CHAPTER 3: An Unexpected Meeting

In which Holly makes a new friend, figures out the exchange rate between pounds and Sickles, and gets lockpicking lessons.

The next day was bright and sunny. Uncle Vernon had decided to take the day off work, but not because the weather was nice. No, he’d announced at breakfast that he was going to spend the day clearing out the garden shed in preparation for Holly moving in there.

“Your aunt and I have been talking,” he told Holly. “We think — hm! — that it would be good for you to get out of the house a little more.”

Holly tried to look surprised at the announcement. It wouldn’t do to reveal that she had been listening in on their conversation last night. “Right!” she said. “Getting out of the house and into the garden shed.”

Uncle Vernon turned slightly red. “If you only knew how many girls would be grateful to get a garden shed all of their own —” he began in a threatening voice.

“Why can’t I have the shed?” Dudley protested. He had never shown any interest in the garden shed before; he tended to view any building without a fridge and a telly as a waste. But if Holly was going to get something, he wanted it. “I could make it into a clubhouse! I could start a secret club with Piers and Malcolm and Gordon and Dennis!”

“Not much of a secret, if you tell us about it first thing you think of it,” Holly couldn’t resist saying.

Dudley’s lower lip immediately started to tremble in an exaggerated way. “Muu-u-uum,” he whined. “Holly’s being mee-e-e-eean!”

His fake sobbing wouldn’t have fooled a two-year-old, but Aunt Petunia was immediately at his side. “Oh, Dudders, don’t cry! We won’t let that nasty girl be mean to you!” She shot Holly a look of pure loathing, and then she continued: “Just think, when she’s out in the shed she won’t be able to bother you anymore!”

“She won’t bother me if I get the shed,” Dudley sniffled.

“Oh, you don’t want that filthy old shed,” Aunt Petunia cooed. “Tell you what, sweetiekins, when Holly moves out to the shed, we’ll turn her bedroom into an extra room for you. We can make it your — your game room, move in the extra television and your video games, and you can play your games as much as you want! Wouldn’t that be a lot more fun?”

“I… suppose,” Dudley said with the expression of a martyr who has truly suffered. In reality, Holly could tell, he was quite pleased. As soon as Aunt Petunia looked another way he cheerfully stuck his tongue out at Holly, and then he raised himself and plodded off to the living room to watch television.

“Right,” said Uncle Vernon, jabbing a finger at Holly. “And I don’t want to see you out in the garden while I’m working!”

“Why not?” said Holly, and this time her surprise was real. She’d expected that he’d make her clean out the shed, or at least do most of the work. “Don’t you want my help?”

“Help?” Uncle Vernon repeated. “No thank you! You’ve done quite enough! I don’t want you anywhere near that shed until I’ve cleared everything out! Oh, and Petunia,” he added in an exaggeratedly casual tone. “Perhaps while I’m working, you can take the car and go pick up… those things we talked about yesterday. And if you have the time, maybe you can stop by the garden store and see if they have any good lawnmowers? I’ve been meaning to get rid of the old one for ages now… who owns a push reel mower these days?”

Holly wasn’t as gullible as Uncle Vernon thought. She could certainly guess that ‘those things’ Aunt Petunia was going to pick up would include a new padlock, or a code lock, for the cupboard. She hadn’t failed to notice, either, that the ‘old’ lawnmower was standing untouched by the shed at the very same spot it had stopped after yesterday’s inexplicable events.

As Uncle Vernon went out into the garden, and Dudley settled down by the telly to watch some inane program or other, Aunt Petunia went upstairs to ‘fix herself up a little’ before her trip into town. Before she set foot on the staircase, though, she turned to give Holly a stern look. “And don’t even think about trying to break into the cupboard while I’m gone and Vernon is working! I’m going to take the key to the padlock with me, just so you know!”

Holly’s heart sank. “Yes, Aunt Petunia.”

“In fact, why don’t you go for a walk. A long one. Vernon’s right, you need to get out of the house more.”

“Yes, Aunt Petunia.”

“But don’t go near Number Seven! And if those two — men — have some of their freak visitors over, you’re not to talk to any of them, understand?”

Holly thought about this as she put her shoes on and got ready for a walk around the block. Perhaps after Aunt Petunia had left, she could sneak back in and… no. She couldn’t open the padlock without the key.

