Chapter 7 : Albert Greybeard and his Fascinating Stories
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“Then I received my letter to go to Hogwarts, and so ended my wondrous childhood in the Cotswolds. Now, what should I talk about next? What the Sorting Hat said to me or my very first potions lesson?”
She could feel his breath hitch as he touched her skin. His shirt billowed from the slight breeze that drifted through the open windows. The full moon was brilliantly set against the dark night sky…
“Oh, such magnificent options. Amelie, what do you think would interest our dear readers more?”
I was shaken awake, and the last remnants of my dream faded away. I tried to grasp onto them, but Andrew’s smugly superior smirk was all up in my grill, and Professor Albert Greybeard was sitting blinking on the other side of the table.
He had been a childhood hero of mine. Professor Slughorn had always talked and talked about the old man, and about his accomplishments, about his skill. I had waited for this interview for ages, and I had written details questions in my notebook.
But one date with Ewan the night before and Greybeard’s extraordinarily dull voice had tempted me into sleep.
“Were you… were you just… asleep?”
“No,” I said, feigning annoyance. “How dare you say that I…”
“You were snoring,” Andrew continued. “And something about a billowing shirt?”
I sat up suddenly and slammed my notebook pro-actively down on the table. “So what we should talk about next?”
Andrew smirked again as I pretended to write something down on the page. He was being particularly smarmy today and he was wearing his favourite green Ascot that made him look like some pompous frog. Greybeard was wearing the same tweed suit he always wore - the lapels were covered in dandruff and biscuit crumbs and some silver substance that looked suspiciously like unicorn blood.
“How about your pioneering work on the thirteenth use of dragon’s blood?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” the professor replied, scandalized, “there’s a very long and complicated story behind that particular discovery, and shouldn’t want those bastards at the Commission of United Potioneers - I mean, colleagues, of course, my very dearly beloved colleagues, who definitely do not steal my thoughts and ideas and make fun of my wife’s fascinating…”
“I’m sorry, Professor,” Andrew quipped, his tone harsh. We had started the interview an hour and a half ago, and I knew that he had some very important meeting with his mother or his tailor or the editor of Transfiguration Today. That’s why he was wearing the green Ascot. “But this interview has simply gone on too long. We have barely covered any of your major life accomplishments.”
“That is a horrendous accusation! My childhood was full of wonderful achievements and although they didn’t necessarily revolve around potions…”
“Oh, shut up Greybeard!”
And I thought I had little patience. It was true, Greybeard had a voice like old gravel and he spoke so slowly that you could easily make a plum pudding between sentences, but Andrew was now glaring at the old man with a ferocity he usually saved for Emily and her bonsai trimming. A single strand of hair had fallen from his quiff and was wafting in front of his face. I wanted to laugh.
“We’ve been talking for hours and the only worthy material we’ve got is some harebrained anecdote about your grandmother’s wig? This has been a waste of my time.”
I sighed. I had scheduled this hour for a tactical nap but Andrew’s theatrics had meant I couldn’t get to sleep. I wanted to get back to my dream, even though I couldn’t remember what it had been about.
“I’m very sorry Professor,” I mumbled, “Andrew’s been a little…”
But it was too little too late. Greybeard had stood up - not the impressive gesture due to his hunched back and aching limbs - and swept his long beard over his shoulder. His old, wrinkled face had folded itself into a frown.
“First you fall asleep,” he shouted, gesturing at me, “and now I’m verbally assaulted by some man in a silly green tie.”
“It is not a tie,” Andrew said nonchalantly. “It is an Ascot!”
“Well you look ridiculous!”
“Says the man with in the tweed suit!”
This was too much. I couldn’t stand here and watch the two argue about their clothes. Andrew was a professional - that was all he ever claimed to be - and by his very own words, writing and journalism were ‘his life’s soul, his blood’ and that words ‘paved the road on his life’s journey’. He would surely be in some sort of trouble with the management if he didn’t shut up.
