Chapter 1 : The Curse of Carkett Close
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Hi all, welcome to this - whatever this is. This is kind of a crackfest experiment for me where pretty much anything goes except perhaps realistic characters and a coherent plot and the basic rules of logic. I've been in a queer sort of writing mood these last few weeks, and as a result, the narrative of this story has become somewhat mental.
There. I've done my part and you have been warned.
One: The Curse of Carkett Close
Here are a couple of things I know about Carkett Close.
First, it’s a decrepit, dying cul-de-sac in the maggot-eaten heart of the city, cursed down to every cobble. Or so Nora described it once, when she’d swung through a bout of poetics.
The Close begins somewhere in the shabbier end of Diagon Alley. Behind the scintillating white of Gringotts Wizarding Bank, the street forks into Knockturn Alley and a brick wall.
It’s the wall that you want, should you be wishing to get into the Close, though honestly speaking, not many people wish such.
You’ve got to tap the brick that used to be where the twenty-fourth row and the fifteenth column of bricks intersect – imagine the wall to be a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and start counting. Only problem is, it’s the actual brick that’s crucial here, not its position. And by that, I mean the bastard of a wall shuffles its bricks every two minutes, so forget about the intersection of the twenty-fourth row and the fifteenth column. Visitors always end up tapping at random bricks and getting them wrong, resulting in the spiteful Wall spraying black, tarry sludge onto their faces.
But The Wall is also a cunning, obscene glutton for blood; drip a little of yours onto the bricks and it’ll open the Close right up.
Or you can just Apparate in and out of the Close. It’s up to you.
The next thing I know about Carkett Close is that everyone born in the Close, and this includes me, is CURSED. Cursed cursed CURSED CURSED. Carks tend to cark it early; more precisely, they have an average lifespan of twenty-seven years. And no matter where they drift to, the CURSE follows them.
As a popular local saying goes, ‘Once a Cark, always a Cark.’
For the first twenty-seven years of life, us Carks have it okay, usually. Sunshine follows us wherever we go, as do rain and snow and hurricanes, generally; we tend to win small amounts at lotteries, and we tend to lose as well; we have it okay in life.
But as soon as a Cark hits twenty-seven, okay starts to run out.
Sometime during their twenty-seventh year of life, Carks start dying in all manner of ways. They get knocked off by falling grand pianos (classic). They get savaged by their own beloved poodles which turn rabid overnight. They get run over by illegally Engorgio-ed lawn mowers. They die of dragonpox even if they’ve had dragonpox all their lives and it never used to kill them until it does.
It has been rumoured that Death Itself comes to collect the Cark who’s carked it. The Ministry of Magic have sent a hundred Cursebreakers to rid the Close of all the dark spells imbued within its stonework and streets, infecting all its people, and every one of those Cursebreakers have returned empty-handed and baffled. The Ministry is now quite resigned to the reality that all Carks are going to die horrible deaths and they’ve issued a new law, which decrees that nobody is allowed to birth children in the Carkett Close Clinic, or anywhere within the area of the Close.
So maybe it’s easy to understand why I’m not at all thrilled when I wake up one morning and realise that the Thing that I’d been trying to quash for the last six months, shove it right to the back of my mind, has arrived at last and I’ve got nowhere to go.
Today’s my twenty-seventh birthday.
Nora Patil-Brown is my partner in literal crime and also my neighbour; her room is just two steps across the dingy landing. We left school together and now we’re what we call Diverters and Redirectionists.
Despite living in the Close with me, she’s not a Cark, so lucky her.
Nobody knows where she comes from, and she’s still on that eternal quest, which people undertake to find out the answer to who am I. (Not Spiderman). She’s the adopted daughter of two heroes from the Second Wizarding War: Lavender Brown and Padma Patil. There’s quite a story behind how they got together, though Nora is never interested in recounting it.
Bottom line about Nora is, nobody really knows her true parentage.
She’s not really Nora, for starters. Psychics and Diviners and Tarot Readers and Palmists and Enteromancers and Fire Scryers and Crystal Ball Oglers all have the ability to See The Future.
Nora, on the other hand, has the rather unique ability to See The Past.
Her past life, that is. Snatches of it, flashing moments through a smoky veil, scenes that she remembers never having lived through. Before Nora became Nora, she was a drunk old man, wandering the streets, jumping on passers-by and demanding spare change, mangy cats nipping at his ankles.
