Alexandra Sutton and the Nighthawk's Trinket
I've always thought that the Leaky Cauldron's anti-Muggle charms were a bit unnecessary. If I were a Muggle, one look at the dump would deter me from going in even if the place was in full view to all the world. Occasionally however, a Muggle would walk past who had a strong mind, a faint spark of magic, a thirst and a complete lack of discrimination. There would then ensue a certain amount of confusion followed by an awful lot of panic and the hasty summoning of Obliviators. The anti-Muggle charms would be quickly beefed up and a couple of months later it would all happen again.
This might have been why the barman carefully looked us over when Rachel and I wandered into the place early on Wednesday morning. He continued to watch us as he slowly polished a glass with a grubby cloth.
I quickly surveyed the customers.
"Oh, thank God! For once, Great-aunt Doris isn't here."
"I believe you were four the last time you met her so view this as a lucky escape."
It seemed every time I passed through the Leaky Cauldron, I was gleefully ambushed by Doris and her gang of cackling cronies. The presence of somebody still at Hogwarts would be a cue for a flood of school reminiscences. Mostly, it seemed to be the same old anecdotes of the terrifying high-jinx they had got up to, sometime before the First World War. The stories would end with somebody from Slytherin (she always forgot I was one and by this point it would seem tactless to remind her) getting attacked by a griffin, left tied to a tree in the Forest for a week or given a life-long phobia of footwear - and subsequently, the nickname "Barefoot Brenda." I would sit through all this, casually sip my butterbeer and gradually self-combust with embarrassment.
We shuffled through the back door into a dirty little yard that contained two smelly dustbins, a half-feral cat who watched us balefully from under a broken chair and the entrance to the world of magic and wonder - whoever devised the layout of the Cauldron had a strange sense of humour.
The trouble is, I only come here once a year for school stuff so I can never remember which brick to tap.
After I tried three different ones, a wizard standing behind us gave a polite cough, which really meant: "I've not got all day, idiot!" He had his wand out and was about to push past us when I finally tapped the right one and the wall re-arranged itself into an archway, as gracefully as bricks could manage.
"That wall is just some flash git showing off, Rach," I said as the wizard shoved past me in a ruffled flurry of impatience. "They could have simply put in a normal door and Glamored it to look like a wall, but oh-no. Of course, Muggles never get this far anyway so the disguise itself is a complete waste of...." I stopped when I realized she was looking past me, open-mouthed. "Umm... yeah, that's Diagon Alley."
She appeared to get over her amazement quickly enough - she liked to appear urbane and unflappable. Besides, she'd probably seen more of the world then some people three times her age. It's easier if you can step back and view wizardry as simply another strange foreign country - albeit one that has just made you a citizen without asking.
"Got your school list, Rach?"
"Oh... yeah..." she said distractedly. "What's a collapsible cauldron, Alexandra?"
We were passing the cauldron shop, which Rachel was looking at with considerable interest.
"It folds itself flat for storage when you tell it. An idiot in my class had one in second year. Every lesson, certain Gryffindors would wait until he'd nearly finished his potion then they'd casually drop the word of command into the conversation - made an awful mess."
"Cool! Can we -"
"Forget it! I've dropped Potions so you're getting my old cauldron. We'll get stationery and your wand this morning and perhaps come back for books this afternoon."
She forgot her disappointment when she saw that year's new thing in the stationers. They called it diary ink, as it was invisible to everybody except the writer. The shopkeeper asked Rachel to try it but I had to write below "Little sisters are very annoying," before she was convinced it worked and demanded we get some.
"Just make sure you label the bottle," I told her. "I shudder to think of what Snape would do if you accidentally used that to write one of his essays. And it’s worth paying extra for a charmed non-spill bottle for your normal ink. And remember to keep an eye on your quills or they're sure to walk - good ones are like gold dust near the end of term. And don't forget- "
"Yes, Alexandra," she said - using a tone of voice that made me wonder if she'd written something about me with the diary ink.
"Look, Mum and Dad made it clear I was to look out for you," (and also what they'd do to me if I didn't) "- I'm just attempting to give you the benefit of some of the mistakes I made."
