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July 28, 1996

 

Rain poured in the street of Diagon Alley. Drops mixed with summer’s dust and filled up cracks between cobblestones. It did not take long for shops to fill. Mary’s Mugs, a small teahouse beneath Kat’s Cauldron Cosmetics, invited witches and wizards inside, each greeted by a mute house-elf’s eager curtseys. Perhaps they would have gone to the much more chic Le Grand Salon de Thé around the corner, if the rain had not forced them otherwise. Or maybe they would have taken their tea at home to save a coin. But Mary’s Mugs, although petite, proved a pleasant confinement. Candlelight permeated the room in orange hues and brews disgorged sweet-smelling steam, scents to lure and to lull. Not to mention the free biscuit per cup.

 

On the countertop, waiting to serve, a waitress sat cross-legged with her hand in the biscuit-jar. Her uniform was white on black, her stockings pink. She observed the guests, crammed into chaise percées, upholstered benches, and backless stools, their chatter a hum she had come to enjoy, their manners less so. On this particular day, they discussed the weather and the war, which, naturally, were subjects of equal importance.

 

“Anne, get yer buttocks off de counter an’ go butter sum more buns,” said Mrs. Mugs, the poodle-haired owner of the shop.

 

“Yes, Mrs. Mugs,” Anne slid down, brushing crumbs off her apron.

 

She preoccupied herself with the usual: waited on soggy-shoed guests, scrubbed stains off mugs, painted leaves in milk froth, and dreamed about better things; things she would never do. She had been at Mary’s Mugs five years. Naturally, her first year had only been temporary; she stayed another to avoid the grey of an office cubicle; a third due to life crisis. What was now simply called life.

 

By late afternoon, Anne took stealthy glances at the clock, willing the sun to set, when the doorbell chimed. Two guests trotted forth: one tall and ginger, the other small and mousy, both Ministry folks. The ginger gentleman let Anne know he was the head of the Cauldron-Thickness Unit, no less.

 

“What a dreary day,” he slouched into a cushioned chair that consumed him whole, propping a foot on his knee. “We would like a cup of slow-brewed cauldron tea,” he seemed contemplative, “with a hint of cherry and a teaspoon of centaur milk. Make it skinny. And a no-foam butterbeer with a pinch of cinnamon. But without the butter.”

 

“Coming right up, sir,” said Anne.

 

She returned a moment later with the tea, butter-free butterbeer, and two biscuits placed neatly on top of pocket-folded napkins. This usually helped with the tips.

 

“Miss,” he held the biscuit into the light. “Pray, what are these made of?”

 

“It’s Goblin Goldings, sir. Flower, sugar, goblin nail fiber... fair-trade naturally. And completely free from magically derived colors, aromas, and preservatives.”

 

“Do they contain goosegrass, gurdyroot, or ginger? Penny-bun is allergic.”

 

“We shouldn’t be eating such stuff anyway,” said the wizard’s companion, presumably Penny-bun.

 

“No, sir,” said Anne.

 

“My mum would always put ginger in her Christmas shortbread,” he mused with upturned brows. “Being allergic would be a crime in my house. A sugar-free diet a deadly sin.”

 

“Percy-bun, I thought we talked about that,” Penny-bun held a low-kept gaze, squirming in her seat like a worm amidst frothy cushions. “We don’t talk about them. And It’s not your house anymore.”

 

“You’re right. Of course you are, Penny-bun,” said Percy-bun, pinching the bridge of his nose. “But I very much doubt these are as good as Mother’s shortbread.”

 

The biscuits were store-bought, but Anne failed to mention it. She left the couple, before they could make further inquiries, to wait on a Mrs. Clawford and her kitten, both clad in knitted sweaters and partial to catnip tea with warm milk.

 

The afternoon mail would arrive at 5 o’clock, carried by a cantankerous owl proudly displaying a red collar with a golden seal. Anne took the letters and the Evening Prophet to the kitchen alongside her dinner – onion soup in a mug with cheese bread.

 

In the kitchen Mrs. Mugs stood abreast with Maggot, the house-elf, their arms halfway sunk into soapy dishwater. Mrs. Mugs did the talking, since Maggot could not, against which the elf tightened her bonnet to become deaf as well as mute.

 

“Yeh cheeky thin’,” Mrs. Mugs would say.

 

She had found the house-elf dismal at the threshold one overcast afternoon. She named her Maggot due to a peculiar hobby of collecting maggots in mugs, kept away in the cupboard beneath the stairs. They were like little, unctuous pets of morbid malignity, and, naturally, Anne did not dare to enter their lair.

