The rest of my body had other ideas, however: when I tried to move, handbag and contract slipped from my nerveless arms, and I joined them on the floor mere seconds later.
I crawled my way over to the coffee table, levered myself up, and staggered to the kitchen cabinet for my one bottle of spirits. It was, thankfully, three-quarters full, and bona fide poteen, which I used only to toast my Irish ancestors once a year. I shakily poured a measure into a tumbler, and it went down with a burn. On reflection, I poured a rather larger measure, and wandered back to the sitting room to collapse on the sofa.
I glanced at the mantle clock: it was a quarter till eight. I'd been there -- wherever there was, from beginning of interview to my return home -- nearly three hours.
That deserved another swig from the glass.
My brain finally registered the slow, spreading comfort of the poteen through my body, and I fell back against the cushions, feeling distinctly Alice-like, having lived through some skewed version of down-the-rabbit-hole-and-back.
But what if I haven't? What if it was a dream, or I've had some kind of psychotic episode, or --
I lunged for the contract, still on the floor in front of the fireplace, and opened it.
That was no use: my imagination obviously extended to the concept of obfuscatory legal language in the Wizarding World, as well as here. I reached for my handbag and pulled out Ian's invitation.
But it read differently than before. Even the letterhead had changed.
I ripped open the interview letter. It also had changed.
Oddly enough, the changes were what convinced me. It made a strange kind of sense to me that, unsure of his reception, Dumbledore would initially couch the offer in purely Muggle (well, fairly normal) terms. If he hadn't liked me, the trip to Hogwarts would never have happened: I would have come home exhausted and ill-tempered, and probably thrown the letter away. Or perhaps the memory of our meeting would simply be expunged from my mind. I'd no doubt he could do it, and might still, if my response was negative.
I spent a good twenty minutes thinking this through, and another ten persuading myself that no, I did not need another drink (Irish moonshine is potent stuff, and I'd had more than usual at one go). I wasted another forty minutes changing clothes and trying to clean up my one good suit. Floo travel was not, it appeared, a particularly tidy way to travel.
By then it was nearly ten-thirty -- well past Ian's bedtime -- and I left the flat to walk down to Lucy's to fetch him.
"Mostly," I said tiredly. "Sorry I'm so late."
"Get in here and sit down -- d'you want a drink?" she asked as she pulled me in and bolted the door.
"No," I managed decisively, and then amended, "Ta, but I've already seen to that," and I collapsed on the chair in her hallway. I could hear Ian and Paula, Lucy's daughter, giggling over some Disneyesque video in the next room.
Like me, Lucy was a single mum -- though Paula was hers by birth -- and she was a social worker. We'd met when I'd become Ian's guardian and Lucy was assigned our case, emotionally disturbed children being her speciality. It was totally unprofessional for her to become so involved with us, of course, but the fact that we lived so close by -- and Lucy's kind, open-hearted nature -- made our friendship seem inevitable. She was one of the few Ian trusted, and with whom I could trust him. The only one, actually.
Lucy disappeared briefly and returned with a glass of water, pressing it into my hands. "Tell me," she demanded under her breath, mindful of the kids in the next room.
"The first three were busts -- the usual, you know -- but the fourth...." I bit my lip. "It sounds wonderful, Luce, it really does: unusual, exciting, safe... and terrifying, all at once." I took a long drink of water, and she let me collect my thoughts -- she was good like that, she never pushed -- and eventually I went on. "It's a -- an exclusive school, great benefits, lovely flat. And they'll take Ian, as well. But it's so far away," I said distantly.
"I have no idea, actually," I said with shock. "I didn't think to ask."
She stared at me apprehensively, as though I was barmy, and I was inclined to agree with her.
"It just never came up," I said defensively. "Everything was going so unusually well, and I liked the people. At any rate, I know it's isolated. Somewhere up north." It's up north, all right, Hunter -- somewhere around the vicinity of the North Pole, metaphorically speaking....
I took a deep breath and continued. "It'll mean leaving everything: you and Paula, the flat... I'm not sure it will be easy to stay in touch." Would we even be able? There are so many questions I should have asked....
"What about Ian?" Lucy asked quietly. "Did you talk about --"
"Yes," I said slowly, "in some detail." It was strictly true -- some detail, but not all, and not the worst bits -- but it hadn't mattered, because I'd realized that they knew. Even before McGonagall admitted that they'd investigated, I'd realized that Dumbledore knew, and knew all.
"I trust them, Luce," I said abruptly, and met her eyes directly. "They understand, they say they can help him, and I believe them."
She digested this statement for a moment, and then asked, "How long do you have to decide?"
"As long as I need, within reason, I suppose."
"And what's it called?"
Good God, how was I supposed to handle that? I didn't imagine it was a registered school, and as I was handling this so badly, Lucy was bound to check it out.
On the other hand, she'd have my address anyway. I had no intention of cutting off all contact if I could possibly avoid it.
"Hogwarts," I said, and her nose crinkled in puzzlement. "It's very exclusive, invitation only. I don't imagine they have a public prospectus," I volunteered, and prayed that would cover it. I hated lying to her -- no use calling it misdirection -- but I couldn't tell her straight out, either.