“It is indeed bizarre,” Nora told me once. “I was never him, but I do remember very clearly being him, at some point of my non-existence.”
“Sounds like a bucketload of non-sense to me,” I told her.
“I don’t know his – my name. But I do know that I had a scraggly grey beard. I wore a wool cap and I sashayed around singing Celestina Warbeck singing the Coventry Carol. I drank Firewhiskey from a broken bottle and I hated children. And then I died, penniless, on the streets.”
That wasn’t the end; apparently Nora was reincarnated after that. And in the process of reincarnation, her soul got spliced.
Half of that drunk old bloke’s soul was reborn as Nora. The other half of the drunk old bloke’s soul, however, was brought back as a princess of the faraway kingdom of Gotchump-Altruissia, which exists in Another Dimension inaccessible to everybody in this world, except Nora of course. So Nora sort of zones in and out, alternating between being herself and being her other self, i.e. a princess in the Other Dimension, running the kingdom of the Gotchump-Altruists.
That’s Nora: a spliced-soul Inter-Dimensionalist Politician and Multi-Tasker Extraordinaire. And a terrible cook.
On the morning of my twenty-seventh birthday, Nora marches into my flat, uninvited.
In her hands is a platter, and on the platter is a monstrosity. A melting hillock of brown and pink, crowned with drippy candles that smell of smouldering animal fat. I can’t decide which smells worse: that, or the fog of my own morning breath.
“Happy birthday, Joanna,” she says, gravely, plopping the platter onto the foot of my bed. “Are you ready to cut your cake and blow out your candles?”
“You mean that Anglo-Saxon burial mound?”
“Yes, that was my inspiration for the cake. Here.” She thrusts a copy of today’s Daily Prophet at me.
“I don’t read the paper.”
Nora looks confused. “It’s meant to be a gesture of consolation,” she explains.
“Consolation for what?”
“You’re twenty-seven now. You’re going to die, Joanna.” She thins her lips into a line and squints and gives me The Look, the very look that indicates that she’s peering right into the depths of my soul to gauge my true emotions that I’m supposedly always keeping under lock and key.
I hate The Look. “Haven’t we talked about giving people The Look?”
The cake is beginning to liquefy and ooze off the plate, staining chocolate onto my sheets. My eyelids are thick and cushiony from sleep and my hair’s been mussed into a power cable nest. I reach for the Prophet. Might as well make one of us happy.
JAMES POTTER II TO DIVORCE SECOND WIFE, ELLIE ENDERBURY is the screaming headline at the top of the page.
“A divorce is on the front page?” I turn to Nora, who’s now making my bed and straightening out the sheets, even with my arse still sitting on it. She’s strong, the girl.
“The headlines are generally the most arresting part of the paper,” she explains.
“So the rest is drivel, then?”
On the next page: IS THIS REALLY THE END OF JAMES AND ELLIE (JELLIE) POTTER? JAMES POTTER CONFIRMS HIS EARLIER CONFIRMATION OF DIVORCE.
“Going meta, are we?”
And the next page: DAY EIGHT OF THE ELEVEN-DAY INTERVIEW WITH JAMES POTTER II.
And the title of a smaller column near the bottom: ELDEST SON OF HARRY POTTER TO HIT THE THREE BROOMSTICKS ON AUGUST 31st.
“Do you think it actually means hit, as in to pound or to whack? Because I don’t really get why the paper would publish an article merely detailing this James Potter’s attendance at a pub.”
Nora shakes my foot off my pillow and plumps it up and sets it neatly back down. “When in doubt, always take the literal. It’s an old saying that Councillor Tefombray of the High Council of Gotchump-Altruissia told me, once, when we were attending the feast of Saint Marchesta.”
“I can’t deal with all that information,” I tell her curtly. “You know the rules with us, Nora; what happens in the other dimension stays in the other dimension.”
She shrugs. “If you so wish to remain ignorant.”
Next page on the newspaper: LEGENDARY MYSTIC JAMES POTTER II DISCOVERS THE SECRET TO ONENESS WITH THE UNIVERSE.
Yep, the Prophet has clearly gone to seed.
“Who on earth is this James Potter person?” she wonders out loud.
“Famous firstborn fuck-up of the family of Potters.” I swing off my bed and reach for the crumpled pile of jeans. “Fortune-teller sort of bloke. They say he can see the future and all. Real tosser.”