 

“You’ve got a letter,” Anne tossed a crinkly envelope onto the littered kitchen table, its seal put on top of another, as if picked from a bin. It bore no name, but Anne knew who it was from. “It’s from Rolf.”

 

“From Rolf?” Mrs. Mugs furrowed her brows, her complexion marred by perturbed lines. “I’ve not heard a word from dat boy since May.”

 

Mrs. Mugs had little family expect a nephew whom she rarely spoke of and only exchanged letters with. He would ask for money and Mrs. Mugs would give it to him, no questions asked. Anne had wondered if, perhaps, he was addicted to troll-grown opium.

 

Mrs. Mugs put on a pair of winged glasses and tore open the envelope, hands still drenched in dishwater. While reading, she lit a cigarette, filling the kitchen with a stale odor and a pall of smoke that made Anne’s eyes tear up.

 

“What does he want?” asked Anne, expecting the usual handful of galleons.

 

“Nuthin. He’s not asked for a dime. He says he’s been employed by sumone, but doesn’t say who. How very peculiar. Apparently, dis employer of his is wun of his kind.”

 

“One of his kind? What do you mean?”

 

“Nuthin’, dear,” said Mrs. Mugs, tapping ashes into an empty cup. “Nuthin’ at all.”

 

“Why don’t you invite Rolf over for a cup of tea? Now that he’s employed. I mean, I’d love to meet him.”

 

“No, dat won’t do. I wouldn’t trust Rolf to piss in a pot withou’ supervision. Besides, folks don’t take time for a good cuppa no more,” Mrs. Mugs lowered her voice to a near-whisper. “It’s all cause of dat Yeh-Know-Who.”

 

It had been a long time since clatter and clamor filled Mary’s Mugs, which some days served fewer than ten. Mrs. Mugs had acquired the place in 1978 by a snuff-toothed Northman, who spoke little English and she nothing but. Jævla kvinne, he would say and Mrs. Mugs would blush. It had begun a simple dream about a simple teahouse, serving earl grey and lady grey, but had since warmed up to japanese brews and café au lait, sweetened with milk derived from magic beans (those that grew beanstocks into the clouds), everything served in mugs and cups, even the soup and the porridge. All to stay competitive with Le Grand Salon de Thé.

 

“How many did we have today?” Anne asked Maggot. Maggot held up two pairs of hands, thrice over, and seven more fingers. “Thirty-seven!”

 

“It’s wretched all de same,” Mrs. Mugs folded Rolf’s letter into a small square and stuffed it into her apron pocket. “An’ there’s sumthin’ we ought ter discuss.”

 

But she said no more. Her lower lip hung immobile in a half-moon faced downwards, as if there was not enough air for her to speak. The only sound emanated from Anne’s chewing and Maggot’s tripping bare feet.

 

“Will yeh two stop it?” Mrs. Mugs jibbed at last. Anne swallowed while Maggot crossed her legs in a neat braid.

 

“What did you want to discuss?” asked Anne.

 

“Nuthin’. Who says I want ter discuss anythin’? Silly goose,” Mrs. Mugs crushed the cigarette butt into the cup saucer. She rose, her apron so tightly fastened it caused fat rolls above and below the belt.. “I’m goin’ out for sum air. I expect yeh’ll dust de sills and count de till ‘fore I’m back.”

 

“Certainly, Mrs. Mugs.”

 

Anne exchanged looks with Maggot. Though Mrs. Mugs was a usually lucid woman, even she had her mysteries. Anne shrugged it off and dipped the remainder of the bread into her soup, picking up the bottom glob.

 

 

Nightfall crept closer. Street lamps lit up the dark in Diagon Alley, deserted but for a yellow Volkswagen, parked with one wheel on the sidewalk, and a handful figures, clad in charcoal cloaks, trotting through muddy pool water. Smoke ceased to puff from pipes and chimneys and curtains were drawn in the windows overhead: it was a street on its way to sleep.

 

Anne lugged a bag of litter outside. The rain fell in steady despair: it sogged into her strap-shoes and made her stockings cling to her thighs like sticky starfish.

 

“Miss,” a stranger stepped forth. He held out a black umbrella to shield her, his face half-way hidden behind the brim.

 

“Thank you, sir,” she crept closer.

 

She glanced up from beneath smudged lashes and into a pair of insomniated eyes, rimmed with pink, as if he had avoided sleep in a fortnight. He had one hand burrowed deep into a duster pocket and his feet wore oxford-shoes – the leather outworn by the toe box and the laces knotted into clumsy loops as if to keep them from falling apart.

