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Chapter 13 : Meter
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There is a great deal of truth in the idea that all of our lives are lived to rhythms – as many different rhythms as people we meet, each one leading somehow into the next, whether by shuddering to a halt and picking up immediately, or by blending in smoothly, so smoothly the transition is barely noticeable.
Eventually, of course, we die, and the band in the corner falls silent.
Ah, but until then, life sputters and booms in turn, growing faster and faster until it seems impossible to continue as it is, and then it slows, moody and lazy and simultaneously solemn and blissful in the quiet.
It is perhaps a strange idea – certainly to some it seems almost bizarre – but it is a lovely metaphor nonetheless, reminding us, in a way, of our own heartbeats, of the frailty of life and how easily it can be disrupted, made discordant by a single wrong note, sharper than it should have been, or flatter, not quite reaching the intended point. I confess, I have always liked it, and thought it especially well-suited to school life, where, as the months of the year go by, the days and the weeks seem to start to merge together, nights vanishing, unremembered and so invisible, until all that is left is an endless journey through the motions of the day, tasks mechanical and the mind slowly numbing as the previously fantastical becomes normal.
Rhythm in general is one of those things I cannot help but find both comforting in the regularity of it, in the stability of it, and at the same time so incredibly difficult to cope with. I do not know why, but for some reason it eats away at me, the steadiness of it, so much so that I wait, sitting still and taut, a bowstring in my back, for the next beat to come, only relaxing when it does.
One of the mysteries of the world, truly: how things like this, so small and so simply, can affect us so much.
As I grew older, I came to crave that tension which came with the slow, constant beat, the endless repetition of days rolling into another, sunlight seemingly my constant companion; a far cry from the days of my youth, when the thing I longed for most than any other was the excitement, the change in rhythm, sharp and quick and exotically new, freedom and wandering and discoveries, revolution in total, would bring.
Then again, I can hardly claim I am the same man now as I was then – nor could you, darling. We have changed so much over the years; there are times I barely recognise myself in the mirror, times when the words I spoke that summer seem a lifetime ago, as though they came from a different mouth, sounded with a different voice.
Age is an endless curiosity – the changes it brings in body and in mind, in spirit, and the cares one has about the world, for the world and all living beings in it. Most would say that with age they become more apathetic to the world, to youth and the desires of it, wisdom gained over the years seeing through such fantasies in seconds, but alas I cannot say the same. I like to think that with every year which goes past, I grow only more sympathetic to the generations growing in front of us, to the mistakes their susceptibility leads them to make.
I have grown kinder, more patient, more capable of caring for others with age; the irony of it would make you laugh if I told you.
My life is lived according to rhythms, yes – and yours too, if I may extend the metaphor as such, always too fast for the rest of us, in the end, too strange and too new, too radical a beat to contend with – and every now and then, there is a half-beat, staccato, off-beat, seemingly random, and perhaps then, just then, I think of you.
I have grown kinder as I have grown older, and so I will say no more, only that whenever it happens, I miss you.
8th December, 1914; The Hog’s Head, Hogsmeade, Scotland
Even now, I am at a loss to say why he did not punch me again – I am certain he wanted to, that he considered it, and that, I think, makes it all the stranger that he did not. Aberforth has never been one for holding back when he believes something is deserved, whether it be words or fists or hexes, regardless of the identity of the person in question (save Ariana. For her and her alone, Aberforth restrained everything, I imagine, since I never heard him say a bad word about her, and he would not countenance it from anyone else).
I suppose it was shock was stopped him: the shock of my daring to step into the pub after fifteen years of silence, of nothing at all from either side, the shock of sudden unsurety – what to do, what to say, how to act, what even to think.
Fifteen years, it took me, to visit my brother after Ariana’s death – to even attempt to hold any kind of conversation with him – and for eight of those, I had been living in Hogwarts, less than five miles away, though admittedly distance itself matters very little, all things considered.
Still, eventually I summoned some shred of courage from somewhere, hoped with everything I had that perhaps he might not hate me so much anymore (for I was quite sure he would never forgive me, and doubly sure that I would never dream of asking for forgiveness), and, when the students were all tucked up inside the castle no doubt throwing wadded-up balls of parchment at those foolish enough to be studying, slipped out and down to the Hog’s Head.
It had only been his for five months – the previous owner having left it to Abe in his will when he passed away from a late and unexpectedly fierce summer cold – and though it looked identical to before, the change in ownership not reflected in the façade, it felt different: foreboding almost, and though I would hardly admit it to him, in my pocket my hand seemed to be shaking.
I could hear my heartbeat as I stood there, facing the doorway, hammering loud and clear, as quick as a rabbit’s, feeding on the twining snakes in my stomach, winding round and round each other until I was quite disoriented, nauseous and convinced this was a terrible idea.
