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What Should Have Been...

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Petunia: We do try to get him to eat more, but he’s such a picky eater, not like my Dudders who has quite the healthy appetite. Can you make any suggestions?

Mrs Greene frowned to herself as she watched little Harry Potter clutching the brown paper bag that held his lunch to his chest.

He was so much smaller than the other children his age, smaller even than the children the year below, and without an ounce of the baby fat she would expect even a skinny child to carry upon their cheeks. His eyes darted around at the other children as they hurried out to the playground around him, skipping and laughing with one another, swinging their lunch bags by their side or peeking and shuffling their hands inside to see what goodies had been packed today. Harry seemed to be keeping his distance from their enthusiasm, even going so far as to turn himself away from them if they came too close, showing them his back and keeping his body between them and his lunch. Likewise, he sat apart from his classmates when they all sat in groups in their lunch area, his back pressed into the corner where the toilet block attached to the back of the classrooms, curling protectively around the sandwich he’d been given. Crusts again, Mrs Greene noticed.

She looked across the sitting area to where the boy’s cousin was standing in front of his friends, acting out a scene from a superhero show, she guessed from how he mimed hitting and kicking an enemy. In contrast to his smaller, dark haired cousin, Dudley Dursley had two paper bags he’d brought out with him, each full to bursting with thick sandwiches, muesli bars, biscuits, cupcakes and carefully sliced fruit. (“He’s a picky eater,” Petunia Dursley had said of her nephew. “It’s hard to find anything he’ll eat, and I don’t want the food to go to waste.”) The sandwiches and fruit were discarded in favour of the sugary treats.

While she was watching, one of Dudley’s friends ran up to him, having been a little later coming out with his lunch than the other children in the class. He was laughing giddily, and pointed back towards where Harry was sitting, directing the attention of both Dudley and his friends, as well as Mrs Greene’s. She looked back in time to see the boy picking the pieces of his sandwich off the gravel and carefully brushing the dirt off it. He pressed the crusts back together - it didn’t look like there had been anything between the two slices - and took a rough bite, still huddling guardedly around his meal and his eyes darting around him with even more vigilance.

Petunia: He’s very lazy. He refuses to do his homework, and complains or throws tantrums if we ask him to do anything to help around the house, not like my Dinky Diddums who is always an absolute angel. They had problems with him in class last year too, where he would either not do his work or he would ruin it and blame others to try to get them into trouble.

The children chatted together as they filled out their worksheets, answering the questions at the bottom of the page about the short story written at the top. Harry had just finished his third sheet and was walking up to the teacher’s desk for another. Meanwhile, behind him, one of the boys at his table snatched up the work he’d left unprotected.

The boy passed them around to his friends, one of whom was Harry’s cousin, and the group laughed as they scribbled on the pages with their felt tip markers, obscuring Harry’s writing and drawing rude pictures. The paper was then folded into planes and thrown towards Harry’s desk, the boys competing to see if any of them could hit the invisible target of where Harry’s head would be if he were sitting there.

When Harry returned to his place with his next sheet, he found what had become of his earlier work. He gathered the ruined pages together and tried to smooth them flat, but then he just sat where he was, staring hollowly at the sheets before him.

A few minutes later, the teacher called for the students to hand their work in before they moved onto the next subject. Harry didn’t say a word when he gave over his worksheets, not when the teacher asked him to explain himself, not when he was berated for wasting time and paper, and not when he was told that he would have to join the teacher on duty for the first half of lunch to pick up litter in the playground instead of playing. If anything, the tension in the boy’s scrawny shoulders eased and his morose expression lightened at his punishment. This reaction only incensed his teacher further, and his sentence was increased from half of lunch to the full time.

Petunia: Oh, the boys can play a bit roughly at times. I do tell them to to be careful, but… well, you know how boys can be…

When Harry arrived on Thursday morning, his threadbare school bag was slung over his left shoulder instead of his right. As usual, he waited for the other students to finish unpacking and putting their bags away before moving to his designated hook, but his movements were slower today, more tentative than Mrs Greene had noticed before. As such, he was late taking his seat, and the teacher reprimanded him for interrupting his ritualistic morning greeting.

They had maths first, and all of the children scrambled as one to lift the lid of their desks and pull out their exercise books. Harry flinched harshly when he was jostled by his neighbour and then winced again, this time seemingly in response to his own reaction. Rather than using his right arm to open his desk and pull out his supplies, he kept his elbow tucked close to his side. He still, however, used his right hand to hold his pencil, though he did sit at a peculiar twisted angle in his chair and leaned his body to the left to lift his arm high enough to write while keeping his elbow as close to his ribs as he could manage as he worked. He continued his odd behaviour in the playground, hugging his arms around his middle and hovering purposelessly at the edge of the schoolyard rather than investigating pebbles, grass, trees and insects like he usually would.

