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Villain of the Piece

Part 2  Youthful Indiscretions

- Chapter  18 -

 

Chapter 18:   Bedside Manners

Tuesday 2nd May 1978 and reminiscing about 15th Aug 1977 onwards

‘Chamber of Chaos’ was the Daily Prophet’s banner headline above a photograph of Wizengamot members shouting at one another and shaking fists.  ‘CPBS out for Blood’ began the paragraph below.  The newspaper article concerned a bitter row in the Council Chamber that erupted on the previous day – the culmination of successive months of nervousness about policies spearheaded by Bartemius Crouch.

At supper in Flora McGonagall’s shabby refectory Severus scanned the pages of the Prophet as he ate his soup.  He kept abreast of political events and enjoyed seeing how they were reported.  Possessing a measure of insider knowledge, it amused him to see how much the events and arguments could be twisted prior to ending up on the front page.

There had for a long time been a faction that called itself The Council for Pure-Blood Supremacy – the CPBS – but the main puppet masters behind the latest unrest were Lucius Malfoy and Augustus Rookwood who were putting pressure on certain Wizengamot members to work towards liberalisation of the law and bring about a return to what they called Old Wizarding Values.  Against them were the champions of the rather Stalinist Bartemius Crouch mindset.  And somewhere in the middle – or perhaps, more accurately, at the third corner of the triangle – were those who were horrified at the prospect of the loss of any liberal reforms (such as the call to decriminalise Muggle hunting) but were alarmed by Crouch’s harsh and arbitrary counter measures.

Behind it all lay the dark menace of Lord Voldemort.

But Severus knew nothing of Voldemort.  He was broadly in sympathy with what he understood of the aims of the CPBS but that was as far as it went, and he was in too much of a cosy rut to be bothered with politics.  His show of harmony with the CPBS had more to do with not upsetting Lucius.  And even Lucius, he suspected, would not disturb his comfortable life too much in the cause of Pure Blood Supremacy.

Severus smiled a small smile as he thought of his cosy rut.  No one could call Flora McGonagall’s boarding house cosy.  Nor was the life of a Trainee Healer, not on St Mungo’s salary scales.  No, currently Severus’s life was a hard one but full of challenges, and it had certain points of interest.  He had, for the present, all the novelty he needed.

He dipped a hunk of bread in his bowl and turned a page, following the story through the paper, skipping the articles on fashion and gossip.  A page about recent weddings had been torn out.  Well, he couldn’t complain – he hadn’t bought the newspaper; it had been discarded by another border.

“How’s the soup?” a gruff voice said as a wizard sat down on the opposite bench.

“Very, err, ‘red’ ” Severus replied, looking down into the muddy but tasty red-brown dregs.  “Nourishing, though” he added, wiping out his bowl with the last of his bread. “We’ll not be at risk of anaemia after this.  I suspect she’s recycled all the black pudding leftovers from breakfast time.”

Jimmy Hardcastle gave a harsh laugh, bent to his own supper and from then on they ate, as was usually the case, in a comfortable silence.

Jimmy was one of the few wizards to whom Severus would make a point of chatting.  He worked as an Obliviator at the Ministry and lodged in the room next to Severus.  He was a tough, no frills type of man from somewhere in the north, but the two wizards didn’t discuss their origins; their conversations were forward-looking and limited to practicalities – the cost of living, current events, and, occasionally, women.

The Camden boarding house was Severus’s solution to being able to live in London on the meagre pay of a Trainee Healer.  He had quickly added to this survival strategy by stocking up on Flora’s generous full Scottish breakfasts – which was a meal included in the rent for the room – and then packing away as much lunch as possible from the hospital canteen.  During his first week at Flora’s, Severus had paid extra for supper but Jimmy warned him that so called ‘full suppers’ were often not good value, it was better to opt only for soup.  This Severus did, bulking it up with bread rolls cunningly salvaged from his canteen lunches at work.

He spent most of his free evenings alone in his room, working on a file of medical notes, and going down to the refectory at ten o’clock for the late night soup allocation and to pass the time of day with the other young witches and wizards who boarded at Flora’s.  Apart from Jimmy he didn’t have much to say to them but he liked to tune in to any gossip.  Most of the boarders were like himself, relatively penniless, a long way from home, and taking their first steps on their respective career paths.  Some worked at St Mungo’s but most were with the Ministry, some with Gringotts, and a few were employed in shops in the magical Alleys.  None of them stayed long at Flora’s and Severus suspected he would make no useful contacts among them.

The Malfoys’ mansion was in Severus’s opinion the place for useful contacts.  He had never let go of his friendship with Lucius even though he didn’t understand why Lucius was at pains to keep in touch.  Visits to the Wiltshire mansion were like holidays – Severus could enjoy good food and wine, and comfortable surroundings.  Gone were the days when he had to stay in The Lodge.  Now he was given bedrooms such as the Chinese Room, hung with pale silk embroidered with the flat, sharp, beautifully detailed representations of trees, birds, and dragons.

