It was my fault, of course. Anyone with sense would not have chosen teaching as a second profession, much less in Sociology (though it was marginally better financially than my first field, Theatre). But my first love had led to my interest in the second, and I'd decided that if I was to teach, it had better be something I enjoyed.
I'd rather be working in Theatre. I wasn't famous, but I was successful, and I was seldom out of work. But my newest responsibility -- first-time mother to my ten year old nephew, Ian -- had put an end to that. One of the terms of my guardianship included a 'more stable career choice.' So I'd gone back to university for a graduate degree and teaching certificate -- finishing in near-record time -- and now I found myself begging a job from hard-nosed administrators who wanted nothing less than legal slave-labour.
I unfolded the final interview letter one last time, and debated saving myself the misery of another gut-wrenching interrogation. This one was an even less likely prospect than the others; I hadn't even heard of the school, and the paper was not that of the average form letter -- it was a thick, creamy bond that one might almost mistake for vellum. Blazoned across the top quarter, below an elaborate crest, was
in a highly raised script. The text itself was in a careful, scholarly hand, and it read:
It was certainly more elegant than any interview letter I'd previously received. Odd, though, for a headmaster to conduct a preliminary interview.
Advanced training for exceptional students? Far advanced if they required a Sociology speciality. Wonderful -- a whole year of teaching spotty, superior 15 year-olds who thought they knew everything and who would immediately note, and possibly despise, my working-class roots.
Then again, it was a moot point: this Dumbledore would probably disqualify me immediately. Might as well save myself the humiliation.
I hadn't always been this cynical, but the past two years had been rough. Very rough.
In the end, responsibility won out. It was 4:23, and the Founder's Room was just down the hall; it would be stupid to simply slink away, and I wasn't in the mood to listen to my subconscious calling me a coward for the rest of the week. I glanced at the letter a final time to set the name in my mind -- Dumbledore -- and folded it and tucked it back into my purse: then I strode down the hall, and knocked on the half-open door. A soft baritone replied "Come in," so I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me.
I'd expected academic tweeds or distinguished Saville Row wedded to unmistakable condescension. What I got was a tall, elderly man in a tasteful but nondescript navy blue blazer and trousers; an immense silver-white beard which nearly obscured an unusual moon-and-stars patterned tie; loafers of a peculiar, violently fuchsia leather; and an extraordinary ponytail that hung halfway down his back. The overall effect was 1960s hippie turned -- well, turned headmaster.
Bright blue eyes twinkled at me behind half-rimmed glasses as he took my hand in greeting.
"Miss Hunter, I am so very pleased to meet you." His grip was warm and reassuring, and I felt an instant sense of trust. Another twinkle of the eyes, and then he added, "Not quite what you anticipated, am I?"
I'd hoped it hadn't showed.
"No," I admitted, "but it's a pleasant surprise." His face creased in a smile: he dropped my hand and waved me over to the wingback chairs by the empty hearth. "After all, Headmaster, I may not be what you anticipate, either," I said as I made my way over and slipped into the comfortable seat.
"Oh, Miss Hunter," he chided gently as he sat, "I suspect that you -- would you like a jelly baby?"He interrupted himself to offer me a bowl of the gooey little nuggets.
"Thank you," I said weakly, and accepted one. ('Never take sweets from strangers,' I heard the echo of my grandmother's voice in the back of my head, and Dumbledore certainly qualified.)
He tilted his head toward me quizzically, as though he heard the mental comment. "Only one?" He sounded oddly disappointed.
Maybe Gran was right.
"Not much of a sweet tooth, I'm afraid," I declined, truthfully.
"Oh, my." Dumbledore shook his head. "That is a flaw in an otherwise sterling character. We shall have to work on that." The amusement in his eyes belied the stern words. "Where was I? Ah, yes, I am an excellent judge of character, you see, and while it is entirely possible that you shall not be what I anticipate, it is highly unlikely that you shall disappoint. Although I have been most distressingly wrong in one instance," he said sadly, and then perked up again. "But I expect you shall be, as you said, a pleasant surprise." And he popped three sweets in his mouth at one go.
This was, even at the outset, by far the most bizarre interview of my career -- of my life, for that matter -- but vastly more entertaining than any other before or since. We chatted about interests -- my past life as an actor, his love for chamber music -- for a pleasant ten or fifteen minutes, and then, it seemed, Dumbledore was ready to get down to business.
"Now, let us dispense with the necessary trivialities," he said more briskly. "I have read both your curriculum vitae and your thesis -- very nice work, I might add, much original thought, so nice to see -- and I feel the faculty position at Hogwarts would suit you, and you it."
"And what," I interjected, "does the position entail, precisely?" I badly wanted to know why they required a Sociologist.
"Oh, general teaching duties -- the usual, you know," he stated vaguely.
God help the school administration if its headmaster is always this forthcoming.
"Your deputy head's letter," I probed gently, "said Hogwarts enrolls exceptional students?"
"Ah, yes, our student body. Highly intelligent, for the most part, with unusual skills by this society's standards." He sobered, his face going grave. "Many of them come from isolated backgrounds, and part of your work would require you to persuade them to take an interest in, and gain understanding of, the outside world."
