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The Art of Self-Fashioning

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Harry tried, once.

There was a teacher at the primary school that he really liked. Mrs. Jute seemed to see into everyone and everything. She knew when people were copying their homework off each other, and she knew when someone was playing a game instead of paying attention in class, and she even stopped Dudley and his gang from bullying Harry a few times.

And she had even laughed when Harry turned another teacher’s hair blue. So Harry thought he could trust her.

He told her about the Dursleys. He told her about the cupboard, and when she asked in a faint voice, “What else did they do to you?”, he told her about the yelling and the way Dudley beat him up all the time, not just those few times she was there to see. He told her about the chores and not getting enough to eat.

Mrs. Jute bent down in front of him, in the end, and pressed his hand with hers. She looked as if she was going to bite someone’s head off. Harry knew the expression from Aunt Petunia, but he’d never had someone do it for him.

“It’s wrong, what they did to you,” Mrs. Jute told him quietly. “We’ll make sure that someone takes you away from there. I’ll go, right after school.”

And Harry believed her. 

*

He realized, later, how stupid that was, when the caseworker came to the house, and Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia turned her around so easily. They just told her it was lies and jealousy, and that Harry didn’t have any friends and Dudley did, so he’d made up lies to get Dudley in trouble. They showed her Dudley’s second bedroom and told her that it had all the toys Harry had broken in his rages. They said sadly that they’d tried to discipline him by giving him some chores, but it didn’t work, and they’d been terribly repaid for their kindness.

So the caseworker left, and after that, Mrs. Jute looked at Harry with pity and tried to talk to him about his “anger issues.” But no one else ever believed him.

And the yelling got worse, and even though Uncle Vernon never hit Harry, he threatened to all the time, especially when Harry found himself on the roof of the school building after running from Dudley.

Harry learned something from that: the things which mattered most to you, you never told anyone, because it wasn’t safe and it wouldn’t change things anyway.

*

Harry was weeding the garden one day when he heard a faint cry. He looked around, thinking for a second it was another kid Dudley had beaten up. That was the way Harry sounded sometimes, when they’d been kicking his ribs.

But instead, the grass moved, and something small and black came out of it. It was a black kitten, Harry saw, with no white on it. And it had green eyes, like his. It sat down, and stared at him, and cried.

Harry immediately poured some water from the hose into a small dish that he’d been using to water the most delicate flowers. The kitten lapped like it hadn’t had water for days. Harry sat there and watched it. He knew the feeling, after hours of being trapped in his cupboard.

He hadn’t ever met something as thirsty as he was.

He wouldn’t have done it for himself, but he sneaked into the house when Aunt Petunia was in the back garden gossiping with one of the neighbors, and stole a bit of bread and some of the roast that they were going to have that night. The kitten ate it so fast that it almost choked, and Harry had to stroke its back. Then it curled up next to him and purred so loudly that Harry was more worried about that attracting attention than he was about the crying.

He managed to keep the kitten hidden all that day when he worked in the garden, and then he smuggled it into the cupboard. He got food that night, and he shared it with the kitten, and when he was let out to go to the loo, he smuggled water back in his cupped hands. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and Dudley were all watching the telly. No one noticed as Harry held out the water to the kitten, and it lapped and lapped again, and got the floor wet, and rolled on its back to bat at the hanging edge of Harry’s jeans hem.

Harry went to sleep that night with the kitten dozing on his stomach, and the purring enough to shake his mattress beneath him.

*

It lasted three days.

Then Aunt Petunia opened the cupboard earlier than she usually did, and found Harry feeding the kitten with smuggled fish. She screamed, and grabbed Harry. Then Uncle Vernon stormed into the cupboard, and grabbed the kitten.

Harry, twisting furiously, got away from his aunt, and rushed after Uncle Vernon as he carried the crying kitten towards the door. He almost got there in time. Then Aunt Petunia snatched him back again, and Uncle Vernon was outside roaring about “Filth!” and “Freaks!” Harry heard the kitten cry one last time.

It was more like a scream.

Harry didn’t know exactly what happened, but Uncle Vernon came in with blood on his hands and yelled in his face for ten minutes, and Harry learned something else: animals were better than humans, but you’d better not show off that you liked them, either.

*

Uncle Vernon was sitting at the table one night and talking about someone he worked with at Grunnings who could never keep the orders straight. Harry was cooking dinner, a new chicken recipe that he had to be careful with because the spices were tricky. 

Uncle Vernon knocked back yet another glass of alcohol and said, “So then, I said, ‘What you want, Drummler, is a fine boy like Dudley. Not that pack of girls you have. The more time a man spends around girls, the more girly he gets.’ Well-known fact.” He swallowed again and nodded to Aunt Petunia. “And what do you think Drummler said to that?”

“That it was untrue because you’re prissier than anyone else he knows?” muttered Harry.