What would I do, I wondered, if he hated me? Was there any point, knowing that he had hated me before and that his ability to hold grudges was greater than any ability I possessed? What right did I even have to attempt a reconciliation between us?
Mother would never have wanted it to end like this, I told myself, forcing my hand to close around the handle, the metal cold even through my gloves, and father would have cracked our heads together for our foolishness.
Ariana… she would have rolled her eyes and frowned, instructed us to get along, and that would have been that.
She always had hated fights – disagreements of any sort, covering her ears with her hands and shaking her head from side to side until it ended and we rushed to her, ignoring whatever the argument was in favour of her.
The handle creaked as I turned it, the metal scuffing along the wood of the door; the hinges groaned under the weight of it – study oak, three inches thick to keep out the chill and the snow Scotland was so blessed with – and I stepped inside, accompanied by a blast of wind and a faint flurry of snow dusting across the floor like spilt sugar.
No one else was around, the weather confining them to their homes, perhaps, but whatever the reason I was grateful, and I moved to the bar, unsure of what to do now I was inside. Should I sit? Should I not? Would it be presumptuous to sit?
I did not want to give Aberforth any more reasons to dislike me, after all; he had plenty for two lifetimes as it was.
“Sorry ‘bout the wait; goat’s been whining with the cold weather – what’ll it –” he cut off sharply, glancing up from the bar to see me, his hands freezing on the towel he was wiping them on, damp clinging to them.
I wanted to say something, then, but nothing came to mind – nothing seemed appropriate.
He was staring at me, something hostile glinting in his eyes, his hair short and his skin tanned even in winter, shorter and broader than me still. The grey robes he was wearing stretched a little across his shoulders, the sleeves starting to fray, but he looked well. Happy, before he had seen me, as though he had been as successful as one might expect.
In that moment I felt a pang that I had never thought to attempt to check up on him in any way – to see if he had simple things like enough to eat, somewhere to stay. My help would likely not have been needed, but I should have tried, I think (he, of course, would disagree if I ever mentioned this to him – as would you, I suspect).
“Aberforth,” I tried, swallowing, my mouth dry, searching for something to fill the silence with, something safe and gentle to start off with. “I –”
“What do you want?” he asked abruptly, throwing the towel under the bar and looking up at me with a gaze which was not quite a glare, but was far from friendly.
“Just to talk,” I replied softly, managing just about to meet his eyes, though in that moment he seemed so much like my memories of father that I felt like a child again, small and unlearned and desperately in need of guidance of some kind. Perhaps, in some ways, I was. “I thought that perhaps it was time.”
“Time,” Aberforth echoed, still fixing me with that look, unnerving and strange. Out of habit, perhaps, he glanced behind me – another leftover from that summer, checking for you. “Fifteen years is a damn long time, Albus. You never bothered before, why now?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, the wooden back of the barstool grainy and rough under my gloves, thin strands splintering off, the polish patchy, leaving the chair Dalmatian-like in colouring. “But I thought I should try.”
“Do you –” he paused, looking me over once before ploughing on with his question, determination strong. “You still in contact with him?”
Ah, now this was the other erumpent in the room, so to speak: you. For all you had been for me the source of so much joy and wonder, clever and talented and so very beautiful, for Aberforth you had only been an irritation, something which exacerbated the difficulties already present, someone who wilfully destroyed our family, tempting me away from my duties and my obligations into depravity and dangerous thoughts.
I know it amused you, that he hated you so – and I confess that the irony that I should love you while my brother should hate you (and Ariana did not give a pig’s ear as to where you were and what you did) never escaped me – but alas, I have never quite found the humour in it.
This, though, was one answer regarding you where I would not stutter or stumble, where it sprang off the tip of my tongue easily, truthfully, a faint spark of redemption attached to it.
That was enough, it seemed for the time being, since he gave me a jerky nod and poured two tumblers of whisky (the cheap stuff, I later found out, as he saved the good stuff for his own private consumption), and for an hour or so we talked. Nothing heavy was discussed – the weather, jobs, and the like – but I still left feeling far lighter than I had done before, and happier than I had done in years.
Slowly, I started popping down at the weekends for a drink and a brief conversation, learning what he had done the years I had been away, and the years I had been teaching. In all those times, as I discovered he had a fiancée (who was lovely, dark-haired and light-eyed, freckled and always smiling) and all the odd jobs he had worked over the years – helping on an aethonan farm, in greenhouses with Venomous Tentacula and Devil’s Snare, looking after a batch of young Jarveys for a breeder – before settling at the pub, we never once discussed that summer.
It was less, I think, because the hate and the hurt and the sorrow of it had dimmed, and more because we were both testing the waters, seeing what our newly reformed brotherhood could take before we dashed it onto the rocks on the shore and waited to see if it stood up again.
