Note: Tried to wrap my mind around how Harry has this astonishing resilience, growing up as he did. Don't think I really answered the 'how'.
Summary: Harry is only four years old and the Dursleys are already mean.
Warnings: Dursleys being Dursleys, hence, warnings for child neglect and emotional abuse.
Sometimes, when it gets too dark and gloomy in the cupboard under the stairs, Harry sneaks out to switch on the light in the hall. It is a thankless task sometimes. Tonight, he waited forever and then he still had to go twice; Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia just randomly decide to carry boring things like road maps or bathroom cleaners or Dudley upstairs and downstairs and when they do that, dust and spiders rain down on Harry's pillow, and they always, always switch the light off.
But now a ribbon of yellow light sneaks in underneath the triangular cupboard door, bright enough to make it less gloomy, dim enough so he can tell himself there aren't that many spiders after all. Dudley has three different nightlights, but are they as perfect as this?
In the yellow shine, Harry half mumbles, half play acts a good night story to himself, and it's better and longer and more exciting than everything in Dudley's boring picture books. It has a train and one-two-three-four-eleven cars and a motorcycle and the motorcycle flies!
Harry thinks maybe Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia are just not very clever, because they never wonder, they always just switch off the light in the hall. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia think the door to the cupboard is locked, but they never do it properly, it always opens when Harry needs it to. Like when it gets too dark.
Uncle Vernon is Dudley's dad and Aunt Petunia is Dudley's mum. Harry's mum is the friendly ribbon of light under the door and Harry's dad is the choo-choo train of laundry pegs that is labouring across the carpet square in front of his bed.
Now the cupboard is shaking with thundering steps in the hall and click and it's dark again.
It's worse this time because Harry didn't fall asleep in time and now he needs to go for a wee and try as he might, he is always louder than he meant to be. He counts to eleven. He slips out of the cupboard door, switches on the light, climbs up the stairs, his socked feet softly padding on the thick carpet.
The light cord dangling from the bathroom ceiling is too far up for him to reach, but luckily there's a streetlight right in front of the window. He climbs up on the toilet, already slightly distracted, as always, by the sheer number of toys surrounding the bathtub. His mum is the yellow rubber ducky braving the currents. His dad is the milk jug that makes a waterfall on his hair.
Harry hums softly to himself. At least he knows how to flush, unlike Dudley. Only tonight he doesn't dare. Even Uncle Vernon will have to catch on, eventually, and then maybe he'll start doing a better job locking the cupboard.
From Dudley's bedroom comes a narrow sheet of light and the voice of Aunt Petunia, so different, so lovely. She never sounds as sweet as when she reads Dudley his bedtime story. In front of Dudley's bedroom door, Harry pauses, not wanting to listen, but it's a story about a talking mouse who likes cheese and is a train driver and trains are his favourite.
Harry sits down in the dark. It's cold in the hall and Dudley keeps interrupting. If Harry had a mum who read him a story about a train driving mouse, he would be so lucky, he would never interrupt.
He feels awful all of a sudden, that big bad feeling that sometimes swings by, it's almost bigger than him. But he won't cry, he's not a baby and if he cries, he will miss the rest of the story. Instead, he pulls his socks off and on. The mouse is having a party with his hamster friend and hedgehog friend and magpie friend.
His mum is his left sock. His dad is his right sock. Harry makes belief. His mum is reading to him, his dad is tickling his feet, and sometimes it's the other way around, and he giggles louder than he should.
Dudley is up and about in a second (he never goes to bed quietly, he always gets back up like a jack-in-the-box). His blond head is sticking through the door, watching Harry curiously.
"Dudley-darling, don't you want to come back into bed?" calls Aunt Petunia from inside the bedroom. Maybe she hasn't heard Harry, maybe she ignores Harry.
In any case, Harry tries to will him not to call out to his mum.
"Mum says it's your birthday tomorrow," says Dudley. He is fascinated by birthdays and Christmas and Easter. "Do you think you'll get lots of presents?"
Even if Harry did get lots of presents, he thinks Dudley would be the one opening them and playing with the toys.
"More than you," says Harry, despite himself. "And bigger ones. And a motorcycle."
Dudley is maybe surprised by the defiance. "Mu-uum," he calls. "Harry is out of bed again!"
Harry never finds out how the story ends.
Harry wakes in his bed, in his cupboard. He bets they think they locked the cupboard, but they forgot again. The door swings open under his hands without resistance.
He's excited despite himself. He's four years old today! Four! Harry can count to four on his fingers. Actually, he can count to twelve. After twelve, he gets mixed up and his fingers aren't much help.
In the hall, he encounters Uncle Vernon who is putting on his shoes, who immediately starts shouting, but not at him. Uncle Vernon almost never talks to him. He seems to think Harry is Aunt Petunia's problem.
"Petunia, he's doing it again, I told you – ", Uncle Vernon shouts in the general direction of the kitchen.
Harry likes to think they have it the wrong way around. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon are pretty much his problem.
"Then lock the cupboard door properly next time!" Aunt Petunia shouts back.
They have been shouting a lot lately, and most of it has been about something Harry did or didn't do, even though he never understands what it is he is or is not supposed to be doing. It started when the cupboard began being gloomy at night and the nice door (sometimes his mum is the door and his dad is the doorknob) let him out now and again.
"I did!" Uncle Vernon shouts. "I told you, he's doing the thing again – "
There is no reply, just the clatter of dishes from the kitchen. Uncle Vernon bends down to Harry, fixes him with his small mean eyes.
"I know what you're doing," he says, "and if you keep doing it, you'll find out I'm not as nice as your Aunt Petunia."
There's nothing that Harry can think of to reply – what is he doing, why is it bad, and how can Uncle Vernon possibly be less nice than Aunt Petunia – so he just stands there, wide-eyed and confused.
