Isabel Charlotte E*** clutched her mum’s hand tightly, her blue eyes widening as another group of oddly dressed people disappeared, along with a trolley teetering with luggage, into the solid brick wall. The dizzying mass of morning commuters, who swarmed around the busy train station, didn’t seem to notice as they rushed to meet departing trains and go about their normal Thursday. This particular Thursday though, was anything but normal for eleven year old Isabel. Her blonde hair was tied back in a long ponytail and her usual choice of t-shirt and shorts suddenly made her feel more self-conscious than she had intended when she got dressed that morning. Isabel and her mum were seated on a bench, a little way along from the completely ordinary looking brick wall, watching in astonishment. This wall though, was anything but ordinary. Over the last hour, at least a hundred mums, dads, and children of all ages, vanished before their very eyes, stepping effortlessly through the barrier between platforms nine and ten. Even though Isabel had spent weeks preparing for this moment, she still wondered if she might be dreaming. Could she really be about to step through the wall herself and board a train bound for magic school?
The story of how an eleven year old Australian girl ended up at King’s Cross station on the morning of September 1st, begins a few months earlier, on a wintry July morning. Heavy rain was pounding on Isabel’s bedroom window and it was still dark outside as she stirred from her slumber. She checked the time on her phone and groaned. Five thirty was not a reasonable hour to be getting up, but she knew the incessant beating of the rain would stop her from falling back asleep.
Isabel didn’t mind the miserable weather they had been having over the winter holidays. She was quite content to lay in bed, or on the couch, and play games on her phone, read, or watch movies. It was peaceful at her mum’s house. When she was at her dad’s house she was kept busy looking after her little sister Grace. Chasing after a toddler all day was exhausting. She was grateful for the days at her mum’s when she had time to herself, even if she did sometimes get lonely and miss her school friends. As much as she liked school though, it was still nice to be on holidays and she really didn’t want this week to end.
Ten minutes into watching a video on her phone, Isabel’s bedroom suddenly lit up as lightning struck in the dark sky. Her heart skipped a beat and she inwardly chastised herself for leaving her blinds open, a habit her mum had told her off for many times. As she reached up to draw the blinds shut, something outside the window caught her eye. It was still dark outside and any last trace of the moon was hidden by the thick blanket of rain clouds. Isabel peered through the open blinds and realised that the front porch light had come on. A faint yellow glow was illuminating her mum’s car in the driveway. It must have been the lightning, she thought to herself as she tugged on the cord that made the wooden blinds close. Her breath caught in her throat as the slats snapped together. She had seen something outside, just as the blinds had been closing. She froze, kneeling on her bed, her hand still gripping the cord, staring at the closed blinds. Had she seen what she thought she had seen?
The cord slipped through her fingers as she reached tentatively for the one that would open them again. Pulling as gently as possible, Isabel began to ease the blinds open, hoping with all her might that all she would see was darkness. As the slats separated she saw it! Her scream filled the silent air and she tumbled backwards off the bed and onto the floor.
Isabel almost screamed again when the overhead light came on, but she swallowed her surprise when she saw her mum’s worried face.
“What on earth happened?” her mum demanded as she helped Isabel to sit up on the edge of the bed. As Isabel’s eyes adjusted to the light she realised her mum looked as equally cross as she did concerned. “You scared me half to death,” she said, her expression softening a little.
Isabel twisted around to look out the window, but with the bedroom light now on, she couldn't make out anything.
“There was something out there,” she said. “I saw... wings. And... yellow eyes. Huge yellow eyes. It was flapping. It was an owl, I think.”
“An owl?” Her mum said, disbelievingly. “I don't think we have owls around here. Come on, back into bed.”
Isabel glanced nervously towards the half open blinds.
“No really, mum. There was something out there.”
Her mum leaned across the bed and peered into the darkness.
“I don’t see anything,” she said, a hint of annoyance in her voice. “It’s almost six o’clock bub, not time for getting up yet.” She held up the corner of the quilt, urging Isabel to get back into bed, but Isabel didn’t move.