*

Harry sat in his cupboard later nursing the burns on his hands from where Uncle Vernon grabbed the meal away from him and the bruise on the back of his neck. Uncle Vernon grabbed him there, too, just like he did with the kitten.

Uncle Vernon yelled at him so loudly and shook him so much that Harry actually missed most of his words. But he knew what some of them were. Harry was a freak and ungrateful and a brat and if he ever, ever did something like that again, then he would find out where people Uncle Vernon didn’t like went. Because Vernon Dursley knew people and he could make those people know Harry, too.

Harry had a lesson that didn’t disappear when the burns and the bruise did: you can be sarcastic all you like, but keep the words inside. They can’t do anything about what you think, but they sure can about what you say.

*

Harry blinked and pushed his glasses up his nose. He couldn’t believe that those were his marks. It wasn’t like he had never been interested in school before, but this year, he had been really interested. They had new teachers who were more passionate about all sorts of subjects, even maths, and Harry had done well.

It was a new experience, to have people smile approvingly at him, and he had worked harder probably because he wanted more of it. Harry shrugged. He still knew that good marks could get you important things. Great jobs and good money and admission to university. He would need those things if he ever wanted to get away from the Dursleys.

He went home daydreaming. He hadn’t done that in a long time, and that meant he wasn’t as careful about hiding the evidence of his good marks as he should have been. Dudley found it, and took it to his parents, and Aunt Petunia came out to Harry where he was digging a new flowerbed for her roses.

*

Harry rubbed his hands. This time, the thorns had stung him when Aunt Petunia spun him around and started telling him off for cheating. That was the only way she thought he could have got such good marks, cheating off Dudley.

And now he was on no food for three days, and then bread and water for a week. 

Harry leaned his head back and stared up at the spiderwebs hanging from the ceiling of the cupboard. He thought for a second about the things he’d learned about spiders in school. How they spun webs and laid their eggs.

Then he looked away. He might need good marks to get away from the Dursleys, but how was he going to get them if he starved to death before he got out of Privet Drive? He would just have to wait, and hope that by the time he and Dudley went to different schools, his aunt and uncle had changed their minds. Maybe Dudley would make lots of rich friends and be good at games, and so they wouldn’t care anymore that Harry made better marks.

And he learned a lot about lying with his face and his body, because of the new lesson. You could be intelligent all you liked, but you had to keep it hidden. There were too many people who would assume the wrong thing because Harry the Freak just wasn’t that smart.

*

Harry spent a second wishing his clothes weren’t so bad. Then he shook his head and walked into the new bookshop that had opened a short distance from the Dursleys.

The woman who was putting some books on the shelves turned around and looked at him. She had short brown hair and small round glasses, and Harry tensed for a second, because she looked like a teacher. But he didn’t think she would report him just because of that, so he cleared his throat and said, “Hullo. I saw a sign in the window. It said you were looking for part-time help.”

“You’re, what, ten?” The woman’s voice was blunt, but not unkind. “You’re too young to help me.”

Harry nodded, because he was ten, but he said, “I know that I can carry heavy boxes. And I can alphabetize books. And I know the neighborhood around here. I can take books to people if you want me to.”

The woman opened her mouth, and hesitated. Then she said, “Do you have a place to live, boy?”

Harry flushed. He knew it was the clothes. But he tried to speak clearly when he said, “I do. I just really want to earn a little money. We don’t have a lot.” At least she would take that part as true because of the way he looked, too.

“Hmmm.” The woman picked up one of the boxes sitting on the floor beside her. “See about lifting that.”

It made Harry’s arms sag, but he could do it. Of course he could, he thought. He’d had to carry heavier shopping on the rare occasions that Aunt Petunia consented to take him along to London or Surrey.

“Well, now.” The woman leaned back on the counter. “I wouldn’t be able to pay you much, and it would be unofficial, you understand. I can’t really hire people your age.”

“Even a little would help,” Harry said, and tried not to smile too widely at her. It would probably make him look mental. “Thank you.”

*

It looked like it was all going to work out, until Aunt Petunia came into the shop, and made a fuss over Harry, and managed to imply to the woman, without actually saying it, that he was a bit touched in the head, that his family had plenty of money and he was just greedy. The woman’s smile grew fixed, and she nodded them out of the shop.

Aunt Petunia gave Harry a slap on the back of his head that made his ears ring. For the next week, he was in the cupboard whenever he wasn’t at school. And then when it was the summer holidays, Harry was in the garden or the kitchen whenever he wasn’t in the cupboard, right where Aunt Petunia could keep an eye on him.

Harry learned something else, then. He could work, but lots of people probably wouldn’t care about that. You might as well work on what you wanted to, and just not tell them. They would get loads of visible work out of you anyway.

*

Harry learned a lot as a child, but not as much as he did on the day a week before his eleventh birthday, when a tall woman with a stern face and black robes knocked on the door, holding a letter in her hand, and introduced herself as Professor Minerva McGonagall.