Along the Winding Road
It was a sunny summer morning in the English village of Little Whinging, and the humid air promised that the afternoon would be a rather unpleasant one, even for late July. For Harry Potter, the heat simply fueled his happy mood that day. An observer might wonder why the young boy, almost nine years of age, would be in such high spirits given that he was carrying a box nearly as large as himself and could barely see the pavement in front of him. If asked, he would probably say that he loved being outside, or that he liked to help his neighbors — although batty old Mrs. Figg was the only neighbor that would ever speak to him, much less ask him to perform an errand for her, such as he was doing now. It might have been the coins in his pocket, tokens of Mrs. Figgs' appreciation that would join a slowly growing collection in his secret hiding place. In truth, it was all of these, for they all meant the same thing to Harry — freedom from his relatives, the Dursleys of Number Four Privet Drive.
According to Harry's Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, his parents had been drunken layabouts that had gotten themselves killed in a car crash that was also the source of the small lightning-bolt shaped scar on Harry's forehead. He thought it odd that he had absolutely no memory of this, but it was a head injury after all and he was only a year old at the time. Regardless, he was constantly reminded how thankful he should be that they allowed him food, clothing and shelter, not that he deserved anything at all, "freak" that he was. For his part, Harry felt his cooking, cleaning and gardening chores more than earned what little they provided, but he was in no position to argue, having learned a long time ago that doing so could have very unpleasant repercussions.
Harry reached the end of Magnolia Crescent and turned left on the Winding Road toward the center of the village, a route he knew well. Not only did it pass his school, but it crossed the High Street on its way to the train station. Ironically, the Winding Road was perfectly straight for miles in both directions, not "winding" at all. For ages Harry had just assumed the name was one of those silly adult things from so long ago that no one remembered the origin. When Harry had gotten old enough to venture away from Privet Drive on his own, he had drifted to the village train station, studying the rail maps to imagine other towns, free of Dursleys, living in one of them with a family that actually cared if he was wandering the streets alone or not. Of course, there on the map, the truth about the Winding Road was plain as day — just two stops down the line was the town of Winding, just before joining the main line to London. Harry had nearly made a scene laughing at his assumption, perfectly understandable, but so totally wrong. It had been a valuable lesson.
Thinking of the train brought back thoughts of London — the great and wondrous city filled many of his grander dreams — and earlier in the spring his school had made a special trip to the British Museum. Harry had been awed beyond words during his first excursion into the historic metropolis, nearly wrenching his neck to take it all in. They had taken a bus instead of the train, but that was no matter. Harry had gotten a taste of real adventure and was eager for more — he just needed a good excuse.
A block beyond the High Street, Harry finally reached his destination, and struggled a moment to open the door of the cast-off shop. Fortunately, Mrs. Farnsworth was working today, and she helped him inside.
"Good morning, Harry," she said, smiling. "Looks like a good load you have there. Another from your aunt?"
"No," Harry grunted as he lifted the box to the sorting table. "This is from Mrs. Figg. And I'll be happy to help tag and place it, if you like."
"Yes, of course, Harry. Thank you."
Harry grinned and set to work. He had an arrangement with Mrs. Farnsworth — a half hour of help in the shop meant he could pick out an article of clothing for himself. Most of the kids from his neighborhood would be horrified to wear a used anything, but Harry's aunt would never buy clothes for him. She would only offer hand-me-downs, saying if they were good enough for Dudley, then they were good enough for freaks like him. This made little sense to Harry, knowing his cousin was built more like a farm animal than a human. His clothes would never fit Harry's small frame, despite the fact that they were only a couple of months apart age-wise. In addition, Dudley the Destroyer was very hard on everything he owned and his old things were more suited for binning anyway, so Harry had to convince his aunt to let him come to the cast-off shop for trade-ins. He only had to slyly mention what the neighbors might say if he was seen about in rags, and her vanity sealed the deal.
Harry had quickly learned that most of the ladies who worked the shop knew his Aunt Petunia and were quite obvious in their disdain for his presence there. This was a charity shop, not a hangout for hooligans, they would tell him. But Mrs. Farnsworth was different — she knew he wasn't trying to cause trouble, even if trouble did tend to follow him around. She seemed to understand the situation with his relatives, and she had assured him that anyone was welcome here — "cast-offs" didn't just refer to the items in the shop after all. Harry was grateful when she related the hours when she would be working alone.