“Please can we go and have a look? You’re awake now anyway.”
Her mum sat down on the bed and sighed. “Is this about Hogwarts again?”
Isabel’s eleventh birthday had been in April and she had spent the whole day waiting for a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to arrive. Eventually her mum had gently explained that she didn't think a letter was going to come. She had said that Harry Potter was just a story and there was no such thing as Hogwarts, except in people’s imaginations. Her mum had then been forced to confess that the Hogwarts letter Isabel received on her tenth birthday was a gift with purchase, and had been included with the wand her mum had ordered online. She had played along and devised a fanciful story about an error that occurred, causing the letter to be delivered a year early. Isabel shuddered at the memory. It had been a cruel realisation that there wasn’t an exciting adventure waiting for her when she turned eleven. Even a Harry Potter movie marathon over the following days had not quelled the disappointment that plagued the pit of her stomach. Only as the weeks turned into months did she begin to forgive her mum and find peace in accepting that the world of witches and wizards would have to remain in her head.
“No, it’s not about Hogwarts. I told you, I’m over that. There really is something out there!”
The volume of Isabel’s voice was starting to rise and she knew her mum would be worried about waking her partner, asleep in the other room, so she relented.
“One quick look and then I’m going back to bed,” she said, in the exasperated tone she used when she knew Isabel had won.
Isabel could tell that her mum was irritated so she didn't object to leading the way and hurried out of the bedroom, flicking on every light switch she passed, as they made their way downstairs.
Standing side by side at the front door, Isabel’s mum gestured sarcastically at the knob. There was no way her mum was going to hang around for long, so despite her trepidation, Isabel turned the handle cautiously and cracked the door open, peering through the gap into the yellow glow of the porchlight on the driveway. Triumphantly she threw the door wide open and it was her mum’s turn to scream.
“I told you,” Isabel said excitedly, pointing to a large grey owl that was standing perfectly still on the doormat, sheltered from the rain by the eaves.
Her mum removed the hand she had clapped over her mouth and leaned in closer to look at the owl through the screen door.
“Wait a minute,” she said, “it’s not even… .”
Her statement about it not being real was cut off when the owl suddenly flapped its broad wings, as if to say I am real thank you very much. The sound of the wings beating against the door and the rush of wind in their faces left her mum in stunned silence.
The two of them glanced toward the stairs, both having the same thought about whether the lights coming on, the front door opening, or the scream had woken Isabel’s mum’s partner, but there was no movement from the landing above. Lily the dog must have been snuggled under the covers, for even she didn’t venture downstairs. Isabel and her mum turned their attention back to the owl on the doormat, its round yellow eyes staring at them, unblinking.
“There’s an owl at the front door,” Isabel’s mum said stupidly, stating the obvious.
Isabel crouched down for a closer look and stared right back at the owl through the screen door.
“Is that...?” she started, pointing down towards the mat.
Her mum knelt down beside her and they both squinted their eyes trying to see through the ruffled grey feathers.
“What?” Her mum asked, leaning so close to the door that her forehead pressed against the security mesh.
“A letter,” said Isabel. “There, under its foot. See?”
Sure enough, they could both see that the owl was standing on something. Whether it was a letter or not, they had no way of knowing from this side of the door.
“We have to open the door,” Isabel said excitedly, but from the look on her mum’s face Isabel could see that she was not quite as keen on that idea.
“We do not want it to come inside the house,” her mum replied. “If we open the door hopefully it’ll fly off, or at least move back and we can slip outside. I have no idea why I’m even suggesting this,” she murmured to herself, shaking her head. “I don't know a thing about owls. It might rip our faces off with its talons.”
Isabel was fairly certain this owl was not going to rip their faces off, so one after the other they squeezed outside, Isabel latching the door behind them. They crept along the side of the house to keep away from the owl and avoid the still pouring rain.
As predicted, the owl flapped its wings when forced back by the opening door and perched itself on the side mirror of Isabel’s mum’s car, its feathers repelling the droplets that now ran down its face and body. Isabel and her mum kept well back, and waited to see what the owl would do next. It continued to stare at them from it’s new position.
