Having a brother eight years older than you had quite a few ups and downs, as Tancey had found out over the years. Clement had always been like a third parent of sorts. Both their parents worked, so he had to babysit her often, and no matter how much older a sibling will always be more permissive than a parent, so she liked that. Clement let her get away with a lot when he was in charge. Sure he had always been a bit of a nerd, so he still made her do her homework and go to bed early on school days, but he still let her have pizza and cake for dinner and watch horror films on weekends. Maybe because he was that much older, Clem was always nice to her. She heard stories from her schoolmates who had older siblings, stories about how annoying they were, and the horrible things they did and how the got them in trouble with their parents. Clement never did any of that. He was too mature for this sort of thing. He actually covered for a lot of the bad things she did, so her parents wouldn´t be mad at her. Sure Clement himself always gave her a lecture whenever he found out she was up to something bad, but she´d take him over either of their parents. And of course when your brother is that much older than you, there´s no bully at school who will want to get on their bad side.
But as much as she enjoyed the perks of having a brother who was old enough to drive before she was ten, there were also some downsides. Namely the fact that, as they both grew older Clement had started to have his own life, independent from hers. He had his own group of friends, none of whom were interested in having a little girl tag along, he started dating girls, going out to places she wasn´t old enough to go to. Then he left for college. Clement went to university in Oldham, a half-hour car drive away, so in the first couple years it wasn´t that bad. They still saw each other everyday. But then he got an internship at a big, prestigious marketing company, so she started seeing less and less of him. At some point the workload and the commute became so difficult he moved into a flat with a schoolmate so things would be easier. Now he came home every other weekend, and maybe once a month in times when the company demanded too much of his time. James slept in his room more often than Clement did. And he was about to be made a full time employee now, so he probably wouldn´t even be home for the holidays. His company was working on a campaign for some posh department store that required a lot of time, he told her. That was the reason he was home this week. To spend some time with them before he was too swamped with work. So if she wanted to talk to him, it had to be now.
“Hey, Clem” she let out quietly knocking on his door.
“Hey yourself.” he dropped the book he was reading and sat up on his bed “I thought I wouldn´t see you at all before going back to Oldham. Are you having classes 24/7 now?”
“Nah” she giggled, jumping on his bed like she used to do when she was little and wanted to annoy him while he was studying “It´s that after school programme. And they are having us volunteer too...with Christmas coming and all, that´s taking up a lot of time”
“Yeah, mum and dad told me all about it. They´re really happy, dad can´t stop talking about how your grades in History and English are improving. He says they´re on par with your maths and physics now.”
“That´s just because Ms. Black and Ms. Holt are the only two teachers I can stand.”
“Your maths grades have always been outstanding, don´t you like that teacher?”
“Mr. Barbery? Eh, he´s ok, I guess... But scoring high in his class is easy. By the way, Ms. Black told me I can try and apply for some advanced algebra classes in college next semester if Mr. Barbery´s classes are that easy for me. Salford City has a course that is open to the community. She said she can help me apply, gave me a brochure and all.”
“Are you applying?”
“I think so. Ms. Black and Mr. Barbery both said I can make it.”
“You really like Ms. Black, don´t you? Mum told me that now everything is 'Ms.Black this, Ms. Black that'...I think she´s getting a little jealous”
“Mum likes Ms. Black too, though.”
“This woman is making you read books aside from those they assign at school, of course mum loves her. Speaking of which, how is she doing? I heard somebody tried to rob her house...”
“She came back to school today. She didn´t look very well though....”
“Figures. You can´t just go straight to normal after something like that happens. I´m sure she´ll be feeling better soon”
“I don´t know about that.”
“Why is that?”
“I think she´s leaving.”
“Has she told you that?”
“I...sort of overhead her saying something about it to Ms. Holt”
“Overheard or eavesdropped, Constance?” he cocked an eyebrow in the same way he did when he caught her trying to sneak out of the house without permission or lying about having done her homework.
“I was trying to return her book! Not my fault that they were talking about that as I arrived....But, yeah, I think she´s moving back to Ireland.”
“Oh, that´s a shame. Is that the reason for the long face? You´re sad that she´s leaving?”
“Well...yes, of course... can I ask you something?”
“James...he just called me. He said Ms. Black convinced him to apply for music lessons. There´s a music school that is giving grants to new students. They´re having auditions to decide who gets in. Ms. Black thinks if he studies there for a year or so to prepare, he can be admitted into an important conservatory once he graduates from school. She´s even talking about the Royal Northern College of Music.”