The door slams behind Uncle Vernon and seconds later, the Volvo in the driveway starts up with a roar.
Harry doesn't really want to face Aunt Petunia next, but he's hungry, and there's breakfast noises from the kitchen. But he turns back into the cupboard for a moment, and takes the two laundry pegs that make up his pretend choo-choo train, to keep in his pockets. He likes to have two things with him.
One can be mum, one can be dad.
Aunt Petunia isn't particularly talkative now that she's done shouting. In fact, she's doing her best ignoring him again, just a nod to tell him to sit down at his side of the table. Next to him, Dudley has almost finished tucking into a bowl of porridge and Dudley's eyes are fixed on a large present on the table.
The wrapping looks strange, like someone has taken bits of old wrapping paper and stuck them together with sellotape. Harry recognises the bright blue paper with the cartoon pirates from one of Dudley's twelve birthday presents last month.
Bits of Dudley's porridge are everywhere, even on Harry's chair, even on the present. Harry hardly notices, he is just as fascinated as Dudley by the big square wrapped box on the table.
Did they really? He is never going to call Aunt Petunia mean again, not even in his head. He is going to be good all morning!
Aunt Petunia slams a bowl of slightly congealed porridge in front of him, noticeably smaller than Dudley's, and a cup of rosehip tea. Dudley, he notices, has juice.
Harry doesn't even care.
"Not until after breakfast," Petunia says curtly with a glance at the present, and Harry nods, unable to take his eyes off it. Today he's hardly doing a better job eating his porridge than Dudley, and he tries to pull himself together. If he gets porridge all over his pyjamas, Aunt Petunia might take the present away.
"But mu-uum, I want to see!" says Dudley, and flings some oats in the general direction of the fridge. "Can I open it?"
"That'll spoil the surprise," says Aunt Petunia, "and we want to surprise Harry, don't we, darling?" She smiles at Dudley fondly, even though it's Harry's birthday. "And remember, we wrapped it together, didn't we? You already know what it is!"
Harry shovels porridge into his mouth like it was an Olympic discipline and he was going for gold. He has to finish before Dudley wears Aunt Petunia down.
"But I want to open it!" says Dudley. "I forgot what it was!" That is clearly a lie, thinks Harry. Dudley has something like a perfect memory for presents. He could still tell you, in detail, what eleven presents he got from Santa Clause, and what stores they were bought at.
"Tell you what, Duddy-kins," says Aunt Petunia. "I think I got you a little something, too. You'll get it afterwards."
Harry gulps down his tea with a bit too much momentum, and some of it trickles down his chin. Seriously, does Aunt Petunia know Dudley at all? Announcing a present at an uncertain later time does nothing to improve his patience.
"Finished," says Harry.
"Well then," says Aunt Petunia. "Go wash your hands and – "
– Harry is out of the kitchen in lightning speed, up the stairs, washes his hands at the bathroom sink, out of the bathroom, back into the bathroom to towel them off, down the stairs, and back in the kitchen –
"But mu-uum – "
A strange sight greets him. Dudley is out of his chair, and Aunt Petunia is actually holding the present over his head, out of his reach. Harry has never seen her denying Duddy-kins anything. It's like it's actually Harry's birthday!
Aunt Petunia turns and gives Harry the present without much ceremony.
"For your birthday," she says. She doesn't say "Happy birthday," or anything, like they would on TV or in kindergarten or with Dudley, but she just handed him a present! And Dudley can't have it!
It's surprisingly light. For one horrifying moment, he thinks it's empty, but it's not, something is tumbling around inside.
"What do we say?" says Aunt Petunia.
"Thank you, Aunt Petunia," Harry says dutifully. It's a bit unfair, Dudley never has to say it, except to Aunt Marge sometimes.
"Well then," says Aunt Petunia, "you can open it."
Harry tears off the strange wrapping. It's not just the cartoon pirates that seem familiar, there's also the yellow-and-blue stripes and the rockets on a space background and the dancing teddy bears he recognises from Dudley's birthday.
The paper reveals a square box with a picture of Robo the shuffling space roboter (with remote control!).
The real Robo, that Dudley got for his birthday, lies broken on the floor of Dudley's second bedroom, the remote control nowhere to be found, at least nowhere his parents have looked (Harry knows it's on the compost heap in the garden, but he's not going to tell).
The box is too light to contain the broken Robo, but for a moment Harry still hopes it contains something at least halfway interesting. But when he opens the Robo box, with significantly less enthusiasm now, he finds more empty toy boxes – Dudley's inflatable beach ball, Dudley's fuzzy singing caterpillar, and a small one that originally contained Dudley's light up toy racing motorcycle.
"We thought you could play with the boxes," says Aunt Petunia, while Dudley doesn't say anything, he simply laughs his head off. "You play so nice with the laundry pegs and I need them back."
It's his own fault, Harry thinks. Shouldn't have got his hopes up. A day that begins with an angry Uncle Vernon and a smiling Aunt Petunia is seldom a good day. A week ago, he would have bawled at this. Even yesterday. But today he's four.
Part of him knows that four is still tiny and that birthdays are important. But it doesn't matter. Nothing here will ever be nice unless he makes it nice himself.
He's hardly listening to what Aunt Petunia and Dudley are still saying to him, stares at the three little boxes in the big carton. If there were two, he'd know what to do with them.
Later, he kicks them under his bed. Well, he tries, but the big box doesn't fit. So he cries and cries and cries.
But you know what to do, stupid, he says to himself, later, and fishes around under his bed.
The two middle-size boxes can be mum and dad. The little box with the picture of the motorcycle, that's Harry. And the big box that they all came in, that's their house, and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and Dudley aren't allowed in, so there.