Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is…
Hermione Granger, PS, p. 79.
by Dr Helen Granger
I had always planned to have a large family. As a little girl, I fussed over dolls’ prams and tea parties. As a teenager, I babysat for the neighbours, pushing swings in the park and building model railways. As a student, I spent money I couldn’t spare on children’s picture books. I had ridiculous daydreams of twenty children, although I knew, on my saner days, that six would be enough.
But my teachers urged me to choose a career, so while my friends were planning their wedding receptions, I was being interviewed for university. When they were buying their baby layettes, I was still sitting exams. I qualified as a dentist in 1963 and I married my classmate Gerald Granger two years later. We set up a practice together on the ground floor of an elderly Victorian redbrick in Whitesmile Road, Winchester.
The cost of home renovations and surgery equipment left us with a back-breaking mortgage, and of course we had to build up our professional standing too. But there was plenty of time. I liked being a dentist; I liked being married to Gerald; I liked living in Winchester; as the debts were slowly paid off and our professional reputations grew, I also liked the financial security, the domestic help, the holidays in Europe and the theatre subscriptions. But I never forgot my original dream of having children.
It wasn’t until our tenth wedding anniversary that it occurred to me that time might be running out.
“Gerald,” I said across the candles and roses on the restaurant table, “did you never want to have a baby?”
“Of course I did. Sometime.”
“Gerald, we’ve been married ten years. In another ten years it will be too late!”
“So it will. Then I expect the time has now come.”
I was surprised; for some reason, I had assumed that it would be difficult to persuade Gerald. But in fact he made no fuss at all. So we tossed the contraceptives into the dustbin and went out to buy a pram and a cot. I wondered what hours I would be able to work after we had our baby, but I decided to worry about that when it happened.
The one thing I definitely did not expect was that on our eleventh wedding anniversary, Gerald and I would once again face one another across a restaurant table, still childless.
“What went wrong?” I asked him. I knew that some people had fertility problems, but I had never expected it to happen to us. Gerald didn’t know what had gone wrong either, but he knew it was time to consult a doctor.
First there were the rounds of tests on Gerald, which came out clear. Then there were tests on me: examinations, X-rays, laparoscopy, biopsy and endless measuring of bodily functions. I had surgery and I was took drugs. When nothing seemed to make any difference, we turned to alternative medicine: the vitamin supplements, Chinese herbs and acupuncture. We tried any superstition that seemed harmless – cold showers and tampons, hypnotherapy and meditation.
Just when I resigned myself to the reality that nothing was going to work – that I would never have a child – I finally became pregnant. We don’t know what finally went right, but I had a perfect pregnancy. I was thirty-nine years old when I finally held Hermione Jean Granger in my arms.
Hermione was a remarkable baby. She slept through the night at six weeks, crawled at six months, took her first step on her first birthday and never had a day’s illness. Her first sentence was, “The moon is a nearly circle,” which made sense when I remembered the picture in her nursery-rhyme collection. She loved books; I had to read Spot and Brown Bear and The Tiger who came to Tea every single day. By her second birthday, she had begun to read for herself. At first I thought she was simply reciting as Brown Bear is a very memorisable book. But when she opened up a new copy of Cops and Robbers and spelled out, “The wooort of the robbers as most of us cow is dirty Grabber Dan...” I had to believe she was reading it.
In Hermione’s second year I had two miscarriages, and in the year after, a missed abortion. Then... nothing. As month after month ticked by, there were more visits to the doctor, more drugs and experiments and professional expressions of regret. But there was never another baby. By the time we left Hermione at the door of her nursery classroom, aged not quite four, we knew she was going to be an only child, the one in whom we were investing everything.
For the first six weeks, Hermione was very happy at nursery school. She came home reporting like a journalist on the books in the library corner, the posters on the walls even the state of the furniture.
“Some chairs are red and some are blue. I know someone swapped mine because my old one didn’t have a scratch on the leg.”
