The door to the cafe where Petunia met the most recent agent she’s tried to pitch her novel to swings closed behind her. Her fingers ache as she tightens her grip on her leather briefcase, contemplating throwing the whole thing in the river and being done with it. Ten different agents, TEN! She’d started at the best ones, then worked her way down to the middling ones, expecting at least one of them to bite, but here she is. Rejected again.
It’s August now, almost September and she’s no closer to her goal than before, three months wasted. All she wants is to be independent, to have her own money and finally divorce Vernon. Is that so wrong of her? Is this the plot pushing her back onto the canon path?
She scrubs at her face and contemplates what exactly she’s doing wrong. Her novel is good, characters well rounded, plot air-tight, action engaging! But the 1980’s are so old-fashioned that the mere glimpse of modern sensibilities turns them away.
But she doesn’t want to change her novel to suit the disgusting views of these asshole agents. Every single one of the ‘best’ are just old men who can’t stand a protagonist that isn’t a one dimensional sheet of white paper.
Also a female protagonist? Fighting in a fantasy world without a romantic plotline? Obviously unpublishable. Who would read it?
Petunia clenches her jaw, then breathes slowly, gently, and relaxes her white knuckled grip on her briefcase.
It doesn't help that she's a woman, writing beyond her position of romance novels and children’s books. The amount of times she’s been told she simply must use a pen name! A masculine one of course. She's sick of it.
One more set back, at this point she has enough rejection letters to start a scrapbook, what’s one more, or two, or a dozen?
She pulls a worn scrap of paper from her briefcase and scratches out another line. There’s only a few more names left on her list, less established agents that won’t be able to do as much, but at least they might accept her book. She finds a public pay phone, the cramped metal box sweltering in the summer heat, the paint chipping off the inside and various sex club posters plastered on the walls.
She calls the number for one Elizabeth Miles, one of a few female agents in a long list of men, her sweaty fingers slipping on the buttons. After a few rings, a woman with a cockney accent picks up, greeting her.
"I'd like to send in a manuscript." She tugs at the phone cord, listening intently to the submission instructions, trying to tell herself that maybe — maybe this'll be the one.
A week later the landline rings while Petunia tries to convince Harry that really the eggs aren't so bad, try some please , god.
"No, no, no, no!" Harry chants, banging his hands on his highchair. The locked kitchen cupboard where Petunia keeps the cereal rattles as his magic tries to summon his favorite brand to his arms, but she’s learned her lesson from the last time. He’ll eat a healthy breakfast and that’s that!
Dudley’s a champion, half of his breakfast plate finished and only some of it lost down his front. It's Harry that's driving her crazy, only deigning to eat with all the dramatics of airplane spoons, funny faces and coaxing.
It's that damn James Potter's fault, she thinks spitefully as she deposits a small bite of egg into Harry's open mouth while he's distracted. She’s sure of it, Lily would never have indulged such a thing.
At least her dear sweet baby Dudley has pity on his mother and eats what's on his plate with gusto.
"Don't get your cousin's bad habits," she tells his sweet little face. He has jam everywhere, even his forehead, but that’s for her future self to deal with.
The phone is a welcome interruption, and Petunia leaves Harry with his own spoon, already prepared for the mess she'll see when she gets back. That's why the kitchen is tiled.
She picks up the phone, expecting it to be one of the other mothers on Privet Drive wanting to set up a playdate or Vernon telling her he’ll be late again. The man spends most of his nights off carousing now that Petunia has no time or inclination to cater to his whims.
“Is this Petunia Evans?”
“Yes, this is she,” Petunia replies, wincing as she hears a clatter and bang from the kitchen. Harry’s cute, giggly laugh sounds particularly ominous.
“My name is Elizabeth Miles. You submitted a manuscript several days ago, are you available to talk about it? I believe you have something special here. I would like to work with you.”
“Yes, of course I’d love to come in and meet with you. Thursday? That’s fine — yes — see you then!”The click of the phone hanging up has never been so satisfying. The dial tone echoes in her ear and Petunia takes a moment to do a little happy dance, spinning her way back into the kitchen, a smile practically splitting her face apart.
