"Miss Hunter, so nice to meet you at last," she said with a brief clasp of my hand, as though we'd finally met after a correspondence of years. "And this must be Mr. Neill."
Bless his heart, Ian readily stuck out his hand for a shake as well.
"We've a lot to do, so let's proceed. You have his invitation with the list of necessities?" she asked as she collected her gloves and bag, and when I nodded she said, "This way, then," and she led us past the assorted motley denizens of the pub to the back door and out into a dead-end alley.
"You'll want to remember the sequence should you need to visit Diagon Alley in future -- three up, and two over," she said, and pressed on the brickwork facing us, the bangles at her wrist jangling. Somehow the bricks compressed and rearranged themselves, revealing an open archway: the bustling sounds of a busy commercial street filtered through.
"Cool," I heard Ian breathe sotto voce, and I couldn't suppress a smile. We followed Miss Climpson through, and found ourselves immersed in an extraordinary thoroughfare.
The colors somehow seemed more vivid, the sounds more distinctive and clearer; the people passing by were archaically, often eccentrically dressed (as I'm sure we were to them). It was almost like being thrust into the inner life of a Dickens novel, with the exception that there were no horse-and-carriages. I nearly expected to walk headlong into Ebenezer Scrooge, or to spy Little Dorrit on her way to the Marshalsea.
"Gringotts' first, I think," Miss Climpson said, and we proceeded briskly down the Alley. "You'll want some ready cash, although I've arranged accounts for you with all the usual merchants."
We stopped at an imposing edifice, entered, and approached a clerk -- not the usual bank clerk, by any standards: he was like something out of the Brothers Grimm, with a wizened face and huge, pointed ears.
"Headmaster Dumbledore arranged an advance on you salary," Miss Climpson explained to me, and then turned to the clerk. "Miss Hunter is here to sign for her account," she informed the odd little being, and he turned to the pigeon-holes behind him to select one of many scrolls.
I turned my back to the desk and asked, under my breath, "I don't mean to be rude, but --"
"Goblin, she replied succinctly, though I noted she kept her voice as low as my own. "I'll tell you later," she added with a tap of her ear, referring, I supposed, to the presumably preternatural hearing of the clerk.
I turned back to the desk. It -- he -- had retrieved a scroll, and was unrolling it.
"Name?" He asked laconically.
He raised an eyebrow. I sighed, and provided the rest. "Dierdre."
(My mother had adored Synge, and named me for one of his heroines. I shouldn't have minded had she chosen one of the less tragic and more easily spelt ones. Bureaucracies always got it wrong.)
"Vault 1,965. Sign here." He handed me a quill pen and pointed to the signature line with a long, claw-tipped finger.
Surprisingly, they'd got the spelling right. I dipped the pen and signed, and the clerk pushed a bag of coins and a large gold key across the desk.
"Very good," Miss Climpson observed. "Now, shall we get to the fun bit? Let's do some shopping, Mr. Neill." She took Ian by the hand -- astonishingly, he didn't object -- and they trotted toward the doors. I slipped the key and coins into my purse and turned to offer thanks to the clerk, but he studiously ignored me, having returned to his accounts.
Not so different than a Muggle bank clerk, then.
"Ollivander's first, I think," Miss Climpson informed me when I'd caught up to her and Ian. "One's wand is quite the most important part of one's kit, you know," and she led us through the winding street and into a narrow shop, crowded with shelves whose boxed contents threatened to spill out onto the floor. At the jangle of the door's bell, a face with watery blue eyes and a shock of white hair peered around the edge of one shelf.
"Ah, Miss Climpson, how delightful to see you again!"
"Thank you, Mr. Ollivander -- it has been quite a long time, hasn't it?"
"And this would be Miss Hunter and Mr. Neill," he said with a thin but sincere smile. "It is a pleasure," and he took my hand in a courtly gesture. "And you also, Mr. Neill." His gaze lingered on Ian with an assessing air.
"Let me see, now, what would be... Ah, yes!" He disappeared among the stacks and emerged minutes later with a slender box.
"Willow, 8 3/4, with a dragon heart-string core," he said with satisfaction. "Excellent for charms." And he bent over the counter, offering the open box to my nephew.
Ian gingerly picked the wand up from its velvet bed.
"Now, let's try it out, shall we?"
I inhaled sharply, and Ollivander caught my eye.
