Chapter 3 : The Interview
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She swung the purse that hung over her shoulder to the other, thankful she’d remembered to grab it after the rush of that morning. They were still adjusting to Aidan’s school schedule, which proved more difficult than Mia assumed. It was hard to go from waking up and getting stared at their own pace to the hurry of getting breakfast ready, lunch packed, showered and dressed, and all in an hour or so. The chaos didn’t bother her much, though. She was just thankful they allowed Aidan attendance despite the two years of homeschooling.
They were only two weeks into the year. She was certain it would become more routine as time went along. And if she could get the job she was currently traveling into Diagon Alley to interview for, she could finally stop fretting about her dwindling savings account. The majority of their shopping would need to be done at wizarding establishments to avoid having to constantly deal with exchanging her money for the Muggle currency, but Mia didn’t mind that.
It was necessary for her to get acquainted with her other world before Aidan went off to Hogwarts in a few years, and working at a shop in Diagon Alley could allow her to do just that. It could also allow them to continue living with a roof over their head. Besides, with Aidan’s primary school being hardly five minutes away, it was relatively convenient to run and drop him off, get back home, then Apparate from her living room to the alley behind the Leaky Cauldron.
She stopped fidgeting with her clothing long enough to glance at the slim watch on her wrist. Twenty minutes until nine. Twenty minutes until her interview was set to begin.
Without giving herself a second more to go over what she would say, she pulled out her wand and went through the motions; the brick wall adjusted at her behest. Sometimes she marveled at how many things she was able to keep straight in her own mind. Turn the keys to start the car, press on the gas to make it go and pull over if something starts smoking under the hood of her Rover 25. Pull out her wand and tap the bricks to make a secret world appear.... yes, she was pretty impressed with herself for keeping it all straight. Well, most the time.
As she stepped into the village and glanced around the streets, she felt a breath halt in her lungs. It’s wasn’t yet crowded, shop owners just unlocking for the day, but it was still astounding. She hadn’t been to Diagon Alley in over seven years... in fact, her last visit had been a few days before she went into labor, when Nana talked her into a day of shopping among witches and wizards.
That had also been less than a month after Voldemort’s defeat. Having been so separated from it all, neither her nor Nana understood the level of destruction. The Daily Prophet that they’d received every morning had talked only of celebration and safety, not shops still broken and barricaded, people unwilling to meet each other’s eyes on the street. The memory brought a chill through Mia, and she focused instead on how the village looked that very moment. Alive was the best word she could think for it. Alive with doors flung open, with witches and wizards sweeping their entrances and placing chairs outside for patrons to enjoy what was sure to be a sunny day; the streets were alive with magic.
She felt the same sense of peace that had washed over her sixteen years ago. That life changing day when she’d stepped into Ollivander’s shop at age eleven to purchase her wand. Of course, she hadn’t been preparing for Hogwarts the way all the other children were. She’d instead been preparing to learn wand work at the hands of her ever capable grandmother, with material and guidelines owled in from the Hogwarts at the start of every term. At the time, she’d struggled to disguise her disappointment, not wanting to hurt Nana’s feeling. But she knew Nana had done what she thought was best to keep her safe, the same way Mia would do anything necessary to shield her own child.
Her heels clanked along the cobblestone path that led her farther into the village. She tried to look like someone who belonged, though she couldn’t resist taking in the sight of it all. Her gaze flickered over a short man who was bounding around outside, placing flowers into vases. A long table stood just under the shop’s window, and it seemed as if the florist was bringing his bundles of color out to enjoy the sun. As she walked by, he caught her glance and plucked from one of his vases a long sunflower.
He nudged it out toward her, and she felt herself begin to stammer out a ‘No thank you,’ but something in his eyes made it impossible for her to refuse. She pulled open her purse and dove a hand into the pouch that housed a few Sickles, then held them out to the man.
