Author’s note: This occurs during the Christmas during Half-Blood Prince, six months before Dumbledore dies, and seven months before the events in my story Dust.
“Well, Mr. Tibbles, I’m back and not a bit too soon. That Muggle bus was wheezing and belching and will be lucky to make it another block or two, I say. For all I know, it hasn’t. It stops down by the market; I’ve walked the rest of the way. Well, the devil may be in the details, but I’ve settled his hash tonight, and no mistake – three delivered in time for the holiday, and the house that much quieter.” The old coat, hung in the cupboard, sagged on its hanger: the wet carpet slippers, changed to the ones only worn in the house, sulked on the mat. Mr. Tibbles circled them cautiously, sniffing out the story. It matched what the old woman said.
“Here’s a nice can of tuna for you. The human kind, no less, for a bit of a holiday treat. I’ll have a toddy and turn in early then.” It was silly to miss them, the kneazels, they were never meant for keeping, and she had not been particularly fond of them, anyway. Well, the little one, with the half pink nose, perhaps….but she and Mr. Tibbles and Wigglesworth and Tamsin and the few others about now would be fine, and it was a few fewer mouths to feed.
Slapping down the uncarpeted hallway to the kitchen she paused at the glass door. Silly thing – you can’t see anything through it, and yet, you feel exposed peering from behind it when you’re trying to see if the mail has fallen through the slot onto the mat. Silly Muggle house entirely. I wouldn’t have chosen it. Well, you don’t chose your life, it chooses you , she thought, the words running down a groove in her mind worn deep by repetition. It chooses you.
She didn’t bother putting on the light in the kitchen, just navigated by habit over to the counter next to the sink and filled the electric kettle. I don’t like water hanging about in these. It should be fresh every time. Not too much then. A waste to pay the rates to heat water I won’t be using.
These were the careful economies of a woman with no family, no safety net. Oh, she knew people. The cards from Muriel and Bernice and Esme sat next to each other on the mantel in the adjoining lounge. They didn’t know her from Gryffindor’s cat, really, but they might notice if she took to her bed and died there and never came back to the beauty parlor when Petunia was having her weekly do, or the church, where she chatted with Esme and kept an eye on the three people in a forward pew sitting properly and paying absolutely no attention to the service, or the market where she got her cans of cat food and picked up news of the children by surreptitiously eavesdropping on them as they picked out sweets, Mark Evans complaining to James Jeffries and Chelsea Daniels about that cousin of Harry’s while she pretended to care intimately about the ingredients in the dry soup mixes.
The kettle came to boil and she shut it instantly, pouring the water into the cup she had taken from the nearly empty cupboard over the teabag of moderately priced tea which had no scent and no particular flavor but did come in a box with lovely little prizes - something to look forward to. She’d had one that morning – another sheep. It was about an inch and a quarter long, and you could only tell it was a sheep by comparing it carefully to the pictures on the box, and yet she should have left it for tomorrow morning. It would have been a bit of a celebration.
I ought to have bought myself something. That’s what they say in the Muggle magazines, isn’t it – to be good to yourself. I ought to have gotten myself – a new scarf. A silk one. Pink, I think, with embroidery. Perhaps, peachy pink, with peonies.
She bent over and reached under the sink for the whiskey. When had Dumbledore brought it by - that first New Years with Harry at Hogwarts? It never got empty. She knew because that fleabag of an excuse for a sack of sodden laundry had drunken from it more than once, and it was always just as full when she went to have a dram of it herself. Well, the thought of him dressed as a witch was worth a small smile, at least.
The bell rang, and she hit her head standing up while still halfway under the sink. Bottle in one had, she crept to the glass door, and looked through it. Probably a neighbor, she half prayed, probably a neighbor and not a Death Eater come to finish me off as a Christmas present for the That One. Everyone else could call him “He who ..,” but she didn’t dignify the old monster. He was just “That one” here, even if she was fairly certain she needed to change herself at the thought that they might be outside her door.
Mr Tibbles was curling around her ankles. That was odd. It couldn’t be Death Eaters, then.
Still, she kept the bottle in her right hand as she moved cautiously toward the door. Much good it would do her if Tibbles was wrong. She’d go down swinging, though. “Whoever you are,” she called out with false courage a few feet from the door, “go away and don’t come back. I’m not buying anything at this hour.”
But Tibbles was sniffing at the mail slot, and mewing oddly that he knew this one. She cautiously touched the knob, turned it, and pulled the door in towards herself with a sense of dread, unsure of what she would find, even if Mr. Tibbles was satisfied.
Mundungus Fletcher was leaning brazenly against her doorframe, several sheets to the wind. He opened his mouth to speak, and she revised that. He was under full sail.
“Allo, Figgy. ‘appy Chrishmush. ‘Appy Chrishmush. Ah jes’ come by ter wish yer an ‘Appy one.” He leered at her, beyond normal expression, and, overbalenced by leaning in her direction began falling toward her, his long tatty locks and the many scarves and bits of overcoat he seemed to have about him waving in the wind on his way down.
She put her shoulder into it and caught him as he headed for her foyer tiles. “Tanks, Figg. No’qui’myshelf, preciselike”
“How you can get a word out of that mouth of yours…well, come in, come in, no need to display you to the neighbors. They’ve got another six months of needing to think I’m balmy but harmless, and you don’t enhance my standing in the community, not in this state.”