“Oh, wow. That´s wonderful. James has talent. I mean he can compose without formal training, I´m sure he can get into a good music school if he prepares for it.”
“But he´s worried. She wants him to try out next month, and he thinks he won´t be ready by then. He doesn´t know why she´s pushing him to do it so soon...”
“And you think is because she´s leaving?”
“Yeah. And...I almost told him that. Should I? I mean, if she´s going to push for him to do this in such short notice, she should at least be honest with him, no? What if he fails, and she leaves? I know he´s going to give up if she´s not around to keep him going. Nobody else believes him”
“But I´m not...her. It´s different when a teacher trusts you, you know? He´s never had that before. If he fails...”
“Maybe she thinks he won´t fail, maybe she just knows he will make it and doesn´t want to put any more stress on him by telling her she´s leaving. I´m sure she has her reasons to go back home, and they´re personal. It can be something she can´t really help, we don´t know. Would it really help James if he knew?”
“Tancey, enough with the 'what if´s?'... I´m sure your teacher is not a lunatic. She wouldn´t be putting James in this position if she didn´t know what she was doing.”
“So...I should just stay out of it?”
“No. Just keep doing what you´ve always done, be James´ friend. That´s all he needs from you. Leave the rest to Ms. Black. If she could make you read Albert Camus, I´m sure she can get James into a music school. It´s probably going to be even easier.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she yelped, offended.
“Nothing.” he laughed “Why don´t we stop worrying about James and enjoy the time off I have? Let´s pick mum up from work, dad said he´s treating us all to dinner tonight.”
It had taken James only a week for the first full chords and rudimentary melodies to flow from his fingers and out in the air. Less than that for him to actually learn which keys would give him the notes he wanted, and how to combine them. They were entering their third week of daily practice, two hours sometimes three everyday, even on weekends, and she could say James had learned basics of the instrument. Evelyn had transcribed some of his compositions and they were trying to get him to play them on the piano, slowly but surely. The melody was always correct, if a little stiff, but with more practice he would be able to play them with ease.
“Do you realize what you´ve done here, James?”
“Crippled my favourite composition?”
“You´ve learned the basics of the piano. In two weeks.”
“If I present this they´ll laugh at me.”
“I know, it´s not optimal. But you´ve made more progress in two weeks than most people make in months .”
“I still don´t think the piano is a good idea. Can I just play the guitar?”
“If you feel more comfortable, yes. The objective of teaching you the piano is simply so you can have more formal structure. More clarity when composing. Your work is quite messy right now, but if you have a clear idea of the elements of your composition everything will come moreeasily to you. Honestly though, I think the piano might be more of your instrument. You´ve been practising with the guitar at home, right?”
“Yeah. Not like I can find a piano anywhere else.”
“Have you decided on a song, yet?”
“I´ve been working on something...”
“You think you´d be able to play it on the piano?”
“I can try.”
“Whenever you´re ready.” Evelyn stood from the stool and sat on a chair a few steps behind him. There was a long pause before the first notes filled the silence around them. The melody was continuous, contained, through-composed like a madrigal, with a very clear, simple, almost melancholic melodic line. It sounded vaguely baroque...As the melody advanced she could recognise at least one line that called back to Monteverdi
“James, stop for a moment”
“Repeat this last part”
“This one?” he repeated it. There it was, the first lines of 'Zefiro torna', by Monterverdi, reworked into a new, slightly slower and completely original melody. James had just composed a variation over a baroque theme.
“How did you...”
“Fr. Thomas lent me a tape. It had this song in it. I just played with it till I got something different.”
“You composed it on the guitar, so...Get your guitar and play it again exactly as you composed it, please.”
Evelyn barely moved as he did as she asked. The acoustic guitar fit the melody much better than the piano could, recalling the strings of the Monteverdi´s original flawlessly. Once James was done and she could find her voice again, she smiled like she hadn´t smiled in weeks.
“James, I think you´re right. Let´s just go with the guitar for this one. But do try and write it down for the piano just in case.”
Three weeks. Three weeks since Severus had last seen her car parked outside. Even longer since he had last seen her. Evelyn had simply vanished. At first he thought nothing of it. She had a week off from work due to that incident, so he simply assumed she had gone away for a while. Possibly to stay a few days with her family. Evelyn had mentioned in passing how much her mother worried about her, so it was only natural that she'd go spend some days with her. She most definitely could use some time away from everything, himself included. Severus hadn't really contributed with creating an environment conducive to relaxation.
