Mae, Moi & Amarenima: I hope to slot Sholto into the backstory at this point, yes. But I'm never sure how it will work out until it's written; and it's not written yet.
Guest: Nope, 'deserts' is spelled that way in this instance, I checked. (I'm trying to be more careful, especially after not spelling 'desserts' correctly a couple of chapters ago.)
Bluepanda: Nah, Riddle would just say that it was a verbal threat, and that Cato was unstable.
Raven: I didn't think of that...!
I didn't really intend that Regent's Park would be literally haunted, but then two reviewers complained that it wasn't, and I thought – well, why not? Yes, this notion is something of a rip-off of the Noel Coward play (and movie) "Blithe Spirit", wherein the first wife haunts the second one.
Thanks to everyone who reviewed. The review count reached 1,500 last chapter; and in this chapter we go back to the present.
CHAPTER EIGHTY-ONE: THE NOT-SO-BLITHE SPIRIT
In which Petunia meets the other permanent resident of Regent's Park, and becomes acquainted with a slightly shady phantom, who might have an agenda of her own.
At this point, Petunia had mercy on the harried Mr. Crouch, and allowed him to take a break. There were a lot of interesting things in the diaries, she felt, but still nothing more about the most important things, the horcruxes. She did file away for future reference the fact that Cato and Dumbledore were acquainted, and how they had become so. Dumbledore hadn't mentioned this to her, she noted with interest, if not surprise. She also wondered what had happened to Riddle's wand.
Mr. Crouch urged her to allow him to continue the translations more slowly, because of the threat to accuracy if he hurried through them, he said, and reluctantly, but conceding the point, Petunia agreed. Mistakes could be deadly at this point.
The next day, by way of distraction while she waited, Petunia took both the boys, Pompey, and Ishmael to Regent's Park to help Titus with the clearing of the debris in the front of the house. But to her exasperation, as soon as the boys clapped eyes on the television at the back, they had it on and were watching it. They hadn't seen one in some years, and they exclaimed, laughing, over the changes they noticed since then. Even Pompey and Ishmael were rather interested, and they all managed to draw Titus in. He was a bit horrified by what he saw, but in a rather fascinated way. They found a soccer match, and the boys began explaining the rules to Titus, Pompey and Ishmael. Petunia watched them for moment, and noted that they all seemed enthusiastic and happy. She didn't feel like playing her usual role of the group wet blanket, not today, and so she edged out of the room quietly and went to the front of the house by herself.
She began to make notes on the contents of the rooms, prepatory to moving the items elsewhere, for which she decided that she would call in the rest of the party, soccer match or no. There was a lot of work to be done, and like Titus had, and as she inspected the largest room, she felt rather defeated by the scale of the task. It was very hard to know where to start. She was concentrating on counting the number of linen-fold panels in one corner, when she heard something.
"Good luck on that, you'll need it," an amused female voice said, and Petunia jumped.
At first she thought that it must be Nancy, the resident house elf, but then she noticed a human-sized figure sitting on top of a dusty wardrobe. Petunia could see the flaking and dingy wallpaper through it – or her; and it was obvious that she was a ghost. She was dangling her legs off the wardrobe in an idle sort of way, her high heels half falling off, and giving Petunia an interested look.
"Sorry," said Petunia, once she had overcome her first surprise. "I didn't mean to disturb you." I suppose most wizarding homes have ghosts, so why should this one be any different?
"I'm not disturbed," the ghost said emphatically. "I'm bored!"
Petunia wasn't quite sure how to respond to this, and looked around rather desperately for Titus, or indeed anyone who was breathing; but to no avail. Finally she said: "How can I help you, then?"
The ghost gave her a slightly disdainful look. "You can't, can you?" she said.
Petunia could hardly disagree. "Have you been here long, then?" she asked desparately, thinking that it sounded like a damnably stupid question, but she didn't know what else to say. Does it really matter how long she's been here? And the answer to that question is, no I don't suppose it does, not to her.
The ghost indeed looked exasperated. "Since I was killed, yes."
"You were killed here?" Petunia asked her, startled.
"Not here," the ghost said. "I was killed just after Voldemort's war. Not because I was participating in it, or anything of that nature, mind you, but because I was incautious and a Muggleborn. Stupid damn reason, wasn't it? Are you a pure-blood?"
"No, I'm a Muggleborn, like you," Petunia said. She generally resented this question whenever it was asked, but oddly enough, not this time.
The ghost's raised her brows and gave her an aggravated look. "He never learns!" she hissed. "Never!"
"Who doesn't learn?" Petunia asked, taken aback.