She watched me for a long moment. "I think," she said slowly, "you've already made up your mind."
"Nearly," I agreed.
"Well, that's that, then," she said with a shrug. I must have looked surprised at her ready acceptance, for she added, "You don't trust people easily, Miranda. If they made this kind of impression on you of all people -- well, you're just not the gullible type." She smiled. "I was worried when I first saw your face, that's all. You looked like you'd seen a ghost."
I choked on a mouthful of water, and she reached over to pound my back until I recovered.
"How are you going to tell Ian?" she asked, and I could tell from the tone of voice that she'd slipped on her professional hat for a moment.
"I think," I said, "that I'm going to ask him if he'd like an Awfully Big Adventure," and Lucy and I exchanged grins.
But she had no idea that when I referenced Never-Never Land, I meant it.
Surprisingly, the only thing Ian really threw a fit about was leaving Paula behind. While he disliked girls almost as much as the boys he knew, Paula was special. She was Lucy's, and he adored Lucy. Furthermore, Paula liked lots of "boy stuff," as well as traditional "icky girl stuff,": ergo, she might look like a girl, but she was all right.
God save me from the vagaries of pre-adolescent logic. And I was headed for several classrooms full of it a day.
Ian and I went through every conceivable argument that an otherwise rational adult woman can have with a stubborn and wounded ten year-old before he finally accepted that whinging, pouting, tears, or tantrums would not make me lose my cool, and that Paula could not come: and then he gave up.
I promised him two things: that we would visit Lucy and Paula on the hols, and that if he didn't like Hogwarts by the end of the next school year, I'd look for another job back in London.
I'd keep those promises. It was a point of honour for me that if I promised Ian something, for good or ill, it would happen. That consistency was one of only two things that had persuaded him, over the course of our first two years together, to trust me.
But I still felt guilty as hell. I hadn't yet told him what Hogwarts really was, for two reasons. The first was that I wanted it fait accompli - so neither one of us could back out, and on the off chance that Dumbledore had changed his mind.
The second was cowardice. Any mention of Ian's unusual skills sent him into a destructive rage. It was how his father had reacted when, by accident, Ian's talents had revealed themselves.
"Miss Hunter, this is Kate Climpson, Deputy Director of Muggle Relations and Affairs," a reedy voice introduced itself over the din of traffic. "Congratulations on your new position."
I thanked her, and asked her what I should expect in terms of making preparations.
"Shall you keep your flat, do you think?" she asked.
No, I certainly didn't. I had no affection for either flat or neighborhood. Proximity to Lucy was the only reason we'd stayed in it for a second year, and my lease was up at the end of July, at any rate, and I said as much.
"Then we'll say your travel date will be Friday July 25th. That should give you nearly a month to prepare. I would suggest boxing up unnecessaries, and leave the rest to me. We have a quite efficient moving service, so you shan't have to pack anything else at all," she said.
"There are items you'll need to purchase for your nephew before you leave London -- I think it would be best if I helped you with that." I heard her flipping through an appointment diary. "Are you free the afternoon of the 28th?"
I was. She gave me the address of a pub in Charing Cross Road, and instructed me to meet her there, with Ian, at 2 o'clock. Then she abruptly rang off.
I had a whole week-end to worry about how to pay for Ian's supplies. And how to break the news to him that this would probably be a very unusual shopping trip.
It was a special school, like the one he attended now, I told him, but they studied very different things, things that...
...things that Daddy had told him were wrong, were evil, things for which he'd been beaten on more than one occasion....
...things that were unusual.
Ian wasn't stupid.
He looked at me with that guarded mistrust which characterized his general attitude toward people, as he'd felt about me, too, at first. I took a deep breath, knelt in front of him, and took his hands in mine.
"Look, Luv," I said softly, and made him meet my eyes, "it's a whole new world we're going to. A place where people do unusual things all the time, where they're a lot more like you than anyone else we know. We can't think of it as the same as here, at all."
A bit of the wariness faded from his eyes, and he asked, "Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks?"
I had consciously avoided the comparison. The first time he'd seen that, Lucy'd lost all her glassware and I'd insisted on replacing her VCR, which had smoked ominously.
Perhaps I should have told her. God knows she's seen enough to suspect as much as I....
But Ian was waiting for an answer. "Sort of," I said cautiously, and held my breath, waiting for glass to fly.
"But that wasn't real, you know," I continued softly.
"Like your play," he volunteered. He'd seen me act once, in Midsummer, and at the time I'd carefully explained how it was pretend: how people did seemingly magical things through practical, ordinary theatrical magic.
"Right. Well, this is real. Evidently a lot of the things that you do -- the things you've been told are bad -- happen because you've never learnt to use them properly. And Headmaster Dumbledore tells me that they can teach you how."
His grey eyes stared at me solemnly for a moment, and then he said, quite casually, "Okay. Can I watch Batman now?"
I settled him in front of the telly, and then retreated to the bedroom for a lie-down. I wanted desperately to pull the pillow over my head to drown out the sound of what must have been his forty-seventh viewing of the movie, but I couldn't. I still half-expected to hear the familiar sound of shattering glass.
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I didn't intend this one, but it just occurred to me that Disney = Magic Kingdom. ; )