace. I wasn’t even going to bring it up... I just, I don’t want to lose you.”
“I think I’m beginning to understand the single thing.” I returned scornfully.
“Look, if you think this Max thing is a good idea then... well, I guess I’ll just have to stick that.”
“That’s big of you.”
“You’re my best friend, Gracie,” James muttered miserably, “and, really, I’m also as bad as you are when it comes to people. I drove everyone who isn’t a blood relative or on my team away years ago, when I had that breakdown about Heddy.”
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I don’t,” I said irritably, “look, James, I’m not a good ‘best friend’. Nor would I be a particularly good girlfriend, so I think you should just sod off.”
“No,” James said, “I’m not going to. Look, I’m not going to lie to you – I’m slightly drunk and family things always make me feel a little perversely sentimental, but it’s probably about time I didn’t get what I wanted. I know I’m a git. I’m still here.”
It had started to snow. The wet sludgy sort that had put out my cigarette before I’d really registered that it had began. James looked so absurdly vulnerable that I almost wanted to accept his declaration – he was no angel. Neither of us were particularly well put together and mentally secure people, perhaps, and I’d never considered that he’d want to talk about Heddy and me for any other reason than to fix me before.
“Thanks.” I said, dropping the cigarette and pushing back inside to join George and Jill. I wouldn’t mention me being messed up again, not unless they asked about it, but I might volunteer a few more of those stupid stories. I might join them again next week. I might even enjoy myself.
James wasn’t a sensible plan. James was, somehow, incredibly, my friend (best friend?). But I couldn’t date him. I couldn’t be in a relationship with him. Not right now.
But, he was still there.
Although I had no skill no patience with children, they did tend to form a bizarre connection with me. Sprog one and two were very much besotted with me despite the fact that I’d never learnt their names, and little baby Noah seemed to thoroughly deluded into thinking that the slightly confused expression on my face had been designed to entertain him.
Instead, I was fixated on the fact that something that had been so small and an awful shade of pink had become so plump – it looked like someone had fixed a foot pump to his back and puffed up his cheeks until they were so very rounded. He had chubby little fingers too. The biggest eyes I’d ever seen on a living creature (and I’d once caught site of Professor Trelawney walking around the astronomy tower when I was trying to find where James had hidden all of my underwear) and was very heavy and very warm.
Cherry was sitting in one of the arm chairs opposite and was watching her small chubby baby as if it was something marvellous and wonderful.
“He likes you.” Cherry smiled.
There had been similar conversations every time I’d been coerced into visiting. The baby had been shoved into my arms almost immediately and then Dave, Cherry and whichever of my other relatives were darkening their doorstep at that current moment in time would watch me with a bizarre sense of awe.
I poked Noah’s stomach – not, obviously, in a way which would cause it harm, but in a way which still satisfied my curiosity on exactly how wobbly the chubby baby felt. Noah looked delighted at this and the stream of gargling and burbling that followed were enough to confuse me any further.
It was as thought with a baby in my arms they could pretend that I wasn’t such a damn failure.
Although my Mother had assured me after the first of these visits that I shouldn’t get any ideas, because having a baby would no doubt kill me. She’d said something about getting post-natal possession and the baby going into care after I had a mental breakdown and at that moment I’d been half tempted to tell her I’d gotten my ovaries snipped to piss her off. Instead, I’d told her the only reason I’d ever be a mother was to prove that I could do better job than she did – and then neither of us had spoken to each other until I’d rang her up after writing that damn thing about Hope.
“How’s Max been at work?” Cherry asked.
“Not too terrible,” I shrugged, thinking back to Max spending the last three nights in my flat – something which would have been unusual even before the whole James incident, so I assumed that I’d been forgiven for the whole James issue. Not, as I found, I was particularly bothered anyway.
Max was a convenience. He was sex, dinners out, quite nice treatment at work (except when I appeared in the newspapers with some other guys, in which it was God awful treatment at work) and a way to fight off the loneliness. I’d known that. James, to at least some level, seemed to know that.
That was all I was capable of, anyway. As it turns out, all my talk of needing to find a husband and a baby and a job and the only thing I really think I was ready for was the latter. I was too messed up and mixed up for a real relationship. And that was okay.
“He’s probably relieved not to have me around,” Cherry said, taking a deep breath and glancing at the ceiling, “I really can’t stand that man.”
“Really?” I questioned sarcastically, wondering how I could best get rid of the baby. The thing was a strange and uncomfortabe wriggling weight in my lap. “I think I need a smoke.”
“Ah.” Dave said, swooping into the room and snatching Noah out of my arms. No one wanted the smoker next to the baby – true fact.
When I came back inside after my cigarette, Dave and Cherry were still chatting about work; Noah in Cherry’s arms as Dave sat on the edge of the arm chair and looked down at them both.
“I was just saying how well you’ve done at the Prophet,” Dave said, “cup of tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee, please.” I said with a forced smile. This was the second time I’d been out of the house on an almost sociable occasional this month and it wasn’t even Valentine’s Day yet. I’d been out for dinner twice with Max, too, and had even been about to pick up the phone and invite James over before I thought better of it.
“He’s right, you know,” Cherry said with one of her sugar sweet, mother smiles, “I was worried when I saw you that first day.”
I nodded stiffly. I still felt uncomfortable around Cherry, even after all this time. More so now she had this baby thing. It made her an unknown.
“Scared I was going to walk in and start causing havoc?” I muttered, only half feeling indignant over the assumption. It wasn’t like I hadn’t walked into the office and immediately tried flirting with everyone (mostly because this is the one sort of social interaction that I was actually quite adept in, even though it usually ended in humiliation).
“I didn’t know what Max would make of you.” Cherry said, making a face at the mention of his name.
“Why do you hate him so much?” I asked, resuming my seat from before and feeling strangely displaced again. I wanted to talk to James.
“He tried it on with me,” Cherry said irritably, glancing down at her engagement ring, “figured I was just some stupid snogalicious girl.”
“I think he forgot that I’d already met his wife.” She added shrewdly.
The words took a few seconds to sink through my deliberately thick skin and when they did that familiar numbness crept up in my stomach. I didn’t feel anything. Barely reacted. For a split second, I felt slightly disconnected from reality and then I was back.
And I don’t think I was even surprised.
This chapter didn't turn out it exactly how I was expecting it to turn out (at least, I don't think). I was having trouble with it and then ended up writing the whole thing in one sitting. Still, I hope you guys enjoyed the reapperance of Jill (thank LWG especially, cause she's been quite nice to Jill...) and George. I'd missed them. AND THE BIG NEWS. Well, everyone knew right? Thanks for all your lovely reviews through SG month! It's now onto Muggle Studies month/ All the Abstract Nouns month (check them out) and... yeah. I love you all quite a lot.
Next time: Grace + fake ilness + rebounding. Yup. It's all going on here.
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