Chapter 22 : England
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There is something desolate and endearingly stubborn about London in the spring. Perhaps it is the way the flowers – bright yellow daffodils and tiny, trampled daisies – are spots of colour against a vast wash of grey, stretching from the sky to the sea and across the whole width of the city, encompassing everything in between, from parks which should be green and alive, to buildings in shades of cream and mint and statues in dark bronze.
It is almost as if the entire city is apologising for the vibrancy and the brightness of spring; as though it feels to allow the colours to blaze might be an imposition, and so they must hold it back, rein it in, keep them and the joy and the birth inherent in it contained and controlled – to not overexcite.
Most days, of course, in London in spring, it rains and it rains and it rains until it feels as though it never started and never ended. Cold and slick, the drops sneak down the back of your cloak, under your shirt, leaving spots and patterns of wet on your skin, washing your hair in a constant sprinkle of water so that it hangs, limp and lifeless and dark, around your face and refuses, even as the wind tosses it about, to dry.
There is a certain beauty to it, I admit: the pavements become mirror-like, shining and glittering, and the gold and silver points on top of the cathedral, of the gates surrounding Buckingham Palace, lining the length of Tower Bridge, glimmer with an icy, regal glint.
It matches the river, all of it: a silvery sewer, shined and gilded and embossed to hide the cracks in the walls, papering over the holes and the dents time has wrought.
I can almost hear you laugh, like you did when I told you all this – our separation had been brief, but tense; short, but far too long; and you had demanded to know if I had found it better than Godric’s Hollow, more beautiful than you and our hidden bower by the brook, more fascinating than the ways we could push and pull each other, than how you would bury your fingers in my hair and make me sigh, how if I pressed two fingers, gentle and slow, to your lips and then away, you would follow and kiss me.
“Perhaps you are being unduly harsh,” you told me, as we walked along under the canopy of trees, dappled green and yellow falling across our shoulders and our faces, arm in arm. “Most people enjoy it – it is the capital of the world, or so they say.”
“It is an arrogance, that a handful of men can say somewhere is the capital of the world and it is believed,” I retorted – contrary, as always, because was that not our way?
We would stand in opposite corners, the duelling circles carved into the floor in front of us, and we would battle with words, arguments and facts and philosophical opinions our spells and hexes and curses.
Usually, neither of us won, the battles long dead before the end was ever in sight.
Is it perhaps strange, then, since we battled in everything else, that we never battled in sex?
Perhaps it was the sheer romanticism our whole history was soaked with; perhaps it was the twinned wonder and terror of new, wild explorations; perhaps it was the fact that it was the one thing we never, ever disagreed on – what we wanted, we wanted together and that never failed.
English – I can see you flinching even now, embarrassed and abashed, cheeks blushing and voice failing, at the mention of three letters in quick succession. Two, if we count phonetically. So stiff and morally just you are now, as your London was then.
Now, there is merely paper covering the cracks in you, Albus, and soon it will wear thin, decaying away from the inside out. As in your self-proclaimed capital of the world, in your self-proclaimed saviour there is nothing underneath but weak, crumbling foundations painted over with a pretty, chipped façade.
There are flowers, bursts of colour, of passion, of joy and anger and desire, and they bleed, here and there, through the fog which envelopes them. They are only decoys, though, meant to satisfy those who do not look close enough to see the scars and the dirt and to catch the scent of the rotten, swollen core beneath.
Perhaps, then, the rain is you crying – endless tears for a man who never had the courage to stop them. Endless tears, crocodile tears in silver and green… weep, Albus, the world is not yet drowned.
Ah, but it is miserable, is it not, London in the spring?
23rd April, 1925; Kensington, London
There was the sound of drumbeats as the rain thundered down onto the roof, patting in rhythm on the glass dome which topped it, beating out a one-two-three-four one-two-three-four one-two-three-four with fierce, stern regularity, pouring down the sides, sheets of water making the world outside run like ink on a page, blurring and messing the lines of the buildings and the people passing by. It was loud, drowning out every other sound – the voice of the Foreign Secretary, sent to greet me, was silent even as her lips moved, and the clack and click of shoes on the marble floor were pinpricks in the wave emanating from the roof – and as we moved down off the dais, it seemed only to grow stronger, surging up to swallow us whole.
In truth, with the water streaming from the tip of the ceiling down to the ground outside, it felt almost as though we were falling underwater, sinking steadily to the ocean floor.
