Chapter 5: In Which we have communications with Next Door
As I have mentioned in earlier pages of these memoirs, Number 17 was the smallest house on Cherry Tree Lane. Obviously, in our own world, exterior size is nothing to judge by. But in the muggle world, what you see on the outside is what you get on the inside – excluding, of course, the cellar. This simple situation was exaggerated for Number 17 by the size of the house Next Door.
I capitalise, because that was how everyone at Number 17, from Mr Banks himself down to Ellen the troll-like housemaid, spoke of it: Next Door. It was certainly a house to merit special attention, but I do not think the hushed and almost reverential tones in which these two words were spoken were at all justified. Next Door was the largest house on Cherry Tree Lane – a size achieved by cramming in every architectural frill and furbelow known to muggle architects, stopping just short of the ship's funnels and flagstaff of Admiral Boom's house. It had bay windows and balconies and porticoes and pillars, but despite all these efforts, its crowning glory in the eyes of the adult muggle inhabitants of Cherry Tree Lane was that it had two gates. One was for friends and relations, the other for the Butcher and the Baker and the milkmen and Other Tradesmen. (Muggles, of course, are unable to have such staples of life as bread and milk delivered by morning Portkey.)
Mrs Banks used to look longingly at those gates each time she passed. I do not think it was simply that those were painted, when her own was not, for it never seemed to occur to her, at least not as a definite idea, that the gate at Number 17 needed painting. Admiral Boom went so far as to verbalise his jealousy: "Blast my gizzard! What does she want with a house like that?"
By 'she,' he meant Miss Lane, the owner of Next Door. I regret to be uncharitable, but you would have known it at the least glance. Just as Mrs Banks was, like her house, small, faded, once sweetly pretty and now in need of a new coat of paint; so Miss Lane was, like her house, of considerable size, achieved by cramming on every architectural frill and furbelow known to muggle dressmakers. She did not go so far as to affect a stuffed vulture on her hat, as is popular with so many witches over 'a certain age' in our own world, but only, I am sure, because she had not thought of it.
She wore instead what had once been the muggle equivalent: a highly frilled, be-ribboned and otherwise over-ornamented turban cap, complete with long, trailing streamers at the back. They had once, I believe, been fashionable among muggles – the sort of regrettable fashion like the lace-cuffed robes for wizards which were briefly and inordinately popular at the turn of the previous century. The 'craze,' to borrow a slangy, modern, but accurate phrase, soon passed, and most sensible people, by the time of my Great Adventure, had settled down to forgetting such things were ever created. A few souls continued to affect them in the vain belief it was becoming to them – and such was Miss Lark.
One always knew when Miss Lark was coming along the road – indeed, at Number 17 one always knew when Miss Lark was opening her front door or stepping out into her garden – for she ornamented herself even further with large brooches and necklaces and earrings, to the point where she jingled and jangled with every step. Jane and Michael described it as sounding like a brass band – a poor musical comparison, but certainly not far removed in level of noise.
Miss Lark did not, of course, live alone Next Door. While most witches in an equivalent situation to hers would have been content with a couple of house-elves, Miss Lark had no less than three maids and a cook and a gardener and a chauffeur, not to mention Andrew.
Mentioning Andrew was something which Miss Lark did ceaselessly. Over and above the sound of her tinkling jewellery, all day long, in her loud plummy voice, came the frequent chorus:
"Andrew, where are you?" "Andrew, you mustn't go out without your over-coat!" "Andrew, come to Mother!"
There are witches who have a similar attachment to their only offspring – my mother used to remark after meeting any of such that Hogwarts had been founded to cure such dementia – but Andrew was not a small child. He was the only small thing which existed Next Door: a little, silky, fluffy dog which most resembled an animated fur necklet. Why, with her taste for the grandiose in everything else, Miss Lark had chosen to keep a small dog, I could not fathom then, neither have been able to since.
