In which Holly finds a new way to mow the lawn, and Aunt Petunia makes good on an old threat.
“Mum!” Dudley cried. “Mum, come look! Look who’s trying to break into the cupboard again!”
Holly gave a huge start and let go of the padlock, which smacked against the cupboard door. The key fell out of her hand and landed soundlessly on the carpet.
Because there in the doorway, glowering at her with the rage and fury of an avenging angel having spotted a particularly nasty sinner, was Aunt Petunia.
“HOLLY POTTER!” she screeched, her voice even more shrill than usual.
“I can explain —” Holly began, and knew that she couldn’t. Why had she ever listened to Dudley in the first place?
Aunt Petunia grabbed her hard by the shoulders and pulled her away from the cupboard door. “You little sneak! How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t want you snooping around that cupboard?! And now I find you’ve stolen the key to it?!”
“I — that is, I was just —” Holly tried.
“Look at me!” Aunt Petunia shook her. Not very hard, but hard enough that it was uncomfortable. “There is nothing in that cupboard that has anything to do with you!” she said firmly. “Understand?”
“Yes, Aunt Petunia!”
“Th-there is nothing in that cupboard that has anything to do with me!”
“Good.” Aunt Petunia let go. Before Holly could do anything, she crouched down and snatched the key from the floor. “I’ll just take this and find a better hiding place for it.”
Holly cringed on the inside when she saw the key vanish down into Aunt Petunia’s pocket. She had been so close — so close to finally getting into the cupboard under the stairs.
“I told her you didn’t want her near the cupboard,” said Dudley sanctimoniously. “I warned her that unless she backed off and put the key back, I’d tell you. But she never listens to me! I had to call for you!”
“And it was the right thing to do, poppet!” Aunt Petunia turned around and gave him a hug. Her tone always changed so completely when she spoke to Dudley that it was like hearing a different woman. “I am so proud of you. Whatever would I do without you keeping an eye on that cousin of yours?”
Holly looked away, so she wouldn’t see Dudley’s smug face. That traitor. He’d been the one who’d stolen the key from Aunt Petunia’s dresser, and who had given it to Holly. He’d been the one who had encouraged her, downright dared her to open the cupboard.
“Bet there’s treasure in there!” he’d said. “Gold and diamonds! Go on, I’ll stand guard!”
And like an idiot, she’d taken the bait. She’d thought he’d actually decided to be nice to her for once. She really should have known that it was only another one of his plans to get her into trouble with Aunt Petunia.
But the thought of finally getting to see what was inside the cupboard under the stairs had overridden her common sense for a while.
For as long as Holly Potter could remember, she had been… drawn to the cupboard under the stairs. Like there was some strange connection between her and it that she couldn’t quite understand.
On the surface, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the cupboard. It looked like a completely normal storage cupboard of the kind you found in all the houses of Privet Drive; the kind of cupboard where people stored umbrellas and winter shoes and things like that.
But Holly had always known there was more to the cupboard than met the eye. Not just because Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were so desperate to keep her away from it that they kept it locked at all times, with a big and heavy padlock, and forbade her and Dudley from even going near it… although that was a pretty big clue in and of itself.
No… Holly just knew it, deep in her soul, that there was something very special about that cupboard. Something that, despite what Aunt Petunia said, very much had to do with her. She had no idea what it was. But she knew, as surely as she knew that sickness was bad and water was wet, that beyond that padlocked door was something wonderful. Something that would change her entire life if she just found out what it was.
But it didn’t look like her life would change today.
Aunt Petunia had finished fawning over Dudley and turned back towards Holly. Her face was hard and sharp again; not a drop left of the sweetness and love she’d so generously poured over her son.
“As for you,” she said. “You just wait until Vernon gets home. For now, you march out in the garden and mow the lawn! That should keep you out of mischief!”
“But…!” For a moment, Holly considered telling Aunt Petunia that Dudley had been the one to steal the key, but she decided against it. Aunt Petunia wouldn’t believe a word of it anyway. She instead cast a glance towards the window, where heavy raindrops were still rushing down. “Aunt Petunia, it’s raining!” she said. “I can’t mow the lawn in the rain!”
