need you to pin me down
i need you: Eurythmics, from the album Savage
Mr Potter drives home from work. It's Wednesday.
On Thursdays he went to the supermarket.
But this is Wednesday. It's an evening in early summer, fresh and bright. It's an evening that invites football in the park or white wine and soda on the banks of the river, with friends.
Mr Potter hasn't received the invitation. He drives round the corner of his street at a regulation 29 miles per hour, slows, changes gear and parks his car. He picks up his briefcase from the passenger seat and checks his keys: gets out the car, locks it, and walks up the garden path to his own front door. Mr Potter's house is small and neat. It has two bedrooms and a pocket-handkerchief back garden. It is almost identical to the sixty-eight other houses that make up the street where Mr Potter lives: its only distinction is the tree on the pavement outside, a London plane tree which has survived fourteen generations of school children and the unprecedented popularity of the internal combustion engine.
Mr Potter walks past the tree with his head down. It is only when he gets to his front door and has the keys in his hand that he turns his head, almost furtively, and looks back at the tree.
From the lowest branch, ten feet above the pavement, two owls look back at him.
Mr Potter whips his eyes back to the door, fumbles with the keys, slams the door open and stumbles over his doorstep: catches the door mid swing and flings it shut. Allows himself to fall back against the door. His breath catches in his throat: he is sweating, and his right hand clenches and unclenches, unnervingly spastic. He closes his eyes.
He saw the owls for the first time three weeks ago.
Mr Potter remembers reading about parakeets in his evening paper. The unusually warm weather, he learnt, and the popularity of exotic pets, had lead to a thriving wild population of nonnative birds. There was, he learnt, a 20,000 strong population of the east Asian birds in and around London. Mr Potter read this article with detached interest, and for several days afterwards reminded himself to check outside his kitchen window when he filled the kettle for his morning cup of tea.
Owls, however, were not mentioned.
He thinks he might be going mad.
The counselor steeples her hands over the stack of paperwork and looks at him. "Well, Mr Potter," she says. "What do you feel?"
For the first time in his life Mr Potter runs down the steps of his office building. He has forgotten to say a polite good night to security: at the back of his mind is the suspicion that he might have left his copy of The Guardian on his desk, and he thinks that right at this moment his company counselor is writing a report that will end up on the desk of his immediate superior, a man with whom Mr Potter has little in common and seeks to avoid whenever possible. It is not surprising, therefore, that he is not looking where he is going: equally unsurprising that that at the bottom of the steps he does indeed cannon unthinking into a fellow member of the public who has chosen this very moment to walk past Mr Potter's office.
Although not a big man, Mr Potter is capable of unusual velocity when pushed. The impact is considerable: it knocks Mr Potter's briefcase out of his hand and sends the other man sprawling across the pavement.
"Oh, shit," Mr Potter says, a term which does not usually cross his lips. Then he says, "I'm really sorry. Are you all right? Here, let me give you a hand."
The man he has bumped into is tall, gray bearded, probably in his late fifties. He has a round, comfortable face, and even lying on the ground is capable of a heartwarming smile.
At this moment Mr Potter does not want his heart warmed. What he wants is to be at home, with all the windows closed and the bolt on the front door sprung. Nevertheless, he steps forward and gives the man a hand up. "Are you really OK?" he asks.
"Fine. Fine," says the man with the beard. His eyes, now some six inches above Mr Potter's, twinkle disconcertedly, for surely no-one should be amused by a complete stranger knocking them down in the street. "Fine. How are you, my boy?"
Mr Potter stiffens. He is no-one's boy.
"You're not hurt?" he says, backing away.
"Oh dear," the man says. "Perhaps it was a bit soon...Bad day at...at the office, was it?" He doesn't seen to expect an answer, but, Mr Potter sees to his astonishment, thrusts out a hand in which is held a small paper bag. "Here, have one of these."
Horrified, Mr Potter looks down into the bag. It contains an assortment of small sweets in lurid colours, which seen to writhe uneasily under his eyes.
"They're perfectly safe, I assure you," the man says, and pops one into his own mouth. "Mmmm,...liquorice, I think. Harmless. Have one."
"No," Mr Potter says. "Thank you."
He is disconcerted enough to simply turn and walk away. Four seconds later he remembers his briefcase, and turns round, but the man with the gray beard has vanished.
