I walked down the pavement away from school and towards home, staring at my slightly scuffed shoes. I tried to look after them as best as I possibly could, as I did all my things because I knew I had to make them last, but there was no way to keep them in pristine condition when you needed to actually use them. I looked up as I passed Norwich Castle, as I did every day on my way home, and which now housed the Norwich High School for Magical Education. It was a very different place to my school, which was the Norwich High School for Standard Education, a 1960s building which looked rather ordinary - even on its best days.
The castle stood on a hill at the centre of the city, a simple square structure, but with intricate and elaborate details carved into the stone of its outer walls (and probably its inner walls too… but of course I’d never seen those). A group of boys had just finished walking down the imposing steps away from the castle and were, in all their smart-uniformed, loud-mouthed, arrogant-faced glory, unfortunately walking towards me. Not that their smart uniform was a bad thing, in fact I thought it looked quite nice; it just annoyed me that quite a lot of them took their purple (and almost certainly expensive) blazers for granted (they were always throwing them on the ground when they hung around Chapelfield Gardens, for starters).
I edged towards the wall on the side of the pavement furthest from the road, keeping my head down and walking quickly on. Thankfully the boys walked straight past me, although not without one of them knocking against my shoulder and then not acknowledging the need to apologise.
There were nice wizards and witches, of course there were. It was only that the ones I met just never seemed to be very nice to me. As if it wasn’t enough that I had to deal with attempting to do well in my last year of GCSEs, I had to deal with walking past students every day who I just had to hope wouldn’t do worse than knock into me without apologising.
The breeze tugged at my dirty blonde hair and I pulled down on the sleeves of my navy blue jumper. I’d have to start wearing my coat again soon. I didn’t like it when it got colder, keeping warm cost more money.
I kept walking until finally I turned a corner and the council estate I lived on came into view. But so did another group of student wizards gathered around the turning to the same small road that I needed to walk down. I swore under my breath, but begrudgingly crossed the road towards them. I was walking around them and hearing them complaining about homework, so I thought I might have gotten away with it… up until I heard a strange word. One that was almost familiar but that I didn’t quite understand. Then I felt the air shift so it twisted around my ankle and there was a sudden pull and I was falling – and swearing internally - and falling until – slam – I hit the ground.
The world seemed to shake for a minute until I managed to get my bearings again, at which point I felt pain and heard laughter. Great. But I had managed to put my arms out at the last moment, so I hadn’t hit my head, although my arms jarred and I could feel a stinging kind of pain in my left knee. And there was something else, I was lying on something, with a corner that was digging into my left side. It wasn’t my bag because that was lying – probably now more scuffed than it already had been – on my right. I pulled the object out from under me and found I was holding an old book, by its appearance some kind of magic book. I looked up at the group, who were still laughing and, rather than looking at me, were looking admiringly at one boy with dark hair in the middle, who appeared to have been the one to knock me over.
I quickly shoved the book into my bag before shakily standing up and putting my bag on my right shoulder, the side away from them. Well, if they were going to leave a book lying around on the floor, they obviously didn’t care for it that much. At least that’s what I told myself as the guilt of the theft already started to tug at my mind.
The dark-haired boy smirked at me from where he sat on the waist-height wall that stood at the edge of the pavement. “Aw, did the little poor girl fall over?” They were laughing again, although a couple of them had the decency to look a little ashamed as they saw my knee, which I had now noticed was bleeding.
“Yes, she was pushed by a particularly ugly little pig.” I snapped, and turned, not wanting to find out how he took the comment. I usually stayed out of trouble, I kept my head down, I stayed away from people like this who tried to cause trouble. Or at least I tried to stay away from them, it wasn’t my fault if they hung around where I lived, which definitely wasn’t where they lived. I always behaved myself at school and at home, and I didn’t even swear when I thought anyone else might hear me. Trouble took up time which I needed to do work because I wasn’t going to get anywhere in life without work, trouble took up money I didn’t have because my parents only had enough money for what they needed, not what they wanted, and trouble meant energy and effort which recently I was frequently finding it difficult to come across.
Luckily, although they shouted insults at me as I limped away, they let me go and I managed to make it home, even though the lift wasn’t working again and I had to struggle up the five flights of stairs to our flat with a tissue from a packet in my bag pressed against my bleeding knee. The awkwardness was relieved a little bit by the fact that I managed not to bump into any neighbours. I didn’t want to give Mrs Smith a shock.