Apart from playing the county gentleman Lucius’s main preoccupation seemed to be fathering a son and heir.  So far he had been unsuccessful, Narcissa had miscarried only weeks into her first pregnancy.  She looked pale and thin.  Had Severus wanted children he would not have chosen Narcissa to produce them.  But Lucius has this pure-blood obsession, Severus reminded himself; and Narcissa is a daughter of the noble house of Black.  Oh well, Lucius, as you make your bed, so you must lie on it.  Or, at least, poor pale Narcissa must.

It was thanks to Lucius that quite by chance Severus kept in touch with his old school friends, Evan, Amycus and Xavier, as well as Balantyne, and also Regulus and Johnny who were still at school.  If he could not understand why he was invited to the Malfoy soirees it was even less understandable in the case of Amycus and Xavier.  They had nothing by way of intelligent conversation, and no status or personal wealth equivalent to the Malfoys.  Perhaps that was the attraction, he wondered; perhaps Lucius liked to show off.  Apart from seeing them in Wiltshire, Severus didn’t keep in touch with any of his old schoolfellows.  Their lives had diverged and he assumed that aside from political opinions, they continued to have no interests in common.

He was far more interested in other contacts at the Malfoys’.  Narcissa and Lucius were fond of entertaining and their guest list often included businessmen, writers, retired schoolteachers, Wizengamot members past and present, and even the Minister or some of his Departmental Heads.  It was well worth roving around with a glass of wine and latching on to conversations.  One could meet some extraordinary people.

In this respect Severus’s humble origins were not the stumbling block he once feared, perhaps because he was not a man to encourage personal questions.  Most people were content to prate about themselves, but if anyone made a direct personal enquiry such as “And where do you come from” he would reply “On the Yorkshire-Lancashire borders – a little place – you won’t have heard of it” and if asked “What line of business is your father in” he would reply “He dealt in silks – he’s dead now” and that, coupled with the disquieting way he could say it, was usually enough to cause the conversation to jump to another track.  At most parties he carried his wine around almost untasted much of the time; he liked to keep a clear head.

Sunday night had been different though, he had to admit.  He had not been invited to this party.  A house-elf had sought him out with a message from Lucius.  Narcissa was again in the early weeks of pregnancy and was suffering repeatedly from sickness and headaches – could he help?

And of course he could.  And if Lucius had sent his elf rather than a message by owl, matters must be urgent…

Severus had returned with the elf to Wiltshire and found Narcissa sitting up in bed, a worried Lucius pacing about as though she was already in labour, and out in the grounds a gaggle of guests drinking wine and spit-roasting carcases of new-season lamb.  Why have a party now, he had wondered?

But it was not true to say that this was a large gathering – this was not the normal kind of event to which Lucius habitually played host.  This had the feeling of being a select brotherhood, in fact most of the guests were male, and all were masked and dressed in black.

Half an hour in the kitchen was all that Severus needed to adapt the standard Slugg & Jiggers Morning Sickness Potion into something more suitable for Narcissa.  He also made subtle changes to their standard headache cure, and Narcissa soon reported feeling better.

“You’d better see a medic if the headaches persist” he advised gravely.  “Get your blood pressure monitored.  Don’t run the risk of pre-eclampsia.”

“We are indebted to you, Severus” Lucius said with unusual sincerity.  Then he took him aside and added “As you know, we lost the first baby.  We will be forever in your debt if you can help us through this.  St Mungo’s are not much help in this respect.”

“Who have you been seeing?” Severus asked, and was given the name of a well-respected Healer who specialised in contagious maladies.  “That’s no good” he pointed out.  “Not his area of expertise at all!”

“We know that” Lucius replied, sounding rather desperate.  “This is a problem that no Healer seems to be able to solve.  The old wizard bloodlines are under threat.  Each year our numbers grow fewer.  All the pure-blood families are related; at this rate we will soon be marrying our first cousins!  Then we really will be in trouble.”

“Then the answer is to marry wider.”

“Yes, I know that!” Lucius hissed.  “But the day I sully my blood…  Well – let’s just say that things have not yet got to that sorry state!  Anyhow, enough of my problems.   Why not stay and join our little feast?  We are all friends together tonight.  First names only.”

So Severus had stayed, and had amused himself by working out the identities of the masked guests.  He recognised several almost at once or within a very short time – Rhodolphus, Ferdinand, Balantyne, Bellatrix.  Many of the names echoed from his school days.  Others names did not.  Nor did he learn them all.  Sometimes he got the impression – it was not so much an impression, more a guess – that there was a group within a group and this select gathering.

