Chapter 9 : Vernon Dursley
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While waiting for James to finish his Order shift, Lily contemplated the benefits and drawbacks of looking presentable for her dinner with her sister and Vernon Dursley. On the one hand, they were going to an upscale restaurant, The Adamantine Room, and she didn't want to make a fool of herself. On the other, she was still annoyed with Petunia, and embarrassing her by association was not exactly unappealing. So, Lily spent at least ten minutes standing in front of the skinny, spotted mirror in her bedroom, trying to decide whether she should change out of her blue dress and into a sweat suit. In the end, she flopped down onto her bed face-first in frustration, and stayed in that position until she heard James knocking on the door twenty minutes later.
The front of her dress was wrinkled and the sheets had left red creases on her face.
Good, she thought darkly.
As was generally the case, James seemed to be in a better mood than her. He had the distinct advantage of not being related to Petunia, which meant that he was not dreading this dinner. In fact, he seemed to find the entire thing exciting.
He stepped across the threshold and kissed her in greeting. She immediately fixed a scowl on her face, and he laughed.
"It won't be that bad," he said, reading her mind.
"We'll see," Lily replied, completely unconvinced. "I—what are you wearing?"
It had taken her a few moments to notice that he was wearing long black dress robes. From the waist up, they looked more or less like a Muggle suit jacket, but it continued down toward his feet in one piece of fabric, flapping around his ankles.
"What?" James asked innocently, looking down at his torso. "I thought we were going somewhere fancy."
"But James, we're going to a Muggle restaurant," Lily said. "You can't wear dress robes!"
He looked momentarily puzzled, but then an expression of understanding settled on his face.
"Oh. Right. I didn't really think about that."
For a few seconds, all that buzzed through Lily's head was what a disaster this was already, and she buried her face in her hands. But then, the whole thing just seemed funny, so she laughed.
"I don't have any nice Muggle clothes," James said sheepishly. Lily continued to laugh as she dug around in her purse for her wand. "Should I just wear this anyway?"
"Well," Lily said, surveying his outfit a little more closely. The robes were a problem, but he did have black trousers on underneath them, so perhaps all wasn't lost. "Maybe if we just make some alterations..."
She raised her wand, and James eyed it warily.
"What do you mean?"
"Just...to make them not so long," Lily said innocently. Before he could protest further, she performed a non-verbal Severing Charm. He made a funny sort of squawk as the left side of his robes tore around the level of his hips. When she was done, the effect was not one of marked improvement; the robes looked more like a suit jacket, but still hung loosely around his arms and torso. The new hem she had created was also slightly uneven in places.
"Do I look all right?" James asked. His face was filled with such nervous earnestness that she couldn't bring herself to tell him the truth. And it didn't really matter, anyway—she had a feeling that this evening was going to be an uphill battle no matter what.
"Better," she said, not meeting his eyes as she stowed her wand back in her purse. "I suppose we ought to get going."
The reservation had been for seven o'clock, and it was two minutes past seven when they arrived at the door of The Adamantine Room. The restaurant was decorated rather traditionally—lots of dark panelling, crushed red velvet, and fussy flower arrangements—which didn't surprise Lily, since it had been Petunia’s choice. Subdued classical music filled the dimly-lit room. It was the sort of place that tried to be as refined and civilized as possible, and Lily felt completely out-of-place. One glance at James told her that he felt the same way.
"May I help you?"
The maître d' reminded Lily forcibly of Argus Filch, though much better dressed and coiffed. She saw him take in James' strange attire, eyes bulging slightly.
"Er, we're meeting two people here for dinner," Lily said hesitantly. "The table should be under the name ‘Vernon Dursley.’"
The maître d' managed to harrumph without even making a sound, and did not look like he believed that they were legitimate customers of his establishment. He looked up from his ledger of reservations after several long moments with a disappointed expression on his face.
"Very well," he said. "If you'll just follow me..."
They entered the dining room, which was a sea of crystal and candlelight. Despite the fact that she would rather be having dinner with a dragon, Lily's curiosity about Vernon Dursley was getting the best of her. She scanned the room, finally locating her sister at the table furthest from them, wearing a pink dress, her blond hair pulled back severely. Across from her was a man who, unbelievably, managed to fulfill every preconceived notion that Lily had possessed about him.
Vernon Dursley was a barrel-chested man with a round, red face and an impeccably trimmed mustache. His brown suit was tailored as well as it could be to his round body, and as she and James approached the table, Vernon looked at his watch with an air of clear impatience.
"Mr Dursley, I believe your guests have arrived," the maître d' said, phrasing it more as a question than a statement.