“Harry, Dudley! Guess what happened to your mama!” she calls, sliding across the tile and ending up right between the boy’s highchairs.
Dudley is drinking his milk, his plate empty besides for a scattering of eggs, practically angelic. Harry on the other hand is currently mashing his eggs and tomato slices into mush, his drink knocked to the floor. The glowing happiness inside of her doesn’t dim in the slightest, Petunia laughs and gives both the boys a smacking kiss on their foreheads.
Things don't get better right away. Vernon is still a looming uncertainty, a man who believes himself entitled to their marriage bed and all the 'privileges' that come with iI. Thankfully, his group of friends keep him busy visiting clubs and prostitutes, and getting high level sleeping narcotics seems to be a local passtime for the women in the neighborhood.
The days Vernon comes home, Petunia uses them liberally.
Petunia is tall and willowy, if she has to describe herself perhaps elegant or graceful. Her face is long and oval shaped with high, striking cheekbones and thin lips. With pin-straight blonde hair, she's a woman made up of lines. From what she can tell, being tall, thin and having legs for days is the ‘desirable’ look of the 80’s, which means that for the time she’s quite attractive.
Her best feature is something she doesn't remember from the books, a pair of pale green eyes like churning sea foam with long, almost transparent lashes. It's nothing like Harry's brilliant emerald eyes, but they're striking.
Not that it matters when the most she can be bothered to do most days is put on mascara and some lipstick before tackling two boys and writing boring advice column answers.
It's been a month since Elizabeth Miles agreed to work with her and there's been no updates. All she can do now is whittle away her time writing snappy responses to the people that write into her column. 'Petty Prose’ pays quite well, and her column has become quite popular, but it’s not near enough.
Also, if she has to tell one more woman that her husband's cheating, and she should get evidence and take him to court, she'll scream.
The call comes early in October, a month and a few weeks after Elizabeth’s offer to be her agent. Petunia is folding laundry in the living room while Harry and Dudley play some sort of strange game that involves a lot of blankets, Harry’s lion plushie Rawr, Dudley’s teddy bear Grrr and lots of noise.
"Dudley don’t pull Harry’s hair, it’s owie, honey,” she says absentmindedly, searching through the pile of clothes for a matching sock. The ringing of the phone is a welcome reprieve from her pile of laundry which never seems to end with two active kids in the house. The hallway has a full view of the living room, so Petunia leaves the boys to their game and answers.
“Hello, this is Petunia.”
“Hello, Petunia. It’s Elizabeth, we’ve got an offer! It’s from Sunlight Books, a rather small publishing company but they’re proposing a very good deal. Are you available for a meeting later today?”
Petunia almost drops the phone. “An offer? I — of course.” She listens to the woman, half dazed, a bud of excitement growing inside of her.
"An opening today? After lunch?" She checks her watch. "Yes, that'll be fine, see you then." She unwinds the finger she’s twisted in the phone cord and hangs up. A nervous tick, fidgeting. Before she would stick her fingers through her curls like a ring, but Petunia’s hair is thick and straight, and even with rollers any shape barely lasts half a day.
She quickly dials up the number for Annie, the girl at No. 7 who babysits the boys when Petunia has to run errands. Thankfully, the girl isn’t in school right now and promises to come over to watch her kids while they take their nap.
After cleaning up, Petunia feeds them lunch, puts the boys into bed and reads them to sleep. Annie shows up promptly at 1 o’clock and Petunia rushes out the door after a frenzied fifteen minutes of dress up.
Sunlight Books is small, but neat and clean. The door jingles as she enters, and the secretary is actually a young man instead of a woman. How surprising, but a good sign.
The man looks up from his paperwork and smiles at her. “You must be Petunia Evans, I have you down here for a 2 o’clock meeting. Your agent is Elizabeth Miles, is that correct?
“Yes, that’s right. Should I wait in the lobby?”