“Russell and Frances are the ones that miss their mothers the most. Frances always sits in the corner crying, but Russell stands for hours staring at the mice. There are six mice, black ones and brown ones, and the one called Thursday has a crooked back leg.”
“Mike and David fought over the toy train. Miss White wouldn’t let any of us play with it until they learned to share. That isn’t fair, is it? Mike and David were the only ones fighting, but nobody was allowed to use the train set all day.”
“The cleaners couldn’t have come last night because there were still biscuit crumbs on the library carpet this morning. Will they still be paid for the day they didn’t come?”
“Nicola wears a different dress every day. She says it’s shabby to wear the same one three times. She upset Amy and Charlotte, but I don’t mind. Fancy counting what other people are wearing!”
Hermione didn’t notice that she did plenty of her own counting. “We went to the library corner for an hour, and Toby read two books, and Lauren read three, but neither of them read the words properly. Rachel and Andrew and Matthew only read one each, but I read seven...” and of course she listed the seven titles, correcting herself if she recited them in the wrong order.
After six weeks, Hermione stumbled to the school gate sobbing. “Mummy!” she shouted. “Mummy, they... they...” Her words tumbled out in indignant incoherence, and finally she stamped her foot. “They did it, Mummy! Come and ask Miss White!” She took my hand and marched me back into the classroom, where the teacher was pinning a new alphabet poster to the wall.
Hermione planted her hands on her hips and demanded, “Tell her, Miss White! You let them do it!”
Miss White put down the drawing pins and reminded Hermione, “Manners, dear. How do we say it?”
“Oh.” Hermione drew a very deep breath. “Please, Miss White, will you explain to my mother why you let Andrew destroy that book.”
“We’ve had a few hiccups today,” said Miss White. “Mrs Granger, I hope you can help, but... Hermione, why don’t you go and read a book for a few minutes?”
Hermione frowned suspiciously, darting a glance from one to the other of us, before scuttling off to the library corner and grabbing a fat volume. Miss White drew me to the opposite end of the room and lowered her voice.
“It was all an accident,” she told me, “but Hermione was very upset.”
“Toby walked into the library without looking where he put his feet, so he planted great mud-prints all over The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Hermione was furious, and the next thing we knew, the book was clonked over Toby’s head. I’d say she hit him except that... This is odd, Mrs Granger... There are three other children who declare that Hermione never touched the book. Toby himself said so, once he had stopped crying. He said the book just ‘jumped up at me and whacked my head.’”
I was alarmed. “I didn’t think Hermione would be so aggressive! Did she really – ?”
“I don’t think Hermione would hit anyone with a book,” said Miss White, “because she has far too much respect for books. I didn’t see exactly what happened next; I was more concerned with Toby. But the children – I suppose they just wanted to tidy away – two of them grabbed the book and began to tug it off each other. That’s when Hermione really went berserk, screaming at them to put it down before they damaged it. They took no notice, and the pages ripped right out of the cover. Most of the children were awed into silence at that point, but little Andrew did have to make his point by tearing up a couple of the pages too. I stopped him, of course, but that’s when Hermione began her sobbing fit. She cradled the book like a broken doll.”
“Hermione never cared for dolls,” I remarked, “but she does love her books.”
“But the strangest thing of all...” Miss White hesitated. She walked over to her desk and picked up a shiny hardback edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
“Is that your spare copy?”
“No! That’s the same book.” She passed it over, and I turned the pages. Nothing was torn; no page was even dirty or dog-eared; and the paper was precisely bound into the hard covers. It looked like the book-dealer’s unsold copy, not like something that had been handled by five cohorts of twenty three-year-olds. “As I said, I didn’t really see... I knew Hermione was a clever child, but however did she manage a repair job like that?”
