Whitby had an uncanny ability to wrap itself around my heart and squeeze until I had to catch my breath, but that was nothing compared to the prospect of knocking on Connor Matthew’s door and asking whether he remembered and a girl who he should have married, had she not died when she was still just a kid.
It hadn’t been hard to track him down. I’d known that he’d still be in Whitby somewhere because he was just one of those people whose entire life would only lead to them being displaced by a few hundred meters – ten miles or so tops – and Hope would have been a squib and stayed in Whitby, I’d have still ran away and traversed around Europe, and maybe everything would have ended up exactly the same as it was now. Or it might not.
I very nearly walked away from the doorbell, disappeared down one of alleyways and apparated back into my flat, but I reminded myself that I was a Gryffindor and that I’d gone through all the effort of essentially becoming a stalker in order to turn up at Connor Matthew’s door and ask whether he remembered my sister, or our childhood, or making out on the deck of a borrow boat, or that for a long time I’d considered him my best friend just because we’d both lost my sister. And whilst bringing up the almost loss of the virginity this many years (and blokes) onward entirely reeked of admitting that I was not a kid teenager but in fact an adult with responsibilities, it also seemed pretty in keeping with owning my life.
And closure. Maybe closure would help.
I rang the doorbell.
He was recognisable if you squinted slightly. I could remember him at nineteen years old and how he didn’t shave every day, so that time we kissed it irritated my chin and, later, I’d ran my hand over the skin and thought about stupid it was that Hope wasn’t here to tell me that it was okay that I was a coward and couldn’t go through with the whole business.
“You probably don’t -” I began.
“Connor,” I breathed, and then he’d stepped forwards and wrapped his arms around me, hugged me to his chest. He didn’t smell the same as I remembered him to at nineteen, which was probably a good thing considering, but he still felt just as solid as he had back then. “Sorry about… just turning up -”
“Grace,” Connor said, stepping back and staring at me, “it’s really good to see you.”
“And you’re so…”
“Old?” I suggested.
“Grown up,” Connor settled on, his lips twisting into a half smile.
“Oi,” I said, feeling my tense expression fall into a smile too, “don’t be so patronising, you’re not much older.”
“Come in,” Connor said, stepping back away from the door, “you can meet Faith.”
“Your wife?” I questioned, feeling something sticky well up in my throat which was probably related to a very natural emotional response. Faith. Of all the names, he had to marry another girl with an attribute for a name. Really. Life hurt.
“My daughter,” Connor said, leading me into a kitchen, “we… well,” Connor said, smiling again, “not long after you jetted off to travel Europe, I got my seventeen year old girlfriend pregnant. It ended up as a bit of a joke that we were keeping faith, but…”
His daughter was almost but not quite named after my sister. The name was in the same vein, at any rate, and the elongated and incomplete ‘but’ seemed to say that loud and clear. My sister had a legacy, then.
“Eight years old,” Connor said, just as a blonde bundle of very real child burst into the room, stopped at the sight of me and looked near tears, “Faith, this is my childhood friend Grace. She’s shy,” Connor said to me, smiling slightly, “so what… what’s new with you?”
“Not much,” I said, staring wide eyed at this real life and very human little girl eyed me up, “I came back to England about a year ago. I just lost my job, so I’m unemployed again. Single. Definitely childless. But I gave up smoking last week, so it’s not all bad.”
“Well, there’s always that,” Connor said, wondering over to the kettle, “you’ll stay for coffee?” I nodded mutely. The shock of Connor, who’d lost Hope every much as I had, having a life and a child and a house had struck some strange chord within me. He was fine. It wasn’t comparable, of course, because Hope had been my sister and I’d watched her die, but I remembered a teenage Connor getting in trouble at school and drinking far too much and sleeping with far too many girls (which apparently eventually caught up with him)… I hadn’t expected him to be so put together.
“Course,” I said, just as Faith disappeared out of the room and was heard thundering up the stairs. She was almost the age I was when I watched Hope die and everything fell apart, but she seemed so tiny and insignificant and young.
It hadn’t occurred to me just how young nine years old actually was before, but it was minute. I’d barely been alive. Barely had Hope for that many years. So small and innocent.
