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The second I walk into the pub that day, Trevor Tintlebury storms out of the kitchen and calls my name. After catching my attention, he proceeds into his office, and from the way his jaw is clenched and a vein is bulging out on his left temple, it is clear he is fuming about something. Trevor is a rather theatrical-looking bloke, with his gold-embroidered robes and a cape rimmed with faux fur, not to mention his ivory wand-holder.

‘We have a crisis on our hands,’ he says when I step into his office. ‘The worst fucking thing has happened.’

I raise my eyebrows, my brain already visualising of a horde of Gringotts’ Goblins breaking into the pub and demanding the money we undoubtedly owe them. Along with his wife Jasmine, Trevor is the owner of The Hopping Pot, a pub where I am currently employed as... well, as someone who does everything that needs to be done for this place to not fall apart.

Trevor is sitting at his desk, thin white fingers massaging his temples in a tired manner. His office is very elegant, with creamy walls, expensive pieces of antique furniture and a beautiful crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Too bad the rest of the pub looks like shit.

‘Joan quit,’ he declares finally, lowering his hands.

‘Er... what?’

‘She's going on a cruise. Can you imagine? A fucking cruise. Apparently, she's won the lottery.’

‘I didn’t even know she played,’ I mumble, plopping down into a chair opposite him. Joan is our main cook, and more importantly, the oldest and the only sane employee of The Hopping Pot.

‘She owled me yesterday, the traitor,’ Trevor says in a grave voice. ‘After everything this restaurant has given her, this is how she treats us.’

Calling this place a restaurant must be the exaggeration of the century. The Hopping Pot is an ''authentic'' British pub at best and your local drunkard's last resort at worst. But Trevor insists on calling it a restaurant, as if that might make everyone forget about the cockroaches that keep returning to our bathroom or the fact that the last time anyone here has seen a multi-layered napkin was in 1973, when one accidentally flew in through the open window during a Halloween street fair.

‘All the benefits she had,’ Trevor continues sombrely, shaking his head. ‘Normal working hours... well, for the most part. A decent wage... not to mention the fucking Christmas bonuses every year.’

‘Yes, well, that is what constitutes having a job.’

‘Don't try to be clever with me, Alicia. This is as bad for you as it is for me.’

‘Why is that? Besides the levels of sanity here severely dropping.’

‘That mouth of yours will cost you a job one day.’

Oh, how I wish! I nearly tell him I have been practicing the words I quit! in front of a mirror for the past year, but I decide against it. I still have rent to pay.

‘We will need a new cook,’ he announces, and a note of eerie satisfaction creeps into his voice. ‘You will be conducting the interviews.’

‘No,’ I breathe out, aghast.

‘Not so bloody clever any more, are we?’

To be fair, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, it is my job to do these things. These mind-numbing, rage-inducing, utterly pointless and often futile tasks that fall under the mist-clouded terms such as administration, bureaucracy, accounting and everything else I was never trained for.

‘We will need an ad for the job,’ Trevor says. ‘Make it 50 words max, but preferably less than that. Those bloody leeches from the Prophet doubled their word-cost, again. Bloody capitalism, has no respect for the working class. Next thing you know, we will be forced to write ads in Morse code. At least fullstops are still free of charge.’

He looks up at me, undoubtedly checking if I am laughing at his joke, and I stretch my face into the worst sort of grimace I can muster.

He lets out a small sigh. ‘We are short on money so take someone with no experience and very low expectations. Basically, someone desperate.’

‘What?’ I shoot up from my chair in alarm. ‘You want me to replace a chef with twenty years of working experience with some spotty wiseass with a six months’ culinary course? You must be joking.’

‘I am not.’

‘The customers of this pub have certain expectations of what we serve-‘

‘The customers of this restaurant are 90 per cent drunk, and the other 10 percent unconscious. They wouldn't tell a chicken from a vegetable if it walked on its hind legs and said quack.’

I am momentarily taken aback by this (quite accurate) description of our clientele and Trevor leans back in his chair, staring at me unflinchingly. ‘This is not open to discussion. Find me someone cheap. I can't afford another posh gourmet cook to swagger around the kitchen like she owns the damn place and then leave for a bloody cruise around the Caribbean.’

‘She did not swagger. And she was a great cook. How do you expect me to find someone decent enough to replace her?’

‘Well, you won’t be replacing her. Cuthbert will take her place, and the new person will become a cook in training.’

My mouth drops open in shock.

Cuthbert?’ I spit out. ‘Cuthbert will become our main chef? Well fuck me. We might as well declare bankruptcy straight away.’

Much to my surprise, he doesn’t try to fight me on this, even though it is his brother I have indirectly insulted. Instead, his face crumples into a deep scowl, and his shoulders slump forward, like he’s caving into himself under some invisible weight.