“You should have thought of that before you decided to get into steal that key,” said Aunt Petunia mercilessly. “And if I catch you so much as looking at that cupboard again, or if you try any more funny business, I’ll tan your hide but good. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Aunt Petunia, but…”
“I don’t want to hear it!”
“But can’t I mow the lawn later, when it isn’t raining?” Holly pleaded.
“Listen here, young lady!” Aunt Petunia hissed. “Either you put on your raincoat right now and go out in the garden to mow the lawn, or I lock you out in the garden without your raincoat. The choice is yours!”
Holly gave up and reluctantly went to grab her raincoat from the hanger on the wall. That last threat had seemed real in a way that the two others had not.
The threat of a spanking was nothing. Aunt Petunia was always threatening to give Holly a good spanking, but she never actually did it. It was always ‘next time I’ll do it, see if I don’t,’ but so far ‘next time’ had never come.
As for waiting until Vernon got home… Holly knew exactly how that would go. Uncle Vernon would turn red in the face and shout at her for a few minutes, and then he’d send her to bed without supper. Holly was used to this, and had long since made certain to keep a secret stash of snacks in her room, “liberated” from the kitchen, or secretly bought for money she had earned by running errands for Mr-Dumbledore-Across-the-Street. Biscuits, raisins, cereal bars, chocolates. Not a full substitute for a complete dinner, but it was food that kept for a while, was easy to hide, and was infinitely better than having to go to sleep on an empty stomach.
But being kicked out into the rain without a raincoat? That sounded a little too much like something her aunt actually would do to her.
“And don’t you dare come back in before you’re done!” said Aunt Petunia. And then, like a regular Doctor-Jekyll-and-Mrs-Hyde, she was all smiles and sweetness again when she spoke to Dudley: “Come on, Dudders, I think you deserve a little reward. Let’s see if there’s any of that cake left…”
It was the same as always, Holly thought as she slipped on her raincoat and walked up to the garden door. Dudley could do no wrong in Aunt Petunia’s eyes; no matter what he said or did he got praise and rewards. While Holly got scoldings and extra chores.
But of course, Dudley was her son, while Holly was only her niece — a miserable orphan that she and Uncle Vernon had been forced to take care of after her irresponsible, good-for-nothing parents had got themselves killed in a car crash.
Which was why Holly Potter had, for almost seven years now, lived with the Dursley family, here at Number Four, Privet Drive. It was a perfectly normal house in a perfectly normal street on the outskirts of a perfectly normal town called Little Whinging, Surrey. The only thing about Number Four that wasn’t perfectly normal (at least according to Aunt Petunia) was Holly herself, and this was all down to those deadbeat parents of hers.
Holly had heard the story a thousand times. She’d only been a year old when her parents died in that car crash, and so of course Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had done their Duty (Aunt Petunia always pronounced the word with a capital D) and taken her in, even though they already had a son, and had treated her much better than she deserved.
They’d made sure she had enough to eat… when she wasn’t being punished for something and had to go hungry to bed, while Dudley ate her portion. They’d seen to it that she had proper clothes… bought second-hand at thrift shops and flea-markets, while Dudley got the newest and most expensive clothes. They’d given her her own room… which doubled as a storage room for Dudley’s broken toys.
All the while telling her how much they were sacrificing for her and how ungrateful she was.
The rain was pouring down from the sky, and her boots made wet sloshing sounds against the soaked grass as she trudged through the garden, over to the shed where the lawnmower was kept.
She stopped very briefly outside the shed, having caught the sight of her own faded reflection in the window.
She was a miserable sight. Nearly eight years old, but she looked younger with her tiny frame, her much-too-big raincoat, her bright pink skirt, and her huge round glasses, which were threatening to fog up because of the rain.
There was really really only one thing she liked about her appearance, and that was her hair. It was long, silky and coal-black, and somehow it nearly always looked good. Other girls she knew, particularly older ones, sometimes complained about “bad hair days,” but Holly never had one of those. Even if she neglected to wash or brush her hair for days at a time, it still looked great and was very easy to manage. Usually she kept it in two long braids, because that felt more practical and she liked the look. (She knew she’d inherited the hair from her father; about the only thing she knew about her father was that he had black hair… since none of the Dursleys had black hair, that just made Holly appreciate it even more.)
