Chapter 42 : forty-two
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I’d played numerous must-win Quidditch matches for Gryffindor. I’d spent two years as their captain, which brought a pressure of its own. I’d played fifty-three competitive games for the Falcons, along with three friendlies, and all of those had been must-win occasions, just because Sinead never settled for anything less than a win. Some of those games had proved more nerve-wracking than others; four matches stood out for me.
My debut match against the Wigtown Warriors, a couple of months after I’d left Hogwarts, with Ryan and Julia as my teammates, was one. Another was my first big match, an away fixture against the Tornados towards the end of that season. The third was last season’s final match against the Bats; a winner-takes-all-fixture, and possibly the biggest match I’d ever played in – it was certainly the one with the most at stake.
The other one which stuck in my mind was the Pride match two months ago, when Tamsin Robins had watched me from the crowd to judge my England prospects, and I’d all but clammed up.
But I’d recovered from those nerves every time. I’d pulled through and produced a good performance regardless. I’d thought I was good at managing my nerves, that I was able to channel them into adrenaline.
Now, I wondered if that was really the case, or if it was simply because I felt at home on a broom. I was used to flying, to playing Quidditch. It was something I’d known all my life. I’d proven to myself I could play well if I let myself, so there was no real need to be nervous.
But I’d never done something like this before.
Until a few weeks ago, I’d barely had to fight for anything I wanted. I’d been lucky, very lucky, that Sinead had had a vested interest in the Gryffindor team while I’d played for them, and perhaps her interest in the Chasers – more particularly her children – had helped me even more. It would surely be impossible not to notice me, when she was watching Ryan for four years and Brigid for two as they played Chaser alongside me. I hadn’t needed to try out. She hadn’t needed to call tryouts. She just approached me and offered me a spot as a reserve Chaser, and I’d taken it like a shot. No work involved, apart from signing the contract – I hadn’t even needed to read it, as Brigid had done that for me in her first proper role as my agent.
I’d possibly had to fight a little to make it into the first team – something I’d achieved by the end of my first full season with the Falcons. But even that hadn’t felt like a huge challenge to me. I’d just tried my best in training, and made the most of the games I’d played. The fact that Julia and Laura were both coming to the end of their careers and Sinead wanted to inject some youth into the team and create a Chaser trio with longevity had helped. So while the scale of my achievement wasn’t lost on me, it had never felt like a really tough fight.
In making the England squad in the first place, I may have come close to really fighting for something – but again, it had only required me to play well, and my biggest challenge had been the nerves, which I’d managed to overcome in the end. Those few, blissful hours I’d been in the squad had been some of the best of my life, but it still hadn’t felt like an uphill struggle.
Getting my family back had.
But even then, Weasley love was unconditional, magnanimous, unlimited. They all loved me, and they forgave me in a flash.
Regaining my spot in the Falcons squad had also been an uphill struggle – and yet, Sinead had known her beloved team would be in a much better position for the climax of the season if it was at full capacity. She’d known her best move was to take me back, so she’d have me as an extra Chaser option.
I’d never fought for a girl before.
I hadn’t had to fight for Ingrid. The only time I should have fought for her, it wouldn’t even have been her I’d have been appealing to, it would have been Brigid and Albus, and I hadn’t fought.
I still regretted that, even now.
It wasn’t that I still felt anything for her. We’d both moved on with our lives, and had had some degree of success and happiness. It was more that she’d made me happy at the time, and had given me something worth fighting for. I hated to think there was a part of my character that had allowed me to just give up.
Quidditch players didn’t give up.
Potters didn’t give up.
And so this time, I wasn’t giving up. I was going to do something I’d never done before.
And that was why I felt more nervous than I ever had before.
I took a few deep, calming breaths, and knocked on the front door.
A couple of moments passed before it was opened by a young woman I vaguely recognised, having seen her a couple of times in the Tav.
“Is Carla in?” I asked, rubbing the back of my neck subconsciously.
“You’re James, right?” the girl – Felicity? – said, ignoring my question.
“Yeah. Yeah, I am.” I shifted from one foot to the other. “Is she in?”