‘What is it?’ I ask, some of the venom disappearing from my voice.

He glances up at me, then exhales a breath of defeat. ''Listen, Jasmine and I didn't want to mention it to anyone else, but the restaurant is hanging by a thread. The number of customers keeps dropping, there's no money to pay the last month's Floo bill, or the maintenance crew, or the rent. This place is about to go down the drain, and unless a miracle ensues, we're going down with it.''

I don’t respond. I have not expected this, and for a moment I can’t decide whether I’m thrilled by the possibility of never having to work here again, or terrified by the prospect of unemployment and, what is worse, moving back in with my parents.

I glance up at the clock. Eight fifteen. Definitely too early for an emotional breakdown.

‘I need coffee,’ I announce in lieu of a real answer, before turning on my heel and leaving his office.

*

The Hopping Pot is a tall, narrow building at the far end of Diagon Alley, snuggled between the Balkan Embassy and a closed theatre dubbed by the local squatters as The Floom, which is an abbreviation of its official name, Floo Me to the Moon. This part of Diagon is not the hot spot of human activity but it has been known to attract visitors, especially during festivals, and that has always been enough for the pub to keep itself afloat in the stormy sea of the catering business.

But sometime during the war everything went downhill, and with the post-war recession and the Ministry still trying to glue the economy back together, the Hopping Pot has been struggling more than ever. This was the state in which I found it four years ago, in desperate need of any sort of job, and this is the state in which it still remains today. The Hopping Pot is like a bug that has toppled onto is back and is now frantically flailing its legs in a poor attempt to get back on its feet. Which is quite ironic, considering its name.

Barnaby Tintlebury, Trevor’s great-grandfather, has clearly been inspired by a popular book of children’s tales when naming the pub. Such a ridiculously harmless name, he thought, nothing could go wrong. Or could it?

About a decade ago, a popular Muggle substance came onto the wizarding market and wrecked havoc among young wizards and witches. It didn’t take long for people to start knocking on our door, trying to buy pot, or even worse, using it to deal pot. For a few months, the term ‘hopping pot’ was common slang for these transactions, and I believe those were the worst months in Trevor Tintlebury’s life. Eventually, he got rid of them by hiring one of the former Floom actors to stand near the pub’s entrance dressed as a member of the Department for Muggle Narcotics, popularly known as a Mark, or more often ‘bloody Mark!’. Fortunately, the desired effect was achieved before the bloke got arrested for posing as a Ministry official.

But drugs are the least of The Hopping Pot’s problems. It is already the beginning of July and none of us has got our last month’s pay yet. It is only a matter of time when people will start asking me about it, and that’s the main reason I am currently hiding in the back-room with a cup of coffee warming up my palms. The back-room is my office, though technically it is just a corridor between the kitchen and the bathroom, with an additional door to the main room. I don’t know why we call it the back-room. It should clearly be called the centre-room, or maybe the come on in, everyone, it’s not like I have fucking work to do-room.

It contains nothing but a wonky old desk with two chairs and three rows of shelves. The shelves are over-flowing with second-hand books on a number of different subjects, such as the magical laws, cooking, finance and procurement, and this small but valuable collection of general knowledge is something I take an embarrassing amount of pride in. There’s only one other object in the room. It is a single photograph, glued to a wall next to the door. It shows a clown. Why? Because Trevor hates them. It still doesn’t manage to keep him out of the back-room, but it was worth a shot.

Suddenly, the main room doors are pushed open and a tall bloke steps into my office, stuffing his mouth with a handful of peanuts. Felix Hooch, precisely the person I didn’t want to see.

‘Dya eer d’beeg nhush?’ he asks, taking a seat across from me. Bits of half-chewed peanut land on my desk, and I frown in disgust.

‘What?’ I ask, flicking my wand to clean up the mess.

‘Joon,’ he tries again and my face drops.

‘Ah. Yes, I heard. Terrible news. For us. But great news for her.’

Felix nods his head in what I assume to be a sympathetic manner, but doesn’t stop chewing. He has this annoying habit of sporadically leaving his bartending position in order to distract me from my work, which he refers to as ‘innocent chatting’.

I stare at him for a while. There is something different about him. His hair, which usually hangs limp and flat down the sides of his pale face, is for some reason pushed back over his scalp, resembling a very smooth and very shiny helmet.

‘Why do you look like someone dipped your head in oil?’ I narrow my eyes at him, convinced I could see my reflection in his hairdo if I came nearer. Which I never intend to.

‘Oh, do you like it?’ He runs a hand along the sleek black surface, smiling proudly. ‘It’s very Italian, isn’t it?’

‘If by Italian you mean ridiculous, then I feel like I’m in bloody Rome.’

