Sir Arnold Bax, the composer, once famously said, "I would try anything once except incest and folk dancing." If it had occurred to him, I know he would've added, "- and lurking in a pub car park on a Saturday night, looking for a car to hotwire because I'm short of a ride home." I was now calmly resigned to inevitably getting caught. Yet breaking more laws and taking increasingly stupid risks to retrieve the situation seemed oddly sensible. My Great-uncle Alexander always said, "You may as well be hung for stealing a sheep as stealing a lamb." Of course, it's true they never managed to pin anything on him.
The car park was quiet though – it was too cold for anybody to want to hang about outside. Much as I liked the idea of borrowing a BMW filled with climbing gear that clearly belonged to Tom or Quentin, a green army-surplus Land Rover I'd spotted earlier was a better prospect. I was familiar with the things. Last summer, Pa had started teaching me to drive by taking me onto the base on Sunday mornings to drive round the parade ground in one. He told me it was a good way to learn because, with four foot pedals and three gear selectors, it was more like playing a pipe-organ than driving - any other vehicle would seem easy by comparison. I assumed he really wanted to make sure I never got a chance to damage his car.
The first bit of luck that evening: the door wasn't locked and the key was in the ignition. After all, who expects to have their car stolen in the middle of nowhere?
"Oh Lard, won'cha buy mee a Murcaydes Benz?
Ma frien's all drive Land-Ro-vers. I must make a-mends."
You know, I think I can do a darn fine American accent.
The engine reluctantly started and clashing the gears, stalling it only once and coming close to clipping a parked car, I drove over to where I'd left the other two. In two minutes Sarah was sitting in the left seat, Summers was propped between us in the middle and we were jerkily heading north out of the village on the so-called A-road that skirted Loch Shin. In the South of England, an A-class road has four, sometimes six, lanes of traffic. Up here, it's a single narrow track that bulges every few hundred yards so cars going in opposite directions can squeeze past each other.
"I thought you said you could drive, Alex!" Sarah half-shouted over the engine noise after I did a particularly crunchy gear change.
"Look, Tap, this is a Muggle car. There's a little bit more to this than touching the dashboard with your wand and stating your destination in a loud, clear voice. But if you think you can do better…"
"No, no! I'm not criticising. You seem to be doing really well."
"Should I remind you who's rescuing who right now?"
"No need. If we get away with this, I'm sure Nick and I'll be frequently reminded, over the next two years, how grateful we must be to you -" she paused and looked around. "It's years since I was in a Muggle car; it wasn't like this one."
"Well this is a four-wheel drive utility vehicle. It's a bit Spartan but that's the idea. When it gets really dirty, you can clean out the inside with a power-hose. Or just open the doors and drive it through a river."
She wrinkled her nose.
"It's overdue for that. I really don't want to know this has been used to carry."
"You're none too fragrant yourself you know! I'd open the air-vents but these things don't have heaters and we'd freeze."
"That's all your fault! Don't think I'll be forgetting about it a hurry."
"That's fine by me. Don't touch that! It's called the overdrive or hyperdrive or something and I don't know what it does!"
I was about to say more, but the headlights of an approaching car stopped me. A passing place was just ahead so I courteously swerved over to the left and halted. A big Japanese four-wheel-drive drew abreast and the driver lowered his window.
"Hi, Dougie! What yew doing here? Pub's tha' way ye ken….Hey, what's yous doin' in Dougie's car?"
"Leaving," I said. I revved it and dropped the clutch, assuming this was the thing to do for a tyre-screeching movie-style getaway. Instead, the Land Rover gave a lurch and the engine stalled – note to self: next time, remember to release the handbrake!"
"Ye've nicked Dougie's Landie, ye wee bitch! Willie, get oot an' stop 'em."
His passenger, a burly looking swine, leapt out; the cars were too close for either driver to open their door.
Start! Damn you, start! I twisted the key so hard I might've snapped it off in the ignition. The engine finally came to life with a cough and a roar that made me promise to kiss the thing when I had time. As we shot forward, I glanced in the mirror.
"Crap! They're turning; they're gonna follow us. Tap, do something!" I yelled.
With deliberately slow nonchalance, she leant out her window and mumbled something. I heard the gunshot of an exploding tyre and, in the mirror, saw the Toyota lurch over and come to a gentle halt. Sarah glanced at me and offered a grin that radiated pure smugness.
"Just tell me how good I am." She was almost, but not quite, polishing her fingernails against the lapel of her coat.
