The Sugar Quill
Author: Grace has Victory (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Hearthlinks  Chapter: 4 The Badgers' Sett
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CHAPTER FOUR

The Badgers’ Sett

Dear Dad,

I’m sorry to hear that you have spattergroit. I hope you will be well soon. You must hate lying around at St Mungo’s when so much is happening in the family. I did miss you at King’s Cross Station, but I’m glad to hear your illness is no worse.

I have arrived safely at Hogwarts and I have been sorted into Hufflepuff. Guess who was sorted next after me – the famous Harry Potter! He was put in Gryffindor, though, so I haven’t really met him. One girl in my dormitory, Susan Bones, is also a Plumpton descendant: have you heard of this family?

We have had Charms, Herbology, Astronomy Theory and History of Magic so far. Homework takes about an hour every evening, which seems like nothing when there is no housework. Quidditch will start in November.

Cecilia is well too. Best wishes to Cressida and Xavier.

Love,

Sally-Anne.

I paused before writing kisses on the end of the letter, because I didn’t really want to send kisses to Cressida; that was far different from a polite “best wishes”.

“Yer ’ave neat writing,” said Sophie. “Could yer lend us a quill?”

I opened my bag. Megan gasped out loud. “How do you manage to keep your bag so neat after a long day at school?”

“It isn’t only her bag,” said Hannah. “Did you notice her trunk? Everything folded up and colour-coded. Sally-Anne, doesn’t anything jumble your stuff around?”

“It’s just an Order Charm,” I said. “It helps me not to lose things. Here’s a quill, Sophie.”

Dear Mum, Raymond, Ella-Jane and Molly-Rose,

I hope you are very well. I am very well. I have arrived safely at Hogwarts and I have been sorted into Hufflepuff, just like Mum. The other girls in my dormitory are Hannah Abbott, Susan Bones, Megan Jones and Sophie Roper. They have all been very good friends to me already.

Music lessons at Hogwarts are still free, so you need not worry about that. Professor Vector has agreed to teach me piano twice a week. Megan will be having violin lessons, and a boy called Wayne has an oboe: I think he is more talented than Megan and me put together!

I expect I will manage to stay away from the Slytherins. A boy called Ernie says we won’t share any lessons with them. Cecilia seems to have made herself a group of friends already, so I hope she won’t bother with me any more.

Lots and lots of love to all of you. Best wishes to Jeremy and Christopher when you see them.

Sally-Anne. X X X X X X

It felt strange not to worry about shopping or laundry. Susan pointed out that I didn’t even need to make my own bed in the mornings: “The house-elves will re-make it for you anyway, because they’ll think you can’t have done it properly.” There was nothing to do except concentrate on my homework and practise my scales, even though I wasn’t exactly gifted at the piano.

My dorm-mates all became very good friends very fast. We were all very different, yet we were exactly right for each other, fitting together like the parts of a jigsaw. Hannah was easily flustered and very sweet-natured. Susan was the opposite – calm, relaxed and very logical in her thinking. Megan, different again, was fiery-tempered and impulsive, and passionate about her violin. Sophie was down-to-earth, practical and persistent, with no time at all for flights of fancy. They all teased me about my orderliness; Megan once joked that, “Sally-Anne would obey a notice to keep off the grass even if that did mean leaving a toddler to drown in the lake!” But I was the one who never lost stationery or ran out of clean socks. When exam time came, we planned our revision sessions around my notes, because we all knew that mine had nothing missing.

Mum wrote every week with the news from home: the family routine, the jobs and the schools, the church, the weekend outings. Reading between the lines, I knew she still had plenty of money troubles.

Dad wrote irregularly, perhaps once a month, to tell me all about Xavier. Xavier was four when Cecilia and I started at Hogwarts, but Cressida flatly refused to send him to the Muggle primary school. She taught him at home for a couple of hours a day, just as she had taught her daughters, and seemed to spend the rest of the time towing him around the Diagon Alley shops or Witches’ Institute meetings. Sometimes Dad wrote that he had work; since the wizarding theatre in Liber Alley is only open six weeks a year, a wizarding actor has to find work with Muggle companies for the rest of the time. Dad had long periods of unemployment between the seasons when he struck lucky. He was sometimes asked to sing at Muggle pubs on Saturday nights, and he made several recordings of his songs, which were marketed to Muggles as well as to wizards. He loved seeing his face on the cover of his albums, but of course they didn’t bring in the kind of money that would make him rich.

