As a Squib, I have spent my entire life straddling two worlds but not truly belonging to either. In the wizarding world, my kind are regarded as second-class citizens; our inability to perform even the simplest spells restricts us to menial jobs where the ability to cast magic is not essential. For that reason, many of us try to integrate into the Muggle community, but that isn't easy for us either. We are still bound by the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, even though we can't use magic ourselves, and that means we cannot tell our Muggle neighbours about our wizarding relatives. Not that it matters in most cases, as many wizarding families will cut all ties with a Squib relative at the earliest opportunity.
In my case, I have lived among Muggles all my adult life. I was even married to one for nearly fifty years, a very kind man called Peter Figg. We never had any children, but we were content with just the two of us and our assortment of cats. To use an old cliche, the cats were our "children" and, after Peter died, I devoted all my time to them. The sight of me walking down the road with a shopping bag full of Whiskas cat food was familiar to everyone in Little Whinging. And, if it gave me a reputation as a "crazy cat lady" . . . well, it certainly came in useful for keeping a pretty important secret.
A few years after Peter died, I woke up to what seemed like another ordinary day. At least it seemed ordinary at first, but, while I was on my way to the supermarket to stock up on cat food, I came across two men and a woman talking excitedly. They were wizards; I knew this immediately from their odd attire, odd by Muggle standards, at least. They all wore long cloaks and the woman was wearing a pointed hat with a stuffed spider hanging off the tip by a single thread. As I walked past, I overheard a little of their conversation.
"So You-Know-Who is gone?" asked one of the men.
"So they say," replied the woman. "And all I can say is: "Good riddance!" All these years of living in fear . . ."
"Have you heard what finally stopped him?" asked the second man. Then, he answered his own question. "Harry Potter!"
"Harry Potter?" echoed the woman. "A baby?"
"That's what they say. Seems You-Know-Who turned up at the Potters' house last night and . . ." At that moment, they moved out of earshot, but I'd overheard enough to know what they were talking about. For over ten years, the wizarding world had been terrorised by a wizard so evil that most wizards dared not say his name out loud. If they had to talk about him, they would say "You-Know-Who" or "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named". I knew all this because, though I was a Squib, I still had connections in the wizarding world and, that night, I received a visit from one of those connections.
It was late and I was just thinking about going to bed when I heard a knock on my front door. "Who could be calling at this time of night?" I grumbled to myself, as I pulled myself off my battered two-seater sofa and made my way into the hall. Two of my cats (Mr Paws and Tabitha) followed.
"Who's out there?!" I called through the letter box. Probably kids messing about, I thought to myself. "Bothering an old lady! I'll have words with your parents, so I will!"
The only reply was the sound of an old man laughing. "My dear woman, I think you'll find that my parents are long dead." Reassured, but still wondering who was calling this late, I unlocked the front door and opened it. There, on the doorstep stood a man who was familiar to anyone connected with the wizarding world - Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Order of Merlin (First Class) . . . I knew he had a couple of other titles, but what they were escaped me for a moment. But there was no mistaking that long white beard, those half-moon glasses, that crooked nose.
"P - Professor Dumbledore," I stammered, suddenly conscious of my old pink slippers and the cat hairs on my skirt. "What are you doing here?"
His eyes had a mischievious twinkle. "Please, call me Albus; you're not at Hogwarts now." Of course, being a Squib, I had never even been to Hogwarts, though my brother and sister had been. But I did not bother to point this out. "And, as a matter of fact, I have something important to discuss with you," he went on. "Something I can't discuss out here in case . . ." He nodded in the direction of the neighbouring house and I guessed what he meant. Never discuss wizarding affairs if there is the slightest risk of a Muggle overhearing - that's one of the most important tenets of wizarding law.
"Well, then you'd better come in," I said, turning to go back inside and waiting for him to follow.
I led Dumbledore into my sitting room, nearly tripping over Polly, the oldest of my then current "family" of cats, along the way. She shrieked and ran under a chair as fast as her arthritic thirteen-year-old legs would carry her. Arriving in the sitting room, I invited Dumbledore to sit down, which he did, settling himself into an armchair as I sat down on the sofa. Dumbledore then pulled out his wand and conjured two goblets and a bottle of wine out of thin air.
"Can I offer you a drink?" he asked. I nodded and he made the wine pour itself into the goblets, both of which were floating in mid-air. He caught hold of the one nearest to him, then sent the other floating in my direction. I caught it and took a sip. A sweet white wine, if I wasn't mistaken.
"Anyway, as they say, let's get down to business," Dumbledore said at length. "You've heard of our recent troubles, I believe."
"Yes," I replied. I had done some work for the Order of the Phoenix, the organisation set up to fight You-Know-Who and his followers - or as much as I could do given my lack of magic. Then, I recalled the conversation I'd overheard on the way to the supermarket; it was something about You-Know-Who and a baby called Harry Potter.