When Petunia looked up at Lily and James, she had a momentary spasm before shooting up out of her seat. Vernon followed suit, and in that moment, Lily felt absolutely certain that this dinner was going to go terribly.
"Hello," Petunia said awkwardly, her nose twitching.
"Hi," Lily replied. Her arms suddenly felt like the most unnecessary appendages ever, hanging down limply at her sides.
Vernon Dursley cleared his throat.
"This is my sister, Lily," Petunia said to him. Vernon stuck out his meaty hand to her, and they shook tersely. His hand was squishy and slightly clammy. No one seemed to know what to say next—except James, since he seemed to be impervious to awkward social situations.
"I'm Lily's boyfriend, James," he said, offering his own hand.
His loose sleeve hung down; Vernon eyed it like it might be a poisonous snake. Vernon barely touched his palm to James' before taking his seat again. One of James' eyebrows shot up as he shared a glance with Lily, and she dreaded to think what was going on his mind. From her experience, James tended to react badly to people who were less than friendly with him. A foreboding feeling had settled itself in her chest, and she started to wonder if it would have been better not to invite James after all.
They suffered through a couple minutes of polite small talk as a group—Lily hadn't realized it was possibly to make the day's weather into a four-minute conversation—before the waiter came by their table to take their drink orders. Petunia asked for sparking water, Lily for the same; Vernon made a telling request for scotch and soda, and James—
"Could I have a firewhiskey, please?"
Lily wished she could hide under the table for the rest of the dinner. Petunia's face had gone red as a tomato, and Vernon’s expression was one of deep suspicion. James, however, had no idea of what he had just done.
"Pardon me?" the waiter asked.
"Ogden's Old, if you—" James stopped midsentence as Lily nudged his ankle pointedly with her foot. She looked at him, eyes widened, trying to communicate with him silently. "Er—actually, I'll just have the same thing as he is."
If James had thought this would endear him to Vernon, he had been wrong. Vernon seemed to take it as a personal slight that someone would copy his drink selection, and Lily, sensing a further dive in the quality of the evening, tried to divert the conversation.
"So, Vernon, Petunia tells me that you...er, sell drills."
Vernon looked slightly mollified to be talking about something related to himself, and he went on for several minutes about the exciting world of drill sales—in his vocabulary, "exciting" meant things like upward mobility, secure benefits, and generous commissions. As he talked, a grin crawled slowly onto James' face, and Lily had to nudge him under the table again. All she wanted was to make it through this evening.
"I never knew that there were people that sold drills," James remarked, when Vernon appeared to be finished. Lily was quite sure that he had no idea what a drill was, either.
"Yes, well, it's an essential industry," Vernon said gruffly. As James smirked, and Vernon seemed to become even more suspicious of him.
When the waiter returned to take their food orders, James managed to avoid any further missteps, but the wait for their meals was excruciating. They all seemed to be aware of the fact that they had almost nothing in common, and it was hard to find safe topics of conversation. Vernon seemed to dislike James more with every moment they sat across the table from each other.
"Name's Potter, is it?" he inquired. "I don't suppose you have relatives in Surrey, do you?"
"Not that I'm aware of," James answered. "Although—"
"Are you from Surrey, then?” Lily asked, quickly interrupting whatever smart remark she was sure James had been about to make. On the one hand, it was lucky that Vernon answered by launching into a five-minute long monologue about being brought up in a town called Little Whinging in Surrey, and how he still thought it was the most respectable sort of place to live—quiet, clean, with sensible traffic planning—but on the other, James’ expression of amusement just grew more and more pronounced.
Vernon suddenly got an alarmingly soppy expression on his face as he looked over at Petunia.
“I’ve told Pet that it’s the perfect place to raise a family,” he said, and Petunia blushed and donned a similarly maudlin expression. Lily was staring at them, feeling embarrassed on their behalf, until she was startled out of her thoughts by James, who was making a choked sort of noise that barely disguised his laughter.
“Are you all right?” Lily asked him pointedly. He made a final, exaggerated noise that sounded like he was trying to expel his brain through his throat, and looked up at the rest of him. His eyes were watering slightly.
“Couldn’t be better,” he said. Vernon looked as though he was moments away from storming out.
Lily exchanged a brief look with Petunia, and for once, she knew exactly what her sister was thinking—what they were both thinking, in fact. Why on earth couldn’t these two men behave themselves? And then, as suddenly as it had come upon both of them, Petunia looked away, and the moment—rare proof that they were, in fact, sisters—vanished.
“What was that you were saying about pavement, Vernon?” James asked, and this time, he ignored Lily’s foot as she pressed it on his ankle warningly.