Dad’s letters always asked how Ursula and Cecilia were. Reading between the lines, I don’t think they wrote home very often. I wasn’t able to give Dad much information because I didn’t see much of my stepsisters at Hogwarts. Most days the Slytherins shoved us aside in the Entrance Hall on their way to the first lesson; Hufflepuffs quickly learned to stand quietly by the kitchen door until all the Slytherins had gone. So I could only write to Dad that Cecilia seemed to be in good health, or that she was trying out a new hairstyle, or that I had heard her practising her flute in the music corridor (there was no need to mention that she played very badly!).

* * * * * * *

The first summer holidays caused another family row. Dad wanted us to spend the whole of July with him. Mum reminded him that the Muggle primary school broke up three weeks later than Hogwarts.

“Oh, right…” Dad hesitated. “Okay, I’m not trying to make trouble. Just send the younger ones around when they do break up.”

“What?” shrieked a voice behind Dad. “Flavian, are you barmy? If you start sacrificing your access rights now, you’ll never see your children again!” Dad’s head abruptly disappeared from the Floo, and Mum was face to face with Cressida. “We can’t take the girls in August. We’ve booked a boarding-house in Blackpool, just Flavian, Xavier and me. We’re even sending Ursula and Cecilia to their father – it’s time he took some responsibility. Our holiday is not going to be cancelled just because you choose to be awkward. Besides, we’re not beginning the habit of separating your little trio and seeing them in ones and twos; none of us will ever manage to keep track of that kind of arrangement. So we need to access Ella-Jane and Molly-Rose in July. That’s Flavian’s right under the Wizengamot ruling – the first half of each school holiday.”

Mum had no success in persuading Cressida that Ella-Jane and Molly-Rose’s school had different holidays, so my sisters had to miss the last few weeks of term. They lost out on sports day, several excursions and their parts in the school play, while Mum had to explain to the Aurors why she had cast a Confundus Charm on the Muggle truancy officer.

Dad met Ursula, Cecilia and me at King’s Cross Station and took us through the public Floo in the Leaky Cauldron to Liverpool. Cressida immediately swooped down on her daughters and ushered them up to her room to try on new clothes. I decided to make a start on dinner. After I had sliced the onions and peeled the potatoes, Dad wandered in to help me.

“You’ve learned a few tricks from your mother, I see,” he said. “Is cooking a big hobby for you?”

“I cook most evenings at Mum’s. Where does Cressida keep the flour?”

“Merlin knows! Here, let me look in the larder. Why do you need to mix flour with the beef? Don’t answer; I can see it’s one of the Great Secrets of Womankind. Flour coming up.”

I dredged the meat in the flour while Dad washed the knife and carried on chattering about the family.

“Ella-Jane’s turning into a proper little tomboy, isn’t she? I hope she’ll agree to grow her hair out in time for Aunt Odette’s next wedding. I told you that Odette had found her Number Four, didn’t I?”

“I hope she’ll be happy this time.”

“Well, if she isn’t, she can always get divorced again. She isn’t having bridesmaids or anything – it’s just a Register Office affair – but she’d like you all to dress up a bit. Ursula wants to wear black, but that doesn’t seem quite right for the occasion. I think Ursula will be the family beauty. Still, we never really know, do we? I wonder what young Xavier’s up to? Too quiet is a bad sign. Put that casserole in the oven quickly, and we’ll go and look for them all.”

Molly-Rose was curled up on the sofa, her nose buried deep in The Treasure-Seekers, and she didn’t glance up at us. Upstairs, Cressida’s voice sailed clearly out of the master bedroom. “That pumpkin-gold is gorgeous on both of you! Come on, Ursula, it will look hideous on those pasty-pale Perks girls – you’ll outshine them without needing to lift a wand.”