She glared at him, or, rather, she glared, but her eye was being ground into his chest as she wrestled with his nearly dead weight and chivvied him into her lounge through the hallway door, rather than the kitchen, because it was closer and he weighed more than she would have thought. She was doing her best not to inhale, which did not simplify matters.
“There!” Breathless, she had dumped him on the sofa, and he had managed not to roll off of it. “What in Merlin’s name brings you here? Dumbledore can’t be wanting me, can he, you moronic excuse for a regurgitating toilet?”
“Can’ a lad show up jes ter be frenly, like, Figg?” he mumbled. At least, she thought that was what he mumbled. He was face down. Well, she thought he was face down. Between all that matted hair, and all that shabby greatcoat, it was hard to tell which end of him was up, really.
“s Chrishmush. Want comperney, like.”
Her face was sour. “You want company, or you’re daft enough to think I did? Because if I were looking for company, it wouldn’t be a drunken sneak thief I’d pick, first off.”
She got no response. Sighing, she assessed him from a distance. “Well, he’s slept on this couch before,” she said to Mr. Tibbles, who was observing her from the hearth rug. “The only way he’s ever on time is if he shows up early and sleeps it off where he was supposed to end up, and he did that a few times this last summer, before Dumbledore took Harry away to the Weasleys.” Mr. Tibbles, who knew this already, having witnessed it himself, made no comment.
The question was, how likely was he to be sick, and how should she arrange him so that he was least likely to choke to death on his own sick, like some sort of has-been Rock musician, the kind she used to read about in the tabloids years ago, when she worked in that Muggle insurance office and had to take trains to get there..
“On his side, I think, Mr. Tibbles. That ought to keep him from choking – or drowning in it once it’s up. Still, you’d better keep an eye for me. Come get me if has trouble in the night.”
She took her cup of tea upstairs, and lay down to sleep. She’d been too rattled to fix herself a hot water bottle, and yet, she was not quite as cold as usual. It is a sad, sad situation when having the likes of Mundungus Fletcher sleeping on my couch IMPROVES my night, she muttered to herself as she fell asleep.
She made her way down to breakfast the next morning, warm and clean from her shower and dressed in her pale yellow sweater set. The color washed her out, but it was much the nicest thing she owned for this time of year, and it was Christmas. She’d repeated that over and over to herself as she put it on, and her best skirt with it, and the newer pair of slippers that she usually only wore up in her bedroom, because when she was feeling very cold she would wear them straight into bed, and if she wore them downstairs they tended to pick up tracked in dirt which she did not want on her sheets.
A faintly foul odor met her as she opened the kitchen door, where Dung was more or less vertical, and fussing over her tea kettle. “Mornin’ Figgy. ‘Appy Chirstmas.” He looked up, his mournful, bloodshot eyes almost focusing, and made a grimace he might have thought was a smile. “Got yer tea reddy, jes’ like you like.”
“Pummeling Pixies, man, is that TEA? It smells like you’ve been washing your clothes in the water and then pouring it in the cups!” She looked at the proffered cup with horror where it sat on the counter – he was too smart, this morning, to try to actually carry it anywhere, it seemed.
“Lapsang Souchong. Very fancy. Jes’ the thing for a celebration breakfast.” He looked at her, bloodshot eyes peering up from under his wild and unkempt brows, perhaps a bit uncertain.
I could tell him he’s been celebrating enough already, but he already knows it. It’s Christmas, after all, even if the old sod knows I can’t refuse him on Christmas, and knows I know it. she thought, wondering vaguely how half a pound of sliced ham, a can of soup and twenty three tins of cat food could yield a Christmas dinner she could put on the table.
“I got a goose. Transfigured it myself. It’s pretty fresh, I think. Well, they didn’t teach us how to do spoiled ones,” he said, answering her unasked question. Of course, he must have been into her refrigerator, seen how - neat - it really was.
“All right, then,” she said, after a moment spent staring at a spot just over his shoulder and beyond him, on the cabinet. “All right then, but mind you stay in the lounge while I cook it, and be off with you when we’ve eaten.”
With the front door safely shut behind him after dinner she turned to shut the lounge door – how had that gotten open? - and stuck her head in to reassure herself that he hadn’t made off with the furniture. The tree sat in its corner, the electric lights blinking oddly up to the point in the string where they stopped working altogether. The afghan she’d drawn over him the night before was folded tidily on one end of the sofa. All looked remarkably commonplace until she turned at the mantel, and saw…
She advanced on it. A once-white sock that had seen better days and a few barely adequate scourgifying spells was hung from a nail in the mantel, with a paper bag hanging partway out of it. On the bag was scrawled “Figgy.” She reached out with a trembling hand to take it. If he’d given her some stolen…
But no, what slid out first, when she put her hand in the bag, was a very ordinary receipt from Marks and Spencer, and with it a small box. She opened it, and a little enameled Christmas tree pin looked up at her. It was the sort of thing an eight year old boy might buy for his mother.
Turning over the receipt, she saw he had written on it. “Honestly bought” it said.
As if anything he has isn’t ill gotten, she thought. But after all, he’d made an effort. Pinning the little brooch to her sweater, she did not know quite what to do for the moment. She sighed, then, and went to clean the kitchen, Mr. Tibbles following her wordlessly, and getting a second can of tuna in two days, for reasons he did not entirely understand.
Still, when she slept in her clothes that night, she was wearing the little Christmas tree, and the receipt was in her desk, an old grocery list of her mother’s, found in an old purse long after that death, on one side of it, and the letter explaining why she was not being accepted to Hogwarts on the other.