“I can see the past,” Nora quips. “My past, actually. And I was actually asking a rhetorical question. I know fully well who James Potter is; I remember him from school. He was the Divination genius.”
She gestures at the cake, which is becoming more and more misshapen with each passing moment. “Make a wish.”
“It’s your birthday, Jo.”
“Okay, well. I wish I won’t have to die this year from the curse. I wish I’m rich. I wish someone will reanimate the band One Dimension and they do one last epic gig so I can turn up and empty a vat of Wartcap powder on them when they sing ‘We Want It Weird’.”
I blow all the twenty-plus candles out. By then, most of them have burnt to stubs, and the wax has formed hard pools on the surface of the shapeless cake that Nora had cooked up from whatever unholy oven she keeps. The smell of scorched lard festers in the air.
“Happy twenty-seventh!” Nora beams at me.
“So it’s my birthday.” I shove the plate of cake aside. “Why am I up at this ungodly hour, then?”
“Surprise, surprise. We have a job to do, Joanna.” She examines the wall mirror streaked with fingerprints. “Your DNA’s all over this thing.”
“I don’t want to do a job. It’s my birthday.”
“Old Butts will not appreciate your attitude.”
Bernie Buttons is our BIG BOSS. And because he’s such a BIG BOSS sort of bloke, we rarely have any direct dealings with him. But we’ve heard that he’s there to make sure that the mercenary lot of us don’t become too mercenary, and that basically, we never leave our jobs. We’ve sold our souls to him, pretty much.
“Besides,” Nora continues, “Lizzy’s already downstairs waiting for us.”
“No, he isn’t.”
“I’m afraid he is. I can’t change this reality.”
There’s little else for me to do except get dressed while Nora inspects my flat with her usual cool air of disapproval. I sneak her cake off my bed and into the bathroom, where I tip it down the toilet and flush, which results in the pipe getting blocked and the bowl filling up with water to the rim, brown and pink chunks of cake eddying round and round sluggishly. I reach for my toothpaste. The bathroom sink is completely carpeted by layers of green, orange and brown furry mould. Years of unhindered growth and a steady diet of toothpaste lather and gargled water and the other rinsings from my mouth has enabled the mould to flourish, evolve and become a sentient, telepathic being.
Good morning, Joanna, and happy birthday! The Mould ripples as I spit into the sink.
“Shut up.” I scowl at it.
Are you afraid of dying?
“Go to hell.”
No, you are going to hell.
“Want me to bring in Nora and her Mould-Blaster spell arsenal?”
The Mould goes silent. Score.
Later, Nora and I go downstairs and through the cramped backroom of a pub and then out into the pub itself. The pub is known as The Uxorious Horseshoe, and it sits right beneath our rooms. It didn’t use to be a pub, the place below our rooms. It used to be the Carkett Close Apothecary, but then the owner turned twenty-seven and got run over by the Knight Bus. So with the apothecary done for, a crew of clowns crept in and made themselves right at home and opened up their own drinking establishment.
The Horseshoe is mostly empty at this hour, with the exception of me, Nora, a scruffy bloke sitting at the end of the counter, and Sleazy the Clown, who is on barkeep shift today. In total, there are seven of them who run the bar, including Sleazy – clowns, I mean. There’s Sleazy, Squeezy, Sputnik, Sputum, Spitty, Spinoff, and Schizo.
“It’s Joanna’s birthday today,” Nora announces to the mostly-bare pub.
Sleazy sniggers sleazily at me. “Old lady.”
Sleazy is wearing a orange and green synthetic jumpsuit with red polka dots. He has a neon red Ronald McDonald wig sitting on his head. His nose wears a clamp-on red clown nose. His face is coated with flaky white powder. His red painted mouth is smeared across his face in a sleazy grin.
“It’s Joanna’s twenty-seventh birthday,” Nora presses.
The grubby bloke at the end of the carpet groans into his elbow and raises a hand at me. He looks like he’s been sitting there a decade. Probably sprouted roots out of his arse and into the barstool.
I glare at Nora. “You don’t have to tell that to everyone.”
“Twenty-seven eh?” Sleazy smirks sleazily. “Drinks on the house then. Might as well fill yourself up while you still can, eh?”
“That’s a great – ”
“Not now, Sleazy. Joanna has a job to do.” Nora beats me to it, her thin eyebrows shooting up so high they’re practically grazing her hairline.