There was another thing she kind of liked about her appearance too, but it wasn’t really something she could show people: On her stomach, just above her belly-button, she had a scar.
Not a normal, boring, everyday scar from an operation or something, like the appendix scar Mindy Robertson at school would brag about. No, this was a cool scar. It was shaped exactly like a bolt of lightning, and according to Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon she’d got it in the very same car crash that killed her parents. A sign of how lucky she was, they’d said; whatever shrapnel of glass shard had hit her should have cut her open and killed her. Or at least left her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. But she’d escaped only with that small scar.
Sometimes, late at night, she’d let her fingers trace the scar and try to think back, if she could remember anything from the crash; the sounds, the confusion, the pain she must have felt… but she never remembered a single thing.
At this point, though, Holly had to stop trying to look at herself in the window because now the raindrops were running down the inside of her glasses. She took them off and tried to wipe them on her shirt underneath her raincoat, but that only turned out to make things even more foggy. In the end, she gave up and slipped the glasses into her raincoat pocket. She wasn’t blind, after all, she could manage to get around without her glasses even if details were a little blurry.
For a moment she toyed with the idea of just crawling into the shed and waiting out the rain instead of starting the hopeless task of mowing the lawn while it was still pouring, but she decided against it. Aunt Petunia would probably look out every now and again to make certain she was actually working.
The lawnmower had of course been stowed away behind rakes and brooms and shovels, but after a few minutes’ hard work, Holly managed to haul it out into the rain. It was a rather big and clunky reel mower that Uncle Vernon had bought a few years ago because he’d heard that manual lawnmowers were healthier for the grass than motorized ones. And if they demanded a bit of extra labour, that wasn’t his problem; he wasn’t going to mow the lawn when he had Holly to do it for him.
Holly dragged the lawnmower along to the end of the garden, and then set out to mowing.
She hadn’t thought the job would be pleasant, but it turned out to be impossible. The rain was pouring down even harder, and the lawnmower was uncooperative on the wet grass, which clumped and clogged up the blades, causing the lawnmower to either stop completely, or suddenly lock up its wheel and slide forward and Holly to slip and nearly fall.
She really did try her best. She clenched her teeth and pushed on, stopping three times to pull clogged wet grass off the rotary, all the while the rain was coming down like someone up there had decided to unleash an entire year’s worth of rain in one single afternoon.
Then, for the fourth time, the lawnmower stopped and the rotary refused to spin. The uncooperative device suddenly slid on the grass, and so did Holly; for a split second she was thrusting her arms out and trying to regain her balance, the next she was lying flat on her stomach in the wet grass. The rain pouring over her and the grass soaking her skirt and her underwear, which clung to her skin in the most uncomfortable way…
She had no idea how it had happened. Something inside her just felt like it exploded; something hot inside her chest that burst out through her body. It felt almost like being on fire… but weirdly, not in a bad way.
The lawnmower suddenly sprang to life. It began moving on its own, and moving fast. The rotary was suddenly free and spinning again, and the lawnmower raced down the lawn, cutting the wet grass like it was nothing.
Holly sat up on her knees and watched in astonishment. The lawnmower was speeding up and down the lawn, all on its own, leaving strips of perfectly-mowed grass in its wake. It was like it had suddenly decided to become the world’s most effective automatic lawnmower; wet grass and pouring rain be damned.
The feeling of being on fire faded, and the lawnmower slowed down, stopping over by the shed; just a couple of feet shy of having mowed the entire lawn. The entire thing had taken perhaps half a minute.
Holly stared. She fished her still-wet glasses back out of her pocket (luckily they hadn’t broken in the fall!) and placed them back onto her nose, just in case this would reveal that she had somehow mis-seen what had happened the last thirty seconds.
But then, someone was grabbing her by the arm and hauling her up to her feet. She turned to stare into the face of Aunt Petunia, who in the pouring rain looked pale as a sheet and looking like she didn’t know whether she should explode in anger or run away in terror.