As Harry worked his way through the box, he was amazed at the things Mrs. Figg collected. He knew most of it came from her own wanderings about the neighborhood, picking up salvageable items abandoned in the playpark or along the road someplace — odd containers, hats, coats and the like. However, the bulk of it was toys that she had cleaned up, saving a few of the best ones for Harry to play with at her house when his relatives would go on holiday, always without Harry. He often wished he could go to the sea or some of the other fun places described by his cousin in taunting detail, but not if it meant loads of time in close quarters with the Dursleys. Most adventures just weren't worth that kind of torture.
Harry had almost finished when he noticed a single playing card in the bottom of the box. He picked it up, barely noticing the faint tingle as fingertips made initial contact, distracted by the sudden sound of music playing. He looked around to see if Mrs. Farnsworth had turned on a radio, but she was talking with a customer on the other side of the shop. Shrugging, he focused on face of the card — a seven of clubs — and peered at some writing in the empty space between the two group and the five group.
And below that in smaller print:
Harry guessed it must be an advertisement for some sort of establishment — maybe a dance club — cleverly done, he thought. Knowing it was otherwise destined for the bin, he stuffed it into his pocket and continued working, sorting other items that had been on the table before he arrived, unconsciously tapping his foot to the catchy rhythm he was hearing.
A short while later and Harry was all grins, prancing about in new trainers with just the right amount of wear in them.
"Thanks, Mrs. Farnsworth! My old ones were a right mess. These don't need duct tape or anything!"
"Yes," she agreed, glad to see that the shoes were a good fit. "I'm not sure how you got about in those old things. Now you run along and enjoy yourself."
"Okay," said Harry. Suddenly remembering the card, he pulled it out of his pocket. "I found this in Mrs. Figgs' box. Do you know where this Club Seven is?"
She took the card and shook her head. "No, I've never heard of a Diagon Alley around here, although London is full of odd places like that. Are you alright, Harry?"
The boy had taken hold of the card again with a puzzled look on his face. "Yes, ma'am. Did you just hear some music, turning off and then on again?"
"No, I'm not hearing anything besides us. Should I?"
"Hmm," he replied thoughtfully. Looking up again, he continued, "It's alright — I'm just imagining it I'm sure. Thanks again for everything!"
He bolted out the door and hurried back along the Winding Road.
o o o
An hour later, Harry was sitting in the shade of a large beech tree at the edge of the play park. He had rushed to Privet Drive, stashed the money from Mrs. Figg in the carefully hidden pouch in his room — actually the cupboard under the stairs — which the Dursleys allowed him "out of the kindness of their hearts." Knowing that Dudley had two real bedrooms upstairs all to himself, Harry recognized the hateful sarcasm behind the words but didn't allow himself to dwell on it. He had hastily fixed a sandwich and left before his aunt could find him and assign some meaningless chore for the afternoon.
Once again, he studied the playing card carefully. He had never seen anything quite like it and was amazed that it worked at all. It played music in his head whenever it was on his person, even in a pocket, but if he set it on the ground, the music disappeared, just as when he had given it briefly to Mrs. Farnsworth. He had discovered that the club symbols were touch sensitive, and allowed him to raise and lower the volume, change channels, even turn it off and on, which was a good thing, but he still couldn't figure out how the electronics could be so small to fit within the thickness of the card, nor how he could hear it without earphones or a speaker that he could find. It had no obvious battery to change, nor did it appear to use solar like Dudley's calculator since it worked even in the dark of his cupboard.
The programs were very strange as well. One channel played music he was familiar with, but the others had groups with odd names like the Weird Sisters and the Saturday Sorcerers. He liked the music much better than the dramatic shows, deciding they were rather disgusting — something like his aunt would watch on the afternoon telly. Now he was listening to some sort of sports contest that for all the world sounded like a football match and a polo match played simultaneously on the same field, but he couldn't quite get his head around it. The commentators gave him the impression some of it was happening up in the air, which of course would be impossible. It was exciting nonetheless, so he continued to listen.
"The Cannons have called a timeout, just over an hour into the match and they're already down by over two hundred, Adam."
"Yes, Joe, and even a miracle grab of the snitch would not help them now against this determined Tornado squad."
"And the Cannons seem to be low in their supply of miracles once again."
