'Mwaa … waah,' it begins, then silence follows; I am instantly awake. It's my turn.
There is a sob, then suddenly silence again. The silence stretches on, but, thankfully, the crying starts again. My heart is racing, that's what the silence does; beside me, there is a tired groan.
'Wutime izzit?' Ginny mumbles sleepily.
'Half past two,' I tell her as I slide from our warm and comfortable bed. I grab my wand and turn off the Listening Charm. The noise is still audible, but only just. It is muffled by the thick old walls of this house. Ginny's hand clumsily caresses my bare back; she is speaking, but she isn't really awake.
'Thanksarry,' she murmurs drowsily, her words running together. 'Li'lsod. Whyisn' 'e a gud'n like Jameswas?'
'He's different, we're all different,' I whisper. There is no reply. Her breathing is steady and regular. She knows that I'm up, so she has already drifted back into slumber.
I tuck my wand into the waistband of my pyjama trousers, fumble for my glasses and put them on. I do this from habit. I don't need glasses or wand to do what I'm about to do. In total darkness I make my way towards our bedroom door – a task made simple by practice, as these early morning excursions have become a regular occurrence.
I keep both hands in front of me. My left hand is high and outstretched; my right lower, at waist height, but also stretched forwards. My right hand hits the dresser by the door so I move to the left, fumbling for my dressing gown, which is hanging on a hook on the back of the door. I find Ginny's first; I can tell them apart by touch. Hers is much softer than mine. Why is my dressing gown ialways beneath hers? I unhook hers, then mine, replace hers and put mine on. I'm certain that I could carry out this ritual in my sleep. Sometimes I think that I do carry out this ritual in my sleep.
I open the door as quietly as I can, step onto the landing and close it in the same fashion. I use my wand to turn up the lamps. Even though the light is dim, it makes me blink. Placing my wand in the pocket of my dressing gown, I stride along to the nursery.
'Mwaa … waah…' The sound is a little more urgent this time. It's not just a noise, it's a cry for help; the only way my son can attract our attention. My heart, which had slowed, beats faster again as it does every time I hear the noise. Even James's cry, which is now very different from Al's, still affects me in the same way. It must be an inbuilt sense of protectiveness. My younger son needs help and he will get it; my sons will always get my help.
I softly open his door; the room is illuminated by a faint glow. Unlike his brother, he doesn't like pitch black. James must have absolute darkness to sleep, but little Al needs light.
'Hi, Al,' I whisper. 'What's the matter, son?' He wails an unhappy reply.
'Come here, little fella,' I whisper as I reach into his cot and scoop him from it. I carefully lift him up to my shoulder, his favourite position. My left hand holds his bottom, balancing him in an upright position; my right rests gently on his back, just in case he pushes himself away from me. His chin rests on my shoulder. The side of his head rests against my cheek. His hair is thick and black but, unlike my own, it is soft and fine. I love the sensation of my son's hair on my flesh. The silky-soft down covering his skull tickles and caresses my stubble-covered cheek.
For a moment I think that he will stay there, but he determinedly pushes himself away from my body and squirms sideways. I adjust my hold and rest him against my chest. He turns and nuzzles inwards, giving me final confirmation. I now know exactly what he wants. He clucks and grumbles when he realises that I can't provide it.
'It's the only thing I can't do for you, Al,' I tell him. 'I'm sorry.'
My apology is not enough. He begins to wail. I do the only thing I ican/i. I cradle him in my right arm and brush my left little finger against his cheek. He turns his head and sucks my finger into his mouth. A tiny tongue wraps around my finger and applies pressure. He is silent, sucking contentedly, but he won't stay like this for long and I don't want his cries to wake James.
Wondering as I always do what this sensation – which is pleasant on my finger – feels like for Ginny, I hurry back along to our bedroom. I have minutes at most before he spits out my finger in disgust and demands the real thing. Tongue and gum move on my finger as I walk. They apply a surprising amount of pressure. I try to remember if James's suckling reflex was this strong.
There is no reason to open the bedroom door quietly. Ginny will have to be woken.
'He's hungry,' I tell her loudly as I push open the door. She groans, but sits up in bed.
'Tits out for the lad,' she grumbles. My wife can be rather crude and coarse when she's tired or annoyed, and right now she's both. She shuffles backwards and turns to fumble with her pillows, to prop them up behind her. She is trying to ensure that she will be comfortable when she leans back against the bed head.