Peace never lasts, however, and in this endless war – a side-note, often, to the main event of you and I – the first shot was fired quite innocently one evening, innocuous up until the point it hit home and we watched, quiet and resigned, as the victim toppled forwards.
Perhaps it was my fault that it arose at all, or perhaps it was his – either way, assigning blame post-hoc is pointless, since it happened nonetheless.
The evening was quiet, business in the pub had been soaring since December had arrived and the weather had turned sour, snow cascading down from the sky in streams and temperatures plummeting sharply, and upon arrival I had been directed to the lounge upstairs. Brighter than the rest of the pub, and more homely, it was warm and bathed in shades of orange and red and brown as the fire bounced off the wooden fittings, the faint scent of enchanted pot pourri – cinnamon and apples, if memory serves me correctly – wafting slowly throughout the room, the gentle thrum and beat of the noise from the bar drifting up through the wood and the bricks; a pleasant accompaniment.
Aberforth had popped in once early on to deposit a glass on the coffee table in the centre of the room, gruffly instructed me to pick whatever I chose and then thumped back downstairs, the door swinging shut and stifling the hubbub again.
For my part, I was quite content to sit there, a glass of sherry to one side and a pile of newspapers – Muggle and magical – to occupy me and read until things calmed down enough below for Aberforth to feel comfortable leaving the bar in the hands of his two trainees (both of whom I recognised from school; one had stuttered when he saw me, ‘Professor’ bursting out of his mouth automatically). I knew from previous visits that sometimes this could last all night, but I had little else to do, and a few hours of relative silence were a small price to pay for company.
Flicking through the newspapers, there was little truly interesting; reports on the war, from both sets of journalists, quite a bit about finances and housing problems, and an article on an escaped dragon on the loose in Romania. Then, buried at the bottom of the pile of newspapers was one with a cover I recognised well – an identical copy, nearly just as creased and crumpled, was sitting shut in a drawer in my desk back at Hogwarts, as though putting it out of sight would in fact put it out of mind.
You will remember it, I do not about it, for it was the first time – the first true time – you captured Europe’s imagination and trained it on yourself, leaving a trail blazing across the sky and through the souls of men.
It was always a habit of yours, my darling, whether intentional or not: I am convinced that you could make anyone in the world believe anything using words alone, you spun them so artfully. Wordsmith and magician all in one; truly, in another world, you should have been a writer – secretly, of course, for fear of revealing yourself to be more romantic than you would ever care to admit.
Your original address – to the International Confederation of Wizards, as a representative of the German Federation, accompanying the Kaiser of Prussia – was in English, rare for you, if not for the International Confederation (who preferred everything in English for ease of translation and understanding), given your well-professed hatred of the language, and some small part of me wondered, faint and almost pathetically hopeful, if this, some part of it even, was meant for me.
In words even more eloquent than those you had mastered that summer, you had spoken of the war, of the threat it posed to our nations, to our ways of life, even secretive and underground as they were; we must be wary, you had said, of the growing strength of Muggles, of the new and dangerous powers they possess, and to combat them we must be unified in our proposals, in ideals and goals. We must help each other, support each other; offer the hand of friendship our other halves have forgotten how to use.
Vibrant words, powerful words, set with a rhythm in my head something akin to a military march.
Even as I reread them then, the truth they held did not stop being true; even a victor’s desperation to smear his vanquished enemy’s name with mud and grease until it is blacker than a starless night in winter could not stop that. The simple fact of it, however hard it was to swallow, was that you were right.
Ah, but it was not that you were speaking wisdom which made the speech so hard to read and listen to others repeat word-for-word and discuss over lunch and mugs of mulled wine – it was that the words, beautiful as they were, were so very you in their statement, in their tone and place within the sentences, so that the voice they could only ever be spoken with was yours. From every mouth which recited phrases you had written, your accent coloured the tone, the stresses were placed exactly where you would put them, and it felt almost as though you, or your ghost or shade or memory, were in the room with me, looking at me expectantly and waiting, patiently, smugly almost, for a reply.
“Albus?” Aberforth did not call loudly, and through the haze of memory I realised that while there was noise from the bar it had abated, the fire had dimmed and the room grown colder. My brother stood in the doorway, a pair of tumblers and a bottle of firewhisky in one hand, and he was frowning at me, his gaze far more calculating than most would ever imagine it could be.
“Apologies,” I murmured, my fingers still curled around the edge of the newspaper, your photo printed in black-and-white on the front. In it, your jacket was high-collared, buttoning up to the base of your throat, and your eyes blazed with a passion I had not seen in years. “My mind was elsewhere.”
“Obviously,” he snorted, crossing the room easily and setting the two glasses down on the coffee table between us, cracking the lid off the bottle, even as he sank into the chair opposite me. “Where’d you flown off to this time?”