"Titus!" said the ghost in a discontented voice. "You'd really think he'd get himself a nice, safe pure-blood or maybe even a half-blood in a pinch, but no! Another Muggleborn! Yet again! I have absolutely no patience with it!"
The ghost now flitted down from the top of the wardrobe, sat herself down in a battered armchair, cross her legs, and began to inspect Petunia with minute precision. Petunia felt suddenly embarrassed by her slightly amused scrutiny. She could also see that the ghost was – or had been - very pretty, with a piquant face, a mop of curly hair, and a slender figure. She felt absolutely lumpen in comparison.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"My name is Elvira," the ghost said. "and I'm Titus' ex-wife."
Petunia gasped, and Elvira looked pleased by her reaction. "Didn't he tell you about me, then?" she asked, sounding rather piqued.
"Not directly, but Hector did," Petunia admitted.
"Nothing good, I'll be bound," Elvira said, her face clouding.
"Nothing bad, he just said you were both too young for marriage, and that you didn't have too much in common," Petunia rushed to say, wondering why on earth she should want to reassure Elvira, but somehow she did.
"Well, he's not wrong about that," Elvira said, sounding rather despondent. After a pause, she changed the subject, gave Petunia another up-and-down look and asked: "Have you been married before, then?"
Petunia admitted that she had.
"What was he like?" Elvira wanted to know. "Your first husband, I mean."
"Awful," said Petunia succinctly.
Elvira sighed. "A good many first husbands do tend to be that way, don't they?" she said. "Also second ones, if you're not careful. In fact, as I found out, they can be decidedly worse."
Petunia wondered if Elvira was trying to warn her off, and by way of deflecting that conversation, asked the ghost what she was doing in Regent's Park, if she had been killed elsewhere. The query sounded painfully blunt, and she winced a little after she realized what she had said.
To her relief, Elvira seemed quite unconcerned. "Bloody good question," she responded. "I've never been sure. Unfinished business, perhaps? Though I had already been divorced from Titus for two or three years by that time."
"Were you killed by Death Eaters?" Petunia was curious, despite her discomfort with interrogating someone who had died violently. It seemed damned indelicate, somehow.
"Well, yes, indirectly," said Elvira. "I had acquired a boyfriend – very good looking, the edgy, smouldering type, you know the style. Once you're divorced, you head for the opposite of the spouse you've just discarded, right? Well, I have to say, Denzil qualified. I was really mad about him – in more ways than one, or so it proved."
She sighed deeply. "Times were hard," she continued, "and I decided not to tell people that I was Muggleborn, you know? None of their business, anyway, unless I decided it was. I went to school on the continent, so the fact wasn't well known. But with Denzil, I made a first-class mistake: we were married, privately, in a bit of a hurry – it was a whim on his part - and I still hadn't told him. And he was a pureblood, too."
"Oops," said Petunia.
"Well, exactly," said Elvira, sighing again. "Of course, after we were married, he suddenly got very tight-assed about it, and demanded to meet my family. I said I was an orphan, and by a singular coincidence, my parents were also orphans. That held the fort for a bit, but eventually I made an even bigger mistake. I told him the truth. I thought he wouldn't care, because he loved me, or so he always said."
"He did care, then?" Petunia said.
"Oh, yes, he cared," Elvira said, her head down, kicking her feet for emphasis. One shoe flew off in a perfect parabola, but she managed to catch it deftly, and place it back on her foot within the space of a second, all without looking a Petunia. "In fact, he killed me for it. He flew into a fit of rage, and kept shouting that I had defiled him, his house, and his blood, or some such bloody nonsense. Nothing I could say or do would calm him down, and he AK'd me right then and there. Bit of a shock to me, I must say."
"I suppose it must have been," Petunia said, in a choked voice. "But if your second husband killed you, why are you haunting your first husband's house? What sense does that make? It just doesn't follow."
Elvira shook her head. "It makes no sense, I agree. But I've been here ever since. I do wish I knew why, but I don't. I suspect it's one of those wizarding things that Muggleborns will never understand, because in fact, there's no actual good reason beyond some bloody stupid tradition."
"I know that feeling," Petunia said, suppressing an impulse to applaud this sentiment.
Elvira even smiled at her a little: "I'll bet you do. Being a Muggleborn in the wizarding world is fraught at the best of times, I think. But in the middle of a civil war, it's deadly." Is this a warning? Because I already know about the danger; I can hardly avoid knowing, when we live in the middle of No Man's Land.
Elvira looked about the ruined room and shrugged. "It's been very lonely here, you know," she said. "Those stupid house elves are larcenous morons and no company for me, or for anyone, for that matter. Titus hardly spends any time here. We had great plans for this place, but you'd never know it. I wonder why he's left it like this all this time? It's such a shame."
