Belfast had survived the Normans, the Scots, and the Vikings. She had survived the Bruce Brothers with their bumbling barbarism, Croft with his crafted codpiece, Edward and Elizabeth and their endless English emissaries, James and his jealous jolly Johns, and the catastrophe of Carrickfergus Castle. She’d survived her people burning Belfast Castle over and again, survived growing far beyond her pastoral intentions, and, most importantly, survived Blennerhasset, the Baron of business busting her at her seams for profits. She’d been coddled by Catholics, protected by Presbyterian Protestants, and chastised by the Church of England. She’d been walloped in the Williamite War and diseased by dysentery at Dundalk. She’d fainted through the Famine and coughed through cholera and yelled with the Yanks through the American Civil War – and she would certainly survived the steel scaffolds of Harland and Wolff on her bay, whatever tragedy they threatened.
Every morning, the grim members of Garmoyle Street and Queens Road rustled out of houses and down to the towering docks to build English vessels on their Irish blood, sweat, and tears. Sailortown was emptied in the morning and dully filled at the last bell as the men shuffled into bars to drink their measly earnings, the only relief from the ringing of rivets and callouses of cold cacophony that they wrought to build ships they knew they would never sail on if the English birds had their way.
The newest company to employ the cheap Irish labour was the White Star Line, founded on gold from Australia and blood from America. Thomas Ismay’s dream of steel transatlantic dream ships, starting with his prized RMS Oceanic launched neigh a decade ago right on the docks of Belfast with a customary white coat of paint on her hull like a christening gown. She was the mother of ocean liners, a steam goddess, and her sisters soon followed – SS Atlantic, SS Baltic, and SS Republic, all within a year. Now the younger sisters – SS Adriatic and SS Celtic – were destined to change the race from speed to luxury, the first of which was soon due to be launched from the drydocks in Belfast.
Exciting as it was for the high-rollers in the offices to be part of launching the newest innovations in oceanic travel, the workers were less than thrilled to have to build their giants in the scorching summer heat. On the dull grey Tuesday morning, the sky seemed to express the frustrated moods of the workers who were to pound metal in the burning sun. The high-pitched ring of the alarm roused each man from his bed, including Mr. Vernon Dursley, a thickly built, beefy man with hardly any neck and narrow, beady eyes that barely moved as he opened them.
“Must you work in this heat?” his wife inquired, nuzzling into his side. Mrs. Petunia Dursley showed the hardships of the country clearly in her bony frame and thin blonde hair. Her neck seemed twice long as she craned it up to kiss him good morning.
“If we want dinner next week,” Mr. Dursley grumbled. “The Adriatic's due in two months and we've barely finished her hull.”
A cry sounded from the room over and they both heard cooing of Vernon’s sister, Ms. Marge Dursley, who was nursing the children since Petunia’s famished frame was incapable. Marge’s husband had died in a hunting accident, and she’d lost her child to the cholera that followed just before Petunia was due with their youngest.
The couple reluctantly left the comfort of their bed, pulled on their thin, threadbare wool clothes, and joined Marge downstairs. Petunia smiled at Dudley’s fascination with the rough wooden carraige that Marge had whittled for him, but he was soon unimpressed and held out his hand for another that they didn’t own, leading to a wale of anger. He was quickly silenced as little Rose regurgitated the breastmilk that she’d just been served all over his carriage, causing him to forever lose interest in it.
“Make me a real carriage, Papa!” Dudley demanded from his father, who left the table.
“Little tyke,” Mr. Dursley scoffed in amusement. “If only I could – you’d have anything you wished.” He turned to kiss his wife on her bony cheek. “I’ll be back for dinner.”
“Hope you don’t have an appetite,” Petunia sighed wistfully before giving Dudley a bowl of porridge.
Mr. Dursley closed the door to the narrow mew house and joined the throng of workers walking down the dock to the steel-laden scaffolds. He’d hardly walked a few feet before he, like the other men on the street, turned his head skyward. An unusually large parliament of owls had taken up sentry about the short houses, glaring down at the men as if blaming them for bringing morning before they’d caught their dinners.
“Owls?” one of the men asked. “Out here?”
“Wharf rat, hunting, probably,” another said.
“Let’s hope they caught some, then, eh?” Mr. Dursley chuckled.
However, Mr. Dursley could hardly finish his chortle before humming in confusion. About the edges of the worker-laden docks were an unusual number of rather oddly dressed people. A woman wearing a large hoop skirt was fervently discussing a letter with a man in a velvet dressing robe near one of the tenders, and they were soon joined by a black woman dressed in a lingerie dress far above her station.