She glanced back into the flat, then looked back at me.
“She’ll murder me later,” she sighed. “Yes, she is – wait,” she added as I made to step forward even though she was blocking the doorway. “She doesn’t want to see you.”
I felt a dull pang in my chest. What had I done to make her not want to see me?
“But I think she’s being an idiot about it,” Felicity continued. “Again, she’ll kill me for telling you this – I think she really likes you. You’re different to all the others she’s hooked up with. The way she acted around you, the things she did with you, the way she talked about you – she ended up way in over her head. And ... I think that scared her, once she realised. Because ... there’s a reason, a reason why she doesn’t let herself fall for people. And no matter what I, or anybody else for that matter, says to her, she won’t see that she deserves to be happy.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because I want to be with her,” I said bluntly.
“How much do you want to be with her? How hard are you prepared to fight for her?”
“I’ll fight with everything I’ve got,” I said strongly.
“And you ... you won’t get scared, or run off, or-”
“No, I-” I paused, remembering my conversation with Dad. “What hasn’t she told me?” I asked.
Felicity shook her head slowly.
“That’s for her to tell you, not me.”
“And she’ll tell me?”
“If you won’t walk away from her, then she’ll tell you.”
“I won’t walk away.”
“You realise she’ll tell you this to try to make you walk away?”
“Is it something bad, then?”
“Well, it’s not good, put it that way. But she makes it worse than it is – oh, I don’t mean she looks for sympathy or anything like that,” she added. “She just doesn’t like being a burden on people. So I’m not letting you through this door unless I feel sure you won’t walk away. She doesn’t deserve to feel that kind of pain again. That’s why she claims she doesn’t want to see you; she’s trying to avoid the hurt.”
“I’ve already lost her once,” I said. “I’m not going to let it happen again.”
Felicity stared at me for a moment, then closed her eyes, a look of anguish on her face.
“I am so, so sorry,” she said quietly. “Just ... promise me you’ll be open-minded. Because I love her to pieces, and I can’t bear to see her let something control her life like this. She deserves to be happy ... and with you, she is.”
She pulled the door wide open, and let me cross the threshold.
“Hers is the door on the far right. And James?” she added.
Already half-way across the living room, I turned to look back at her.
“Good luck.” She gave me a slight smile.
Puzzled as to why I’d need that luck – and, indeed, as to what she’d been talking about in the first place – I turned back to the door, and knocked on that piece of wood that stood between me and a whole lot of answers.
“Come in,” came Carlotta’s rather quiet voice.
I turned the handle, and slowly opened the door.
She was sitting up in bed, reading a book. She glanced up as I came in, then did a double take as she registered who I was.
“James?” She frowned. “What are you doing here?”
“I had to see you.” I shut the door behind me. “Are you okay? Your colleague said you’re off work for a few weeks...”
“’m fine,” she said, marking her page and putting the book on her bedside table. “How d’you know where I live?”
“Looked in the phone book.” I shoved my hands in my pockets, feeling slightly awkward where I stood.
She eyed me suspiciously.
“You know what a phone book is?”
“Of course I do!” I said indignantly. “They taught us about them in Muggle Studies.”
“I’m impressed you know Felicity’s surname; her parents own this place.”
I looked down at my shoes sheepishly.
“Dad got the address for me,” I confessed.
“Is it really that import-”
“Can I sit down?” I gestured towards the chair by her bed.
She shrugged, the action looking stiff.
I sat down gingerly.
“How’d your Dad get this address?”
She was talking slowly again, like she’d done when she’d come to see me. Her hands were buried under her duvet, so I couldn’t tell if her arm was trembling weirdly like it had done on that day.
“You know I said about Memory Charms?” I began. “Well, the Ministry wanted to use one on you, when they found out that we’d stopped seeing each other. They ... they compile information on anyone who might threaten the Statute. They know loads about Lily and her friends-”
“What kind of information?”
“Oh, not that much-”
“You just said they know loads about Lily’s friends. What kind of things?”