Perhaps a large dog might have exhausted her fortunes, had she lavished upon a larger size of animal all of the luxuries which were heaped upon Andrew. He might as well have been the Shah of Persia, or a leading member of the wizarding aristocracy in Russia, who continue to this day on their great estates, firmly disbelieving the various wars and revolutions which have removed both their old aristocratic magical government and the old Tsarist muggle government. Telling over these luxuries was a particular joy of Mrs Brill and Ellen, who learned every detail first-hand from the cook and the youngest housemaid Next Door.
Thus, when I was obliged to go down to the kitchens for something, I learned how Andrew slept on a silk cushion in Miss Lark's own room – the youngest housemaid was obliged to plump it up every night to ensure the feathers were evenly spread and none of Andrew's precious bones might be jarred against the floor; how Andrew went by car to the Hairdresser's twice a week to be shampooed – the cook had to prepare an early lunch on those days, because Andrew must eat sufficiently early before he went out, so there was no risk he would be travel sick; how Andrew had cream for every meal and sometimes oysters – the cook lived in dread of a day the cream might be 'off'; how Andrew possessed four over-coats with checks and stripes in different colours – the youngest housemaid had to be sure to lay out the correct over-coat for every occasion, as her predecessor had been dismissed for laying out the fur-trimmed over-coat on an unexpectedly mild December day, so Andrew had become too hot and had had to stop and pant while out on his walk; how Andrew's pedigree hung in a large gilt frame on the wall in Miss Lark's drawing room – the youngest housemaid was not trusted to polish it, Miss Lark did that herself; how Andrew not only wore his best coat to go to the Hairdresser's, but rode on the seat and had the fur car-rug wrapped around him; how Andrew had two pairs of small leather boots, so he could go out in the Park whether it was wet or dry; and how when it was Andrew's birthday he not only had a cake, but had two candles for each year instead of just one.
"That dog lives with what most folk don't get, be it their birthdays," Mrs Brill used to remark, and quite aside from her atrocious grammar, I was compelled to agree with her. The only difference between Andrew and an over-indulged only child, apart from his fur, was his response to it all.
He was not a spoiled, peevish little prince; nor the 'nincompoop' Mr Banks occasionally referred to him as, sadly in the hearing of the children so I was always having to correct them for repeating the description. He was not even one of those good-natured souls who likes to share abroad the largess they live with, as long as they still enjoy the crystallised pineapple themselves. On the contrary, it did not take anyone of great perceptiveness, let alone any affinity for communicating with lesser mammals, to see that quite simply, Andrew hated it. I have good evidence for this. Ellen, whose perceptiveness most certainly rivalled that of the troll whose tread she resembled, used to end each of the many recitals of Andrew's luxurious existence with the observation: "I seen him: he'd rather be a common dog."
In this, she was quite correct. Andrew was all too plainly bored to distraction by the luxurious life he was forcibly obliged to lead. He was a good natured little dog, for he did not seem to resent or even disrespect Miss Lark for all her follies, even for the absurd number of times she would pick him up and kiss him. This was a common end to a meeting with Miss Lark and Andrew, just as any meeting with them invariably began with her loud, plummy voice enquiring: "Good morning! And how are we today?" But Andrew's dream in life was, quite clearly, to be a common dog. Whenever he was out in the garden without Miss Lark, one might see him hurrying down the path to the front gate for friends and relatives, or sitting by it for hours to exchange remarks with any passing common dogs.
The end of these exchanges between Andrew and his friends could be marked by all the inhabitants of Cherry Tree Lane, for the moment Miss Lark saw him sitting there, she would rush to the front door and call out in an even louder and plummier voice than usual: "Andrew, Andrew, come in, my darling! Come away from those dreadful street arabs!"
If he did not come promptly, she would sally out to fetch him. The obvious solution, of course, would have been to place some sort of repelling charm, or the red pepper powder which was the less effective muggle equivalent, either to keep Andrew away from the inside of the gate, or the common dogs away from the outside – but this did not seem to have occurred to Miss Lark, or else would have denied her the opportunity to proclaim her care and devotion to her Precious, her Joy, her Little Lump of Sugar, at the top of her voice to the rest of the Lane.