When that first week came to an end Severus still didn't think much of her absence. She was certainly avoiding him and he didn't fault her in the least. But now he was starting to get a bit anxious. Going to the school to enquire was out of the question. She certainly wouldn´t appreciate him going to her workplace to ask questions regarding her activities when he had scolded her for doing exactly the same. Knowing Evelyn, the hypocrisy of it would very much not amuse her. Trying to contact Angela was an equally silly notion. He didn't know Angela enough to have this kind of conversation, and even if he did it would still come off as stalking at the very best.
So he decided to wait as the two weeks turned into three. He knew nothing bad had happened. He would have known by now. Severus was pretty confident that the Ministry was keeping an eye on her. It was, after all, the price he had charged them for his cooperation. Evelyn would return eventually...even if it was to collect her belongings and leave for good. No, certainly she wouldn't do that. The thought had crossed his mind more than once. That she would leave. There was nothing in Cokeworth for a woman like her. The pursuit of her grandfather;s past, which had become an odd sort of obsession for her, would never lead anywhere, as the statute of secrecy would block her at every turn. And that was her whole reason for living in Cokeworth...Actually, no, it wasn't. Not any more. She was entirely too invested on that school, on her students...James and Constance in particular.
James had become a sort of mission for her. She had taken upon herself to ensure that boy wouldn't be just another bum among the thousands populating this god-forsaken city. Severus had his doubts about whether she'd succeed. The girl. Constance, yes. Severus could see that one going somewhere. Evelyn raved about her talent for maths, her studious nature, and how hard-working and responsible she was. The girl seemed ambitious and willed enough to go places. And from what he had seen of them, her parents would do anything to make sure that happened. Nevertheless, Evelyn dotted on both of them with a quiet and loving resolution that was all hers. For their sake, she wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon.
So, he waited. But waking up everyday to see the deserted street below his bedroom window had been chipping at his patience. It had him disquieted, anxious. But then again, it wasn't just that...He had enough going on around him to worry about, and Evelyn's sudden disappearance was just the latest event.
Much to his own dismay he had finally written Draco another letter. A more pointed one, with clearer instructions, and a litany of advice as to how he could keep himself relatively safe. The ministry would continue pushing him, using his father's current status as leverage to get the boy to cooperate, and Severus had a more than passing suspicion that Draco's personal safety wouldn't even make the top ten list of their concerns. Being pushed around, pressure into docile cooperation and forced mea culpas had become the lot of every Slytherin, regardless of actual crimes or participation. And Draco had participated, so he would see even less mercy than most others.
Now that the Dark Lord was gone, it had become the duty of his house of origin to expiate for his deeds. Severus was starting to believe the only reasons the ministry hadn't tried to force Minerva to disband Slytherin, as popular clamour called for, was to have a neat package of clearly labeled "evil wizards" to use as scapegoat. And if the newspapers were anything to go by, it had already started. Even Slughorn of all people, had been brought in for questioning. Of course he couldn't be charged with anything other than committing the cardinal sin of being a Slytherin and a decent man simultaneously, but that didn't keep certain so-called journalists from trying to smear him anyway. Slytherin students and their families were also targeted for abuse, and probed by authorities. There was talk of a registry. A registry to list all Slytherin individuals as well as families with a history of members sorted into that house so they could be 'monitored'.
There wasn't much Severus could do about any of this, but he could at least try to protect Draco to some extent, even if it meant continuing to push him to work as a spy. Overseeing Draco's actions himself was better than leaving him on the hands of a ministry that only saw him as a means to an end. So here he was, cloistered in his house, waiting for an owl to deliver a message from Draco, getting report after report that Dawlish was helpful enough to send him, reading the lies plastered on every wizarding newspaper and tabloid and listening to more of their lies on the radio.
Severus felt like he was slowly going insane...The small relief of Evelyn's presence was gone, and the nightmares and night terror were creeping back...The pain, too, had been getting worse, and his potions could only do so much about the ravaged muscles and ligaments of his neck, jaw and hand. He couldn't rely on numbing agents too much if he wanted to be alert enough to be of any service to the ministry, so he just had to deal with the pain for the most part. Every healer had agreed: he would suffer the sequelae of Nagini's powerful jaws and venom for the rest of his days. He'd never get rid of the pain, he could only manage it. From the dark mark on his arm to the scar on his neck, dark magic was etched into his flesh, a sore reminder of all the ways in which he had ruined everything through the years.