"I rather fear for your plate-glass, Mr. Ollivander," I explained softly.
"Oh, that's nothing to worry about, Miss Hunter. I'm seldom that far wrong. Let's try opening this book, Mr. Neill," and he nodded to the huge volume beside him. "Just point the wand, and think what you want to happen."
Ian turned to me with a bewildered look; I shrugged and gave him a wry grin. I was as much in the dark as he with all this.
He turned back to the counter, sighted the wand unsteadily at the book, and thought.
The result was spectacular, if not quite the one intended: the book went whizzing between Miss Climpson and me and struck the shelving behind us with enough force to rock it, threatening to spill its contents.
"Not quite the thing, I think," Ollivander mused as Miss Climpson steadied the shelf and I retrieved the book from the floor. "The core is right, I'm sure..." he continued as he cautiously took the wand from Ian and placed it back in its box.
"Miss Hunter, by any chance was the name originally O'Neill?" Ollivander asked thoughtfully.
"I expect so, but I don't know for certain," I replied.
"That might do it -- one moment, I'm sure I have just the thing..." and he disappeared into the depths of the shop.
I really didn't know. Dennis Neill was, to all appearances, behavior and speech, one hundred percent English. Beth had met him while working as a clerk in the same office in London, well before the economic revival in Ireland had made it possible for anyone to find steady work at home. Beth was the beauty of the family; Dennis had latched onto her almost immediately, and she'd fallen for his good looks and good behavior.
But there was something in the way he'd taken to taunting her, only after their marriage, of course, about her 'shanty Irish' roots. You often find that in a certain kind of person: they take a perverse pleasure in trying to debase others for things they have in their own backgrounds, and of which they are ashamed.
It was taking a long time. Miss Climpson had settled herself in a chair, and was fussing with the lace at her cuffs; Ian looked up at me mournfully, with a trace of desperation.
"It's all right. Give us a squidge," I said softly, for once uncaring that we had an audience, especially in someone as staid and proper as Miss Climpson. Ian obliged by trying to squeeze all the air from my lungs, and I planted a kiss on the top of his tow head.
"Here we are." Ollivander finally emerged. "Oak, quite inflexible, 10 1/4 -- to dampen the forcefulness a bit," he explained to me as he offered the new wand.
Ian took a deep breath, picked it up, and pointed.
The edge of the book -- binding loosened from years of similar demonstrations, no doubt -- flew open and slammed against the counter-top, pages flying wildly until Ian dropped the wand in shock and broke whatever mystic connection was involved.
Ollivander beamed at him and gently moved around the counter to retrieve the wand. "Quite nice for only your second try. I think the... over-exuberance is simply a matter of learning to focus, Miss Hunter," he told me, and set about polishing the wand and wrapping it up.
"Very good, Mr. Ollivander -- spot on, as usual," Miss Climpson said. "Would you be so kind as to charge it to Miss Hunter's account?"
"Of course. Congratulations, Mr. Neill," Ollivander said as he handed over the package to Ian, "and to you, too, Miss Hunter. Good luck on your first year at Hogwarts."
And, with thanks, we left the curious little shop and its odd proprietor, Ian clutching the wand to his chest in possessive pride.
We had rather a lot still to do, and the next two hours were spent in a dizzying array of shops:
Flourish and Blotts, where we loaded up on Ian's required texts, and where I picked up Hogwarts, a History and the disparaged Home Life and Social Habits as a basis of comparison for my own work;
a stationers, for Ian's quills, ink, and parchment (I ought to have got some myself, but I decided to use my own fountain pens, and I already had plenty of ink);
an Owlery, where Ian instantly fell for a small, grey owl with gentle amber eyes;
a magical supply shop, for a cauldron and assorted (and expensive) ingredients required for Ian's Potions class;
and, lastly, Madam Malkin's for his uniform, and where Miss Climpson reminded me that I should need teaching gowns. Two in standard black would be enough.
I tried to draw the line when Madam Malkin draped a shimmering, deep crimson formal robe over my shoulders.
"You really should have at least one," Miss Climpson opined over my objections. "There's the Halloween and Christmas Feasts, you know."
"Look how it brings out the color in your cheeks," Malkin cajoled, turning me to the mirror.
She was right. My normally pale skin was delicately flushed without aid of make-up. And the cut of the robe looked damned good on me -- something even the most talented costumers that I'd worked with often had difficulty achieving.