"You're wonderful, a gleaming cynosure, Rowena bloody Ravenclaw reincarnated," I said, for once meaning it. "I'm still quivering at the thought of what Snape would've done if he had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to collect one of his Slytherins from a Muggle police station."
"Ha! Get out of bed, get out of his coffin more like!"
"That's a filthy scurrilous rumour!" I yelled with exaggerated outrage. It's important to stand up for the honour of your house and its head. Even if that requires you to put aside the niggling worry that the slander might just be true.
We halted after another fifteen miles of desultory, but loud, bickering. The headlights lit up a road sign pointing down a ruler-straight dirt track that sliced through the surrounding dense pine forest.
"Hogsmeade, seven miles," read Sarah.
It was an old-fashioned cast-iron road sign. One of a sort you sometimes still see in out-of-the-way country areas, though I'd willingly bet body-parts that Muggles couldn't see this one.
I looked at my watch. "It's nearly seven o'clock now. We're going to have to ditch the Landie, but I think we can get back before nine if we walk briskly."
"Then we have to get through Hogsmeade without being seen, past the dementors, break into the castle and get to our common rooms without being spotted by teachers, prefects, ghosts, portraits or Filch," said Sarah. "The breaking-in bit will involve getting past all the extra safeguards they've put up because of Sirius Black and we've still got to work out how we'll explain away Nick's broken leg. I don't think I've forgotten anything."
She had: if Black was still lurking about there was a small chance we would meet him and get killed. But we Suttons know when to be discreet.
"Nil desperandum! We're not expelled yet!"
"No, Alex. That'll happen tomorrow morning."
We unloaded Nick and conjured ropes to tie our two surviving brooms to him to make a sort of flying stretcher. He bobbed around in the air, looking like a curious combination of bondage enthusiast and helium balloon. To cover our trail, I drove the Land Rover a quarter-mile further along the A-road and walked back. It would've saved time to drive all the way to Hogsmeade, but with everybody so jumpy because of Sirius Black, something as unusual as an abandoned Muggle vehicle would be guaranteed to raise an unholy ruckus and prompt some sort of official investigation.
I also left a short apologetic note and fifteen pounds for fuel-money in the pocket of Dougie's muddy Barbour coat which I found under the driver's seat. Please don't tell anybody - I'd like to preserve some sort of reputation for Slytheriness, if possible.
"Oh, I joined the Aurors to see the world,
To gain fame and glory.
But instead of Hong Kong, something went wrong
And now it's a different story!
I'm on vampire patrol in the North Tyrol;
I'm out in the snow and the cold
With me wand, me garlic, me sharpened stakes
And me bottle of Ogden's Old.
Oh, I keep on owling in transfer requests,
To get me away from this place.
But all they do is send them back
And tell me I'm a disgrace.
Then one day last week, some blood-sucking freak
Tried to kill me in the privy.
I can tell you now, all I truly want
Is a job with Witch's Weekly!"
To pass the time as we marched, we were jointly composing a drinking song and, after about five miles and twenty-odd iterations, I thought we were getting somewhere. Sarah has a passable alto; I don't. When in I'm in a patriotic sort of mood, my enthusiastic versions of Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory are known to make dorm-mates send hexes through the bathroom keyhole.
"Oh I joined the Aurors to see the world, to gain fame and - Oww! Wot'cha do that for?"
"Quiet! Look over there, we've attracted an audience," hissed Sarah.
Ahead of us, just where the track dipped into a hollow, a black dog was watching us from the cover of a thick clump of bushes. It looked big but it was hard to be sure; there wasn't much light from the waning moon and the animal's dark coat blended well into the shadows of the surrounding trees. Instead of bolting when it saw we'd spotted it, it continued to silently scrutinise us with a disdainful curiosity that, strangely, reminded me of my old primary school headmistress, Mrs. McKay. I would've been self-consciously tucking my blouse into the waistband of my skirt and straightening my tie, had I been wearing them.
"What's that thing doing out here? This is Scotland, not Dartmoor."
"Shut up, Alex."
Sarah squatted and began confidently calling it to her: whistling and slapping her thigh. I knew the Fawcetts were into animals. According to Stebbins, their big rambling farmhouse down in Devon housed numerous dogs, a large incestuous tribe of cats, bats in the attic, several ponies in the paddock, a family of jarveys under the woodshed and a semi-tame fox who showed up at the back door every evening, begging for kitchen scraps. Weekend guests could expect to be dragged out of bed at 3am by a horrifically cheerful Mrs. Fawcett who would want somebody to hold a lantern while she helped deliver a foal or a litter of piglets.