Rachel just rolled her eyes and we continued shopping.
Twenty minutes later, we were standing outside the shop, laden with parchment and quills. Our purchases had finished off my limited supply of Galleons and I was thinking about getting more when I spotted two shocks of red hair approaching up the narrow street.
Oh please, God, why me? Why now?
I turned away and tried to look like my whole soul was held in thrall by a shop window display of magic door-locks. When I looked up, I saw the reflections of two grinning faces flanking my own.
"Oh crap! You're not in prison," I said.
"Look, Fred. It's Alex Sutton, that ornament of Slytherin."
"And see how happy she is to see us!" said Fred. "In fact, I think she's been pining for you, George. Her expression when she saw you just now ... she was like a released prisoner glimpsing the trees and flowers after ten years in a dungeon."
"Wouldn't work," I said. "I'm a Slytherin, you're Gryffindors. Sorry, did I say Gryffindors? I meant annoying smug arseholes."
"We've not been introduced," said George, ignoring me. He held out his hand to Rachel, who matched his grin as she took it. "Fred and George Weasley. I'm George, the good-looking one."
"Rachel Sutton, I'm Alexandra's sister," she said happily.
"Sutton, you never told us you had a family," said Fred.
"Yeah, we always thought you'd been spawned in a stagnant pool somewhere."
"Ha...ha ...ha!" I said flatly.
"Are you friends of Alexandra's?" asked Rachel – ignoring what I thought made the answer obvious.
"Oh yes," said Fred. "When we were young first years, sitting beside Alex in Potions was the only thing that made those long hours bearable. Wasn't it, Sutton?"
Bearable for them; abject misery for me.
"And," said George, before I could make my unpleasant feelings known, "it's thanks to her that we proudly hold a record that's unlikely to be beaten."
Rachel glanced at me. Clearly, there'd be no peace until the story was told.
"We're jointly responsible for the fastest loss of house points ever," I said. "There was ... an incident in the queue at our year’s Sorting ceremony. Minnie McGonagall had to stop to deal with us so she took five points each from whichever house we were going to be Sorted into. Slytherin and Gryffindor started that year on minus five and minus ten respectively; also a record."
I'm sure that was what torpedoed my chances of ever being a prefect. But now was not the time for grudges.
"Look, can you two do me a favour? I need you look after Rachel for half an hour; there's something I need to do. Take her to Fortescue's or something."
"Sorry, Sutton. We can't hang about," said George, suddenly serious. "We've got things to do as well and we've got to be home by lunchtime."
"Okay then; you'd better get going. Perhaps I'll see you on Monday at King's Cross. I was going to look out for your parents because Mother knew them in Gryffindor and she asked me to say hello. If I see them, I'll mention I bumped into you."
They glanced at each other; Fred looked at his watch. "Actually, Alex, I think we're okay for time - we could spare you half an hour."
Bullseye! My expression didn't change but I mentally punched the air. They had slipped down to Diagon Alley without their parents' knowledge: to buy things they didn't want them to know about. In their own way the twins were very predictable, and easily blackmailed.
"Righto, Rach, these two gentlemen have generously offered to buy ice creams. They're mostly a harmless pair-" now that was insulting them! "But don't eat anything they offer you unless you've just seen them buy it - that's another of those learning-from-my-experiences things. I need to go see a man about a dragon."
The offer of ice cream made Rachel forget for a moment to demand the who, what, where and why of my errand and I escaped before she remembered.
Knockturn Alley wasn't quite as bad as its reputation. But it remained a place to be leery of - somewhere you didn't go without a very good reason. Here, outsiders were instantly spotted and carefully watched and very nasty things occasionally happen to the unwary (afterwards reported in lurid detail in the Prophet). However, wearing my green snake broach and a don't-screw-with-me expression seemed to work. At least, if anybody did spot me for a schoolgirl, perilously close to being out of her depth, they were too polite to say anything; even the fingernail lady looked impressed.