“He’s probably thinking, stupid muggles,” said Isabel, and her mum sniggered.
They were in a standoff now, neither party moving towards the other. Finally, Isabel began inching forward. It wasn’t like her to take the lead in unfamiliar situations, but if the owl had a Hogwarts letter tied to his leg, she wanted to make sure she got to it before he got fed up with them and flew away.
Slowly she crept forward, staying out of the rain as much as possible and also keeping a close watch for any sign of movement from the owl, but he remained perfectly still. The letter was now hanging down the back of the side mirror, obscured from sight. The only clue it was there was the neat string bow tied around the owl’s leg. Once she was right alongside the owl, Isabel reached out and pinched one of the bow’s loose strings, dragging it gently downwards to free the knot. As soon as the tension in the knot gave way, the owl, without warning, beat his strong wings and rose effortlessly into the air, flying off into the dark sky over Isabel’s cowering form.
The letter was lying face down next to the car’s tyre when Isabel finally dared to open her eyes, sure the owl had gone. She reached out and grabbed it, shaking off the water that seemed to sit on its surface, as her mum took hold of her elbow and helped her to stand.
“Wow, that was something,” her mum said shakily. “You were so close to it. That was really brave.”
Isabel didn’t reply. She turned over the letter and in the golden porch light saw something she was not expecting at all. The letter was addressed to her mum. In the top left-hand corner was an official looking logo with the letter M at its centre, and her mum’s name and address calligraphed in blue ink, still perfectly clear and unaffected by the rain. She turned to face her mum, her eyes wide, handing her the letter without saying anything. Her mum turned it over, examining the outside of the heavy parchment envelope before she finally said, “let’s get inside where it’s warm and dry. We can have a look at it together, ok?” She put her hand on Isabel’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Once they were settled on the couch and Isabel had dried herself off as much as possible, her mum handed her the envelope.
“Go on, open it. You deserve it after being the one to get it from the owl.” Her mum put her hand on her chest and let out a deep sigh. She was obviously still shaken by their experience.
The envelope was sealed with deep blue wax into which the same M logo had been embossed. Isabel carefully peeled it from the parchment, trying not to damage the seal or tear the envelope. She pulled out a single sheet of paper and unfolded it, scanning the same handwriting and blue ink that was on the front of the envelope.
“What does it say?” her mum asked, leaning back against the couch and closing her eyes. Isabel read:
Dear Ms P******,
It gives me great pleasure to inform you that, owing to extraordinary magical abilities, your daughter, Isabel Charlotte E***, has been selected as this year's recipient of the International Student Exchange scholarship. A place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been reserved for her.
I understand this may come as a surprise; therefore, I have arranged for a local representative to meet with you and Mr E*** on Saturday at 11:30 am to answer any questions you may have.
I look forward to meeting you and Isabel in London.
Student Exchange Program, Department of International Magical Cooperation, Ministry of Magic, London
Isabel swallowed hard and glanced sideways at her mum, who still had her eyes closed, a slight frown at the edges of her lips. She didn’t know what to think or how to feel. There is no way her mum would have finally admitted to arranging the first Hogwarts letter, only to try and start the game up again with another fake one. Isabel doubted that there was anywhere in Australia that you could hire an owl to deliver post anyway. It certainly seemed real. It’s just that it also seemed too crazy to be true. Hogwarts wasn’t real, was it?
“Mum?” Isabel ventured, her voice quavering a little.
She held out the letter to her mum who opened her eyes and turned to look at her. Taking it from Isabel she read through it several times before simply saying, “I guess we need to ask your dad to hang around when he brings you home on Saturday morning.”
Isabel nodded, she felt a tiny bit of excitement creep over her which she hurriedly pushed deep down inside herself. Even if someone from Hogwarts did turn up on Saturday, and this whole thing wasn’t an elaborate prank, there was still no way her mum and dad would let her go to London. Would they? She didn’t even want to consider that her wildest dreams could turn out to be real and then be taken away by the two people she loved the most.