Dad didn’t seem to hear this. He opened the door to the next bedroom, where we found Ella-Jane teaching Xavier to write rude words on his bedroom mirror. Dad thought this a tremendous joke, and dismissed it with a cheery, “Don’t let your mother find out!”

“She won’t,” said Ella-Jane. “She’s too busy playing dress-ups with Ursula and Cecilia, isn’t she, Xavy?”

“Ella-Jane,” I said, “come upstairs and help me unpack.”

“But I’m having fun here!”

“Do you really want Cressida to know what you’ve just been doing?”

“Bossy,” she grumbled, but she followed me up to the attic, which Dad had converted into a bedroom for the five of us. He had designed a five-door wardrobe, but Ursula and Cecilia had spread their clothes over two sections each, while Ella-Jane and Molly-Rose had crammed theirs into the fifth.

“We’ll have to move some of Cecilia’s stuff if I’m to put mine away,” I said, trying not to worry about what Cecilia would say when she found out.

“I’ll punch her nose in if she complains,” offered Ella-Jane.

Over dinner, Xavier burst into tears because his plate was full of mushrooms. No one was forcing him to eat them, but Ursula crossly complained that I might have remembered that he didn’t like them.

“Sally-Anne never considers other people,” said Cecilia. “She’s been monopolising Flavian this evening. She wants him all to herself.”

“So what if she does?” argued Ella-Jane. “He’s our Dad, not yours.”

Cecilia’s mouth fell open in horror; she looked on the verge of tears.

“Don’t be silly, girls,” said Dad indulgently. “I love all five of you the same.”

Cressida cleared her throat and glanced pointedly at Xavier, who was now piling up his mushrooms on my plate.

“Yes, love, but Xavier isn’t a girl,” Dad reminded her. The undisguised pride in his tone told all five of us who his favourite child was.

“I have my own father,” Ursula announced with dignity. “I’m going to go and stay with him next month.”

“But, Ursie, he’s a bully,” said Cecilia. “I don’t want to see him. Do I have to go, Mummy? I don’t like my father.”

“Of course you have to go,” said Cressida. “He won’t belt girls of your age, and I’m sure you’re old enough by now to stay out of trouble if you try. Pass the salt, Molly-Rose.”

“Besides,” said Ursula, “Daddy is on the pig’s back.” Cressida raised her eyebrows, and Ursula hastily corrected herself, “He has lots of money.”

It was a very long July – but every school holiday was to be the same. Cecilia wept and Ursula stormed whenever their favourite shirts were unavailable in the ironing basket or there was no money for ice cream. If they lost something, they accused us of stealing it; if they were bored, they picked a quarrel; if their parents paid attention to Xavier, they planned a practical joke for which they could blame us. And they whined all day long about how they didn’t want to stay with their bullying father next month. Molly-Rose escaped into her books; Ella-Jane wandered off to meet Muggle boys at the city docks; and I went on a housekeeping rampage, tidying up the cramped little house and preparing meals five days in advance.

Xavier said more than once: “I’m glad I only have one Mummy and one Daddy in one house.”

“Yes, you are the child favoured by fortune!” Dad would reply, tossing him in the air.

I tried to make friends with Xavier, but I truly could not stomach his collection of dead beetles and live worms. Cecilia noticed my gasp of horror, so of course I found half Xavier’s collection awaiting me in my bunk that night. Xavier wailed inconsolably that his “pets” were lost, and Cressida was furious when she discovered that I had “stolen” them.

At the mid-point of every holiday, my sisters and I returned gratefully to Mum’s house in Hereford. Meanwhile, our bitterly-complaining stepsisters Flooed to the fashionable end of Liverpool to stay with their father. Yet it was noticeable that they always returned to Hogwarts a little friendlier towards him. Every morning for the first week of term, Cecilia would station herself and a friend next to the kitchen door, so that when the Hufflepuffs emerged for our first lesson, I would be sure to overhear her chattering about my family’s doings.

“Daddy said our old school trunks were a disgrace, so he donated them to a second-hand shop and bought us these new ones. They’re of dragon-hide, and my new flute case matches them exactly. It’s a sterling silver flute, too.”

“Really?” asked Tracey Davies. “Does the silver flute sound better than the steel one?”