"Speaking of miracles, the Diagon Alley Merchants Alliance wanted to remind everyone they are once again celebrating Freedom Day with specials in all member shops. If you enter through the Leaky Cauldron, be sure to ask Tom for the flyer with the complete list."
"Personally, I would go just for the free ice cream at Florean Fortescue's."
"Ah, but you would hardly pass for an under eleven, so you'll have to settle for the half-price butterbeer at ClubSeven."
"Yes, it really is a family oriented event after all. The thirty-first is this Monday, and while the Ministry still does not sanction the special day for the Boy-Who-Lived as an official holiday, they are granting leave for parents to join in the festivities with their children."
Harry could hardly believe his ears. There was some kind of festival happening in Diagon Alley honoring somebody, and it coincided with his birthday. He could have himself a real celebration for the first time, since his relatives would never do one for him. Now he just had to figure out where it was. The name Leaky Cauldron seemed familiar for some reason...
Suddenly the card was snatched from his hand.
"Hey, freak," taunted a familiar voice, "what's this? Missing a few cards, are ya?"
Harry jumped to his feet as his beefy cousin Dudley and three of his gang of thugs chortled at him.
"Maybe we should deck him, Duds," said one.
"No, it's a club, so we should club him," said another, and they all laughed at their clever puns while Harry tried to back away, fearfully glancing between them and the item in Dudley's hands.
Dudley noticed Harry's attentions and immediately ripped it in two. "Oops," he said with glee, "I hope that wasn't anything important."
Deep inside, Harry was fuming, but he had learned well to hide his emotions from his relatives. He was also outnumbered at the moment, and nothing good was going to come from an attempt at retaliation. However, he could not let his cousin have the satisfaction of a victory.
"Don't be stupid — it was just a card," he said hotly.
"You know mum said you should never call people names, freak," Dudley replied. "You need to be punished for that."
Harry knew what was coming next, so he wisely took off running before Dudley's goons were given the order to pound him to the ground. Thankfully he had lots of practice avoiding pursuit and eventually made it to his safe haven from the neighborhood bullies — the local library.
He sauntered to the reference section and began to plan his birthday adventure with a London street map. It was on that bus trip a few weeks earlier he had spotted that odd group of people standing outside an equally odd pub called the Leaky Cauldron that he now knew was a way to reach Diagon Alley. He just had to remember what road they were driving at the time... there it was — Charing Cross...
o o o
It was finally Monday, his birthday, and the trip to London satisfied Harry's idea of freedom and adventure — he was away from his relatives and on his own for a whole day. He tried to blend in with the crowds getting on and off the train so that no one would question his being alone without an adult. Fortunately, the commuters tended to ignore those around them. Once he reached Victoria Station, he had to constantly step to the side to get his bearings while people rushed past, but he eventually found the Underground platform and made his way to the Leicester Square station, which he had determined was closest to his destination on Charing Cross Road.
Harry might never have spotted the old pub if he hadn't followed some of those oddly dressed characters he had seen before. The Leaky Cauldron was inconspicuous, almost as if the owners didn't want it to be noticed. He slipped in after the two gents that were wearing garish colored hats and mismatched jackets, along with trousers that didn't seem to fit right. Some costumes, Harry thought. He was dressed simply enough in a dark T-shirt and his favorite jeans that didn't have holes in embarrassing spots. At the last minute he had donned a billed cap in case he was outside a long time.
After entering the pub, it took Harry a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the dim gas lighting. The place had an ancient but friendly atmosphere that one could wrap himself up in like an old jacket. It had a musty odor of ale and cigars but was not overpowering. He wandered to the wall near an old fireplace to survey the patrons. All of them seemed to be oddly dressed, either in mismatched clothing as the ones he followed in, or in long dark robes that seemed to be favored. Maybe they were dressed for the festival in Diagon Alley, if he could just figure out how to get there.
As he contemplated the scene, Harry was startled as the fireplace next to him flashed green. A tall redheaded boy slid out, then another who was laughing at something. The third looked just like him and was laughing too. Harry didn't know what to make of this. Was the fireplace actually a passage to another room? Several other people came sliding out, including one younger boy who tumbled onto the floor. One of the others helped him up.
"Nice landing there, Ron. Even Ginny stayed on her feet this time." Harry noted that one of the group was a giggling young girl with long braids of similar red as the others.