I don't like dogs. Small ones annoy me, big ones scare me and they all smell.
"My, you are a big … boy," said Sarah, pausing to quickly check. She rubbed his sides with both hands as the dog licked her face. "There's a good boy! There's a gooood boy! Alex, have you anything to eat? I can feel his ribs; he must be starving."
At the mention of food, my insides sharply reminded me that I'd only eaten an apple since breakfast. I could feel the Cornish pasty in my pocket and was about to say I hadn't anything. The dog, clearly no fool, looked up at me and quietly whined.
Sarah unwrapped it and the beast ate it in two gulps before licking the crumbs out of the wrapper. He was a big boy all right: one look at him and you'd be thinking his family tree must've included a pony at some point (not a complete impossibility, thanks to wizarding weirdoes who seem to enjoy playing silly buggers with nature), and with his coal-black coat, he only needed red glowing eyes to complete the satanic hell-hound look. I fingered my wand in my pocket, wondering if he was hungry enough to view the pasty as just an appetiser and how upset Sarah might be if I stunned him on the spot.
"We'll take him with us," she said decisively. "He obviously strayed from somewhere and he'll starve or freeze if he stays out here. We'll get him some food from the kitchen and take him to Hagrid tomorrow morning. We should be able to find out where he came from, and I'm sure Hagrid would love to have another dog to look after."
"Dunno if we'll have time to do all that. Didn't you say we'd be busy tomorrow, packing our trunks and getting our wands snapped?"
"Don't be stupid, Alex!"
We continued onward in silence. By now, it was well below freezing; the air was quite still and the only noise was the crunch of our boots on the frozen turf and the occasional screech of some night bird. The pine forest was gradually thinning out and the track was climbing onto open moorland. We took it in turn to tow Summers as our new friend happily loped beside us. Even by wizard standards, we must've been a peculiar looking quartet: three dishevelled teens and a dirty great animal who looked like he'd been guzzling Growth Potion since puppyhood.
Perhaps we should've hung onto the truck. If we're thrown out of school, we could drive round the country, looking for blokes in rubber monster-masks to blow to pieces. Sod it! I've already got the glasses, the right hair and the right build; I just need freckles, a baggy orange jumper and a miniskirt!
"So how did somebody like you get into Slytherin?" said Sarah, suddenly breaking into my musings.
"Tap, was that a compliment I just heard?" I grinned. "Well, rule out family tradition – Mother's an ex-Gryffindor and Pa's a Muggle who got the shock of his life when I turned eleven – so put it down to my ruthless, amoral, backstabbing ambition. Actually, would it surprise you to know the Sorting Hat was seriously considering putting me in Hufflepuff?"
"You, a Hufflepuff! Ha, that's a good one! So, what happened?"
"If you believe the hat…I like setting lofty goals and I like achieving them, but favour short-cuts over hard work." That's what happens when you combine natural laziness with intense family pressure to succeed, but I didn't say that. I continued. "Also, I'd been brought up to firmly believe there's some law of nature that divides people into those who give orders and those who obey them. Naturally, I was one of the former by birthright. In retrospect, I think Slytherin was an inevitability."
So much for psychological insight! If that hat had any sense, it'd be charging people 100 quid an hour for this.
"You know, the mouldy thing was on my head about two seconds before shouting Ravenclaw." She sounded a little peeved.
"I don't remember; I was distracted. One of the Weasley twins had seen my nervousness so he introduced himself by conjuring some ice and dropping it down the back of my T-shirt. I was trying to twist his head off when his brother rushed to his aid. It got complicated after that."
Silently, we trudged onwards.
Barbours are traditionally made, heavy, raincoats that are popular with people who live and work in the country. They are made of coarse cotton that's practically as stiff as cardboard and are waterproofed with impregnated wax so every few months, you have to spend an evening with a hairdryer and a tin of wax, melting on a new layer. They must never be washed as that would destroy the waterproofing. Their reputation for complete indestructibility was tarnished in the 90's when yuppies discovered them: they briefly became fashionable and quality seemed to nosedive. Nowadays, sensible people have discarded them in favour of Gore-Tex coats which are one third the weight and don't smell like a small animal died in one of the pockets.
Land Rovers are the British equivalent of Jeeps and have been in production, in many different versions, since the late 1940's. Driving one through a river to wash it isn't an unreasonable thing to do as they don't mind being driven completely underwater - provided they're fitted with a length of plastic pipe to supply air to the engine. Depending on the depth of the river, the driver may, or may not, need scuba gear. They are quite silly vehicles.