After that, Hermione was very subdued at nursery school. The other children gave her a wide berth. Miss White tried to include her in the group activities, but the other children didn’t want Hermione, and she didn’t want them. When Gerald asked her about what she did with her “little friends,” she replied, “I just read, Daddy.”
“What is my daughter doing?” I asked Miss White. “Whatever tantrum she had over that book, she can’t be the only four-year-old who once lost her temper at school. Why doesn’t she have any friends? Has she become a bully? What is it that you’re not telling me?”
“Mrs Granger, I don’t know!” said Miss White. “Ever since she stuck that damaged book back together, the other children have been afraid of her. But there’s no obvious reason why; she isn’t at all aggressive. I promise you, I will keep working on all the children’s social skills.”
I asked Hermione if she wanted to give up nursery school, but she said no, she liked the big children’s library, from which Miss White let her borrow books every day. She made no friends in the nursery class and no friends in the reception class. By the middle of her reception year, when Hermione’s status as an intimidating loner was firmly entrenched, it was too late to talk about giving up school, so we planned to move her.
“There aren’t any other government schools in our consortium. You know we agreed to support state schools – the poor man’s rights,” said Gerald.
“But we can’t let a government system destroy our daughter!” I protested.
So we made enquiries, and a small independent girls’ school accepted Hermione at the beginning of Year One. She looked very stiff and vulnerable in her purple blazer and boater, but she said that a private school would probably have more books.
For the first six weeks, Hermione was guarded about her new school. She would come home tight-lipped and sit down at the dining-room table, taking ten minutes to read whichever book her new teacher had given her today. She assured us that nobody at the new school was “cruel” and that the curriculum was “not stupid”. Then one afternoon, she reached the school gates laughing.
She was talking to another little girl, a well-groomed child with dark plaits and heart-shaped ear-studs, and they barely glanced at me.
“Mummy, can I go to Natasha’s house today? She invited me. You can go and have a cup of tea with her mother. Natasha wants to show me her shell collection. Can we go, Mummy?”
From that day, Hermione was inseparable from Natasha Hill. Natasha was bright, lively and a compulsive collector. She collected, categorised and displayed everything – shells, stamps, coins, spoons, key rings, scented rubbers, glass bottles. Hermione helped her by researching the history of the items and teaching her how each kind of object should be categorised. Natasha re-wrote whole reams of display cards on Hermione’s advice, and they spent hours rearranging the shelves in the Hills’ spare bedroom.
Natasha was also a fluent reader. She came to our house with armloads of books to swap with Hermione and went home with an armload that Hermione had lent her. They discussed stories and they wrote their own. They studied up on minerals, planets, trees and ships in order to inform their categorising. They designed their own heraldry; they grew crystals; they made cardboard cut-outs of the Platonic solids.
Best of all, Natasha was popular with the other children. Poised, tactful and interested in everything, she was always surrounded by a crowd of little girls who wanted to play with her, and she soon taught them that they needed to include Hermione. Natasha carved a spot for Hermione in every game. No matter what the artifice of the day, Natasha always re-wrote the game so that they all needed a “consultant” who would tell them “the rules in the book”. Hermione could recite as many facts or regulations as she liked, and it was all part of the game.
At Christmas, Hermione was invited to five parties. She eventually enjoyed all of them, but she panicked an hour before the first.
“My hair, Mummy! It doesn’t comb straight! It tangles all over the place, no matter where I tie the ribbon! That’s all right for school, but how can I go to a party looking like Sleeping Beauty’s hedge?”
Just as I was about to lose all plausibility as a mother, I found myself suggesting we should ring the Hills; and Mrs Hill said she would bring Natasha right over with a bottle of her home-remedy coconut oil. Hermione sat on a low stool draped around with an old sheet for half an hour while Natasha fussed over her hair, combing in the coconut (and who knew what other oils?) lotion. By the time Mrs Hill drove them away to the party, Hermione’s head was as smooth and shiny as a chestnut. She tolerated the coconut-treatment every day of the holidays, and she went to every party feeling as pretty as Natasha.
