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Calling by peppersweet
Chapter 1 : Calling
 
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It was a miserable Christmas. The rain was relentless, lashing against the stuccoed walls in perfect tandem with the wind that came howling down the chimney, scattering soot and the odd feather across the carpet. There had been housemartins roosting there for most of the year; their chirping had soundtracked much of Easter. They were gone, now, as were the sweet peas that used to grow in the back garden, and the small pot of basil that had struggled upwards on the kitchen windowsill for an entire three months. The place had a desolate look. Starved, stripped trees bordered the withered lawn, and the stucco that looked off-white in summer was now a drab grey.

Scorpius had been eyeing the brown paper-wrapped parcel on the end table since the moment he'd arrived. It was hardly a conspicuous object - the paper and the string that tied it could have been bought for three knuts from one of the post offices in Diagon Alley - but the presence of it, the promise of what it might contain, had been a startling distraction throughout the day. There was a certain familiarity in the shape and size of it. Scorpius knew that, if he picked it up, it would fit perfectly in his hands. He had the nagging suspicion that he knew what was inside it.

His father had been reliably enigmatic. It could only have been the present, but this was something that his father would neither confirm nor deny. But it was Christmas eve and he had, so far, failed to produce the almost obligatory annual bag of Sickles and Knuts that accompanied an excuse about not buying Scorpius a present on the grounds that he didn't know what he might have wanted.

Until such time as his father explained the parcel - or passed over a moneybag - it remained an unusual addition to the sitting room in the cold, draughty house. It stuck out, an odd symbol of homeliness in an otherwise anonymous place. The paper was crinkled and the string slightly frayed, as if it had been held, possibly put together with care and love, unlike most of the things in the room, including the occupants.

Then, at three o'clock, after they'd had a bowl of broccoli and stilton soup apiece and listened to the repeat of a carol service on the wireless - 'I know it's a day early, Scorpius, but I want you to open it now.'

The hand that wore the ring with the Malfoy crest on the index finger gestured to the end table, to the brown paper-wrapped parcel. Scorpius was surprised to see that his hands were trembling as he reached for it. The shape was so recognisable now that he almost didn’t want to open it, and when he did, it was to find a squat leather bag, heavy, a tarnished silver zip running the perimeter of the top. Loose threads sticking out all over the place. A heavy weight, bulky, expectant – but comfortable in his hands. The worn leather fit perfectly around his palms. He hooked a finger around the zip and pulled, relishing the moment for as long as he could.

The camera’s hotshoe crowned first, waiting for the flashgun that was tucked to the left of the bag. Dials and switches next, tarnished as the zip. ISO set to 400, and shutter speed to 250. A standard lens stuck out modestly on the front, still dressed in dust. In the depths of the bag he found a telephoto lens, five filters in their grimy cases, and a small, soft brush for cleaning the lens. A strip of parchment peeled from the base of the camera, declaring the owner to be a T. Prenderghast. Engraved in the metal beside it: Made in the GDR.

‘It’s, ahem, Muggle,’ his father muttered. The hand that wore the ring now rested on his knee, the index finger drumming impatiently. ‘Found it in a junk shop. It’s been tinkered with, works with magic apparently. I hope you like it.’

Scorpius’ eyes began to cloud. Dusty as the lens. He ran his fingertip over the deep engraving that read Praktica MTL3. A good model, a vintage, from the age of the iron curtain. ‘It’s perfect, Dad. Really.’

‘You like it?’

‘I love it.’

Love was an understatement. It was like having a limb refitted. No more borrowing the school’s unwieldy camera to pursue his amateur habit. This was one of his very own, never mind the parchment on the bottom. He tore it off and slipped it into the bag. T. Prenderghast had given up this limb, this organ, and now it completed a new owner.

A fingertip brushed the shutter release. A thumb hooked instinctively around a lever and wound on imaginary film. He kept it on his lap and dared himself to look his father in the eye.

‘Thanks,’ he said.