Elvira surveyed the piles of dusty rubble again rather wistfully, and added: "If it wasn't for the television, I'd have no distraction at all. I do enjoy it. Reminds me of my childhood, I suppose."
"You helped them - the elves, I mean - set the television up, didn't you?" Petunia was suddenly sure of it.
"Yes, of course I did," Elvira said. "That lot couldn't even plug in anything without a detailed diagram, believe me. It did take a little doing, and a bit of repair of the electrical system, which is absolutely prehistoric, believe me. Dodger can do things if you explain them to him in detail and at length, and supervise him closely. And at least it does help me pass the time. Of course, those nasty elves threatened to tell Titus that I was here if I didn't continue to help them with it - not that I'd stop, in any case."
"He doesn't know?" Petunia was astonished.
"No, he doesn't," said Elvira, with an air of discontent. "As I said, he doesn't spend much time here, never has. And when he is here, I don't appear."
"Why not?" Petunia asked her. "Are you still angry at him?"
"Other way around," said Elvira rather ruefully. "I'm afraid that he might still be angry at me."
"I thought you said that you divorced him?" Petunia said. "Or was I wrong on that point?"
"I did file the petition, but he actually had the grounds," Elvira said, "We pretended that I did, though, for the record. I'm not sure that anyone was fooled. In fact, I doubt it. Typically, Titus was a gentleman about it, damn him anyway."
"You would have preferred that he not be a gentleman?" Petunia was now confused.
"I would have preferred that he cared more than he seemed to," Elvira said. "I wanted the marriage to end, but I didn't want him to be too damn happy about it. I know that sounds stupid – but you know what I mean."
Petunia rather thought she did. She nodded ruefully.
"Then there was Marcella," Elvira said. "She didn't like me at all, and the feeling was entirely mutual. She's not Titus' mother, but she might as well be."
"What didn't she like about you?" Petunia asked her.
"Oh, I don't know," Elvira said. "That I was breathing?"
"In other words," said Petunia, "she was her usual ultra-charming self."
"She was pretty ambitious for Titus, I think," Elvira said. "She thought a Muggleborn wife – particularly one like me - wouldn't help him in his career, and she was undoubtedly right about that, especially in those times. I did often wonder if Titus had married me as a way of rebelling against her."
"And what was your conclusion?" Petunia asked.
"Well, I think that he just likes Muggleborns, to judge from you," Elvira said. "How very depressing!"
"Why depressing?" Petunia was finding this conversation increasingly baffling.
"Well, when your marriage breaks down, you seize upon every reason you can think of to justify your side of the dispute, don't you?" Elvira said. "I know I did. You demonize literally everything you can about your spouse. The fact was, Titus was a decent man, and I wasn't able to recognize it at that time. Too young, and just too bloody stupid."
She sounded miserable. Petunia hardly knew what to say, given that she hadn't had to demonize her first husband; he had already accomplished all that, in her opinion. However, he hadn't murdered her, so she supposed that she should be grateful, especially confronted with someone who hadn't been as lucky.
After a pause, she said gently: "Do you want me to call Titus so you can talk to him? He's in the kitchen, I think."
"No!" cried Elvira. "And please don't tell him that you've seen me! It's too embarrassing!"
"I don't understand," Petunia said, though she suspected what the problem was.
"Yes, I can just imagine the fun I'd have telling Titus that the man I dumped him for murdered me," Elvira said. "I'd never live that one down."
"You've not going to live it down, period," Petunia said. "You're dead, which I think you've noticed."
"Oh, I've noticed it, yes; but you've heard of a fate worse than death, haven't you?" said Elvira, with a half-smile. There was something in her voice that made Petunia feel awkward.
"Titus wouldn't make you feel badly about it," she said, as gently as she could. "He's not like that."
"He wouldn't say anything," Elvira said, "but he'd think it. I know he would. I don't blame him, exactly, but he's bound to. I didn't treat him very well."
"Very well," Petunia said, trying to keep a brake on her impatience. "There's the end of that notion; I won't call him in. What do you want me to do for you, then?"
"First, promise not to tell Titus you've seen me," Elvira begged. "I shouldn't have appeared, but I was just so damned desperate to talk to someone who wasn't an elf."
Petunia was most reluctant to give such a promise; it seemed to her that Titus was bound to find out, and the sooner he was told the better. But she did feel sorry for Elvira, even as she wondered if the ghost was telling her the truth. Eventually, to her own frustration, but in the face of Elvira's growing distress, she did promise. "What now?" she asked.
