It was peaceful for a Saturday afternoon on their last Hogsmeade weekend.
Usually, the last visit was euphorically riotous and the village swarmed with Hogwarts students, exhilarated by the end of exams and the prospect of summer. However this year, there seemed to be a dent in their numbers and those who had ventured out were quiet and subdued.
The peace was tenuous and stretched like their shadows in the late summer sunlight.
They were lined up one after another in the queue for the cinema and their shadows were tossed accordingly across the small square at the back end of the village. Sirius's was the broadest; Lily's the slightest. Remus's shadow was angular and brittle while Peter's followed his fidgety shuffles. There were two spots of brightness in James's shadow where his glasses caught the sunlight.
The queue moved forward and their shadows rippled across the cobbles.
James looked idly over to the courtyard. Waiters and landlords were gathering up chairs and tables from outside and stacking them against the walls of their shops, lazily locking them in place with wave of a wand. Three young witches had taken advantage of the deserted space with a skipping rope that sparkled and flashed neon colours. One jumped in the middle while the other two whirled the rope around and sang tunelessly.
Miss Susie bought a broomstick
A Nimbus Speed Extreme
She leaned to fly and next week
She's trying for the team
Which position will she play?
Seeker, beater, chaser, keeper,
Seeker, beater, chaser, keeper …
From her place in the line, Lily watched the slow, regular circles of the skipping rope. The young witch jumping had a whole childhood of experience, a wealth of inexhaustible summer energy that made Lily feel old and tired. In a window overlooking the courtyard, she could see an anxious mother hurrying every so often to the window to peer at the girls while they skipped.
Slowly, the spores of a faraway war drifted into the cracks of people's everyday lives.
Perhaps the five of them had felt they deserved one last afternoon of simplicity. The cool darkness of the cinema and a film with a mindless, uncomplicated plotline seemed a step backwards into a time when their own lives had been free of complexity. Even in the haven of Hogwarts, the headlines trickled through of enemy alliances growing and allied strength failing. James and friends listened and watched and resolved; whispered about strategies and secret societies.
But not this afternoon.
Behind the window of the box office was a fat, bad tempered-looking wizard who had evidently suffered an unfortunate accident. In place of his arms were four pairs of meaty, curling purple tentacles. Three or four twisted from the counter to the cash tray, picking up sickles with each sucker, while two more plucked tickets from the printing machine and slid them back the other way. One tentacle curled and uncurled around the base of a cigarette hanging out of the side of the wizard's mouth as minty green smoke seeped under the sheet of glass.
'Five for the matinee showing, please,' said Remus, when it came to their turn. There followed a brief argument over who was paying for whom.
'Wormtail owes me for those pumpkin fizzes I footed last week.'
'Padfoot, if I counted up every Butterbeer and chocolate frog I've ever bought you, I'd be insisting you buy me every seat in the cinema.'
'Moony, old chum! Have you forgotten that I am disowned and penniless? Living off the charity of others? Shame on you!'
'Potter, I will pay for my own seat, put your money away.'
'Suit yourself, but I won't say anything when you end up eating half my Fizzing Whizzbees.'
A tentacle pointed to the sign on the glass ('NO TICKET, NO ADMITANCE') and in the end, everyone paid their share.
Only four or five seats in the theatre were filled when they ambled in, rustling sweet packets. They sat in the back row. It was an old habit picked up from seven years in the classroom. James sat next to lily and as promised, only smiled when her fingers crept into his bag of sweets. It was another unspoken understanding. They had been reaching quite a lot of them lately.
The orbs around the theatre dimmed and Sirius took the opportunity to put his feet up on the seat in front. Monstrous numbers flickered on the screen and a brief newsreel began. Music marched out over their heads with pompous horns and a tune designed to stir the nation into a mood of patriotism. The screen shifted with sepia tinted footage and figures that appeared to be moving slightly too fast.
'Witches and wizards of this country,' announced a narrator, 'will well remember a time when our lives and those of muggles alike were threatened by forces rising in Nurmengard. The seemingly unstoppable rise of Grindelwald lies fresh in the minds of a generation past, as well as how close he came to spreading his campaign of terror to Britain.'
Rows of nameless Ministry officials filled the screen, hard at work casting code-breaking spells on ancient ruins. Young witches intercepted paper plane memos, stamped them and sent them on. Their robes and hairstyles dated them back thirty years. Three Aurors were shown sitting on low wall in the English countryside, pouring over maps and sneakscopes. One of them looked up at the camera and gave a fretful smile and a wave.
The narration continued in a tone that was both cordial and authoritative at the same time.
'1945 saw the nation's witches and wizards come together in a united front! Even the smallest of war efforts makes all the difference. Tact and vigilance go a long way.'