She stepped out onto the porch and looked across the street to Number Seven. It lay completely still, with no sign of either Mr Dumbledore, Hagrid, or any freak visitors, but of course you never knew…

Number Seven was sort of the odd house out in Privet Drive, and a constant source of gossip among the neighbours.  Oh, the outside the house looked no different from the others. The same two-storey, yellow brick type of house, a with brown-tiled roof and a neat front yard. But the two men who lived there… Mr Dumbledore and Hagrid… they were a different case altogether.

The fact that they were two men living together was only seldom remarked upon. These weren’t the stone ages, after all, and a modern and enlightened society had to show some tolerance and accept that not everyone could help how they were born. It was more the fact that they were so odd.

Aunt Petunia’s friend Yvonne had once said that the men at Number Seven lived like bohemians. Holly could tell that she hadn’t meant it as a compliment.

Perhaps it was because Mr Dumbledore, who was otherwise polite and charming, wore his hair long and had an affinity for dressing like an “old hippie” with colourful and mismatched clothes… or perhaps it was because Hagrid, who had been born with some kind of gigantism and towered over everyone, refused to let anyone call him anything but “Hagrid” and drove a motorbike instead of a car… an oversized, probably custom-made monstrosity with a sidecar, with which he would occasionally “chauffeur” Mr Dumbledore.

And then of course there was the ‘freak visitors.’

They’d occasionally show up to visit Number Seven. Most of them were women — women of all kinds, both perfectly normal-looking ones, and some that… looked less normal. Some of them dressed so oddly that it made Mr Dumbledore’s dress sense seem conservative by comparison. Holly had seen women dressed up in leather corsets and tight trousers, and girls dressed in tunics that looked like they were stitched together by leaves. Dudley had sworn that one time he’d seen a stark-naked lady who had painted her skin blue enter Number Seven, but Holly didn’t believe that part.

Hang on. Holly couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of that before. Could the visitors be the ‘lesbian freaks’ that Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had talked about yesterday? They’d certainly fit the description of what the Dursleys would think of as ‘freaks.’ And maybe they were all lesbians!

Well… If so, Holly wouldn’t mind becoming one of them at all. Going around in strange and colourful clothes and visiting Mr Dumbledore sounded a lot more fun than being stuck at the Dursleys, being yelled at by Uncle Vernon, given chores by Aunt Petunia, and teased by Dudley.

Holly pretended to be a lesbian freak as she walked down the driveway, and down the street. She lived like a bohemian, whatever that was, and she walked around all day dressing like an old hippie. No, wait, in feathers. Yes, she would walk openly on the street wearing nothing but a suit of yellow feathers, so that she looked like a giant canary bird. Of course, on second thought yellow feathers might be impractical to wear, maybe they’d tickle… all right, something else then…

She’d at least make sure to wear a lot of outfits that bared her midriff, so that she could show off her scar, she thought. Of course, Aunt Petunia would have a fit about how it wasn’t “decent” to go showing your bare bellybutton to people just like that, but Holly was pretty certain that lesbian freaks didn’t care if it was decent or not. What was the point of a cool-looking scar if you couldn’t show it off sometimes, anyway?

She turned the corner into Magnolia Crescent and crossed it into Magnolia Road. To her relief, the play park was empty today… sometimes there would be other children there, but if they were very young they’d be accompanied by adults who might start asking Holly about her parents, and if they were around Holly’s age chances were good they were Dudley’s friends. Piers, Dennis, Malcolm and Gordon, who all nearly worshipped Dudley, never got tired of chasing her whenever they saw her, trying to steal her glasses or pull her pigtails or otherwise try to make her cry. She was usually too quick for them to catch her, but the play park was a lot nicer when they weren’t around.

Holly climbed over the fence and into the park. (The gate was open, of course, and she could have just walked in, but it was more fun this way.) She ran up to the swings and sat down on the nearest one, beginning to swing back and forth as her thoughts went back to what she might wear when and if she became a lesbian freak.

She was busy trying to decide whether she should wear a rainbow-coloured poncho with lots of pockets, or just a shocking pink business suit, when she happened to glance in the direction of the corner shop at the end of Wisteria Walk that instantly made her decide: Yes, something like that!

