Chapter 8 : A Wilted Petunia
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Oaklene Cottage, Harper’s Hill
As dawn broke over Harper’s Hill the next morning, Harry Potter watched the shadow of the leaning oak outside move across the ceiling of his bedroom through weary eyes. His mind had been unable to settle at all overnight, his thoughts swinging from painful memories to bursts of hatred, to long periods of pure, uncaring numbness. Throughout the night, he had been aware of the palest ghost of old fears settling on his chest, making him feel both fluttery and constricted. More than once, Harry had started awake, gasping, as he’d begun to fall. Each time this happened, Ginny would give a soft murmur of sleepy comfort and pull him closer to her warm body.
When morning had truly arrived, and it was time to get James ready for his day with Andromeda and Teddy, Harry got up quietly and got on with it all without thinking. His arms felt almost mechanical as he’d dressed his son and made breakfast. Ginny was still dozing, so he put together a tray of toast and orange juice and crept up the stairs, leaving James to play with his food. Harry nudged the bedroom door open and paused for a moment as he looked at his wife. He thought with chagrin of their argument the night before, which had been eclipsed by Petunia’s phone call. Ginny had given Harry the option of talking about it, but beyond agreeing that he would go to Privet Drive the next day and that she should still take James to Annie’s, Harry had just wanted to go to bed - even if it meant lying in silence all night.
He was fairly sure that Ginny had lain awake for some time next to him, and more than once he saw her stroking the slight swell of her bump as if to soothe the baby, or herself. After a while, she’d snored softly and thrown an arm over Harry’s chest, holding and shielding him at once. Now, as he stood by the bedside with a tray of breakfast in his hands, Harry’s young wife was sleeping with her arms sprawled across the pillows. Her mouth was slightly open, and her hair was a wild tangle, but Harry couldn’t help finding her utterly adorable.
He placed the tray on the bedside table and sat on the edge of the bed. The movement woke Ginny up, and she blinked a few times, gazing at Harry through sleepy eyes.
‘Morning,’ she mumbled dozily, lifting the corner of the duvet to cover her mouth as he leaned in to kiss her. ‘Did you sleep?’
Harry smiled. They had been married for three years, Harry had supported Ginny through childbirth, they’d seen the best and worse they each had to offer - and yet she was still embarrassed about things like morning breath.
‘A bit,’ he lied.
Ginny stretched, catlike in her movements, and her eyes fell on the tray.
‘Is that an apology?’
‘Actually, it’s toast,’ said Harry, passing her the plate. ‘And an apology.’
‘You really didn’t need to -’
Harry shook his head.
‘I did. I know I haven’t been -’
Ginny put a hand on Harry’s arm as she shifted herself upright.
‘Harry, we’ve talked about it. We’ve slept on it. We’re alright.’
Harry smiled ruefully and leant forward to kiss Ginny softly on the forehead.
‘Okay, then. I’d better get back to James.’
‘What’s he up to?’ asked Ginny, taking a bite of her toast.
‘Having breakfast,’ said Harry. ‘I’m going to head off to Surrey in a minute. Get it over with, you know?’
Ginny nodded and swung her legs out of bed.
‘I think I’ll finish breakfast downstairs.’
Harry followed Ginny down into the kitchen and heard her laugh. James was beaming up at his parents, his face and clothes sticky with raspberry jam. Harry groaned, and ran a hand across his face.
‘I didn’t think... I’ll have to get him changed again.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll do it before we go. You’ll get yourself all messy, too,’ Ginny said, crouching down in front of her son’s highchair. ‘We don’t want Daddy all covered in yuck, do we, Jamie-Joo? Icky icky sticky...’
Harry looked down at his clothes; for some reason, he’d dressed quite smartly in one of the shirts he usually wore to meetings with his boss. But then again, it wasn’t like he was visiting family. Not really. This was something he’d been requested to do, and was doing out of a sense of - what? Duty? Familial obligation? Pity? Or was it curiosity? It can’t have been respect.Harry wasn’t sure it even mattered. All he knew was that he felt exhausted and sick with nerves, and he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on a nice day playing with Teddy and James. His godson would be disappointed, but Harry would make it up to him later.
Ginny straightened up, and padded barefoot over the floorboards to stand in front of Harry. She reached for his hands and squeezed them gently.