Thoughts of challenged or disturbed children immediately flashed through my mind.
"Sir," I began carefully, "You must realize that I have no professional experience whatever in dealing with 'special needs' students --"
"Oh, no, my dear," he interjected, "it's nothing like that at all," and he quickly patted my hand. "Set your mind at rest. This is well within your competency, though I admit that certain of our students will be a challenge. But that doesn't frighten you, does it?" Oddly enough, he phrased it as a statement, not a question -- and while it was true, I wondered who he'd talked to about me. Surely he couldn't have learned that about me after twenty minutes' acquaintance.
"Ah -- that reminds me --" he fumbled in his breast-pocket and withdrew another cream-coloured envelope. "I thought perhaps I should deliver this in person," he said, and he handed me the little packet, complete with seal and addressed to Ian. "Your nephew is, in fact, how you came to my attention," he added.
The little alarm bell in the back of my brain began to jangle in a very annoying fashion: I'd never mentioned Ian when I'd applied for the interview.
I'd never mentioned him to any of the interviewers, in fact. Employers tend to equate single motherhood with unreliability; I certainly wasn't going to volunteer that I had an emotionally disturbed 10 year-old to care for.
So how in bloody hell does Dumbledore know about him, and why aren't I making a mad dash for the door?
I ran my fingers over the heavy vellum -- I was convinced now that it actually was -- and gave Dumbledore a questioning glance.
"The recipient is usually the only one allowed to open it, but in this case I can make an exception," and he tapped the edge of the envelope with a knarled forefinger. I broke the seal, unfolded the paper, and read:
I had definitely entered the realm of the bizarre.
"Headmaster," I began painfully, "As much as I love my nephew, I am quite sure that if you had a chance to assess him yourself you would agree that he requires an education more along the 'special needs' line."
"I do not doubt that the child has suffered damage," Dumbledore replied in a quiet voice, his blue eyes now grave and tinged with sadness and, I thought, a bit of anger as well. If he was trying to get my attention, he'd succeeded.
"I can assure you that Ian does have talents that suit him to our programme. Indeed, the training we can give him may help heal some of those wounds -- though not, I regret, all. Your experiences with him have almost convinced you of the reality of those talents, have they not?" His voice was gentle, but with a hint of steely persuasion; the kind eyes were still calm, but urged me to admit the truth.
The air in the room suddenly seemed thicker, requiring a conscious effort to breathe. I wrenched my eyes away from his, and focused on the letter in my trembling hand. I opened my mouth to deny his assertion -- blatant falsehood -- and found that I was utterly incapable of giving him the lie. I took a long, slow breath before finally answering him with a weak
Somewhere, distantly, his voice continued, "He is your late sister's son, I believe?"
I nodded sluggishly.
"Yes, I thought as much: in Muggle families it most often passes through the maternal line. You yourself likely have some small aptitude, though it was never developed -- possibly forgotten or even buried, early on?" His gentle interrogation cut me to the quick, and I found it impossible to answer.
"But no matter." His hand on mine, dry, warm, utterly real and reassuring, brought me back to the here and now: to this extraordinary man who, it seemed, could sense my most terrifying secrets and fears after a mere twenty minutes' acquaintance, and address and accept them. I met his eyes, and they were once again warm, friendly, kind.
"Whatever you decide regarding the position," he added softly, "please understand that Ian is welcome, and we will do everything in our power to make him whole again." And with another comforting pat, he released my hand.
The air in the room cleared, and I let out a shaky laugh. "Whole for the first time, perhaps," I said with more than a touch of cynicism, and yet more of truth. "Thank you, Headmaster," I said as I folded the invitation and slipped it into my handbag. "I will certainly consider that." I turned to find the bowl of jelly babies offered me once again, and this time I took two, to Dumbledore's great delight.
"Now, let me see" He tapped the side of his nose with a forefinger, and helped himself to more of the sweets. "Have you a pressing need to return home immediately? You have an hour or two free, perhaps?"
"No," I said, mystified. "I mean, yes."
"Excellent. Perhaps a little trip is in order." His eyes peered anxiously at me over his glasses' rims. "That is, my dear, if you are up to it?"
"Whyever not?" To my discredit it was intended sarcastically, but somehow by the time the words left my mouth they were positively giddy.
"Wonderful! You see, Miss Hunter, I knew you would not disappoint. We'll give you a quick tour of Hogwarts --" he stood, helped me rise, and kept my hand firmly clasped in his while he rummaged in his blazer pocket with the other. "-- don't forget your things, my dear --"
I hastily grabbed my handbag.
"-- ah, yes, here it is -- perhaps a look around will help you decide." A quick nod from him at the empty hearth and a muttered word, and a blaze sprang up; he tossed a pinch of silvery powder into it, and the flames burned a vivid green.
"My office, Hogwarts," he stated, and then tugged at my hand. "Here we go, Miss Hunter -- it shan't take long," he said cheerfully, and stepping into the fire, he pulled me along behind him.
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I suspect there are canonical difficulties with Flooing into Hogwarts, but I will deal with them in a later chapter.