Civility interrupted the conversation for a few moments as their meals arrived, but all the while, Vernon was eyeing James suspiciously.
“I don’t expect it’s something your kind would understand,” Vernon finally said in a gruff voice, as he took his knife to his steak aggressively.
“You might be surprised,” James said. Tension rippled around the table. Vernon set down his knife and fork on his plate with a clatter.
“You drive, then?”
“All the time, and very well, I might add,” James replied. Lily had no idea what he was on about; as far as she knew, James had never touched a car, let alone driven one.
Vernon huffed incredulously. “What kind of car do you drive?”
“Oh, were you talking about cars?” James asked, smirking. Vernon’s face started to turn purple, and Lily kicked James again under the table.
He ignored her.
“Of course I was bloody talking about cars,” Vernon snapped. “What else would I be talking about?”
Petunia put a hand on Vernon’s forearm. “Vernon—”
Lily suddenly realized what James was going to say. “James—”
“I thought you meant broomsticks,” James replied. Petunia squeaked; Vernon reeled backwards, his chair creaking; and Lily closed her eyes briefly, resigning herself to the fact that there was no saving this evening. “Have you heard of the Nimbus series? No? I’ve got a Nimbus 1500—just came out two years ago. It’s top of the line, goes up to one-hundred-and-seven miles an hour.”
Petunia and Vernon appeared to be truly flummoxed at this, and neither of them even tried to respond. James tucked in, starting with his boiled potatoes.
“So,” Lily said, with the trepidation of walking into a war zone. “Petunia told me that the two of you met at work, Vernon.”
“Yes,” he said, but as soon as the word was out of his mouth, he turned on James again. “What is it that you do, exactly?”
“Me?” James asked. The way he asked it, you never would have known that he had been instigating an argument the entire time. “Er, I’m actually doing some...volunteer work right now.”
At this, Vernon smiled in a smug way. He picked up his knife and fork again, spearing a large piece of steak and chewing it furiously.
“I suppose your sort has to live off of unemployment benefits,” he said, waving his knife in the air. Lily noticed the eyes of a few of the other diners flit in their direction: Vernon was talking rather loudly. “Since it’s not as if you could hold a job, with your...peculiarities.”
Up until that moment, James had been having a laugh at Vernon’s expense, but the tables turned immediately and dramatically. His expression hardened, and there was no quick and clever comeback ready to fall from his lips. He put down his own utensils with a kind of restrained fury, and Lily observed in the moment before he spoke that a different James—a James who was younger, who had a different life than the one he led now—had hardly known the meaning of restraint. She could hardly find the strength not to pull out her wand and start hurling jinxes at her sister’s fiancé.
“We can hold jobs just fine,” he said evenly. Vernon snorted. “My parents had jobs their entire lives, and they saved enough money that I’ve been able to do what I want, instead of going to some mindless job every day to make ends meet.”
Lily, who knew James so well, could tell that there was no joke or jibe in his statement this time, but Vernon seemed uncertain.
“You people have money?”
“Of course we have money,” James retorted, his face reddening with anger.
“And where do you keep it all, then?” Vernon asked, sounding like a police interrogator who had just found the weak point of their suspect’s alibi.
“A bank. The same place you do, although I don’t know how you keep anything safe without goblins in charge of it all.”
The coupling of a Muggle bank and the word “goblins” in the same sentence seemed to enrage Vernon more than anything else James had said so far. He became near apoplectic, and it took him several moments to form words.
“Not in mybank, you don’t! I think I would know if there were—well—blighters like you waltzing around my bank!”
Lily tried to make eye contact with Petunia again, but her sister had her blue eyes fixed on the tablecloth in front of her. The night was beyond salvaging, but Lily really wanted to make it out of the restaurant without James breaching the International Statute of Secrecy.
“Well, I think we’re just going to go,” she said in a strangled sort of voice, but no one at the table appeared to have heard her.
“No, not your bank,” James shot back at Vernon. “We have our own bank, called Gringotts.”
“And I suppose it’s located at the corner of Malarkey Street and Twaddle Drive, is it? A few blocks down from Imaginary Insurance?”
She would have laughed at this if the entire situation weren’t so depressing. She knew her sister was dull and hated magic, but how on earth could she be engaged to someone who was so unbelievably pompous and narrow-minded? Looking across the table at Vernon’s red face, his mustache twitching with indignation, and at Petunia’s tacit acceptance of his behaviour, everything became tragically and pathetically clear.