On Thursdays Mr Potter goes to the supermarket. He parks, as usual, on the right side of the carpark, near the slatted fence with its overhanging beech hedge. He uses a small trolley. He buys frozen chips and lasagna and a small packet of peas: chilled treacle pudding and ready made custard. He buys a single bottle of Young's chocolate stout, which he will drink, slowly, on Friday night. He buys cereal and milk and bread and when he has paid for all of this he stops in the lobby to inspect the what's on posters, just in case there is something he will want to do on Sunday. So far, there has been nothing. Usually, Mr Potter is alone in his perusal of these dubious pleasures - St Serf's is having a bring and buy sale with a tombola and the Amateur Dramatic Society is staging Jesus Christ Superstar - but today there is a man standing by the noticeboard. He is a tall man in a black coat, with the kind of straggled, long hair that would never pass in Mr Potter's office. He has a nose which is a statement in itself, but this Mr Potter, who is not given to observing his fellow man, only notices because it is pointed emphatically away from himself and towards the exit, thus appearing in explicit profile.
For some inexplicable reason Mr Potter smells peppermint.
he gets home he finds he can look, immediately, at the branches of the
tree outside his house. The palms of his hands are dry and his heart beats
to a regulated rhythm, and there are no owls in sight.
On Friday Mr Potter dresses with unusual care. This is the day his supervisor will receive the report from the counselor: this is the day he will arrive at Mr Potter's desk, aftershave preceding presence, smirking. This is the day Mr Potter goes on indefinite sickleave and four regulation weeks later loses his job. Four days ago the thought would have left him reeling. Now, to his absolute amazement, Mr Potter finds himself almost interested in the inherent possibility of...not working. He could...grow his hair. Eat chocolate for breakfast. In fact, Mr Potter finds the possibility almost stimulating, so much so that he changes the radio station in the car for the first time in his working life.
By lunchtime he realises that he will not loose his job today. Not only does his supervisor not appear - either openly or sliding round the corner of the potted aspidistra as usual - but there is a small group of people moving from desk to desk in a flurry of introductions. Twice, there is laughter, and there is a tall, thin man in a pinstripe suit Mr Potter does not recognise. It appears that he has a new supervisor, although it is two hours after he reaches this conclusion that the group appears at his own, secluded desk. He looks up.
The tall, thin man has a shock of red hair, an uncertain smile, and is looking down at him. Mr Potter feels faintly queasy. Perhaps he shouldn't have gone to the staff canteen for lunch, although Mr Potter has been eating company food for the last...
"Hello." Says the man with the red hair. "You don't need to introduce me to this one. We've known each other since we were at school." He puts out his hand: the sleeves of his shirt are just a little too short, so his wrists stick out, absurdly vulnerable, scattered with small fawn freckles.
Mr Potter opens his mouth.
"I have never met you before in my life," he says. Then he adds: "I'm not feeling very well. I'm going to go home."
It strikes him a moment later that this is perhaps discourteous and is possibly not company procedure, but there's nothing he can do about it, because his stomach has roiled, his gorge has risen, and he is being violently sick into his wastepaperbin.
"Oh dear," says one of the men in the gray suits. "I think - perhaps you should just come this way - you must meet Lucinda, she's doing wonderful things with the corporate accounts..."
There are no owls outside his house.
Perhaps he imagined them. It was clear he had been sickening for something, although by the time he arrives, two hours early, at his own front door Mr Potter does not feel at all unwell. Nevertheless he sits down at his computer, writes a neat letter of explanation and attaches a self certification sickness form, addresses the envelope to his supervisor's manager and places it on the hall table ready to post when he gets the Saturday papers.
Then he turns on the television, and finds himself watching children's cartoons. Of course. He is two hours out of time, and the six o'clock news is still under discussion. He changes channels and discovers he is not fond of quiz shows. He turns the television off and stares at the blank screen. Looks out the window. Stands up. He could...post the letter. He could walk to the supermarket and post the letter, and by the time he comes back it will time for the news and all will be well.
As he walks to the supermarket - which is something Mr Potter has not done before, despite the fact that the retail park in which it resides is only a brisk fifteen minutes from his house - Mr Potter observes that he has been under a misapprehension regarding the nature of his environment. He had thought his neighbourhood was a clean, neat and reserved example of British suburbia, but he has been wrong. It is not the people who disconcert Mr Potter, but the wildlife. There are, he discovers, an extraordinary profusion of cats inhabiting the streets he walks through: black, Persian, tabby, sinuous and straight...There is, he is sure, an albino ferret someone appears to have let loose and he narrowly misses a toad lying on the pavement with its mouth open. He considers parakeets, and reminds himself to pay more attention to what goes on beyond the windows of his car.
