“I… I just can’t stand it” Harry said softly.
Mrs. Figg face seemed to crumble. “Oh, my dear boy…” she patted his hand awkwardly. Harry couldn’t remember her ever offering any comfort before. “You are very strong, you will be all right”.
But Harry wasn’t all right. Harry was hungry and tired and had a black eye from his last encounter with Dudley’s gang. He knew it wasn’t that bad, but somehow it had become too much. Lately they were making some noise about Aunt Marge coming, and Harry remembered how during her last visit one of her bulldogs chased Harry into a tree and she had refused to call him off until past midnight. Despite being late June it had not been a warm night and Harry spent all summer coughing.
Plus, they were talking about school arrangements for next year. While Dudley would be going to the prestigious Smeltings Academy, Vernon was debating whether to send Harry to Stonewall High or Blackpit School, the latter having been featured recently on the 9pm news as a place where corporal punishment was still inflicted.
Harry couldn’t say what exactly had been it. It was not the discovery that Dudley would be receiving a pair of boxing gloves for his birthday, with what that entailed. It was not being fed for dinner a bunch of vegetables that were about to go bad. It was not having to vacuum the house and do the dishes and ending up with no time to do his homework and hence getting disapproving comments from the teacher the next day, as well as enduring the laughs of everybody in the class.
It was, perhaps, something as simple as Uncle Vernon making a disparaging comment about Harry’s parentage. Nothing he wasn’t used to, even though mentions of them were scarce. Harry had listened as Vernon complained that he would never amount to anything, like his drunk and unemployed father, and suddenly Harry had felt like a stranger stepping for the first time on the house.
“Don’t look at me like that, boy” Uncle Vernon had grumbled and Harry averted his eyes. Slowly.
But the feeling remained. The feeling asked what was he doing living with those strangers in that strange house.
It was like lifting a layer of white dead skin after being sunburned and gingerly touching the pink skin below. It felt good and scary. The feeling shadowed Harry through the last few days of school, through the scraps dinners and nights under the stairs.
Harry left on a Friday night, because it was the night that Little Whinging saw more activity and people walking down the street didn’t draw so much attention. He put a change of clothes on his school backpack and what little money he had managed to save through the years. He took a bottle of water and as much as he dared from Dudley’s multiple chocolate stashes. As an afterthought he added a notebook and some pencils, as well as his stack of cards. There was always use for those.
He didn’t have any other belongings.
Privet Drive was quiet. Harry had waited long enough that the people at number 3 would be distracted watching TV and wouldn’t notice the weird kid at number 4 sliding down the kitchen window. Harry crawled through the garden and sneaked down the street. There was a train station to get to, and a train to board with not enough money for the ticket fare, and then a world in which to survive. So Harry’s mind was rather occupied and he didn’t look back to the house that had seen him grow for the last ten years.
Harry had read somewhere that the most daring adventures were only undertaken because people lacked imagination. Imaginative people thought about the risks and all the terrible things that could happen and never dared trying anything.
Harry thought that merely showed a general lack of understanding how people worked.
He was almost eleven and understood perfectly well that children by themselves were at constant risk. In fact, Aunt Petunia tasked herself with reminding him of the good they were doing by keeping him with them rather than kicking him out to the streets.
So Harry knew what he was doing. But he found that the possibility of bad things out there didn’t weight as much as the certainty of bad things at home.
No, not home. Privet Drive.
He wasn’t scared. In fact, he was quite confident that things would be bad, but not news headline bad. After all, he had a history of miraculous things happening around him. If he could grow a full head of hair over night after Aunt Petunia’s spiteful haircut, surely he would be able to avoid being murdered.
At the very least he could make some income selling hair to wig factories.
Vernon and Petunia Dursley did not notify the police of their nephew’s disappearance. As a result, since the school period had ended, it took Arabella Figg four days to notice Harry’s absence and two more to ascertain that The Boy Who Lived had vanished. She cried a bit before calling Dumbledore, blaming herself for not having said something before.
“I told you, Albus”, and it was not at all like Minerva to offer reproaches, let alone with that tone of voice that betrayed more hurt than anger. “Those muggles were horrible!. You have tightened the rope as far as it could go… The boy could not hold the strain forever. It had to snap sooner or later”.
Hagrid looked at McGonagall with red rimmed eyes open wide. Under his beard he was ashen and pale.
“We don’t know that they boy left” said Alastor Moody, always cheery. “He could had been snatched. There had been rumours coming from east Europe”.
“There is always rumours coming from East Europe. That’s about the only thing they produce”, grumbled Elphias Doge.