By this point, you are probably thinking that my recollections are wandering as aimlessly and without purpose as a riderless broomstick in a northerly gale. Certainly, the nature of a doubtlessly long-dead dog's character seems a strange thing upon which to dwell, but it was the origin of another of the extraordinary days of my Great Adventure.
Given, as I have described, the way the entire household of Next Door revolved around Andrew according to Miss Lark's light, you will fully appreciate what an unusual sight it was one afternoon, to see Andrew tearing through the Park, his ears back and his tail up, without anyone with him at all. He was never allowed out without Miss Lark, unless the oldest housemaid (never the youngest, for which she always said earnestly to Ellen, over the back fence, Thank Goodness) was taking him on the fortnightly trips to have his nails manicured.
I was, at the time, taking all four of the children for a walk, Jane and Michael on foot and the twins in the perambulator. At the wildly careering approach of Andrew, I pulled up sharply. Though he was smaller than an average kneazel, at the speed Andrew was going he could easily have upset the perambulator, and the twins with it in more than one sense, and it was quite clear that he was only barely looking where he was going.
Jane and Michael, needless to say, were extremely startled – a fact which they showed in a rather ill-mannered fashion by screaming, though I think they only meant to shout, at Andrew as he passed.
"Hi, Andrew! Where's your over-coat?" Michael called, with what I presume was meant to be a very poor imitation of Miss Lark's voice.
"Andrew, you naughty little boy!" Jane joined in.
I do not think the little dog heard or registered either of these remarks as such, but their shrieks certainly caught his attention, for he skidded to a halt, his sides heaving, and looked past the children haughtily to me. He barked sharply.
Here I see I must pause and explain a fact. You will not find it within the pages of your OWL level Transfiguration textbooks; I doubt that you would even find it in the higher reference books the NEWT syllabus may occasionally refer to; but it is true, none the less. Essentially, much as a werewolf, even in their human form, is repellent to all animals, Animagi and other inter-species transfigurationists possess a great affinity to them. Whether we develop this through our transformations or it is inherent to enable the change to animal form I do not know. It is a point contentedly and inconclusively debated at many ISIST meetings. But however it arises, the ability to communicate to some degree when in human form, with animals of a similar type to one's own animal form (or commonly adopted forms if, like myself, not an animagus) is a definite fact.
Therefore, with a little thought, I could apply my cattishness to understand Andrew. I would assume the ability to turn into a hippopotamus probably meant a similar level of communication would be possible with large African water mammals, although I have never tried.
Andrew put his head to one side, and repeated his question. "Yap-yap?"
For one moment, I hesitated. Not because I was uncertain of the answer, or because I did not wish to help the poor creature, but because I was uncertain how to put it. To answer directly would have been simplest, but I was not entirely certain about achieving the correct accent while in normal, human form. Nor was I certain what the children might think, were their nurse to suddenly begin to miaow and hiss at their muggle neighbour's pedigree terrier. The use of other species' tongues can be startling enough in our own world, where we are well aware of other species communicating both audibly and intelligibly. As muggles persist in believing they are the only creatures which talk, I think I was correct in assuming they would have been somewhat startled. I therefore addressed Andrew in slow and clear English.
"Let me see. I think it's the first on your right and second house on the left-hand side."
Most dogs, unless of a particularly unintelligent bent, which Andrew most certainly was not, are well capable of understanding this. Moreover, I knew from much direct observation that speaking to animals, and dogs in particular, is considered entirely acceptable among muggles, especially in Britain. Some of my foreign acquaintances, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, had expressed some surprise over this. I remember one dignified Namibian wizard especially, who had arrived an an afternoon ISIST meeting in Bristol in a rather flustered state. His carriage, for this incident had been long before the advent of the muggle omnibus or motor car, had been held up in dense traffic. Fearing to be late, he had descended from the vehicle, discretely transfigured himself into his preferred form of a large Deerhound, and set off to take a short cut through the adjacent park. In his native land, this would have rendered him as invisible to the muggle gaze as if he had been under a disillusionment charm. In the Bristol streets, he had been followed by a crowd of admirers, including several policemen anxious to find out whom this large and handsome beast belonged to.
