Vernon Dursley was angry, and when he was angry he was loud. 'You're being completely ridiculous, woman,' he shouted. 'It's your hormones. In a day or two you'll come to your senses and realise how stupid you're being.'
Petunia returned her husband's glare, but spoke quietly and clearly. 'It's nothing to do with my hormones, Vernon, and I've had plenty of time to think about this. You won't change my mind. I'm leaving you.' She heard the back door close as Dudley went out, thankful no doubt to escape the atmosphere in the house.
Only that morning, Petunia Dursley had surveyed her home for the first time since they’d been whisked away by Dedalus Diggle and that Jones woman almost a year ago, supposedly for their own protection. A year in which much had happened and many things had changed.
She'd wondered just what she might be returning to; it could easily have been a burnt out shell. The house, she gathered, had indeed been trashed twice by Death Eaters, but each time the Order had straightened things up as best they could to avoid drawing attention to it. And in the days before their return, she knew that Harry had inspected the place, had it cleaned from top to bottom and made sure that damaged appliances were replaced.
All in all, she was uncomfortably aware that it was more than she deserved.
She'd learned a lot while they'd been away. In particular, she'd learned a great deal about magic and magical people. She knew that Lily and her husband were well remembered and had been liked and respected among their own kind. She knew, too, that Lily's son, Harry, was regarded as a hero, by some almost as a saviour. She'd been very glad that wizarding folk seemed generally unaware of quite how she and her family had treated him.
The first few days, in a safe house with Jones and Diggle, had been claustrophobic, but they'd soon moved on and joined up with others needing protection, including a group of wizards and witches, some of them Muggle born, who had been rescued from the Ministry by disguised Order members. The rescuers were rumoured to have been Harry and his two friends. They'd moved several times, over increasingly large distances, by a variety of means mostly magical and frequently terrifying, until they'd ended up at a camp about as far from England as it was possible to get.
Petunia remembered with intense embarrassment every word of their arrival interview. Vernon had been his usual blustering, bullying self – one of the things she'd learned about him was that he had no way of dealing with people other than trying to intimidate them.
The young man at the reception desk had waited patiently while Vernon vented his spleen then fixed him with a steady gaze.
'Well now, I'm pleased that you feel able to express yourself so freely, Mr Dursley, but there are one or two things I think it might be helpful to clarify.'
'Firstly, I am not, as you so eloquently put it, a jumped-up Australian weirdo. I am, in fact, a jumped-up Australian wizard, and if you're unsure why that's an important distinction, I'd be happy to provide a demonstration that will leave you in no doubt whatsoever.'
'Secondly, whatever they may have told you back in pommie land, you are not here for your own protection. You are here for the protection of Mr Harry Potter and the security of the Order of the Phoenix, both of which are a great deal more important than you are.'
'And finally, I note your intention to leave here whenever you damn well please. No‑one will try to stop you, Mr Dursley, but you might want to cast an eye beyond the perimeter fence. That is what we call the outback; it's basically desert. You are several hundred miles from anything approaching civilisation, and it is unlikely that you would survive out there on your own for more than twenty-four hours. Don't expect us to be out looking for you.'
There'd been a hundred or so people, wizards, witches, Muggles and squibs at the camp, a remote facility built by the British for testing missiles and now long disused. Many of them had narrowly escaped incarceration, or worse, at the hands of Death Eaters and as people do in such circumstances, they'd mucked in together. A combination of magic, Muggle technology and hard labour had turned the complex into a reasonably comfortable, if not exactly luxurious, home for the duration – however long that might turn out to be.
Even Vernon had grudgingly lent a hand with tasks that he could see would benefit him personally. He learned the hard way that witches and wizards, by and large, were immune to bullying, at least by a loud, pompous Muggle. Eventually, he spent most of his time in the company of a small group of similarly minded misanthropes, criticising everybody else's efforts and complaining that the hosts couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery.
Petunia had been amused to discover that Vernon and his cronies were known to the younger element as the "BOFs", or Boring Old Farts, and were regarded as vaguely comical if entirely irrelevant. Despite the BOFs' many misgivings, the camp and its community mostly worked pretty well.
Dudley, who had been taking his boxing training quite seriously before they'd left, was fit and as strong as an ox. He'd got stuck in and pulled his weight, and had made friends among a group of teenagers from a mix of Muggle and wizarding backgrounds. When the work had been done they'd spent much of their time at the gym or in the pool, keeping fit and organising competitions among themselves to fill their time. The Muggles generally beat the wizards in straight swimming competitions, although the wizards regularly triumphed at water polo, despite mutterings from the opposition that the ball sometimes didn't seem to obey the laws of physics.
They were an altogether more agreeable crowd, thought Petunia, than Dudley's friends back in Little Whinging. There was a pleasant Muggle girl, too, that she'd noticed Dudley chatting to, although nothing had eventually come of it. Pity, she'd have been a much better prospect than that skinny wretch he'd taken up with at home.
On a couple of occasions, Petunia had caught Dudley reading a book.