I wouldn’t be able to put up with his whining if he got fired.
They both turned to look at me, with their chests heaving and eyes wide. I wondered whether Greybeard was going to have a heart attack. I turned to my colleague.
“Andrew, I think you should apologise to the professor and arrange another time for the interview.”
He was scowling at me, and I jabbed him in the side with my elbow. He finally relented and nodded stiffly.
“Good. Now, Professor Greybeard, I am deeply apologetic for the behaviour of my fellow worker. He’s been cranky ever since his mother threw him out of his…”
“His behaviour?” Greybeard clamored, “how about you? How about your casual little doze? When I came here I thought I would be treated with respect and dignity, not ridicule! Lavender Brown even came and spoke to me about your rudeness, Miss Harris, but I ignored her…”
“Of course she did,” I muttered. I knew that would come back to bite me in the behind. Silly woman. I was surprised Andrew hadn’t said anything, but then I realised he was gripping his quill so tightly in his hands that it had snapped in two.
“And she was right! I’m going straight to your editor and demanding that you be reprimanded for this superb lack of consideration and downright insensitivity.”
“No!” He shouted, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he swung a black travelling cloak around his shoulders. I was surprised he had this much energy for a man who was probably well over five hundred million years old. “There’s no good in pleading with me now. What’s done is done. I shall be speaking with your authority figure.”
And he bounced out of the room and into the bustling corridor. Andrew and I simply stood motionless as he left, unable to do anything.
“We are going to be in so much trouble.”
The waiting was worse than I thought it would be, perched on uncomfortable wooden chairs outside our boss’ office. Andrew was twitching beside me, nervously pulling at his necktie and sweating profusely. He kept checking his watch. Even I was nervous - this was my first proper job, and Grace Castle-Carmichael was a ruthless bitch who wouldn’t take this lightly. Her reputation was everything, the paper meant everything to her. This was as bad as the time James and I had waited outside the headmaster’s because we tried to shove Charlotte Banks into a Vanishing Cabinet.
Bitch had it coming.
“What are we going to do?” Andrew kept whispering, trying to peer around the doorframe to have a look inside her office. “She’s going to fire us and I’ll have to tell my mother and I’ll have to spend my life writing poetry in small café bars and hopefully I’ll earn a living and I’m going to be late for my date and…”
“Excuse me?” I asked, scandalised. Andrew seemed to release his mistake, and tore his Ascot from his neck so hard that I thought it might have ripped.
“You have a date?”
“Yes, I have a small edible fruit.”
I ignored him. “That’s why you were so antsy in the interview! You wanted to get out so you could go on your little rendezvous! You’re desire to get laid has now landed in trouble with Carmichael and it’s going to get us fired!”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic.”
“Says the man who forcefully defended his type of tie.”
“Oh, please,” Andrew replied, “it wasn’t just me. You were the one sleeping on the job! And that was all because you had a big date last night...”
"What are you talking about?"
“Oh come on... you’re wearing the same clothes you were yesterday and there’s a bouquet of roses on your desk. You have the glow of the recently kissed and you keep bouncing on the tip of your toes. And you keep... smiling. It’s revolting.”
I automatically slammed my mouth shut and gritted my teeth. My next words are muffled.
“You’re just jealous.”
“No, I’m angry. I would be like that if it weren’t for Greybeard and his thoroughly thrilling life.”
“You just hate to see me happy, don’t you?”
"Unsurprisingly, you're wrong. I just hate you."
He then slumped in his chair, his arms crossed and a frown plastered all over his smug, annoying, stupid face. What a git. Whenever Emily went through her strange mood swings, and decided the office desperately needed a touch of the old feng shui, Andrew and I had always teamed up to tell her that she was being ridiculous or that kilts weren’t really appropriate office wear. We had our arguments - ‘heated discussions’ - but that was normal. We were both honest people, who wanted things done our own way. I never thought he hated me.