'I'll do that for you,' I tell her, as my son finally realises that he is unable to get any sustenance from my finger. 'Al's getting impatient with me.'
She lets the pillows fall and leans forwards, reaching for her buttons with one hand and our baby with the other.
Ginny wears the old fashioned, striped, button-up pyjama jacket which was one of our wedding presents from George. He bought Ginny and I the most unfashionable, and unsexy nightwear he could find. I never wore mine. Ginny, however, still wears hers. After several strategic adjustments, she wore it on our wedding night.
She began wearing my pyjama jacket when James was born. She cut off the sleeves and it is now a short, button up night dress. It is only just thigh length and very easy to remove. But this is not the time for such thoughts.
Ginny quickly unfastens three of the four buttons. She pulls the jacket open and it falls off both shoulders to her elbows. I bring our hungry son to her, reaching her just in time. Albus uses his tongue to disdainfully push my finger from his mouth. He screws up his face, but doesn't cry. He knows that his mother is near. He can smell milk. As I pass him to my wife he is already struggling out of my arms, turning towards her, wriggling away from me.
I am simply not good enough for him, not now, not for this job. There is nothing that I can do about that. When James was born I suggested that we buy something called a breast pump, a Muggle contraption. After she'd finished laughing, Ginny instantly dismissed the idea. When Rose was born, Hermione tried to use one, but she hated the thing. Feeding our baby is Ginny's job and hers alone.
I arrange the pillows behind her while she rearranges Al in her arms. There are a few seconds of "feed me" mewling, then a surprisingly loud "schlap" as the connection is made. Mother and son are one. The noise Al makes seems deafening in the quiet room. His hungry gulping is magnified by the silence and stillness of the night. I hold two pillows behind Ginny's back.
'Okay?' I ask. She leans back, shakes her head, and moves forward again.
'A little higher,' she orders.
I adjust the pillows. She leans back again and wriggles into a comfortable position.
'Perfect. Thanks, Harry.'
She's fully awake now. She tries to hold Al steady while lifting an elbow. He complains, so she gives up. She is trying, and failing, to adjust the pyjama jacket. She wants to cover "the spare" as she calls it. I reach down and pull the jacket onto her shoulder for her.
'Thanks, Harry,' she smiles sleepily.
I'd be happy for her to remain uncovered, but it is rather cool in the bedroom. I stand and watch mother and son.
The bedroom door is ajar. The only light flickers faintly from the dimmed lamps on the landing. Ginny's freckled skin shines pale in the low light. A head of jet black hair is clamped firmly to her chest. A tiny fist reaches up and strokes her neck. Ginny gently catches the fist and kisses it. She looks up at me and smiles.
I want a camera! Now! I want to capture that tired, but contended smile and that tiny flailing pink hand forever. But already, the moment is gone. The hand sinks down and Ginny lowers her head, concentrating on the job at hand. I stand and watch.
'You should try to get some sleep, Harry,' she tells me. 'I think I'm going to be some time. He's a greedy little so and so. Aren't you, Al?'
Al does not reply. He makes no sound; well, no sound except slurp, slurp, gurgle, gurgle.
I yawn. Perhaps I should get some sleep. Tomorrow is my last day in the office until next year.
But I am the Deputy Head Auror. If I'm tired and grumpy on Christmas Eve, my staff will just have to accept it.
'You can put him back when he's done,' Ginny suggests. She knows that I feel left out.
'Okay.' I walk around the bed, drop my dressing gown onto the floor and climb in alongside my wife and baby. I pull up the duvet, roll onto my side and watch.
From this angle I see Ginny's head in profile. Her lips are curved into a gentle smile. Her hair tumbles over a freckled shoulder. The shoulder which is still famous for the creation of the "Weasley Curve", the move which could send the Quaffle arcing and spinning past many a Keeper, now cradles our second son. As I watch, fine red strands slide around her slender upper arm and slip onto the curve of her breast. I enjoy watching her hair move.
I gently reach across and move the hair from Ginny's breast. If that little fist begins to flail again, and finds hair, there will be trouble. The last time he managed to catch his mother's unbound hair, he pulled hard and wouldn't let go. She shouted and swore and it took us hours to calm him down.
Ginny knows why I'm doing what I'm doing, but chooses to tease me anyway.
