Padma. My lotus-flower. My river-goddess. My muse and inspiration. The girl with midnight in her eyes.
I had been at Hogwarts for a whole year before I noticed Padma. In my first year I had been too busy boiling potions, casting spells and playing Quidditch to bother much with girls. But Terry said I should invite them to my birthday party anyway – that was only polite.
My birthday is on 5 September, so I was the first person in second year to become a teenager. The house-elves sent a huge chocolate cake up to our common room, together with a charmed knife that always cut the right number of slices, and always of exactly equal size. Robert and Kevin were letting off Filibuster’s Fireworks, the girls were huddled in a giggly knot letting off noisy poppers, some first-years were bouncing balloons up to and down from the ceiling, and Terry was trying to rouse the third-years to lead the singing. After they had sung, and I had started slicing, everyone cheered, and I suppose we were quite noisy, because Professor Flitwick appeared in the doorway and gently reminded us, “Friends, I know it’s Mr Corner’s birthday, but that’s a little louder than necessary. Can’t you revel without carousing?”
Padma snatched a plate, murmuring, “I knew that final slice was left over for a reason,” as she whirled around to face Flitwick. “This is your slice, Professor,” she told him as she pressed it into his hands.
“How very kind … but I hope you young people are remembering your homework … fourth-years have a Potions test tomorrow, and I know Professor McGonagall set a first-year essay this week …” By the time Flitwick had finished remembering everyone’s homework tasks, he had been pushed into the most comfortable blue plush chair and plied with butterbeer, and there was no more thought of interrupting the party.
I realised Padma was a seriously cool girl.
For the rest of that year I watched Padma Patil. I watched her glide across a room, laughing with her eyes at whatever fascinating things her friends were saying to her, and wondered what she was saying in return. I watched the way she tossed her head, her hair like a black satin bell-rope, I watched the way she drank from a goblet, and I watched the way she copied down Herbology notes. I never knew what to say to her, but girls didn’t expect boys to speak to them anyway.
In fact it wasn’t a very happy year at our school. Some strange monster was lurking in the corridors knocking people unconscious. I didn’t want to admit to Terry that I was afraid, but I took good care not to leave a room unless he was with me. Seven members of the school community were attacked, and the poor gamekeeper was wrongly accused of controlling the monster, before all the trouble ended. In fact it never was very clear exactly what the danger had been, although Dumbledore assured us that the Dark wizard who had masterminded the attacks had been “dealt with”. Students had wild theories. One version even claimed that the monster had been a giant snake who slew at a glance, and that a twelve-year-old boy had killed it with a magic sword! Obviously I don’t believe anything as far-fetched as that – I’m just trying to give you an impression of what the school atmosphere was like.
Yet all through that year when I was thirteen, I couldn’t be too upset. The thought of Padma kept intruding. Padma existed. The world must be the right kind of place.
Third year wasn’t too good either. Some lunatic escaped from Azkaban, and the Ministry posted horrible Dementors all around Hogwarts – to “protect” us, they said. At times I felt I’d rather deal with a simple murdering lunatic than with those Dementors. They gave me the shivers. If we couldn’t avoid passing one, we used to whistle – Terry became pretty good at “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and I memorised all the verses of “Derby Kelly” – and if that didn’t cheer me up, I used to think about Padma. I would see her face in my mind’s eye, and find myself laughing for no reason. The Dementors couldn’t hurt a person who knew Padma Patil.
There were some high points in that miserable year. One was the lesson when Professor Lupin, the DADA teacher, taught us how to tackle Boggarts. “The secret is laughter,” he told us. I certainly didn’t feel like laughing when I was confronted with that dirty great fanged vampire lunging for my blood. “Laugh … laugh …” I muttered to myself between clenched teeth. Then suddenly I forgot about laughing and fixed my mind on pink vampires. Within an instant, the vampire was pink, its oozing blood was bright turquoise, and its creaky bat-wings were juggling silver balls. The whole class laughed out loud, and crack! – the boggart had vanished.
Another good time was that snowy weekend in Hogsmeade. Terry and I went into Scrivenshaft’s to buy quills, and came face to face with Padma Patil and Morag MacDougal buying parchments. I didn’t know what to say, but Terry managed a confident, “Hi, are they doing a just price on those scrolls?” and Padma replied, “No, horribly inflated – they must be losing business because of the Dementors.”
We could all talk about the Dementors, and by the time we’d finished paying for our stationery we were relaxed enough to invite the girls to the Three Broomsticks with us. There were no Dementors inside the pub, so after couple of butterbeers all round (paid for by me, so that Padma could see what a kind, generous chap I was) we had all become very cheerful. Terry and Morag began swapping hints over a Runes homework translation that had stumped them both, and they were soon so deeply immersed in it that I was able to walk back to school pretty much alone with Padma.
“I always thought Runes was a rather silly subject,” said Padma. “My sister says Divination is cool, maybe I should have chosen that instead of Muggle Studies.”
I was saved from the trouble of making a profound statement about Divination because Padma slipped on a sheet of ice hidden under the slush. I grabbed her arm just in time, and slid my fingers down to her hand as she steadied herself. She didn’t seem to mind, so I closed my fingers around her hand, my heart racing, as I asked with elaborate casualness:
“But if you have Astronomy and Arithmancy, do you still need Divination? I don’t really know, I’m just asking – is it useful?”
She did not release my hand until we entered school and had to sign Filch’s check-in book.
Padma Patil was my girlfriend.
Dumbledore sent the Dementors away quite suddenly, the day after our exams finished. The final month of third year was just brilliant, with the long hours of light and no homework to slow us down. One evening Terry picked up a book that someone had left lying by the common room fire. “Wisdom for the Searching Heart,” he read the title. “Anyone lost this?”
The sixth-year Prefect, Penelope Clearwater, came forward. “It’s a charmed book,” she explained. “It always opens at the right page.” She flipped the cover, and displayed for us a lemon page inscribed with the motto:Keep your words sweet:
you never know when you will have to eat them!
She flushed. “I was rather sharp with those first-years … anyway, you have a try, it’s usually right.”
Terry’s face fell as he opened to an apricot-coloured page that stated:The best way to get rid of your duties is to discharge them.
“I did neglect to honour my parents,” he admitted. “I’ll write them an owl tonight. Here, Michael.”
I grabbed the book and slid my finger into a green page near the beginning. But the pages flipped away from me, and suddenly they were open in the pink section, bearing the curious legend:Romance will never last for those starry-eyed youngsters with mournful faces.
To preserve love, keep laughing!
Starry? Was I really so mournful about Padma? There seemed to be an important point in there somewhere, but as I handed the charmed book back to Penelope, I couldn’t help wondering what laughter really had to do with love.