You had always laughed, that summer, when it would rain for a day entire without stopping and I would sigh over the lost time, the hours we would have spent lying in the sun, hidden away from the rest of the world; the wet forced us inside, with Aberforth and Ariana and the restlessness which came from being penned up, unwanted and ignored.
“Welcome to England,” you would say, the amusement in your voice pulling a glare and a pout out of me – I was young then, you remember, young enough that coquetry suited me. You would laugh again and kiss me, slow and soft, and hand me a book in the seconds which followed, aware of how my eyes would track you, struggling to rest on the words.
Ah, but those days are long gone now, and they were when I returned to England, too, were they not?
(In truth, though, they were not quite as gone then as you might have wished to believe – still we circled each other then, endlessly falling back towards each other, crashing down together, and each time it felt as though we had never been apart, as though we had spent years and decades together rather than mere months and weeks.
Did you feel it too, Albus, when you kissed me every time after that summer, the flickers of a passion you had thought cooled and frozen, the stirrings of dusty dreams you had believed shattered beyond repair?
I know what you will answer, and you are a liar.)
That evening the pavements were glistening with the rain, heavy and slippery, winding through the maze of buildings like threads of silver spun about rough-hewn models; on the horizon, the setting sun hung low in the sky, red and fat, and the last rays caught the notes of platinum in the streets and turned them into diamond, gleaming and sparkling.
All around, the air was fresh, clear and light, the scent of dew scattered everywhere, merging with the fragrances of flowers, daffodils and snowdrops, enchanted to bloom once every two weeks, a never-ending sequence of opening and closing and never, ever dying.
No doubt filled to the brim with optimism, the gala that evening – drinks and dinner, a welcoming of sorts for my Germany from your England – had been arranged outside, in the foolish, whimsical hope that God might be merciful and spare them another flood. In the expectation that there would be no mercy given, they had provided a floating marquee, decorated with ribbons and lanterns, ivy winding over the fabric, a light peach gauze, and trailing over the ends to hang down towards the ground.
With the sunset hitting it, sinking through and staining the peach cherry-red, the ivy leaves blocking out most of the light, throwing five-pointed shadows against the half-walls and the floor, it seemed as though we were sheltering under a willow tree, its branches spread wide and high.
For the sake of honesty, I will admit that it was beautiful – romantic in a way which could not fail to stir something in the soul.
You should have come, Albus, you would have adored it.
“Minister McLeod,” the Head of the Department for International Magical Cooperation, a dark-haired charismatic man with a round face and a stern expression, introduced me, gesturing towards a man who was emitting spots of smoke from his wand every few seconds, dots and dashes intermingling.
We shook hands, though he did not release his wand and the smoke swirled around our heads, grey and murky; I coughed a little – cigarette smoke was one thing, my own vice and virtue, but this was too much, irritating and stinging – and he nodded once.
For a moment, we stood there, McLeod, Fawley and I, our heads wreathed in smoke leaving only the skirts of our dress robes – red, dark blue, and burnished amber (a gift, one year, from Nico, brought back from Persepolis and woven to show flowers, butterflies and birds in flight when you turned and twisted the material in the light). There was a triangle drawn between our feet, silence enveloping us like a bubble shielding us from the rest of the group, and then Fawley gave a timid, frustrated smile, and I left.
In less than three months, McLeod and his bell-shaped puffs of silver would be replaced, your newspapers proclaiming freedom, damning him twice for his silence, for his habit of being complicated when what they wanted was simplicity. Fawley, his timid, nodding assistant would be Minister, hailed as a hero, praised for his eloquence and his plain speaking – but, in time, fate would come for him too, and he would fall, his wings turning to ash on the wind, to join the rest of us in ignominy and disgrace.
It is always the way, is it not, that those of us who reach furthest, highest, quickest, fall the hardest?
(Together, we are Icarus and Dedalus: on the ground, we build a dream, a future, a world entire, shaping it and moulding it with our hands, with our mouths, and then, when we are ready, when our child is full-grown, we take his hand and fly.
For a moment, it is beautiful – azure skies, stars in the distance and white rolls of clouds beneath us – and then our child slips, the breath stolen from him and his life dashed out on the earth below.
But, perhaps, you could say that you are Dedalus, master craftsman and engineer and giver of gifts, and I am Icarus, selfish and proud and vain.
Would that better suit your façade, Albus, or would it scar it still with the insinuation that once you had dripped wax onto my back with tender, knowing hands?)
