Chapter 25 - Anxiety
Over the next few days, Harry settled into a kind of routine with his father. After breakfast, he had his mandatory hour of reading at the kitchen table, and it was unchangeably stressful. Miraculously, father hadn’t yet asked him to read anything aloud, he constantly was busy researching something, taking copious notes from some old grimoires and barely paying attention to the boy’s pretence.
Harry was still pretending to be reading Winnie the Pooh book, even mentioning the animals’ antics from the stories he remembered from school. He knew it couldn’t last, and with every passing day bringing them closer to September his fear of discovery grew. The boy’s thoughts tortured him endlessly, imaging father’s explosive reaction to learning he had been lied to for so long. He had to blink his eyes clear to even see the incomprehensible scribbles on the page.
His head was pounding by the time he was set free, and he was allowed to escape to his tree. Harry’s stomach churned with dread, and he let the desperate tears fall down his cheeks as he curled on his favourite branch.
Before lunch, the boy was supposed to occupy himself and stay out of trouble, as the man spent that time in his mysterious laboratory, and wanted no interruptions. Harry was well used to pretending he didn’t exist from his life at the Dursleys, and it shouldn’t be any kind of struggle to stay out of the man’s way for a few hours. Somehow, it was impossible, a kind of tension grew in his chest, making his heart hammer and hands sweaty in anxiety, and he was knocking on the black door with some made up excuse.
Father wasn’t impressed with constant interruptions, and each time he came up to answer Harry’s knock, the veneer of patience was a bit thinner, and the risk of punishment greater.
“What is it this time?!” The man had exploded once, thrusting the door open with a bang, making the boy jump a foot in the air. “Is your behind itching so much for a spanking already?! If so, I can certainly oblige!”
Harry shook his head, eyes filling at the harsh tone.
“I just, I-, I-,” he stammered desperately, but he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be needing just then. His mind had gone completely blank.
Father heaved a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose between the thumb and forefinger as he considered the child. The angry lines were etched deeply into his harsh face, and when he reached out for the boy, he couldn’t quite suppress a gasp of terror.
“I’m brewing an important and rather volatile potion right now,” he growled irritably, even as he pulled the boy against his torso in a one-armed hug, rubbing gentle circles into his back with his palm. “I am not going anywhere, and even if I were so inclined, you’d see me leaving through the gate.”
“Okay,” Harry sighed into the rough fabric of father’s work attire, breathing in the sharp odours that were not altogether pleasant, reminding him of his hated medicines. Even so, it had the power to slow his racing heart.
“If I have to come up again just to assure you that I haven’t melted away,” the man warned in his strictest voice. “I’ll put you over my knee, and you’ll have a very sore bottom to remind you of my continued existence. Is that understood, Harry?”
“Yes, father,” the boy whispered, ducking his head in embarrassment.
A brush of father’s lips on the top of his head was startling and reassuring.
“Go play some football, Harry,” he said very softly. “I’ll be here, and I’ll call you when it’s time for lunch.”
It was mortifying to know that father understood exactly what prompted Harry to keep making a nuisance of himself in that way. He probably understood it better than the boy did, he certainly had never felt a deep anxiety that his aunt or uncle might go out somewhere without him. It happened all the time, and Harry would feel relieved rather than frightened at the prospect of being left alone, uncle Vernon couldn’t punish him when he wasn’t there. Shouldn’t he be overjoyed that father spent hours in his laboratory, leaving the boy to play?
Apparently not, there was a gnawing, gut-wrenching feeling that rose and expanded in his chest like an ache that became unbearable, if he couldn’t see the man for a while. Intellectually, Harry knew that father hadn’t left, but he could only distract himself for up to thirty minutes before he had to check.
Some days, father was less patient with those interruptions, but even the knowledge of certain punishment didn’t dissuade the boy from going back. The first time the man had talked to him severely about not disturbing him, Harry had really tried to stay away, but the fear of being abandoned soon had him gasping for breath, stabbing pains shooting through his chest, and he was sure he was dying.
Black spots swam in his vision as he hammered on the black door with his fists. The door swung open, and there was his father, a frown of displeasure on his face. Harry wanted to say something, to apologise, anything, but he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even breathe as the man scrutinised him from head to toe.
Father inhaled a calming breath, before taking the boy by the elbow, and pulling him toward the kitchen, to the chair. Harry’s fear changed then, because he didn’t want to be punished. He gasped in a lungful of air, his body becoming rigid with another kind of terror.