“Just ... personal information. Birth date, parentage, job, that kind of thing. And address, obviously.”
“What about medical information?” she asked curiously.
“Yeah, that too.”
An intriguing expression began to cross her face. It looked hopeful, almost joyous...
“And you’ve seen it all?”
“Well, no,” I confessed, and her face fell. “Dad took that bit out.”
Now she frowned.
“Your Dad? Why did he have my information? Why did he take the medical stuff out? Did he read it?”
Her questions came in quick-fire form; now she wasn’t deliberately enunciating her words, she began to trip over them.
“He took it from the Obliviators – the people that do the Memory Charms – because he knew I wouldn’t want them to Obliviate you. He ... he read the medical stuff, and took it out because he didn’t want anyone seeing it. Why? What don’t I know?”
“Nothing,” she said quickly – too quickly. “It’s just ... it’s personal information, you know?”
“Are you off work sick?” I asked her suspiciously.
She didn’t say it very convincingly.
“Yes. Yes, I am. My sister’s taking me to the doctor tomorrow. I should be back at work next week, I just need some medication.”
She avoided the question, asking one of her own instead.
“Why are you here?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” I said bluntly. “I’m here because...” I paused. “Look, I’m sorry. I should have told you about Dad before, instead of keeping it from you. But I just didn’t know when to tell you! I mean, should I have dumped it on you when you first properly learned about magic? That was surely far too soon to explain all about the persecution and the wars. But I should have at least told you about it when you found out about Voldemort. I was wrong to keep it from you then. But ... I was too comfortable with the fact that you didn’t know, that I could be certain that you weren’t at all influenced by knowing I had a famous dad. And trust me, when it feels like almost everyone is more interested in your dad than in you, it’s refreshing to find someone who quite plainly isn’t. Maybe I let my relationship with Dad dictate things a bit too much, as well. But we’ve sorted that out now, and I’m not as bothered about how people view me any more – just the people I care about. And ... and I care about you.”
She stared at me for a moment, before finding her voice.
“I’ve told you, I’m not bothered about that. So you didn’t tell me ... I was mad at the time, sure. But I get why you didn’t say anything, and I’m not mad any more.”
“But you’re holding back.”
Another pause. “You just said, James, that you liked my not knowing about any of your back story. All along, that’s overshadowed everything else. How can you say you care about me? You just like the fact I’ve no preconceptions of you, that I’m not some gold-digger after your money or your fame-”
“But it’s not like that!” I protested.
“How do you know that?” she challenged.
“Because ... I don’t know, I just do! I like it that you cooked for me – even before you knew a thing about me! You’re funny, you’re caring, you don’t judge anyone, you’re just an incredible person! I’m happy when I’m with you, and when I’m not with you I wish I was! I’m always relaxed around you; I don’t feel any pressure to be something I’m not – and that has nothing to do with your not knowing about the fame! And on that note I know for a fact that if you had known about my dad before, you wouldn’t have given a damn. And I would’ve wanted to be with you anyway. You ... you made me realise that Quidditch isn’t the only thing I care about, or the only thing that makes me happy. You make me happy. When you left – I thought I’d lost you! And I couldn’t handle that, I couldn’t bear the thought that I’d screwed up and lost you for good. I just want you, I want to be with you, and I want to make you as happy as you make me.”
She’d closed her eyes while I’d been speaking, and now she buried her head in her hands.
“You don’t,” she said, her voice muffled. “You don’t, James, you just...” She raised her head and looked at me incredulously. “You just think you need me around to stop you screwing up again!”
“No I don’t!” I protested. “I know I’ll be fine, so long as I have you. But that’s not why I want to be with you. That’s ... that’s an effect of me wanting to be with you! Because when I’m with you, it doesn’t matter what other people think of me. All that matters is you...”
I trailed off, remembering Felicity’s words.
Carlotta wanted me to walk away. She didn’t want me to fight for her. No matter what I said, she would give me the same answer.
“I had my secret,” I said. “You’ve got yours. Tell me what it is.”
She stared at me, the expression on her face unreadable.
She looked down at her duvet, and drew a deep breath.