“What,” she demanded in a high-pitched and shaky voice, “did you just do?”
“Nothing!” Holly said, which was certainly true.
Aunt Petunia let out a small choked noise of what sounded like indignation before she hauled Holly off the ground and dragged her inside. She was so upset and angry that she didn’t even care that they were both tracking in mud and wet grass clippings onto the floor, not to mention dripping rainwater everywhere.
Dudley was standing there with cake-crumbs on his shirt and an astonished expression on his face. Clearly seeing his mother this careless with the nice clean floor was a bit upsetting. “Mum!” he said. “What’s going on?”
“Dudley.” Aunt Petunia was breathing heavily. She was still holding Holly’s arm in a firm grip. “Go to your room! I want to have a talk with your cousin!”
“But Mum,” Dudley protested. “I want —”
“Go to your room now,” Aunt Petunia snapped, with a harshness she usually never displayed to her son, “or I won’t buy you that video game you wanted!”
Whether it was the threat or the tone of voice that convinced Dudley that she meant business, was hard to say. But Dudley did get the message, because he was out of the room in a flash, leaving only a few cake-crumbs on the floor as they heard his hurried steps up the stairs.
“Aunt Petunia,” said Holly, trying to wiggle out of her aunt’s grip. “I didn’t do anything! The lawnmower did it all by itself!” Even in her confusion, she could hear just how stupid this sounded.
Aunt Petunia clearly thought so too. “Don’t you lie to me!” she snapped. “You did that on purpose!”
“I didn’t!” Holly tried again. “I don’t know what happened! I fell over, and the lawnmower started moving on its own! It was like magic!”
If Aunt Petunia had been pale before, she now became white as a piece of chalk. “There is no such thing as magic!” she hissed. Then, she took Holly by the raincoat and pulled her backwards, towards the couch. “I warned you what I would do if you got up to anything, didn’t I?!”
“What? No!” Holly gasped when she realized what was about to happen. This was wrong; Aunt Petunia was just supposed to threaten with a spanking, not to actually do it. “Please, Aunt Petunia, I didn’t — ah!”
Aunt Petunia tore off her raincoat and flung it aside with an uncharacteristic lack of concern about keeping the floor tidy. Holly struggled to escape, but Aunt Petunia was stronger than her. Though she fought and wriggled and bucked all she could, she found herself pulled down over her aunt’s knee, with her wet, grass-stained skirt pulled up over her head. She yelped a protest of fear and embarrassment as her soaking-wet underpants were yanked down to her ankles, but no amount of struggling seemed to help.
“I should have done this years ago!” Aunt Petunia raised her hand to lay down the first smack on Holly’s bare bottom.
The doorbell rang.
Aunt Petunia froze. Her hand stopped in mid-air before the first swat could land.
The doorbell rang again, now accompanied by a polite, but insistent knock.
Finally, with a sound that might have been frustration, Aunt Petunia moved. She pulled Holly back up to her feet, letting her skirt fall down and cover her up again. Then she stood up and gave Holly an angry look. “Stay there! Don’t you dare move a muscle!” she ordered, before hurrying out to the hallway to answer the door.
Holly stood, stiff as a pole. Her knickers were lying in a soggy heap around her ankles, but she didn’t dare move to pull them back up. Her heart was beating furiously in her chest after the narrow, if temporary, escape.
She heard her aunt open the door, and then a familiar, friendly-sounding voice sounded: “Good afternoon, Mrs Dursley! Always a pleasure!”
“Oh.” Aunt Petunia sounded anything but pleased. “How do you do, Mr Dumbledore.”
Holly couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. Mr Dumbledore was one their nearest, and certainly friendliest, neighbours; a kindly man who lived at Number-Seven-Across-The-Street with his housemate Hagrid, and who unlike most of the inhabitants of Privet Drive, always had a smile and a friendly word for Holly.
“Dreadful weather we’re having, isn’t it?” said Mr Dumbledore. “Speaking of which, you look quite soaked. Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine, thank you.” Holly could hear Aunt Petunia’s voice raise slightly in pitch, as it always did when other adults asked her questions she really didn’t want to answer. “What can I do for you, Mr Dumbledore?”