Father didn’t scold him, only bent the boy over his lap, and brought his hand down on his trouser-clad rear without comment. Harry grunted in surprise, the smack hadn’t been as painful as others he remembered, but as they multiplied, the stinging in his bum grew until it became akin to an ache. With this new sensation, his anxiety transformed into a more normal feeling of sadness, and he started to cry. The moment he did, the man stopped the spanking, and pulled Harry into a tight hug.
“I’m not going to leave you, little dunderhead,” an exasperated growl in his ear was very reassuring. “Now, upstairs, before I give you a real spanking!”
It was very strange, Harry reflected, rubbing his stinging bottom afterwards in his room. It didn’t hurt all that much, not precisely, but the sensation lingered for quite a bit, and as long as it remained he felt sort of relaxed. The boy didn’t understand why he should respond to a spanking in that way, didn’t he hate and fear father’s punishments? Harry was sure that he did, except this spanking was somehow different. The man only rarely punished him with his bottom covered, and every swat was scalding hot, making sitting down a punishment of its own. Even if Harry got a hug at the end, the sharpest memories were of the pain and fear, and anger. It never made him relaxed.
The lunch couldn’t come fast enough.
The afternoon was Harry’s favourite time of day. If the weather permitted, father took him to the park, and the park in the afternoon was a completely different environment than the park in the morning. It was crowded in the park at this time of day, there were other children, squealing and running, and playing on the equipment. The noise level was so elevated that it was like stepping into a new world.
The wooden benches were occupied by young women dressed in their best Sunday dresses, gossiping with one another as they supervised their offspring. The first time father took him to the park in the middle of the day, the women fixed them with a hostile glare, as if they were entering an enemy kingdom. Petrified by the negative attention, Harry gripped father’s hand so tightly that his knuckles had gone white, but the man only sneered at the female disapproval, his nose wrinkling in disgust, as he pulled the boy to a stretch of lawn whereupon he laid a blanket he retrieved from his shoulder bag of all things. He seated himself cross-legged on the blanket, a book in one hand.
“Well?” he demanded, fixing the child with a direct stare. “Weren’t you looking for opportunities to improve your swinging technique?”
Harry swallowed, shooting a reluctant glance over the crowded playground, he couldn’t imagine joining those noisy strangers. Frankly, he was terrified of the idea.
“No, I mean,” he said, his voice cracking with stress. “The swings are busy right now. I can… can wait a bit.”
He sat next to the man, hugging his knees to his chest, and trying to settle his rattled emotions. Harry wanted to go home right away, but he was afraid to ask, seeing as father opened the book in his lap.
“If the swings are busy, you could go play in the sandbox or on the merry-go-round,” the man suggested dryly. “I’m sure you know these things better than I, go.”
“But-,” Harry protested weakly, his eyes burning with tears.
“No ‘buts’,” father interrupted gently. “I’m going to sit here and read my book, you’ll be able to see me all the time. Now, go.”
The last words were said in such a tone of command that Harry didn’t dare disobey, but he knew that this time he wasn’t so much worried about father disappearing. As he stepped among the rambunctious and loud gathering, it was like entering a world inhabited by many Dudleys. He hunched his shoulders protectively, bracing himself for the cruel comments, for punches and kicks, for jeering pronouncements that freaks had no place in the playground. The boy was so stressed out that he hardly remembered that one hour in the park, and the sound of father’s sharp voice calling his name was an incredible relief. He squinted toward the stretch of lawn at the dark figure standing there, and he hesitated, unable to recognise the man from that distance.
“Come here this instant!” Father called again, a hint of annoyance clear in his voice.
Harry’s heart clenched for a second, and he sprinted, a more familiar fear stirring in his gut as he took in the man’s displeased expression. Father caught him by the arm, and spun him around fluidly. His other hand rose and fell sharply across the child’s bottom eliciting a soft whimper.
“I’m not going to wait five minutes until you deign to respond, boy,” he scolded severely, snatching one of Harry’s hands and pulling him into a walk. “You are to come at once when I call, I told you before.”
The boy hung his head, better to hide the tears on his face. It wasn’t fair, he decided, rubbing his sore bottom with one hand. The swat had really hurt, it did, and he’d come back straight away, almost! It wasn’t fair and it hurt, and he wanted a hug.
“Nothing to say?” father inquired mildly. “You won’t get any ice cream with this attitude, I’m afraid.”
Harry looked up, wide-eyed in confusion, and watched as the man’s eyebrows climbed expectantly.
“Sorry,” he tried, uncertain. “For… for not listening?”