Had she really thought that living with her sister could somehow repair their relationship? For years, she had blamed their estrangement on Petunia’s stubbornness—and that was at the heart of it, to be sure—but she now realized that her years away at Hogwarts had made the gulf between them too large to bridge. She didn’t know her sister at all. The foolishness and the finality of it all made tears start to prick at her eyes.
“No, it’s on Diagon Alley,” James said matter-of-factly.
This seemed to be the last straw for Vernon, who stood up out of his chair with such force that everything on the table in front of him rattled and clanged.
“I won’t sit here and be ridiculed,” Vernon pronounced, sticking out his chest. “I simply will not.”
Lily looked over at Petunia, whose own wide-eyed gaze was fixed on Vernon’s towering figure. There was something like admiration in the look she was giving him.
“I think we ought to go,” Vernon said to Petunia, less a suggestion than an order. Lily knew before her sister got up from her seat, before her eyes flitted across the table and betrayed the small bit of embarrassment in her heart, that it was an order Petunia would have no objection to following.
With one last insult added to injury, Vernon took out his wallet and left money to pay the bill, his suspicious expression making it clear that he thought James and Lily would be incapable of taking care of it on their own. This was the last thing Lily really paid attention to, since the tears had continued amassing an army—and no matter what else happened, she refused to let Petunia see her crying because of this. She stared down at the table, concentrating on her barely-eaten chicken leg and nothing else around her. As the moments passed, her vision became more and more blurry from tears.
It was James’ voice that told her it was safe to resurface.
“What an unbelievable tosser.”
She tried to look up at him and nod in agreement, but the tears overran her words. She tried not to let James or anyone else in the restaurant see, out of some silly sense of pride, but this was not graceful or dignified crying. She choked on shallow breaths, sniffled loudly, and had to wipe sheets of salty tears from her cheekbones with her once perfectly-pressed white napkin.
“Oh, Lily, don’t let him bother you,” James said, rather unfeelingly. He was clearly still bothered by the conversation, which made his suggestion all the more difficult to take seriously. And the truth was, it wasn’t Vernon who had upset her. Petunia’s intention to marry a grumpy bigot had upset her. James’ unwillingness to swallow his pride for the sake of having a normal evening had upset her. It was the people that she expected more of who had made her cry, not the drill salesman with a stupid mustache, whose bad manners she had been at least somewhat prepared for.
James seemed to understand when he reached over to take her hand, and she yanked it away. She didn’t want to be like her sister, blinded by love to James’ mistakes. Vernon was a tosser—but perhaps he would have been less of one if James hadn’t goaded him.
“You heard the things he was saying, didn’t you?” James muttered to her. “I couldn’t just sit there—”
“Yes, you could have!” Lily interrupted him, her voice thick with tears. “You could have just sat there, but you didn’t want to. You never do, not even when it’s something that matters.”
She heard him sigh. After a moment, he suggested that they go outside. Lily dabbed at her eyes one last time and agreed, partially because the maître d' had started circling their table like a hawk.
With the sun gone down, the late September air had taken on a slight chill. The skin on Lily’s arms turned to gooseflesh as they settled just beyond the circle of light thrown by a nearby lamp post. She crossed her arms, both to protect from cold and to make her displeasure clear.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset,” James began, apparently one in the same mind with her. “The way he was talking to us—‘you people’ and ‘your kind’, and all that—I thought you’d have been glad that I was standing up for us!”
“Don’t try to twist this into you being all noble and protective,” Lily shot back. “That entire conversation was just fun for you, like the kind of rubbish you used to do at school!”
She regretted saying it almost immediately, seeing the hurt that crashed over his face.
“Fun? That’s what you think that was for me?” he asked. The next moment, something seemed to shut down in his brain, because he turned on his heel and started storming away, as if further words had failed him. Lily, half-indignant, teetered on the brink of Disapparating and leaving him to sulk on his own, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. As much as she hated chasing him down when she was the one who was angry, she hated the idea of letting him go even more.
They walked for several minutes in uneasy silence. Lily didn’t want to be the one to apologize, and she knew James was thinking the exact same thing. Someone was going to have to give in first; James was often the one to adopt this role, but he seemed well and truly angry this time.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she finally admitted. “I just wanted the evening to go well—”
James stopped short, so that Lily almost walked right past him.
“Do you know that I talked to Remus earlier this week, and he told me he quit the Order because he can’t find a job?”
Although she didn’t see exactly what that had to do with what had happened at dinner, Lily’s stomach squirmed with sympathy. She knew James had been concerned about Remus’ decision to leave the Order, but she had never entertained the possibility that it would be for such an unfortunate reason.
“Why—why not?” she stammered. James gave her a meaningful look as a middle-aged couple passed by them. When it came to Remus, there was generally a very short list of possible causes for his problems, it seemed.