"Talk to me a bit," said Elvira. "I haven't talked to an adult in a long, long time. Tell me about yourself."
Petunia would have never expected to have a long heart-to-heart conversation with a ghost, but after a reluctant start, she found herself telling Elvira more about herself and her life than she had ever intended. An invitation to talk about oneself is irresistible, I suppose. She's much sharper than she looks.
"You were right," said Elvira, once she had finished. "Vernon was awful. Is he still binned?"
"Yes, last I heard, and I'd know, since I'm his committee," Petunia said.
"What's that?" Elvira asked, puzzled.
"Fancy word for court-appointed power of attorney," Petunia said. "He doesn't get out unless there's a court hearing to revoke it, and they would notify me if anything like that happened."
"Muggles don't have magic," said Elvira. "But we do have some highly useful things, don't we? Good for them, and you."
But Petunia felt uneasy. In her place, I would have envied my good luck as compared to hers. I can't believe that she doesn't. I see no sign of it, but then I can't say that I've have very much experience with ghosts.
"I've often wondered what my life would have been like if my magic hadn't been buried," Petunia said suddenly. "I wanted to go to Hogwarts with my sister, and when they rejected me, I really thought my life was over. Now that I think it over, it may well have saved my life."
"It's quite possible," said Elvira. "I loved the idea of being a witch, but I couldn't say it wasn't a dangerous business, especially with Voldemort about. Did for me, anyway."
"I'm sorry," said Petunia, wondering why she felt so guilty. "What did your family think about it?"
Elvira laughed. "Well, for once, I was telling the truth," she said. "I was an orphan. I was brought up by a guardian, but once I went away to school, we didn't have much contact. I think one of the reasons that I married Titus is that I wanted to fit in, and have a family, which isn't a very good reason, come to think of it." No, it isn't, but I know exactly what you're saying. Did it myself, in fact.
She gave Petunia another searching look, and said: "The elves tell me that Titus is courting you. In general, they're as stupid as rocks, but on the other hand, he's never brought any of his other girlfriends here, so I think they may be right. Are you interested?"
Petunia stiffened at this rather personal question, and she gave definite consideration to snubbing Elvira for asking it, but could not bring herself to the sticking point. "We're talking about it, but not seriously, not yet," she said coolly.
"A good man is hard to find," Elvira said, ignoring Petunia's tone. "Don't talk too long."
"You divorced him!" Petunia pointed out.
"Yes, I did," Elvira agreed. "but I never claimed that I made the right decision. All I'm saying is: give him a fair chance, and don't judge him by your first."
"And, of course, Marcella's still around," Petunia said.
Elvira gave her a sharp look, and said: "I rather think you could deal with Marcella." Petunia suddenly remembered that Hector had said something similar, and wondered again why everyone seemed to think that she was so much stronger than she actually was.
"After all," Elvira said thoughtfully, "you're older and smarter than I was. And then, too, Marcella must be older by now."
"She is, but it hasn't affected her stream-roller tendencies in the slightest," Petunia said, and Elvira laughed. It must be some time since that's happened to her, I would guess.
Since Elvira had no trouble in asking her personal questions, Petunia decided that turnabout was fair play. "And what about you?" she said. "Do you intend to stay here forever, ducking out of view whenever Titus comes into view?"
Elvira's face froze, just for a second. "No," she said, shortly. "I have something else in mind. Haven't met you, I'm hoping that maybe you can help me with it."
The door creaked open suddenly, and Petunia practically jumped out of her chair. But it was Ishmael. He hopped into the room and onto the back of the chair that Elvira had just been sitting in.
"Going to come in for tea, missus?" he asked. "If you don't you'll miss the fun of Old Persimmons versus the pickpockets. The latter are three to his one, but they're thoroughly outnumbered; they just don't know it yet. In fact, they don't have a hope in hell, if you ask me. He'll have them saluting in no time. And even better, Arsenal's in the lead."
"I'll be right there, Ishmael," Petunia said, making a show of gathering up the house plans and her notes. "You go on ahead."
He flew obediently out of the room, and Petunia looked around for Elvira. She was nowhere to be seen: "Elvira?" Petunia said in a low voice. No response. No one on top of the wardrobe, no one sitting in the chair. Maybe I've finally melted down for good. I've been threatening to do it for years.
But as she reached for the door, Elvira's voice said in her ear, "Remember your promise!"
"I'll remember," Petunia said.
Once she entered the hall, she saw that Ishmael hadn't been as obedient as she thought. He was perched on the newel post of the staircase to the upper floors, and he gave her an interested look.
"Who was that ghost, missus?" he asked. "Anyone I know?"