He had, however, made peace with it, to a certain extent. The physical pain had subsided for a while. He wasn't stupid enough to believe it had nothing to do with Evelyn. There was plentiful muggle literature about the ill effects of stress and depression on physical health. Evelyn herself pressure him about it. She went on about how he had to eat better, he had to go out, how he could use some fresh air...It bothered him at first, but now he had to admit, it had helped. Not only that but ... Just her being there made him feel better. That much was painfully clear to him now: with Evelyn around he was more at peace...happier, would he dare say?
The last three months of the year always rushed by. One day Fr. Thomas was preparing the annual Halloween party, the next day December had rolled in. November always felt like the shortest month of the year, even shorter than February. It felt like he always finished all of his preparations for Christmas right in the nick of time. November was the month of organizing, making lists, phone calls, going from door to door asking for donations, hoping, expecting. There were the food donations to receive, catalogue and store, and finding proper refrigeration for the perishables was always a concern, specially around the holidays when the amount of donations doubled compared to the rest of the year.
Of course, there was the Christmas dinner to think of. People came not only from Cokeworth but from neighbouring towns. Migrant workers from other towns, recent immigrants, struggling families with children, so many people who had nowhere else to go on Christmas...They had to find a way to make sure every last one of them had a decent Christmas meal, and their children got at least one gift. That meant there was an endless amount of lists, phone calls and delegating of tasks to make sure everything ran smoothly. It wasn't difficult to get the local restaurants, bakeries and markets to donate food and ingredients, but finding volunteers who could cook and would be available was never easy, and donations of toys and children's book always required even more work, as they had to be organised and wrapped appropriately. Once they found the volunteers, making sure everyone's schedules matched was always tricky, after all everyone had personal lives, work schedules and families to think of. So there was always a gap between what had to be done and what the available volunteers could get done. Evelyn and Angela had managed to get a sizeable number of volunteers, including their students and fellow teachers, so he could leave much of this part to them. Which was for the best in any case given how he lacked the ability to even turn a computer on, let alone create and manage spreadsheets.
Evelyn...He was starting to worry about her. After that awful incident in her house, she had moved to Angela´s house for a while, presumably so she could get all her affairs in order before moving back to Ireland. It saddened him to see her go, and he did wonder what impact that would have on Severus, who seemed so close to her, but it was not in his place to question her decision. So, once she was done with the semester at school, and James had passed his audition, she would leave.
All seemed well enough until he started to notice a troubling pattern: Evelyn would go about her day at school, then come over to the church every day to tutor James for a couple hours and, once the lad was gone, would stay well into the evening, working on donation lists, making phone calls, wrapping Christmas gifts and whatever else she could find. If there wasn´t anything to do she would just review what she had already done. The rectory´s secretary had to ask her to leave sometimes, so she could close for the night. Angela had confided in him that even after she went back home, Evelyn would continue working maniacally. She had received some correspondence from a friend, another historian, containing some facsimiles of what looked like ancient documents, illuminated like medieval books or scrolls. That had prompted her into a sort of “research frenzy” according to Angela. She would spend hours taking notes, writing and reading from books and manuscripts that seemed to materialize out of thin air over night on her work desk.
Fr. Thomas knew Evelyn was an energetic woman but he´d been wondering if she wasn't stretching herself too thin. He had tried to talk to her but she gently deflected his questions at every turn, so he dropped the subject entirely. It was already the first week of December, soon it would be Christmas and then she would leave. Maybe it was best to just allow her to go about it all in her own way. So, once more, he asked not questions as she sat at the desk of the rectory´s small office on a Friday afternoon working herself to exhaustion. He didn´t recognise the papers she was writing on as having anything to do with the church, but lately she had been bringing work with her...Angela was probably complaining that she worked too much at home.
“Evelyn, dear.” he called out softly “I´ll drop by the pub to collect Mr. Palmer´s donation before it gets too busy. When you´re done let Margareth know so she can close the office, will you?”
“Oh, sure. I´ll be done in a little while.”she smiled, looking at him over the lenses of her reading glasses before returning to her seemingly endless labour.
Severus had never been much of a drinker. He had dabbled with countless other mind altering substances, magical and not, and had been chain-smoking since he was at least 17, but somehow alcohol didn´t hold much of an allure to him. He suspected it had to do with his father, his drunken rages and the ravages they had caused his mother´s health and mind. Severus was keenly aware of his own vices, but he did hold a sort of aloof contempt for alcohol and the act of getting drunk.