‘Sod off,’ he mutters, before throwing another handful of nuts into his mouth.

‘Where did you get these?’ I ask, nodding towards the nearly empty bowl.

‘They were on the counter in the kitchen.’ he says coyly, sweeping the salt off of his uniform. It is a ridiculous purple dress-robe that Trevor forces him to wear because it supposedly sends a message of elegance and grandeur. It doesn’t, but it makes Felix look like a right tosser so I use any chance I get to compliment Trevor on this marvellous idea.

Before Felix can grab another fistful of peanuts, I snatch the bowl from his hands. ‘Those are for the guests. What did I tell you about snacking on the supplies?’

‘How old are you? Ninety five?’

Although I don’t show it, his question strikes a note with me. Sometimes I do feel like I am ninety five, despite my young age. Well, I guess twenty four is still considered young. If the world expects you to choose a career at seventeen, what other crazy expectations they might be having? Getting your shit sorted out at twenty? Figuring out the meaning of life by twenty two? Suddenly, I am very alarmed by the fact that I have not yet accomplished any of these things.

‘Okay, it was nice chatting to you but I have work to do,’ I tell Felix, who is still sitting across from me.

‘We all have work to do, you’re not the only one,’ he quips. ‘As a matter of fact, I work two jobs.’

I frown in confusion. ‘What’s your other job?’

‘I am a freelance Necromancer,’ he says with dignity and I tilt my head back, letting out a groan.

‘For the last time, that is not a job!’

Felix has been obsessed with Necromancy for over a year now. Mind you, this is not a heartbreaking story of him losing the love of his life in a tragic accident and being unable to cope with his loss. No, this is just him and his idiot friends getting pissed, lighting a few candles and screwing around with the spirits.

‘People pay us to do it, it’s a job,’ he says curtly, standing up from the chair. Before I can protest, he opens the door to the kitchen, and because the Sound Muffling Charm becomes ineffective once the doors are opened, Joan’s voice is suddenly carried through air into my room.

‘....leaving on Monday, we’re so excited and simply can’t wait...’

I shoot up from my chair and hurry after Felix into the kitchen. It is a rather large room, with stoves and ovens against one wall, and two kitchen sinks at the opposite side. In the centre of the room is a long counter with smooth wooden surfaces, and a rail suspended over it, from which pots, pans, spatulas, whisks and ladles hang in a crammed and disorganised manner. And leaning against this central counter are Joan and Cuthbert. For some reason, Cuthbert is holding a rat, breaking about five different sanitary policies, but I don’t have time to deal with that.

‘Joan, you’re here!’ I yell out, while Felix snatches another bowl of peanuts and disappears into the main room.

Joan turns around and her face morphs into a look of pure bliss, which is something the insides of The Hopping Pot do not get a chance to see often.

‘Alicia,’ she says in her melodic voice, walking over to me with her arms outstretched. She is radiating with happiness. Her brown cheeks have a healthy gleam and even her clothes seem to be more vibrant; she’s wearing a brand new dress robe and colourful silky shawls that flail in the air behind her as she is walking toward me.

‘I was just telling Cuthbert about my trip,’ she says, pulling me into a hug. Her frizzy brown hair is all over my face and her perfume game is strong, but I don’t mind at all.

‘I’m so happy for you!’ I squeeze her shoulders and after a tight hug, she pulls back to look at me.

‘Thank you, dear. I’m still in bit of a shock over everything that happened.’

‘You won the freaking lottery,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘I can’t believe it. I always thought those things happened to other people.’

‘Yes, exactly,’ she replies, laughing lightly. ‘As soon as I found out, I quit my job and Maya and I booked a cruise. I’ll think about work when I get back, which hopefully won’t happen in the next few months.’

‘That’s so great. I’m really happy for you,’ I repeat, smiling so widely my cheeks hurt.

It’s all lies, of course. I’m not happy, I’m miserable. And also a bit envious.

I guess the moment when Joan officially became my friend happened during the last year’s Christmas party, when I got pissed and ended up crying on her shoulder over everything that was wrong with my life. You can’t really go back to being just co-workers after letting someone witness the lowest point of your life.

But it’s not just that. She has been working here for almost ten years now, and has always been a pillar of reason and comfort, especially when Trevor and Jasmine would start throwing tantrums or, even worse, come up with another one of their ingenious ‘business’ ideas. Joan has always had a way of smoothing things over, and making everything seem better than it actually was.

And now we are supposed to simply manage without her?

‘You know how they say, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,’ Cuthbert says suddenly, appearing by her side. He is a middle-aged bloke, with thin gray hair that falls in curls across his forehead, a stout body like a humanoid goblin and a rat currently residing on his left shoulder.

‘Er, Cuthbert...’ I start, carefully eyeing the animal.