“Of course the boy hasn’t been kidnapped”. That was Diggle, who held the honour of being the second person at the meeting that had seen Harry Potter recently. “Minerva is right, those muggles were horrible. Why, after I shook hands with young Potter-”
“You contacted him?” Doge sounded quite scandalized.
“… and she yelled at him and looked quite…”
“Wasn’t he supposed to be guarded at all times?” that was Shacklebolt.
“Could have drawn attention to him by establishing contact…”
“There is no need to use that tone”
“One must remain always vigilant”
“…That poor boy with those horrible people…”
“And I was supposed to be stern” sniff “or they wouldn’t let him come” (sniff) “to my house” (nose blow) “because they didn’t want him to enjoy himself”
“That is not like the usual muggle behaviour at all! From my studies I gathered they are as affectionate as anyone”.
“He would had been better at the Burrow, I always thought so. Molly wouldn’t mind, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, dear, of course not!”
The chaos and overlapping voices continued for quite a long while. Nerves were frazzled and accusations and should-haves crossed the room from all sides. Hagrid spent the whole time crying and mumbling how little Harry had been when he rescued him from the ruins of the house.
Few things were clearly established on that meeting. The horrible nature of the Dursleys was one of them. The necessity of keeping Harry near a blood relative was another. The certitude that the protective spell had faded was the third.
“I hate to sound crass” Shacklebolt started with a gentle tone “but if the worst had happened and the boy had been… killed”. Both Arabella, Molly and Hagrid sobbed in unison. “We would know by now, one way or another”.
Harry arrived to London on Sunday. Train tickets were way too expensive for him and the kind of people who would offer a ride to a ten-year-nine-months-and-a-half old boy, were precisely the kind of people it was best to avoid. So it took him a while, jumping from train to train and hiding in the luggage carrier, until he found a bus on Southampton that was taking a bunch of foreign kids to spend the day on London. Harry got in and one of the monitors gave him a neon bright green bag with the name of the language school printed on it. It had an apple, a bottle of water and a map of London and Harry thought he was very lucky indeed. He hanged out with them until they got to the British Museum. They had tickets for a special exhibition and they would realize they had a surplus kid, so Harry went away.
The city wasn’t a good place for a kid, they said. But so far things hadn’t been bad. Harry didn’t have any regrets.
McGonagall felt like she had had a constant headache for the last two months. It wasn’t showing signs of receding but she was learning to live with it, mostly because Madam Pomfrey worried at her excessive consume of headache relief potions.
She wrote the acceptance letter after her usual model, and then she crumpled it and rewrote another one that stressed the fact that Harry was a wizard and there was a wizard society that would welcome him.
They sent the letter with the envelope simply addressed to Harry Potter as no locating charm had managed to show his whereabouts.
In fact, after near three dozen spells, they still didn’t know with certainty if the boy was dead or alive. The ink would slide right out of the map, the pendulum would hang loosely pointing nowhere, the mirror would remain a mirror and the potion would turn grey and foggy and reveal nothing.
It looked, in fact, just like it had before they were aware of Harry’s disappearance and he had been relatively secure under the protection of the blood spell.
So he probably hadn’t been kidnapped by dark wizards. They knew that much.
Harry arrived to the city with the idea that it was a place to stay, but not a place that he would call home. Mostly because he didn’t have a house to sleep in and some days the city smelled really bad and just what was going on with the waters of the Thames? They were green and smelly and disgusting.
But with a single ticket (if you felt like buying one) you could ride the underground the whole day. And there were extra tunnels and secret stations that weren’t on the maps but that an unoccupied person with a knack for making himself unnoticed could find and explore. On Friday, the British Museum closed late and was free, and so was the Tate during the whole week, and listen, listen! he had been starved, not just for food but for a whole world of shiny things.
It was summer. There were parks. Covent Garden was crowded. Artist, musicians, jugglers, even the shops that Harry couldn’t afford were pretty to look at.
Harry felt a little bit in love with Turner, and later on with Millais’ Ophelia. And there was something about the Assyrian gallery that just felt very peaceful, seeing that carved stone from ancient times still hard and unbroken today.
Harry spent most of his time working on how to get his next meal, but on the low hours, when the cold was biting and the smoke and the darkness felt suffocating, Harry could promise himself that if he survived that minute, that hour, that night, then he could go to the Museum and discover a new picture.
Look, if you didn’t appreciate the existence of a whole gallery dedicated to clocks and watches, if you didn’t go and carefully examined each one and chose your favourite, what was the point of living anyway?
And then, of course, you would do the same with the vases, and the swords, and the portraits.
The first owl returned after an hour, the envelope still in her claws.
