The year of the autobiography coincided with what my Dad liked to call Uncle James’s midlife crisis. Mum usually labelled it as his midlife crisis. Later, it became my own preserved piece of life and the story book of my parent’s marriage – Uncle James narrated things differently compared to my father. He pinned more things to paper than my Dad was willing to let on; about the miscarriage and that time they broke up, just for two weeks, and how Mum told Dad she’d say yes to a proposal and Dad still took over a year to get round to it.
At the time, I loved books. I thought authors were mostly magical – more magical than witches and wizards, generally – and the idea that James could write a whole book by himself was nothing short of incredible. He told me about it first (at that point, I was his favourite niece; although the competition was slightly less than minimal) and it became one of our little secretsand sometimes he’d sneak me little slips of parchment with tales I didn’t quite understand, or I’d listen outside doors to attempt to intrude on these bits of my parent’s life that I wasn’t supposed to be partial too.
Jack and Adam were eleven and were going to leave for Hogwarts in the autumn. I was eight years old. Aunty Eleanor was on husband number two point five. Mum’s hair had all grown back and she was back to work. James was ‘perilously close to forty’ and Dad got his first grey hair.
It was an interesting year, all things considered.
“It's my autobiography," James said cheerfully, "EEFFJP for short."
“It sounds like something you'd yell if someone dropped something on your foot."
"Isn't that the quota for James Potter?" Mum put in, rolling her eyes.
“James,” Dad said, “you seemed to have mixed up the word excitement with excrement here.”
“Easily done.” James shrugged.
“No one’s actually going to publish this, are they?” Mum asked under her breath.
"Probably," Dad conceded, rolling his eyes, "excrement is likely more appropriate though."
“That’s the quota for James Potter.”
Uncle James never entered a room quietly. Quite often, something might explode and Dad would press a hand against his forehead and Mum would either laugh and shake her head or glare at Dad, as if warning him not to give in this time.If James entered a room quietly, there was probably something wrong. And not just a little wrong, either, but really wrong.
Three months before the book came into being; James lost his position on the Quidditch team. The original draft of that piece of his autobiography contained quite a few words that Mum wouldn’t have been happy with me reading and his coach had been labelled a ‘STUPID BASTARD’ in really quite large font; but the second probably contained more emotional depth that anyone had really expected James to have. Even I had been quite surprised.
Then he’d been in that house for about an hour before anyone noticed his appearance – Adam and Jack had been giving a recital of a play they’d constructed about the woes of being twins (the moral being they should get double the amount of food) which Dad and Mum had been in hysterics about and I’d been reading a book about gingerbread men. We’d only noticed when James accidentally set fire to the ensuite by trying to light a cigarette after spilling something very flammable and also alcoholic.
Still, that day he entered my bedroom with “HOWS MY NUMBER ONE GIRL?” and then he threw himself onto the side of my bed, knocked his head off my daisy headboard and swore quite colourfully. The ‘don’t tell your Mum I said that’ wasn’t voiced; James and I were in understanding about that point. I thought if I told tales I’d probably lose my title as number one girl.
“I’m writing a book,” James grinned, “an autobiography – you know what the means, Ellen?”
“You write all about your life.”
“No, Ellen,” James grinned, “I’m going to write all about yourlife. You’re going to be in print, Ellen Potter! A superstar! Internationally hailed as the next best thing!”
“Next best after what?”
“Good question,” James said, stretching his legs out a little further and closing his eyes.
Later, I suspected he might have been a little drunk.
My brother is one of the most unflappably boring people on the planet. He met his now-wife Janet Potter, nee Harper, on the first day of school where they bonded over having irritating siblings (don’t know what Lily did to deserve that title, frankly). They were best friends for years. They started dating. They moved in together. They got married.
Honestly, if it wasn’t for me my brother wouldn’t have anything of note interesting to say about himself (bypassing, for now, the fact that our father defeated the infamous Lord Voldemort). I like to think he’s grossly thankful for what I add to his life but it seems, for the most part, he finds my intrusions into his little word quite irritating. Or at least, he puts up a good show of pretending to find it annoying.
“Maybe a project is a good idea,” Dad said over breakfast, grimacing slightly into his cup of tea and looking up to Mum hopefully, “he hasn’t done anything since the Quidditch business.”
“Can we read James’s book?” Adam said, looking up from where he was arranging Jack’s fry up into a smiley face at top speed before Jack returned from the bathroom. From an outsider, such an action probably seemed cute – but Jack hated anyone touching his food.
“No,” Mum said with a half smirk in Dad’s direction, “probably be a bit of an adult read.”