"'Hi!' 'Good boy!' 'Who are you with?' 'Come along, Fido!'" he had exclaimed to the rest of us assembled at the meeting. "You would have thought they expected me to answer them!"
Andrew certainly expected me to answer him. He cocked his head to the other side. "Yap?"
I kept to the basics. "No – no garden. Only a back-yard. Gate's usually open."
"I'm not sure," I said slowly. "But I should think so. Generally goes home at tea-time." It was not the most definite of answers, but it seemed to suit Andrew, for he flung back his head and set off once more at his wild gallop across the Park.
If the children had been surprised at the mere sight of Andrew, it was nothing compared to now. Jane and Michael's eyes were as round as saucers, and almost starting from their heads. In our own world, one would well have thought they had been on the receiving end of a Goggling Goldfish Hex – a rather juvenile hex a couple of my youngest nephews had picked up from somewhere last time I went to visit, and were using on each other.
"What was he saying?" they demanded, without so much as a 'please' between them, if you please! I would hardly have been telling them anyway, but at such rudeness I declined even to invent some sort of polite fiction to amuse them.
"Just passing the time of day!" I snapped, folding my lips disapprovingly.
One jarvey follows another, as my mother used to say of rudeness. The children wasted not a breath before flatly contradicting me.
"He wasn't!" said Michael.
"He couldn't have been!" cried Jane.
If they had been magical children, I would have wasted no time in applying a Silencing charm. Such behaviour, and in the middle of the Park to boot! But since I could not do so, especially in public, I gave them a haughty look. "Well, you know best, of course. As usual."
"He must have been asking you where somebody lived, I'm sure he must–" Michael persisted, as usual completely immune to sarcasm.
"Well, if you know, why bother to ask me?" I sniffed. "I'm no dictionary."
Logic, like sarcasm, passed straight by Michael like a Snitch with a poorly trained Seeker. He opened his mouth to continue the argument, but Jane promptly hurried to speak instead. I think she meant to be tactful, although you might have flown a dragon through the gulf between intention and reality:
"Oh, Michael," she said reproachfully, "she'll never tell us if you talk like that. Mary Poppins, do say what Andrew was saying to you, please."
The International Statute of Secrecy was the answer to that one – but the far more explainable answer stood beside the perambulator, scuffing the toes of his shoes in the gravel so they would need polishing again! I nodded scornfully at Michael. "Ask him. He knows – Mr Know-All!"
That one finally pierced the dragon hide, and Michael promptly began to beg. "Oh no, I don't. I promise I don't, Mary Poppins. Do tell!"
With muggles, it is best to tell them exactly what they need to know and no more, so I told them: "Half-past three. Tea-time." And I wheeled the perambulator around and we went home without another word, at least on my part. Jane and Michael lagged behind with his scooter and muttered reproaches at each other. Vague fragments of '...never know...' and '...I don't want to...' drifted after the perambulator and I.
(A scooter, in case you are wondering, is a muggle equivalent of those toy broomsticks popular in our own world. It consists of a flat plate with two wheels and a long handle, as if one had taken the legs off half a chair and replaced them with wheels. They are, I believe, supposed to promote the development of a good sense of balance, though why muggles need this when they do not go on to ride broomsticks I do not know. Regardless of this, scooters, lacking the balancing charms found on toy broomsticks, are a good way for small boys to develop grazed knees and scuffed shoes.)
The claims of not wishing to know were, of course, quite untrue. But I expect by this point you also want to know what it was that Andrew had asked, although I trust you are not squabbling with your brother or sister because of it. To explain that afternoon's exchange in the Park, I must go back a little and explain further about the common dogs whom Andrew so clearly longed to be like.