I’d hoped as I was walking home that the tights I was wearing might be salvageable, even though I’d already had to put clear nail polish on a ladder that had formed next to my big toe to stop it laddering more, but I realised now that they were probably ripped beyond what clear nail polish could help with. Now I was down to two pairs.
Hopefully Mum would be merciful when she killed me.
It turned out she was merciful enough not to kill me at all. But even so I didn’t get the chance to look at the book that I’d, well, borrowed until I was lying in bed, ready to go to sleep, that night. In fact, she hadn’t really been angry at all, just a little sad.
“Good day at school then, sweet heart?” She said once she got home and started making us a cup of tea each. I leant against the kitchen counter in my leggings and over-sized t-shirt that I’d changed into once I was home, and had dealt with my knee.
I shrugged. “It was alright, pretty usual, you know? Oh, except Jemimah Aden got caught smoking behind the bike sheds again.”
Mum sighed. “I’m glad you’ve never tried that.” The kettle finished boiling and she poured the water over the tea bags in the mugs.
“Well, it’s never seemed worth the trouble.” I shrugged and she smiled. “Plus, I’d have to spend time with Jemimah behind the bike shed and she’s been wary of me ever since she teased me about writing poetry and I said that I had to have to have some way of filling the empty void that is our monotonous and insignificant lives in this ever-expanding universe.”
She blinked at me. “Do you really believe that?”
“I don’t know, I just said it to freak her out.” I shrugged again and she laughed. I thought for a moment and scratched my collarbone. This was a nervous habit I had that my friend Sarah had pointed out to me. “Mum, I ruined my tights.”
She looked at me as she took the tea bags out of the mugs and stirred the milk in, a little worried. “How?”
“I fell over and grazed my knee.” I scratched my collar bone again. I didn’t like to lie, and to be honest I was never that good at it, but there wasn’t any point in telling her the truth, she would only worry and there wasn’t anything she could do.
“Well, that’s alright, sweetheart, don’t worry, I’ll buy you some more when I go shopping tomorrow to replace them, and you still have a couple of pairs left, don’t you? You’ll just have to look where you’re going.” She smiled at me with teasing eyes and passed me my tea, along with a couple of biscuits.
“Well, yeah, but don’t worry about buying me some new ones yet, I can wear my trousers next week, and then my other tights. I can make them last for a bit.” I shrugged and dipped one of the biscuits in my tea, taking a bite.
“No, I insist.” She saw the look on my face and sighed. “Love, they’re not expensive.”
“I know, it’s just, I don’t want to you to buy something for me when I don’t really need it.”
“You will need them eventually though, and it’s no trouble.” She gave me a look and I knew that was the end of the discussion. And I was almost thankful that she had won, one of the other pairs of tights was starting to get a suspicious worn-looking patch on the heel.
Dad soon came home after that, and I took our Jack Russell Terrier, Rory, for a walk while they made dinner. It was a Friday night, and I didn’t need to worry about doing my homework until the next day, so we relaxed after dinner, watching movies, and I forgot about everything until I was lying in bed later, ready to go to sleep.
I was drifting off, but a noise pushed its way into my half-awake mind and pulled me back to full consciousness. I sat up and ran my hands over my face as I tried to work out what the noise was, it was like somebody was knocking but incredibly softly. I looked over at the door, and knew exactly what the noise was, so got up and opened it; and sure enough, Rory was on the other side, about to bump his paw on the door again, until he saw me and gave a quiet bark, padding past me into the room.
“Please, do come in.” I said and closed the door behind him. He did this sometimes, we never figured out how he got out of the dog cage we kept him in at night, but whenever he did he only ever came to knock, as it were, on my door. We would have made more effort to stop him, but there didn’t seem to be much we could do, and he only ever ended up sleeping on my bed for the night, which was always more of a comfort than any trouble.
As I closed the door, I had a vague feeling that I could not quite pin down, and it made me wonder if Rory’s knocking was all that had woken me. It was then that I noticed the way the moonlight shone through the thin curtains, landing on my bag hanging on the hook on attached there. I was suddenly wide awake when I remembered what I’d taken and put in that bag earlier.
Oh, no. I took the book out, sat on my bed next to Rory, who curled up against me, and looked at it.
Blake’s Selection of Complex Enchantments.
It looked so old and beautiful and luxurious and by far the richest thing that had ever been in this flat. And that boy and his friends had just left it lying around. They didn’t deserve it.