A small group of boys broke off from the chasing game that spanned the oval, and Mrs Greene was pleased to see them approach and engage with Harry, but when they all started to run together it wasn’t in a mimicry of the game on the field where one person was ‘it’ and had to tag the others. Instead, all the boys appeared to be chasing Harry.

Mrs Greene had seen Harry run the day before, when his class had done short sprints to warm up before they started practicing their skipping rope skills. Despite his small size, Harry had been surprisingly swift and light on his feet, easily one of the quickest in his class. Today, there was no evidence of that speed.

An almost frantic energy seemed to engulf Harry as he ran. He appeared to be limping, taking longer steps with his left leg than with his right, and his right hand was held firmly against his side, clutching his ribs in the same place where he’d held his elbow all morning. Impaired as he was, the other boys quickly caught up with him. Rather than just tapping him as the children playing on the oval did, two of the boys tackled him to the ground, and a third tripped over them when he couldn’t slow down quickly enough or avoid the hazard. Even from across the playground Harry’s cry of pain could be heard, though it was muted by distant and the sounds of play.

Mrs Greene was on the verge of running over herself, but all the boys, including Harry, quickly pulled themselves to their feet, though Harry was clearly holding himself poised to defend against another attack. A moment later, the group of boys turned and headed back towards the field, laughing together and shoving one another good naturedly. Behind them, though, Harry moved in the opposite direction, clearly putting space between himself and the others, the limp that had previously only been discernible when running now clearly impeding his every step.

Petunia: He might be quiet here, but at home, where he’s used to us, he’s a menace, always acting out. Sometimes it’s the big, explosive outbursts; other times it’s the quiet little lies, or playing naughty tricks, or just flouting rules and saying he didn’t do it. We think he’s trying to hurt others, us especially, like he was hurt. We do our best to show him how we care for him, but he cringes away from our affection. His parents were horrible people, you see, and in those formative years too. It might also be the trauma of the accident. He was only young, but he was in the car too, and, sometimes, things like that stick with you no matter your age…

Dudley ran out of the school gates without care, irrespective of the rule that students in the junior years weren’t allowed to leave the school grounds until their parents had collected them. Once he reached the gutter that edged the road, he paused and looked about, searching the adult faces around him for one face in particular. When he found it, he tore off again, casting his bag aside and throwing himself into his mother’s arms where she showered him with praise and affection.

Harry followed at a far more sedate pace, stopping at the fence line and looking before exiting the gate and slinking to join his family. Unlike his cousin’s reception, Harry’s aunt’s expression turned like curdled milk at the sight of her nephew. Her arms tightened around her son as she snapped at Harry for dawdling, then she turned her besotted attention back to the boy in her arms.

Dudley launched into a description of his day, excitedly recounting every notable event, both real and fabricated, as they turned began the short walk home. They hadn’t even gone further than a few steps when Dudley’s mood changed, and he began whining about his mother not having a car and how he was too tired to walk after all the running and exercise he’d done at school.

Harry waited until the pair had moved a small distance ahead before he began to follow them, pausing only momentarily to pick up Dudley’s bag as he walked passed it. He hadn’t been asked to, but he did so in the manner of an ingrained habit, slinging his cousin’s designer bag onto one shoulder where it rested upon his own tattered backpack, crushing anything he carried within.

Neither Dudley nor his mother even glanced back in Harry’s direction before they’d moved out of sight of the school, nor did Harry call out to them or try to draw their attention to himself.

Petunia: I’m sorry, he does tell lies like that. We’ve been trying to teach him better but… Well, let me assure you, Vernon is a director at his work, and he earns more than enough for us to live comfortably, even with me staying home. Our house has four bedrooms, so that’s enough for all of us plus a guest room. Unless he climbs into his own wardrobe at night, then this ‘cupboard’ rubbish is all nonsense. Don’t listen to him if he starts lying like that, and remind him that lies are not acceptable…

Harry Potter lies, Mrs Greene had been told. He’s a compulsive liar, an attention seeker, a rule breaker and trouble maker, a deviant. His word is not to be trusted.

When Harry sat across the table from her, he didn’t emotionally react when she introduced herself - “Hi, Harry. I’m Mrs Greene. I’m a social worker from the NSPCC. You may have seen me visiting your classroom and around the school these past few weeks.” - and he didn’t react when she began to gently ask him questions - “I was hoping you could tell me about your family and about what things are like at home.” - and he still didn’t react as he hesitantly began to give soft, short answers, his voice toneless and his posture slumped in weary defeat.

But he did react when Mrs Greene spoke three gentle words. His interlocked fingers whitened as he squeezed his hands together, his shoulders shook as though he was shivering with cold, his chin fell and his previously still expression scrunched up as if in pain, tears spilling silently down his cheeks.

“I believe you.”