“A beautiful lady should never pay for her flower,” he answered, smiling still as he pushed the sunflower toward her. A small part of Mia’s brain was ordering her to refuse, either that or force the money into his hands, but she did neither. Instead, she reached for it and grabbed the stem -- the green anchor nearly the same width as her own slender fingers -- then thanked the man. The sun was just high enough to cast a ray on the top of his balding head, bringing a shine to bare skin. He waved her off, and as she walked away she couldn’t help but glance back. He was now fully engrossed in his work, bouncing about as he continued placing the flowers with tender care.
Were people in this world always so kind? It felt like she owed him something now -- Mia Montgomery hated being in debt to anyone -- but he’d looked genuinely pleased when she accepted his token. Maybe she should just take it as a nice gesture?
She sped her pace up and began paying closer attention to the shop signs, knowing time was still ticking away. The woman who had owled her said the shop was located next to Ollivdaner’s... As soon as the thought entered her mind, a cheery building with a fresh looking coat of blue paint, the color of a robin’s egg, caught her eye. Escape into Scenery was written in curvy black letters on a sign that hung just over the door.
Mia glanced at her watch, pleased to note that she was still ten minutes early. She held out the sunflower, then pulled her wand from her purse and pointed it at the foliage. First she shrunk the item to the size of a pen, then slipped it into a pocket of her purse that she hoped wouldn’t result in it being crushed. As she crossed the street and quickened her pace, her heels playing out the same beat as before, a bright red train made to look like a miniature of the Hogwarts Express captured her attention. It stood proudly, displayed for all to see in the front window of a toyshop.
On a whim, she vowed to buy the train for Aidan if she got the job.
A quick pull of the door handle showed that the shop had already been unlocked, and Mia slipped inside while the bells above tinkled together.
The main room was small, but tastefully displayed the different pieces of art work along the walls. With no one around, Mia used the moment to take in the different paintings. She’d photographed primarily scenery and wildlife during her time behind the camera lens, capturing a wild horse poised to run one day, then snapping the shutter and persevering a storm as it touched a mountain top the next. She’d never dealt with paintings of any kind, but she still had an eye for art, and hoped that would be enough.
The creaking of steps on aged wood brought Mia from her thoughts. She turned around to see a grey-haired woman walking toward her.
“Hello, I’m looking for Mrs. Malory Chesterson,” Mia greeted, her tone professional as she held out a hand. The confidence she’d been working up began to dwindle at the sight of the woman’s attire. Flowing, dark blue robes were draped around her. Of course Mia had considered going with the traditional wizard clothing, but she’d dismissed the idea quickly that morning, knowing that Muggle wear had become increasingly common in the last few years. The florist had been wearing trousers and a jumper, hadn’t he?
“And you’ve found her. You must be here for the interview? Let me just pour us a cup of tea and we can begin. Do you take anything in yours?”
Mia shook her head and offered to help, but was told to take a seat in the back room. Mrs. Chesterson didn’t seem annoyed by the trousers and blouse... she was probably worrying for nothing. But it wasn’t for nothing. She needed this job.
The thought of having to take another photography assignment made her stomach twist into knots. Not because she disliked it, quite the opposite. But she couldn’t leave her baby during his first few weeks of school. She didn’t want to leave him at all, actually. Nana would watch him, and be nothing but happy about it, but this was all new for Aidan.
He was adjusting so much better than Mia, making friends and always having a slew of stories to tell her. Why couldn’t she be as resilient as her little man? While he was attending school for the first time, accepting what Mia had told him about his magic, and doing it all with as much happiness as ever, Mia was dealing with a constant battle of stress...always wondering if what she was doing was right.
He needed stability, she reminded herself. Roots. The home they’d moved into four months back was roots. Aidan loved their neighborhood, their town. It was close to Nana’s, which was why Mia settled on it, that and because Aidan was already familiar with the area. They had a few places close by for take-away, had the cafe just a short drive down the street and a playground in walking distance...
Yes, Mia thought as she took a deep breath, she was doing the right thing. Plus, Aidan never had to know just how stressful it all was. He never needed to understand that she was constantly wondering how long they’d get by without Mia receiving a steady income.