Finally, a woman came out — yet another redhead — and marched them all toward the rear of the pub. Harry guessed that she was the mum of this clan. When he heard her say something about an alley, Harry started after them to see where they were headed. He came out the door of the pub just in time to see them walk through a bricked opening into the most curious place Harry had seen yet. As he stepped through, he was startled to find that the opening disappeared behind him.
He shook his head, trying to verify that he was really awake, and this was not some dream of his. The narrow passage ahead of him looked like something out of a fairy tale or movie. Strange items were on display; stranger people were trying to sell them to passers-by. He could hardly take it all in and had no idea what much of this stuff was, but he continued to wander in a daze down the alley. He started to recognize of few of the shops' names from the advertisements he'd heard while he had the card. This must be Diagon Alley — he had found it!
He marveled at his good fortune and tried to make sense out of the place, the people, the noises and smells, the entire aura of the place was like no other he had ever experienced. It was almost like… magic! Harry came to the startling conclusion that he had stumbled into a hidden world, secreted away so that that normal people passed it by every day without a clue to its very existence. He happened upon a real fairy tale!
Harry wandered around quite a while, enjoying himself immensely, until his stomach gave a low rumble. He had noticed that the shops with prices displayed used some currency unknown to him, not that he had much to spend in any case. He spotted a queue of young people a little ahead of him and upon arriving smiled at the Fortescue's sign — this was the shop giving out free ice cream.
He joined the end of the queue and recognized the red braids immediately in front of him. A flowery aroma stood out among the strange scents that had assailed his nostrils ever since he stepped into the alley. He decided it must be the girl, maybe her hair. He leaned in for a closer inspection when she suddenly took a step back to let someone pass, and her head bumped hard into his jaw.
She whirled around. "Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't know you were behind me. Are you alright?"
Harry stopped rubbing his chin as he met her gaze. Chocolate brown stared into emerald green and back again. For a moment neither could speak.
He finally cleared his throat. "Er — yeah. No problem. You alright?"
She nodded, suddenly aware that she had suffered from the collision as much as he. She felt the top of her head gingerly and giggled. "If not, I can get my mum to fix it in a trice."
"I thought I saw you back in the Leaky Cauldron. Was that your family?"
She nodded. "My mum and five of my big brothers."
"You have more than five brothers?"
She giggled again. "Yeah, six of them. Bill — he's the oldest — he's already finished school and has a job with Gringotts Bank. I'm the littlest and the only girl, but I get them to do what I want, well, most of the time anyway." She frowned, and Harry decided it looked cute on her.
Harry shook his head, wondering how such an odd thought had occurred to him. "What happened?"
"The prats went into Quality Quidditch Supplies and told me I was too little, and girls weren't interested in Quidditch anyway, so I had to bugger off. I suppose they forgot about the Harpies — there are no boys on their team, you know. But what they don't know is that I taught myself how to fly last year, and I sneak out when they're asleep and practice. I bet I'm as good as any of them. Except for Charlie, of course. Charlie's probably the best Seeker Hogwarts has had in ages."
The young girl, whom Harry guessed had to be seven or eight, was talking almost without breathing. Harry didn't try to stop her, for he had no idea what she was talking about anyway. He was paying more attention to the way the sunlight brought out the colors in her braids. He never knew there were so many shades of red.
In no time they were at they front of the line and she was getting her ice cream. Harry stepped forward.
"You want vanilla or pumpkin?" the server said in a rather gruff voice.
Harry snorted. "Pumpkin?" he asked, surprised. Unfortunately, his comment was taken as a request and a cup of dull orange colored ice cream was thrust into his hand.
He turned and stepped into the crowded seating area. He found himself walking behind those braids again. The girl found a small empty table and sat. It was the last one.
He didn't want to be forward, but surely she wouldn't mind the company. "Er — there's no more tables. Do you mind if I sit here?"
She looked up and gave him a wide grin. "Oh, sure! I see you like pumpkin too."
"Thanks." He tasted his ice cream. "Hey, this is pretty good."
"Isn't it neat how they celebrate every year? Do you do anything particular?"
Harry supposed she was talking about Freedom Day. "Not usually, but I heard about the specials here today."