“Oh, I just stopped by on my way home to return the book I borrowed from your husband last week,” said Mr Dumbledore.
“Nicholas Nickleby?” Aunt Petunia had clearly accepted the book from him; she sounded somewhat taken aback with the idea that Uncle Vernon would ever have lent a book to Mr Dumbledore.
“”Quite an interesting read,” said Mr Dumbledore. “Charles Dickens was a masterful storyteller. Though the way he describes the abuse heaped on children certainly makes you glad that we have child protection laws in this day and age.”
“Yes.” Aunt Petunia somehow managed to keep her voice under control. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr Dumbledore, I’m in the middle of something.”
“Oh, please, don’t let me intrude,” said Mr Dumbledore cheerfully. “I just wanted to deliver the book. Do give your husband my regards, Oh, and say hello to the children as well. I do hope they aren’t outside in this rain… it would be a shame if they caught a cold, now that summer is here.”
“Indeed, Mr Dumbledore.” It was all too easy to imagine the frozen, insincere smile on Aunt Petunia’s face.
The door clicked shut.
Moments later, Aunt Petunia came back into the living room, carrying an old copy of Nicholas Nickleby and looking rather taken aback. She seemed to have momentarily forgotten that Holly was there; at least when she lay eyes on the girl still standing there with her knickers around her ankles, she gave a slight start. But then she was glaring at her with the old familiar resentment. “Don’t just stand there, you stupid girl,” she snapped. “Go to your room and get out of those wet clothes! Now!”
Holly tried to hide her relief at having escaped the spanking. Quick as she could, she pulled her knickers back up and set out for the stairs and her room before Aunt Petunia could change her mind.
“And stay in your room for the rest of the day!” Aunt Petunia called after her. “I don’t want to see you downstairs at all until tomorrow, is that clear?”
“Yes, Aunt Petunia!” Holly called back. All in all, she’d been lucky. It did mean no dinner, but she’d just have to dig into her secret food stash a little.
Besides, being confined to her room was just what she needed right now. She certainly had a lot to think about.
What had happened with that lawnmower? And why had she felt so weird when it happened?
That evening, Holly was sitting in her nightdress (a much-too-big pink one that was really made for a twelve-year-old, but had been half-price at the shop), halfway down the stairs. She knew from years of experience that this was a perfect place for catching the voices from the living room. Of course she also knew that it wasn’t nice to listen in on other people’s conversations… but then, how else would she ever get to know anything, especially when the other people were talking about her?
Because while Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon usually liked to pretend she wasn’t there whenever they weren’t yelling at her, or telling her how ungrateful she was, or giving her extra chores, now they were definitely talking about her.
They were trying to talk in hushed voices, but this was not Uncle Vernon’s strong suit. His voice was naturally loud, and would frequently raise to a shout whenever he got excited or angry… which he very often did. (Holly knew that he was the director of a firm called Grunnings, and that his job mainly consisted of yelling at people, so it was probably a habit at this point.)
So she had no problem hearing him, even as he tried keeping his voice down, when exclaiming: ” — but I never lent that ruddy poofter any books!”
“Of course you didn’t, Vernon, but that’s not the point!” Aunt Petunia’s voice was harder to make out, but Holly had sharp hearing and didn’t have too many problems. “He knew! I was finally going to give the girl the spanking she’s had coming to her for years… and he knew! Why else would he have talked about child abuse?”
“What’s the world coming to, when honest, decent people can’t discipline their children how they see fit, without those kinds of people poking their noses into everything!” Uncle Vernon grouched. “I knew that man was going to be trouble the moment I laid eyes on him! The neighbourhood has gone completely to the dogs since he and that big, hairy fairy of his moved in! And it’s all down to that ruddy girl! She’s the only reason they’re even here!”
Holly frowned in indignation. She was used to Uncle Vernon blaming her for things that weren’t her fault, but it seemed pretty unfair of him to blame her for Mr Dumbledore and Hagrid moving to Privet Drive. They’d lived at Number Seven for as long as she could remember, anyway.
