The tap at the sink was leaking. The drops clanked on the empty steel pans, unwashed since morning. Tiny insects hovered over the half-eaten spaghetti. The lid on the jam jar was missing, the spoon still sat inside it. The kitchen looked as though it was left in haste. Someone obviously did not have the time or the desire to clean the mess. The microwave was still switched on. Its monotonous beeps were drowned only by the football commentary from the television in the next room. Beer cans littered the carpet. Stains from the morning’s coffee cup were visible on the table beside the sprawling sofa.
The only area on the ground floor that had survived the mess and remained tidy was in front of the cupboard beneath the stairs. Every time Dudley Dursley had thrown his pyjamas or slippers near the door, they were automatically found in the laundry basket the next morning. It was, as Dudley had uttered a thousand times, like magic. He sometimes amused himself by keeping random things in front of the cupboard, just to catch it moving on the closed circuit camera placed above the front door. It was a precaution Dudley had taken last summer. A cat burglar was lose in the neighbourhood and the junior Vernon Dursley knew better than to trust his nosy gardener and house-help.
It was a football that evening, wrapped in a white bedsheet. That oughta sell for some bit, Dudley summarised. The nearby TV news station liked mysterious videos on the paranormal. They would pay him a decent amount, something to last him a month, give or take. Dudley was spread on the sofa, drifting in and out of slumber. He did not bother which teams were playing, he needed the commentator’s shrieks of joy when the local side scored a goal or a player fouled the referee.
Dudley had received a very hasty telephone call from his cousin that afternoon. Harry Potter ranted on about getting some time away from his family and that he had solved a case about some peculiar plants. Then he blurted he would be stopping over for tea at Privet Drive and he was with a guest.
Surely he was joking, Dudley thought. Harry had not stepped into the house ever since Vernon passed last April. It was his first visit in over eight years, and the man did not even stop to console his grieving aunt. Petunia Dursley moved into an old-age facility soon after. Dudley’s wife and children were with her for a month now. Mellissa, or Mel as everyone called her, stormed out one evening after Dudley told her he had quit his job. It was the fourth time in less than a year that he had given up. A factory manager could not work as a waiter or a clerk or even as a lower level supervisor. Dudley was forced to leave his well-paying senior position after his company decided to lay off workers and staff at the site. The oil turmoil had made life slippery even here in Surrey. The maid and the gardener had stopped coming since. Mel made sure of the suffering until she received an apology.
Dudley thought he heard a knock. The neighbour’s kids and their cricket balls were a nuisance. But there it was again, now morphing into a harsh fist. Dudley hurled himself up, his huge belly did not help the effort. He peered through the peephole and found Harry standing alongside a tall, scruffy looking man.
“We can hear you Dud,” Harry yelled through the door. “Now open up. This won’t take long.”
Dudley groaned as he unbolted the door. “Why didn’t you use your magic and enter at your own convenience? It would have made no difference.”
Harry and the man entered, looking for a place to hang their robes, but quickly deciding otherwise. “Practising to be messy, are we? And besides, it is not courteous to break into your own home.”
Dudley followed them into the living room. “You mean my home. But yes, you could call it yours. After all, what have you left me? That golden gallons-stuff you send every holiday is no use to me here. The jeweller thinks I am a smuggler of some kind. Refuses to trade them.”
Harry looked back dejected. “That’s not what I mean Dud. And galleons are worth a lot if you come to Diagon Alley. Mel and the kids have been there. I have been asking you to join us since th….”
“Oh stop it,” Dudley slumped back on the sofa, pretending to watch the game. “So what is it you need? Surely, tea was an excuse.” The bitter, Vernon-version in him was on the brim.
“Yes, and no actually. We’d still very much like to have tea with you. But there is another matter at hand. Oh, and this is Professor Neville Longbottom. He teaches herbology at Hogwarts. Surely you remember his from Albus Severus’s birthday last year?”
Dudley cast one eye on Neville and grunted. “Yeah yeah. Is he to do the lawn? I won’t pay anything though.”
“Well, he’ll see if he can do something about those weeds outside. But I wanted to visit my room upstairs.”