Petunia herself had helped out with cooking and cleaning, until an opportunity arose to get involved in the education of the younger children. Magic or Muggle, they all needed to learn how to read, write and count.
She'd made friends of her own, too, and there'd been a man of about her own age, a squib but quite a charming man, who'd shown a definite interest in her. She hadn't allowed it to go anywhere – however she felt about Vernon, she was still a married woman – but it had given her a confidence she'd not felt in years and she'd begun to take rather more trouble over her appearance.
There had been a couple of days of ecstatic celebration when, early in May, they'd got the news that the Dark Lord was gone – destroyed at the hand of Harry Potter – and people had started to talk excitedly of going home. The Ministry back home, however, had priorities of its own in the aftermath of the final battle and it was well into July before, with a group of about twenty, the Dursleys had been conducted via a series of Portkeys back to the United Kingdom.
A young couple from the Ministry, picked as they proudly told Petunia by Mr Potter himself, had carried out the final side-along Apparation directly into No 4 Privet Drive. On arrival, they'd handed Vernon a letter from the Ministry. During the Dursleys' absence, the letter said, the Order had kept an eye on the property and made sure that the mortgage and utility bills were paid. Unfortunately they hadn't been able to do anything about Mr Dursley's job at Grunnings, but they were sure that a man of his undoubted talents would soon find alternative employment.
Shortly after the two had left, and somewhat to Petunia's surprise, Harry himself had Apparated directly into the kitchen, with a companion. He looked older, much older, and worn, but seemed physically well and spoke with an air of quiet authority. Petunia recognised his companion as the young Weasley girl she'd glimpsed once or twice at King's Cross, older too but fresh and undeniably pretty. It was plain from the body language they were friends and not colleagues.
'Everything all right?' Harry looked enquiringly at Petunia.
'It's all fine – much better than I thought it would be.'
'Good. Vernon not here?'
'He's gone to the bank.'
'Right. If you don't mind, I'll take a quick look round just to make sure they've done what I asked.' Harry headed off up the stairs, leaving the women alone in the kitchen.
Petunia spoke first. 'Ginny isn't it? Ginny Weasley?'
'Ginevra.' She glanced upwards to where Harry could be heard moving about. 'He thinks he owes you. Because you took him in.' It was clear from her tone that she didn't agree.
'We're very grateful for what he's done.'
'You should be.' Ginny looked Petunia in the eye, and Petunia knew this was not a young woman she wanted as an enemy.
'Are you his girlfriend?'
Before Ginny could reply, Harry came back into the kitchen. 'It all looks okay, so if you're happy we'll be on our way. Oh, by the way, the car's been serviced.'
'Thank you. Vernon was surprised it started first time.'
'We'll leave you to it then.' Harry reached out for Ginny's hand, and with a loud crack they were gone.
A few minutes later Petunia heard the car pulling into the drive. She knew what she had to do. She had decided before leaving Australia that, whatever the future might hold for her, it didn't include returning to life as Mrs Vernon Dursley.
It was time to confront Vernon.
Dudley strode down the road from the park gates and turned into Magnolia Crescent. He wasn't sure why he'd even bothered with the park. Like him, his old mates would have turned eighteen and left school. One or two might have found jobs, he reflected, but others would have little ambition beyond the dole, probably supplemented by a little light burglary. Either way, they wouldn't be likely to hang around in the park during the day. And he wasn't all that sure he wanted to meet up with them, anyway.
As he approached the alleyway that led through to Wisteria Walk, and was the shortest way home, he felt a chill run down his spine. He hadn't walked that way since those things had attacked him and Harry.
Come on Dudley, they're not "things"! Well, all right, they are "things" – but they have a name. They're Dementors, and they're all safely back where they belong at that wizard prison. There aren't any in Little Whinging. Not any more.
Some ghosts had to be laid to rest, and this was one of them. He turned into the alleyway. The temperature fell as he stepped out of the sunlight; his heart thumped and beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He quickened his pace, staring straight ahead.
If you don't do this now, you'll never walk down here again.
The alleyway was no more than fifty yards, but it seemed much, much longer. As recollections of helpless terror came flooding back, Dudley fought the urge to run. Exerting every possible ounce of self control he reached the halfway point, tense, shivering and bathed in sweat.
No point in turning back now. Just keep going. Don't look back. Don't run.
After what seemed like a lifetime he got to the end of the alleyway, stepped back into the sunlight and turned into Wisteria Walk. The sense of relief was overwhelming, and he knew well enough that much of the sweat pouring out of him was down to naked fear, not just exertion.
His pulse steadying, he started to head for home.
He stopped and turned at the sound of his name.
'Hi, Trace.' A thin young woman with straggly blonde hair and a pushchair was crossing the road behind him.
'I didn't know you were back. In fact, I never knew you were going. I heard you went abroad somewhere?'
'Er, yeah, sorry about that. It was all a bit sudden. Didn't really have a chance to tell people.'