‘You’ll be fine. Are you sure you don’t want me to come? I could leave James with Gilly Gregory.’
Harry shook his head, his thumbs brushing the back of Ginny’s hands.
‘Thanks. But you go and have a nice time with Andromeda and Teddy.’
‘Are you sure? I’ve been itching to give that so-called aunt of yours a good hexing ever since...’ Ginny paused and thought for a moment. ‘Well, ever since I met you, really.’
‘That’s very sweet, but then I’d have to arrest you.’
‘Hmm. That is a conundrum.’ Ginny pursed her lips in mock-frustration.
‘And anyway,’ Harry added, turning to take a gulp of tea from his favourite Holyhead Harpies mug. ‘She has just lost her husband. It wouldn’t be fair to hex her, even if she is a -’
‘Heartless, selfish, stuck-up cow?’ finished Ginny, her nostrils flaring in the anger she couldn’t contain whenever she thought of the Dursleys.
Harry flicked his gaze towards James who was, for once, paying a measure of attention to his parents.
Ginny smiled and turned to her son.
‘James likes cows, don’t you, sweetie?’
Harry laughed at his wife’s quick thinking.
‘What do cows say, James?’ he asked, going over to the toddler and stroking his hair. ‘What do they say? They say ‘mooooo’...’
‘Mooooo!’ James repeated, clapping his sticky hands together.
Harry beamed and kissed his son briefly on the head.
‘If only the reporters could see you now...’ said Ginny, through a mouthful of toast. ‘Harry Potter: hero of the wizarding world, Senior Auror at the Ministry of Magic, mooing.’
Harry shook his head, laughing. His wife had a special talent for taking his feelings seriously, whilst also making him laugh... particularly when he’d thought he was facing an entirely horrible day.
Ten minutes later, Harry took a deep breath, pictured the alleyway that Dudley had promised nobody ever went down anymore, and turned on the spot.
In the kitchen, Ginny heard the faint popping sound of her husband Disapparating and looked at James, who was bashing a plastic spoon against his chair.
‘Poor Daddy,’ she murmured. ‘He’s not having a good weekend at all.’
Privet Drive, Little Whinging
It was much colder in Surrey than Dorset, and Harry felt himself shivering as he walked quickly down Privet Drive. He wrapped his arms around himself and quickly pushed away the unwelcome thought that he may be shivering for any reason other than the weather.
The place hadn’t changed. Everything looked a little smaller, the pavements were more cracked, and many of the pristine gardens had been paved over to make way for a second car, but the feeling of the place was just the same. It was orderly, peaceful, buttoned-up and brittle. Harry had walked past old Arabella Figg’s house on the way there; it had looked empty, the grass overgrown and the windows bare of curtains. He’d felt a pang as he’d wondered what had happened to her... Harry hoped that if she’d died, someone was taking care of her awful cats. Maybe she’d just moved house after Harry had left Privet Drive forever. Harry pinched the bridge of his nose, where his glasses had been rubbing. Forever hadn’t lasted as long as he’d hoped.
The front garden of Number 4 was one of the many that had been covered to make space for another car. Neatly tended hanging baskets and terracotta pots edged the driveway, and a fine coating of bright blue pellets on the soil ensured that every silvery trail ended in an empty snail shell. From the outside there was, as always, no sign that anything untoward had happened behind the polished front door. That at least would be of some comfort to Petunia, thought Harry, who wasn’t sure whether he really wanted her to be comforted or not. He’d suffered through a whole comfortless summer after he’d seen Cedric killed, and been utterly alone for months after the only family he’d cared about, Sirius, had died. Harry shook his head as he paused at the front door. This sort of memory was the reason why he hadn’t wanted to come back, and yet... was it perhaps precisely why he’d found himself agreeing to Petunia’s request?
Harry rang the doorbell. It gave a crisp ‘bing!’, quite unlike the silly tune that Ron and Hermione’s doorbell played. There was no answer. Harry was about to try again when he noticed that the door was not quite closed properly.
‘Petunia?’ he called, nudging the door open slightly. His hand went to his wand, an Auror’s instinct. ‘Is anyone in?’
The house was warm, and Harry stepped inside. The place was silent, but for the familiar sounds of the house... a fridge humming, a clock ticking. Even after seven years, familiar. And yet, Harry realised as he closed the door behind him, there was something wrong with the picture. The thick shagpile carpet was scuffed, where the wheels of an emergency stretcher had been dragged across the floor. The detritus of a team of paramedics lay scattered... plastic needle caps, tourniquets and IV bag packaging all led a sad trail into the living room. Harry stared at the mess for a moment, his heart hammering against the reality of it all.