Dudley did not look up from the TV. “Why? What’s left there? You took everything, didn’t you?”
“I must have left a couple of old letters under the floor. I sure would like those.” Harry took a step ahead and the sound of cracking china filled the room.
Dudley turned towards him exasperatedly but did not bother about the plate. “Well, hurry up and be about it. And don’t bother stopping for tea.”
Harry opened his mouth to reply but thought against it. He looked at Neville. “It’ll just take five minutes.”
He hurried up the stairs, stepping on some cups this time until he was out of sight. Neville was now quietly looking at the Dursley’s family photographs on the wall, the awkward silence was broken only by the commentary.
“So, what did you teach again?” Dudley questioned as he reached for the packet of crisps on the table in front.
Neville was caught by surprise. “What? Oh, I’m sorry, um, I teach herbology. The study of plants in our world.”
“You mean botany.”
“No, not botany. It’s more of..” Neville suppressed his urge to explain. Harry had warned his cousin might not be interested in the magic world. “I guess you could call it botany,” he settled.
“My kids like plants. We have that small garden outside. Pity the plants are dying now. No one to look after them. Just like me,” Dudley dived into the other packet in front of him.
Neville was growing sad. He wanted to say something helpful. “I can underst..”
“Found it.” Harry was walking back down. He had an old envelope with him. Neville looked back at Dudley. The packet was already empty.
“Well, if you found what you came for, time to get moving. I have plans you know.” Dudley stood up, ready to usher them out.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to wait for tea,” Harry asked politely. Neville nodded in agreement. Harry continued, “Come over to our place this weekend, Dudley. I’ll get Mel and the kids to come over as well. We can have a nice lunch, enjoy the weather. What say?”
Dudley wanted to hit Harry between the teeth. His smiling face and pleasant attitude were causing Dudley more pain than he would have felt if Harry had actually cursed him. “No, I’m okay. I have some…some job hunting to do. I’ll be busy there,” his voice trailed away.
“On the weekend as well?” Harry asked again, even more politely.
“Yeah,” Dudley lied. “A friend has an opening at his factory. I’ll give that a shot.”
Harry let out a sigh. He wanted to help Dudley, but he knew the Dursleys well enough. Dudley was too proud to admit he needed help. “Okay then Dud,” Harry said crestfallen. “You know where to reach me. I’ll keep sending an owl every Sunday in case you want to send a letter personally.”
“Yeah keep that ruddy bird to yourself. I’m alright,” Dudley said opening the door. “Well, goodnight then fellas. Safe travel.” He closed the door behind the two of them, fished another packet of crisps from the kitchen and changed the channel. The news was on.
Harry and Neville were crossing the small garden on the lawn. “Harry, you really didn’t have to get the letter. I know you would have told me anyway.”
Harry stopped and turned towards Neville. “I just wanted you to have it. Dumbledore had written it mentioning you. He never wanted me to tell you only because he had seen your sorrows. He was only thinking about protecting you from even more.”
Neville stood facing the untrimmed bougainvillaea and pursed his lips. “I understand that now. I’m glad we could get past it.”
“Yeah, me too,” Harry patted Neville on the shoulder. “So shall we? Ginny must be waiting.” He took a step away, ready to Apparate.
“Um, you go on Harry. I’ll see you on Monday at school for your guest lecture.”
Harry nodded back. “Okay. See you, Nev. Say hi to Hannah for me.” He smiled and vanished.
Neville took his wand out and looked around to see if he was alone. The drive was deserted now. The sky faint with twilight. He stepped into the garden, vary of the shallots, and muttered a few spells. Fifteen minutes later, he was gone. The bougainvillaea was trimmed into its proper shape, the weeds all cleared. Dudley witnessed it all from behind from the curtains. He stood there at the window until Neville’s silhouette disappeared. He walked back inside to the cupboard underneath the stairs and swung the door open. A stack of letters lay on the floor, a few addressed to him and some to his daughter, Gwen. They were all the same letters, informing Gwen that she had been asked to attend school at Hogwarts that September.