Cecilia giggled. “Well, it must, mustn’t it? It’s pure silver! Daddy also bought me a new moggy. She’s a pedigree chinchilla and she cost forty-five Galleons.”

“She must mew louder,” muttered Tracey under her breath. “But, Cecilia, I thought you didn’t like your father!”

“Oh, I don’t,” declared Cecilia blithely. “He’s still a bully. Mummy exaggerated his cruelty a little bit…” She giggled again. “But only a little. He’s a bossy-boots with his wife and he belts their daughters and he never lets Ursula or me do anything.” Her voice became a little louder as she said, “I much prefer my stepfather. Such a gentlewizard! But, between you and me, Tracey…” Every Hufflepuff in the Entrance Hall heard her stage whisper. “Flavian is a poor man. Daddy’s one good point is that he has splosh and he does like his family to display it.”

By the next summer holidays, of course, Ursula and Cecilia were disenchanted with their father.

“He might have Galleons, but he’s mingy about how he shares them out.”

“He spends them all on that Ambassadress-for-Fashion-Deregulation Natalie.”

“And her brats. Primula can’t wipe her own nose and Marcella’s barely bog-trained. But Daddy bought them make-overs at Madam Primpernelle’s.”

“He thinks of them as his real family. We’re just a nuisance to him.”

“Let’s be careful what we ask for,” Ursula concluded. “He doesn’t listen to wheedling, but he might cough up the goods on a really special occasion.”

The story continued to vary over time. By the Christmas holidays, Mr Runcorn was generous after all, but he didn’t have as much money as he pretended. By Easter, he had “social status in the Ministry” but there was no talk about his financial affairs.

“Daddy is a genuine pure-blood,” babbled Cecilia. “And he says that blood speaks louder than money.”

* * * * * * *

The “really special occasion” finally arose at the end of my third year (Ella-Jane’s first and Ursula’s fifth). That summer my stepsisters announced with a smirking pride that there was to be a Slytherin House ball.

“In the summer holidays?” asked Ella-Jane. “I wouldn’t go to school in the summer!”

“No, silly, at Christmas! It’s a great secret, but Daddy heard about it at the Ministry. We shall need new dress-robes.”

“I wouldn’t do anything that needed dress-robes,” said Ella-Jane firmly.

“That’s lucky, since you always look gopping in dress-robes,” said Ursula. “But who’d invite you? After all, you’re in Gryffindor! Oh, Mummy, did you hear any of that? There’s going to be a ball next term and we’ll need new dress-robes.”

Cressida shrugged. “It’s no good asking me for Sickles. Perhaps Odette has something you can borrow or cut down.”

Ursula howled. “Not Odette, Mummy. You know she wears all that Muggle stuff!”

“And we want something new!” wailed Cecilia. The wails turned to simpers when Dad walked in. “Flavian, you’re always so kind to us.”

“Dear, darling Flavian, have you heard the news?”

“You girls want something,” said Dad indulgently. “Dress-robes, is it? Well, you certainly reward good dressing, but we do have to be realistic. I didn’t get that Muggle contract with my new album. I can give you ten Galleons each.”

Cecilia’s mouth dropped open with disappointment, but Ursula held her hand out firmly while plastering on a smile. “Thank you so much, Flavian. We do understand that money is tight, but you’ll be proud to see how far we make that ten Galleons stretch.” Her fingers closed around the gold coins and she scowled at Cecilia, who said no more.

After they had all gone, Ella-Jane remarked, “I’m surprised they didn’t make more fuss.”

Molly-Rose looked up from her book. “You didn’t hear what they were saying before you came in. Their own father has already given them twenty Galleons each. They only pretend that he’s mean.”

They kept up the pretence right through July. When we went to visit Cressida’s parents, Ursula and Cecilia hung around their grandparents like leeches, fetching their tea and admiring their photograph albums. But once Dad and Cressida were out of the way, the wheedling and cajoling began.

“Granny, could you think about giving us our Christmas presents in advance?”

“Because we can’t go to the ball unless we have dress-robes.”

“We wouldn’t ask you, Grandad, but it would be unfair of us to ask Flavian, for he has his own children to consider.”

“And Daddy doesn’t give us a Knut. We can’t think why!”