Suddenly I felt massively uncomfortable - I had liked Andrew more than he liked me. I felt stupid, like I should have realised it before, but then I remembered all the times I had mocked him for his attire, for his vintage typewriter, his memoirs...
“Well, this will make the office sufficiently more awkward.”
“Emily already does that with her strange séances.”
“Those are absurd.” I smiled weakly, but he was still glaring at me. He was twirling his green Ascot over and over in his fingers. At least he was nervous too.
"Maybe she'll be able to speak to us, once Carmichael has had her way with us. Perhaps she'll be able to contact us on the afterlife."
"Castle-Carmichael, please. Remember the wedding."
"Remember the hen party."
We shuddered simultaneously. That night was something neither of us would get forget: our boss getting stupidly inebriated and partaking in some fun game with an antler and Jack from accounting and a severe lack of clothes.
We both laughed.
"I still hate you, you know,” Andrew said, but he was smiling.
"You're my only real competition."
This was a surprise. I knew Andrew was an ambitious little git but I didn't know he'd take it so seriously as to hate someone whom he considered a rival.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Why wouldn't you?"
Snippets of Andrew's memoirs drifted to the front of my mind. I'd hate to think that I was superior to him, just that his writing suited to a very niche audience. "No reason."
"You know, and this is confidential, mind you," he continued, and his tone was altogether more positive. "I've written about you in memoirs. Don't look so shocked, I've changed all the names and everything, it's very hush hush. I've made you out to be a..."
"Harris and Macmillan, will you step inside... Dorothy, what are you doing here?"
Grace Castle-Carmichael stood in the doorway, short and not-so-impressive, her ugly robes covered in newspaper ink and coffee, and her disgusting pink heels sinking into the carpet under the weight of her considerable bulk. I had always wondered why she had never kept a secretary - all the heads of departments had one - and, according the gossip grapevine, she wouldn’t trust anyone with her private affairs or her own arrangements.
I couldn’t believe this woman was married, recently so. And I had my mother for a mother.
Andrew and I shot up from our seats and he immediately started apologising and muttering and, once or twice, bowing in the presence of our editor. She stared him down furiously, her piggy eyes wide and 3her fingers grasping the edge of her clipboard.
Andrew stopped when he realised it was a lost cause.
“Andrew Macmillan, correct?” She eyed him up suspiciously. He nodded, shaking.
“Get in here, then, I don’t know why you’re dawdling,” she said, and Andrew bustled passed her into the office, and I went to follow him. Carmichael let him pass and then shot her arm out to stop me coming into her office.
“Dorothy, I don’t know what you think you are doing entering my private office.” Her voice was thick and snuffling, and she dabbed at her red, dripping nose with a violently floral handkerchief. I sighed. She simply had not bothered to learn my name - she had called me Dorothy since I had started, and I doubted she would ever stop.
I never thought it would come in handy, but now, instead of being verbally assaulted and possibly fired at the hands of my maniac boss, I could simply walk away, pretending I was somebody else.
“I was just dropping off these papers,” I improvised, fishing some old drafts out of my bag and holding them up. “And then I was going to pay for Greybeard’s lunch, as a favour and as an apology for the way he was treated.”
Carmichael relaxed. She took her arm down from in front of me and plucked the papers from my grasp. She let out a long breath.
“Very well,” she said gruffly, “that seems like a good plan. And find that Amelie Harris girl, she’s in a lot of trouble and although she writes some pretty good articles, she’s not going to get anywhere if she continues to sleep in interviews.”
I tried not to smile at her compliment, so nodded my head and looked stern.
"Well, be along with you, "my boss snapped. "Surely you should be getting my coffee or doing something that matches your intelligence level... that is, something stupid!"
She guffawed at her own joke, throwing her head back and simultaneously closing the door to her office. But not before...