“We were only meant to be a bit of fun,” she began, slowly. “And I tried, for a while, not to let myself get too attached. The trouble is, I think I fell for you the moment you gave me your jumper to wear home the first time I met you...”
She drew a long, shuddering breath.
“At first, I convinced myself it was okay, I could still back out, there wasn’t that much at stake. And then I found out about magic. That stepped things up a bit. A lot. Suddenly, you were trusting me with something huge, and it felt like we were both more invested in this than I’d wanted to be. And yet, I couldn’t pull myself away from it. I was curious, I wanted to learn more. I told myself, again, it was alright and I could still back out.
“I didn’t think much of it when you told me you played Quidditch. I had no idea how big it was, how good you were. Then I found out, and the guilt began to grow. Because now it felt more real. All of a sudden I was caught up with someone in a career that was really going places, someone who strived to be the best. And it kept getting worse and worse. And then England picked you...
“I turned up at yours that day to find out if you were in the squad. If you were in, your television or your paper would tell me, and if you weren’t, you’d be at home and you’d probably need consoling. I figured if that was the case, I could do that. It was the least I owed you. I turned up and you weren’t there. The paper was. I read you were in, and I was delighted for you ... but at the same time, it was the worst feeling in the world. Playing for England ... the world at your fingertips, matches all over the place, years of fun and success ahead of you ... but you couldn’t have any of that with me around.
“And then I read your profile, and learned all about your dad ... and I was angry. But I was more upset than angry. I was upset that you didn’t feel you could confide in me about your dad’s fame. And that was when it hit me that I was in far too deep. Because why should I care that you didn’t feel able to talk to me about something? I knew I had to back out, so you could have the career you wanted. And I was too much of a coward to tell you the real reason why, so I used that article, and the one about me, as an excuse to get mad and leave you. But I ... I never wanted to cause you harm, I had no idea you’d react like you did...”
She trailed off. I gave her a moment, before pressing her.
“What were you too scared to tell me?”
She closed her eyes again.
“I’m off work sick,” she said. “I’m permanently sick. There’s medication to control it, but I can’t be cured, and it’s just going to get worse...”
I had a bad feeling about what was to come.
“Is one of the symptoms shaking, per chance?” I asked tentatively.
She nodded, her eyes still squeezed tight shut.
“It’s a disease that affects the nerves. You won’t have heard of it, because it’s primarily a Muggle disease; you guys seem to have some kind of built in immunity to it.” She sounded slightly bitter.
I felt a slight sinking feeling in my stomach. Of all the people to have something like this thrown at them ... of all the people to be denied an easy ride at something so foreign to them, it had to be me.
“Don’t call it a disease-” I began.
She let out a hollow laugh, and finally looked back at me.
“Why not? That’s what they call it, James. Parkinson’s disease. I’m abnormal. In fact I’m doubly abnormal, because you’re not supposed to get it this young. Most people who get it are at least fifty when the symptoms hit, not twenty. And yet, here I am, with my stupid tremors and my stupid rigid muscles and my stupid speech...”
She sounded close to tears.
“But it...” I had no idea what to say, no idea what I was meant to think about the curveball that had been just thrown my way. “It can’t be that bad, surely?”
It was the wrong thing to say; I realised it almost before the words came out of my mouth. She gave me a scathing glare.
“Most of the time you’ve seen me, the medication has been suppressing the symptoms. You’ve not seen me on a bad day. Apart from that night you found me outside the Tav...”
I remembered that clear as a bell.
“Is that what was wrong?”
“I was drunk, too,” she confessed. “But yes, a lot of it was down to the disease. I was ... I was having a bad day. Sometimes it all gets too much. That time that I forgot about your match? Another symptom is memory loss. I would never have forgotten it otherwise, and I was devastated when I realised I’d have to miss it.”
I licked my lips nervously.
“What – what else is there?” I asked uncertainly, not overly sure I really wanted to know.