“Mature content.” Dad grinned.
“What do you mean?” Adam asked.
“Eurgh,” Mum said, pressing her stubby pink nails into her forehead “there’s probably a lot of… long words.”
“I thought you said Uncle James couldn’t write.”
“Well, there is that,” Dad agreed, finishing his tea in one last gulp before throwing his mug in the direction of the sink, “I’ll take the kids over to your sisters, Jan, if you need to get in early.”
“Aunty Eleanor’s again?”
“Yes Jack,” Mum said, “we’ve got to work to pay for your bacon. So eat up. Adam is that Jack’s breakfast you’re playing with?”
“How do you pronounce contraception? C-o-n-t-r-a-c-e-p-t-i-o-n.”
“Ellen?” Dad said quietly, glancing at Mum with a knowing expression that usually stemmed from something Uncle James had done (either unconsciously or willingly, the expression was usually the same). “Where have you read that word?”
“The extravagant eccentricities and – ”
“Oh, Merlin.” Dad closed his eyes for a minute. Mum paused for a split second and…
“- it said the gap between conception and contraception is usually as wide as –“
“- right,” Mum said, falsely bright, “any other bits of wisdom your Dad’s brother has been sharing with you?”
I always thought that Mum could look surprisingly terrifying if she was so inclined. I slammed my mouth shut and thought that’s done it. Whoops.
Most people learnt that life isn’t fair before I did. Probably a side effect of getting everything I ever wanted at little cost and having my brother clean up any of the mess I left behind. I learnt life wasn’t fair when Jan got sick. It seemed to obscure and wrong for my brother to have something as inconsiderate as cancer thrust into his life, yet all of a sudden their perfect little boring picture of domestic bliss was disrupted by all this horrible treatment and side effects and the possibility that things might not last forever.
It doesn’t matter how many times a Healer says ‘entirely treatable’ some things just really suck.
A mark of selfishness that I took it harder than they did. Jan cried for a bit and then seemed to get over it, solidly deciding that it wasn’t an issue beyond what she could deal with. Al was a rock. And my whole perception was in an odd state of avalanche: if Jan and Al weren’t guaranteed absolute happiness, then what else was there to faith in?
And Jan got better. They had twins. And Jan was pregnant again and she was sick again. And she got better again. And the state of things was eight years without cancer and with Ellen Potter instead.
A really quite an excellent replacement.
When I was six James apparated into my room and said, “Ellen,” and then he frowned and pressed his forehead against my bed and said, “Ellen, I mean it when I say you’re my top girl, yeah? You and your Mum and your Aunty Lily and Grandma Ginny. It’s a bit sad, actually. The only females that’ll stick me these are related to me. Or Jan and she doesn’t really stick with me by choice.”
“I thought,” I said, “you were dating a supermodel.”
James laughed at that.
“I’m entirely too old to be dating a supermodel.”
“It was in the paper.”
“Lots of things are in the paper,” James said, “you don’t believe everything in the paper do you?”
“Like how your manager is questioning your position in the Quidditch team because you’re a bad role model?”
“That,” James laughed, “is perfectly true. Did your Dad ever tell you about the time I accidentally killed my girlfriends dog?”
“No,” I said, eyes wide.
“Well, Ellen, I happened to really piss off your Dad off the day after he’d spent hours training this Labrador to respond to the name tableso, you know what he did? He sent my girlfriend the dead dog.”
“Oh, yeah,” James grinned, “don’t let your Dad fool you, Ellen love. He’s just like me. Except he’s got your Mum and you guys so he pretends he’s not.”
“I don’t think you’re a bad role model,” I said, frowning, “you give lots of money to charity?”
“What else am I supposed to do with it, El? I’ve hardly got anyone else to spoil.”
“Spend it on me,” I said, grinning, “buy me a Quidditch Team!"
"Now that's a memory," James said, "which Quidditch team do you want, my girl. It'll have to be a fairly bad one. I had to pay several thousand galleons to the owner of a certain chain of supermarkets to stop him sewing me, so the belts a bit tighter than usual. Actually, I'm practically suffocating. Came over to borrow a loaf of bread and a bottle of Whiskey of your very obliging father, but I overshot a tad and ended up in your bedroom. Didn't want to mention it and be rude. Actually, is your Dad asleep? Think the charity would give me some of my money back?"
I wasn’t invited to my brother’s stag do, which isn’t something many best men can say.
Occasionally I have entertained the idea that Al only asked me to fulfil such a duty because he felt obliged (our parents are very interfering people; I suspect their tenacious nature in terms of family relationships is probably the reason he was able to kill the most evil wizard of the age), but then in a flash of inspiration I realised that Al didn’t actually have any other friends.