But – and I swore internally again – I shouldn’t have taken it. Sometimes I did things like this. I did something in the moment, pushed to it by some kind of compulsion, and it wouldn’t be until later that I’d realise the full extent of what I’d done. It wasn’t usually saying something (I usually managed to keep my words in check), it was usually just small little spiteful actions. Like once I’d stuck out my stick when we were playing hockey at school and tripped Sarah over, because she’d been in a mood earlier and told me I was boring. Nobody had noticed it was my fault, but I’d felt so bad about it later that I’d broken down in tears and told her and said I was sorry and she’d cried and said she was sorry too, and then it was fine but I still felt atrocious. We were friends again, of course, and really it wasn’t much more than high school drama, but it made me realise how I could actually be a completely terrible person at times (sometimes I worried that I really was boring but then I decided that I could deal with that once I’d dealt with being such a bad person).
Then I opened the cover and I didn’t feel so bad any more.
Property of the Norwich High School of Magical Education Library. This book is for Year Twelve and Thirteen students only, and must not be lent out or removed from the library.
Those idiots had been the ones to steal it in the first place. They were just as bad as I was. This didn’t make me any better, but I could make it up by returning the book to the library on Monday. I could say I’d found it lying around, which wasn’t exactly a lie. The school would have their book back, the ones who had taken it might even get found out and into trouble if I was lucky, and in the future I would definitely work on being less of a terrible person.
But that didn’t mean I couldn’t read a bit of the book now.
I’d always been curious about magic. Wizards and witches and whatnot, I could live without, but magic always made me wonder. I almost wanted it, but I knew there would be no simple spell to make my parents get higher wages for all the hard work they did and to stop the teasing I got in the street. I still wanted to learn about it though, I loved learning and I loved words, and I believed words had power even when someone as unimportant as me said them, but magic instilled words with a whole different kind of power and how could anyone not find that fascinating?
This was why I wasn’t reading the book to hope to gain some knowledge that could give me magic, help me to overpower the magical half of the population, and become ruler of all. I was just learning about magic for the sake of learning about magic. And it really was so incredibly intriguing. I’d never thought that words could sound so, well, enchanting. And I’d known that magic could do a lot, almost anything, in fact, but I’d never learnt about some of the exact things that it could do. There was all sorts about enchanting people, to forget, to remember, to learn, to love... I imagined that there must be magical laws about exactly which spells you could and couldn’t use, and how you could use them, because some of the ones in this book almost seemed dangerous, in fact it reminded me of something that I’d heard on the news about magical regulations, so there probably were.
It was midnight before I felt myself leaning forward slightly, and my eyelids beginning to feel heavier, and I realised how long I’d been sitting, immersed in reading the book. Rory was asleep, his head in my lap, and snoring (Are dogs even supposed to snore? I wondered. Rory had always been a little different to other dogs, and I could never quite tell if some of the things he did were normal dog things or not). Even though I wanted to read more, I forced myself to close the book and place it on my bedside table, before I moved Rory slightly so he was curled up at the end of the bed, slipped under my duvet, lay down onto my pillows, and quickly fell asleep.
Up the stairs, over the bridge, into the courtyard and through the front door. Into the courtyard, and through the front door. Come on, Gemma. Into the courtyard and through the front door.
I stood at the edge of the courtyard in front of the castle, trying to push myself to motion. I’d come here after school on Monday to return the book, which now sat in my bag on my shoulder, but now that I was about to walk in and return it, the idea of actually going inside the school unnerved me. Students and parents and teachers wondered around, moving past me to the exit, leaving the castle for the day, some of them looking at me curiously as they did so, and I wanted to get it over with just so they would stop looking at me, but all I could think about was how I didn’t belong there and it had me rooted to the spot.
Because of course I didn’t belong there. Even though I’d put my hair up in a bun to make it look neat and tried to make my school uniform as smart as possible. This big imposing castle, these magical, powerful people, all this that was just so much more than me. I was just a standard school girl, with parents who worked longer hours than they should just to get enough money, living on a council estate with a lift that was still broken, who wanted to be a writer but would probably never get to be one and would have to settle for a job that meant I had enough money – and, oh no, I couldn’t breathe –
“Are you alright?”
I jumped and looked away from the doorway that I had been staring down to a woman who was standing next to me. I must have been too busy panicking to notice her walking up to me. She was a little taller than me, with dark hair that was greying slightly and smart clothes that also looked slightly whimsical – she must work at the school.