Cradling the camera between his hands, feeling the cold weight of it growing warm – his. ‘I’ll need to buy film,’ he said, more to himself than anything. ‘It’s a shame I can’t process colour at school, but I’ll definitely start shooting as soon as I’m back, the newspaper will be starting up again…’

It only occurred to him then how much courage this must have taken on his father’s part. To walk into a junk shop and buy repurposed muggle kit, however altered and enchanted by magic. It had always been difficult to locate the beating heart within his father’s body which, like the camera, seemed to be made up of metal plates and hinges in which he lived, a mind in a machine. And somehow this camera was a message. Something real and abstract all at once.

Scorpius meant to say something meaningful – perhaps he even meant to tell his father that, despite everything, he loved him – but the senior Malfoy was already rising from his chair with a sigh. The two of them had never quite reached an understanding. The Pureblood and his muggle-loving son; a common problem with no apparent solution.

‘I’ll go and make a cup of tea. Do you want one?’

Scorpius swallowed back what he’d meant to say. ‘Please.’

‘How do you take it? I forget.’

It was a small blow. ‘One sugar. Milk,’ he said. ‘Please.’

‘Alright,’ his father was already halfway to the kitchen. Scorpius stayed in his chair, perfectly upright, the camera’s weight in his lap reminding him of his longing and the emptiness it occupied.

*


Half five; the time they’d agreed his mother would pick him up.

Six; his father sneering from the window.

‘Maybe she’s forgotten.’

And then half six; ‘You can stay here tonight.’

‘She’ll come,’ Scorpius said. ‘There’s probably traffic.’

His father snorted with derision. He’d always disapproved of that job in the muggle liaison office and the Ford Fiesta that came with it. Thought it might corrupt Scorpius. Scorpius was mostly embarrassed, and thought that, if his mother hadn't corrupted him, compulsory Muggle Studies lessons and a healthy interest in photography probably had instead.

Scorpius wondered, at ten to seven, whether it was worth believing in a traffic jam any longer. Then there was a sound of a car door slamming outside and, a moment later, the doorbell shrilled and the silence cracked.

‘That’ll be her,’ Scorpius stood, rising from his seat, but his father had already gone to answer the door. At once, Scorpius set about the room, gathering his things. Maybe he’d never had faith in his mother all along, because his shoes were still unlaced by the Windsor chair. His coat was still hanging at the end of the stairs in the hallway. The camera was on the end table, out of its bag.

Voices in the hallway, now. ‘Well? Why are you so late?’

‘I was at the Notts’, I lost track of time-’

‘Are the Notts more important than your son?’

‘No, I just-’

‘At this time of year, as well!’

‘I’m not that late! Scorpius?’

He was in the midst of lacing up his left trainer when his mother burst into the room. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘I’ll get the tea on as soon as we’re in.’

‘Disgraceful,’ his father’s voice was distant.

‘It’s bloody freezing in here,’ she shot over her shoulder. ‘Ever tried a heating charm?’

‘Ever tried putting on another jumper?’

Scorpius hoisted the camera onto his shoulder and pushed past his mother. A cold draught poured into the hallway from the open door. ‘Come on,’ he said, grabbing his jacket. ‘Come on, let’s go.’

Neither parent even looked at him. He went out into the garden, pulling on his jacket – their voices became fainter, but he was not far away enough to block them out completely.

‘He’s away nearly all year, and you forget you’re meant to see him?’

‘How dare you say that!’

‘It’s like you don’t even care...’

‘If you hadn’t been-’

Whatever his father hadn't been, it was lost as Scorpius reached the car and tugged impatiently on the door handle. It was locked. Without even caring if his parents could hear, he cursed out loud.

The argument was usually the same. First, the accusation would come from his mother - it’s not like you even wanted him in the first place - and then his father’s stuttering apologies would follow, words that Scorpius could almost recite by heart. We had no money, we had no house, the Ministry wouldn’t even let me apparate an inch without an inquiry…Scorpius had occasionally wondered if his parents had had anything at all back then, because it didn’t quite seem like they’d had each other. Even the accidental sum of the two of them had not been strong enough to stop this. Perhaps they’d used up whatever love they’d had on him. He had been a mistake, that was all, a mistake that'd drained the two of them dry.

He leaned against the car and sulked out across the road, hoping the neighbours weren’t watching. They’d be the scourge of the cul-de-sac again.