“She’s beautiful.” I said, watching as he made a cup of coffee as the bizarreness of it all settled over me again. Her Mum must have been blonde and thin, because Connor’s colouring was darker. Hope was forever tanned with darker hair than mine, and had they got married his children would have looked almost completely different and Faith Matthews would never have existed.
“Were you just in town, or…?”
“Not exactly,” I said, “I’m trying to sort my life out. Everything got a bit… messy.”
“If it helps,” Connor said as he brought the cups of coffee over with milk and sugar and biscuits, “there’s nothing quite like a disaster to force you into sorting your life out. If it hadn’t been for Faith I think it would have taken me years to straighten out.”
“Where’s your bathroom?” I asked, setting down my cup of coffee after one sip feeling distinctly nauseous. “I feel a bit sick.”
“First on the right in the corridor,” Connor said, glancing up at me with concern, “are you –?”
But I missed the end of the question because the desire to throw up got so concentrated that it was all I could do not to vomit over Connor’s kitchen, and given before today there’d been almost ten years without contact I didn’t really feel like we were in a place where vomiting in each other’s houses (or flats) was very acceptable.
I returned a few minutes later having thrown up another of Uncle Francis’s Weight Witches’ ready meals and stopped shaking enough to return.
“Grace Whitehall,” Connor said, smiling, “in my house ten minutes and you’re already throwing up. Are you really that opposed to instant coffee?”
“Sorry,” I muttered, “think I’ve got a bug, or something.”
“Or maybe,” Connor said, “you won’t be definitely childless for much longer.”
I hadn’t known anything about Heddy when I was a teenager, and I knew even less now, but walking up the driveway to her childhood home helped to fill in some of the gaps. My childhood had been happy – fish and chips, sailing, the beach and donkey rides, watching old muggle historical renactments at the abbey and making swift friendships with the tourists who stayed for a week or two.
Heddy’e estate was more suburban and every bit as muggle: near Bristol, which made sense now I thought about the twang of her accent, fish and chip shop in the centre with a small supermarket and a Chinese takeway. There were parts where there might have been play areas until they became prime drinking spots for the secondary school children. It was so normal.
I’d wanted her to live somewhere rough and dirty, so I had some extraneous factors to blame. But I couldn’t deny evidence; Heddy Vane had a happy childhood. There was likely to have been some teasing for the same reason as she’d got it at Hogwarts – a stupid name and not being entirely nice to look at – but she’d have been okay. Most people were.
She became more clear as I walked up her driveway.
Her cheeks were blown up by puppy fat in first year, which had fallen over by the third. A too short bob that hung around her face. Thick eyebrows, a piggish nose, spots, freckles – her appearance was one of the clearest memories I had of Hogwarts. Eyes so big and magnified by her glasses that she could have been the owl she was named after. There were uglier girls, fatter girls and girls with worst names than Hedwig… but there was something wretched about her that turned her into a victim. I never hated her. She irked me.
I wanted her to disappear and not remind me of how I felt. I wanted her to have never existed, but she did… so we picked on her at and at her until she cried. And we made her cry until she snapped. And we didn’t care or take responsibility until the moment her flesh was scorched and burning and she hated herself and living too much to stop it.
How do you tell a mother it’s your fault her child is dead?
I’d been writing up scraps of the past year at home, dating each piece of parchment before adding it to the growing pile of bits of myself that I’d pinned to paper when I realised that I had to do this. I’d written to her mother – Romilda – and asked if I could please visit her and talk to her about her daughter. I’d half expected a Howler in response, but the return letter had been short and to the point. An address and permission. A time.
Romilda Vane came to the door before I had a chance to knock. She was older than her years and there was a touch of Heddy around her wide eyes. I thought her mother might once have been pretty. I thought, perhaps, Heddy might have grown up to be beautiful too, if we’d hadn’t poisoned her.
“I used to go to Hogwarts with your daughter,” I said, hovering on the doorway and still expecting her to slam the door in my face or spit on my shoes. I deserved it. And Romilda must have known how vile we’d been to her daughter… must have been aware how unhappy he made her. She wordlessly pushed up open the door to grant me in entrance, and I shadowed Heddy’s footsteps down the corridor into the kitchen, “I’ve been abroad for a very long time, I only heard recently.”
