An Interesting Conversation
A troubled mind really knows no peace, and despite needing sleep, I found it had decided to be a stranger to me that night. I turned fretfully on my bed and slept only for a half hour here and there. When I did stagger out of bed it was an hour earlier than I needed to be up. A good many of my troubled thoughts had revolved around burning the newspapers. After all, I had never had my room searched in all the time I had been here. My caution had been swayed by Eamon’s words, and I resolved to be less reactive in future. After all, Eamon had given me his word that he would not speak of what I told him to anyone else.
When I did report for work I found Eamon almost sleeping at his post. He handed me the keys wearily and patted me on the shoulder. His grey eyes looked tired of seeing, and I knew he would not have the same trouble as I had when it came to sleeping.
“Any news of Simeon?” I asked.
He shook his head, sandy hair reflecting in the candlelight. “Nothing. They can’t rely on us two to man this corridor indefinitely. They’ll have to bring more in from the mainland.”
“You think that’s likely?” I asked, knowing how unwelcome this job was.
“No, but we can hope. Have a good shift,” he said wryly. “I’ll see you at eight.”
I did not relish the prospect of a twelve-hour shift, walking up and down these soulless corridors. I had developed a theory that the longer your shift, the more slowly the minutes passed, and so I knew the day had become a protracted tunnel that had no light at the end of it, for now, anyway. From up above I could hear a cry of anguish permeate through the thick floors, and wondered what horrors where being inflicted on the unfortunate prisoner.
Before entering Azkaban I had taken it upon myself to make a study of wizarding and Muggle prisons, and it struck me that there was not much to choose between them. Azkaban was harsh, of that there was no doubt, but at least the prisoners here were given their own cells. In some Muggle gaols, cells designed for one or two men were shared by half-a-dozen. I think society wants to punish them with more than just loss of liberty, and humiliation seems to be the order of the day. And in all the articles I had read, there were few who felt my sympathy. All prisoners were dogs, to be kennelled and chained, to be brutalised until they sank lower than even they might have thought possible. I had seen it in my own short time here. Young witches and wizards brought in for minor offences — stealing and vandalism — reduced to serious criminals that would relish the prospect of putting into practice their prison-learned curses.
I was still musing over this when I prodded my key into the lock of Professor Snape’s door. The cell was lit up, announcing the daylight hours for the benefit of the sky-deprived prisoners. This was another thing that irked me. Sunlight was vital for the health of a person, and the prisoners never saw any. No wonder then, that when illness came their way they were a ready home for it.
“Good day to you, Professor,” I said, using my humblest tone of voice to try and make amends for the upset I had caused the previous day. “It’s a cold one.”
“They are all cold,” he responded. “And it has little to do with the outside temperature.”
He appeared to have recovered from Eamon’s curse and had, if his general demeanour was anything to go by, forgiven me for provoking the reaction.
“Have a banana,” I said, placing the cheerfully shaped fruit on his desk. “It’ll keep your energy up.” I was expecting a sarcastic response, but none came, and I looked at him sharply. I had become used to — almost fond of — his biting manner, and to have it suddenly absent was jarring.
“What?” he said, feeling the pressure of my expectation.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Nothing at all. Are you feeling well?”
“Quite well, thank you.”
Good Aphrodite, I thought, was that horrible lurch of his mouth a smile? An impossibility, surely? Professor Severus Snape did not smile.
“Are you sure?”
He looked as if he was about to choke. “Absolutely, and you?”
And me? He was asking after my own health, out of the blue and with no provocation. I tried to ascertain the reason for this small, but marked, change in attitude and found I couldn’t.
“You seem a little… Well, a little more content today.” I didn’t take my eyes off him as the familiar sneer settled on his face again.
“Contentment is for those with something to be content about,” he said. “It’s not for me.”
“Few of us truly have much to be content about,” I reminded him. “Many people lost family in the last war and they find they have to make do with what little they now have. But they find some sort of peace within themselves. It’s the only way to get through life; to make peace with yourself.”
“Spare me your amateur psychological assessments. Peace is not an option,” he said, turning his head in my direction and fixing those freezing eyes on me. “I have no peace in my head. What I do have is a mind full of completed Arithmancy puzzles.”
So that was it. He had tried small talk and found he was not accomplished enough at it to drag it out for very long, so now he was relying on the direct approach. I toyed with the idea of playing with him, teasing the request for a new book out of him, but I didn’t have the necessary cruel streak to do that to him.
“You would like some more reading material?” I asked.
“I have completed all the puzzles in your books.” This was as much as he was prepared to give in admitting he wanted something.
“What would you like?” I asked, wondering, as he had found the Arithmancy so easy, if the things I had were quite up to his standard?
He waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Whatever you can spare.”