A little girl, who seemed to have come out of nowhere, was just heading towards the shop. She was perhaps Holly’s age, thin and wiry, with a mass of freckles, flaming red hair tied up in a rather messy ponytail, and her outfit was very much like that of the infamous lesbian freaks: A dark blue, thigh-length dress, with a yellow shoulder cape, and mismatched striped stockings in green, white and pink. Around her narrow waist was a white belt with a number of leather pouches fastened to it, and the outfit was completed by a pair of heavy black boots that were probably much too big for her unless she had really enormous feet.

Holly didn’t know who this girl was, but was absolutely certain she didn’t live around here… anyone who dressed like that would have been just as much a source of gossip as Mr Dumbledore and Hagrid. Probably she was one of their visitors or something.

Curiosity burning in her chest, Holly jumped off the swing, sailing several feel through the air before landing on the grass and hurrying over to the fence.

The girl had stopped outside the shop, peering in through the window. She seemed to be looking for something… apparently she found it, because she hurried over to the door, pushing it open and vanishing inside.

Holly waivered a little back and forth on what to do. She knew she was being nosey, and she knew Aunt Petunia had forbidden her from approaching any of Mr Dumbledore’s guests… but Aunt Petunia wasn’t here. Besides, she didn’t know for certain if this girl really was one of Mr Dumbledore’s guests.

After a bit of thought, she slid her hand down her skirt pocket. And just as she thought: She still had that two-pound coin left from the last time she had run an errand for Mr Dumbledore. It had been to this very shop, in fact; he’d asked her to buy a packet of chocolate biscuits for him and told her to keep the change.

Well, she had money, so why shouldn’t she decide to pay a visit to the shop? Maybe there was something she wanted to buy! She climbed over the fence again to exit the park and then crossed the street towards the shop.

As she peered in through the window, she could see the girl, in the middle of a lively discussion with the cashier.

Holly pushed open the door and entered the shop, just in time to hear her say: “—but they’re not fakes, I promise! I got them from my Dad!”

“I didn’t say I thought they were fakes,” the cashier sighed. She was a young woman Holly didn’t know, but who looked rather tired and not in the mood to argue with girls in shoulder capes. “I said I couldn’t accept these coins.” She handed four shiny silver coins back to the girl. “I don’t even know the currency.”

“I’m dead certain it’s enough for a Mars bar,” said the girl. “But I’m in a hurry, have to get back to my family! We’re just here to visit someone, you see… Couldn’t you just…?”

“Sorry, luv,” said the cashier, turning her head to look at Holly. “And how can I help you?”

“Er… just looking,” said Holly. “I have money!” she added, a little defensively, as the cashier gave her a suspicious look.

“Wouldn’t bother if I were you,” said the red-haired girl, who had also turned to look at Holly. “Apparently this shop doesn’t take money.”

“We take money, we just don’t take foreign money,” the cashier protested. “You’ll have to exchange those for British pounds. What country even uses Sickles as currency?”

The red-haired girl just shook her head so her red ponytail swished from side to side. “Never mind,” she said, clutching the four coins in her hand. “I just wanted a Mars bar. I’ve never actually had one.”

“You never had a Mars Bar?” said Holly, surprised.

The girl shook her head again. “My sister Elaine had one last year, and she won’t shut up about how good it was, so I just wanted to grab the opportunity while we were here… But, never mind,” she repeated with a sigh. “It was a stupid idea anyway. My money’s no good and I don’t know where to exchange it…”

Holly made up her mind then and there. “Right here!” she said, pulling the two-pound coin out of her skirt pocket. “Not quite sure about the going rate, but I have two pounds here. If you give me two, er, Sickles for it, you’ll have enough for two Mars bars!”

“Really?” The girl’s blue eyes widened in astonishment. “That’d be great! But… is that all right?” She looked at the cashier, as if afraid she’d be told that this was somehow against the rules.

“As long as you pay me in actual pounds and pence, I don’t care,” said the cashier dryly.

Less than a minute later, Holly and the girl could walk out of the shop; the girl with two Mars bars and Holly with not two but three silver coins in her skirt pocket.

“I’m going to save these until tonight, and I’m going to share them with all my sisters!” The girl was beaming as she slipped both chocolates down into one of her belt pouches. “At least with Nella and Ginny. Maybe Maryssa and Lydia, if they’re good. Oh, and I suppose Fred and George. Elaine only gets a piece if she asks really nicely.” She patted the belt pouch with a soft little hand, and then did something completely unexpected: She turned towards Holly and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you so much!” she said.