The second owl returned a week later, feathers rumpled and the envelope a bit wet and still attached and with the seal unbroken.
The third owl returned thirteen days later, tired and irritated and covered in smog.
Minerva removed the closed envelope. She petted the owl’s head and gave her a treat before sending her back to the aviary to rest.
She said nothing when she went to Albus’ office and deposited the crumpled envelope in his desk. Things had been tense between them, but that night, after seeing the tiredness hiding in the wrinkles by his eyes, she found she could almost forgive him.
They were both too tired.
She accepted his offer of a cup of tea and sat there drinking in silence, the closed envelope taunting them.
It was Witch Weekly, of all people and organizations, the first to notice and comment on The Boy Who Lived’s absence from the ranks of first years at Hogwarts. The magazine went on to elucubrate that the young hero was studying at a foreign school, possibly Beauxbatons or Holzschuhkäse.
Apparently there weren’t any other news that week, because the Daily Prophet picked it up and went crazy with speculation. Remus Lupin’s personal favourite, however, was The Quibbler’s big reveal that Harry was asleep inside a crystal coffin in some witch’s garden. He actually went to visit said witch, because Dumbledore was adamant that they didn’t dismiss any theory. The witch was friendly and offered Remus plenty of tea and biscuits, although she refused to lift the blanket that covered the box in her garden.
He sneaked a peek anyway, while she was distracted looking for the second photo album. As he had suspected from the faint smell of earth, it was nothing more than a collection of apple crates.
Remus knew a little bit about wandering the earth, cold and hungry and with no resources. Mostly, he knew about the pools where everyone irremediable fell and from where you gathered your strength to climb back up.
He put feelers here and there. Asked around and made it known that there was an interest. Sooner or later, he knew, something would turn up. Because those were places of intersection. Home and homeless, sane and insane, muggle and magic.
Now, if only the Order gave him a bit more money for bribes and chats. They all assumed that he would spend it on himself, he knew. Some thought he would spend all of it, and the more compassionate and friendly thought he would only spend some.
As if James and Lily hadn’t been his friends.
As if he would skimp on their son to buy a pair of socks for himself.
Six months later, Harry was proud to say that he had not been murdered and he had found a place.
Not a place to live, exactly, as it was an open space between two abandoned buildings and little in the way of walls and roof. But a place to stay.
They called it the yard.
Most of the kids at the yard had one or two jobs and the occasional commission. Harry, with four, was an oddity.
There was the small household maintenance he did for the old folks in Cricklewood. He only had to go twice a week to take the garbage, trim the hedges and bring some of the heavier groceries. It wasn’t that different from all the household chores he had had to do at the Dursleys and although they didn’t pay much Harry like the air of normalcy. If you spent too much time in the yard, you forgot how the proper world spoke and thought.
The yard was welcoming, but it tended to devour her occupants.
Sometimes, some of the ladies offered him old clothes and Harry wasn’t in any position to say no to coats and jumpers. He couldn’t store the surplus but he always found some fellow kid willing to trade for them.
The second job was at the Falafel King. Harry had been going there since his first week in London, when he was starting to go light headed with hunger and he managed to convince the owner to let him clean the kitchen in exchange for a plate of food.
Harry had read about the Labours of Heracles (The British Museum had excellent pamphlets that Harry devoured) and the Augean Stables had nothing with the grease on that first frying pan. But after a lot of scrubbing Harry had left it cleaner than anyone had ever seen it in years and so he had secured two dinners a week for the price of a clean kitchen and bathroom.
Kaleem was a fair boss. Harry had held the hope that he would hire him full time, but he had seen that as much as they worked they couldn’t really afford to pay anyone else. Two meals and permission to loiter inside wasn’t a bad deal for a little bit of elbow work. The commentary on British society came free.
The third and fourth jobs were the same as every other street kid. They picked up bottles and cans for recycling and they ran whatever errand Clubs had for them.
Clubs, the de facto king of the yard, was a lanky fellow on his twenties with bright dyed yellow hair. He run a small subsection of Mr. Nice business and so he was as violent as this kind of people often are, but no more than that; for which he was often well liked. A guy like Mr. Nice had little to do with street kids, but a guy like Clubs had lots of errands for them. Stay here and give a voice if the pigs come. Go deliver this message. Go deliver this package (because pigs very rarely frisked kids). Follow that guy. And if you were older he would tell you what to steal and who to scare and what to sell.
Harry didn’t like the second part. But he was fast and reliable, so he often got tasked with messenger services. The pay was meagre, but it gave you protection and a roof in one of the nearby buildings.