“Three students who were at Hogwarts in the same period as you and my Heddy are dead.” Romilda said, not offering me a drink and sitting down stiffly. I followed her lead, feeling insecure and out of please and a little bit queasy (although, really, that might not be related).
“I’m trying to turn my life around, Miss Vane,” I said, shaking slightly “because I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, and I was horrible to your daughter and… I wanted to say that a lot of people have changed their lives because…because of what we did.”
“I loved my daughter,” Romilda said, “her father and I are separated, but he loved her too. She had been engaged to a muggle several months before. She liked her job.”
“Miss – ”
“- it is not your fault that I had to burry my daughter. She had enough to live for.”
“My sister died,” I said blinking, “when I was just little I watched her die… it was my fault she didn’t have her seat bet on.”
“Her death was not your fault or responsibility,” Romilda said, the same deadness looking out of her eyes, “but anything that happened after belongs entire to you.” There was silent for a long few minutes. “You’ll die too, Miss Whitehall. And it won’t necessarily be anyone’s fault, but it will happen. And then life will carry on.”
“I’m sorry.” I said, but I felt as though I was speaking through a mouthful of cotton wool.
“Heddy was my daughter,” Romilda said, slowly, “it was my duty to keep her happy. I would like to blame you for her death, Grace, but it is every bit more my fault and I will still not blame myself. No mother could live like that. She was her own person and she made a decision.”
“I’m still sorry.” I said, wrapping an arm around my torso.
“Forget about her,” Romilda Vane said, “or use her to fuel some good. Do not allow her to ruin your life.”
And there was a sense of finality about her last comment that I felt like it was time to leave, at last, and leave this behind me.
“To what,” James said, answering the door with one of his grins, “do I owe the pleasure?”
“Look,” I said, stepping into his flat and squaring my shoulders against the onslaught of what was sure to be the most horrific conversation of my whole life, “please don’t be in a good mood.”
“Always in a good mood when I see you, Gracie.” James said. “Drink?”
I really really wanted to say yes, but given everything that was probably a little bit too irresponsible. I bit back any reply and walked over to the bar feeling oddly light. It was just bloody brilliant that this had to happen now and that James was such a responsible adult that he had a bar instead of kitchen cabinets. Wonderful.
“How’s not smoking going?”
“Shit the past couple of days,” I said, sitting down on the bar stool and staring at James, “been a bit… stressed.”
“The NEWT courses taking their toll?” James asked.
“Extraneous issue,” I said, still feeling light headed and like I should be slightly drunk or on something, but no – this was just the shock of actually confronting a potential (and it was only a potential) problem in a way that was almost but not quite sensible. Definitely a big improvement.
“Well,” James said, “are you just here to drop hints?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yes,” I said, still staring straight at him as if the answers were suddenly about to appear tattooed across his chin, or something.
I pulled the pregnancy test out of the pocket of my robes and placed it down on the surface of James’s bar.
“Can I borrow your toilet?” I asked, as sarcastically as I was capable of being when I was really, really not sure what I felt about this whole thing.
And that, effectively, ended all conversation for a good few minutes in which I stopped staring at James’s face and started instead staring at his really rather nice flat, wondering how difficult it would be to baby proof if that was what was necessary and then wondering what exactly baby proofing entailed, because I hadn’t got a fucking clue.
“Oh,” James said, eventually, his good mood visibly evaporating to one of his more serious expressions that barely saw the light of day. James took a few tentative steps forwards towards the pregnancy test, as though the whole thing was actually a bomb and I was trying to blow us both up.
“I haven’t taken it,” I said, quickly, “It might not be a… erm, issue.”
“Right,” James said, drawing nearer.
“But I’ve been sick a lot and I’ve been feeling a bit weird and...”
“James,” I said, forcing myself to look back at him, “I am freaking out. So, if it’s at all possible, it’d be nice if you weren’t.”
“I can do that,” James said, squaring his shoulders, “so, Gracie, you might be preggers. How’s that working out for you?”
“Is this really the time for jokes?” James grinned, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and pulling him against my chest, “I’m proud of you though, Grace, for not repressing the issue.”
“Well there’s kind of a time limit here,” I said, laughing weakly into James’s chest, “What the fuck am I going to do, James?”
“Well what does it say on the instructions?”