Well, not quite. His work colleagues at the Ministry have always been a bit boring for someone as used to entertainment as my brother and somewhere between leaving Hogwarts and getting engaged to his girlfriend-of- just- about- forever he’d lost touch with some of his Hogwarts friends.
I had thought that my innocent suggest that I map out the guest list for the big event – the stag do – personally, using some of my Quidditch mates as bulking agents. This was reputed quite forcefully and a couple of unfair accusations were thrown out about some of my friends (as it turned out, Al was bang on about Robin Coleman who’s been in Azkaban for the past three years, but that story picks up again in chapter sixty three) and then that turned out to be a cover for the fact that Al didn’t really want to mention the fact that he was not inviting me at all.
Apparently I was not to be trusted.
Which was why it was a pretty ironic and generally quite a brother-bonding moment when Al had to send me a note asking for help when his ‘friends’ had wrestled him into a chair, tied him down and vanished his clothes; admittedly the expenses for that had run up quite high.
It had taken over twenty galleons for Rory Cattermole to agree to go along with it.
“Look, James,” Mum said, her voice dangerous, “I don’t care if the foundations of your life have disintegrated under your feet, you do not burden my daughter with your problems, okay?”
Three weeks before the book was finished, pressed against the back of the kitchen door with my legs folded.
“Jan,” Uncle James said, “oh, come on. She’s not an idiot.”
“Christ, James! I’m really fed up of it. It’s not like I don’t understand. I’ve always understood but just because life isn’t all coming out the way you wanted it –“
“-you understand, do you?”
“Yes!” Mum said, “that having a big famous wonderful Dad really messed you up because there was no way of measuring up. So you rebelled by becoming bleeding ridiculous so at least you were still exciting and interesting. And because you’ve spent so long being crazy with your little adventures and your god damn forays into the ridiculous, that gave Al and Lily I chance to be normal because you set another point of reference. So more than understanding, Potter, I’m glad that you have your odd little stories and your ‘help me’ notes because then Al can get out all his need to do just the same just by watching you and being roped in every so often.” Mum took a deep breath. “If you want to finally self-destruct and mess up more than normal that’s fine by me. But if I ever catch you telling my daughter about the meaning of life -”
“- I didn’t tell her.”
“Fine,” Mum continued, and I could practically hear withering expression, “if I ever catch you sending her little extracts of your bloody autobiography.”
I crushed the piece of paper in my palm and headed for the stairs. Really, I knew it wasn’t my fault that James was in trouble with my Mum, but I still felt bad – because me and Mum and Lily were James’s number one girls and he didn’t really have anyone else.
Later, I gently massaged out the creases in the piece of paper and committed them to memory.
The first thing everyone should know about life is that most of the time you’re never actually going to get what you want. This is actually something that’s very healthy; because all the things that you get that you want usually wind up disappointing or screw you open in some fairly complex ways. The point is, either way wanting anything leads to some degree of disappointment so we’d probably be all better off if we just didn’t bother at all and just rotted away.
That is a slight exaggeration (my brother’s wife often says I’m a walking exaggeration, but that’s a story for another chapter), but there are so many things in life that just happen – death and love and sickness and health. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It just happens. And that’s it. Deal with it.
James’s face looked like a storm was breaking out over his left eye after he got into a bar fight with the guy who took his place on the Quidditch team. I snuck down in the middle of the night – I was a light sleeper and James had made quite the entrance – to find James sat at the kitchen table holding a wet flannel to his bloody lip.
“Hey, El,” James muttered, lifting one of his hands into a wave and wincing as he did so, “you should get back to bed, sorry to wake you.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’ll be fine,” Mum muttered, dabbing some peppery smelling potion over some of the bruises with her careful healer’s expression all over her face. It always made me smile to see her like that – at work – because it was like a side of my Mum beyond her role of my mother – it was just lovely to watch her heal others.
“He went for a walk.”
“But it’s dark.”
“Hey, El, if you’re up you can hold my hand whilst your Mum tortures my bruises,” James said, stretching out his fingers. I slid mine through his.
“That bruise above your eye looks like a storm.”
James drew a lightning bolt on his forehead with the blood from his lip – like granddad Harry’s – and then Jan grinned and James grinned and they both started laughing.
A week after the book was released I took out the galleons from my hippogriff bank and brought a copy. When James wrote about the fight, he mentioned the injuries and the media storm after the event and he wrote about how he’d felt awful beyond the levels of his injuries; he wrote it as a turning point for change. He didn’t, however, mention drawing a scar on his forehead and laughing or how I fell asleep holding his hand, and he traced circles over the palm of my hands for hours, or how he and my Mum talked until the late hours of the night whilst I, just almost conscious, listened in.