"Well," Dumbledore went on, taking another sip of his wine, "as you may have heard, Voldemort . . ." Unlike most people in the wizarding world, he had no qualms about saying You-Know-Who's name out loud. " . . . is gone at last. But for how long? But I didn't come here just to tell you that . . ." He paused, then asked me: "You are familiar with the Potters?"
I nodded. I'd met Lily and James through the Order, but they and their son, Harry, had been in hiding for the last year, targetted by You-Know-Who and his followers. They were subject to the Fidelius Charm, which meant no-one except the Secret Keeper could reveal their location. But, if that was the case . . . What could have happened to them? I paused with my goblet of wine halfway to my lips.
Dumbledore must have read my mind because his face then took on the expression of someone who is about to break some bad news. "I'm afraid," he told me, "Lily and James have been betrayed. Last night, Voldemort arrived at their house and . . . killed them. The Killing Curse."
For a moment, I wondered if I'd heard correctly. Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse, was the worst of the three Unforgivable Curses; anyone struck by it was instantly killed, leaving no obvious sign of how they died. In the years since You-Know-Who started his reign of terror, he and his followers had used this curse on countless wizards. Whole families had been wiped out as a result. And Lily and James - such a nice young couple . . .
"I'm afraid it's true," was the next thing I heard Dumbledore say. "And their son, Harry . . ."
"What?" I asked sharply. "What about Harry?" I knew it was foolish of me, but I didn't want to believe that even You-Know-Who was capable of using the Killing Curse on a baby.
"Voldemort tried to kill Harry as well," Dumbledore replied. "But it didn't work . . ." He paused to take another sip of wine. "Oh, the Curse hit Harry all right, but he's still alive. A small child survived a curse which would mean certain death to you or me. Not only that, it rebounded on Voldemort and that's what finally broke his power."
"But how?" I asked. "And what's going to happen to Harry now?"
Dumbledore looked at me for several seconds. "Well, as far as we've been able to tell, Lily was trying to shield Harry when she was killed. That created some powerful protective magic, enough to deflect a Killing Curse. As for what's going to happen to Harry, he does have family who can take him in. Do you know the Dursleys?"
"Not well." The Dursleys lived two streets away, but I'd never had much to do with them. From what I did know, which wasn't very much, I knew Mr Dursley worked for a company which made drills and Mrs Dursley was a housewife. I'd seen her in the supermarket a few times, accompanied in the last several months by her baby son. But we'd never spoken at length; the one time I tried to start a conversation, she looked at me as though I was a stain on her immaculate coat and walked off down the aisle. What did the Dursleys have to do with all this?
"Mrs Dursley - Petunia - is Lily's sister," Dumbledore went on. "And the protection Lily gave Harry will only continue to function until he comes of age or until he no longer has a home among his mother's family. That is why he will shortly be delivered to the Dursleys. Voldemort's followers are still at large and we fear they will stop at nothing to do what their leader failed to do - kill Harry Potter. There is even a risk that Voldemort himself may one day return and I need Harry to be ready when he does. Oh, I have my reasons," he added, with that twinkle in his eye. But his tone told me that he could not reveal what those reasons were.
Dumbledore continued talking for a while longer, explaining that he would be leaving a letter with Harry to explain everything. The news that Petunia Dursley was Lily Potter's sister was new to me, though Lily had once mentioned having a sister whom she never saw. From what she'd said, there had been some . . . unpleasentness, something to do with Petunia resenting all the attention Lily was getting for being a witch. And, from what I'd seen of Petunia, that didn't surprise me.
"Arabella," Dumbledore said at length, "I didn't come here just to talk - I have an important job for you. While Harry is growing up, will you keep an eye on him?"
"But don't tell him anything about us, not for a few years anyway. He'll find out he's a wizard when he's old enough to go to Hogwarts - best keep it hushed up until then." Dumbledore smiled again. "As for telling him that you're a Squib, do it when you think he's ready. Oh, we could station some adult wizards to keep an eye on Harry, but we feel you would attract less attention." He chuckled. "After all, not many people are going to suspect you of being anything other than a batty old lady with a lot of cats." He gestured towards the felines stationed around the living room.
"And," he added, "I'll be telling Petunia this in my letter . . ." He paused. "So, will you do it?"
"Yes," I replied, sensing the importance of what he was saying. "I'll do it."
Dumbledore nodded approvingly. "Good. And, now, I must be going. Goodbye." With that, he got to his feet, placing his now empty goblet on my coffee table. "By the way," he added, "you may keep the bottle of wine." With that, he Disapparated, vanishing into thin air with a loud crack which sent my cats scurrying for cover.
And, on that night, I became the keeper of a secret which I would hold for almost fourteen years.