Tracey raised a somewhat disbelieving eyebrow. 'You back to stay now?'
'Yeah, I think so.' Dudley eyed the sticky child in the pushchair. 'And who's this little feller?'
'This little "feller", Dudley Dursley, is a girl. Her name's Shelley, and she's five months old. And she's mine.'
'Sorry, they all look the same at that age. So who are you with now, then, Trace?'
'I'm not with anyone.'
'Oh, that's too bad.' Dudley paused as pennies began to drop. 'Hang on … five months … nine months … fourteen months.' Dudley paled and looked Tracey in the eye. 'Bloody hell…'
'Figured it out, have you? That's why I'm on my own. By the time it was obvious you weren't coming back, this little one was starting to show. There weren't many lads queuing up to take on Dudley's ex, not with a bun in the oven.'
'Christ, Tracey, I had no idea.'
'Well you wouldn't have, would you, what with disappearing off the face of the Earth and all.'
'No. Bloody hell. What—'
'Don't worry, I won't be getting the Child Support Agency on to you or nothing. We manage all right on what I get from the social. You can call round, though, if you want to get to know her.'
'Er, yeah … I might do that, Trace. Where—?'
'I'm still at my mum's in Jubilee Gardens. I could've had one of them council flats in a tower block, but they're dead grotty. And anyway, Mum looks after her some of the time so I get a break.'
'Right, well then—'
'See you around, Dud.' Tracey turned her pushchair and headed off down the street. Dudley watched her go, wondering whether the day had any more shocks in store for him then set off once more for Privet Drive.
As he let himself in through the front door, he heard raised voices. They were still at it.
'This is my bloody house, Petunia. I've worked hard to pay for it, and there's no way you're getting me out of it!'
'It's our house, Vernon, and I'm not trying to cheat you out of anything. But I have nowhere else to go, and you could go and stay with Marge. It'll only be for a week or so while I get sorted. I don't think we can stay under the same roof.'
'You're damn right we can't. And you're the one who's walking out, so you can bloody well move out. In fact, I'm throwing you out, Petunia. Pack your bags!
'I don't think so.' Dudley stood squarely in front of his mother.
'This has got nothing to do with you, boy.' Vernon was going red in the face. 'And I'll thank you to mind your own business.'
'I think it is my business. And she's right. She's got nowhere to go and you could stay with your sister, so that what's going to happen. And don't call me "boy".'
Vernon was verging on apoplexy. 'You can't tell me—'
Dudley drew himself up to his full height and took a step towards his father. 'I think I probably can….'
Later that evening, after Vernon had packed his belongings and taken the car, Dudley and Petunia sat in the lounge. The television in the corner was on, but no-one was watching.
'You're very quiet, Dudley.'
'I've been thinking.'
'I'm sorry, I know this is difficult for you. Thanks for standing up for me.'
'That's all right. It's time someone stood up to him.'
'What will you do now?'
'I'll stay here for a while, see what turns up. If he doesn't like it, he can lump it. What about you, though, Mum?'
'I've got a bit put by that I've saved out of the housekeeping over the years. It'll pay for a few week's rent on a small flat and keep me off the breadline while I find a job.'
'What sort of job?'
'I can do shop work or office work. I'll try one of the temping agencies to start with. Offices have computers and things nowadays, though. Perhaps I should get myself on a course at the college.'
'Did you work before you were married?'
'Of course I did. I was a secretary before I met your father.'
'Are you going to see that squib bloke from the camp — what was his name, Arnold?'
'Arnold Mason?' Petunia blushed a little. 'Why would I want to see him?'
'I'm not stupid, Mum. I know you flirted with him. And I saw him looking at you a few times, too.'
'Did you, indeed? No, I won't be asking another man to rescue me. But who knows, maybe when I'm settled with a job and a flat….' She looked straight at Dudley. 'He's not the reason I'm leaving your father.'
'I know. I've seen Dad a bit differently since we went away. I've wondered a few times why you ever married him.'
Petunia returned Dudley's gaze. 'Have you really never worked it out, Dudley?'
'Worked what out?'
'Your birthday … our wedding anniversary. Come on, Dud, it's not rocket science.'
'What? You mean you were—?'
'Yes, I was pregnant.'
'So you never really loved him anyway?'
'I thought I did; he was different when he was younger. Oh, he always had it in him to be a bully, but I used to stand up to him. Somehow I never did that after we were married — things might have been different if I had. And I should have gone back to work when you started school, too. I wanted to, but your father wouldn't hear of it.'
'Give your father credit, though, Dudley — he stood by me. Plenty of lads wouldn't have done. I knew girls who were left with babies to bring up on their own; it wasn't much of a life.'
Dudley seemed lost in thought for several minutes. 'Mum, will you be all right on your own for an hour or two?'
'Of course I will, I'm not an invalid. Don't worry, your father won't be back. Why, is there somewhere you want to go?'
'Yeah, well, someone I should go to see, in Jubilee Gardens. Someone I met this afternoon. I ought to call round.'