I was here because the Ministry of Magic made Gringotts stick to an official exchange rate between pounds and Galleons. This sort of idiocy takes no account of market forces so to get the best deal you go to people who do. In this case, a Squib money-changer called Nebulo Cooper: a podgy, bald little man who wore clothes that could be equally nondescript on either side of the Leaky Cauldron.
Cooper's place of business was a table at the back of the Black Dragon in Knockturn Alley. When I got there, I saw he was having a huddled conversation with an unshaven, ginger-haired character in a long dirty overcoat. Another man, a bored-looking wizard, sat beside Cooper. I had seen him before and guessed he was Cooper's paid protection. Being a Squib in Knockturn Alley who was known to sometimes carry large sums of cash would be an excellent dictionary definition of 'hazardous'. I sat at a discrete distance to wait my turn - I hoped they wouldn't be long. Some of the other customers gave the impression they wouldn't let little things, like not being one hundred percent the same species, stop them from trying to get fresh.
Finally, they finished and the man with the overcoat stood and buttoned himself up, even though it was a warm day. He walked off to the bar, trailing smells of booze, old tobacco and my-lifestyle's-to-hectic-for-me-to-bathe, only pausing to briefly leer at me.
"Grendaline Bollard," said Cooper, turning his attention to me and indicating the vacated chair. "I was just thinking it was a while since I saw you; you're hard to forget. I don't see many like you-" he waved at my badge "-who want to change sterling into Galleons."
I shrugged. "Most of my housemates wouldn't even know pounds exist, not that they'd care, of course. Now, can we discuss exchange rates?" I wasn't keen to linger.
After a minute or two of haggling, I swapped a thick roll of twenties for a depressingly light bag of Galleons - though I knew it was a lot heavier than the one I'd have got from Gringotts. They may have marble floors and uniformed Goblins who bow and hold open the doors, but that doesn't make up for the fact that they charge eight pounds seventy to the Galleon and you can get seven pounds fifteen just by holding your nose and dealing with somebody like Cooper.
I came back to Fortescue's to find Rachel and the twins clustered round an outside table with empty ice-cream dishes in front of them. I caught the tail end of what Rachel was telling the Weasleys.
" - Dad said it was embarrassing though Mum said it was sweet. But Ben was very silly. He didn't notice a thing during the whole time he was with us."
"You know, Sutton," said Fred, as I sat, "you should let it go. A Slytherin and a Hufflepuff - it almost never works out. And Ben Stebbins is a nice bloke. I'd hate to see something bad happen to him."
"Like you," said George with a smirk.
"Be more worried about what'll happen to you if a whisper of this gets out. I swear, you'll be begging for death before I'm finished with you."
"Alex, don't worry your beautiful head, we can be the very souls of discretion," said George.
"Sometimes... when we want to be," said Fred.
Blackmail and counter-blackmail! Well, at least it kept life from getting dull.
Now that I had money to pay him, we could go to Ollivanders. The twins tagged along, having decided this would be more entertaining than whatever dodgy errand they'd originally planned for that morning. They easily brushed aside my half-hearted attempts to get shot of them and, ignoring my presence, chatted easily with Rachel about Hogwarts, wizardry and siblings: theirs and hers.
Wizardry lacks the colourful initiation-into-adulthood ceremonies adopted by other inbred tribal societies. So it makes do with the choosing of the first wand at Ollivanders. Sometimes, the unfortunate child would find itself melting with embarrassment because the tiny shop would be packed with inanely grinning assorted relatives - most with cameras - there to witness the proceedings. Rachel would have to make do with the Weasley twins and myself, and she didn't know how lucky she was.
We crowded into the shop and the door shut itself behind us with a crack. A faint tinkling of a distant bell that told me we wouldn't be alone for long.
Ollivander's shop seemed completely unchanged from the day Mother had brought me here six years before. Even the copy of the Daily Prophet lying on the counter could have been the same one. A single shaft of sunlight poked through the gloom from a gap in the curtains and showed the air was thick with dust. It was also saturated with something else, something less tangible but more noticeable; the air itself felt tense, as if it was stretched like a rubber band. The twins were subdued and even Rachel looked apprehensive for the first time that morning. Around us, dusty shelves, each stacked with little boxes, climbed to the ceiling. When I looked up, I had a strange feeling the inside of the shop was taller than the outside.