“The Muggle war,” I responded, half-absently. “They believe it will be over by Christmas – though I suspect that is starting to die a little amongst the more cynically-minded at this point. The true likelihood is that it will be long and brutal, and far too many innocent men will die for the sake of old treaties dug up by honourable politicians.”
In the dark, Aberforth’s eyes sharpened, honing in on me – on the words which had floated out into the air surrounding us both.
“You didn’t used to think so highly of Muggles,” his tone, though, was conversational; the ever-present edge no more acerbic than usual. “Got some sense knocked into you at last?”
“Something like that, I suppose,” I forced out a weak, almost painful smile which undoubtedly did nothing to inject any humour into the room; in the hearth the fire spat sparks out onto the floor, once twice thrice, layering over the scrape of glass catching against wood as Aberforth slid a tumbler, two fingers full of golden-orange liquid, over to me.
Taking a sip, feeling it slide down my throat, warm and full and with a decidedly strong kick which hit the very back of my mouth, I watched as Aberforth’s jaw tightened, the shadows deepening across his face as the muscles contracted, morphing him into something barely human – skeletal and unearthly, grimly dark in appearance. With one hand, he tossed back his drink, his knuckles flashing white, and slammed the glass down onto the table.
For a long, wild second, I thought he would say something – that the erumpent horn we had both tiptoed around so carefully might finally explode – and I was half ready then and there to leave the second after.
“I’m getting married,” he blurted, barely managing to look at me when he said it. “Next Wednesday. Had to do it quick – Aoife… well, not going to be much time soon. Thought you should know.”
“Congratulations,” I could only smile – and genuinely, truly – at that, for what else can be said when your brother informs you he will be a husband in five days and a father in mere months? Both were blessings, joys which he had always deserved, however begrudgingly I would have admitted it, and we were long past the age for jealous competitions of better and worse, painting each other as saint or villain as we saw fit. “I would drink to that, but alas, I have to return to the school later.”
Ignoring my protestations completely, we toasted the forthcoming nuptials and child nonetheless, and I returned to the school as dawn began to press into the night, pushing him back down below the horizon, emerging blushing and beaming herself, pink and yellow and tinges of white at the point where land met sky.
As I sank into the armchair in my rooms, the cushions moulding themselves around me, purple and plump, like grapes left to ripen in the sun too long, my head was a mess of thoughts, words and images chasing each other round and round so much so that I was almost dizzy.
Drunk, you would have laughed at me had you been there: you are drunk, Albus, you would have said, though you would have let me wind an arm around your waist, murmur into your ear that you were beautiful, so very beautiful; you are drunk, you would have whispered just before I kissed you.
You did once, do you remember? In the evening, you forced nearly a gallon of water down my throat before leading me upstairs, and in the morning you laughed when I groaned as the sunlight seemed to split my head in two, throbbing and aching; your breath had skittered across my chest, light and teasing, the vibrations shuddering deep into my skin.
Then, though, I was not so much inebriated as attempting to wrestle too many thoughts at once; take too many ideas and distil them down into one, pure and simple and solid.
I could not rid my mind of your words, those words crying for unity, for a strong front against the terrors which had already started to tear Europe apart, to destroy families, couples – like Aberforth and Aoife, like what they would become in under a year – to murder sons and brothers and fathers and lovers, for no other reason than a handful of men, years before, even decades before, had signed a few sheets of paper.
All I could thing, overwhelmingly, was that it was horribly unfair: people should not die for something they do not believe in, perhaps do not even understand, to defend a country which is not theirs, alone on foreign soil.
If men must die, they should die for a cause they choose, not one which is imposed.
Reaching for a quill, I laid a sheet of parchment – fresh, unmarked, flecked here and there with darker spots of cream – on the top of the leather sheet, and unscrewed a bottle of ink with a flick of my wrist.
I could not interfere, not with the muggles war – there was nothing anyone could do to stop that; a cesspit of acids muddled together, boiling and boiling until the sides melted and it overflowed, the fumes alone toxic, tinting the air green – but perhaps there was something I could do to stop other deaths, needless deaths, no more worthy for their gifts or blood, merely closer and equally at risk.
History remembers your speech – the Unity Address of 1914, they call it: world-changing, game-changing, and, for historians who live by linear timelines, the first hint of what was to come from you, of the goal which would drive a lance into the heart of Europe, shattering to rebuild.
My paper never emerged in the end, destined to read only by the fire into which I threw it, the truths it contained, the words I had written and the voice they spoke with too close, too strange for comfort.
You see, for all my efforts to set myself apart from you, the words I had written were yours in essence, passionate and wild and elegant in their vehemence, and the voice they spoke with was Aberforth’s, gruff and angry, arguing protection of a family I did not have.
Empty copies, in the end, diminished in the reimagining, and I could no more lay claim to them than I could to the ideals they represented.
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