Over the Whitsunday holidays, we went with the Hill family on a three-day break to Bournemouth. It was a perfectly normal holiday, with visits to the Pleasure Gardens and Russell-Cotes Museum, and a nature walk where the girls counted and categorised red squirrels. The only shadow was our foolish decision to walk from pier to pier in the wind. The children braced themselves steadily along the sea front until Hermione spotted a bright yellow ferry.
“Look! We haven’t seen that kind before, have we? We need to list that ferry – ”
Natasha whirled around to look at the new specimen, and her hat, only half-tied, whirled off in the opposite direction. Her father grabbed for it, but the wind was already carrying it out into the bay.
“Oh, no!” wailed Natasha helplessly. “My hat! It was my favourite – the only one that matched this dress! We can’t let it...”
“Her hat!” muttered Hermione, white with determination as the hat swept over a wave.
Then, most extraordinarily, the hat bounced and soared up, curtsied high above the waves, then zoomed back towards us. We hardly had a moment to be surprised at what we were seeing before it settled precisely on Natasha’s head. It wasn’t even wet.
“What a freak!” exclaimed Mrs Hill.
Natasha was too delighted to ask any scientific questions, but Hermione murmured, “That couldn’t have happened... The wind hasn’t changed!”
We all agreed it was a freak, but between Gerald’s noises about a cup of coffee and the girls’ questions about when they could ride on the yellow ferry, we didn’t spare the homing hat much more thought.
Everything was calm for a couple of years. Hermione did well at school. She wasn’t musical, but she could read a stave enough to turn the pages for Natasha, who played the violin. She wasn’t artistic, but she planned out her drawings with a mathematical precision, even to calculating the colours, so the result always looked presentable. She definitely wasn’t athletic, but she managed to cry off most P.E. lessons by volunteering to keep score. She was brilliant at everything else – algebra, grammar, chemistry, history – any concept that required any kind of analysis or synthesis.
Then the Hill family moved to Glasgow.
I was nearly as broken-hearted as Hermione. I told myself that Hermione would make new friends next year, but I never really believed it. I could no longer hide from the dreadful knowledge that Natasha had been Hermione’s only friend. Hermione hadn’t learned to fuss about clothes or listen to popular music or play Maniac Mansion. She didn’t even read the pulpy boarding school stories and adventure fiction that some of her peers were now devouring. She was just “that Hermione” with the beech-hedge hair and buck teeth, her nose always in a small-print book, and the girls who had tolerated her as “Natasha’s friend” had no time for Hermione on her own.
They didn’t play with her – but Hermione had no interest in their games anyway.
They stopped inviting her to even the largest parties.
They groaned when the teacher instructed them to partner Hermione in a group project, despite the fact that Hermione’s group always extracted the highest marks.
Hermione always arrived home white and stiff-faced, refusing to talk about it, and she buried herself in a book as soon as she had greeted us.
Finally I went to see her teacher. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Does the school allow this kind of bullying? It never happened when Natasha Hill was here.”
“We don’t allow it and we do try to break it up,” said Mrs Sage. “But Hermione needs to learn to get along too. There won’t always be a Natasha to act as a bridge to the real world; Hermione has to build her own bridges.”
“Has Hermione done anything to upset her classmates? Is it because she’s clever?”
Mrs Sage sighed. “It’s tempting to scapegoat Hermione’s intelligence, but Natasha was almost as clever as Hermione. No, that isn’t the main reason. It has more to do with the other children being afraid of her.”
“Afraid? Of Hermione? But all she does is sit and read!”
“Not all,” said Mrs Sage. “Worrying things have happened around Hermione.”
Her mouth snapped shut until I prompted, “Such as?”