He posts the letter in the mailbox at the supermarket.
The man in the black coat is still there. His head is bent, hidden by the locks of dark hair that fall across his shoulders and over his ears. His hands are clasped in front of him, the knuckles white. Mr Potter wonders if this man has been there since last night, for he looks battered and unkempt, as if he might be one of London's missing, but then considers Security and Closing Time and rejects the notion. Nevertheless he does not buy anything from the supermarket but hurries home, passing unseeing a large black dog, almost corporeal, sitting with a red tennis ball underneath the plane tree.
On Saturday he watches the Manchester Arsenal game, and finds the players very slow.
On Sunday he tidies his bedroom, dusts his living room, and celebrates with treacle sponge pudding for tea. He eats it sitting on the sofa.
On Monday he doesn't go to work. This is unprecedented. He's not sure if he is worried about his new supervisor or the letter which will surely be sitting in his old supervisor's intray, but he wakes up at six forty-four on Monday morning, thirty seconds before the alarm clock goes off, knowing that he will not go work today. Instead he puts on jeans and goes to B&Q, where he buys two tins of scarlet paint, a paintbrush, and some plastic sheeting. When he comes back (and he does glance at the plane tree, but there are no temporally disturbed owls on the branch) he paints his front door. It takes him four hours, which is just about time for lunch, so after that he paints his windowsills. When he is done his house looks quite different, bolder, friendlier, and Mr Potter feels quite content and pleasantly tired.
He doesn't go to work on Tuesday either. There is nothing left to paint, so he decides to clean his house instead, starting with the loft and finishing with the kitchen. He is polishing the bathroom mirror and frowning at his reflection (surely his hair was never so messy? And his glasses - almost askew?) when the doorbell goes. It is not a sound he has ever heard before, and it takes a moment or two for him to realise exactly what the strident clamour indicates. For a moment, he wonders if it is someone from the office. Or the tax inspectors. Possibly the man from the TV Licensing Authority...Although Mr Potter has posted his forms, paid his taxes and licensed his television, none of these people are high on his list of welcome visitors. He moves to the bathroom window and squints down at his front door step. To his astonishment, the person standing outside Mr Potter's front door is a woman. Evidently a woman, with long brown curly hair and glasses. One of her hands holds a clipboard, and the other is resting on the handle of an old fashioned navy blue pram. Inside the pram is a suspiciously rounded huddle of pastel blankets.
Mr Potter backs soundlessly away from the window.
The doorbell only goes twice more, but Mr Potter remains perfectly motionless for a whole half-hour before he is certain the woman has left.
Because Mr Potter has been eating lunch at home instead of at work, he is remarkably short of food. For supper he eats potato waffles with a packet of parsley sauce, and he is desperately short of tea. In the morning he gets up, puts on his jeans, and goes to the supermarket with his rucksack on his back and a swing to his stride.
The man in the black coat is still standing by the noticeboard.
Mr Potters buys avocado and garlic, for guacamole: asparagus and butter, apricots and French bread and black chocolate. He buys a plastic picnic glass with a picture of Evil Edna (Willo the Wisp has been revived on Channel Four) and a spoon for pasta that is bright green and toothed like a dragon. When he has paid for all this and loaded it into his rucksack he walks past the checkout tills to the restaurant, for Mr Potter ran out of tea this morning and has still not had breakfast.
He stops, when he walks past the man in the black coat.
"Are you hungry?" Mr Potter says, for he notices now that the man's coat is old and patched and his hands are stained with something that is not nicotine. "Can I buy you something? Coffee? Breakfast?"
When the man looks up he does it slowly, very slowly, so slowly that Mr Potter almost catches his breath, as if there is something here he would be well advised to fear. It is the man's nose that comes into view first, rising through folds of hair: then his mouth, which is narrow, held between grooves of parchment dry skin: then his eyelashes rise and his eyes - dead holes in that white face, dead and oh, so dark...
"You're not all right, are you?" Mr Potter says. He puts out a hand, but it comes to a halt two inches from that black coat, which, now he comes to think about it, is extraordinarily enveloping.
The man's mouth opens, but he doesn't say anything at all.