“Nora,” I deadpan.
“Jo.” She’s unflinching.
“Fine, fine. Tonight, then. Tonight I’m opening the floodgates. If I’m to die this year, then I must –”
“Revel in the deepest cesspool of debauchery for as long as possible?” Nora suggests. She shrugs. “Tonight, the floodgates open, then. Now, we work.”
Nora’s a despot with a soft spot somewhere deep among all her cardiac tissue. If she even has cardiac tissue, of course. I doubt she’s fully human. I wonder how the Gotchump-Altruists are doing with her as their leader.
“So, where the hell is Lizzy?”
“Right behind you,” she answers.
“Not falling for that.”
“And you just did, Mannering,” comes a voice an inch away from my left ear. I draw my wand in a jiffy and spin round, the point jabbing hard into the chest of a very tall, skinny bloke in cheery sunflower yellow robes that’s already giving me the start of a dazzling headache. The robe is pure happiness, which should have been outlawed long ago. In fact, this bloke is the very epitome of happiness. He’s smiling too widely and too innocently, and his teeth are nicely brushed and well-shaped, and there’s a sickening earnestness in the clear blue of his eyes.
That is, until he opens his mouth and starts to speak. There are monsters in the crevices between his teeth, I swear. And hidden glands dripping venom onto his words.
“Mannering!” Lizzy exclaims in mock shock. "Is this a Fright Night morning after for you?"
I retract my wand and throw him a dirty look. It’s as good as his fault that I’m down here at this absurd hour of the morning, waiting to do some messed-up job on my very last birthday in this world.
Lysander ‘Lizzy’ Scamander is the person who kind of deals with the logistics of our job: the planning, the equipment, the what-goes-where, the who-says-what, the how-the-crap-do-we-even-manage this. Nora and I are pretty much the field personnel, the dirty workers, the bottom feeders. I honestly don’t care about climbing up the ambition ladder, and Nora is far too busy zapping between dimensions, so that leaves Lizzy, the Opportunist, who’s one up above me and Nora.
He’s also our Vessel for Higher Instructions. It’s Lizzy who gets the orders from Bernie Buttons, our BIG BOSS, who purportedly gets his orders from someone above him, who gets their orders from someone above them, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
So who’s right on top, then? The BIGGEST of the BOSSES? The one who can flip a switch and potentially make us all either filthy rich or make us drop dead from Kneazle rabies?
There are rumours, whispers, which steal down the chain of command. Some say it’s God. Others believe that it’s a goblin of Gringotts.
Either makes sense. Neither makes a difference. So we just do what we do, anyway.
“I heard it’s your birthday,” Lizzy says casually as he slides into a seat at the counter.
“So it is,” I shrug.
“And you’re a Cark.”
“So I am.”
“So that means – ”
“So it does.”
“So brave, Jo. I could never be like you,” Lizzy sighs and slumps over the counter. “You’re such a Stoic, you know that.”
Sleazy the Clown sidles over, dragging his creepy gloved hands along the counter. “Firewhiskey,” says Lizzy, but Nora glares at Sleazy, pretty much spitting. “I think not.”
“Coffee, then,” Lizzy sighs, and Sleazy looks outraged. Nora’s raised eyebrow silences any clownish protest he might raise.
“What are we doing today, Lizzy?” Nora asks.
“I’ll explain on the road.” He takes a swig of the black oily coffee from the chipped mug and Nora and I exchange a grin and eyebrow flash. Lizzy’s cheeks bulge and contort and squeeze like dough, the mouthful of liquid swirling about within, unswallowable. The coffee at the Horseshoe tastes like piss. The clowns probably keep their machine in the loo. Lizzy gives up and spits the coffee back into the half-full mug and thrusts it across the counter back to a glaring Sleazy.
“Put it on my tab.” He turns to us. “You sugar-loafers ready or what?”
“I am!” cries a hoarse voice from the end of the counter. It’s the unshaven, dirty bloke. He raises his hand bolt upright in the air, before falling off his stool and onto the floor, facedown, where he promptly begins snoring into the lino.
“Not again,” snarls Sleazy, picking up his broom and making his way round the counter before proceeding to sweep the sleeping bloke toward the door. “Out, Creevey!”
We leave Sleazy behind, muttering murder and cursing humankind to the end of eternity, and go out into Carkett Close.
First day of the end of my life.
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