'Any excuse for a grope,' she tells me.
'I don't need an excuse,' I tell her, after moving her hair safely behind her shoulder. I slide my hand under the duvet and place it on her knee. She says nothing, so I slide the hand up her leg.
'Go to sleep, Harry,' she orders.
'I am asleep,' I protest.
I'm lying to my wife while lying at her side. I keep my eyes open. Sleep may come, but I'm happy watching. I'm more than happy watching. I'm at peace, fulfilled, content. It is a wonderful feeling. I'm turned on, too.
I keep watching and I keep my hand on my wife's warm thigh, but my mind drifts.
I remember a conversation I had with Ron, just before Albus was born.
I no longer work with Ron. More accurately, he no longer works with me. Like Neville, when the last of those who had escaped from the Battle of Hogwarts was captured, when Colin Creevey's killer was captured, he resigned from the Auror Office. The job had never really suited him. He left without regret to join George. I didn't try to persuade him to stay. Somehow, we both realised that if he stayed, one day I'd be his boss. We both knew that I'd never be able to discipline him. He's happier as a businessman and he's wealthier, too.
Ginny and I see Ron and Hermione once or twice a week, and once a month our wives have a "girls' night". Luna joins them, if she's in the country. Once a month we are chucked out, so Ron and I meet at The Cricketers for a couple of pints, sometimes even three.
The Cricketers is a Muggle pub. We call it our local, which is nonsense. We're wizards, we could make any pub in the country our local by simply Apparating there and then Apparating back home. The Cricketers is actually Hermione's Dad's local. Ron and I meet there on the third Thursday of the month.
While Hermione and Ginny drink a bottle of wine and gossip, one month in Grimmauld Place, the next in Oakford Fitzpaine, Ron and I meet in the pub and talk about Quidditch, work and "stuff." We don't gossip because we're blokes, and blokes don't gossip. We do, however, exchange important information about our friends and family.
I think back to six months ago. Ginny was (in her words) "the size of a house and about to pop" and Ron was the proud dad of then seven month old Rosie. We began the evening updating each other on the progress of our children. We chatted about work, about Seamus and Sinead's recent wedding, and about Susan's upcoming wedding. Susan is, of course, Auror Summerby now, not that I've grown used to calling her that even after all these months. Ron had been drinking quickly, not nursing his pint. I'd been keeping up. When we finished our third, it was still early.
'Want another?' Ron asked nervously. I recognised the signs: Ron was seeking Dutch courage, so I nodded. We'd been drinking the guest ale, a Kentish beer called Spitfire, I think. Ron returned from the bar with another two pints and took a gulp from his.
'Harry,' he began. He wasn't looking directly at me.
'Ginny … fed … James, didn't she?'
'You know she did, yes.'
'What did you do?'
'Whatever I could, Ron, I was usually the one who put him back in his cot afterwards, if it was a night feed. I winded him…' I stopped. I saw my friend's face, that wasn't what Ron was asking.
'I watched,' I told him. 'I watched my wife feeding our son. It's a wonderful thing to watch.'
Ron nodded in relief.
'I watch too, but Hermione doesn't like me to. She wants to be left alone. She says that she feels … exposed.'
'That's because she is,' I reminded him, smiling.
Ron grinned. 'Yeah, but it's not like they're something I haven't seen before. Hell, you've seen 'em, too.'
'True,' I agreed. 'But Hermione keeps things separate. Topless sunbathing when we're on holiday in Crete, or France, is apparently perfectly acceptable to our wives. But Hermione would be mortified if I even saw her in her underwear at home.'
'You're right,' Ron said, 'and I'd be pissed off about it, too. But we've been married four-and-a-bit years, and it's only me; I see 'em all the time.' He stopped, apparently unsure what to say next. He took another gulp of beer.
'So…' I asked.
'So she asks me to leave the room, to leave her in peace, while she's feeding Rosie.'
'And you want to watch the wonderful sight.'
'Yeah, it's my wife feeding my daughter, but she thinks it's creepy of me.'
'Creepy!' I exclaimed in surprise. 'I think that it's the most natural thing in the world.'
Ron nodded and swigged back most of the rest of the pint. 'She's still tired and crabby, and I don't want to start an argument over it…'
'But…' I sought the right words, 'it's the only thing Hermione can do, must do, that you can't. Try telling her that, and that you want to be a part of it.'