It wasn´t that he abstained from drinking. He didn´t. But he never went beyond a glass of wine to accompany a meal (when he bothered to have a proper meal), a taste of firewhisky with a fellow faculty member or mulled mead when it got too cold, as it often did in Hogwarts damp dungeons. He was always careful no to get drunk, however. As of late he had got into the habit of sharing a drink with Evelyn when she got home from work, a habit he appreciated more for for the comfort and familiarity than for the intoxicating effects of the beverage per se. But Evelyn was more of a drinker than him, so he humoured her.
Walking into a pub solely for the purpose of ordering a drink like he had seen his father do so many times growing up was an alien concept to Severus. And yet, here he was, seated by himself at the bar of Palmer´s, a little before 4pm on a cloudy and dreary Friday afternoon. Friday´s were Evelyn´s day off from school, so at that time he´d normally be sitting on her couch, sipping tea or coffee, watching her grade papers and making sarcastic comments on her student´s work, something she chided him for, but which made her smile anyway. Instead he was nursing a glass of sub par whisky in a pub that had just opened as waiters washed glasses and moped the floors, preparing for the evening as nobody with intact mental faculties and a paying job would be getting pissed that early in the day.
So, understandably, seeing Fr. Thomas walk in was quite the surprise.
But Severus soon realized the priest had come in for much more wholesome reasons than himself, as he saw him walk over to Mr. Palmer, the owner, and the two started to joyfully talk about the preparations for some Christmas events and a donation Fr. Thomas had come to collect. Severus tried his best to not be noticed on his little dark corner of the bar, and Fr. Thomas seemed oblivious to his presence anyway. Still, as old habits tend to be hard to kill, he couldn´t help himself from listening into the conversation, his interest awakened by the mention of Evelyn´s name.
“It´s going to be big this year, I see” Mr. Palmer talked as he poured Fr.Thomas a glass of water. “My granddaughter´s been telling me her teachers got most of students to volunteer for extra credits.”
“Yes, yes. Angela and Evelyn are in charge of the group who´s volunteering at my parish, but we have students over at the mosque on Hill street, the synagogue at Clareton and community center down town. We hope we can keep this project all year long, instead of just the holidays, you see.”
Severus smirked. So, that´s what she had been up to? Getting her students to volunteer for charity. It was so hilariously like her to do such a thing. He almost felt like walking up to fr.Thomas and ask how much of his church´s affairs she had been running with an iron fist and an engaging smile on his behalf. If he knew her probably most of them. Hopefully she had put the gossiping old women who always gravitated around poor ol´Fr.Tommy to work as well. He didn´t have to ask, however, as the jolly priest had just spotted him and was about to walk over and presumably give him a full report.
“Severus!”he beamed, taking a seat next to him without invitation
“I´m exactly where I´ve been for the last few months, Fr.Thomas. It wasn´t me who 'disappeared'” Severus said, with a hint of venom on his voice.
“Oh, you´re talking about Evelyn?” the intent colouring Fr.Thomas expression was almost palpable.
“The poor dear, she´s been working so much lately.
“Yes...I couldn´t help but overhear that”
“Well it´s not only at church, there´s school and James...”
“The piano lessons, right? She told me something about that.”
“They´ve been working hard, considering the limited time they have before the lad auditions.”
“And when is that?”
“In a couple weeks. On the 16th”
“That´s quite soon.”
“Oh...so you don´t know?” his tone made Severus think that he was fully aware that Severus didn´t know, and was eager to inform him.
“Don´t know what?” he played along.
“Well, Evelyn is going back to Ireland once the semester is over.”
“She didn´t tell you?”
“We haven´t been speaking much as of late.”
“I see. Must be harder to keep conact with her working so much”
“She must be. I can´t recall the last time I´ve see her home.”
“She´s been at Angela´s. To get everything ready before she goes back to Ireland.”
“I suspected. She never told me anything...”
“You know...” there was a small pause and Severus could swear Fr. Thomas was measuring his next words “I just left Evelyn at the rectory´s office, doing some paperwork. You can drop by and...”
“Actually, I should get going” Severus stood up, leaving some money on the counter, much more than his drink had cost, but he couldn´t be bothered with change, and moved to leave. However, as he turned his back on Fr. Thomas, an idea crossed his mind. “Father?”
“James´audition. Could you tell me the address? And the time, if possible.”