The picture flicked to show a very young witch with bobbed hair tied back with a pumpkin-shaped pin. One hand was holding onto that of someone too tall for the picture and the other was holding up a plump finger to her shyly smiling lips.
'Remember one and all, in these uncertain times, those age-old values will serve us well once again! Tact and vigilance! Careless charms cost lives! Thank you and goodnight.'
The picture went dark and a message in white, rounded, official letters scrolled upwards:
ANY SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOUR WITH RELATION TO SUBVERSIVE DARK MAGIC OR ACTION SHOULD BE REPORTED IMMEDIATELY TO A MINISTRY OFFICIAL OR POSTED BY OWL TO THIS ADDRESS:
DEPARTMENT OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS
MINISTRY OF MAGIC
SOUTHEAST TELEPHONE BOX
WESTMINSTER, LONDON SW1 2DK
Lily rolled her eyes, more paranoid propaganda desperate to put the public mind at ease. She sighed and looked over at Sirius, who was subtly trying to push Peter's elbow off the armrest between them with his own. Remus was picking at a hole in the waist of his robes and it seemed not one of them had paid much attention to the newsreel. She supposed that they were used to seeing them all the time, coming from wizarding families. She leaned back in her seat. It was something altogether different that had put her mind at ease, four simple words that stood like columns behind her breastbone … Order of the Phoenix.
She reached idly over in James's direction for another Fizzing Whizzbee, but suddenly found her hand clenched in his. He wasn't looking at her. He was staring at the white letters on the screen. His glasses shone with them and for a moment, she couldn't see his eyes.
'It was nothing like that, Lily.'
He whispered so quietly that she almost didn't hear him over the muffled sounds of the theatre. Yet, in his voice was a history his parents had impressed upon him, a tally of private sepia photographs, a knowledge of branches cut and trunks rotted in his family tree.
'There was no 'united front', no 'tact and vigilance'. Some fought to help Dumbledore, and others thought their opportunity lay with Grindelwald. Ordinary people cursed their friends in the back … and we were all as effing terrified as each other.'
His eyes flicked towards her and he seemed to realise that he was bequeathing her a history that was not hers. He let go of her hand and looked at the carpet.
'It just … wasn't anything like that.'
Lily's hand floated in the air above his lap for a while. Then she reached down and lifted his fingers off the armrest, leaning over so that their arms and elbows fit together and their fingers entwined.
'No,' she whispered back, still gazing at the screen. 'I don't suppose it was.'
The film began and James realised they had reached another unspoken agreement. Hold on, he thought, it was too important to go unsaid. He thought of everything he should say and words flooded his head over the music of the film.
I hope you're happy. I hope I can save you. I hope we can save each other. You must know how much you've … how far I've …
I do love you.
(He could say them. He could. Four unassuming words. They are all lined up like their shadows in the queue. It would be so easy.)
In the end, he said nothing.
It was situations like this that fleetingly exposed James as an unexpected romantic. He rather indulgently liked to think that those words should have been like oak beams, the stuff of foundations, but here, in this place, there was nothing in the flickering, projected light and the musty chairs that could hold his words and make them presentable. This afternoon seemed half-hearted and thin. It was no time for words like those. They would clatter to the floor like pencils.
He had paid no attention to the film at all, but spent two hours intensively studying the impressions made by her fingers in his.
The picture faded, anonymous names drifted up across the screen and the lights came back on. Sirius blinked awake and gave Peter a dig to rouse him. Remus yawned.
'Well, that was a good two hours worth of pointless rubbish,' he commented. Lily got up to stretch and arranged her clothes.
'An afternoon well wasted,' Remus agreed, although without resentment.
Outside, the sky had gone the colour of peaches. The young witches with the skipping rope had gone and students were drifting out the Three Broomsticks, dragging their feet.
Lily looked at her watch and realised that they would be shirking their prefect duties if they didn't turn up to ferry the younger years back to the castle in ten minutes. As usual, there was nothing else to be done, but to move forward.
Three years ago, their lives had been as simple as they could have been in an underground society and a school for witchcraft and wizardry. Or perhaps they had never been simple. One was plagued by the monthly suffering of lycanthrope, three others compelled to become illegal animagi, and the last had decided to cut ties with a figure of childhood.
As their company headed back up the hill, James threw an arm around the Head Girl's shoulders, as he was wont to do. For the first time since she had known him, Lily did not shrug him off. They walked back towards their last days at Hogwarts with their bodies curled slightly towards each other and their steps in time.
---If you want to know something extremely geeky, before I wrote this, I spent a whole afternoon watching old newsreels from the First and Second World Wars. It gets worse. I also got out a road map of the city and scouted for an address that looked like it could have been the one shown in the OotP film. It's a backstreet down by the river, near the Houses of Parliament and all the government offices.
I know, I know. I am a nerd. I suppose there's nothing to be done about it.