As I have described, Andrew would sit by the front gate of Next Door whenever he could, passing the time of day with any dog that went by. But while he would talk to all, he had one special friend, who went quite beyond being common to be a Byword, as Mrs Brill termed it. He was half an Airedale and half a Retriever and the worst half of both. It was not only Mrs Brill and Ellen and the servants and tradespeople who talked about him: Mrs Banks and her friends and all the neighbours did too. It was from Mrs Boom that I heard how, if there was a dog fight in the road, "That dog" was sure to be in the thick of it; it was from the Policeman himself that I heard how "That dog" was always getting into trouble with the postman; and it was from Robertson Ay, in a most animated fashion, that I heard how "That dog" loved nothing better than sniffing about in drains and garbage tins. That he enabled the use of 'Robertson Ay' and 'animated' in the same sentence, let alone together, goes to show just how very exceptional Andrew's friend was. The rest of Cherry Tree Lane would have fully agreed with me in terming the Byword exceptional. It was a very widely held sentiment, which some like Mr Banks went so far as to express, that people were glad he was not their dog.
Andrew loved him. And, whether it was a brief sniff in passing, or a long chat at the gate, after one of their meetings you could always see that Andrew's eyes were brighter, his ears pricked up higher, and he was generally more fortified to trot back to Miss Lark – usually to be doused in randomly mixed kisses and disinfectant, lest he had caught anything from "That terrible dog!"
It was, as you have probably now guessed, directions to the home of this friend of this which Andrew had stopped to ask me for in the Park. The question you will ask at this point is, how did I know? Had I been exploring the area at night, transfigured into a cat? Or passing my Afternoons Out by exploring back ways and alleys? I am afraid the answer is both simpler, and more coincidental than that. I was, indeed, quite well acquainted with Andrew's friend, by means of a mutual acquaintance. He lodged at the same house as Bert.
He was not, you must understand, Bert's dog. Bert's means never ran to the point of being able to keep even a muggle animal, although he used to joke sometimes about charming a few mice to dance and opening a side-show to the chalk picture and matchstick selling business. A large dog like Andrew's friend would have eaten up the entire of Bert's profits in almost a single gulp – besides his large plumy tail having been a danger to the chalk pictures. It was, instead, merely that Bert was at that time boarding in two upper rooms of a small lodging house on the far side of the Park – first on your right and second house on the left-hand side, as I had said to Andrew – where the Byword was at that time lodging in the dilapidated wash-house in the yard. Bert and I had had a companionable laugh over the matter of our 'mutual acquaintance' on one of my Afternoons Out, when we had been walking in the Park and the Byword had stopped to woof at Bert in a friendly fashion.
This, of course, I was not explaining to the children. At that age, they did not need to know about life in shabby lodgings houses, nor that I did know about such things. At that age, what they did need to know about, but sadly knew very little of, was not speaking until spoken to and not asking intrusive questions of those older and better than themselves. In disapproval of their behaviour, therefore, we proceeded home in silence without further incident, until we came to cross over the road from the Park side of Cherry Tree Lane to Number 17.
The silence was broken by loud cries coming from Next Door, where a curious spectacle was taking place in the garden. The three maids were rushing wildly about, looking under bushes and up into the trees, as people tend to after they have had a niffler in their most precious jewellery box. Robertson Ay had awoken enough to be busily wasting his time in Miss Lark's garden, rather than that of Number 17, by poking at the gravel on the front path with a broom, as if he expected to find the niffler there. Miss Lark herself was almost running about the garden, waving her arms as if she was under some sort of very vigorous Confundus Charm, and crying out "Andrew! Andrew! Oh, he's lost! My darling boy's lost! We must send for the police! I must see the Prime Minister! Andrew is lost! Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" From the disordered state of the curtains at every window of the house, and the disarranged pots set hither and thither along the porch, it looked as if the same scene of melodrama had been enacted indoors, before moving out into the garden.