Were he in his right mind, Mr Potter would walk away, speak to the security guard at the door, and get someone to come and take the vagrant away, safely out of sight and out of mind. He is not. He says, firmly, "Coffee," and makes a little shooing movement with his hands that sends the man lurching towards the restaurant. Lurching for two strides, though. After that, the man's pace settles to a smooth lope that has Mr Potter struggling to follow. The man's coat licks around the space he takes up, winged: his head is held high. But when they reach the restaurant he stops, uncertain, and it is Mr Potter who gets a tray and orders coffee and croissants and jam, paying and leading them both to a table by the window. It is only when they are settled and the tray stacked neatly on the collection point nearby that Mr Potter realises the man has not said a word.
"What's your name?" he asks, passing the milk across the table. "Where do you come from?" He glances up, but the man is decanting a packet of sugar into his coffee and will not meet his eyes. Mr Potter retrieves the jam and tears open his croissant. "Do you live nearby?" He glances up again, and the man is looking at him with a very faint smile, one with such an undercurrent of irony that Mr Potter knows he has missed something important. Ah. "You can't talk?" The smile broadens, slightly, almost imperceptible. Then it is gone, so quickly that Mr Potter feels as if the man has slapped him in the face. He looks down, and starts to pull his croissant apart, first into segments, then into bites, then into shreds, by shred, by shred by- Touch. His fingers are covered and stilled by a single hand. It is a cool hand, broad, bony. It is steady, and exerts just enough pressure: not too much to be threatening, not too little to be an irritant. It doesn't move, just holds him down.
There are shadows between the bones.
Then the hand moves smoothly back to its owner, and it is as if nothing has happened. But Mr Potter cannot look up: he watches, instead, the hands of the man opposite him reach for a spoon and slide it, with precision, into the cup of coffee, watches them stir the coffee, very gently, carefully, as if coffee is combustible and must be treated with the greatest of care, as if there is a exact and predefined moment at which - there! - the coffee becomes more than the sum of its parts, complete, finished, perfect.
The hands stop and retreat. Mr Potter rediscovers breath. He looks up, but the man opposite is staring down at his untouched croissant as if he has never seen such a thing before.
Mr Potter finds he has reserves of courage he never knew he possessed.
"Do I know you?" he asks.
But the man does not answer, and Mr Potter, ashamed, looks down. He notices that the man's coat must be even longer than he thought, for one corner of it curls around Mr Potter's Nike trainers in an elegant embrace. It is a connection he cannot deny.
"It's Wednesday today," Mr Potter says. "On Wednesdays, normally, I would be at work. I iron my shirts on Wednesdays." He stops to think. "But I didn't do any washing on Monday, so there is no ironing. I was painting my front door," he says. "Red."
Opposite him, the man's lip curls. It is the most minute degree of scorn: but, somehow, however faint, holds a complicit amusement that lightens Mr Potter's heart. He eats some of his croissant, and adds: "I painted my windowsills too. And I think I've resigned." He pauses. "I know I've resigned. I just haven't told them yet."
Opposite, an eyebrow twitches. Mr Potter, absurdly, grins in reply, and finishes his croissant. "And I bought apricots for lunch," he says. "Do you like apricots?"
When he looks up the man opposite him is almost blank faced. Almost. There is, suddenly, someone home in those black eyes: someone sardonic, vivid, sharp: someone that Mr Potter likes very much indeed.
He says, "Do you know anything about owls?"
The man opposite him says nothing, but moves his eyes sideways, very slowly, so Mr Potter follows his gaze. Together, they look outside.
There are owls on the railings of the supermarket. There are owls on the slatted fence, and on the bonnets of cars, and on the lampposts. There are small owls and big owls, brown owls, white owls, tiny owls and owls with huge, tufted ears like artichoke hearts.
Mr Potter stands up to scream.
When he stands up he looks up, and what he sees, screaming, is a witch on a broomstick, sailing across the sky as if Mr Potter's life is a Steven Spielburg movie.
What he thinks, drawing breath to scream again, as his arms are held and all of his back comes to rest against someone else's body, is, I am going mad. Is, I am mad. Is, what would it be like, to fly, to be free? He is cradled in darkness, surrounded by a cloak that feels like velvet on his skin: he remembers racing seagulls: he knows the taste of his first kiss and what it feels to hold Voldemort's heart beating in his hand. He has never felt so safe or so loved.
"Harry," says Severus Snape.