Harry didn’t really fit in the yard. But he wasn’t actively disliked and as long as he didn’t anger Clubs, he would be all right. If washing weren’t such a hassle, to be done quickly and at risk in public bathrooms, he would have realized that for the first time in years he didn’t sport any purple bruises.
Remus was certain that any news would come from the underground. He still couldn’t get enough money to keep all the eyes and ears necessary to relay those news.
Remus did –
Not a bad thing. Not something wicked. No, no.
– something illegal.
Like selling his magic without looking too closely if it was muggle, squib or wizard, who wanted a quick fix against nightmares or a little fire in a jar to keep warm in winter.
And in exchange he got some rumours, many of them invented, a few mere hallucinations of shaken minds, and others, the most infrequent and rare… those were enough to convince him he was right.
By the time he was fourteen, Harry had gained just a few centimeters, quite a measure of muscle and experience, and he had lost his name. He was universally known as Green in the yard, not because of his eyes but because of the bright green bag from the Language School he still carried around. He was Harris at the Falafel King because it hadn’t occurred to him to give a fake name until the moment Kaleem asked. In Cricklewood he was Christopher, which was long and Christian and the folks there loved to call him “Young Christopher” and applaud his initiative to bring some cash home and engage in honest activities rather than demand alimony like kids these days.
There, he just looked like an eager young lad doing right by his mum. Everywhere else, he gave an air of permanent calmness that often was confused with cockiness and arrogance. Not like he was judging you but as if he had already judged and wasn’t very impressed with the result.
People didn’t like that, but on the other hand he was extremely hard to insult. Or make him feel insulted, that is. Plus, there was something serene about him that was contagious. A certain sureness that things would turn all right, an air of knowing something you didn’t, that perhaps your worries weren’t so.
“I am going to sit next to you” Toffee (nickname acquired because of his speech disability that made it seemed like he had toffee stuck in his teeth) told him once. “Cause I don’t have any pot and you are the next best thing”.
Which was an extremely odd praise but also not far from the truth. Harry did have a calming effect.
And is you stayed by his side a long time, you could end up witnessing some reeeeeal weird shit.
“What are you looking at, uh?”
“Want us to learn you a lesson, shorty?”
“We can beat you black”
“You are a weirdo”
“… Better go. Yeah, but you look out”
“Yeah, you do that”. Said Harry, calm and smooth like spilled oil.
This was a new thing for Harry, not having to run from a beating.
Harry was aware that he had collected and astounding amount of quirks and superstitions. He easily tripled Mrs Tarry in Ellesmere Road, and she was a firm believer of the chemtrail conspiracy and that a coalition of Jews and lizards was controlling the world.
But, the thing was, as absurd and illogical as they were, many of them seemed to work. Harry’s, not Mrs Tarry’s.
Ok, his aversion to Charing Cross, King’s Cross and Whitehall was quite unreasonable, although the latter could be explained because Harry stuck out there with his permanent old clothes.
And perhaps the necessity to always carry a little piece of glass in his pocket, and an iron nail (surprisingly difficult to find) and a pebble, and three cat hairs, and a piece of paper with a perfect circle drawn inside and folded into a square; perhaps that was a bit odd too.
As was his habit of drawing circles everywhere. On the grease and the soap when he cleaned the kitchen at the Falafel King, on the dirt at the yard, on the wall of every Cricklewood house he visited and even in the windows on the underground.
There were the two separate incidents when he missed a police raid by mere seconds.
And the shooting in Queensbridge.
And the miraculous reappearance of Mr Zusak’s wallet, with all the money and his medical prescriptions, after someone stole it from him after church.
And if he were inclined to be honest with himself (something he only did when he had the certainty that he was alone or when he was safe inside the thick walls of the museums) that first night at the Falafel King the grease had simply vanished. It often did. Harry made a point of creating lots of foam and spent minutes scrubbing kitchen utensils that were already clean.
And he was pretty sure Mrs. Adkins washing machine wasn’t even connected to the current, and yet it hadn’t given any trouble since Harry offered to look. The poor lady, ankle deep in water, had been so grateful she kissed Harry on both cheeks. She had pressed a twenty quid note to Harry’s hand and covered him with enough blessings to last him for the rest of the year.
Then there was the matter of the awl. Harry had nicked it from a workshop where Clubs had some business. It had a short steel spike and a soft wooden handle and Harry’s palms had itched with the need to take it. He had stripped some copper wire and coiled it tightly around the handle and he had no idea why.
But if he pointed it to a keyhole and focused, it would unlock. Like magic.
Harry wouldn’t go as far as saying that he had been friends with Ratty. Ratty (real name William or Gilliam, Harry wasn’t sure) was a bit overwhelming. He talked too much and moved too much and was so eager to please that he became irritating. You had to be careful not to make enemies in the yard, but if you automatically agreed with everyone, that was just as bad.