I took it -- and the second they thrust on me as well, in a mossy green velvet that suited me quite as well as the first. I shouldn't have, but Miss Climpson assured me I could afford it, and I was just vain enough to appreciate the effects the robes made.
"Well, Mr. Neill, what shall you call her?" Miss Climpson asked him between sips of her Exploding Lemon Fizz.
Ian gravely observed his new avian friend and solemnly declared, "Patty."
I snorted disgracefully into my rather pedestrian, definitely non-explosive fizzy drink, and explained. "My sister and I had a beagle named Patty, growing up," I said apologetically.
"Well, whyever shouldn't she be a Patty?" Miss Climpson retorted. "Much better than some of the ridiculous names these young ones come up with -- Stormtail, Archimedes --"
And, indeed, the little owl didn't seem to mind her new name: she blinked her huge eyes and hooted gently when Ian talked to her.
"I nearly forgot." Miss Climpson drew her handbag over, and produced two tickets for King's Cross Station. "I think you're perfectly capable of dealing with the travel yourself, though of course I'm more than happy to assist --" and she explained that we should travel to Hogwarts by train, and gave us the particulars of how to find the platform.
We spent another good hour discussing all manner of things, from the Gringotts' goblins and the monetary exchange rate to owl post (Miss Climpson offered to act as intermediary between Lucy's correspondence and mine, and indeed for any other Muggle business I required).
I admitted to myself that if all the Wizarding World was populated by such helpful people, the next year would be delightful.
We parted outside the Leaky Cauldron, and Ian and I made our tired way home via the Tube, monstrous pile of packages and Patty in tow.
Saying goodbye to Lucy and Paula was wrenching in any event, but dealing with two tearful ten year-olds was worse, especially when one of them tended to blow things apart when he was stressed. We managed by going to a nearby park at a time when it was deserted. Leaves popping from their stems weren't usual for that time of year, but it was less damaging to our possessions, and we could explain it away as a freak gust of wind.
Lucy knew what was up, I was certain: she'd never found an explanation for the weird things that happened around Ian, so we'd always focussed instead on minimizing the symptoms rather than addressing the completely irrational cause. We didn't waste time by dwelling on it now.
We let the kids play together while I told Lucy about the posting arrangement -- a private courier, I explained away the necessity of going through Climpson -- and she accepted it without question.
"You know you're welcome at our place over the hols," she said quietly as we watched Ian and Paula, and she slipped her hand around mine. I squeezed back tightly, and spoke around the lump in my throat.
"I know," I agreed. "We'll be down at Christmas. I promised him."
I'm an intensely private person: very shy, though it can come across as aloofness, and experience had taught me to guard my heart well. But once given it's given for good, with every ounce of trust and loyalty in my character, and Lucy had earned every bit of it.
Had we met in different circumstances -- had Lucy not been, initially, our case worker, and had I felt the slightest physical attraction to other women -- we might have evolved into partners as well as friends. But, blessedly, Lucy'd realised I couldn't respond to her physically, had somehow dealt with it, and contented herself with a close, sisterly relationship. I had immense respect for that: I couldn't have done it. If I were less selfish, I would have pulled away from her when I'd finally suspected how she felt: but her friendship would have been too rare and precious to me at any time, much less over the past two difficult years. I'd learned to live with the occasional feelings of guilt.
It was getting dark: time to go. The four of us walked back to our block together, hand in hand, and Lucy and Paula left us at our door with tight hugs and tears all 'round. Then they continued on without us, receding in the distance as Ian and I sat on the stoop, as if they were the ones leaving us behind.
In Ireland, in the old days, there was no word for emigration. It was thought of as an exile; sometimes even as a death. That's why so many farewells had the distinct air of a wake, and why one was sometimes actually held.
That's exactly how I felt at that moment, even as I sternly told myself we'd see them again in 6 months' time.
We sat on the stoop a long time, until it was full dark, and went up to the flat.
And as most of the glassware was already packed away, contrary to Miss Climpson's advice, there was minimum breakage when Ian's frustration finally peaked.
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I can't recall where I first heard about the custom of holding a wake for people leaving Ireland, but it was a very real possibility that one might never see family and friends again, for the poorer emigrants, at least. By the time one could save the money to make a return trip -- assuming one wanted to, after going across in steerage -- older family might well have died off. So in many cases it was a definite, final leave-taking.