“Aside from the shaking and the stiffness and the slurred speech and the memory loss? You want more?” She sighed. “I don’t sleep very well. You’ve never noticed, because you’re a heavy sleeper, but I lie awake for hours on end every night. I just can’t get to sleep. And sometimes I struggle to stand up or get out of bed – you know, like an old person does,” she added in a condescending tone of voice. “That’s what it is. I’m prematurely old. And it’s just going to get worse. There are other symptoms I could develop at any point. The medication only works for a time, before I begin to become immune to it and the symptoms get worse and I have to get my dosage increased. That’s why Juanita’s taking me to the doctor’s. I’ll be okay – well, as okay as I can be – once I’ve gotten that prescription. But I can’t work like this.”
She pulled her arm out from under the duvet. It was trembling even more than it had the other week.
“I could whisk the eggs and shake the cocktails damn well, but that’s about all I’m good for right now,” she said bitterly.
It was all beginning to sink in, bit by bit, now the initial shock had worn off. But there was one piece of the puzzle that I couldn’t fit.
“I don’t get why this changes things,” I said.
She stared at me incredulously.
“James, I’m a burden. I’m a bloody cripple. I’d hold anyone back, let alone you. You have your whole life ahead of you, you still have huge England prospects, you could go anywhere and do anything. Me? I shake, and I slur, and I forget stuff. You don’t want someone like me hanging around the place, I’ll just hamper you. You could be so successful, so happy, you don’t need me around...”
I was shaking my head.
“So, you’re just going to let this dictate your life for you?” I said. “You won’t let yourself be happy-”
“Who says I’m not happy?”
“You look me in the eye, and tell me you’d be happier without me.”
“I’d be happier knowing I wasn’t holding you back.” She looked back down at her lap, her voice barely a whisper.
“That’s not convincing, and you know it. You’re just letting yourself become a puppet for this illness-”
“At least I know who I am!” she burst out, raising her head to look up at me again.
It was my turn to let out an empty laugh.
“No, you don’t-”
“I’m fine, James! I’m going to keep working at the Tav until I have enough money to open my own place. I’m happy when I’m cooking! I like making other people happy, and food is one of the best ways to do that. At least that way I don’t end up hurting them in the meantime.”
“So you’re just going to live for your job, and not let yourself get attached to anyone?”
“Yes, I am. Sound familiar?”
“I-” I came to a halt as the words hit me like the Hogwarts Express. “I don’t do that-”
“I see how much Quidditch means to you. You love it. It’s your everything. The same as cooking is to me. That’s all you are. A Quidditch-player-robot who won’t let himself get close to a girl-”
“I am now!” I burst out.
“Well, I won’t let you!” she replied. “Not with me. You deserve better than this.”
I shook my head numbly.
“How can you say that? I don’t care, Carla, it doesn’t make a difference to me if you have an incurable illness-”
“James, you don’t even know what it is!” she cried, her control over her speech well and truly gone. “You have no idea, none at all, what kind of a sacrifice dating me would be! Trust me, when you learn you’d turn tail, just like everybody else-”
She stopped mid-sentence, breathing heavily.
And that was when I fully clocked on.
“Someone left you, didn’t they?”
“You can leave now,” she said quietly.
“Carla, just because someone else got cold feet, doesn’t mean I will-”
She rolled over onto her side, her back facing me.
“You don’t know a thing about this,” she said. “You can’t possibly make a rational decision on it. So I’ll make it for you. Now you can leave.”
“I’m not walking away from you.”
There was a pause. When she next spoke, it sounded like she was crying.
“James, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. Leave me alone.”
I didn’t want to. All I wanted to do was to climb into bed next to her and hold her, and tell her everything was going to be okay. But I couldn’t. How could I tell her things would be alright? I hadn’t even the slightest idea about what this disease really was, and for as long as I remained ignorant, she had one over me. Because she was right – I couldn’t make a proper decision without knowing the full facts.
But despite that, I was still certain they wouldn’t be enough to change my mind.
“I’ll leave you alone,” I told her, getting to my feet. “But I promise you, I’m not walking away.”
Felicity was reading a book in the living room. She looked up as I left Carlotta’s room.