 

“I’m just headed for the teahouse,” said Anne.

 

“I’ll follow you in.”

 

The sign on the door was a small one of a smug teacup, hung with braided ribbon from bars in between square panes. They stepped inside, Mary’s Mugs vacated but for empty chairs and freshly pressed tablecloths. The gentleman shook his umbrella twice and it dried on impact. He hung its curved handle on the back of a chair by a wall tapered in faded yellow flora.

 

Anne raked a couple of fingers through soaked, dark hair, before she drew pen and paper from her apron. “Would you like a cup of tea, sir?”

 

“I was hoping for a cup of something. I won’t be long.”

 

“What will it be?”

 

“Just coffee, thank you,” he said, seemingly hesitant. “With a few sugar cubes, if it’s not too much trouble. I have the misfortune of a sweet tooth.”

 

“I’ve heard worse. Besides, you look like you could use it,” she dropped her eyes, instantly repentant. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to-.”

 

“I’ve heard worse,” he cut her off, the corner of his lip twitching upwards, if only faintly. “And I could use it, as it happens.”

 

Anne curtseyed. She went to mortar a fresh batch of beans and pour water to boil in the cauldron by the hearth. She eyed the stranger. He sat lightly hunched, scribbling notes into a leather-bound book, brows knitted in solemn musing. He looked nothing like the typical guests - those who took their daily tea before work at the office.

 

“Here you go, sir,” she brought him the coffee and a small piece of chocolate, having nothing but that and piece of stale confetti fudge left in the jar. Swiftly, he bookmarked his page and put his book on the table, faced downwards.

 

“Sorry, we’re out of biscuits.”

 

“Thank you, Miss. And I much prefer it,” he nipped a piece of the chocolate.

 

As Anne emptied the tray, the stranger eyed at the back door. She followed his eye to a shadow stretched up the wall and a pair of protuberant, yellow eyes behind the door ajar. They leered at the man, briefly, before they vanished.

 

“That’s just Maggot, the house-elf,” shrugged Anne. “She’s usually not that shy.”

 

The stranger said nothing, but picked a crinkly piece of paper from a slit inside his coat pocket. “Actually, now that I’m here, I was wondering if you’d take a look at this photo for me. The quality is poor, I regret.”

 

She narrowed her eyes at the photo. It was a man, still young - perhaps thirty, caught unaware in an alleyway. He had a sharp chin and hair ruffled onto his forehead, his eyes encircled by black shadows in plain disparity to his pale skin. Not very unlike the stranger before her, although much more obscene.

 

“What am I supposed to look for?” asked Anne.

 

“I was wondering if you’ve seen him around here, recently.”

 

“No, I can’t say I have. At least not that I recall.”

 

“You’re quite certain, Miss?”

 

“Quite certain,” she handed it back. “Are you an Auror, sir?”

 

“No, far from it. I’m simply looking for an old friend.”

 

But the photo was not one you would keep of a friend on your settee sidetable. It had clearly been shot for probe purposes.

Anne picked the tray back up, about to withdraw. “You know, I could ask -,” she turned, but knocked the edge of the tray into his shoulder. The stranger slung his elbow into his cup, which spilled onto the notepad before both plummeted to the floor with a thump and a clatter, the book spine facing upwards, yellow pages soaked in liquid and porcelain splinters. 

 

“Shit,” she knelt to retrieve it, the coffee acting as a glue that stuck one page to the other. She turned it. The letters inside were delicate but sharp, the spacing irregular, as if it could not decide whether to be neat or visceral.

 

Her curiosity caught alight. The letters made up what resembled a family tree, names transversely linked by arrows, more than a few crossed out by thick ink. But two names stood out from the others:

 

Rolf J. Murray and Marianne J. Mugs

 

Anne lifted her chin, the man now standing, towering above her, his eyes a little surprised, but otherwise impossible to read. She shut the book, shook it to dry, and wiped its surface in her palm. Her finger caught onto a piece of glass, drawing a drop of blood. She rubbed it in her apron while the stranger watched her queerly beneath a longish nose, faint scar-tissue brushing its bridge

 

“I’m so sorry, sir, as good as new,” she handed it back, its pages still sodden in coffee.

 

“You look staggered, Miss. Did something startle you?”

 

“No. I didn’t read a word, sir,” her voice was quiet, pitched lower than usual. “Is it your diary, Mr?”

 

“Lupin,” he paused. “And no, not a diary. I’d call it calendar, work journal, and dreary research notes. Tedious scribbles I’m afraid.”

 

Mr. Lupin slid his wand from his sleeve. He flicked it at the floor and at the notebook, spotless again, before he hid the book inside his coat.