All in all, it had been an odd kind of party…

The soup consumed and the Daily Prophet read, Severus decided to head for bed.

“Would you like this?” he asked, indicating the newspaper.

“No thanks.  Read it, tea-time” Jimmy replied.

“Tea-time?” Severus scoffed.  “You do have it cushy at the Ministry.  We don’t get tea breaks long enough for that.”

“Nor do we, normally” Jimmy growled, “But I didn’t get any lunch.  Someone – can’t say who – made a right dog’s breakfast o’ summat.  Took us ages to sort it.  If she does that again, she’s out.”

Leaving the newspaper on the table, Severus bade Jimmy goodnight and a short while later was tucked up in bed.

For a while he thought of Lucius and Narcissa.  Poor Narcissa had now also lost the second baby and he wondered how she was faring.  Lucius had said her reaction was always to redecorate the guest bedrooms; thinking up new designs was her therapy.

Then he wondered who the Obliviator was who had caused Jimmy Hardcastle to have such a bad day.  He didn’t envy Jimmy’s job.  At times it could be well paid, and at times it was exciting, but sometimes it was a thankless mess.  It didn’t carry the status of Healership and the hours were dreadful.  There was a three-shift rota and everyone was supposed to take a turn at night work.  Bonuses were paid if the situation turned sour, requiring extra hours to be worked.

St Mungo’s was also subject to emergencies but there were more people to cover, and it had the comfort of being in a secure wizard building.  Severus was not so keen on sorting out problems while exposed in the world of Muggles.

But shift work was also true of some of the St Mungo’s regular jobs.  Honor worked unsocial hours so apart from glimpsing her beavering away in the depths of the Analytical Laboratory, Severus hardly ever saw her.  Their meal breaks rarely coincided.  It was a pity – he would have welcomed an occasional chat with an old school friend.  During most of his breaks he was forced to socialise with Honor’s colleague Sheilagh Butler, or with Osbert Slinkhard, a fellow trainee one year in advance of himself and whom he cordially detested.  Osbert reminded him of James Potter.  He had – in Severus’s opinion – the same ready smile, and the same inability to take anything seriously.  He even had a shock of untidy black hair.  The big difference was the eyes which were dark brown rather than hazel like James Potter’s.  But they were merry and bright eyes, not black, fathomless pools like Severus’s own.  Osbert was one of life’s happy-go-lucky, easy charmers who had little passion for his work.

“I bet he was a wow on the Quidditch pitch” Severus grumbled, “If they play Quidditch at that old school of his.  Oh, Cheryl; why did you have to leave?  Why is Honor there but never there?  Why is Sheilagh Butler too old and too much of a bitch?  Why am I too poor to have interesting women in my life?”

Yet despite the odd moment of panic he had to admit that the past 8˝ months had been good.  Severus smiled, now, about all but one of those scary moments.  There was just one that caused him pain, so he did what he always did – pushed it to the back of his mind and slammed the door on it.  He lay in his bed, remembering, drifting asleep, and looking forward to his first annual assessment at St Mungo’s which would be taking place in June…

His contract had started in mid August when Elton Vance the Training Co-Ordinator had returned from his summer holiday.  That in Severus’s opinion had been a poor reason to delay taking him on, but Vance was like that – he was a renowned Healer with family connections among the hospital management and he wielded a lot of power.  And his secretary – an adept Irish witch by the name of Miss E Butler – skilfully shielded Vance from interference by mere staff and prospective staff.

So from mid August, and dressed in his lime green robe, Trainee Healer Snape worked dutifully from ward to ward, witnessing the effects of poisonings and badly applied spells, and learning how to remedy them.  It was one thing to read about poisons in a book and write school essays about antidotes, quite another thing to have to cure real people.  And patient reactions were not uniform, some could put up a fight against relatively large doses of a poison, others would buckle at a trace.  But why?  From quite early on Severus thought in terms of compiling a project and even of publishing his own textbook.  And with that in mind he began to keep notes.  Extensive notes.  And to keep his eyes open for unusual situations.

Severus was also entranced by the unusual hexes and curses people might suffer, and by potions that could mimic them.  How intriguing to be able to feed someone a substance that would reproduce the Cruciatus Curse, without having to contend with the risk of wand evidence.

Inevitably Severus could not go through life at St Mungo’s without coming across people he knew.  One of his early encounters was with a girl he had once asked out on a date – none other than the beautiful Gundrada Lufkin who, as she proudly explained to him, was soon to become Gundrada Stump.  She worked as an heraldic designer in an obscure branch of the Ministry that controlled the use of heraldic devices, and she had received a serious injury from handling a cursed caudle cup.  When, as a fairly new trainee, he arrived to witness her diagnosis there was initially some embarrassment which Severus put down to her being confronted by a male Healer who was an old school acquaintance, but he found he was wrong about that.  He also noticed that he no longer much cared for her.  She was beautiful but that was all; she had no special power of attraction over him.