He also asked lots of questions, with no sense for how they were received. Questions about favourite cars and music, good. Questions about secret corners and where to lay low and how to jumpstart a car, good in moderation. Questions about your past and how you came to live in the yard, BAD, VERY BAD, DO NOT ASK THAT EVER.
Harry felt a bit sorry for him, because the kid was obviously trying to fit in. But he also had to put his foot down and tell him to get lost, because he insisted in following Harry to Cricklewood and maybe help him there. Harry just couldn’t risk Ratty nicking something or breaking something or just making a mess as he tended to do. All the time.
The last one had been very bad. Clubs had him vanished from the yard, with a broken arm and a few bruises, not to show his face there ever again if he wanted to keep his ears attached. Ratty could consider himself lucky because Clubs had been furious, angry enough to have him killed on the spot. If he didn’t, it was most likely because Ratty made a pathetic figure, sobbing on the floor with his big ears and his too long and thin everything else. He had been called Needle, for a while, until spring came and he removed the wool hat and revealed an enormous pair of ears that hid everything else; the narrow face and the long neck and the stick thin arms.
So Ratty had left and people commented more on Clubs hitherto unknown soft side than on the kid’s future. London was a big city with many sectors. There is always somewhere to go.
Only now it was a week later and everybody had heard how some kids from up east took all of Ratty’s painfully gathered cans for recycling, and Harry had come to realize that with a broken arm you couldn’t steal shit.
Clubs had been tightening down the business and reducing commissions to the most trustworthy kids. Harry, for all his oddities, was still one of them as long as they only gave him messenger work. Now, for the first time since he came to London and started to work for Clubs, he took a longer route back from a service and stopped in Soho to ask.
You had to be careful there, because you never knew who were already spoken for and who were cocaine-crazed. Harry had sold a couple of coats to the girls there, and if you went around in the early morning they were more willing to talk to you. They didn’t feel like you were wasting their time.
Ratty had been there.
It was the last resource for many people. When all the trash had been rummaged and Clubs had no works for you and there was nothing to steal; then you went down there and sold whatever you could afford to sell.
The usuals didn’t like the occasionals because they dumped prices and took the clientele. They made a very close circle, so if you went there and didn’t have someone to speak for you, you would be left outside to pick up whatever work scraps they left. And they rarely left any. Harry had actually received lots of free advice and offers to set him up because he was always polite and had pretty eyes and talked to the girls and the boys with casual easiness. He had declined, though. He was doing well enough so far and he already felt like the street was taking too much of him to go and sell some more. He feared that he could end up being a different person, someone made from all the absences in Harry’s life.
Ratty didn’t have the same luck, although Krystal and Tatiana did give him some pointers. Tatiana had long legs and big boobs and looked like she could crush kids like Ratty without much effort. Krystal was a veteran with little patience and wrinkles on the corner of her eyes and her mouth. They told him what to avoid, what he should definitely not do, and how much he should ask for and not a penny below that.
Did Ratty listen? They thought so. They saw him two nights straight, but they hadn’t for a while now. Maybe he just moved to other streets.
That maybe accompanied Harry all the way back to the yard and to the Falafel King, where he had dinner that night, (gulping down the hot rice with a hand and pressing his aching forehead with another) and then to Notting Hill. He had started a new project where he eyed posh empty houses that were too expensive for anyone to buy. Since the awl had proven to be a wonderful picklock (and he wasn’t examining that closely) he was looking for a couple of places with no neighbours where a dirty kid could enter and leave relatively unnoticed.
Harry had inordinately high standards for a squatter.
Tatiana’s pimp didn’t like her wasting time talking to someone who obviously wasn’t a client. But she wouldn’t say no to a quick midnight coffee and the chance to shake off the humidity. So after getting a couple of new addresses and crossing out three, Harry went back to Soho.
Just to ask. A few more questions and he would let it rest and go to sleep.
Harry prodded and the girl spoke. It wasn’t a concern of hers… She played a different sector, lots of middle age men with low level business jobs in the city, so she didn’t have all the deets. What Harry ought to do was speak with someone thin and young like that Rat friend of his. Try Venus or Aidan.
Harry thought Tatiana was a lovely girl, but apparently there was quite a lot of people whose tastes differed to the thin, androgynous… and young.
“You have to service them right here in an alley” Venus explained.
“A room is fine, but only if you choose the place” added Aidan. “McKinney is good”.
McKinney didn’t ask questions. He put air fresheners on the rooms and had a huge nephew that would force the door open if you cried uncle hard enough. You would have to pay for the door, though.