“That’s better,” father smirked. “My favourite is chocolate-flavoured ice cream. How about you, Harry?”
They went back to the park the next day, and the next. It was on the third day that he finally braved conversation with another child. The little girl pulled on his sleeve to catch his attention, she was probably close to his age and she frowned at him in disapproval.
“Why are you standing here like a stick?!” she demanded in a bossy tone. “Are you playing at Bobbies, or something?”
Harry opened his mouth to apologise for coming to the playground, before realising it wouldn’t be appropriate in this situation. In fact, he had no idea how to respond, so he just shrugged to hide his ignorance.
“I suppose,” he mumbled to the ground.
She pursed her fat lips at him, pushing her red hair out of her face.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she declared confidently, and proceeded to correct him.
Harry wasn’t sure how it came about, but that day he ended up patrolling the playground with DC Abigail ‘not Abby’ Darcy, handing out tickets for speeding and loitering, and once, at his partner’s insistence, arresting a giggling four-year-old with a pistol for assault with a weapon. Somehow, playing in the park with children he barely knew became less daunting after that.
When they got home after the park, Harry was usually exhausted. Father would give him a glass of juice, and send him upstairs to rest in his room, while he retired to his office to do more work. The man seemed to work an awful lot, and the boy often felt guilty for adding to his workload by his presence, but whenever he suggested he could help with more chores, father stated that he had his room to keep tidy and that was enough.
Harry had been told all his life how expensive keeping him around was, and father’s insistence not to worry about it was incredibly frustrating. Once, he couldn’t help arguing that he didn’t have to eat anything if he didn’t want to, and he must have gone too far, because the man’s face grew dark like a thunder cloud, and the boy’s backside was paddled with that terrible wooden ruler. Eating wasn’t optional, and he’d better not forget that.
Harry didn’t, and he avoided mentioning any chores or realities from his life at the Dursleys from then on, as father was very sensitive about being poor, and he wasn’t very keen on another punishment like that.
The only help he was allowed was preparing vegetables for dinner, but Harry wasn’t even sure it could be called a proper chore, because father didn’t expect him to do it. The boy had to ask each time if he could help, he would be given then his special charmed knife that couldn’t cut skin. Father made cooking dinner into a sort of game, he was teaching Harry all kinds of techniques for cutting, slicing, dicing, peeling and powdering. He had been very nervous at the beginning, fearing a punishment when he made a mistake, but the man was a surprisingly patient teacher, adjusting Harry’s grip on the tiny knife and showing him again how to cut a certain way. It was sort of fun, with the two of them standing side by side, cutting carrots into cubes exactly one inch high, or cucumbers carved into cats.
Father was amazing in how easily he could change boring vegetables into intriguing specimens. Harry didn’t believe his puny attempts were really helping any, but the man didn’t seem to mind the twenty minutes he spent letting the boy play at Master Cook.
Lately, Harry dreaded the approach of bedtime, becoming nervous and cranky by dinnertime. Father usually didn’t put up with any signs of the boy’s petulance, responding to them with swift and painful efficiency, but in the evenings he was unexpectedly forgiving of Harry’s behaviour. He would often pull the angry child into his lap on the sofa, and they would watch some silly kids’ program on television together. Father would hold him in a cage of his arms until rage went out of him.
The television was an unexpected treat for Harry, at the Dursleys he had never been allowed to watch, not even to pause for a moment in the living room when the TV was on. His father didn’t have a television, so he didn’t think anything would change in that regard. Then, out of the blue, on Saturday after the fiasco of his visit at Eliot’s the man climbed into the attic and brought back an old TV set, installing it in the living room. The boy wished he could watch from closer up, but the one time he tried watching from the floor just in front of the television, father made it clear that either he stayed on the sofa, or the TV would go right back in the attic and stay there.
The thirty minute allotment of his allowed TV time passed much too quickly, and father was flicking his wand to switch off the screen.
“I don’t want to go,” Harry pleaded desperately, despite knowing that the man wouldn’t let him stay a minute longer.
“It is time for bed,” father said firmly, pulling the child gently to stand. “Take a bath, and I’ll come and read to you for a while.”
Energy was a strange thing, at the Dursleys Harry was often so exhausted when he went to bed that he collapsed into unconsciousness rather than sleep, and his mind rarely had enough power remaining to torment him. Now, however, with three filling meals, and hardly any way to spend the energy provided, his mind seemed to be running amok, twisting his anxieties into night terrors, making the boy fear closing his eyes, despite father’s deep reassuring voice.