I always figured those details were too personal even for Uncle James to share with the world.
(But, if you read really carefully you’d see, at one point, he described the bruise above his left eye as looking like a storm).
“Christ James,” Mum muttered, “you’ve really done a number on yourself this time.”
“Yeah,” James said, his voice still holding that hollow quality that always made me want to hug him, “sorry.”
“Don’t apologise to me. I’m glad you decked him. It just would have been better if you’d kept up the work out regime going before doing so. Maybe say sorry to Al, don’t think he was expecting to come downstairs and find you half dead.”
“He’s not good with blood,” James agreed, “why do you put up with me, Jan?”
“James,” Mum said, “you’re my brother. I mean, you are.”
“Well,” James said, “bit awkward that we made out that time then.”
“Oh, come on,” Mum sighed, “I’m being nice here, James. Don’t draw it out because it won’t last. Brother-in-law, but brother all the same.”
“Look, James. I’ve read that chapter in your bloody book… about my cancer.”
“Not really,” Jan said, frowning, “I don’t know why I ever thought my private life was private with you around, but it’s frankly odd to think you’re publishing this. But, well, I didn’t know it had affected you so much.”
“I was scared,” James admitted and the circle’s being traced across the palm of my hand paused for a second.
“I told you,” Mum said, “my family has a history of fighting and beating it.” James made an indistinct noise of agreement. “What were you so damn scared of James? That spurred on all of this?”
I opened my eyes.
“Al loosing you,” James muttered, “and me not being able to do anything to make it better for him.”
The day I named my niece changed my life.
Jan had spent the days after her birth drugged up on the potions she hadn’t been able to take for the last few weeks of her pregnancy – the potions that were killing all those cancerous cells – and she hadn’t smiled since the moment she’d first held her. That scared me.
That was the only point in time that I thought Jan had given up. I’ve heard that giving birth is quite the tiring activity, so I suppose in retrospect I can’t blame her for the week or two she spent in bed staring at walls, drinking her potions and repeatedly throwing up. Al was off work again, rocking Ellen (who happened to be quite the fussy baby) back and forth, trying to coax Jan into asking to hold her.
We were discussing names. Eleanor was there. I suggested Ellen.
Jan looked up at the expression on Eleanor’s face, then back to me, then to Al, and then to the baby and then she smiled. And then she started to laugh.
So I named my niece and ever since then I felt more connected to her than I ever thought I could to someone else’s kid: I’d made Jan laugh and it named a baby. It was the first time when I felt like I’d had a real effect on the world.
“Thing is,” Mum said, “it’s actually quite good.”
“You’re not bloody serious?”
“But I am, Al. It’s hilarious. It’s really sad. It’s compelling. James has outdone himself.”
“Sorry Jan, but I can’t believe that.”
“Because, Janet, I’m not entirely sure I want to know exactly what James is thinking all the time. He does my head in enough.”
“It’s released in a month, Al. Last chance to request for things to be pulled out, or are you happy about the whole of the country knowing how we met and why we named Ellen?”
“Oh, fine,” Dad said, placing down his cup of tea, “I’ll read the damn thing. But this is the last time Jan, I swear!”
“I really don’t think he’s going to write a sequel,” Mum said, pressing a kiss onto his cheek and disappearing from the room before Dad had a chance to protest about the meaning behind his semantics.
It was approximately a quarter past four when the front door opened. And then there was laughter. Then the distinct sound of my father going ‘shut up, James – the kids will be asleep!’ and James counteracting with ‘as will the wife’ and another burst of giggling.
I liked listening to Dad laugh and James had been out more since the release of the book – without the little snippets of novel that Uncle James released to me I felt oddly disconnected from him, and James and I had always been close.
“Bloody hell,” Dad muttered, grinning, “feel like a sodding teenager.”
“Exactly,” James grinned.
“Amendment to your book?”
“We’d get arrested.” James said, and then they both cracked up all over again.
I pushed open the door.
“You should definitely be in bed,” James said, “but so should Al, so sneak in quick.”
“Have you been on an adventure?” I asked, stepping forwards into the kitchen and glancing at my Dad – who seemed slightly flushed and younger – and James, who seemed to be glowing again rather than that odd, worrying shade of grey. James and Al glanced at each other.
“Guess so, kid.” James said.
“Always, little bro,” James said.
