Harry snapped awake, panting, and stared at the ceiling.  He frowned at the new crack in the paint and then frowned even more as he tried to hold onto the dream.  It was just a green flash of light and a harsh voice, but he had been having the same dream, just before waking, for a couple of weeks and he couldn’t understand it.

The voice only said two words, but everything about it made his skin crawl and then prickle all over, like hundreds of hot needles jabbing into him.

The baby.

He shook his head and let go of the voice.  He lay there for a little while and almost dozed off again when he suddenly remembered what day it was and gasped.  He pulled off his duvet and sat up, careful not to knock his head against the lower ceiling over the middle of the bed.

Dudley’s birthday.

Harry got slowly up off the bed and started looking for socks in the small chest of drawers next to him.  He hated how cold the tiles in the kitchen were in the morning and he needed to be quiet to do what he wanted to do, so socks it had to be. 

After putting his socks on, he sat on the edge of his bed for a few seconds and wriggled his toes before standing up and making his bed.  He smoothed down the duvet and tucked the edges in and admired his first chore of the day.  His Aunt Petunia was obsessive – to put it mildly – about tidiness and cleanliness and the one time Harry had admitted to finding a spider in his room she had spent the whole day cleaning it thoroughly and, since then, insisted on cleaning it at least every other day.

‘But it’s such a small space, Aunty,’ he said a few months ago, biting his lip when he saw her suddenly look sad and regretting asking her to stop.

‘I know it is, Harry.  I know, but cleanliness is a good thing, so please let me.’  So he did, even though he did his best to make sure there wasn’t much for his Aunt to ever clean, he let her clean his room under the stairs.

That was where he slept; the cupboard under the stairs.

As strange as it sounds, however, Harry didn’t mind it, and he smiled whenever he remembered Dudley’s angry outburst when Mr and Mrs Dursley had told them that they were moving Harry from the room he and Dudley shared upstairs.  As different as he was to the Dursleys – and he was very different, Harry knew that – Harry had a sense of belonging with them.

As for his room under the stairs, everything around him was neat and in its place, and the use of space was maximized.  His bed folded up against the wall and a quick tug on a lever at the bottom edge released a small desk.  To his right, rising from the floor and up to the tenth step were various drawers and compartments, including a small bookshelf with his collection of stories about magicians and unicorns and an iron boy and a sandalwood girl.  Harry reached for the ninth step and pushed the sliding door open.  He stood on tiptoe as he reached further inside, grunting a little as he tried to find the small box he had placed there a few weeks ago.

The staircase creaked a little and he smiled as he imagined his Aunt carefully sneaking down the stairs and trying to avoid waking him.  His fingers finally found the box and he pulled it out and wiped the dust from it with his fingers.  He tilted his head and listened intently and then, timing it carefully, he opened the door and burst into the passageway just as his Aunt stepped off the bottom step.

‘Raaar,’ he whispered, arms wide and grinning as his Aunt fell against the wall with her hands covering her mouth.

‘Harry!’ she whispered.  ‘You should be sleeping.’

He shook his head and grinned more.  ‘I’m going to help with breakfast today.  Lots of bacon.’

Mrs Dursley smiled, gestured towards the kitchen and followed her nephew in.

Dudley and Harry had voracious appetites, but while Dudley was big – not quite fat but big – Harry had always been small and skinny for his age.  It didn’t help that he wore Dudley’s hand-me-downs and usually looked like a deflated green-eyed Michelin Man with black hair that a 60s rock star would be proud of.  And while Aunt Petunia insisted that his glasses – which were the cheapest on offer at their local opticians and paid for by the NHS – made him look like Clark Gable, Harry wished they weren’t so broken.  If asked, however, he would readily admit that their condition was his fault because of all the times they had fallen off as he played on the monkey bars and climbing frames in the local park.

The Dursleys were not ‘allowed’ to replace Harry’s glasses, because he was “a scrounging little parasite”, according to Aunt Marge, Uncle Vernon’s sister.  She didn’t like Harry.  At all.  Mr Dursley once told Harry how he had had to forcefully take him from her arms the first week after he had arrived when his sister had insisted on “dumping the disgusting rag at an orphanage”.  ‘I couldn’t allow it, Harry,’ he had said, pinching Dudley’s cheek as he gaped at him, awed at the idea that his father, Vernon Dursley, had stood up to the dreaded Marge.  ‘It wouldn’t have been right.’  Ever since, Mr and Mrs Dursley had come up with ways of hiding Harry’s presence around the house whenever Marge visited, and making it seem as if he didn’t exist.