Uncle Vernon’s tone did soften a little as he went on: “And you’re certain that you saw…?”
“The lawnmower was moving on its own! The girl denied having anything to do with it, but of course it was her! And it was only just after she’d tried to break into the cupboard again, too!”
“Petunia,” said Uncle Vernon firmly. “You know I will support you in everything, and I never said a word when we had to take in your sister’s brat, but I am putting my foot down here and now. If this continues, she is out!”
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Aunt Petunia protested. “But we can’t just get rid of her! What would the neighbours say? No — if we can just keep her from the cupboard, we still have a chance that it’ll go away… there’s still a chance she won’t turn into one of those… those lesbian freaks!”
Now, Holly blinked, leaning against the railway. Aunt Petunia’s voice had been going softer and harder to make out, but she could have sworn her aunt had said ‘lesbian freaks.’
“Open your eyes, Pet! She’s been one of those freaks since the day she was born,” Uncle Vernon shouted. “No matter what we do, she’s going to grow up to become one of them! The lawnmower just confirms it! And,” he added as he thought of another argument, “have you thought about Dudley in all this? What might she do to him?”
“Perhaps we could… move her into the shed,” said Aunt Petunia helplessly. “If we cleared out the gardening tools, we could move her bed in there, and she’d be away from Dudley…. And we could put some extra padlocks on the cupboard, to keep her from breaking in…”
“And that’s another thing!” Uncle Vernon was clearly getting worked up. “I’m sick of keeping that… that thing in our cupboard! It’s calling out to her somehow! She’s not going to give up until she gets her grabby little hands on it! I say we make one more attempt to get rid of it!”
“No!” Aunt Petunia shrieked, and then got control over her voice again. “No, Vernon. You know it won’t do any good. We can’t destroy it, and we can’t throw it away. Remember? Even that time we tried to throw it into the sea, it came back! And now the girl is old enough to know what’s going on… no. It stays in the cupboard. At least that way we know where it is.”
Uncle Vernon made a noise like “harrumph,” but he didn’t protest. Instead, after a long pause, he said, in a defeated voice: “I’ll see about getting another padlock. Or maybe one of those electronic code locks. And perhaps you’re right, perhaps it would be an idea to move her into the shed…”
“We wouldn’t have to have her in the house as much,” said Aunt Petunia. “She could come in for meals or to use the toilet, and to do her chores… and then the rest of the time she’d be out of our hair! If we locked the garden door at night, that would keep her from sneaking in and trying to get to the cupboard while we were asleep!”
“You’re right!” Uncle Vernon seemed to cheer up considerably. “And if we put an electric heater in the shed during the winter, not even that ruddy Dumbledore could complain about child abuse! Children like having their own playhouses, don’t they? Even lesbian freak children…”
When Holly slinked back to her bed, she felt more confused than ever.
She wasn’t too concerned about the prospect of living in the shed. Sure, the shed was smaller than her current room, but there’d be room for her bed and her dresser, and her few sparse belongings, and she’d get to be by herself a lot more. If she stayed in the shed she could even pretend that she didn’t live with the Dursleys at all, but a child living on her own like in the storybooks. It might make her subtle kitchen raids a little more difficult… but she was certain she could manage that.
The rest of her aunt and uncle’s conversation had just raised more questions than it answered.
Had Mister Dumbledore really known that Holly was about to be spanked? If so, how could he possibly have known? And what had Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon meant by ‘lesbian freaks’? She knew about homosexuality, of course; everybody at Privet Drive knew about Mister Dumbledore and Hagrid, and some of the late-night television shows that the Dursleys didn’t want to let her watch would occasionally feature women who liked to kiss other women instead of men (an idea which seemed quite sensible to her; boys were gross!) …but nobody had ever said anything about lesbians having the power to make lawnmowers move on their own. And then there was the mysterious talk about the item that was hidden in the cupboard…
As Holly settled down in her bed and closed her eyes to go to sleep, she knew one thing: Even if she was going to get herself into even more trouble doing it, she was going to find out what was in the cupboard under the stairs.