 

“Is there a reason why you think he’s been here?” Anne bit her lip. “The man in the photo?”

 

“No. I simply saw you in the rain by that muggle vehicle parked ineptly outside, and thought I might as well ask around.”

 

“Actually, that’s my car. The one parked ineptly outside...”

 

His gaze dropped somewhat. “You’re a squib. I’m sorry, Miss, I did not realize. How foolish of me.”

 

“I’m not a squib!” jibbed Anne. Not that she could blame him the assumption, honestly. “But I do sometimes feel like the world’s worst witch, which might as well be the same.”

 

“I beg your pardon. Truly. It seems my foolishness is without end.”

 

Anne shrugged. They stood still amid the silent walls while rain prickled the panes in a steady rhythm that foiled the silence.

 

“You’re hurt,” he said at last.

 

She followed his eye to a trail of blood on the inside of her right ring finger, split open by the porcelain splinter.

 

“May I?”

 

When Anne said nothing, Mr. Lupin took her palm in his, faced upwards, his touch barely there.

 

“I once attempted to fix my hair with my left hand right before a party, back when I was sixteen,” said Lupin, his voice cautious. “My right arm was… in wretched shape. I ended up with hairy pits. Or, that is, more than before. With no means to repair the damage, I stayed locked inside my room the remainder of the evening.”

 

“Do you still have hairy pits, sir?” asked Anne. Damp strands of hair stuck to her cheek, the wetness dispersing from their warmth. Perhaps it was the light, but she thought she saw something fiercer beneath the doleful grey in his eyes.

 

“You’re cold,” she noticed.

 

“You’re burning.”

 

He let go, but her hand lingered mid-air.

 

“Thank you,” she dug it into her skirt pocket. Not knowing where to look, she decided on his shoes with its knotted shoelaces, which seemed the least intimate choice.

 

“I should get going,” Mr. Lupin seized his umbrella from the back of the chair. “Thank you for your time, Miss. And for the chocolate.”

 

He tipped her a few Knuts and left before she could think to ask any more questions. Crisp wind from the doorway caught her apron, shifting it softly sideways. She could not remember where to be, so she just stood still.

 

 

“What did he want?” asked Mrs. Mugs, her brows a pair of painted lines pushed into half-circles. Once Anne had regained her senses, she had found the owner’s helmet of curls peaking up from the too-tall desk in her office. She read the Evening Prophet with her winged spectacles poised on the tip of her nose and the habitual cigarette hanging sloppily from her lower lip. “Dat man before?”

 

“I,” Anne paused. “I don’t know. He wanted me to take a look at a photo.”

 

“And what’d yeh tell him?”

 

“Nothing.” Anne blinked, adjusting to the dim lighting that came from a candle in a mug. “Mrs. Mugs, Is there something you’d like to share? Do you know him?”

 

“Know him? Course not. What a silly thin’ ter say.”

 

“But it was Rolf. The man in the picture. At least, I think it was.”

 

“An’ yeh told him nuthin’, did yeh?”

 

“I didn’t tell him anything.”

 

“Good. I don’t know dat man and I don’t care to. Now, no more questions.”

 

Mrs. Mugs licked her finger and turned the page in the Prophet. It covered all from the Flabbergast-Bomb in Witchmund Square, set by rebels feigning Death Eaters, to an article of the danger posed by cauldrons with too-thin buttoms, penned by Percy-bun himself.

 

But that wasn’t what Mrs. Mugs wanted to show Anne. A photo of Professor Dumbledore graced the last page, standing erect in majestic purple robes. To his right, it read:

 

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Witchery Seeking Nurse Apprentice

 

“What about it?” asked Anne.

 

“I jus’ thought it might interest yeh. They offer five more galleons a month dan here an’ I know Mr. Dumbledore, he’s a very dear man. I’ll give yeh a nice reference,” her lips screwed into a grim line as she cupped the back of Anne’s hand. “I was goin’ bout it in the kitchen when yeh an’ Maggot cut me short. I can’t afford it no more, dis place, an de street ant safe,” she paused. “I have a cousin in Wench Hampshire I’ll go to an’ I want to know yeh’ll be alright as well. Now, don’t make it harder dan it needs be.”

 

Anne’s throat tightened like a warped cloth, lights glistening into starry eyes that were not quite wet. Maggot crept out from behind a coat-rack that had not concealed her in the first place. Se cinched herself to Anne’s waist, her little ears saggy.

 

Mary’s Mugs was closing down and what had otherwise begun a wonderfully normal day had ended terribly abnormal.

 

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