It was Jane, I think, not Michael, who exclaimed "Oh, poor Miss Lark!" as they hurried ahead of me across the road. They both went and peered in at the front gate, but, of course, there was nothing to be seen, and so I steered them on towards our own gate.
The gate at Number 17 was notable not only for needing a fresh coat of paint, but also for being only just wide enough to admit the perambulator, and only then if it was very carefully angled. I was, accordingly, concentrating on this, while Jane, in a fit of helpfulness perhaps inspired by the scenes Next Door, held the gate back and Michael waited outside on the pavement.
Just as the perambulator popped through and Michael stepped after me, he looked back down the Lane, and instantly cried out: "Why, there's Andrew, Miss Lark! See, down there – just turning Admiral Boom's corner!"
Miss Lark, as I recall, rushed at once to the corner of her garden nearest to our gate, rather than to her own gate, and peered over at Michael. "Where, where? Show me!" she gasped out breathlessly.
Michael obligingly pointed, and we all looked down the Lane towards Admiral Boom's house. And there, it was true, was Andrew. He walked slowly, casually, as if nothing in the world was at all unusual, while beside him, with feathery plume waving, waltzed a huge dog who looked like half an Airedale and half a Retriever and the worst half of both.
I, of course, was not entirely surprised. Jane and Michael were once again goggle-eyed with astonishment, but Miss Lark had eyes only for Andrew – and the fuss she could make. "Oh, what a relief!" she sighed. "What a load off my mind!"
I confess that I was curious, and as most of the other inhabitants of Cherry Tree Lane, having had their attention drawn to the whole matter by Miss Lark's loud exclamations, were also peering out of their windows or over their front gates, I felt it would not be particularly ill-mannered or noticeable to stop and see what happened. The children certainly had forgotten that it was Tea-time, and it was unlikely that Tea would be spoiled waiting for us, since Mrs Brill and Ellen had come to the side fence to watch as well. Miss Lark clasped her hands dramatically to her bosom; the three maids all gazed along the road; Robertson Ay ceased animation and propped himself up in case of falling, should he actually fall asleep, on the broom handle; and everyone waited for the return of Andrew.
I do not imagine he meant to walk so very slowly, but he was only a little dog, and given the forcibly pampered life he led, that gallop across the Park must have worn him out. So Andrew and friend approached only slowly, though their tails both whisked jauntily. The expression on the face and cocked ears of the Byword as they drew nearer seemed to be that of languid amusement; the expression on Andrew's face and cocked ears was that of determined business.
Finally, they reached the gate, and Miss Lark seemed to notice the larger dog for the first time. "That dreadful dog!" she exclaimed, making dramatic wafting motions with both arms. "Shoo! Shoo! Go home!"
It seems to me still, as it did then, that at the very least her remarks were a trifle ungrateful. While I knew that Andrew had not been lost, for all Miss Lark knew he had been, and it was not a very unreasonable or unlikely assumption in the situation that the larger dog, knowing where Andrew lived, had met him wandering and brought him home. He was, after all, half a Retriever. The least Miss Lark could have risen to was to fetch, since she could not Summon, a plate of scraps to be given at the gate.
But, as you know, there was something more than this going on. The dog seemed to know it too, for he simply sat down on the pavement and scratched behind his right ear with his left leg, and yawned.
"Go away! Go away! Shoo, I say!" Miss Lark cried, waving her arms yet more wildly. "And you, Andrew," she went on, only just managing to eliminate the anger from her voice to address her Little Lump of Sugar. "Come indoors this minute! Going out like that – all alone and without your over-coat! I am very displeased with you!"
The fact that she had not opened the front gate might have been a bar to Andrew doing as she said, but in certain circumstances muggles tend to forget obvious details like this.
Andrew did not move. He barked up at Miss Lark, rather lazily.
"What do you mean?" Miss Lark demanded, though she quite obviously did not expect an answer any more than when she usually addressed him. "Come in at once!"