Harry’s hair was long.  If you pulled down his forelock, it would reach the bottom of his eyebrows.  He sometimes wanted it longer, like some of the kids at school had theirs, but it never seemed to grow any longer.

It never stayed any shorter than that, either, and that was one of the things about Harry that was of particular annoyance to Aunt Marge.  They had long lost count of the number of times she had attacked him with scissors over the years, and, two years later, she would still bristle and become red-faced whenever she saw Neave, one of the Dursleys’ neighbours.  The embarrassment of having not just Social Services but the police being called to “have a word” with Marge about her treatment of Harry was something she was struggling to get over.

Another thing about Harry’s long hair was that the hair on the right-side of his head always covered his forehead, and so always hid his scar.  Harry hadn’t cared much about his scar before – in fact, he had always enjoyed the fact that his classmates and random strangers would admire that it was shaped like a bolt of lightning.  It was after the police asked him some questions about that scar and how he had got it that he decided to ask his Aunt Petunia about it.  It was a decision he still regretted.

‘In the car crash when your parents died,’ she had said, and whenever he caught a glimpse of it in the mirror, he always remembered how she had stood there for a long, long time, looking at nothing and forgetting all about the tomatoes she had been slicing.  He had decided against asking about it again after that.  He didn’t like it when his Aunt was sad.

Before long, rashers of bacon were sizzling in the pan while an early batch sat cooling on a plate.  ‘Tousle, tousle,’ teased Mr Dursley, playfully, as he grabbed a couple of rashers and ruffled Harry’s hair, making him giggle and squirm.

Ducking away from his uncle’s second attempt at a hair tousle, Harry began to prepare the eggs when his Aunt took the spatula from him and nodded towards the living room.  ‘Time to change the photos, dear,’ she said, gently, ‘in case we forget later.’

Harry grinned and nodded.  He padded over to the living room, singing an old playground song as opened the door: ‘I’ve got the power - to pick up a flower – it takes me an hour – to do’.  Marge, was going to be visiting that evening and, as always, that meant making it seem as if he didn’t exist.

The photographs on the mantelpiece in the living room were, to put it mildly, adorable.  There was one of a large blond boy riding his first bicycle and being pushed along by a laughing dark-haired boy; another of the two of them on a merry-go-round at the summer fair in their local park; one of the boys playing a computer game together, with Mr Dursley sitting with them; and Harry’s favourite, of Dudley being kissed by his mother while she ruffled Harry’s hair.

Harry removed the photos that had him in them and replaced them with their alternates: the same photos, more or less, but without Harry in them.  With that done, the room no longer held any sign at all that Harry lived in the house, too.

‘I wish we didn’t have to do that,’ said Dudley as he watched Harry put the pictures away in the bottom drawer of the oak wall cabinet.  ‘She doesn’t live here so she shouldn’t be allowed to make us to that.’

‘It’s okay, it’s only for a little while, right?’ said Harry as he dug his hand into his pocket.

‘So why don’t you move into the other room?’

‘We tried.’

‘Yeah, but-’

‘Here,’ Harry said, his arms out in front of him.  ‘Happy Birthday, Dudders.’

Dudley stared at the small box in Harry’s hands and frowned.  ‘How did you-’

‘Just take it, please.’


‘Dudley, please?’

‘You weren’t supposed to get me anything,’ Dudley whispered.

‘I won’t tell if you won’t,’ and the two boys grinned at each other.  The doorbell rang and, when they saw the small red car parked outside, their faces fell.  Harry forced the box into Dudley’s hand and rushed to his room.  The doorbell rang again and Harry tumbled out, dressed in clothes that were too big for him, and, adjusting his glasses, he hurried to the door.

Dudley looked at the pictures on the mantelpiece and then at the small box in his hand.  He squeezed it a little and then put it in his pocket as the doorbell rang a third time.

‘I allow some laxity in people like you, boy,’ said Marge Dursley as she glared at Harry, ‘but you knew I was coming and should have been ready.’

‘You’re early?’ Harry ventured, uncertainly.

‘Nonsense,’ she said, pushing her way into the hallway and draping her heavy coat into Harry’s arms.  ‘It’s my only nephew’s birthday and we have the whole day ahead of us.’  Harry looked out of the open door at the warm-looking blue sky and then stepped outside.

‘Ripper,’ he whispered.  ‘Here boy.’  He looked over at the red car, its windows partially open, and squinted a little.  The warm sun kissed Harry’s cheek and he looked up at the sky and then at the heavy coat and shrugged.

‘Hi Aunt Marge,’ said Dudley.  He was leaning against the doorframe to the living room and he smiled at her.