The place reminded me of a wine cellar, full of cobwebs and ranks of undisturbed ancient bottles - though the subtle feeling of lightly sleeping power would make it one of those wine cellars where they filled the bottles with nitro-glycerine. The only furniture was a single scuffed chair that had already been nabbed by a Weasley. It looked like it could have been Regency - I had to stop myself from putting a price on it by reflex.
Ollivander emerged through a heavy velvet curtain from a back room. He also looked unchanged. Dog owners are said to resemble their pets; I think he resembled his shop - I got the impression that anyone giving him a chummy slap on the back would be choked by a cloud of dust.
"Good morning, Mr Ollivander," I said, politely.
"Good morning..." he said. "Miss Alexandra Sutton, Mr Fred and Mr George Weasley. It's a pleasure to see all of you again - we see so little of our clients, unless they have unfortunate accidents with their wands. Now I remember yours is rowan wood and unicorn hair, Miss Sutton: ten and a quarter inches, a very good charms wand...."
Also pretty good for back scratching, but I know when to be diplomatic.
"It seems to do the job, Mr Ollivander. Would you care to see it?" He nodded and I handed it over. He scrutinised it from end to end and sighted along it to check for straightness. Finally, he Transfigured the copy of the Prophet into a glove, a pie, a lit candle, a black chess king, a confused pigeon and back into a newspaper: so fast it was hard to follow what'd he'd just done. I wanted to clap, but it might've appeared that I was being sarcastic.
"You've kept it in excellent order, Miss Sutton. And I'm glad to see you take the trouble to polish your wand..." One of the Weasleys quietly sniggered but crumpled up under a kilowatt glare from Ollivander. "And you must be Miss Rachel Sutton," he said softly. "I've been expecting to see you."
I know that sounds impressively mysterious and mystical. But I'm sure all it means is that every summer, Dumbledore sends him a list of the new intake.
"We have many thousands of wands here, Miss Sutton. Each is unique, just as each person who will use a wand is unique. It is my task to find, among those thousands, that one that is right for you. This is no trivial thing and some wands will remain on our shelves for twenty or thirty years before the right young witch or wizard comes through our door. Fortunately, I have some experience in these matters and will be able to narrow down the search for otherwise we would be here for several weeks. Your sister for example was unusually easy to sort out. The first wand we tried in fact...."
He paused to look at the Weasleys who were doing their innocent-and-attentive routine that at one time had even fooled some of their less-experienced teachers. Rachel meanwhile probably wasn't listening. I suppose it's distracting when a tape measure snakes up your leg, down your arm and tries to measure the length of your right little finger - you worry about what it's planning to measure next.
"Now I think we'll start with a wand like your sister's -" he ducked behind the counter and reappeared with an armful of boxes, "these things occasionally run in families...." He proffered an open box. Rachel lifted out the wand and held it like it was about to bite her.
She looked uncertainly at us.
"Give it a wave, Miss Sutton," said Ollivander, gently.
She screwed up her eyes, waved it and ... nothing happened.
"I think, Miss Sutton, finding your wand will take a little longer."
She flashed a smirk at me, evidently thinking that being a hard case was some mark of distinction. But old Ollivander knew his stuff. Before long, before even the Weasleys had started to fidget, he had found Rachel's wooden partner in life. From now on, she wouldn't simply be Rachel Sutton. She'd be forever filed away in some corner of his mind as Rachel-Sutton-twelve-inches-stiff-oak-phoenix-feather.
We spent the rest of the week shopping for all the things we'd need until our return to civilisation at Christmas. I’d learnt from experience how important it was to be methodical in this. Hearing the whistle of the Hogwarts’ Express at the same instant as you realize you forgot to pack something important is not pleasant.