“She told you, huh?” she asked quietly once I’d shut the door behind me.
I paused for a moment, gathering my thoughts.
“Is she really a burden?”
Felicity’s face fell, and she put her book down.
“Of course not,” she said. “I love her to pieces, and she could never be a burden. Sure, Parky gets in the way sometimes-”
“We – me and the other girls – figured if we gave it a name, it might make her feel slightly better about it. But it doesn’t. She’s stubborn, see. She’s letting it become her, she’s not letting herself live her life properly. She was diagnosed just before we left school two years ago. She had a boyfriend at the time; she’d been with him a couple of years, so it was quite serious at that point – it wasn’t as though it was early days or anything. And at first he told her he’d stick around.” She scoffed. “Yeah, that didn’t last long. Bastard got cold feet, ditched her a month or so later.” She paused. “I mean, I get that it’s a big fucking deal, but she’s still Carla, you know? If he really cared about her, he’d have stayed with her and coped with the bad times. Us girls manage fine. And I’ll be honest with you, there can be bad times. But nothing is, or will ever be, bad enough to make me run out on her. And yeah, it’s big, but at the same time, it’s not, you know? Because we all care about her, and that makes it easier, knowing that she needs us, even if she won’t admit it.
“The worst bit about it isn’t the trembling or her hopeless memory or anything like that; it’s how downhearted she gets about it. Sometimes it feels as though nothing you can say can make it better, that the only thing that would is a cure, and that doesn’t exist. She needs people around her, people who love her and care about her and will stop her from letting it control her life. But she can’t bear the thought that she’s having an adverse effect on someone else’s life...”
“But that’s crazy,” I interrupted.
A slight smile spread across her face.
“I love her, and I want her to be happy,” she said. “If you honestly think you can cope with Parky...”
“I told her I can, but she won’t listen,” I confessed. “She says I don’t know enough to judge properly.”
Felicity’s face fell.
“That sounds about right for Carlotta,” she said glumly.
“But she’s got a point,” I said. “And she’s going to cling to that for as long as she can, isn’t she?”
“You know her too well,” she sighed. “And even if you go away and learn everything there is to know, she’ll find something else.”
“But she can’t keep pushing me away,” I said, more hopefully than confidently.
“She doesn’t want to,” she agreed. “She’ll give in eventually. If you care enough to persevere-”
“Of course I do.”
“Then prove it.” Felicity’s look was almost a pleading one. “Make her give in. Help her see that it doesn’t have to be like this. We do all we can, but we were already in her life, she needs to learn she can let someone else in. You can be the one to do that, if you care enough. But I swear, if there’s even the slightest chance you’ll let her down, then don’t even try because she can’t deal with that kind of hurt again. And if you don’t think you can adjust to this ... then don’t even bother coming back.”
“But ... wouldn’t that upset her?”
“It would, yes. Which is why she initially decided not to tell you anything; that way, at least she wouldn’t have to face rejection. But if she must face it, better that it’s now rather than further down the line, when it will hurt more.”
I was already shaking my head.
“That won’t happen,” I vowed. “I won’t ... I won’t leave...”
“How can you say that now?” she asked. “Carla’s right; you have no idea what this entails...”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But I’ll find out, like she wants me to ... and then I’ll come back. And I won’t leave.”
I barely knew anything about this situation I found myself in. But that, I knew for certain.
A/N: A couple of years ago, I saw a film called Love and Other Drugs in the cinema. The plot was a typical boy-meets-girl with the slight issue that the girl had early onset Parkinson's. Even while I was in the cinema watching the film, I thought "This could make a good fanfic" and Off the Rails was born. So I owe a thanks to the writers of that initial plot, for inspiring my story.
I've done a fair amount of research on this, to make it as convincing as I possibly can, but I realise that I may still be wrong on some points as we go along. I always welcome constructive criticism, but on this point I will be overly receptive to any helpful comments. :)
I just want to take this moment to thank everyone who's reviewed so far. It really means a lot to know that people are enjoying my work enough to leave a review. So whether it's been one line or ten, one review or twenty, thank you all very much :)
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