‘Good to see you strong and healthy,’ she bellowed, punching him on the shoulder.  ‘You’re going to be strong man soon enough, my boy.  A strong man.’  She sniffed a couple of times and smacked her lips.  She snapped her fingers and said, ‘scrambled eggs, boy.  Six for me and,’ she gestured at Dudley and he held up two fingers, ‘and three for Dudley.  And lots of bacon.’

It was supposed to be a cheery day – Dudley’s birthday – but Marge Dursley’s arrival seemed to have sucked all the fun out of number 4 Privet Drive.  For an hour, the Dursleys ate and listened and conversed with Marge while Harry hurried around making tea and English-style pancakes – ‘not that American rubbish’ – and more bacon.  Finally, sated, Marge burped and leaned back in her chair.

‘Wonderful breakfast, Petunia.  Perfect way to start the day.’  She looked at Harry and grimaced.  ‘Almost.’

Mr Dursley chuckled softly and poked at the remaining eggs in his plate.  ‘It really is so good of you to come around early for Dudley’s birthday, Marge, but you really didn’t have to.’

‘Of course I didn’t, Vernon, but I chose to.  As highly as I regard you two as parents there are times where I have to step in to make sure the Dursley blood is being raised proper.’  She gestured at her cup and Harry hurried over to pour her some more tea.  ‘I didn’t see any presents out there, have you already opened them?’

‘No Aunty,’ said Dudley, ‘we were going to wait until after the trip to the zoo.’

At that moment, the telephone rang and Aunt Petunia went to answer it while Uncle Vernon and the boys watched Marge’s reaction to Dudley’s words.

‘The zoo?  At your age?’  She slurped some tea and put the cup down slowly.  ‘And who is going?’

‘Oh,’ said Dudley, quickly, ‘Harry’s going to Mrs Figg’s and we,’ he gestured around the table, ‘are going with some friends of mine.’

Marge looked at her brother and asked, her head lowered slightly, ‘the boy is going to the cat-lady?’

Before he could answer, Aunt Petunia walked back into the room.  Before anyone else could say anything, Marge hissed, ‘She’s given you some pathetic excuse, she?’ and the table shuddered as she grabbed onto one of its legs.

Harry chanced a glance at Marge and gulped.  Her eyes bulged and her right fist was scrunched tightly.  ‘Now what?’ she hissed, her eyes flitting from her brother to her sister-in-law.

‘We could just leave him here,’ Dudley ventured, looking glumly at the table.

Marge snorted.  ‘I’ve seen that film.  If you think we’re leaving him here…’ her voice trailed off into a series of mumbles and Harry and the Dursleys looked at each other as they shared a memory from just before Christmas the year before.

Under the table, Dudley pretended to have a gun in his hands and whispered ‘ten’.

‘You were ten last year,’ Marge snarled, irritated, her eyes flitting over the table, and she quickly put on her sweet smile when she saw her nephew’s wide eyes.  ‘Figg has let us down, Vernon.  No good cat-lover.’  Harry glanced at Dudley and saw that his cousin was now clenching and unclenching his fists under the table.  Harry and Dudley actually liked Mrs Figg.  Yes, her house had a strange smell because of the weird teas she would make, and her fondness for cats had long been spoken of in loud whispers in their neighbourhood, but she was kind and played video games with them and made the most delicious chocolate cake.

Half an hour later, Harry was sitting in the back of the Dursleys’ car with Dudley and Aunt Petunia, on the way to the zoo.  Marge hadn’t been able to think of anything else to do with him, but before they’d left she had taken Harry aside and had a word with him.

Her hand shook by the side of Harry’s head and Harry felt himself tingle all over.  He knew she wanted to grab him by the hair but he also knew that she wouldn’t do anything to him as they stood on the driveway.  She glared at him and took in a series of long breaths through her nose and then, through grit teeth, she said, as she lowered her hand and stalked over to the car, ‘Don’t you dare do anything.  Any.  Thing.’

Before he walked to the car, he let out a slow breath and whispered, ‘It’s not my fault.’  He knew, however, that Marge would be watching him like a hawk the whole day and that that would mean no ice cream, too.

As Uncle Vernon turned the car off the roundabout near the zoo, Harry’s mind wandered back to what had happened a few years ago, when Marge had been living with them during the year her house was being renovated – the worst year any of them could remember.  Marge, tired of Harry’s unkempt hair, grabbed a pair of kitchen scissors and, fending off Aunt Petunia’s attempts at stopping her, had chased after him.  The neighbours who had witnessed it said that she had bellowed that she would make him bald.  “Let those kids see how deformed you are,” they said she had snarled as she had her dogs corner the little boy.