His martyred approach was so staged that I couldn’t help the gust of laughter that broke from my lips.
“Is something amusing you?” he asked, his manner suddenly frosty.
“Sorry,” I apologised. “You just look so pathetically noble sometimes. You don’t need to put on an act for me. I think you’ll find your life would be easier without it.”
“Look, Miss…” And he ground to a halt, appraising me. “I don’t know your name.” He looked irritated by this deficit, as if admitting he didn’t know something made him a lesser person. In all our months of shared hostility he had never once asked me my name.
“Carr, Katherine Carr,” I supplied. “You can call me Miss Carr.” I was joking, not really expecting him to be so formal, despite my formality with him, but he took me at my word and called me Miss Carr from then on.
“Miss Carr, I do not pretend to be anything other than someone attempting to accept their altered circumstances. Seeing as you saw fit to deny me death, the least you can do is not mock me in life.”
“I wasn’t mocking you,” I said. “I was… I was making light of something that you would do well to make more light of.”
“And what might that be?”
“Your face when you are feeling hard done by.”
“I know the limitations of my own face. I do not need a slip of a girl reminding me with her derision.”
“You need to stop taking what people say so literally,” I commented, taking the book that he had pulled from his ragged robes and slipping it into my own. “So, any requests?”
“Something interesting, none of that lightweight nonsense that young witches like to read. Are you likely to have something suitable, or was the Arithmancy an aberration in your reading tastes?” I could see the doubt in his eyes and snorted at him with annoyance.
“I have several interesting volumes,” I bit back. “I’ll choose something suitably heavy for you to complain about.”
“I’m sure you will.” He sighed and sat back in his chair, fussily arranging his filthy robes around him. “But whatever it is, it will be preferable to listening to the thunderous silence of this cell.”
“That it will,” I agreed. “I must go and check on the others. I’ll let you have the book tomorrow, Professor.”
He looked at me from the corner of his eyes and murmured a begrudging thank you.
The following day brought visitors, two of whom I wanted to speak to before they got to their assignations. Fortunately, I was on duty that day and was charged with bringing the prisoners their loved ones. They conducted their visits in the cells, something I thought was arranged to make the visits as uncomfortable as possible for all concerned. I had only been on duty for visiting days once before, and the sight of so many distressed witches and wizards and, most distressed of all, children, filing through the deep despair of Azkaban was heart-wrenching. I had just watched over a tearful reunion between a father and son in cell sixty-nine, when I felt, rather than heard, the commotion at the gate to the corridor.
The walls and floors of Azkaban always seem to respond to malcontent, absorbing the reverberations, distilling them, and then giving the dark thoughts and feelings back, magnified, to the occupants. As I ushered the crushed man beside me towards the gate, I could now hear a high-pitched voice screeching at Eamon that she was to be allowed in immediately and would not be kept waiting a moment longer. They came into view and I immediately recognised the woman from the newspaper photographs. Her face was rigid with frustration as she tried to bend Eamon to do her bidding. She had the blondest hair I have ever seen; so pale it was almost white, and it was carefully pulled away from her face into a neat lump at the nape of her neck. She must have heard us coming, for she turned her attention to me.
“You, girl,” she called, jabbing her finger into the air at me. “I want to see my husband immediately. This fool is holding me up with his nonsense about only one visitor at a time.”
I didn’t speak until I was standing at the gate and when I did it was with a gentle persuasiveness that I hoped would make her, if not warm to me, then at least lower her guard somewhat.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Malfoy, but we don’t make the rules. We have to ensure the safety of everyone concerned.”
Eamon opened the gate, with Narcissa Malfoy still whittering on beside him. The man at my side shuddered as he stepped over the line that separated him from his grown child, and I gave him a weak smile and said goodbye. He moaned a little as Eamon prepared to lead him away. I ushered Narcissa Malfoy through the gate and slammed it closed behind her. My hesitation irritated her further, and she snapped at me.
“Well, come along then, girl.” She had a magnificent habit of looking down her well-shaped nose, one that she was to practice a good deal over the course of our brief conversation.
“I wondered if you had a moment before you see your husband?” I said, keeping my voice down. “There was something I wanted to ask you about.”
“You want to ask me something?” she asked, incredulous. “Is it about Lucius? Is he all right?”
There was a ghost on her face, the ghost of her happiness, and I thought it stirred a little at the possibility that her husband was sickening. Did this woman want her husband dead? There was certainly no concern in her voice.
“He is quite well, Mrs Malfoy,” I reassured her. “This is something else entirely.”
She looked puzzled, only just stopping herself from frowning. No doubt this was to prevent lines appearing on her well cared for brow. She brushed an imaginary lock of hair from her face and the cold forced a shiver from her.
