Sunday, November 14, 2010

She was quite right, of course

, he was barely keeping up with his homework, though he was doing much better now that he was no longer spending every evening in detention with Umbridge. Ron was even further behind with

his work than Harry, because while they both had Quidditch practice twice a week, Ron also had his prefect duties. However, Hermione, who was taking more subjects than either of them, had not only finished all her

homework but was also finding time to knit more elf clothes. Harry had to admit that she was getting better; it was now almost always possible to distinguish between the hats and the socks.

The morning of the Hogsmeade visit dawned bright but windy. Alter breakfast they queued up in front of Filch, who matched their names to the long list of students who had permission from their parents or guardian to visit the

village. With a slight pang, Harry remembered that if it hadn't been for Sirius, he would not have been going at all.

When Harry reached Filch, the caretaker gave a great sniff as though trying to detect a whiff of something from Harry. Then he gave a curt nod that set his jowls aquiver again and Harry walked on, out on to the stone steps

and the cold, sunlit day.

‘Er—why was Filch sniffing you?’ asked Ron, as he, Harry and Hermione set off at a brisk pace down the wide drive to the gates.

‘I suppose he was checking for the smell of Dungbombs,’ said Harry with a small laugh. ‘I forgot to tell you ...’

And he recounted the story of sending his letter to Sirius and Filch bursting in seconds later, demanding to see the letter. To his slight surprise, Hermione found this story highly interesting, much more, indeed, than he did


‘He said he was tipped off you were ordering Dungbombs? But who tipped him off?’

‘I dunno,’ said Harry, shrugging. ‘Maybe Malfoy he'd think it was a laugh.’

They walked between the tall stone pillars topped with winged boars and turned left on to the road into the village, the wind whip-, ping their hair into their eyes.

‘Malfoy?’ said Hermione, sceptically. ‘Well ... yes ... maybe ...’

And she remained deep in thought all the way into the outskirts of Hogsmeade.

‘Where are we going, anyway?’ Harry asked. ‘The Three Broomsticks?’

‘Oh—no,’ said Hermione, coming out of her reverie, ‘no, it's always packed and really noisy. I've told the others to meet us in the Hog's Head, that other pub, you know the one, it's not on the main road. I think it's a bit ... you

know ... dodgy ... but students don't normally go in there, so I don't think we'll be overheard.’

They walked down the main street past Zonko's Wizarding Joke Shop, where they were not surprised to see Fred, George and Lee Jordan, past the post office, from which owls issued at regular intervals, and turned up a

side-street at the top of which stood a small inn. A battered wooden sign hung from a rusty bracket over the door, with a picture on it of a wild boar's severed head, leaking blood on to the white cloth around it. The sign

creaked in the wind as they approached. All three of them hesitated outside the door.

‘Well, come on,’ said Hermione, slightly nervously. Harry led the way inside.

It was not at all like the Three Broomsticks, whose large bar gave an impression of gleaming warmth and cleanliness. The Hog's Head bar comprised one small, dingy and very dirty room that smelled strongly of something that

might have been goats. The bay windows were so encrusted with grime that very little daylight could permeate the room, which was lit instead with the stubs of candles sitting on rough wooden tables. The floor seemed at first

glance to be compressed earth, though as Harry stepped on to it he realised that there was stone beneath what seemed to be the accumulated filth of centuries.

Harry remembered Hagrid mentioning this pub in his first year: ‘Yeh get a lot o’ funny folk in the Hog's Head,’ he had said, explaining how he had won a dragon's egg from a hooded stranger there. At the time Harry had

wondered why Hagrid had not found it odd that the stranger kept his face hidden throughout their encounter; now he saw that keeping your face hidden was something of a fashion in the Hog's Head. There was a man at the

bar whose whole head was wrapped in dirty grey bandages, though he was still managing to gulp endless glasses of some smoking, fiery substance through a slit over his mouth; two figures shrouded in hoods sat at a table in

one of the windows; Harry might have thought them dementors if they had not been talking in strong Yorkshire accents, and in a shadowy corner beside the fireplace sat a witch with a thick, black veil that fell to her toes. They

could just see the tip of her nose because it caused the veil to protrude slightly.

‘I don't know about this, Hermione,’ Harry muttered, as they crossed to the bar. He was looking particularly at the heavily veiled witch. ‘Has it occurred to you Umbridge might be under that?’

Hermione cast an appraising eye over the veiled figure.

‘Umbridge is shorter than that woman,’ she said quietly. ‘And anyway, even if Umbridge does come in here there's nothing she can do to stop us, Harry, because I've double- and triple-checked the school rules. We're not out

of bounds; I specifically asked Professor Flitwick whether students were allowed to come in the Hog's Head, and he said yes, but he advised me strongly to bring our own glasses. And I've looked up everything I can think of

about study groups and homework groups and they're definitely allowed. I just don't think it's a good idea if we parade what we're doing.’