‘You don’t have to say it, I know,’ he placates, rubbing his nose against the rat’s head. ‘He’s adorable.’

‘That’s not what I...’ I let my voice trail off and shake my head. ‘Look, you can’t have a rat in here, this is a bloody kitchen.’

Cuthbert gives me a look of utter disbelief, before picking up the animal with both hands. ‘Let’s go, Sheep, we know when we’re not wanted,’ he says crossly, before storming out of the room and into the main room.

I turn back to Joan, whose eyebrows are arched up and a small smile is dancing around her lips.

‘Don’t leave me here alone!’ I cry out after a moment of silence, stumbling towards her.

‘Oh, dear,’ she says, pulling me into a hug. All of a sudden, I feel like a small child again, and there is no incompetent landlords, no contracts to sign, no interviews to hold, just my mother’s hands wrapped around me in a tight embrace.

It takes me a moment to realise that this is not my mother holding me, and that I am being truly pathetic.

‘I’m sorry, I’m ruining your moment,’ I mumble, backing away from Joan and forcing a smile. ‘How long can you stay? I want to hear all about that cruise.’

The cruise, I find out soon, has been planned out a long time ago, but Joan and her wife Maya couldn’t afford it until now. They should be leaving in about a week, and do not plan on returning anytime soon. I can’t blame her. She is forty three years old, and had wasted a fourth of her life working in this hellhole – she deserves a vacation.

She tells me all this while we prepare a few plates of fish and chips for a group of tourists that has somehow wandered into this part of London. The Hopping Pot used to be a real restaurant, serving real food, but now we offer nothing more complicated than a shepherd’s pie or bangers and mash.

Surprisingly, a few years ago we started using Quidditch brooms to deliver food to people in the residential area. That was the job I initially applied for, but which is now handled by Dennis, our delivery boy. This service turned out to be a real hit, and along with the drinks Felix sells in the main room, continues to be our main source of income.

Of course, when Cuthbert takes over the kitchen, people will probably cancel their monthly subscriptions in a speedy manner. Or file a lawsuit against us.

Cuthbert is in charge of cleaning and maintenance, and these two duties he performs with simply extraordinary incompetence. Most of his time he spends milling around the pub, crafting improvised poetry and causing unnecessary trouble. The fact that he is Trevor’s brother had nothing to do with his employment. Except that it had everything to do with it.

Right in the middle of my rant about this act of injustice, the nepotist in question walks into the kitchen.

‘Ah, look who decided to grace us with her traitorous presence,’ he says, walking over to us.

‘Good day, Trevor,’ Joan says in a light voice.

‘I do hope you are aware that due to the abrupt way you resigned from your job, you will not be getting your severance pay. Same goes for your last month’s salary.’

‘Well, if there ever was a chance of you returning, I guess now it’s officially gone,’ I throw in, and Trevor turns toward me like a hawk spotting wounded prey.

‘Spinnet, I have had enough of your comments. If you’d like to go on a cruise as well, just let me know, it can be arraigned. That is, if you can afford one when you’re broke.’

Narrowing my eyes at him, I raise a hand and give him the finger.

He is silent for a long moment, taking turns to glare at my face, then Joan’s, then my finger still sticking up in the air. In the end, he turns a sharp left and marches out of the kitchen.

I let out a breath of relief and my shoulders drop.

We have been playing this game of tug-of-war for a year now, and with each passing day it gets worse. Here’s the catch: Trevor knows he can’t fire me, just as we both know I can’t quit.

When I first came to The Hopping Pot, a man called Cosmo was working here as an accountant. I would occasionally help him out, while doing deliveries and giving a hand to Joan. A year later, Cosmo quit and because Trevor is a cheap prick, he didn’t hire anyone to replace him. Instead, Dennis was hired and I got Cosmo’s old job. I got a raise so I didn’t complain when I still had to help out in the kitchen, train Dennis and occasionally fly a broom. But with time, I started taking more and more responsibilities, while Trevor and Jasmine pranced around the pub collecting money and giving fashion advice.

And now it will be bloody hard for them to replace me!

They could never find anyone crazy enough to take on a job with irregular working hours and a pathetically low wage, covering everything from administration to waitressing. While everyone else does only the thing they were hired for, or in the case of Jasmine and Trevor, does nothing at all – I know the business inside-out.

So basically, if I leave, they’re screwed.

But because the chances of me finding another job are on par with the prospect of The Cannons winning the League Cup, if I leave, I’m pretty much screwed as well.






A/N: Thank you for reading and reviews are welcome! :)

The name for the pub was inspired by a story called The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, which is part of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J. K. Rowling.

Floo Me To The Moon is a word play on a song title Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words) written by Howard Bart, owned by Hampshire House Publishing Corp. 

 

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