"That sounds good. My family thinks I'm barmy, but I like to go outside as the sun goes down and light a candle. Then I watch for the first star and I say a prayer for the Boy Who Lived - that he's doing okay wherever he is. Maybe it is a little crazy, but I've done it every year I can remember. I don't believe any of that stuff they say about him living in a castle and riding dragons and such, do you?"
"Er — no," Harry answered as honestly as he could. There was that name again. He wished he knew what she was talking about but didn't want to appear stupid by asking.
"Wouldn't it be neat if he just came up the alley here, looking for a place to sit, and he walked up and said, 'Hi, I'm Harry Potter, can I eat ice cream with you?' Wouldn't you just die?"
Harry choked on his ice cream and sprayed it all over the table. Surely he didn't hear her correctly.
She was looking up the alley and didn't seem to notice. "But that would never happen, because he's supposed to be living with Muggles. He probably doesn't even know he's a wizard, so he would never come here."
Harry was numb. "Sorry? He what?"
"Well, everyone knows what he did, don't they? But they thought he would be safer hidden away, I guess. But I can't help but believe I'll meet him one day, maybe at Hogwarts. Surely he'll go to Hogwarts. All my brothers have gone when they've gotten old enough. I hope I do too. By the way, my name's Ginny. What's yours?"
Harry's mind raced. He didn't know what she'd do if he said his real name — she might go totally mental or more likely call him a liar. He had to make something up.
"Er — I'm James." He wasn't really fibbing — it was his middle name after all.
"It was really nice to meet you James. I see my mum waiting on me, so I better go. Enjoy the rest of your ice cream!"
"Thanks," Harry said, giving her a small wave as she bounded over to where her mother stood watching. The woman looked at him curiously for a moment before heading back up the alley with Ginny and all those redheaded boys.
Harry stared dumbly after them for several minutes, thinking on what Ginny had said, dread settling in the pit of his stomach. It couldn't possibly be true, that he was some kind of a wizard, and a famous one at that. But everything he sensed after arriving here told him that this was no normal place. Could this be why those strange unexplainable things happened to him, that his relatives called him a freak? And why were they so sensitive about it, insisting not only that magic did not exist, but he was punished for even saying the word?
The dawning realization nearly bowled him over. They knew.
His aunt and uncle must have known about this, and they were trying to keep it from him. Was this something he inherited from his parents? If so, it would explain why his relatives spoke of them so hatefully. It also called into question everything they had ever told him.
He rose and left the ice cream shop, wandering aimlessly, lost in thought. He found himself in front of an eye-catching book vendor's display. But it wasn't the flashy colors that brought Harry to a halt, it was the title splashed across the cover of an apparent best seller.
Harry Potter — the Story of the Boy Who Lived — New Edition
His hand moved of its own accord to pick up a copy, fingers prying open the cover to reveal something he had always imagined but given up hope of ever seeing — a moving image of a young couple holding a small boy in their arms.
He immediately recognized his father's facial features and hair as older versions of what he saw in the mirror every day. His mum was shorter, hair pulled back into a long soft ponytail, an indescribable light in her eyes as she held up the boy and kissed his cheek, causing a wide grin to appear. Even without the scarred forehead, the boy was obviously baby Harry.
Harry quickly flipped through the pages. Most of the illustrations were drawings and it appeared to be written as a children's story. Would he find some answers here?
He gasped as he reached the last image in the book. If Harry had any remaining doubts this was about him, they were instantly vaporized. It was a photograph taken during his recent trip to the British Museum. Someone had recognized him.
He sank to the ground, oblivious to the curious stares of passers-by. He turned back to the beginning of the book and traced the faces of the people who had apparently loved him and left him behind. He longed for them desperately and wondered why.
Swiping away the threatening tears, Harry Potter gathered his courage and began to read about this Boy Who Lived.
End note: I hate the end the tale at this point, but it must be left to the readers' imaginations what happens from here. Does Harry confront his relatives and what kind of fallout results? Will he remain with them? Does he figure out Mrs. Figg's connection to the magical world? Assuming this Harry makes it to Hogwarts, how will he be sorted?
Fortunately, there is no shortage of fics that explore different variations on this theme of Harry's early discovery of his magical heritage, so I don't feel too bad leaving it here. If the story for which this was originally intended does not pan out, I may continue this fic at some point, but it won't be anytime soon. Thanks in advance for your reviews and comments, and a special thank you to those who nominated this story for a Silver Trinket!