‘No,’ said Harry drily, ‘especially as it's not exactly a homework group you're planning, is it?’

The barman sidled towards them out of a back room. He was a grumpy-looking old man with a great deal of long grey hair and beard. He was tall and thin and looked vaguely familiar to Harry.

‘What?’ he grunted.

‘Three Butterbeers, please,’ said Hermione.

The man reached beneath the counter and pulled up three very dusty, very dirty bottles, which he slammed on the bar.

‘Six Sickles,’ he said.

‘I'll get them,’ said Harry quickly, passing over the silver. The barman's eyes travelled over Harry, resting for a fraction of a second on his scar. Then he turned away and deposited Harry's money in an ancient wooden till

whose drawer slid open automatically to receive it. Harry, Ron and Hermione retreated to the furthest table from the bar and sat down, looking around. The man in the dirty grey bandages rapped the counter with his knuckles

and received another smoking drink from the barman.

‘You know what?’ Ron murmured, looking over at the bar with enthusiasm. ‘We could order anything we liked in here. I bet that bloke would sell us anything, he wouldn't care. I've always wanted to try Firewhisky—’

‘You—are—a—prefect,’ snarled Hermione.

‘Oh,’ said Ron, the smile fading from his face. ‘Yeah ...’

‘So, who did you say is supposed to be meeting us?’ Harry asked, wrenching open the rusty top of his Butterbeer and taking a swig.

‘Just a couple of people,’ Hermione repeated, checking her watch and looking anxiously towards the door. ‘I told them to be here about now and I'm sure they all know where it is—oh, look, this might be them now.’

The door of the pub had opened. A thick band of dusty sunlight split the room in two for a moment and then vanished, blocked by the incoming rush of a crowd of people.

First came Neville with Dean and Lavender, who were closely followed by Parvati and Padma Patil with (Harry's stomach did a back-flip) Cho and one of her usually-giggling girlfriends, then (on her own and looking so dreamy

she might have walked in by accident) Luna Lovegood; then Katie Bell, Alicia Spinnet and Angelina Johnson, Colin and Dennis Creevey Ernie Macmillan, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Hannah Abbott, a Hufflepuff girl with a long plait

clown her back whose name Harry did not know; three Ravenclaw boys he was pretty sure were called Anthony Goldstein, Michael Corner and Terry Boot, Ginny, closely followed by a tall skinny blond boy with an upturned

nose whom Harry recognised vaguely as being a member of the Hufflepuff Quidditch team and, bringing up the rear, Fred and George Weasley with their friend Lee Jordan, all three of whom were carrying large paper bags

crammed with Zonko's merchandise.

‘A couple of people?’ said Harry hoarsely to Hermione. ‘A couple of people?’

‘Yes, well, the idea seemed quite popular,’ said Hermione happily. ‘Ron, do you want to pull up some more chairs?’

The barman had frozen in the act of wiping out a glass with a rag so filthy it looked as though it had never been washed. Possibly, he had never seen his pub so full.

‘Hi,’ said Fred, reaching the bar first and counting his companions quickly, ‘could we have ... twenty-five Butterbeers, please?’

The barman glared at him for a moment, then, throwing down his rag irritably as though he had been interrupted in something very important, he started passing up dusty Butterbeers from under the bar.

‘Cheers,’ said Fred, handing them out. ‘Cough up, everyone, I haven't got enough gold for all of these ...’

Harry watched numbly as the large chattering group took their beers from Fred and rummaged in their robes to find coins. He could not imagine what all these people had turned up for until the horrible thought occurred to

him that they might be expecting same kind of speech, at which he rounded on Hermione.

‘What have you been telling people?’ he said in a low voice. ‘What are they expecting?’

‘I've told you, they just want to hear what you've got to say,’ said Hermione soothingly; but Harry continued to look at her so furiously that she added quickly, ‘you don't have to do anything yet, I'll speak to them first.’

‘Hi, Harry,’ said Neville, beaming and taking a seat opposite him.

Harry tried to smile back, but did not speak; his mouth was exceptionally dry. Cho had just smiled at him and sat down on Ron's right. Her friend, who had curly reddish-blonde hair, did not smile, but gave Harry a thoroughly

mistrustful look which plainly told him that, given her way, she would not be here at all.

In twos and threes the new arrivals settled around Harry, Ron and Hermione, some looking rather excited, others curious, Luna Lovegood gazing dreamily into space. When everybody had pulled up a chair, the chatter died

out. Every eye was upon Harry.

‘Er,’ said Hermione, her voice slightly higher than usual out of nerves. ‘Well—er—hi.’

The group focused its attention on her instead, though eyes continued to dart back regularly to Harry.

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