As well as books and Rachel's robes from Diagon Alley, we also needed plenty of things from Muggle London. It took a couple of days to collect clothes and underwear that would be warm enough for a Scottish winter and robust enough to withstand the house-elves’ annihilating laundry (they can't read care labels, you see). We also needed a three-month supply of toothpaste, shampoo and ... other things. Finally, the surprisingly difficult tasks of finding a cheap but reliable mechanical watch for Rachel. But on our last weekend, we found a Russian one on a stall in Camden Lock Market. Showing unsuspected eccentricity, Rachel picked one decorated with a hammer-and-sickle and a portrait of Lenin; I made a mental note to charm it to play the opening bars of the Soviet national anthem ever hour.
On Monday morning, the rain was sheeting down - it looked like a typhoon following us back from Hong Kong had only just arrived. True to form, Uncle Charles had dropped us off early at Kings Cross and disappeared - he said he was seeing a client at eleven. It was probably for the best. Parents of Muggle-borns would hang about on the main station concourse until the train left at eleven because they couldn't get on to platform nine and three-quarters. I doubt if Charley would have had the slightest interest in joining this forlorn little group.
The station coffee shop had a little monitor up on the wall that displayed the train departures. Lincoln, platform four - 10:20; York, platform one - 10:24; Edinburgh, platform twelve - 10:31. Is it odd to admit I was wondering what it'd be like to say bugger the Hogwarts Express and just pick one of them at random?
Lincoln, platform 4 - now departing: forty minutes left in the real world. I finished my coffee and thought about getting another. It was stupidly expensive but that didn't seem to matter - I wouldn't have any use for pounds in the next few months.
"Want anything, Rach?"
"No thanks," she didn't even look up from her Pratchett paperback.
"Entertainment's starting." I nodded towards three kids pushing luggage-laden trolleys; one had a broom-shaped parcel, another had a caged owl. "This place turns into a circus every first of September. The Mug- I mean, station staff must be blind not to notice something odd is happening."
A gawping small boy was nearly hit by a big, ride-on, floor-cleaning machine. The driver shouted something I didn't hear; an outraged, oddly dressed woman shouted something back.
"You're not very happy to be going back to school, Alexandra?"
"Never mind; we've got to go. Do you remember what I said about getting onto the platform?"
"You walk through the solid barrier between platform nine and ten.... That sounds stupid."
"You'll be saying that a lot in the next seven years. Get your things."
"Alexandra... if this platform's exactly between platform nine and platform ten... shouldn't it be called nine and a half? Why's it called nine and three-quarters?"
Oh dear God! This is going to be a long trip.
As always, platform nine and three quarters was chaotic: filled with tearful mothers, proud fathers, embarrassed children and escaping livestock. The noise of rain pounding on the platform roof meant everybody was half-shouting to make themselves heard.
We pushed our trolleys along the platform and I exchanged waves and greetings with a few familiar faces. The Weasleys were easy to spot amongst the throng; Harry Potter and Hermione Granger were with them. The previous Christmas, those two, Ron Weasley and myself practically had Hogwarts to ourselves for two weeks. Hermione mostly hung about in the library and had seemed decent enough. Potter could've been all right as well but I never found out - I think only thing that he said to me during the whole time was to ask for the potatoes at dinner.
One of the twins caught my eye. I gave an arch smile and waved but he narrowed his eyes and drew a finger across his throat - clearly, all threats still stood.
A moment later, I spotted Gwendolyn Hopkirk, one of my dorm-mates. I think we got on well. There's really no option - Hogwarts dormitories are too small and seven years is far too long for vicious ongoing feuds with the person in the next four-poster.
"Gwen! How's you?"
"Alex, I've just had a lifetime's excitement at the World Cup. Please tell me we're going to have a quiet uneventful year. Nobody Petrified, no mass-murderers breaking in. We're owed that, Alex! We're owed it."
"Don't say any more, Gwen, you're terrifying my sister," I said. "And don't mention that pervie Troll they caught lurking in a girls' toilet during third year.''
Rachel looked like she thought I'd made that one up. No such luck - Hogwarts can be much more terrifying than mere imagination.
I was introduced to her parents and we chatted for a few minutes until it looked like we'd have to load our luggage or stay behind.