“Where’ve you been?” I asked, frowning. Dad reached up to the cupboard and poured two glasses of an amber coloured liquid, sliding one across the table towards James and taking the other up himself.
“Out,” James said, “big wide world. Never you mind, El, I’ll get it in the neck from your Mum if I tell you.”
“N’awwh, Jan won’t mind,” Dad said, grinning, “we just broke into Hogwarts, Ellen.”
“Budge over, Al. You never tell stories right. Well, Ellen, you know I told you about your great granddad?”
“Exactly,” James said, offering Al a look before taking a sip of his glass, “they made this map… The Marauders Map. Map of Hogwarts, El, beautiful, pure art, useful as hell for a trouble maker. Anyway, through a long series of misdemeanours your granddad Harry ended up with the map. Then I nicked it out of his office draw and we passed it down from generation to generation – it’s only right, see El. It’s Potter property.”
“When James finished Hogwarts he gave it to me,” Dad said, swirling the liquid in his glass round and round, staring into it as though it was in some way hypnotic, “when I finished I passed it down to Lily.”
“Big mistake,” James interjected, “she decided to lend it to Hugo and he got it bloody confiscated – but it was her last year, so…”
“And Adam and Jack are going to Hogwarts in September.”
“Exactly, El!” James said. “A travesty! After four generations of Potter I’m not having my nephews going without it. So, me and your Dad went to Hogsmeade and… there’s this one passage way that caved in.”
“So we carved it back out,” Dad grinned, knocking back his glass with a grin, “and we snuck into Hogwarts – under the cloak – and we broke into the caretaker, whoever that is now… I don’t -”
“-point is,” James grinned, “we snuck into his office in the middle of the night, found the map and brought it home.”
“But of course!” James said, pulling the piece of parchment out of his pocket and laying it down in front of me. “I solemnly swear -”
“- that I am up to no good.” Dad finished, grinning as he leant closer to take a look, one of his hands absently resting on my shoulder.
I remembered the way the map appeared, in all its intricate details, and I remember being more amazed that my Dad – who told me off for going to bed to late – could be capable of breaking into Hogwarts and carving out secret passage ways and delivering ex-girlfriends dead dogs and making his own make shift wand just because. It was that moment that I looked at Uncle James and I realised what he’d been trying to tell me all along – that Dad was incredible and admirable and wonderful because he’d done both and he’d lived in every was possible and that I should probably pity James, rather than being awed by him.
“You want another?” Dad said, gesturing to their empty glasses.
“Nah, shouldn’t,” James said, glancing at his watch and raising his eyes slightly, “got a date tomorrow.”
“Really?” Dad asked, grinning.
“Yeah,” James grinned, “one Teagan Reaves. You know what’s a great way to overcome what was beginning to feel like a James Boycott?”
“Yes, but, not only that. Publish an autobiography that gets reviews like ‘heart breaking in its lack of conclusion’ and ‘an odd tragedy’ – ”
“- I’ve always thought your life was tragic,” Dad interjected, “still, you’ve always had a thing for Reaves.”
“I read your book, James,” Dad said with an eye roll, “you spelt every girl that every cheated on you’s name wrong.”
“I know,” James grinned, stretched out his arms, “hey, night El. You get to bed or you’ll be yawning tomorrow and your Dad’ll cave and tell the Jan-monster that we broke into the biggest magical institution with top level security in the country, and I can’t imagine that Jan will be cheerleading that. Or the reasoning behind it.”
“No,” Dad agreed, raising an arm in farewell as James gave one last overdramatic wave before disappearing out the front door and apparating away with a distinct ‘pop.’ I watched my Dad for a moment, feeling once again that I was being allowed a sneak peek into this whole life he’d had before I existed. “Off to bed, Ellen love.” Dad said distractedly, standing up and studying the Marauders map.
I hovered in the doorway for a second and watched as he whispered “mischief managed.”
It was like mourning a part of my father that I was never supposed to see. And he looked like he might be mourning too; usually that was James's job.
One of the most interesting autobiographies written in a very long time – despite being voted as the ‘most selfish man in Britain’ the majority of the book tracks one of the most significant relationships of his life – that of James and his brother, Albus Potter. A surprising amount of the ridiculous but an even more surprising amount of the retrospective, gritty aspects to realising the truth about the world – this book is good against the odds, and compelling despite its expected downfall. You’ll find yourself confused by its depth – but I guess James Potter was always one for doing the unpredictable.
SO, this turned out much more like angst than I had expected it to, but this is the very last bit of Al/Jan/James that will ever be posted. Thank you guys a bunch for reading and I'm so glad you stuck with us and what not! And what's a spin off without a bit of angst, right? :)
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