“I didn’t mean to ruin the dinner,” James said, his eyes darting back-and-forth behind his glasses a little uncomfortably. “I just—well, he started saying that stuff about unemployment, and it got to me. He might think it’s a joke, but there are people who really have to live with that kind of thing, and I didn’t want to just sit there.”
Lily had no words to offer in reply, at least not right away. Remus’ struggle was one thing to process, and made her own worries seem so small in comparison. James had evidently experienced a similar revelation. She felt terrible for Remus, and bad for assuming the worst of James. The voice that was her guilt wondered if there would ever be a time when she wouldn’t.
She was starting to feel the tears returning. James swore under his breath and shoved his hands into his pockets. He had apparently taken her silence as continued remonstrance, for his next words were conciliatory.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’ll try to patch things up with him,” he said begrudgingly. Lily was about to tell him not to worry, that it didn’t matter—because, all things considered, it seemed unlikely that Vernon Dursley would ever give someone like James half a chance—when another voice joined their conversation.
It took Lily a moment to place the voice, but then it all made sense.
“You brought that with you?” she asked, her words squeezing past the large lump in her throat.
“Yeah,” James replied unapologetically, digging into the pocket of his black trousers. After a few seconds, he drew out a small, rectangular object that Lily knew to be one of the two-way mirrors that he and Sirius carried around. This little mirror—which James only had to speak into for his face and voice to appear on Sirius’ mirror, and vice versa—had interrupted many an afternoon and evening that she and James would have otherwise spent alone. The fact that he had brought it into a Muggle restaurant, of all places, was both mind-boggling and exactly what she should have expected.
She grabbed James’ forearm and tugged him towards the nearest alleyway, not wanting any passersby to see him talking into a mirror, or, even worse, hear it talking back to him.
Sirius’ voice was insistent, but then, it nearly always was. She crossed her arms, annoyed that Sirius was interrupting such a serious conversation, probably over trivial Quidditch news or some other rubbish like that.
“What’s going on?” James asked, the urgency in his friend’s voice mirrored in his own. James was not an anxious person in the slightest, so hearing him speak this way, Lily knew he must have heard something in Sirius’ voice that she hadn’t.
Lily couldn’t see Sirius’ face in the mirror as he replied, but there was no mistaking what he said.
“You have to get over here.”
“Over where?” James asked.
“To the bloody Lazy Harp—the pub,” Sirius’ voice emanated from the mirror. Now that she listened more closely, Lily heard the slight breathlessness in his voice, and an edge of panic. “I was on watch, and this crowd—it’s some kind of riot!”
“Is it Voldemort?” James pressed.
There was a pause that lasted a beat too long.
“Sorry, I don’t know—just get over here, will you?”
Whatever was going on, it was enough to make Sirius sound unusually preoccupied. Lily looked up at James, who was stowing the mirror away.
“Do you think he told the Order?” she asked.
“I hope so,” James said. He fixed Lily with an apologetic expression. “I’m sorry, Lily, but I have to go. We can deal with this tomorrow, can’t we?”
“What do you mean, you have to go?” Lily asked, her arms uncrossing and falling to her sides in defiance. “I’m coming with you!”
James’ eyebrows contracted.
“I’m part of the Order, too, aren’t I?”
“I’m going.” She fixed James with as steely a gaze as she could muster. His objections were sure to be many and, in her opinion, irrelevant. It was too dangerous, to be sure. Seeking out a mob of Voldemort’s supporters was a bad idea in light of the fact that she was Muggle-born. The Order hadn’t assigned her to surveillance. James had to go because Sirius was his best friend, but Lily was under no such obligation. There would be other times for her to get involved, but not now.
Of course, all of these excuses came down to love’s one desperate wish, and she saw it flash in James’ eyes: I don’t want you to die. It was harder to ignore when you had already been so violently confronted by death—when you knew that it was always there, waiting for just one misstep. She knew he was thinking back to that night when they had been captured, and it was strange how one event could be so fundamentally different in the minds of two people.
James looked back and feared that history would repeat itself. Lily, on the other hand, almost welcomed it: a chance to do better, to be better.
He still looked hesitant.
“We’re wasting time,” she pointed out. “Sirius needs—us.”
The last word was like a new pair of shoes that needed wearing-in.
James’ shoulders slumped in resignation.
“Fine,” he said. “Take my arm.”
She felt a little flutter in her stomach as she did, thinking about how familiar it really was, and wondering if perhaps she ought to be more careful about what she wished for.
Author's Note: Again, if you have an extra few moments to spare, I'd really love to hear your thoughts in a review!
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