Carmichael's hand slammed against the wood, holding the door open. I kept my foot wedged on the other side, so she couldn't open it fully, so she couldn't see Ewan walking cheerfully down the corridor towards me.
"Amelie who?" Carmichael muttered. She kept banging on the door, convinced that it simply wouldn't open. She was unsheathing her wand now, preparing to blast...
"Ah, Ewan, brilliant. The door is stuck and I know you fixed one like it back at house."
Back at the house? What? Ewan Castle stared at my foot, stopping the door from closing, and then at me. I shook my head very subtly, and he looked confused for a second before pretending to push his shoulder against the door. Simultaneously, I removed my foot from the door and Carmichael let it close.
“Very good. I’ll see you at dinner, yes?” And she was gone, swooping into her office to give Andrew a severe telling off. I turned to Ewan.
“You’re going to dinner with my boss.”
“Ah. Well.” He looked down at his feet and fiddled with the hem of his jumper. Ewan Castle. Grace Castle-Carmichael. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made the connection before. I had recognised him from somewhere when I first met him, and only now I realised from where… there was a family picture on Carmichael’s desk, and he had been there to pick her up from the bachelorette party where she had made such a scene.
"So either you’re married to her, or…”
“She’s not my wife,” Ewan said. “She’s my stepmother.”
“Oh.” I supposed he would try to lie to me, because he knew how awkward a position this put me in, but instead he came out with it, not even ashamed. And if I had that for a stepmother, I would definitely be ashamed.
“What was that whole Dorothy thing? Is that some sort of joke?”
“Oh, you know. There’s lots of interns,” I said absent-mindedly. I was trying to recall all the times I had bad-mouthed my boss in front of Ewan, and how he had laughed and joined in. Perhaps I hadn’t mentioned her by name; perhaps I had been too vague. It was all very weird, and suddenly I felt as if I couldn’t speak about her anymore.
“Right,” he continued. “Do you want to grab some lunch or something?”
“I’m all right,” I said quietly. We had arrived back at our office and I could small explosions from inside. Emily had got hold of some new Weasley Wizard Wheezes products and was testing them out for her column about pranking. Smoke billowed from under the doorframe.
“Yeah. I’ve got to sort Emily out anyway.” I opened the door, but Ewan placed his palm flat on the wood and pushed in closed. What was it with this family and doors? No wonder Ewan had to fix all of them back at the house.
“Is Grace your boss?” Damn him for being so intuitive. James would have taken a fortnight and sleeping with Georgia Watson to work out what was making me upset.
“No,” I lied.
“She is. And now you feel awkward.” He opened the door to my office and walked in. I followed him and watched as he masterfully told Emily that there was a new cactus waiting for her reception and she should leave immediately before Andrew confiscated it. She darted out of the room.
“I never told you she was my boss. Not by name, anyway,” I said.
“So I was unknowingly laughing at my own stepmother?”
I nodded. He laughed. “You thought I’d be upset by the fact you bitched about her?”
He came over to hug me.
“You should have told me. If we break up, what will happen then? Will she hate me? Be really annoying? Make sure I never get that promotion?”
“You should have told me sooner.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry, I forget I should read out a list of my family members and their occupations to all my potential girlfriends.”
“Don’t be sarcastic.” It reminded me too much of James.
“All right, I won’t. I’m sorry. I should have told you. I didn’t want it to get in the way of us and I’m sorry.” He sounded genuinely sincere. At my silence, he took a couple of cautious steps towards me. He put his hands around mine.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
“It’s just unfair. The only threat you get from my family is the possibility that my mother could marry you, or Gwen could dress you up like a unicorn.”
“It is unfair.”
“Now you’re just pandering me,” I replied, smiling at him. I slid my arms around his neck and pressed my lips to his. He chuckled softly. We continued kissing until a thoroughly disappointed Emily returned with a drooping geranium she had stolen from the canteen, telling us there was no cactus and she had needed something to replace it.
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