‘Hello?’ Harry called, keeping his wand drawn. He didn’t sense any magic in the air, but his neck was prickling nonetheless. Still no answer came, and his gaze slid to the small door to his right. An odd feeling began to form in his chest as he opened it carefully and looked inside. The cupboard was small, and filled with golf clubs, mops, and a vacuum cleaner. Harry crouched and turned to look at the lintel on the inside of the cupboard. A tiny mark was scratched into the paint, and Harry lit the end of his wand to peer closer. The initials ‘HP’ had been scored clumsily into the wood by a bored seven year-old; it was the only sign that a child had ever slept there.
Harry thought for a moment of James’s nursery at home, of the Quidditch mural Luna had painted on the ceiling and the boxes full of toys that James loved to pull out and scatter all over the floor. A quiet shuffling noise behind Harry made him start around, barely escaping banging his head on the doorframe. A figure swayed unsteadily in the hallway, blinking reddened eyes at the brightly illuminated tip of Harry’s wand, which was levelled at her chest.
‘Harry... is that you?’ Petunia whispered, her voice cracking.
He lowered his wand, and stared at his aunt. It was plain to see that she’d raided Vernon’s drinks cabinet, although Harry had never seen her more than a little tipsy - and that was only ever on New Year’s Eve when she’d sometimes permitted herself one or two celebratory glasses of punch, if the party was going well and nothing was in the oven. Now, Petunia glanced uncertainly at the cupboard under the stairs, and then back at Harry. She hiccupped softly and covered her mouth, looking embarrassed. Harry quietly closed the cupboard door and pocketed his wand.
‘Where’s Dudley?’ he asked.
‘Gone to the shop,’ Petunia replied, taking a wobbly step towards Harry. ‘Can you imagine running out of teabags at a time like this? People coming and going, and nothing to offer them...’
She hiccupped again, her face going suddenly pale. Harry had an awful vision of her vomiting all over the place, and stepped forward to steady her as she swayed. He sighed, shifting her weight against his side.
‘You could definitely do with some tea. Let’s just sit down until Dudley gets back.’
Harry supported his aunt’s skinny frame into the living room, a disposable rubber tourniquet getting stuck to his shoe as they staggered together. Petunia dropped onto an armchair and watched blearily as Harry perched uncertainly on the edge of the sofa. She started to try to get to her feet.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ she asked, a brittle smile pinned grotesquely to her sagging features.
‘Um... there isn’t any, Aunt Petunia,’ Harry replied. ‘Remember?’
‘Oh.’ Petunia flopped back into her seat, and a choked laugh pierced the silence for a second before disappearing entirely. There was no echo in the room. ‘Of course.’
Harry got up and walked around the room; Petunia was staring straight ahead, unseeing. He stopped at the huge mantelpiece covered in framed photos. They had been added to since Harry had left... a prominent photograph depicted Dudley, wide-shouldered in his black graduation gown and suit - against all probability and expectation, Dudley had managed to get into college and was now working as a PE teacher at a local primary school. Harry allowed himself a small smirk as he thought of how well the job suited his cousin, before his eye was caught by another, smaller frame - set further back on the mantelpiece, but visible nonetheless. The chubby face of his own son beamed out at him, with two tiny white teeth just visible in his dribbly gums. Dudley had taken the photo about a year previously, with his Muggle camera; the photograph wasn’t moving but James looked as lively as ever.
Harry couldn’t help himself; he reached over the other frames and picked up the photograph of his son, stroking the glass with his thumb. A waft of alcoholic breath swept over Harry as his aunt got to her feet behind him and gently took the frame out of his hand. Using the hem of her floral shirt to wipe Harry’s thumbprint from the glass, Petunia looked at the photo for a moment and sighed.
‘I never saw you at that age. But he looks just like you, anyway,’ said Petunia thoughtfully. She peered at Harry as she replaced the frame on the shelf. ‘Is he a good boy?’
Harry was still shocked at finding a photograph of James at Number 4, Privet Drive. He swallowed, and searched for his voice.
‘He’s lively. Noisy. But perfect.’