Scorpius didn’t hear the rest of the argument, although this was no great loss. He hadn't wanted to. A minute or so later, the front door slammed and his mother came bounding down the garden path, keys jangling in her fist.

‘In. Get in,’ she ordered, unlocking the doors. Scorpius fumbled with the handle. The world had blurred. But somehow he dropped into his seat and locked the seatbelt over himself, the camera safe on his lap, just as the engine roared into life and the wheels spun on the icy tarmac.

His mother took the quiet suburban roads, well over the speed limit, cars jumping aside all around her, until she hit the motorway. The sky outside was dirty orange. Not a star in sight. Nothing vaguely magical or enchanting about the long, straight roads with their dim, trailing cat-eye lights. Scorpius did not feel part of that world, wishing, like a petulant child, that he’d never been born into it at all. Then, imagining that he really had never been born, and that his stony-faced mother drove alone, and that no sixteen year old boy occupied the front seat, that she had no son to pass between her ex-husband like a parcel.

It certainly felt as if he was slipping out of existence or, at least, if he did still exist, he was in possession of somebody else’s body. The clothes and the camera were not his. Like his father, he was a mind in a machine. His eyes were, after all, just organs expelling fluid. The cold tracks on his cheeks were visual symptoms of a temporary disease. The shaking hands were not his, and nor were the numb, frostbitten feet. Scorpius bit his lip, and felt himself inhabit the cold limbs once more. He thought himself an anomaly, an accident, pitifully weak – and then a snide, imaginary voice said: grow up.

‘Scorpius,’ his mother said. There was a flatness to her voice.

‘Mum, you need to drive,’ he said.

‘We care about you, you know, no matter what happens-’

‘Mum!’

She went silent at once, as if he’d slapped her. He chose to focus on the blurring street lamps outside before the motorway really began and there was nothing to be seen on the other side of the window except his own reflection.

His mother parked wonkily outside the two-up, two-down in suburban Manchester. It was close to eight. Once inside, she put the tea on as promised. Conversation returned in quick, quiet bursts, until he thought they’d just about repaired themselves and she announced she was going off to bed.

‘Up early tomorrow. We need to be at your Aunt Daphne’s before eleven,’ she said.

‘Okay,’ he said.

She pulled him into an embrace, crushing his windpipe against her shoulder. 'You know we love you, Scorpius.'

'Okay,' he said.

'You know, sometimes I think it never should have happened-’

'I know, Mum.'

She released him. 'I mean it.'

'I know, Mum,' he echoed, not really knowing if she meant it at all. If she loved him, then why did this charade repeat every Christmas, like clockwork? Every Easter? Every birthday?

Once she had vanished upstairs, he knew what he had to do. Scorpius crept out into the hallway and swiped the dish of Muggle currency his mum sometimes used for work. Then, quietly as he dared, he unlatched the front door and stepped out into the night.

It was Christmas eve and not a soul moved on the streets. He walked to the phonebox around the corner, fingers clutching at a strip of parchment a girl had stuffed into his pocket before the end of term. The cure. He did not know, at this point, that he would default to this same quick cure for almost eight months. That one day he’d be kissed outside that same phonebox by a girl who’d never work out that he’d made his first ever phone call from there.

It was one of the last telephone boxes around. One of the panels had been kicked in, and glass lay like a puddle amongst the moss and weeds and concrete. Nobody made phone calls these days. Above the handset was a small gallery of lewd, yellowing cards. Lonely? Call Cynthia. Call Tracey. Call Amy. Instead he fed the machine with coins and dialled for Rose.

Static on the line. Then the box was invaded with warmth as a man said ‘Hello?’

‘Y-yes?’ he stammered. ‘Who’s calling?’

‘Oi,’ he said, and Scorpius panicked momentarily when he realised the voice was that of Rose's father. All the practising they’d done with dummy handsets in Muggle Studies hadn’t prepared him for this. ‘I’m meant to ask you that. Who is it?’

‘It’s, er…’ he fumbled for an alibi, staring up at the business cards. ‘Cynthia. Calling for Rose.’

‘Alright,’ Mr Weasley said. Then Scorpius had to hold the handset at arm’s length as he bellowed ‘Rose! There’s a boy called Cynthia on the phone for you!’