“I apologize for the wait, Mrs. Montgomery,” came Malory Chesterson’s voice along with a wave of musky perfume, a pot, and two empty teacups.
Mia felt her nerves grate at the terms ‘Mrs.’ She never gave any indication of a marriage, yet it was constantly assumed. The first time she’d met Aidan’s teacher, when she’d requested the chance to explain a bit about his prior education, Mrs. Geary had asked her if they’d be waiting for her husband to join them. Granted, it was an honest mistake, and Mia was actually very fond of Mrs. Geary. Over the last few weeks the teacher had sent Aidan home with little notes keeping Mia informed. She knew this wasn’t common practice, and the woman wasn’t required to take the extra time she did to make sure Mia and her son were both adjusting, but she did anyway.
“No apologies necessary, and you can call me Mia,” she said as she reached for the cup and took a sip. She kept silent about the ‘Mrs.’ It probably wasn’t wise to correct the woman before her interview even began.
“Well then, Mia, let’s get right down to it, shall we?”
And with that, Malory pulled out a piece of parchment from a file and set to work on a list of questions.
Claire sent Martha a wave as she stepped from the bakery, knowing the older woman could manage just fine without her. Thursday wasn’t often busy, anyway. Most of the morning pastries were done, and Martha had become fairly sufficient at handling the espresso machine.
She still didn’t want to be gone for much more than an hour. There was too much that needed to be done, but this was the only time she had free to browse for decorations that would fill the new bakery in The Meadows. Saturday was her brother’s first Quidditch match of the season, then Sunday nearly everything was closed. She supposed she could have gone Friday, but today seemed better. Just to get it out of the way, she thought.
The walk from her bakery, Indulgence, to the Diagon Alley’s art gallery didn’t take her longer than two minutes. She knew the paintings were a bit over priced, but they were so gorgeous that it was hard to care. And she liked being able to support the other local shops.
The smell of freshly brewed tea greeted Claire as she stepped into the shop.
After a few moments, the back door opened and the owner popped her head out. “Morning, Claire. I’m speaking with someone back here, but I can come out and join-”
“No, no, don’t bother. I’ll be looking for at least half an hour. I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
Malory gave her a nod, then disappeared back into the room. That was another thing Claire liked, around here they all knew one another. Though she wouldn’t go as far as to say they were all fond of each other.... for the most part everyone go on well enough. Malory, for example, was a good business woman. Shrewd as hell with the sort of tight lipped smile that made you want to roll your eyes, but she was nice enough. And she stocked some of the most beautiful paintings around.
As Claire made her way along the wall of framed works, she could hear a steady increase in voices. She glanced around, her cheeks growing pink with guilt... she’d always had a hard time resisting prying into other people’s business. Her feet moved on their own accord, walking her to the few paintings that were hanging near the door that was left ajar.
Well, if Malory Chesterson didn’t want people listening in on her private conversations, she really should close the door properly.
Claire turned her ear to the voices, but wasn’t able to make out what they were saying. She heard what sounded like a younger woman; by the tone it was obvious that whoever spoke was trying to force themselves to sound calm, but there were still a few detectable hints of anger brewing under the surface.
Next came Malory, and as luck would have it, her prim and proper tone came through crystal clear.
“I just don’t believe, with the combination of your experience in galleries being so lacking, and your informal education-”
The next voice rose just enough for Claire to make out.
“Just because I didn’t complete my degree doesn’t mean I didn’t learn as much, more possibly, working in my field. Most were still studying the things I was already photographing. ”
“Not that education. Your magical education!”
“Excuse me, but my grandmother made certain my knowledge in magic was just as extensive as a Hogwarts graduate. I sat for my N.E.W.T.s as every other student does, earned five, and learned all that was necessary to earn those while attending secondary school followed by sixth form.”
Whatever Malory said next was too quiet for Claire to hear, and she felt her cheeks grow hot at the amount of eavesdropping she’d done.