The key was learning soon and quickly to discriminate between the ones you could accompany and the ones that was better to get off within hearing distance of a colleague.
“Look, it’s as we often say, Green” Venus continued in between sips of her soup. They would talk to him for as long as the food lasted. “You have to know what you are and where you are. Nobody pays hundreds to a street whore. If they offer you that much, they don’t intend to pay”.
Aidan looked at her with serious eyes, nodding his head. They were both about Harry’s age, maybe a bit older, but they had been at it far longer. Professional survivors.
“Like Pit” Aidan said.
“Yeah, just like. Come to think of it, he was around couple days ago. Sapphire was thinking about taking him until I got us that double job with the yuppie”.
Pete, actually, was a mild mannered individual with a power perversion and a taste for the young. There had been some trouble with a half choked boy a year or so back and people had been wary of going with him ever since. When things were bad some would take him to an alley but nobody wanted to do more than that, no matter how generous the pay.
Harry had his answer, then.
He thanked them, scratched his forehead, and rose to leave. As an afterthought he asked if Pit had any distinctive marks.
“Look for yourself”. Venus got her phone out and pressed the left button quickly. “That thing you said about studying and ac-qui-ring knowledge, got me thinking”.
Harry had meant going to Museums and feeling good with yourself when you read how bad people had it in the Middle Ages or how advanced the Romans had been. He didn’t talk often about that (fitting in and all that) but it turned out that both Venus and he were always on the lookout for cinema promotions no matter the type of movie, so they had met a couple of times outside the job, so to speak, and got talking.
Venus had a unique perspective on Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Anyway. Harry had meant that studying was good, because at some point he would like to take his A levels, and in a few more years he would be employable and he didn’t intend to live like this forever. What Venus had got, after an autumn cycle on mob films (just four pounds in the early afternoon), was that information gave you an edge. So she had started collecting photos and rumours on her clients, and then on everyone else’s on the street.
There was some high hobnob from the Church of England and a guy who maybe worked at the BBC, and two minor celebrities.
There was also a blurry thumb sized picture of Pit. A middle age, balding, man.
On Friday night Harry received a text message from Aidan. Just a street name and number in Soho.
The man was there. Harry observed from a distance as he was rebuked by every kid on the street. Fridays were busy nights and everyone could do better. And, perhaps, there was the sense of a spirit floating around. A physical absence that put everyone on guard.
Sometime soon after midnight the man gave up and took the tube. Harry followed, unseen. He pushed his fingers through his hair to make it stand on point, except for the long fringe he kept to cover the scar. Basic rule for the city, don’t put a hood over your head. Everybody suspects a teenager in a hoody. Instead, with the hair and the glasses he just looked like a student enjoying a day in town. It is a wonderful thing how trusting people are of glasses.
He needed some new ones, though. A new prescription and a new frame. He had had these ones since before he turned ten. Aunt Petunia had bought the cheapest pair available at the shop and they had been too big for Harry’s child head. They were a bit too small now, and dirty and ugly. A new pair of glasses would help Harry visit certain places. Make him seem less poor.
They rode Central line all the way to the north east. After that, they walked a mile or so to a little house in a quiet street not unlike Privet Drive.
Harry circled the house and peered over the fence to the garden and the shack on the back. There were some hydrangeas next to the house.
He… okay, he didn’t have much to go on. If he looked at it with a cold head, it was just a man like many others. Pervier, perhaps, but nothing more.
They had taken the last train of the night. Harry looked around but there was no obviously empty house he could sneak in to. He went to the church then and a small press of the awl over the keyhole unlocked the door. There was a room downstairs with a few chairs and couches and leftover biscuits, so Harry spent the night there.
In the morning, Harry went to the bus stop and looked at the timetable. Then he went back to the man’s house and waited for him to come out, all the while scratching at his forehead. The scar had been aching lately. Harry had been getting some strong headaches and, what was worse, strange dark thoughts that felt like too hot tea, leaving the mouth dry.
He was a bit worried, actually. In his three and a half years in the streets he had seen his fair share of loons and nut jobs, and everybody, kid and adult, had a faint shine of crazy about them. Mostly it was PTSD and schizophrenia, sometimes combined with something else. And the drug use was rampant, which didn’t help improve matters. But still, Harry wondered what came first, the illness or the street.
Perhaps this was the reason why he was following this Ratty business beyond what was sensible and practical. Like a last attempt at doing something good before letting the street engulf him. A last attempt at being a person before going mad.
The man exited the house, interrupting Harry’s morose thoughts. Harry turned around and ran down the parallel street, to meet him face front a couple of blocks down.