“A couple of them called her ‘Bookworm’. I expect someone chose that moment to uncork a jar, but... The whole floor was suddenly crawling with worms! And then they were crawling all over the girls. We never found out who did it. Then a few days later, someone called her ‘Bossy-Boots,’ and before we knew where we were, half the class was joining the taunt. And then... It sounds so fantastic as I tell you about it... but suddenly half the class seemed to be wearing great clumpy mountaineering boots. The strange part was that those girls never found their school-uniform shoes again; they had to buy new ones. Their parents were furious, with everyone blaming someone else’s child. So now the girls now have some superstitious fear that when they taunt Hermione, frightening coincidences will occur.”
“That doesn’t explain anything!” I exclaimed. “Why were they calling her ‘bookworm’ and ‘bossy’ to begin with? When did things first go wrong?”
“I don’t know. There was another time when they called her ‘Beaver-mouth’. I know it’s a very unfortunate coincidence... but at that moment there happened to be a shower of sawdust from the ceiling, and one of those old beams cracked in two, just as if someone had sawn through it. The children were terrified and they decided ‘beaver’ was an unlucky word. Mrs Granger, I don’t know how this name-calling first started. I only know that the other children have been afraid of Hermione all term, and that’s why they sometimes taunt her.”
Worms, boots and beam-sawing? When I asked Hermione about it, she said she didn’t know anything about how it happened.
“One of the girls must have been pulling a prank.”
“No, nobody did anything. Those things just happened. Mum, they happen when I’m upset. And being around the girls makes me upset. It would be better if I just... well... stayed away from them.”
Hermione kept to herself for the rest of the year. She read all through break and lunchtime, and through most evenings too. There was at least one more odd incident (a classmate called her “too smart,” and suddenly smarties pelted down from the ceiling, leaving real bruises) but most of her peers learned to leave her alone.
“We need to find her a new school,” I told Gerald, without much hope that a new school would be less fearsome for anyone. “But where else will we be allowed to send her?”
“We’ll use the investor’s lurk,” said Gerald. “It’s time we bought an investment property.”
He bought a small flat in the next consortium and left the gas and electricity running for a month. After visiting to turn off the utilities, he collected the bills (conveniently addressed to us) and presented himself at the local junior school.
“We’ve moved into the area,” he lied to the headmistress. “My daughter needs to go to your school.”
So Hermione began Year Five with a new school uniform – a casual green sweatshirt over a straight black skirt – and a handful of bus tickets (she wasn’t entitled to a pass as we were supposed to be living only in the next street). She sounded almost pleading as she vowed, “I promise I won’t let them upset me. Nothing will happen at this school!”
It took just two weeks for Hermione to arrive home in tears. “The boys called me a show-off!” she sobbed. “I tried not to let it upset me... I really did... But when they sang, ‘pick your nose and blow off,’ all their noses blew off!”
“Their noses just... exploded... and there was snot dripping all over the place, and mess everywhere, and their noses were swollen up and crooked, and... It was all my fault for being upset about them!”
Nobody at the new school ever teased Hermione again. They just left her alone altogether, and she left them alone too. She spent every spare minute curled up beside a bookshelf, reading through the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But Hermione claimed she didn’t care. Other people were boring; she liked books better. Even her new teacher seemed wary of her.
“She can’t stay at that school,” I said. “How many more times will we have to move her?”
“Her sort of people must be out there somewhere,” said Gerald. “We’ll find some more Natashas eventually.”
Hermione was only three weeks below the cut-off age for the next school cohort, so we approached the local comprehensive. Our daughter was very, very bright, we said, and completely bored with Year Five work. Her school reports showed that she was working at Year Eight level in all the core subjects, and her teacher (who wanted to get rid of her) had written an enthusiastic letter supporting her suitability for early admission to secondary school.
It worked. Hermione skipped Year Six and started Itchenbridge Comprehensive when she was not quite eleven.
But it didn’t work. Hermione was highly enthusiastic about the secondary-school curriculum (“We have real chemistry labs, where we’re going to make our own indicator, and I have to research a proper essay on the rainforest!”) but she didn’t speak about her classmates. One day I asked her if she had any friends.