This time, Andrew's bark was a little more shrill – the tone of a dog made desperate by the gulf between human and canine. I could stand it no longer. Noblesse oblige, my mother always used to say. While I do not think she would ever have dreamed of it applying to the situation of being a bystander to an argument between a foolish muggle and their non-magical dog, I felt at the time and still do now, that this situation called for her firm rule that those of a superior status in life like ourselves had certain duties to help out those less able, when the difficulty was such that it was quite beyond the less able's ability to resolve it. I recall her impressing this firmly upon me when I first went to Hogwarts, when she not only levitated my trunk into the carriage but also that of the small boy struggling to lift his in by himself. (It was, in case you are wondering, Bert; and I fear that my mother in after years regretted not having found a more suitable candidate for her charity – but that was, as you may have now guessed, not a sentiment I shared with her.)
While I had not explained Andrew's barks to the children earlier, it seemed necessary now. Since I was not actually using magic, merely taking the role of an interpreter, I was in no way contravening anything of the Statute of Secrecy. "He says," I put in firmly, "that he's not coming in."
Miss Lark turned instantly, and fixed a haughty gaze upon me – one that I dearly wished I could have thoroughly rebutted by an explanation of just who I was – a person far, far superior to her foolish muggle self, let alone the average muggle nanny. As it was, all I could do was to stare back equally haughtily.
"How do you know what my dog says, may I ask?" she demanded scornfully. She might as well have been speaking about a stuffed fur necklet like that Andrew so much resembled – which was, of course, about the highest level she thought of him as. "Of course he will come in."
It is still strange to me that the muggle world, which coined the useful couplet "One may lead a horse to water, twenty cannot make him drink," and moreover are entirely lacking in the magical ability to enforce behaviour by an outside imposition of will via illegal Imperius charm, should always be so certain that their animals will do as they wish them to.
At this point Andrew, in a rather determined fashion, shook his head and gave one or two low growls. "He won't," I said as pleasantly as I could in the face of Miss Lark's most impolite and aggressive attitude. "Not unless his friend comes, too." I must confess that, even seeing him racing across the Park, I had not expect such an idea to come from such a small, pampered, furry-brained creature as Andrew, but so it was.
Miss Lark did not seem to feel that it was so. "Stuff and nonsense!" she said crossly. "That can't be what he says. As if I could have a great hulking mongrel like that inside my gate."
I resisted a temptation to transfigure a dozen or so out of the gravel chippings on her path – which you may feel was an excessive response to her doubting my word, but you did not the exact expression on her face. Andrew seemed to feel that the human conversation was wandering a little off point, for he broke in with a series of loud yaps.
"He says he means it," I translated. "And what's more, he says he'll go live with his friend unless his friend is allowed to come and live with him."
I could not really quite imagine well-tended and cosseted Andrew living as Bert had described the Byword living, on a worn old blanket behind the copper in a draughty, tumble-down wash-house, but I can still see, as if his face were before me now, the expression of utter resolution on the little terrier. Animals are, on the whole, of far greater mental capacity than even we in the magical world give them credit for. Considering this in comparison to the habits of Cousin Elladora or those of some of my younger cousins, I can often quite understand why the wise and ancient race of centaurs chose to be listed in the Beast division, not the Being.
At Andrew's ultimatum Miss Lark almost broke down into crocodile tears, as the rather apt muggle saying goes. "Oh, Andrew, you can't – you can't, really – after all I've done for you and everything!"
At this reminder of his daily torments, Andrew barked once and turned away. His friend got up, and the reality of the situation seemed to finally dawn on Miss Lark. "Oh, he does mean it," she cried, sobbing into her lace handkerchief. "I see he does. He is going away." She blew her nose in a small and tragic fashion. Andrew wisely ignored this, and she began to capitulate.
"Very well, then, Andrew. I give in. This – this common dog can stay. On condition, of course, that he sleeps in the coal cellar."