Harry put on his sweet Christopher voice.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know when the 17th bus leaves?”
Unfortunately, the 17th had a reduced time on Saturdays and it had already left. Harry would have to wait nearly four hours for the next one.
“Oh, thank you”. Harry looked dejectedly at his broken sneakers and pouted a little bit. The man licked his lips, breathed hard and invited Harry home to wait in there. Rather than give the creeped out reaction it deserved, Harry blinked at him innocently and deferred, saying he really didn’t want to miss the next bus.
There was a tiny shop near the bus station, so the man accompanied him there and bought Harry a cup of weak tea. He asked all kind of questions about Harry. What he was doing there, who was waiting for him.
Harry gave him a straight Karol. A good lie needs to be fast and consistent, so it pays to have a few stories memorized. The Karol (Kasia for the girls) was the story of a British born kid (so you don’t have to bother with the accent) son of an immigrant couple who was always working. It was very rare for someone to question why a poor immigrant kid was not in school at any given time. It also gave a plausible excuse for being almost anywhere at any time without adult supervision, since you always had to run an errand for Uncle Szymon.
The man, Pit, licked his lips some more and said he was headed in Harry’s direction anyway, so he could give him a lift with his car. That way he could save the bus fare. Harry showed appropriate gratefulness and a criminal lack of common sense that nevertheless didn’t rise the man's suspicions. During the car trip to the mall Harry explained that he was saving to buy himself a new pair of glasses. He was almost blind without them and they couldn’t afford new ones at home.
The car was idling in the parking lot. Pit, call me Pit, we are friends, aren’t we Karol?; Pit would love to buy him a new pair of glasses. Wouldn’t that be nice? Really, Pit was a lovely man and he deserved some love in return.
And oh!, yes! yes!, Karol was so grateful that he could kiss him. Nobody at home was so nice, gave him such good things. Thank you, Pit!
They entered the mall and searched for the appropriate shop. Despite the relatively early hour it was busy and they had to wait in line. Harry merely looked around with a dazed smile. To be fair, it always felt weird entering a clean and brightly lit place. He felt all the more out of place with his baggy second hand clothes and his dirty shoes.
The smiling lady that attended them didn’t seem to mind and she kept smiling the whole time.
It turned out that Harry had lost some vision during the years, so hopefully the headaches answered to that rather than a latent mental illness. Surely the headaches also originated the dark thoughts.
When it came to choosing the frames and paying, the man started to shift from feet to feet and made some impatient noises. It was obvious to Harry, as Venus had said, that this kind of bog offers were meant to entice but not to be fulfilled. Still, Harry chose the frames he liked best and handed them to the shop assistant.
Pit only wanted to pay a signal. Harry wanted the glasses paid in full. There was a bit of tension and for a second Harry thought Pit was going to storm off and leave him there. He relented when Harry suggested they could come together to pick them up in a week’s time, and wouldn’t that be fun? Sharing another day together? Harry, that is, Karol would like to spend more time with Pit, that was all.
He paid for the glasses. Harry picked the receipt before him.
They walked a bit around the mall and Harry let him talk for a while about the virtue of gratefulness and the roman institution of young mentorship.
“Greek” Harry said absentmindedly. He went to the Museum weekly and read all the brochures, he knew the difference between an eromenos and a puer delicatus. Unlike Pit, who was making a big mess of History and Art Depiction to justify his request for sex. Harry merely nodded, too irritated to play along. He just wanted to get a straight answer about Ratty that went beyond any reasonable doubt. So far he only knew that Pit was a perv, but not necessarily the perv he was after. He did get another cup of tea and a muffin, though.
They went back to the car.
Pit passed the road back to the address Harry had given him.
“Silly me” he said. “I will have to pay more attention to the next one. Anyway, you were saying your family doesn’t have a visa…”
He passed the next turn, and the next one. They went back to the neighbourhood where they had started, and to Harry’s small surprise he kept driving. He had thought there had been something odd about the hydrangeas, but it was obvious they weren’t going back there when the city fell behind.
There was silence in the car. Pit had stopped making excuses a long while ago and Harry couldn’t bother to feign surprise and ask what he was doing. Besides, he was getting a headache again, like a hot iron ball sitting between his eyes. He could hear some airplanes not too far away, so he estimated they were somewhere near Stansted when they finally stopped in front of a warehouse.
Pit turned off the car and turned towards Harry.
Harry was waiting.