Molly-Rose was distracted from her book for long enough to notice that Mr and Madam Honeysmooch separately handed over ten Galleons to each granddaughter without consulting one another – forty Galleons in total. Even Great-Grandmamma Black joined the party.

“I’ve no money, but I can give you something better,” the old lady promised. “You know that your late great-grandfather was banished from his ancestral home, that his niece burned his very name off the family tapestry. But among the few little treasures that he took away with him – that he gave to me on our wedding day…” Madam Black opened her hand to reveal two strings of perfect ocean pearls.

Molly-Rose was awed into silence by the story of the young man whose family had eradicated his very name from their records. Ursula and Cecilia just grabbed at the pearls.

“Fifty Galleons each,” they reckoned. “And pearls. We could always ask Aunt Odette. She’s Muggle-loving and mingy, but we could still ask. What a pity Aunt Messalina’s living in Brazil!”

“I hope I’m never invited to a ball,” muttered Ella-Jane.

“Never mind,” I said. “We’re going home to Mum’s house next week.”

Ursula paused in counting her gold and whipped her head around to face me. “And we’re glad to be getting rid of you!” she snapped.

* * * * * * *

We had a wonderful August at Mum’s house. She couldn’t afford to take us on holiday, but we went hiking and cycling and swimming around Hereford with Jeremy and Christopher. I had almost forgotten about the Slytherin ball when our Hogwarts letters arrived.

And there it was, large and clear, the final item on the uniform list.

Dress-robes.

This mysterious festivity was not a “Slytherin ball” after all. Whatever Cecilia had claimed, I too was invited to whatever the occasion was. And I too would need dress-robes next term.

I didn’t own any dress-robes, of course. I didn’t even own a Muggle party dress. And I couldn’t mention it to Mum and Raymond, who had just had to buy football boots for Christopher. So I would have to ask Dad, who had managed to find ten Galleons each for Ursula and Cecilia. Unlike my stepsisters, I could take that ten Galleons to the second-hand robe shop in Diagon Alley and make it stretch!

But when I Flooed Dad, he was preoccupied by his own troubles. “I do finally have a contract for that album,” he said, “but only a small one, and it’ll be twelve months before I see any money.” I made sympathetic noises, while Dad talked on about how it could only be short holidays and small presents this year, and how quickly his credit rating with the goblins was running out. It was ten minutes before he remembered that children weren’t supposed to know about money. “That frown will spoil your pretty face, Sally-Anne! Don’t worry about all that grown-up stuff – your Dad can take care of it. What’s up with you?”

“It isn’t a good time…”

“Yes, it is! Who can you tell your problems to, if not to your own Dad?”

“It’s just that my Hogwarts letter came today and it says… I need dress-robes.”

“Oh, you’re going to this Christmas dance, are you?” His smile faded. “Sally-Anne, there just isn’t money for luxuries like dress-robes. Couldn’t you wear whatever you wore to Odette’s last wedding?”

I shuddered at the thought of that hideous pumpkin-gold cocktail dress. “That was two years ago, Dad; I’ve long since outgrown it. Besides, it’s a Mug – ”

Dad snapped his fingers. “That’s it! You girls grow! Accio! There you are, Sally-Anne – this one will never fit Ursula again.” He thrust his hand through the hearth, the flames whirled and shimmered, and there it was: the identical pumpkin-gold cocktail dress that had been made for Ursula. “Perfect! She won’t even notice that it’s missing!”

I thanked Dad numbly. Ursula’s figure was much broader and fuller than mine, and she always wore much stronger colours. Besides, the Muggle style didn’t look at all like a dress-robe, and there was a champagne-stain right across the bodice. I knew I couldn’t wear it.

I racked my brains. Some girls could borrow clothes from their mothers, but Mum didn’t own any formal robes. It was too late in the holidays to look for a job. I couldn’t ask my grandparents for help – Mum’s family already supplied me with free schoolbooks, while I saw so little of Dad’s parents that I could never make contact just to ask them for favours. Was there any chance that this ball would turn out to be non-compulsory?

Otherwise I would have to wear my Hogwarts uniform and volunteer to serve the drinks and clean the tables.

//
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