“I didn’t mean about taking the test,” I rolled my eyes, “I just have to pee on the stick, I think.”
“I haven’t actually done this before,” I said, “as much as that may surprise you.”
“It doesn’t, really,” James said, pulling my closer to his chest for a long moment. I suspected that this might be a moment I’d remember for a very long time afterwards, my forehead pressed against James’s chest, staring at a pregnancy test that was about to define the rest of my life, giving myself a few more minutes of blissful unknowing before taking the plunge and peeing on a stick. And it could change our lives.
Well, my life.
I hadn’t really considered how potentially misleading this whole thing was. I’d just needed to have a friend to be present when I was waiting the ten minutes – or however long it was – to determine whether or not I was pregnant, and James was the only person who I really felt I could trust with the issue. But then… give circumstances, I probably should have asked Cherry.
“James,” I said, “just, to clarify I…if I am pregnant, I don’t know how long I’ve been pregnant.”
James winced a bit.
“Sorry,” I muttered, taking a deep breath, “it tells me how far along – if I am pregnant – and then I’ll be able to…”
“Will it be specific enough for you, though?” James grinned.
“Oh fuck off.” I said, not that I could really blame him for being snide. The first pregnancy scare of my life just had to coincide with the most promiscuous period of my life to date – I didn’t think they were many people who’d really look down on me for rebounding after I found Max was married or the accidental incident with James. It just looked bad right now because of this.
“There’s three, right?” James said.
“You, your almost greying not uncle or my married ex-boss, and to be honest with you acting like such a prat I'm not entirely sure who I'm rooting for.” I said, pressing a hand to my forehead and trying not to detest myself.
“Three.” James repeated raising his eyebrows.
"It's not like I know how pregnant I am, it's not like I slept with all of you on the same day - stop acting like I'm some kind of whore"
"Well," James said, his lips tilting up slightly, "you're not exactly a nun"
And then the whole thing suddenly felt very funny, and we were both laughing like this wasn't the most terrifying moment of my life so far.
“Sorry,” James said.
“It’s okay,” I said, “well, it’s not, but it’s… my fault, I guess. Can I blame Max, actually? Oh god, I hope I can’t blame Max for this. James, this potential baby cannot be my married ex-boss’s, or I will just… I don’t know…”
“Yes,” I said, nodding, “I will definitely cry. I hope it’s sodding yours,” I said, “look, I better go pee on a stick.”
“Yeah,” James said, reaching forwards and kissing me. Personally, I thought this was a hell of a liberty and definitely not appropriate for the situation, but James just grinned and said “for luck,” and then pushed me in the direction of the bathroom, and with something like that it was difficult to argue with.
I could bust him for it later, if I hadn’t ruined my life and thus had bigger problems to deal with.
"Time's up," James muttered. I looked towards the test. "Wait," James said, covering the test with his hand - and I wasn't going to be the one to point out that I'd urinated on the thing a couple of minutes ago - "Grace, if it's positive - do you want to keep it?"
"And do you want me to be the father?"
I nodded again.
"Okay, well," James said, "I'm here then."
And there it was, a whole tangible future with James. Because he’d do it, I knew he’d do it. He’d be there for me an he’d be a father because both of us had been nearly convinced that a family was something neither of us would ever had – it felt too far off, too distant, and here was an inexplicable and crazy chance. I couldn’t handle having a baby, of course I couldn’t, when I was barely a functioning adult by myself – but maybe if I had James, we could do it together. No doubt one day the whole is-it-mine thing we come crashing down around our ears, but I didn’t want to think about the future - there was too much going on in the present.
I reached out and grabbed hold of James’s arm to support myself.
“You look,” James said, removing his hand from the test and looking up at me.
“You do it.” I countered, “I can’t.”
“Well, it’s definitely your baby.” James said with a grin.
I bit my lip, reached forwards and picked it up.
It hit me like a ton of bricks: the wave of unexpected emotions, the knife like pain in my throat, the inability to speak. James looked up at me. The words, when they eventually came, chocked out of my chest.
Let's just be clear here, I could have made this cliff hanger so much worse than it is. Think about how nice I am, yeah? Next chapter shouldn't take long, but might end up falling after christmas due to the queue closure.I guess we'll see. Reviews make my day!