He knew it was working when Pit startled, swallowed visibly, and froze in place as if kept there by an invisible force. Harry’s old glasses rested folded on his right hand, while the left, the one with more room, closed tightly on the awl, the one sharp object he always had with him. Harry was looking straight at Pit and his eyes were green, green, green and captivating. It was beautiful. Once you looked, you felt like you were falling down a tunnel and you couldn’t look away. The green had you hooked and was pulling you in. The green was all encompassing.
“Tell me what’s on your mind, Pit.” Harry said, soft and sweet just like night radio hosts spoke. “Were you going to take me inside?”
Pit swallowed and answered right away. “Yes”.
“What were you going to do?”
“Come on, Pit, you can tell me. We are friends. Look at me”.
Pit told him.
Harry had to make a true effort not to look away, open the car’s door and ran away as fast as he could. He swallowed on a gulp of bile and kept his eyes staring fixedly at the man. His fingers tightened on the awl. If this, whatever mad things that this was, failed, he would still have the sharp pointy awl.
“Is that what you did to him?”
“I… I don’t, please, I don’t”
“Look at me!” Harry snapped. And then, softer, “Answer”
“I don’t know”
The man was sweating. So was Harry. He could feel his temples pulsing.
“The boy. The boy with big ears. He was thin and young and scared and he had a broken arm.” Harry’s voice was rising, the world outside the car darkening as if storm clouds were surrounding them. “Do you know now?”
The world was black. Harry’s voice was dark and deep. There was a feeling of cold and wet, like the burrow of a creature that lives and hides in the earth. “What did you do to him?”
Harry blinked away some tears.
“Show me where he is”.
Pit started the car with shaking hands. They drove for thirty minutes to a country road and then to the river Lea. Pit pointed to a loop of the river and Harry made him get out of the car and to the shore and say exactly where.
There was a pungent smell of mud and industrial smoke. It was not a picturesque riverbank.
Harry had to close his eyes then, for a second, and pressed the palm of his hand to his forehead. Pit saw it and tried to run away to the car and leave Harry there. But Harry was quick, so very quick, and he slammed on Pit and threw the both of them to the floor. They rolled around and Pit actually had the audacity to try to fight, to put a hand to Harry’s neck and squeeze. Harry had knees and elbows and fists and teeth and the rage, all the rage that was rising its head like an ugly serpent. He could feel it in his chest, ready to strike, asking for blood. That little man, that filthy human, how dared he, how dared he with the filthy blood…
Harry sent a good hit to the neck and the fight was done. He got up, shook the dirt from his hands and trousers and went to wait inside the car for Pit to get his breath back.
This time when they rode back to the city both their hands were trembling. Harry felt as if something had seized his chest and was never going to let go. Breathing hurt and his tongue felt heavy in his mouth.
Pit parked illegally near the New Scotland Yard. He didn’t dare meet Harry’s eyes.
“I don’t want to”
“No! I w-”
Harry snapped and took his face in his hands, made him turn around and meet his eyes. Eyes of green, eyes so pretty and deep. His eyes were nothing but green, with a thin black line parting them in the middle. To look at them it felt like falling into sleep.
“When I let you go, you are going to walk inside, and you are going to tell them everything. Everything, Pit. What you did to him and what you have done to every other kid. Say I will.”
Pit’s whole body was trembling, but his voice was unwavering when he answered.
“You will tell them, as many times as they ask. Say I will”.
“You will insist to be locked away. Say I will”
“Say it, Pit”
“Good”. Harry paused, swallowed. His fingers were leaving white marks on Pit’s cheeks. “Once you enter the station, you will forget about me. You will remember only the need to confess. You will never know peace”.
Harry waited outside for a couple of hours, entertaining himself by ruffling through Pit’s wallet. There was an almost palpable buzz in the air. When he overhead two officers leaving the building say they had lost their dinners with that tale, Harry knew he was good to go.
On Sunday Harry went to Cricklewood. He took the trash, swept the first autumn leaves and got on a chair to change the lightbulbs at Mrs Adkin’s.
On Monday Harry got Aidan (who had never seen this side of Monday morning) and Toffee (who had been looking forward to any excuse not to take Clubs’ latest work) and they went to Tesco and cashed out Pit’s card. He sweetly explained to the cashier that they were doing a charity, so they got permission to take the shopping carts with them.
With deaf ears to Toffee’s complaints, who would rather have liked to get a console and new shoes, Harry took the loot back to the yard and distributed it with the same iron discipline of a pirate captain. Non-perishable food was actually quite affordable, and every kid got a couple packages of ramen, a can of soup and peaches in syrup.
Harry didn’t hold any high hopes. Most of them were going to eat them right away. But some would store it safely, for the bad days, and perhaps no one would ever be as desperate as Ratty had been.
That night, when Harry went to sleep, he could feel the snake receding in his chest.