“No, I will guide you right inside. Ms. Miles is already here.”
The building is all woods, flowers on the window sills and the secretary leads her past cubicles of workers surrounded by reams of paperwork. Petunia doesn’t see one computer, she can’t imagine the misery of working entirely by paper. She does pinch herself discreetly when she sees the typewriters, she’s such an idiot! Why wasn’t she writing with a typewriter? Did she need to prove something to herself by writing by hand? Idiot, fool!
“Here we are,” the secretary says, opening a meeting room doorway with both hands.
Elizabeth is just inside dressed in a prim grey pantsuit, her hair a carefully contained riot of curls. She smiles when she locks eyes with Petunia.
“There you are,” she says and pats the seat next to her, “we are just waiting on a few people from Sunlight and then we’ll be starting.”
Petunia sits down next to her, rubbing her sweaty hands on her dress. She’s dragged a new outfit from her closet for this meeting, a dark green dress with a beautiful set of pearl jewelry the previous Petunia had inherited from her mother. Her hair is pinned up in a chignon roll, and she’s as prepared as she’s ever been to sell her own book. She’s got this.
Two hours later, Petunia opens her mouth for the second time to thank the Sunlight Book representatives for their time and walks out of the meeting room arm in arm with Elizabeth, who Petunia thinks should be known as The Bulldozer.
“Well, that went well,” Elizabeth says brightly.
“Oh… yes,” Petunia responds a few beats too late.
“Give it about a year and you’ll have a published book and this will go far easier! I look forward to reading the next book in the series. I would begin working on it now, and maybe invest in a typewriter? Handwritten is lovely, but quite hard on the eyes, you know.”
Petunia nods agreeably and decides that all those agent rejects had been good for her. She’s found an amazing ally in Elizabeth Miles, someone who will be in her corner, fight for her and win .
“Thank you, Elizabeth. Truly,” she says softly.
“You’re a good writer, Petunia,” her agent says, “funny, fresh and innovative. It’ll work out, you’ll see.”
A flush steals over Petunia’s cheeks and she fumbles with her purse for want of something to say. In the future, she’s just one of many young adult authors trodding a path well worn by decades of better writers. She feels like a fraud.
Together they walk out of the building, Elizabeth waving down a taxi while Petunia clutches the book contract in one hand and her advance pay in the other. A taxi pulls up, and Petunia waves goodbye at Elizabeth. The door closes behind her agent, and Petunia’s left alone on the busy street, people rushing past her like an underwater current.
She feels like she’s in a fever dream, adrift at sea.
In the spring of 1983, she has just enough money to hire a private detective and a good divorce lawyer. The children are just a few months shy of three years old, and they only know the ‘man of the house’ as a loud, scary, distant ‘father’ figure that their mom/aunt keeps far away from them.
When they grow up, they probably won’t even remember him, which Petunia counts as a blessing.
The divorce is loud, it’s messy, and she ends up with a black eye that gives her a leg up against the bastard in court.
She gets the house and several thousand in her bank account every month for child support.
She loses the car, most of her meager savings, all her friendly relationships, and a husband.
Just for the last point, it’s worth every pound.
The summer passes, and Petunia spends most of her time visiting the beaches of Brighton with the boys and giving her input on the various parts of publishing a book. There’s several different cover options, quibbles over paperback or hardback, how many should be printed, advertising ideas, when it should be printed. It’s all exhausting busywork that Petunia wishes could just magically be completed without her input.
Harry and Dudley celebrate their third birthdays with a few small gifts and a cake, a far cry from last year when several of the other children from the neighborhood came over for the festivities. It’s amazing how quickly the boys are growing, two years on and the little babies who clung to her legs are racing ahead of her, unstoppable and adventurous.
Harry has exploded in a riot of words, barely capable of going a minute without talking and prone to fits of stubborn temper when things don’t go his way. Bright, vivacious and full of energy, he’s entirely different from the child Petunia remembers from the books. Only Petunia wishes he’d inherited some of Dudley’s mild mannered nature, for her own sanity. Her son is easy going, following at Harry’s heels off on great adventures to conquer the living room and every section of the house they can reach, but painfully shy with people he doesn’t know.