I saw your friend there again and swept over, hooking a glass of champagne from a tray as it went past; he almost gulped to see me, glancing around as though to search for someone else to talk to, some way of avoiding me. His wife was hanging off his arm – a pretty thing, I suspect, smothered in pale blue satin, a single diamond glinting on her finger – and he held her hand tighter as I approached.
Oh, Albus, for all the world will say you were the first to warn of my strength, of my ferocity, he knew it first, before even you.
“Mr Doge,” I began, kissing the back of his wife’s hand and shaking his – his palm was clammy but his grip was stronger than I had expected, pushing the bones of my fingers towards each other sharply, harshly. “I should congratulate you on your recent appointment – our Austrian cousins are always generous hosts; I am sure you and your wife will receive every comfort.”
“Yes, of course,” he replied, ducking and swallowing like a pigeon in search of bread. “Thank you. It is a great honour to represent my country to such a great nation.”
He played the game well, that I will admit – for all the bluster and the blunders and the bobbing uncertain timidity he seemed to prize so much, he could flatter when he wanted, knew how and when to recall things, knew what to say to whom and the simple mark refusing to cower left long after the two parties have separated.
My smile was brittle in return: my mother’s nation still bore bruises and cuts on her arms and legs from the war; she was collapsing and splitting, dividing into Hungary and Austria, red and blue, tearing brothers from sisters, mothers from daughters, friends from each other. Under the weight of anger, of fear, of desperation, she had fractured, slowly shattering piece by piece.
The splinters would heal themselves, merge into new states, new and older countries – but it would not be the same.
My brothers had died for something which no longer existed, for a country who had simply given up. What does it mean, to sacrifice yourself for nothing? To give everything for nothing? To have your life, in the end, represent only shame anger and mean nothing?
Can you imagine, Albus, what it must be like, to feel and hear and know that those you love are nothing?
Whatever you claim, it burns and it burns deep; they make scars which will never heal in those who bear them.
At the end of that evening, as I wandered back through the gardens – plotted in rows and banks of multi-coloured spots, lit up by tiny dots of light here and there, planted in the ground next to the edges of the flowerbeds – champagne still bubbling on my tongue, I stole a cluster of white violets from a bed, plucking them gently, the snap of the branch loud in the quiet of the night. I stole them and once I was back in the hotel, safely out of sight and my thoughtlessness unbound, I wrote on a slip of paper, stringing it on a ribbon, indigo and slick, and sent them away.
What did you think when they arrived, fresh and raw and wet with dew, at the window of your room in your prison? What did you feel when you found they were from me, what did you want and wish? Did you believe me – them, the gift – that I would wait, that I meant what they said; a confession and a plea in one breath.
I waited, Albus, I kept my word and my promise: I waited, lingering in our old homes, those former palaces we had built together, and you did not come.
At twilight, I meandered down the roads we had once walked together, arm in arm, breath passing from my mouth to yours and back again, the sun setting on my back, streaking the houses around me with red and yellow, turning the trees to a deep, amber-lit green, the sky bruising tenderly at the edges where it brushed the sun. They felt smaller than they had done then, simpler and as dull as I had once thought them.
Did you ever go back, or did the courage always escape you?
(But perhaps I do not need to ask – after all, you have not visited me, twenty years after you locked me away and tucked the key into your pocket, twenty years after you tied my life to yours once more with your wretched, selfish mercy.
If you cannot visit me – whom you saved, or so they say, to whom you are kind and gracious and wise – then how could you possibly visit her?
After all, you did not save her, did you?)
Passing by the church, I stopped at the kissing-gate, looking out over the graveyard, still and silent as the dead who lived there, rows and rows of faded, chipped tombstones, broken only by the occasional angel, scythe held high or hands clasped tight together in prayer. Around it laid a kind of peace, soft and foreboding, but peaceful all the same; it felt familiar, welcoming, in a way the rest of the village had not.
I was not alone: there was a man there, standing over a headstone, bowed and bent, shoulders curving almost as though trying to meet the top of it. His robes were frayed, his coat muggle and five years too old, his hands shoved in his pockets.
For a moment, he stood there and I watched him, observing as he grieved, as he wept and railed against the workings of God, and then he straightened up.
For a moment, half a heartbeat, I thought he was you – I felt myself flare, thinking you had come for me, that for a second time the graveyard in Godric’s Hollow would pull us together, flies trapped in a spider’s web.
It took me a second to swallow the bitter absinthe the disappointment left in my mouth, and in that instant, he turned and his eyes, red-rimmed and furiously sad, locked onto me.