Now some people claim the Hogwarts Express - which is, after all, a bizarre big magic thing that only looks like a train - should never be crowded because it expands to make sure there's always plenty of room. If this is true, it definitely needs a lot of pushing and shoving before the damn thing gets the message that it needs to stick a few extra compartments onto the end of itself. So getting on board remains complicated process. It requires teamwork, determination and some ruthlessness. After you find an empty compartment, two people are needed to manoeuvre heavy luggage down the narrow train corridor, packed with others trying to do the same. At the same time, a third person is needed to defend the compartment from interlopers. For this, you need somebody stout and resolute. Somebody who - with wand in one hand and Beater's club in the other - can generally pull off a decent impersonation of the Texans at the Alamo or the British at Rorke's Drift. Rachel did it splendidly.
At the stroke of eleven, Gwen, Rachel and I were comfortably settled in our compartment. We could hear doors being slammed shut and final farewells shouted through open windows. Then, there was a whistle from the engine and with a clanking shudder, the train began to move.
"Soyuz neroosh-imi resp-ooblik svobodnik
Splot-E-la nav-eki vel-i-kaia RUS!
Da zdr-avstvooyet sozdanni voley nar-odov
Yedini mogoochi SOVIETSKI SOYUZ!"
"Alexandra, undo whatever you did to my watch, or I’ll tell Mum!"
"...'Twas Gryffindor who found the way,
He whipped me off his head
The founders put some brains in me
So I could choose instead!
Now slip me snug about your ears,
I've never yet been wrong,
I'll have a look inside your mind
And tell were you belong!"
One minute six seconds! Damn! My bet in the Slytherin pool had been one minute fourteen!
The hall filled with cheers as the main event of the first evening of the school year got started. Minnie unrolled the scroll listing the new first-years and addressed them.
"When I call out your name, you will put on the hat and sit on the stool. When the hat announces your house, you will go and sit at the appropriate table."
"Hi, Christine. What'd you put down?"
"One minute twenty-two, Alex," said Christine Randall, my dorm-mate.
"Oh never mind, perhaps next year. How was your summer?"
"I spent a three weeks in Norway: Mum was over there, buying some new trolls. Then I was in Oxford for a week. I saw everything, Merton College, that famous pub: The Eagle and Child, Wolvercote Cemetery..."
Oxford? A cemetery? Aaah...I see...
"You did the Tolkien Tourist Trail? That sounds really good fun," I lied, feeling appalled at the monster I'd helped create. It was me who'd given her a copy of The Lord of the Rings two Christmases ago.
"I loved it.... I've decided to apply to Oxford after I finish school."
I was wondering how her traditionally minded parents would take the news that she preferred a Muggle university to training security trolls when the table erupted as somebody-or-other was made a Slytherin. We joined in, pounding the table until the noise died down.
"I'll show you the pictures later," she said. "My cousin's up this year; I bet a Galleon with his brother that the little brat would go to Hufflepuff."
"My little sister's up as well."
"Really? Congratulations, Alex! Slytherin would do well if it got another Sutton."
"Thanks," I said, without enthusiasm. But she didn't notice.
"This is him!" she yelped. "Come on, hat! Do it! Do it!"
The Hufflepuffs were yelling and stamping the floor. Christine was clapping and screaming "Oween! Oweeeeen!" before she realised half the Slytherin table was glaring at her; she collapsed into her seat and turned bright red.
By the time "Rutherford, Tracey" became a Hufflepuff, the Sorting ceremony had been going on for forty minutes. Each house greeted its new P's, Q's and R's with noticeably less enthusiasm than its new A's, B's and C's.
Oh God! It's got to be her next!
Oh bollocks! It's taking its time. Come on! Come on, you stupid hat. Pick Hufflepuff, pick Ravenclaw but please not Slytherin! Not Slytherin! Not Slytherin! Pick-
The Gryffindor table erupted as Rachel scampered over to take a seat; one of the twins caught my eye and gave a thumbs up.
Oh bloody hell! OH BLOODY HELL!