Mr. Dursley huffed in frustration at the nerve of these weirdos and proudly straightened his perfectly appropriate shirt and trousers as he entered the office to stamp in. The clamping and clanking of wooden panels and steel sheets on the ship soon occupied all of his thoughts, and the strangers was lost from his mind.
If Mr. Dursley would have looked up from his flooring that day, he might have noticed that the parliament of owls was more active than the Parliament of the Crown, and had good reason for being so foul-tempered as they were fluttering hither and thither all night and day rather than taking to the hunt of the oversized wharf rats that challenged sailors for territory on the docks. People all across Belfast were noticing the abundance of birds swooping from window to window, pointing and watching them in awe.
Why – some of them even appeared to have traded mice for letters in their claws!
But at noon, the worker’s whistle sounded, and the men shuffled down from the scaffolds and off the riggings to the water’s edge for lunch out of tin cases. Mr. Dursley readily lifted his cheap turkey leg and crusted bread to his mouth for a morsel, but was distracted by a pair of men passing behind him wearing top hats and dandy suits, whispering excitedly.
“The Potters, can you believe it?”
“Well, James, sure, but what about—”
“Yes, their son, that’s what I heard—”
Mr. Dursley stopped dead. Fear flooded him. He looked back at the whisperers as if he wanted to say something, but then thought better of it.
Lunch forgotten, he dropped his meat and bread into his tin and scurried up, bolting down the road back to Sailortown. He was within sight of his little dirty mew when he quite suddenly stopped and changed his mind, turning back to the dock.
No…. he thought to himself. No, I’m being stupid. Potter’s a nastily common name – bloody British, isn’t it? And James has been common since the Union of the Kingdoms. Really, come to think of it, I don’t know that that’s actually his name…. Yeah, could be anyone, couldn’t it? No need to worry Mrs. Dursley. She always gets so flustered at the mention of that sister of hers…. I think I would too if I had such a sort.
Mr. Dursley shivered at the thought of having a relative like that. What a disappointment! An outrage! A scandal!
Determined to forget all about the queer men on the dock, Mr. Dursley quickly finished his meal and pursued the task of building another section of floor on the ship in the drydock. But any of his co-workers could tell that he was rather tense, as he kept looking around at the odd people flittering from house to house across the river, talking out of their windows, all wearing such old fashions that they had to be terribly poor or else actors in some unknown performance.
Mr. Dursley was still so conflicted that he accidentally ran right into a man entering the foreman’s office just as he was clocking out that evening.
“Sorry!” Mr. Dursley grunted and helped the man back up off the ground.
But the man seemed entirely unperturbed to have his silk dressing gown ruined by the grime and steel shards. In fact, he laughed out-right and embraced Mr. Dursley familiarly. “Don’t be sorry, my dear sir! For nothing could upset me today! Rejoice! For the Calamity has gone at last! Even Muggles like you should be celebrating this happy, happy day!”
Mr. Dursley stared where the man had been standing before turning to look where he’d gone in bewilderment. Had that queer little coot just hugged him? And what on earth was a Muggle? He was positively restless, and anxiously made his way to the safety of his home.
Mrs. Dursley, on the contrary, had had a lovely, normal day. She’d managed all the laundry before Rose’s morning nappy and had been able to overhear the next-door neighbours’ argument with her lewd daughter who insisted on not wearing her corset in support of the vote. Then she wrote up her application letter to the maid position in the newspaper at Belfast Castle but needed a schedule for the omnibus before sending to ensure that she could arrive on time. Of course, Marge had warned her that she didn’t have the money for the uniform, but Mrs. Dursley was sure that she could sell some of Dursley’s old things for enough money to buy material. Dudley would be in uniforms soon anyway, off to school in January at the state schoolhouse.
She hadn’t noticed the owls at all, nor had she seen any oddly dressed people besides the neighbour’s scandalous suffragette daughter. She had seen the odd fireworks that had appeared not long after Mr. Dursley had been off to work, but she’d assumed it was a misfire from an oriental cargo ship.
“Maybe the tea set would fetch a better price,” Mrs. Dursley suggested, serving her husband a cuppa as Marge put the children to bed upstairs. “We can just use normal cups until I get paid and then we can buy a whole new set!”
“Er – yes, perhaps, my dear,” Mr. Dursley said nervously, taking a long gulp of the scalding but flavourless tea. “Petunia, darling, you, em….you haven’t heard from…from your sister lately, have you?”
Petunia sat up very straight at that and rose her thin eyebrow at him sternly. They usually pretended that she didn’t have a sister.
“No,” she said sharply. “Why?”
“I eh….that fool of hers….”
“Aye, the Chino,” Mr. Dursley added to assure her of his disapproval, “what was his name again? John, wasn’t it? Or some Oriental name – Jun?”