'That's a good way to put it, mate.'
'D'you want me to write it down for you?' I joked.
'No, I'll remember that, thanks.' He paused. 'Plus,' he added in a whisper, 'it's bloody erotic.'
I nodded, but said nothing. We talk about almost anything, but not about our sex lives. That statement was about as far as Ron had ever gone. I agreed with him, but I wasn't going to say so.
Back in the present I feel myself drifting into sleep. I am soothed into slumber by the sound of my second son suckling.
My sleep is dreamless. It usually is these days. I still have bad nights, though these days they are limited to the first few days of May.
'Waah!' Albus yells in my ear. Again I wake instantly. He is lying next to me, between myself and my wife. The hand which had been on my wife's thigh when I fell asleep is now holding my son's ribs. Albus lies between us. These days, I find that my sons literally come between me and my wife. James will not let Ginny and I hold hands. He steps between us and takes our hands in his, pulling us apart in order to hold us both. I glance at the clock. An hour has passed since we were last disturbed. I have had half an hour of sleep since my last awakening.
'Oh, Al,' Ginny begs.
I slide out of bed again, remember that I discarded my dressing gown on the floor, find it, and put it on. Then I lift my son from my bed.
'Did you wind him?' I ask.
'No,' Ginny admits. 'He fell asleep on my breast, so I just put him down here.'
I stop cradling him and lift him so that his head rests on my left shoulder. My right hand supports him. With my left, I begin gently massaging his back. This is something I can do for my son. I can make him comfortable after his feed. I can burp him, change his nappy, bathe him, play with him, rock him to sleep. All of these things I do.
Our bedroom door remains open. I begin the slow walk back to Al's room. Two steps forwards, sway, one step back, and repeat. Al likes this motion, it keeps him calm. I cannot remember now how I discovered this. All I know is that this peculiar, but regular, motion brought to an end the desperation of the early, entirely sleepless, nights.
Ginny says that Al is more demanding than James. By the time he was six months old, James was sleeping through the night. Rosie, Ron told me, was sleeping through after five months. There is no sign of Al reaching that stage. But he will, eventually.
Last month Ron proudly told us that Rosie was walking. What he meant, I'm certain, was that she had taken a couple of faltering, teetering steps. I remembered how we'd celebrated when James reached that stage. Now I sometimes consider hitting him with a Leg Locker Curse. Everything in the house must be kept higher than his outstretched arm. If James can reach it, he will take it. If James can't eat it, he will try to destroy it.
Ron wanted to know how old James had been when he'd started walking. He was just under a year, I told him. I told him the bad news, too: Keep everything out of reach. He was dismissive. Rosie wouldn't do that, Rosie was perfect. I found myself hoping that he was wrong.
'So Rosie's started walking sooner,' Ron, the competitive dad, said with a grin. Rosie was better at everything, according to Ron. But whenever he starts boasting, it's easy to shut him up.
'In fourteen years she'll be snogging boys in the Hogwarts corridors,' I told him. He scowled, frowned and grumbled. He told me that girls are better than boys, that having a daughter is wonderful and that I'm jealous. Sometimes I wonder if I am.
One of each or three of one, that's what Ginny and I decided when we discovered that she was pregnant with James. Sometimes, though, I wonder. When we have our third, if it's another boy, will we stop, as we'd agreed or will we, too, end up with a Weasley sized family? Bill was the same; he wanted a son after two daughters. He was delighted when Louis was born, four months before James.
Molly and Arthur have nine grandchildren and, according to George and Angelina last week, number ten is on the way. This one came safely within wedlock, unlike Fred, who was born six months after their hastily organised marriage. Four more and we've enough for two junior Quidditch teams. I smile to myself, remembering the look of horror on Hermione's face when I made that observation.
Finally, after several minutes of two steps forwards, one step back, I reach the door to Albus's bedroom. I am rewarded by a satisfied, but very wet sounding belch from my son. I smell semi-digested milk and feel a wet patch on my shoulder. My dressing gown will need cleaning again, but, hopefully Al will settle now.
A sudden, liquid, squelching noise, and a movement from my son's posterior are accompanied by a pungent aroma. I realise that, no, Al will not settle now. I turn on the lights and prepare to change his nappy.
I am an experienced nappy changer, possibly even an expert. I prepare a clean nappy, wipes and powder before I begin.