Petunia nodded and slumped back into her armchair.
‘You were never noisy as a baby.’
Harry held himself back from pointing out that this probably had more to do with the fact that he’d quickly learned that crying over a stolen toy or a bumped knee resulted in a sly pinch from Dudley, the jealous toddler, than any sort of inherent goodness.
‘Does he know about me?’ asked Petunia, gesturing vaguely towards the mantel. ‘Does he know about his great-aunt Petunia?’
Harry was momentarily lost for words, and he stared at her, agog. Her face was as thin and horsey as ever, but her skin had become thin, softly wrinkled beneath her eyes. A tiny bubble of spit sat on her quivering lower lip, and her eyes seemed to be searching for something in his face.
‘Um...’ Harry ran a hand through his hair. ‘Well, no. James doesn’t really know about much yet. He’s mainly interested in food and toys.’
‘Where is he today? With his mother?’ Petunia’s eyes flicked towards the living room window, as if expecting to see Harry’s wife and child standing in the driveway.
‘Uh... yeah. They’re visiting my godson.’
Petunia got up once again; she seemed unable to settle for a single moment. She padded across the living room and knelt down before Uncle Vernon’s old drinks cabinet. The doors stood ajar, and an empty bottle of whiskey rolled out, landing on Petunia’s lap as she searched the cabinet.
‘Would you like some gin, Harry?' she contemplated a bottle with curiosity. 'I’ve actually never tried it before...’
‘Aunt Petunia, it’s nine-thirty in the morning,’ said Harry, turning to look out of the window. Dudley couldn’t come home soon enough. Harry nearly laughed aloud at the thought of longing for his cousin to rescue him. He could just leave...
‘Morning... is it really?’ Petunia rocked back on her heels. ‘I haven’t slept...’
She tried to get up, and winced as she braced her hands on the cabinet. Harry noticed the dark purple bruises on her wrists for the first time, and sprang out of his seat to help her up. Who was Harry kidding? He couldn’t just leave the woman.
‘Petunia... what happened to your arms?’
She swayed in the grip of his hands, and looked down at the swollen bruises with surprise. Harry guessed that the alcohol was acting as an anaesthetic.
‘Tried to catch him,’ she mumbled. ‘When he fell.’
Harry felt pity swell, unbidden, in his chest. He lifted Petunia’s skinny wrists to inspect them.
‘You might have broken bones.’
‘I tried to resuscitate him,’ Petunia slurred, tears suddenly falling down her cheeks without warning. ‘It was just me and him here, alone, for so long. Nobody tells you how hard it is to try and keep someone alive.’ She gave a strangled sob. ‘And he was such a big man. My big, strong husband...’
Petunia allowed Harry to guide her over to the sofa, and they sat together for a moment. Harry didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. She stared down at the hands holding her skinny wrists carefully, gulping and sniffing her tears away.
‘What’s that?’ she asked, touching a shaking finger to an old scar on the back of Harry’s hand. ‘‘I must not tell lies’... what is that?’
Harry felt his jaw set.
‘It’s just a scar. I got it years ago, at school.’
Petunia looked up at Harry, her lip quivering more than ever. Harry’s pity was beginning to mingle with nausea.
‘Vernon always called you a liar.’
Petunia shook her head vigorously, her blonde curls frizzy and tangled. She grasped Harry’s hand, her thumb over the scar. She seemed to be pleading.
‘He always knew you weren’t... he just couldn’t bear the truth... you were dangerous...’
Harry withdrew his hand sharply.
‘I was a child,’ he said coldly. Don’t get angry, not now... she’s not worth it... said a voice in his head, sounding something like Hermione.
‘Please, Harry -’ Petunia grasped for his hand again. ‘I need to tell you...’
‘Tell me what?’ Harry asked, the sick feeling in his stomach growing stronger.
‘Your uncle... he’s not the man you used to know,’ she said desperately, her bony fingers working against the back of his hand. She didn’t seem to notice the present tense sneaking into her speech. Harry half-hoped she’d realise, and feel the awful kick in her chest that he used to get whenever he’d wanted to tell a story to Sirius before remembering he would never be able to tell him anything again.
‘After we went away with those... those Phoenix people... well, Vernon changed,’ Petunia continued. ‘He’d never depended on anyone for anything before, and it was an awful experience for him.’
