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Chapter 56 : fifty-six
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“Poor Stef,” Della mused as we watched them. “He’s going to feel rotten at the end of this, win or lose.”
As the match was being played at the Falcons’ ground, a few of us had decided to show up on Saturday morning to give Stefan some much-needed support. The match had begun on Thursday, and had only stopped to allow the reserves to take over on a rolling basis so the players could get some much-needed sleep. It was already the longest professional match in twenty years, and it showed no signs of ending soon.
“It’s not his fault his Chasers are being outplayed,” I reasoned. Bulgaria were down by about two hundred points, which was almost unheard of for them. If the teams were more finely balanced, the score line would seem impressively close for a forty-eight hour long match, but Bulgaria were number one in the world, twelve places above Brazil, and some people had considered them clear favourites for the Cup before the tournament had begun.
“No,” Della agreed, “but he’ll argue he should have been able to catch the Snitch before his Chasers fell too far behind for the match to be salvageable. You know what he’s like, the standards he sets for himself; to have taken a game into its third day is to fail in his eyes. In any Seeker’s eyes.”
“Imagine if we play you next,” I grinned, “and it goes to three days.”
“I advise you not to make that comment in Klaus’ earshot; you’ll send him into a cold sweat just thinking about it.”
I laughed. Klaus was also here watching the match; he and Ryan had gone to buy us all some Butterbeer from one of the stalls.
“I hear he’s off back to Heidelberg for the closed season,” I said. “You going in that direction too?”
“I’m not sure,” she sighed. “They’re my home team, my grandfather played for them and I grew up supporting them ... I wouldn’t dream of leaving the Falcons, even though the Harriers offer me a contract every January, so the thought of being able to play for them without leaving here is ... well, beyond words. But ... if you’re a European Chaser who wants to advance your game and improve your skills, you’ve got to go somewhere outside the continent. I was thinking about heading to Australia, actually.” She paused. “What about you? Do you fancy that?”
I hesitated for a moment before answering.
“I thought so, at first,” I said eventually. “But then I considered the distance, and ... I’ve just got my family back, you know? And there’s Carlotta, too ... I’m not so sure whether it’s the thing to do. I might just go for somewhere closer. I mean, I’d love to improve my game, of course, but ... I don’t know if I’m ready to move to the other side of the world for a few months.”
She smiled in understanding.
“You don’t have to go far away,” she said. “If it’s not for you, then it’s not the right thing to do, and I admire you for being able to say that. You’ll still benefit hugely from playing with a team like the Harriers or the Vultures. Have you heard from anywhere yet?”
“Brigid says some teams have asked, but I don’t think I’ve given her a proper answer yet. I was waiting until after the League finished to even think about it, and then the World Cup kind of sprang out of nowhere ... I think I need to concentrate on that first. I’ll sit down and work out my next move once it’s all over and done with.”
“Good decision,” she agreed. “But you won’t be leaving Europe?”
Our conversation was halted as Stefan finally, finally caught the Snitch and ended the match, but it was too late for his Bulgaria side. It had become clear their Chasers weren’t going to make up the difference, and so he’d clearly decided that even if they couldn’t win, he wanted to end things on his terms.
“No,” I said, as the Brazilian side celebrated their surprise group win. “I won’t be leaving Europe.”
A pang of guilt hit me later that week, when I realised my own career move wasn’t the only thing I’d forgotten in the wake of my England call-up. I’d promised both Mum and Dad, as well as Professor McGonagall, that I’d find a successor for Madam Hooch by next September at the latest. So far, I hadn’t succeeded.
The trouble was, I just didn’t know who to ask. Mum and I had already admitted that no current players would be prepared to retire for the job, and retiring players wouldn’t take another job that kept them away from family. That ruled out a lot of potentials. I was sure McGonagall had already advertised for a replacement, but the job requirements were more precise than it might have seemed; whoever took it would have to referee the matches as well as teach flying. All in all, finding somebody qualified for the job who’d also want it was tough.
Nevertheless, I made another attempt at recruiting someone in training on Monday. Unfortunately, Tamsin was no more interested than anyone else I’d talked to.
“I don’t think Daffyd would let me, in all honesty,” she said of her husband, sounding apologetic. “He’s been a stay-at-home dad for the last ten years or so, I think it’s my turn to take on the parenting role once I retire. I doubt he’d take too kindly to my taking a teaching job. It’s good you’re trying to find someone, though; McGonagall’s lucky to have you as a recruiter.”
“If nobody else takes the job by this time next year, then my mum will, and I don’t think my dad wants that,” I admitted to her.