I once told my boss, Gawain Robards, about my nappy changing prowess (though I can't remember how that came up in an Auror Office conversation). Robards was astonished. He retires next year, on his seventieth birthday, and he has never changed a nappy. He has three children, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Never, he told me, and he was proud of the fact.
I have a godson, two children, and seven nephews and nieces. I have changed all of them, some more often than others. Teddy, the eldest, was my baptism of fire. He was a wriggler. He would not stay still. Sometimes I had to clean hands, legs and back as he tried to squirm in the mess. Al simply lies contented and lets me clean him up.
Teddy gave me my first golden shower, and my second. He prepared me for almost everything. The only thing that he didn't prepare me for was the different smell. Teddy alone was motherless, raised without his mother's milk.
I can now tell the difference between breast and bottle fed babies by the smell and consistency of their poo. Is that another skill worth boasting about? I smile down at my younger son.
Fleur allowed me to change Victoire and Dominique. Girls aren't much different at that age. A difference in urine trajectory is the main thing to be aware of. Victoire was petite and neat; Domi was almost as messy as Teddy. Once my competence was established, I changed, in order of appearance: Molly (such a quiet baby); Fred (Molly's polar opposite – George claimed that he strapped the little monster down before starting – I believed him); then pale, blond Louis the dribbling burbler, always happiest (to his mothers dismay) when he was noisily blowing saliva from his mouth; then came my own James; Lucy (noisier than her sister, though that's not saying much); Rose, and now Al.
I've only changed little Rosie once. I'm the only bloke, apart from Ron, to do so. Ron is not keen on any man getting too close to his auburn haired princess.
I smile to myself as I fasten the nappy onto my clean and contended son. I've finished the job without even thinking about it. I dump soiled nappy and cloths into a bag and tie it tight, to keep the smell in.
Al's green eyes are bright and gaze up into mine. I look back into his eyes which, everyone tells me, look so much like mine. On him, they are beautiful eyes and I feel guilty that, sometimes, I tired of hearing those words about myself and my mother.
'Albus Severus Potter,' I tell him, 'you have your father's eyes, the eyes of the famous Harry Potter. I have no doubt that you'll get heartily sick of being told that, but I'm glad that you have something of mine, something of my Mum's.'
Al gurgles contentedly and smiles.
'It is almost four in the morning,' I tell him. 'Your Mummy is asleep and your Daddy is very tired. But you, little man, suddenly you're wide awake. Your Daddy needs to rest, he needs to be at work in four hours. He needs to be up in three. Will you go to sleep for your Daddy, please?'
He smiles, burbles, and waves a fist at me, firmly indicating that he won't. I lift my son back into my arms and cradle him again. I rock him, and I even sing to him (fortunately he's much too young to be a music critic), but he stubbornly refuses to sleep. Finally, after almost half an hour his face contorts and he regurgitates more milk on my dressing gown.
'Did Daddy not get all that wind the first time?' I ask. 'If he had you'd have slept sooner, wouldn't you?' He sighs, snuggles into my chest and finally closes his eyes. I clean the milk from his cheek using my sleeve. My dressing gown needs cleaning, anyway.
Now comes the moment of truth, the most difficult task. Can I get my sleeping child into his cot without awakening him? I lower him slowly and carefully; this is not a job that can be rushed. My arm hits the mattress and I slowly slide it out from beneath him. The secret, I've learned, is to move his head as little as possible.
Almost there, I hold my breath as I gently lower his head onto the mattress and delicately slip my doting digits through his hair. He's down!
I carefully pull sheet and blanket over him. Still he does not stir. James, I used to kiss; I soon discovered that kissing Al would wake him, so my goodnight kiss is sadly blown. Now, all I need to do is get out of here quietly.
Success! I scurry back to bed and gratefully return to Ginny's side. I'm asleep almost instantly.
Our bedroom door crashes open and a squeaky little voice shouts, 'Mummydaddy, Mummydaddy, wakeup, i's Kissmas!' James, as he always does jumps onto the foot of our bed and crawls up between us. I groan and roll over.
'No, James,' Ginny tells him, 'It's Kissmas Eve, it isn't Kissmas until tomorrow.'
I look at my clock, it's almost half past six. I've had almost five hours sleep, in three stages. But, I remind myself, over the years I've had nights which were a lot worse than this.