“Oh, yes, sorry, I er-,” I fumbled with my bag and brought out the book, before handing it out to her. “I found this book, someone must have dropped it, it says on the inside that it belongs to the library here.” I couldn’t look in her eyes for fear that she might somehow see what I wasn’t telling her – that I’d stolen it, even though it had already been stolen, that I was a thief, a terrible person – in my eyes, and instead I looked slightly to the right of her face.
But she smiled at me. “Well, thank you, that is so kind of you to bring it back to us.” Something about her voice made me look into her eyes, and there was something in them that suggested she, not only knew the truth, but also knew there had been the temptation not to bring it back, especially when I’d finished reading it last night and had just been so amazed by everything that it held within it. She took the book out of my hands and looked at it, and for a second I thought I saw her frown slightly when she saw the cover, but the moment passed and she looked back at me with a smile again. “I am Mrs Bertrand and I am the headmistress here.” She held out her hand and I panicked again. The headmistress? I had a small crisis before I made my brain be quiet and simply shook her hand.
“I-I’m Gemma Brooke, I’m in Year 11 at the standard school round the corner.” I scratched my collarbone with my free hand.
She watched me as she let go of my hand. “I think I might remember you, Miss Brooke… Did you win a prize at last year’s Norfolk’s Young Poets competition? I wasn’t on the panel that year but I have been in the past so I went along to the awards ceremony out of interest, and I do believe you were there.”
I felt my face go red, but nodded. “I came third place.” I’d been really happy but also quite nervous because actually winning something meant I’d had to stand up on a stage in front of a lot of people and read my poem out to a lot of people and receive my certificate in front of a lot of people. But it was worth it because it was the moment that I’d realised that, hey, I think I’m actually good at something. And I had to admit the little money prize had been nice too.
“Deservedly too, it was a wonderful poem.”
“Oh, thank you.” I was still red in the face. I had not expected my afternoon to go this way.
“Well, Gemma, do you have a spare moment? I have something in my office that would do well as a thank you for bringing the book back.” I had definitely not expected my afternoon to go this way.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that!”
“I insist.” Why did people keep insisting around me? And why did I always have to back down?
“I suppose, I, er, I do have time.”
Mrs Bertrand led me into the school, and instantly it felt different. Strange. It was like reading Blake’s Selection of Complex Enchantments, but the feeling was in the very atmosphere. Was this what magic felt like? I wondered if wizards and witches could even notice it, they must just feel it all the time. I could hardly describe what it felt like, it was… it was like the air had potential. And it was dizzying, not just because we walked through countless corridors and up both strait and spiral staircases, both of which I couldn’t keep count of the number of. I thought some of the corridors we passed were pulling me towards them, but Mrs Bertrand kept walking so I kept following. The interior of the castle was just as intricately detailed as the outside, if not more complicated. Paintings and statues and trophies and even tapestries were on display – how rich was this place?
We eventually reached a large wooden door at the end of the corridor at the top of the castle. Mrs Bertrand then pulled out a wand from some invisible pocket and tapped it three times on the key hole (Why is there a key hole if she opens it with her wand? Asked my brain, but I made it be quiet again), and then turned the door knob and opened the door.
I gave out a little gasp as I stepped into the room after her. The room was fit to burst with shelves and shelves of books and books and little objects like clocks and candles and something that looked like it might be a model of the solar system but it was moving by itself and there was a large window which looked over the whole city and –
She was handing me something. I looked at the small dark blue book that simply read Constellations: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry by Viola May in gold lettering on the front.
I blinked up at her.
“I’ve had this for as long as I can remember, and it has been a great inspiration to me, even though I, unlike you, am not a writer. I think it’s time it was passed on to someone else who could also be inspired by it. After all, words too are a kind of magic all of their own.”
I carefully took the book and held it in my hands. “Thank you.” I said quietly. “But are you sure? It seems so precious.”
She nodded. “I’m very sure.”
I couldn’t help feeling that I didn’t deserve such a thoughtful gift, but I could tell she was about to insist again, so I accepted it. After that, she guided me back through the corridors and staircases and out into the courtyard, where we said goodbye and I began to walk home, in a bit of a stunned daze.
I was feeling something like happy until I reached the street where the boy had pushed me over on Friday, and I saw that the group of them were there again. But this time they already had a distraction. There was a girl, who was a few years younger than me, but wore the same uniform as I did, trying to get past them on the pavement to get to the entrance to the council estate, but they weren’t letting her. Before I could think about it, I was marching across the road and towards them.