“Your mum would be good at it,” she acknowledged. “Your dad would, actually, now I think about it-”
“He won’t leave the Aurors.” I shrugged. “He feels like he can still do good in the Ministry – and besides, he won’t leave his troops. He won’t leave Mum either, for that matter. Albus is in Auror training; Lily can barely fly herself; Freddie’s not responsible enough to teach; Brigid’s too impatient; Hugo’s only just left Hogwarts, he won’t go back straight away; Victoire would murder Teddy if he left her to look after Dora and Remus by herself; Ethan and Dominique have only just gotten married; Roxanne’s only just into her playing career so she’s hardly likely to retire now; Uncle Charlie’s always preferred animals to humans; Uncle George and Aunt Angelina will never leave the shop-”
“You really have put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?” Tamsin smiled ever so slightly. “What about Julia, or Laura, or Sophie...”
“They’ve all said the same as you; they’ll retire to spend time with family, not to take up another job that’s just as time-consuming.”
“And that’s your problem.” She sighed. “You need someone who’s already been out of the game for a long time, someone whose family have grown up and moved on...”
“Someone like my mother,” I finished. “But I don’t know how to go about finding them. If an advertisement in the Prophet hasn’t worked, then I don’t know what will.”
“You shouldn’t worry too much about it,” She said gently. “Madam Hooch will stay for another year if she has to. And you should be thinking about the World Cup right now. If I find anyone who I think might be up for it, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks,” I said with an appreciative smile.
“Anything to prevent the Saviour of the Wizarding World from losing his housewife,” she joked. “Come on, Junior, back on your broom. We’ve got a match to prepare for!”
The match. Our quarter-final. We were playing Brazil on Saturday. Given their Chasers’ current form it would be a tough match and seemed like an awful draw, but then I wasn’t sure I’d like to play any of the teams who’d made it into the last eight. Ireland had been unfortunate and had drawn Uruguay, while Germany would face Peru. The last match would be between Russia and Luxembourg.
We didn’t know the team yet. With five days to go before the match, I wasn’t sure when we’d learn who’d be playing. Demelza didn’t seem to have any particular schedule on that front. We’d learned the team that played against Nigeria almost straight away, and we’d picked the team to play Spain early on too, but the team to play Canada hadn’t been announced until comparatively late.
There were pros and cons to each approach; if Demelza picked a starting seven now, they’d have all week to practice together and develop tactics, but it’d mean putting all her eggs in one basket very early on, and I wasn’t sure if she liked doing that. Leaving the team decision until later in the week would give her more time to be certain she’d picked the right players, but would mean less preparation time.
I wasn’t expecting to be picked. I wanted to play more than anything, of course, and I still wasn’t sure McLaggen gelled with the rest of us, but there was no denying this was a huge game, and he – along with Tamsin and Emily – had the experience I lacked when it came to such big games. I knew all too well I’d be the risky pick, and to be honest if I were in Demelza’s shoes, I wasn’t sure I’d have the confidence to pick myself.
I tried to bury those worries, for that evening at the very least. I’d had an idea; there was something I wanted to show Carlotta, and I didn’t want team decisions to cloud that.
The outing I had planned wasn’t just for her benefit. I’d experienced most things within the wizarding world, but this was one thing I’d only ever heard about before. Mum and Dad spoke so enthusiastically of their experience, as did Uncles Ron, George, Bill and Charlie, and I’d always been envious of their stories. Even Uncle Percy and Aunt Hermione, who both lacked the rest of the family’s enthusiasm for Quidditch, couldn’t deny their awe of the atmosphere a home Quidditch World Cup created.
There really was nothing quite as special as the sight of thousands of witches and wizards from all over the world descending upon the moors of Britain in anticipation of the final. Even with nearly three weeks to go, those with the cheapest tickets were already arriving, with mixed expectations. Some, like the Irish and Peruvians, fully anticipated seeing their teams reach the final. Others knew their country hadn’t a chance – indeed, there were many people from countries as far-flung as Samoa or Ethiopia, who knew their country was already out of the Cup, and never really had a chance from the very start – but just wanted to experience the atmosphere and enjoy the Quidditch as a neutral. It created an absolutely incredible atmosphere, incomparable with anything I’d ever experienced before.
Of course, if it was a new sensation for me, it was completely beyond Carlotta’s imagination. Her mouth constantly gaped with awe as we wandered around the campsites, each tent larger and more extravagant than the one before. The Australian contingent was unmissable with their green and gold tents, flags and all sorts. Across the way, the Argentineans were just as patriotic. Carlotta let out a cry of joy as we came across a small group of Spanish witches and warlocks, and even plucked up the courage to approach them for a chat – none of which I understood of course, since that I didn’t know a single word of Spanish.
Our wander took far longer than it should have done, as my presence didn’t go unnoticed. All the way round the campsites we were swamped by people who approached to shake my hand, to ask for photographs and autographs, to congratulate me on my call-up and caps, to bemoan my absence from the Canada match, and to express their joy over the Falcons’ League win – it seemed we had a large international following. It was the kind of fanfare I’d probably have despised before, but as it was I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie, and – perhaps more importantly for me – my dad’s name wasn’t mentioned once.
“Wow,” Carlotta breathed, once we got back to mine.