“What is it?” She had become suspicious of me now, eyes narrow and distrustful.
“It’s about another of our prisoners.” I kept my voice steady and looked her in the eye.
“I don’t know any one else in this wretched place.”
“Now, Mrs Malfoy, we both know that’s not true. Given the former careers of many of our inhabitants, I think you would recognise quite a few familiar faces.”
She allowed the scowl now, not caring if it creased her immaculate make-up. “Possibly.”
“But there is one you must have known considerably better than the others.”
“And who might that be?”
Her throat contracted as she swallowed her surprise at hearing his name. Her eyelids fluttered, panicking her pupils into dilating.
“What do you know of him?” she hissed. “I have little to say on the subject.”
“He is another of my prisoners, and one that provides me with some contradictions.”
“In what way?” She was recovering quickly and folded her elegant arms across her chest.
“In that I am not sure he did what he did out of malice, and I think you know why.”
“Nonsense,” she said, preparing to move off. “What would I know of that case?”
I took hold of her arm and prevented her from moving anywhere. “I think, Mrs Malfoy, that the Unbreakable Vow you made with him brought about the events that led to him being here.”
She tried to twist her arm free, and I felt the bone beneath the flesh as she moved. Narcissa Malfoy was like a twig; her thin frame carried her flesh lightly, as if it weighed nothing. “The Unbreakable Vow was nothing,” she insisted. “A foolish thing that meant nothing.”
“Then why were you so keen to make yourself heard at the Ministry, when Professor Snape was charged with the murder?”
She flinched, her face turning away as if struck at the mention of the murder. “I was under a great deal of pressure at that time,” she said. “My son had problems, my husband was here, and I was coping alone. What I thought I knew, well, I was mistaken.”
“I don’t think that’s the case, Mrs Malfoy. What was the Unbreakable Vow?”
She hovered between refusing again, and confiding in someone. People’s desire to confess a secret or a problem is a hard temptation to fight, and Narcissa Malfoy was not the sort of woman who resisted temptation easily.
“Why do you want to know?” she asked finally. “It’s not as if you can free him. Who would listen to you?” She accompanied this with a sardonic laugh.
“No one will listen to me,” I admitted. “But at least I will know.”
“Worked his charm on you, has he?” She moved closer and bent a little, so that we were almost on the same eye level. “He’s not a physically attractive man, but there is a power there that cannot be denied. I’ve found it to be very potent in the past.”
“I’m sure you have,” I agreed. “So, what was the vow?”
“My son was given a task to perform, one I knew that he would fail to complete. Severus offered to complete the task for him, even though it would mean killing Dumbledore.”
“Offered? So were does the vow come into it?” I was pleased that once she had opened the floodgates she was prepared to talk freely.
“I made him take the oath.” She dropped her head and I watched her try to garner her composure. “I insisted, for my son’s protection, that he take an oath. Since that time other things have come to my attention that lead me to believe he did not take that vow as unwillingly as I once thought. I think that, although he killed the man, he did not do so of his own free will.”
“What makes you think that?”
“His wife told me, showed me. Dumbledore’s private papers, it was all in them. They were burned before she could get them to the Ministry, and she was caught in the process. You do know he’s married, don’t you?”
“Was, yes,” I said, and wondered at the look of amusement that crossed her face.
“So, if you just wanted to know for yourself whether he was innocent, you can take my word for it that he was. Dumbledore’s death was contrived, unwelcome, I’m sure, for both of them, but arranged to gain them the most advantage. The Dark Lord may be gone, and Severus’ betrayal of him needs to be accounted for in that, but the people will not forgive him the murder of their greatest hero, not that they treated the old man like a hero when he was alive. They often derided him and made him appear stupid, diminished somewhat.”
I nodded, remembering the ridicule the old headmaster had suffered when he tried to insist that Voldemort was back. People have such short memories when it comes to their own behaviour and willingness to disbelieve the truth, even when they see it plain before them.
“Thank you,” I said. “You have told me all I need to know. Do you believe there is any chance his innocence can be proved?”
“None at all. He knows it better than anyone. He sacrificed himself for my son, for Dumbledore and for the wizarding world.” I thought her voice was about to crack, but she straightened her lips and looked proudly at me. “Ultimately, he proved himself to everyone that knew him and respected him. Unfortunately, we were few and far between. Now, my husband.”
I nodded, walking away from her misery towards the door the shielded the world from Lucius Malfoy.
“I will wait for you here,” I informed her, and swung the door inwards to allow her entry. Closing the door again, I realised that having my suspicions confirmed about his innocence did not settle my mind, as I had thought it would. Instead my mind raced at the injustice of this man being locked up with no hope of release for a selfless act that must have cost him dear.
And there really was no hope, of release from Azkaban or relief from his own grief.