Aberforth and I stared at each other a long while, eight rows of graves separating us from each other, dusk lengthening the shadows so that everything before him was cast in shades of black and brown and grey, the cracks and clefts in the stones carved deeper and wider. Around us, a breeze fluttered, picking at my hair, at his beard, at my robes and his coat, the heads of flowers left on graves rustling softly – a ghostly accompaniment.
In his pocket, something twitched, shaking the material, and I wondered absently whether he would try to duel me again, whether he would draw his wand and try to kill me in front of his sister’s body, over his mother’s grave.
He did not move, but as the shadows on his face grew, so too did the spark of something strong and hot in his eyes, his jaw clenching and his body tensing.
I did not move either, too struck by how odd coincidence could sometimes be, how painful it was to see someone who looked so much like you and so little like you at once; one hand stayed on the post holding the kissing-gate shut, the latch wrapped around it, and I could not think.
Then, I knew for certain that you would not come – if Aberforth was here, you would not be, you would not risk it, to see me and him in that place again – and it settled in my stomach, heavy and salty and full of bile.
After a while, I left, leaving him behind me with the corpses of his sister and mother, half-shredded wreaths of roses and lilies for company, and made my way back down the road, away from the graves, from the third Peverell brother. I could hear nothing, I could see nothing, I could think nothing still – I found my paths through habit alone, following the same paths you and I had walked a thousand times and more during that summer, seeking out hiding places after havens, running farther and farther afield until we almost dared to suggest we would not go back, not that night.
So many times we joked about sleeping under the stars, protected by magic alone, surrounded by the sight and the smell and the taste of nature unfettered, free and happy – we never did it, did we?
We spent a night under the stars, so many hours under the stars, but we never slept, never awoke still there, soaked through with dew and warmed by the sun, rocked awake by a chorus of birdsong.
We made so many promises, my Albus, did we ever keep any of them in the end?
No, it was clear then that there was nothing left for me in Godric’s Hollow – there were no lovesick, fervent promises curled around the lampposts, around the kissing-gate or the tree which had quivered outside your window; there was no reason for you to come back and so no reason for me. I left, once I had slipped out of sight of the graveyard, ducking round a corner and into a nook by the side of the pub, plastered with shadows to hide me, apparating back to Kensington and the safety, the comfort of my dreams and my companions.
Once back, I poured a tumbler of vodka, Russian and charmed cold, and found Otto blowing smoke into the sky on the balcony.
He took one look at me and handed me a cigarette wordlessly, turning back to face the night in stoic, calm silence. With a snap, I lit the cigarette, taking the first drag and breathing out long and slow, watching how the smoke curled in the air, white ribbons fading as they bloomed into curved leaves and petals unfurling.
Otto never asked why or how or who, he never needed to – what did questions give you but more questions, he told me once, when we were younger and more philosophical, my head on his shoulder and my tongue heavy with brandy, orange-flavoured and rich. He had not slurred a letter, had not waved an arm, had simply sat there and thought.
We were a pair, he and I – I forever asking questions and he forever refusing them.
It was why when I needed someone most, I asked him to stay with me, to sleep with me and not to leave, for his silence and for his affection.
You will know about this, you will have heard of it, and I know how you must hate it; you seemed to, at least, all those years ago. Do you hate it still, does it still sting when you think of him, when you think of me?
These days, I am no longer certain if I wish it did or not.
“We will return to Germany in the morning,” I told him, my voice little more than a murmur, the vodka warming my throat, the smoke sinking into it so the two tastes were inseparable for that moment. “There is nothing more for us to do here.”
Beside me, Otto merely nodded, a quiet ‘jawohl’ leaving his lips with the next breath of smoke, and we stood there in silence, the sky above us black and devoid of stars, the thin rays of the moon breaking through a layer of cloud in the distance; instead, below, the lamplights glowed orange, reflected a thousand times in the pools of water the rain had left behind, scattered and broken but still glittering.
We stood there and slowly, gently, somehow Otto took hold of the bitter, sore burns your muteness had pressed into my flesh and my heart and my soul, and without saying or doing anything, soothed them enough so that I did not feel them so deeply; they scarred, but not so red and raw, and I could breathe without something catching, could look on England and see something other than you and that dull, brilliant, beautiful summer we had shared.
(Albus, I waited – you cannot deny that, at least.)
A/N: Albus, perimeno = Albus, I wait (Greek)
jawohl = yes
I don't own references to Icarus and Dedalus either :)
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