Harry almost opened his mouth to say exactly how he felt about Vernon’s ‘awful experience’, but Petunia rambled on.
‘But the people we stayed with were kind, and eventually I think he respected them a little - even if he couldn’t actually like them. Vernon was sorry for some things that he’d done -’
‘But not all of them,’ Harry interrupted crossly.
‘He was a complicated man, a proud man...’ Petunia began to protest, tears falling down her face once again.
‘No, he wasn’t,’ said Harry, leaping to his feet and standing in front of Petunia. He didn’t care if she had bruised wrists, or a dead husband, or a skirt stained with splashes of tears and whiskey... how dare she? How dare she? Harry felt rooted to the spot with fury.
‘He was a bully! He was a big, frightened, cruel bully who told me lies and let you mistreat me, and all because you, Aunt Petunia, wanted to be like my mum!’
She looked stunned.
‘Harry, please -’
‘NO, PETUNIA!’ Harry roared, his chest rising and falling quickly with the pain pumping through his body. His aunt flinched, and stared at him with suddenly dry eyes. Harry took a deep breath and steadied himself. ‘I promised myself long ago that I wouldn’t waste any more time hating you and Vernon. It’s not worth it. I don’t know why you called me anyway; it’s not like I can help you, or like I’m even sad that he’s dead -’
‘I’m alone, Harry!’ Petunia interrupted shrilly. ‘I have Dudley of course, but losing Vernon... I feel like my past is all gone now.’
Harry looked at her blankly.
‘The truth is...’ she continued quietly, trying uselessly to smooth the wrinkles in her skirt. ‘The truth is, I wish Lily were here.’
As his aunt looked up at him with fragile honesty, Harry felt his heart leap into his throat. He could count on his fingers the number of times Petunia had said his mother’s name in front of him.
‘You... you miss my mum?’
‘Of course I do,’ Petunia snapped, looking for a moment like the aunt he’d always known. Then her face sagged, and she once again looked utterly miserable. ‘She’d know how to help me - and she always tried, even when I was awful to her. You’re the only link I have left to my sister -’
‘Well, you should have thought of that twenty-five years ago,’ Harry said shortly. ‘I’m sorry Petunia, but I can’t help you. I should never have come here.’
Harry turned to leave, but Petunia stumbled after him.
‘But Marge will be here soon!’ she protested, grabbing at his arm. ‘I can’t deal with her... you’re the only one who ever... she’s a dreadful woman!’
Harry stopped at the front door.
‘I hadn’t noticed,’ he said, carefully removing Petunia’s fingers from his sleeve. ‘I always found her delightful. You should put some ice on your wrists.’
Harry threw the front door open and hurried into the driveway, nearly walking straight into the broad chest of his cousin who was getting out of a car, a box of teabags and a carton of milk clutched in his hands.
‘Harry!’ Dudley exclaimed, surprised.
Harry paused and looked up at Dudley. He’d played his part in making Harry’s early life hell, but Harry had grown to realise that the kid was almost as much of a victim of Petunia and Vernon Dursley’s awful parenting as he’d been.
‘Sorry Dudley,’ he muttered. ‘I’m sorry for your loss, but I can’t be here. I’ve got to go. Sorry.’
Harry edged around Dudley’s huge frame and began to walk quickly down the street, breaking into a sprint as he turned the corner. He didn’t stop until he was certain that the tears threatening to fall from his eyes had disappeared entirely. As he caught his breath, he thought of Ginny and James... he thought of a whole afternoon suddenly free to play with Teddy - maybe he’d take his broom up to Andromeda’s and take the kid for a little ride. Teddy loved flying, and Harry could suddenly think of nothing better than being high in the air, his godson held securely in his arms as their feet skimmed the treetops.
Stepping behind an empty row of garages, Harry thought of a place full of life and comfort, and turned quickly on the spot. With an odd popping sound, Harry Potter disappeared, leaving Little Whinging just as ordinary as ever.
AN: I feel it should be noted that the storyline featuring the death of Vernon Dursley was planned out long before the sad and untimely demise of the great actor, Richard Griffiths who, as many of you will know, played Uncle Vernon in the film adaptations. By all accounts he was a truly lovely man in real life, and we all know that he was a great actor. Although mostly unquotable here, his performance in Withnail and I is one of the best in film history. So, odd as it may be, this chapter is dedicated to the memory of the much-missed Richard Griffiths.
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