Holly, who wasn’t used to this kind of affectionate thank-you, involuntarily raised her hand to her cheek to touch where the girl had kissed her. “Er… you’re welcome,” she said. And then, to feel a little less awkward, she asked: “How many sisters do you have, anyway?”

“Eleven,” said the girl. It was hard to tell whether or not she considered this a good thing or a bad thing.

“Eleven…?!” Holly began. She couldn’t even imagine having that many sisters. (Or even one sister, instead of just a lousy snitch of a cousin.)

“Yeah, it’s a lot, I know,” said the girl. “I have seven older sisters, four younger sisters.”

Holly opened her mouth to comment on this, but then thought better of it. “You might have some trouble sharing two Mars bars between eleven people,” was all she said.

“Twelve,” said the girl. “I want a piece too. Don’t worry, I’ll manage, I know how to make sweets last. I’ll just split each one into six parts and then — Oh, by the way, I’m Ronnie!” she said, as if suddenly remembering she hadn’t introduced herself. “Well, I’m really Veronica, but everybody calls me Ronnie. Ronnie Weasley, of the Prewett line!”

“Hello, Ronnie, I’m Holly,” said Holly. “Holly Potter. Of the… Privet Drive.”

“Go on! Are you really?!” Ronnie’s blue eyes widened in excitement. “My sisters are never going to believe this! I knew you couldn’t be a Muggle, of course, but I didn’t know you were you!”

“Er,” said Holly again. This wasn’t making any sense at all. “Who would I be if I wasn’t me?”

“I don’t know! For all I knew, your name could have been… Harriett, or Aurelia, or Rosalind, or something!” Ronnie giggled. “Should have known it was you. Everybody knows you live around here! So, you went off to live with a family of Muggles! What’s that like?”

Holly was more confused than ever. This was the second time the other girl had used the word ‘Muggle,’ and Holly had no idea who that was supposed to be. “I… live with a family called Dursley,” she offered. “I don’t know anyone named Muggle.”

Ronnie shook her head. “No, no, no, Muggles,” she repeated. “You know, people who…” (and here she lowered her voice to a whisper.) “People who aren’t like us.”

“You mean…” Holly wasn’t certain how to proceed. She wanted to ask if the girl was a lesbian, but somehow that seemed silly. Especially after that kiss. “You mean… people who don’t visit Mr Dumbledore?” she hazarded.

“Exactly!” said Ronnie. “That’s why we’re here in Little Whinging. Dumbledore’s helping my sister Fred with — er — I’m not actually supposed to talk about that.” She giggled nervously and turned a little pink.

“Your sister’s name is Fred?” said Holly. “Isn’t that a boy’s name?”

“Yeah, that’s… one of the things I’m not supposed to talk about.” Ronnie’s pink shade turned a little brighter. “Look, you did me a good turn, so I’d like to return the favour. Isn’t there anything I can do for you?”

“I don’t think —” Holly began, but then hesitated. Ronnie seemed really sincere, and once more the thought about the cupboard under the stairs was there. “That is,” she said, slowly and without much hope, “I don’t think so. Unless you know how to open a padlock without a key.”

Unexpectedly, Ronnie laughed. “A padlock?” she repeated. “What, just a normal padlock? That’s easy!”

“It is?” Holly felt a surge of hope.

Ronnie nodded and leaned in close. “I’m not supposed to talk about these things, at least not out in the open,” she said. “But since it’s you… my sisters taught me the trick. What you do is you take the padlock, and you blow on it three times.”

Holly stared at her. “And then what?”

“And then it’ll open! I swear, it works. You just have to believe that it will!”

Holly was about to say that this was nonsense, but Ronnie looked so earnest that she didn’t have the heart. Besides… her thoughts went back to the lawnmower incident yesterday. In a world where a lawnmower could decide to move on its own, maybe a padlock could decide to open just because you blew on it? Maybe lesbians could do things like that. If Holly was turning into one anyway…

“I suppose I could give it a try,” she said.

“It’ll work,” Ronnie promised. “Come on, I should probably get back to the family…. Er, you know where Dumbledore lives, right? I’m not sure I do.”