“Oh, no,” she replied. “I’m being careful. Perhaps one day I’ll find a book that will explain why all these strange things happen. Then I might be able to risk being around people again.”
We only found out about one incident that year, when Hermione came home with singed eyebrows, admitting there had been an “accident” in the chemistry lab.
“The teacher wouldn’t believe I did it,” she said, breathing carefully to control her words. “She said the accident was Brandon’s own fault. But it wasn’t. It happened as soon as he called me ‘stinky’.”
I wanted to ask why Brandon had called Hermione “stinky”, but the question could only sound like an accusation. Something about my daughter terrified ordinary children even before anything extraordinary had happened. And that “something” was not her intelligence, which was simply an additional burden. Something that terrified Hermione herself set her apart from ordinary children the moment she entered a room.
“I’m happy at Itchenbridge Comprehensive,” Hermione asserted. “There’s lots to do. I can usually keep away from people. Next year I can start learning German, and then I’ll be able to read Einstein.”
That was all my eleven-year-old had to look forward to – the prospect of reading the original text of Einstein!
But “next year” never came, not in that sense. Instead, Hermione received a mysterious letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, telling us she needed a wand and a cauldron and who knew what else because she had been selected for an exclusive boarding school in the Highlands.
“Oh, dear!” I said. “Whatever will your father say?”
What Gerald said was, “That’s it! That explains everything! Hermione does magic – that’s why she’s so different. She needs to learn to control it so she doesn’t keep on exploding chemistry labs or cursing up earthworms.”
“So do you think we ought to send her to this school?”
“Of course we ought to.”
What did we have left to lose? Hermione hadn’t fitted in anywhere else; if Hogwarts didn’t work out, we would just have to send her back to Itchenbridge. So we packed her trunk and drove her to King’s Cross Station. We took her to the portal of an invisible railway-platform, only to be kissed good-bye and told that we could never enter. When she disappeared through the brick wall, it was as if the earth had swallowed her up; if she still existed, her destination was a castle that we would never be able to see.
She was able to write to us; in fact, one of those courier-owls brought us a letter the next day. The first few letters sounded homesick, full of facts from her textbooks and the marks from her class tests. We didn’t dare ask for the names of her friends. But after a couple of months, just as we thought we had made yet another mistake, Hermione’s letters were all about two characters called Ron and Harry. Apparently they had “defeated a troll” together, which must have been a sporting expression, as Harry played for the school team. Ron played chess and collected cards (he sounded just like Natasha!) and he kept a pet rat. The three of them seemed to spend their weekends together toasting crumpets over bright blue fire and nursing sick owls.
When Hermione came home for the Christmas holidays, she was full of chatter about Ron and Harry, who might not finish their holiday homework properly without her there to supervise them, and about Nicolas Flamel, who was apparently the subject of her research essay. She told us all about astronomy, goblin history, flying broomsticks and exotic studies that we could barely understand – Potions, Transfiguration, Herbology and the like.
Hermione had found her own kind.
She didn’t return home for the Easter holidays, or for the next four Christmases. She always spent a few weeks with us over summer, but most holidays she was invited over to Ron’s house for increasingly longer visits. She wrote two or three times a week, but that became her standard contact with Gerald and me: we had a daughter who wrote letters. We knew there must be a great deal she wasn’t committing to writing; for example, we never really understood why she spent five weeks of her second year unconscious in the school sanatorium. But she was happy. She passed all her exams, won prizes for rescuing a Philosopher’s Stone and flying a Hippogriff, and eventually became a prefect. She even had a couple of boyfriends over the years, but in the end, it was Ron whom she married. We do like Ron.
Hermione is our only child, and we have invested a great deal in her happiness. But she was never really ours. In the end, the price of her happiness was that we should be forever separated from her. She doesn’t belong in our world. She never really did.
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