Another crackle of static and a clunk as the receiver was set down. Scorpius winced. Of all the names, he’d picked Cynthia – he’d cribbed the name of a call girl. But what if he’d given his real name? What if Rose hadn't told her parents? The phone would probably have been put down on him right away. Best to just be Cynthia. He'd only really been going out with Rose for a fortnight, and it was early days yet.

Then warmth in his ear again as Rose’s voice came down the line from miles away. Distant, but, at the same time, close, as if she was trapped in the plastic speaker. He pressed the receiver to his ear, desperately trying to summon the image of her and dream her up into the phonebox with him.

‘Hello?’

‘Hello, yes, er, this isn’t Cynthia, um…’

‘Scorpius?’

‘Yeah. Hi.’

‘Oh. Hello.’

‘Yeah, so…um, having a nice Christmas?’

‘Mmm, it’s been great. How’s yours?’

Everything he’d wanted to say to her had leaked out of his head. A stubborn blankness had taken its place. ‘It’s been…nice, Rose, really nice.’

‘Any reason for the call?’

‘Oh, um, no, just wanted to say…hello. And Happy Christmas.’

‘Well then. Happy Christmas to you too.’

‘Thank you for liking me,’ he blurted out.

She sounded amused. ‘Thank you for liking me too.’

‘Yeah, I…really like you.’

There was a protracted silence. He could hear her breathing. ‘Well, thank you for phoning to tell me that,’ she said.

‘Thanks for giving me your telephone number. I just…thought I might telephone you. And say hello and stuff.’

She giggled. ‘It’s alright. I won’t keep you, I know this must be expensive.’

‘It’s my mum’s money. For work.’

She made a noise of disapproval. ‘All the same. I should go. It’s been nice talking to you.’

‘Yeah,’ he said, feeling a little deflated. ‘Yeah, sure. Happy Christmas.’

‘You too. Thank you for, um, telephoning. Goodbye.’

‘Bye,’ he said, and then she hung up.

He thrust the receiver back onto its cradle. What had been the point of that? He hadn’t told her anything. He had imagined relaying the entire story to her. The camera, the way it stood for his father’s feelings. The argument. The same argument. Thinking he was worthless. Unwanted. Because surely it was her job to convince him of the opposite?

She didn’t need to know. Scorpius swiftly applied his forehead to the glass wall of the phonebox. He shouldn’t have phoned her. She didn’t need to know anything about his family - in fact, it was better if she didn’t. He kept his home life a secret out of habit; it was good ammunition for the kids who already didn’t like him on the basis that he was a Malfoy and the son of a Death Eater. What if she dumped him? He was accustomed to neglect. Being tossed between his parents as if he were an imaginary bomb in a child’s game. And the camera had been a second-hand piece of junk, a relic from the days of two Germanys and monochrome film. Hardly a major investment.

And it meant so much to him.

He applied his forehead to the glass again. Wished for that warmth that the sound of her voice had brought. He’d have to tell her someday. It was such a great shame, though, such an embarrassment – so many marriages ended in divorce these days, so many kids had two sets of house keys and no home, and it wasn’t exactly something you could expect sympathy for. Grow up, an internal voice sneered, again, and this time he ended up applying his fist to the glass too.

He withdrew from the glass wall, scooping up the change the handset had spluttered out and sinking it into his pocket. He’d seek sympathy someday. But not today.

Scorpius had his foot out the door before he realised he’d forgotten something. He turned and, furtively, swiped Cynthia’s business card from where it was tacked on the wall, and then set off home.

The receiver, knocked from its cradle, swung back and forth, back and forth, dial tone wailing into the night.



a/n: so, thoughts? This was originally part of the Starving Artists prequel called ‘Don’t Panic’ that I took down from the archives months ago, but I hope it still made sense to people unfamiliar with these characters! And I hope it isn’t too out of season...! Thank you very much to justonemorefic for reading this through way back in the depths of winter, and massive thanks too to long_live_luna_bellatrix for thoroughly beta’ing this and fixing up my spelling/grammar/general plot. And thanks to you for reading; if you’ve got any comments, please drop me a review ♥




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