The impracticalities of muggle snobbery have always been beyond me. Even after so many years of observation and research into their world, I fail to understand it. How, if you would be ashamed to have a large mongrel dog about your house, would it be better if he left a trail of coal dust behind him? It was not as if he would sweep and polish after himself like a house-elf – but my views at this point were not relevant. Andrew cast a glance once more at me, and I resumed the role of interpreter.
"He insists, ma'am, that that won't do. His friend must have a silk cushion just like his and sleep in your room too. Otherwise he will go and sleep in the coal-cellar with his friend."
At this she moaned. "Andrew, how could you? I shall never consent to such a thing." Andrew's answer to this was to take a few steps backwards and, like the silly and small-minded little muggle she was, despite her rather large size, Miss Lark promptly shrieked. "Oh, he's leaving me! Very well then, Andrew. It will be as you wish. He shall sleep in my room. But I shall never be the same again, never, never. Such a common dog!"
This idea seemed to move her to even more than the prospect of Andrew's departure, for she sobbed bitterly for a moment into the handkerchief. "I should never have thought it of you, Andrew," she added, wiping her streaming eyes. "But I'll say no more, no matter what I think." This, of course, she instantly did not do – but such things are very common with muggles. Mrs Banks was forever saying that she would not speak to Mrs Such-and-such again, and promptly accepting a bridge party invitation, while Ellen on an almost hourly basis forgot that which she had said she "wuddn't furgit."
"And this – er – creature," Miss Lark continued, "I shall have to call Waif or Stray or–"
Considering that she was happily accepting that Andrew was, indeed, speaking and I was translating it, I really still fail to see how Miss Lark had, even at this point, failed to grasp that the other dog too understood what she was saying and, moreover, might have a view on being insulted. Waif seemed to be one hex too far for the Byword. While he had been content to wait while Andrew did the bargaining, he was not standing for that. He cast a most indignant look at Miss Lark, while Andrew barked their joint outrage.
Strictly, I suppose, I should have taken the children indoors a long time earlier, not so much because of the late Tea but to remove them from a most unrespectable scene – but I felt it would be much worse to do so and then have to live out the rest of the winter listening to Miss Lark screaming for Andrew and Waif to come away from the street arabs at the gate, than to wait a moment longer.
"They say you must call him Willoughby and nothing else," I explained. "Willoughby being his name." This last point may seem, and in fact was, needless repetition, but I really was not sure Miss Lark had been going to make that connection without.
Miss Lark wrung her hands in despair. "Willoughby! What a name! Worse and worse!" Andrew began to bark yet again, and she turned to me without any haughtiness. The ridiculous expression on her face was almost more than an apology. "What is he saying now?"
It was really to be expected: "He says that if he comes back you are never to make him wear over-coats or go to the Hairdresser's again – that's his last word."
At this, of all things, Miss Lark hesitated. A small silence settled over the crowd of spectators, and then Miss Lark gave in. "Very well. But I warn you, Andrew, if you catch your death of cold – don't blame me!"
And with this final and absurd attempt at retaining a shred of dignity, she turned and went haughtily up the drive and into the house, sniffing away her tears as she went. Andrew cocked his head at Willoughby; Willoughby waved his tail at Andrew, and it did not need me to translate to all those watching that those two dogs said to each other "Come on!" as they stepped forwards to the gate Miss Lark had left open, and waltzed slowly side by side up the path, waving their tails like triumphant banners all the way into the house. I turned, and steered Jane and Michael firmly through their own gate and indoors to their belated Tea.
"He isn't a ninkypoop after all, you see," said Jane softly to Michael as they followed upstairs to the Nursery.
"No," Michael agreed. "But how do you think Mary Poppins knew?"
"I don't know," Jane replied. "But she'll never, never tell us. I am sure of that..."
When I was their age myself, I was introduced at a family gathering to a very old and distant cousin who still captained one of the wizarding clippers, which he still sailed in and out of the Port of London, despite his ship being long since added to the list of ghost ships kept by the great muggle bank, Lloyds of London.
"How do you manage it?" my father asked over my head.
"Ah," said the captain wisely. "You can sail surprisingly close to the wind with them muggles."