“And it’ll only get better,” I said, trying to keep my own excitement in check. “Just wait, as it gets closer to the final and more fans turn up ... it’ll be incredible.”
“I wonder what it’ll be like, to be at the final...” she mused, almost to herself.
“You don’t need to wonder, you’ll be going.”
“I – what?” She frowned.
“You think Dad won’t be getting any tickets? Heck, my whole extended family are sure to be there, no matter which teams play. Well, Nana Molly probably won’t go, or Aunts Fleur and Audrey, but everyone else will get tickets. They’ve probably already got them. You think I’d let you miss out on something as big as this?”
“Even if England don’t make it?”
“Why on earth wouldn’t I go if England didn’t make it? I’ll be in those stands no matter who’s playing. And if I’m going, you’re going.”
“You won’t be watching from the stands if England do make it,” she pointed out. “You’ll be playing, won’t you?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Now you’re just being ridiculous. Anyway, put the final in your diary, because you’re definitely going.”
“But ... won’t the tickets be expensive?” she asked hesitantly.
“Let’s just say money isn’t an issue in my family. Besides, Dad’ll probably be given a load of tickets for free anyway, no matter how much he’ll insist on paying for them. Either way, you don’t need to worry how much your ticket may or may not cost, it’s yours.”
She smiled appreciatively.
“Your family are too good to me.”
“Don’t get excited, they’re only buttering you up to make sure you don’t break the Statute.” I winked.
“That’s good; I was starting to worry that they actually liked me,” was her dry response.
The team to play Brazil was announced the next day. To my utter surprise, I was going to play. To McLaggen’s fury, he wasn’t.
“What?” he cried upon learning that his place for the match would be on the bench. “But I’m far more experienced than him!”
“You have more years of professional experience, I’ll grant you that,” Demelza said, “and a few more caps, but James has more experience as a Chaser than you do. Besides, everyone else has sat out a match. This is your turn to sit out.”
“But – this is a quarter final! If we lose, we’re out of the competition! Potter’s never played in a knock-out game before-”
“That doesn’t mean he hasn’t played in a must-win game,” she said firmly. “I’ve made my choice, Jeremiah, and you won’t change it. If you want to talk about it, we can do so in private.”
He said no more, but shot me a glare.
“Do you think this is just rotation?” I asked Emily later, as we took a break from training.
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “It could be – after all, the three of us haven’t played together yet and she’s tried every other combination out. I do find it interesting she’s trying out a new line-up for a quarter final though. She’s right that it isn’t drastically new ground for you, but at the same time it’s a big pressure game, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if she’d picked a line-up that had played together before. I don’t know why she didn’t play you against Canada, to be honest. It’s not like she needed to see how Tamsin, McLaggen and I play together. I wonder...” She tailed off.
She hesitated for a moment.
“Don’t get too excited, because this is only my guess ... but I wonder if, by playing McLaggen instead of you against Canada ... if she was giving him another chance?”
“I don’t follow...”
“Surely the only reason she’d give him three group games, and not you, is because he was the one she thought needed to prove himself? And as she’s picked you now, and not him ... it suggests she was already confident about you after the first two games, but wasn’t confident about him. And by leaving him out now, she’s maybe ... picked her first choice Chasers?”
“But ... that would mean...” I didn’t want to say it out loud, in case Emily was off the mark, because if she was right I was so close to my biggest dream coming true...
“If we get any further in the competition, we’ll be the ones to play, and McLaggen would sit out,” she finished. “I won’t lie, I’ll be bloody glad if that were the case. I know I try to get on with him, for the team’s sake, but Merlin’s beard, I can’t stand the bloke, both on and off the pitch. He plays with completely the wrong attitude for a Chaser, he really was far better off doing a solo job. He was a fine Seeker for Gryffindor, and not a bad Keeper too, from what I heard, but he seeks the limelight far too much to be a Chaser.”
I grinned slightly, but my mind was elsewhere.
“Do you think we will get further in the Cup?” I asked.
“I think we can,” she said. “But Brazil’s Chasers are good. The other six teams are all damn good as well, and we can’t win the Cup without beating two of them. It’s a tall ask, of course it is, but I don’t think we’ve had a better chance in years. Tamsin is playing as well as she’s ever done, the Bagmans are the best Beaters England have seen since the Broadmoor brothers, Jess is a world-class Seeker, and you’re the hottest Chaser out there right now. And as for Michael, he thrives on that kind of pressure. We’ve got the players, it’s just whether we can pull together and put on the performance that’s needed.”
“You’re not too bad either, you know,” I put in.
“Thanks.” She smirked, and ruffled my hair. “Good to know I can always rely on you for a confidence boost, Junior. Anyway, enough of this speculation. We won’t win the Cup without putting in a lot of practice now!”
I couldn’t remember ever being more excited for a practice session. If I did have even the slightest chance of playing in a World Cup final, I was going to do all I could do cling onto and improve it. I didn’t care how much it would take. I wasn’t going to let Jeremiah McLaggen play another England game ahead of me.
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