She loves them, both of them, with all her heart. But things aren’t easy. A single mother with almost no income, everything is tight and it’s all she can do to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.
Her book, The Broken Crown , is slated for a December release to catch the holiday shoppers eager to grab something off the new release section for their nieces and nephews. Her only hope is that the initial sales are middling, just enough to justify keeping her on for the next book in the series. In celebration for her first book, Petunia takes the boys out for a big dinner at a restaurant and prays.
Two weeks after the release, Petunia busies herself with holiday decorating, opening up the attic for the first time to drag down the tinsel and bulbs. The tree is in the corner of the living room, dragged in by delivery people just that morning. It smells fragrant, of pine needles and sap, and fills the room with the scent of the holiday.
They spend the morning decorating the tree and stringing lights until the boys fall asleep exhausted on the couch. While they sleep Petunia bakes some holiday cookies and finishes up the rest of the house.
In the afternoon, Harry drags Dudley and her out the door to build a snowman ‘the size of a house, auntie — mama!’, until all three of them are cold and shivering.
“Hot choco, hot choco!” Harry chants, marching through the snow towards the front, his nose almost as red as his scarf.
“Marshmallows, marshmallows!” Dudley shouts basically in her ear at eardrum piercing levels. He’s hanging off her arm like a limpet and he’s much heavier than he was two years ago.
“Auntie, too slow! Hurry, hurry, hot choco now!” Harry yells from the front stoop, hopping back and forth in his snow boots.
“Well, if only I had someone to help me get to the door, Auntie’s so lost!” Petunia groans, dragging her feet in the snow. She hides her grin at Harry’s pouting little face.
“I’ll help you, mama,” Dudley says earnestly, “Come on, Harry! Mama needs help.”
Harry heaves a great big sigh, but runs through the snow to grab her jacket and drag her towards the door. Petunia laughs the whole way.
The phone is ringing when she stumbles inside with Dudley hanging off one arm and Harry dragging her by the coat. She struggles her way out of her shoes and Dudley’s and Harry’s, but by the time she gets to the telephone, it’s rung through.
Almost immediately it starts up again, the shrill ringing sounding urgent and impatient. Dudley is helping Harry out of his jacket with a series of seam-ripping tugs, but Petunia is content to let them rip a seam or two as long as they’re helping each other.
She picks up the phone on the second ring. “Hello, this is Petunia?”
“It’s sold out! Petunia, it’s a hit!” Elizabeth’s voice shouted through the phone.
The phone falls from Petunia’s hand, clattering against the wall and bouncing on it’s cord. The muffled words of her agent barely reach her. She feels like she’s underwater, floating, the world muffled and silent around her.
“Mama?” She hears, a little hand tugging on her skirt.
She looks down at Dudley, who has one arm still in his jacket, rosy red cheeks and snot dripping from his nose from the cold. Harry is one step behind him, looking at Petunia with big eyes, his hands clenched in the bottom of his sweater.
Petunia thinks of the last few months, of dithering in the grocery store deciding between meat or more beans and eggs to supplement. Of putting the boys to bed and crying over the account books, of clothes and shoes she washes and sews again and again because she can’t afford new things on just the wage from her column and the child support.
She slides down to the ground and pulls Dudley and Harry into her arms, clenching them against her body, and pressing her wet eyes into their small shoulders.
“Mama, owie?” Dudley asks anxiously, patting her back with his little hand.
“Auntie?” Harry’s voice wobbles, as if he’s about to cry with her.
Her sweet boys, she’ll do anything for them. Voldemort, death eaters — she needs to learn how to shoot a gun.
“I’m okay, these are happy tears,” she chokes, pulling back and rubbing the tear tracks away. She smiles, touching the round cheeks of her babies.
“Everything is going to be okay,” she whispers. And for the first time, she believes it.