With the diagnosis done the Healer-in-Charge left Severus to complete his notes.  Gundrada eyed him carefully.  Clearly she had something to say.

“Severus” she began, “I’d just like to say how sorry I am for that silly Love Potion trick we played at school.”

“Oh that” he replied silkily.  “Think nothing of it.  Witches ply me with Love Potions all the time.  I have to beat them off.  It’s such a bore.”

“It’s good of you to take it so well” she said, giving him a rueful grin, “But never mind.  I’m going to make it up to you.  I’ve been designing some presents for my friends in my spare time at work and there’s no need for you to miss out.  Now, what would you like?  Silver napkin rings?  Or a set of goblets?”

Momentarily Severus was dumbstruck – what was she talking about?

“You look lost for words” she told him.  “Shall I choose for you?”

“Err–”  His forehead creased into a frown and then a horrible suspicion dawned in his mind.  “There is really no need–” he began.

But Gundrada was adamant.  She promised that when she got back to work she would look up his family tree, check the Snape coat-of-arms and come up with something special.  Severus could not dissuade her.  He went away in a barely concealed rage, muttering darkly about Forgetfulness Potions.

After that things ran smoothly again.  But only for a while.

Although normally conscientious, Severus had been deliberately avoiding one of the most mundane jobs, but not many months went by before Vance noticed and he made a point of telling Severus that he must play his part.  It was a simple a matter of tidying up the patient records; a trivial and boring administrative job – too lowly in Severus’s opinion to befit a trainee professional.  But Vance pointed out that useful medical insights could be gleaned from patient records and it was a privilege to be permitted to see such confidential data.

The records were kept on cards and were often consulted in a hurry and replaced with insufficient care, the cards of former patients even getting mixed up with current ones.  Confusion of identity also led to misfiling, especially if the malady was related to a transformation of physical appearance, so the need to restore the records to good order had medical implications, as Severus well knew.  Realising he could no longer escape this, he did his share as he worked his way from ward to ward.  And he made sure, too, that he read the cards thoroughly – he didn’t want to endure this tedious job without some profit from it.

It was on the fourth floor that he found her.  The card said ‘incorrectly or maliciously applied Obliviate spell’ and in the rectangle that held the patient’s name was printed ‘Felicity Gardiner – Muggle-born witch’ in neat, purple capitals.

It was a jolt to see her name.  The date of discharge was less than three years ago.  Severus knew that Felicity had returned home from Hogwarts and had been sent to a Muggle Special School, but he was surprised to see that she was still being treated at St Mungo’s of all places, and for two years after she left Hogwarts.  He had to fight an impulse to remove the card from the fourth floor record centre and take it to the third floor, saying “Who misdiagnosed this?  It wasn’t spell damage, it was a concentrated Forgetfulness Potion that the patient drank of her own free will, believing it to be a rare herbal tea”.  But of course he could not say anything of the kind – not without incriminating himself.  He transferred the card to the discharged patients’ cabinet and tried to put Felicity out of his mind.

And now, several months on, Severus had put Felicity out of his mind.  Instead he was thinking about his annual assessment and his first pay rise.  He would be part qualified; the pay and status of Healership marching closer all the time.

He expected to do well in the assessment because whenever he had been called upon to perform treatments or to obtain potions he had done so promptly and without mistake.  True he had delayed taking action once or twice, because of private reasons, but he had been careful about those ‘lapses’ and surely the Healers had not noticed anything.  He had also offered help to one or two witches who were in a state of anxiety over their medical conditions or because of other problems in their lives.  But again, those delicate matters were private – any examinations or advice had been kept highly confidential.

I know how to keep things under my hat, he said to himself.  And anyway St Mungo’s is about healing – so why shouldn’t I offer to help distressed ladies?  And as for the occasional small delays – well, who suffered?  Anyway, nobody knows about those.  I’ve already impressed the Malfoys.  Now I’m all set to make my mark here.  Or at least to have it recognised.  Mother will continue to be proud of me.  And I wonder how she is doing with her latest romance?

His mother, Eileen Snape, had been going out with a metal charmer from Sheffield for some years but that relationship seemed to be going nowhere.  However she had given up tealeaf reading and it was rare, these days, that Muggles came to the door of 42 Spinner’s End.  She had made it clear that Severus could Apparate home as often as he pleased, but he rarely went home, even though food was always available to him and his bedroom kept ready for his use.  During his late teenage years when he had been immersed in schoolwork, Eileen had built herself a new life and he now felt awkward about blundering into it.  So unless specifically invited, his visits home were usually limited to Christmas, Easter, Eileen’s birthday, and Mother’s Day.

- Chapter  19 -