Holly led the way back to Number Seven.  While they walked, she told Ronnie about the cupboard under the stairs, and the feeling that something wonderful was in there, but her aunt and uncle kept pretending that there was nothing there.

Ronnie wholeheartedly agreed that something important had to be in the cupboard, but had no idea what.

“My cousin said he thought it was a treasure,” said Holly. “Gold and diamonds. But I’m pretty sure he was making it up.”

“You’re right there,” said Ronnie. “Gold and diamonds don’t call out for you to come get them. Well, gold doesn’t. I’ve never actually seen any diamonds, but I don’t think they do either.” She shook her head, making her red ponytail sweep from side to side. “Nah — whatever is in that cupboard, must be magic.”

“Magic?” Holly’s heart skipped a beat. She still remembered Aunt Petunia’s harsh insistence that there was no such thing as magic.

“Yeah, must be, mustn’t it?” Ronnie didn’t seem to have noticed Holly’s reaction; her tone of voice suggested that she took it for granted that everyone knew that magic existed.  “Question’s just what kind of magic.”

Holly was about to ask how many kinds of magic there were, and how she might tell them apart, when they rounded a corner, Number Seven came into view, and she saw the huge number of people gathered by the entrance door.

She could at once see that they had to be Ronnie’s family, since most of them had red hair and all of them were wearing the same kind of eccentric clothing as she was… but how many they were! There had to be something like twenty people there, crowding the street outside Number Seven, most of them talking at once. Like almost all of the visitors that came to Number Seven, this crowd was made up of women and girls, though this time Holly could plainly see that there was one man with them; a tall, thin one with glasses and thinning red hair, dressed in a brown tunic-like outfit.

“All right, everyone, let’s not panic,” he was saying. “Who saw her last?”

“I did!” piped up one of the smaller girls, a tiny redhead wearing the same kind of outfit that Ronnie was, only her dress and shoulder-cape were green instead of blue, and her legs were bare.

“When did you see her, Ginny?” said the man.

“Right now!” said the little girl, whose name was apparently Ginny, and pointed eagerly towards Holly and Ronnie. “She’s over there!”

“Oops,” said Ronnie. “Isn’t that always the way. Nobody notices you when you are there, but when you aren’t there, everybody notices.”

The family started to call her name. “Ronnie!” — “Ronnie, over here!” — “Veronica Weasley, you get your arse over here right now!”

“Better get back to the family.” Ronnie sounded annoyed, embarrassed and pleased all at once. And then, just as unexpectedly as the kiss, she wrapped her arms around Holly and gave her a quick hug.  “It was great to meet you! Hey — if I don’t see you before we’re eleven, would it be all right if I looked for you, you know, on the train?”

Yes!” said Holly, almost automatically. That was the first time she could remember anyone having hugged her. “I mean… what train?”

“The Hogwarts Express, of course!” Ronnie giggled. “I’ve got to run! Good luck with the padlock!” And with that, she sprinted over to the crowd.

Holly wanted to call after her and ask what the Hogwarts Express was, but decided against it. Something told her she would find out sooner or later. She decided to go back a little way so as not to disturb the family reunion, and cast a last lingering glance at Ronnie, now in the middle of the crowd.

“What did we say about wandering off on your own?” said one of the women.

“Did we say we liked it and wanted me to do it all the time?” came Ronnie’s voice, as the last thing Holly heard before she rounded the corner again.

She stopped and leaned against the brick wall, letting out a huge breath. That had, without question, been the weirdest meeting she had ever had with anyone…. But it had definitely also been the nicest. Even though Ronnie had been extremely confusing, Holly had liked her very much. And she thought Ronnie had liked her as well. Whatever this Hogwarts Express was, and however Holly was to find it, she couldn’t wait to meet the girl again there.

But first… Holly glanced at her watch. It was an old and battered watch that constantly needed to be set, but if it showed the right time, Aunt Petunia had only been gone for slightly less than two hours. Holly knew her family well enough to know that Aunt Petunia wouldn’t be back home for at least two more hours, and Dudley would remain in front of the telly, deaf and blind to everything, until she came back home to make lunch. The one wild card in this was Uncle Vernon, but with any luck he’d still be busy with the shed… she’d have to take the chance.

It was time to see if Ronnie’s padlock trick worked.

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