Harry shuddered at the memory.  Of her tugging at his hair and the snips of the scissors, and of Neave screaming that the police had been called.  Most of all, he remembered Marge shouting that she would “make sure that the boy is properly disciplined” and how he couldn’t understand what he had done wrong.

Marge had cut off a most of the hair on top of Harry’s head, and Harry had looked like a young and skinny Friar Tuck.  Somehow, however, Harry’s hair had grown back the next morning.  Uncle Vernon didn’t say anything as he handed a small beany hat but Harry knew that whatever had happened wasn’t normal and that the hat was something he absolutely had to wear.

He was glad he was wearing it when he and Dudley arrived home after school and found Marge had returned, and he didn’t take it off for the rest of her long and stressful stay.

Marge never spoke about that day after that but the Dursleys often caught her squinting at Harry’s hair.

It was a very sunny Saturday and the zoo was crowded with families.  The Dursleys made their way to a meeting point where several of Dudley’s friends and their parents were waiting and, before long, everyone set off to explore.

After lunch, the group split in two and the boys made their way to the reptile house.  It was cool and dark and some of them dashed off to see the lizards and snakes that were crawling and slithering over bits of wood and stone.  As Harry glanced around he wondered if there were speakers in the walls.  He kept hearing whispers, questions about why lunch was so late, others complaining about withered leaves, comments about peoples’ clothes and frustration at never being able to smell them.

One of Dudley’s friends nudged Harry and asked him if he was okay.  Swallowing dryly, Harry smiled a little and said he was but that maybe he needed a little time getting used to the darker room.  The two boys then hurried to join the others and their voices quickly mingled with the echoes of the other people in the corridor.

The boys quickly found the largest snake in the place and, awed, wondered aloud as to whether it could crush their parents’ cars.  The snake looked bored, or sleeping, they couldn’t tell, but, suddenly, slowly, it raised its head and seemed to wink at them.  Everyone gasped and stepped forward, pressing their hands and faces against the glass.  The snake moved towards them and slid alongside the glass, looking at each of them one by one.  It then slithered back along the line and stopped in front of Harry.

‘Harry?’ whispered Dudley, ‘what’s happening?’

‘I don’t know,’ Harry answered and, nervous, all the boys stepped back.

‘He’s never done this before,’ said one of the attendants.  ‘He usually just… sleeps.’

‘What else do you expect,’ said Marge harshly, ‘snakes are lazy creatures but this one clearly recognizes one of its own.’  Sneering, she slammed her fist against the window and frowned when the snake didn’t flinch.

Afraid, Harry and the boys dashed away to the center of the room and watched Marge Dursley.  ‘Do you know what some snakes do?’ she asked aloud but at no one in particular.  She struck the window again.  The snake seemed to look at her for a few seconds before sliding a little to the side and looking at Harry again.  ‘Some snakes steal their way into other nests and sneak their eggs in.’

The attendant tried to interrupt her but Marge struck the window a third time and continued: ‘They let others raise their young.  They discard their own children and have others raise them.’  Harry and Dudley glanced at each other and Dudley shrugged.

‘So loud,’ came the whispers.  ‘She’s so loud.’  Harry shook his head and looked at the others around him but, he realised, no one seemed to be able to hear what he could.

‘Dogs are loyal,’ she shouted as she sort of leaped to the side and tried to block the snake’s view.  It became some kind of strange and amusing dance, watched by human and reptile alike, and a gasp escaped the lips of everyone there when she raised her fists and slammed them into… nothing.

The glass was gone and Marge yelped as she tumbled into the enclosure.

The zoo director and the keeper of the reptiles apologised over and over as Marge kept swearing and threatening to sue.  Aunt Petunia, Harry, and Dudley made their way back to Privet Drive with the parents of one of Dudley’s friends.  Everyone was eager to get their over-excited children home and have some peace.

Later that night, as Harry lay in his bed under the stairs, he heard the argument between the three Dursley adults.  He had gotten used to hearing Aunt Marge’s rantings – Dudley’s impersonations of her were disturbingly accurate – but he couldn’t help but wonder, now and then, if she was right.

‘There’s something wrong with that boy, Vernon, I’m telling you.  You have to be rid of him.  I know he’s your nephew, Petunia, but there’s only so much you can be expected to do.’

‘This doesn’t affect you, Marge,’ said Vernon.

‘Doesn’t affect me?  Doesn’t affect me?  I will not allow you to have that boy take what is rightfully my nephew’s!’ she roared, and then stormed out of the house.

Vernon laughed. 



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