She stepped away, surprised when a small surge of anger passed through her. The woman who was in there with Mrs. Chesterson was obviously cross, and from the sounds of it she had a right to be. Though Claire didn’t know a terrible amount of what the Muggle schooling system entailed, she was still rather impressed that the woman had studied both in the magical world and Muggle. But Claire knew Malory Chesterson was old fashion. The silly bint got her feathers ruffled at just about everything.
Claire barely had time to step a few feet away from the back wall before the study door flew open; a slim, blonde woman stepped out. To the woman’s credit, she looked completely in control. Claire turned toward the nearest painting, not wanting to draw attention to herself.
“I appreciate your time, Mrs. Chesterson.” The icy tone was one Claire had used herself, and wholeheartedly approved of.
“I’ll keep your name on record, though I don’t want you to get your hopes up. I just don’t believe you’re what I’m looking for, and think we’d both end up with more stress than desired if I employed you. My shop requires full dedication of a properly educated pupil, without the sort of distractions it seems you currently have, Mrs. Montgomery.”
“It’s Miss,” the blonde snapped before pushing the glass door open and stepping into the street.
“Dear God, that was not how I wished to spend my morning,” Malory Chesterson muttered, before turning her attention to Claire. “I apologize for the wait. The interview ran longer than intended. It’s impossible to find good help, you know. All I'm looking for is a nice woman to assist me with the shop. Then I get her!The total lack of proper magical education may have been overlooked, but with having a young son to worry about -- the last thing I need is an owl telling me first thing in the morning that her child’s sick and can’t come in. Well, that was just too much. And did you hear her? Not even married! In my day, a woman-”
Claire stepped passed the nagging shop keeper, her mind still circling around the woman that just exited the building.
Her parents had told her time and time again that she did too many things on impulse. Hell, that was the only reason she owned a bakery, two bakeries, now. She hardly ever thought her actions through, but followed her heart.
That was what had Claire running from the shop and down the cobblestone path until she spotted the woman, short blonde hair swaying back and forth.
“Excuse me,” Claire said, catching her breath with a few quick puffs. When the woman turned around, Clair was afraid for a split second she might be faced with a teary eyed expression; she was terrible with tears, they always broke her heart. Instead, it was blue eyes with anger simmering at the surface and a jaw set in stubbornness.
“Yes?” the woman demanded, and Claire appreciated that she she at least attempted to sound polite.
“Listen, if the worst Mrs. Chesterson could say about you is that you attended Muggle schooling and University instead of Hogwarts, and that you have a child-”
“That woman brought my son into this?” Oh damn, Claire thought, the blonde had left before that comment.
“If those are the largest of her concerns,” Claire continued, ignoring the questions, “then it’s safe to assume she had nothing negative of actual importance to go off of. Have you ever baked? Either by hand or magic?”
The woman didn’t answer, but eyed Claire. Both were around the same height, though complete contrasts. Where Claire’s hair was dark and long, eyes brown and features soft, Mia’s was barely past her chin, framing her sharp features with eyes that were nearly too big for her face.
“I -- yes, I’ve done both,” she finally answered. “But why on earth are you asking me? I don’t mean to sound rude, but I’m fairly certain I’ve never met you and-”
“I’m Claire. I own a shop just down there, a bakery and cafe, and I’m looking for someone to manage it. I overheard your interview with Mrs. Chesterson, and I don’t think she was being fair to you. If you’re interested, I’d like to talk with you and hear about what sort of job you’re looking for, what your skills are. At least you can have one interview today with someone that isn’t completely insane.”
“You eavesdropped on the interview then followed me from the shop.” the woman stated it what may have been question or fact, a curved brow raised.
“Well, I said with someone who isn’t completely insane.”
That got a smile from the blonde and she held out her hand. Her grip was surprisingly firm, something Claire could appreciate.
“I’m Mia,” she said. “If you have the time to spare, I’d be interested in learning more about what sort of position you’re looking to fill.”