“Oi, let her pass.” I said as I reached them and stood behind the girl, and she looked back at me, evidently relieved.
The dark-haired boy stared at me and smirked. “What? She can pass.”
I raised my eyebrows and waved an arm, gesturing at the road as a car flew past. “Only if she walks in the road!”
“I don’t see the problem.” His voice grated on my nerves more than that awful feeling you get when your nails scrape against practically anything, I wanted to punch him but I’d never punched anyone before and it probably wouldn’t go well. It was also probably immoral or something.
“I’ll give you a problem.” I stood up tall and sounded a lot more confident than I felt.
He raised his eyebrows and leant back, but said, “Fine, she can pass.” They all moved themselves out of the way, and the girl started to nervously walk past. I followed her, but, keeping an eye on him, saw the boy pull out his wand and point it towards her.
My arm shot out and I grabbed his wrist, yanking it away from the girl. “Don’t you dare.”
He glared at me. “Why defend her? She’s not worth it. Neither of you are. Now let go of me.”
“No. You don’t get to hurt either of us just because you think you’re superior because you have your precious magic. I don’t know how you can think that when I survive every day without magic but you probably couldn’t even survive a minute!”
“You just don’t get it, you’re pathetic.” He spat.
“Only as pathetic as you.” I retorted. I leant in as close to his face as I could stand, and then I said slowly, “No matter how much you deny it, we are equals.”
I shoved his hand away and walked on, taking the young girl’s hand and taking her with me. None of them said anything and we kept walking until we’d rounded a corner and were out of their sight.
“Are you alright?” I turned to her and gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
She nodded, although she still looked a little shaken. “Yes, thank you. I don’t usually walk home from school, my mum usually picks me up because she doesn’t like me walking alone, but she had to work overtime today. Do that lot always sit on that wall?”
“Only for the past couple of days, I hope it’s not a permanent thing. But hey, if you get nervous when you need to walk back by yourself again, then you can always just wait for me at the school gates.”
She smiled. “Thank you, I might do that.” She laughed nervously. “My name’s Maisie.”
“I’m Gemma.” We shook hands in an overformal manner and laughed. It was nice to know that I’d done something good for once, and I’d met someone nice out of it too. I’d never thought I could stand up against someone like that, and now I had, I felt a little shaken, but also like I could take on almost anything. It wasn’t like I was a warrior or a hero or anything like that, but I was something closer to it, perhaps, and I felt incredibly hopeful for a change. We walked together for a short while, and we talked a little about what we were both studying at school, and both complained about how they never let us play football in our Sports classes, and always made us play netball instead. I could tell she had a talent for being funny, even though she had that shyness that comes with the insecurity of being a high school student, something which I also found myself struggling with (sometimes I wondered if I would still struggle with it after school, because it definitely felt like the kind of thing that could haunt you). I found myself hoping she would be okay, and I would have been annoyed at myself for finding another person to worry about (I tried to limit myself to a few people, even though I knew at heart I worried about almost everyone I met) if it hadn’t been for the fact that she made me forget my worries for a moment when she made me laugh (Surely that must be some kind of magic too? I wondered).
Once I got home a short while later, after seeing Maisie to her apartment block, I changed into my favoured t-shirt and leggings combination, and curled up on my bed with Rory at my side again. I decided I’d take him for a walk and then do my homework in a bit, but first I wanted to quickly look through Constellations. I’d read through it properly later when I had more time, but for now I couldn’t resist having a quick look. Rory sniffed the book, but was good enough not to lick it, as I slowly turned each page to read the headings of all the poems and short stories. It was a beautiful book, and even though it wasn’t about magic like the Selection of Complex Enchantments had been, it still held the same fascinating quality, leaving me feeling as if magic did pour from its pages. One line pulled me in as I skimmed through.
Today, I felt my heart first start beating.
The line resonated in my head and a smile slowly found a place on my lips. I could probably find other words to describe how I felt, but they would probably never fit as well as those.
As I closed the book and moved to place it on my bedside table before I went to find Rory’s lead, it also left me feeling – I almost couldn’t think of the right word, but then it hit me – reassured.
Perhaps right now I wasn’t in the best situation, but I had my friends and my family, and somewhere to call a home, even if the lift was broken, and I had a future that I could fight for, that I knew I would fight for, because I deserved it just as much as anyone else.