“James,” she scoffed. “Terribly common name – James Potter, pretending he’s British. What could possibly be worse than that?”
Mr. Dursley emptied his cup with a shaky hand. “And, eh…they have a son, don’t they – a bastard?”
“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Dursley sighed, sitting down on the arm of his chair.
“He’s Dudley’s age, right?”
“Ugh!” Mrs. Dursley yelped in offence, standing up and slamming down her cup to glower at her husband. “How dare you, Vernon! I was respectfully married to you when we had our little Dudley, and Lily’s younger than I am! She most certainly didn’t marry that half-bred filth in any church, and she just popped out a babe without any consideration for the family! Of course, he’s nothing like Dudley, not even his age!”
“Poppet, I didn’t mean—”
“You know how upset I get about her! Why in the God’s name would you bring her up anyway!?”
“It’s just that there were a great deal of freaks around town today and—”
“Do you have to remind me that I’m related to that insufferable, miserable, scandalous bloody ginger!?”
“I quite agree that she’s a Godless—”
“Why would you talk about her!?”
“I didn’t mean—Petunia, pet—”
The click-clack of horses on the cobbles outside drew both of their attention, and Mr. Dursley stood up as well as it sounded as if a horse and carriage were stopping just outside the mew. Mr. Dursley took up a rough steel bar and went into the hall, Mrs. Dursley half-hiding at the sitting room door. Marge waddled down the steps, staying high enough to see over her brother’s form.
The doorknob turned slowly, clicking as it reached its full rotation.
The latch slipped away from the slide and curled out from the wall.
The wood was mute, its creaks supernaturally muffled as it slowly widened to accommodate the visitor.
Mr. Dursley raised the steel bar as a man in a hooded cloak entered the house, but the strike was spared as Mr. Dursley spotted a tiny arm hanging out from the bundle that the man held against his shoulder – a child, younger than Dudley, fast asleep against the stranger’s chest.
Mrs. Dursley raised the flame of the lamp on the wall to brighten the hall. Brown eyes and a scarred face were revealed beneath the cloak hood, and she gasped in recognition.
“You!” she hissed, taking to her husband’s side.
“You know him?” Mr. Dursley asked.
“You were her friend, the ill one,” she announced.
“Keep it down,” the man said in an English accent. “It’s taken all day to get him to sleep.”
“—your nephew,” the visitor said quietly. “You must take him.”
“What!?” Mrs. Dursley said in affront, her hand over her chest. “Here? Why? Oh, let me guess – that irresponsibly ruinous sister of mine has gone and made another mistake and can’t afford this one? Gone off to China with that freak of hers, did she?”
“She’s dead, Petunia,” the man announced solemnly. “They’re both dead.”
The only sound in the hall was the crackle of the wall lamp before Mrs. Dursley’s hand moved to her mouth in shock. “Dead? Lily? Dead?”
“Murdered,” he continued succinctly. “And they’ll come for him next if you don’t take him. I can’t keep him safe. They won’t look for him here.”
“We can’t take another brat,” Marge said sternly. “We can barely feed the two that are here.”
“Two? You had another?” he asked.
“Aye, Rose,” Mrs. Dursley said in a stunned voice.
“I’m sorry for the burden but he has nowhere else to turn.”
“Are you deaf, you British buffoon?” Marge said, putting her hands on her hips. “We can’t take him. Send him to the orphanage. They’ll take him and put him in the mines for work when he’s of age. No one would look for a child there. He’ll fit in with all the other immigrant bastards.”
“It has to be with you,” the man insisted to Mrs. Dursley. “He’s only safe with you. You can’t send him off. They’ll find him in an instant.”
“But…we can’t afford another mouth,” Mrs. Dursley argued painfully.
The man gently cooed to keep the child asleep as he reached into his cloak. His hand came out and extended to the Dursleys, opening with a small pile of shimmering golden coins that twinkled in the lamplight.
“I can’t be here, but I can pay for you to keep him – take him to the country, someplace safe. This will be more than enough to sustain a fine lifestyle. Raise him until I come back for him. I’ll see to it you’re kept with fine jobs to hide the inheritance. No one is to know that you’re Lily’s sister. Is that clear?”
Money? A country house? Jobs? And the secret safe? All just to keep a half-breed? It was an easy bargain.
The child in question shifted closer to the man’s familiar shoulder, his arm slipping farther down. A bandage across the wrist had come untied enough to show the strange burn-like scar forming across the pale skin – a patch like coral, like roots, like veins, striking out harshly like lightning just below the bend of the little wrist.
He couldn’t possibly know that at that very moment, all across the United Kingdom and even in France, joyous partiers were raising their glasses and toasting – “To the Boy Who Lived!”