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Villain of the Piece

Part 2  Youthful Indiscretions

- Chapter  19 -

Chapter 19:   Nobody’s Perfect

Early June 1978

As sat in his office leafing back through the monthly reports, Elton Vance was trying to recall the exact moment when he had started to worry about Severus.  For worry he did – Trainee Healer Snape was as much a puzzle as Trainer Healer Stevens had turned out to be.  What was it about these Slytherins that made them so unfathomable?

Most of Elton’s trainees were ex-Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff students, but from the 1975 Hogwarts leavers he had taken one ex-Slytherin – Cheryl Stevens, and from the 1977 leavers he had gladly snapped up another – Potions Prize Winner, Severus Snape.  And in between times he had recruited a boy from Beauxbaton, an Englishman by the name of Osbert Slinkhard.  All the new trainees had got off to a flying start, and yet in the fullness of time they had all given Elton cause for concern.

Cheryl had been gifted and conscientious, yet she had stayed barely two years.  She had qualified, upped and left, making her ‘escape’ – for that was what it felt like – while he was on holiday, and she had given no plausible reason for leaving.  It had been a shock to return and find her gone.  No exit interview had been carried out in his absence and Elton was furious about that.  He tried to trace Cheryl but was unsuccessful.  And in a moment of irrational panic he ordered a stock-take of the potions stores, and recommended that the auditors be called in to run additional checks on the accounts, cursing himself all the while for suspecting Cheryl, on absolutely no evidence, of some theft or fraud.

In Elton’s opinion Osbert Slinkhard had never been of Cheryl’s calibre, but he was intelligent and well qualified, and certainly merited the initial selection.  Yet soon there were indications that his enthusiasm was directed more towards the camera he had bought with his first few months pay than towards Healership.  Yes, sadly Osbert was proving to be nowhere near as keen as Cheryl, and this was the problem that Elton now had to face.

And Severus Snape, the 1976 prize-winner whom Elton had been so eager to employ, was, if possible, too keen.  Too intense – to the point of creepiness.  Elton had come to suspect that Severus had no genuine depth of concern for the patients’ experiences.  Technically he was brilliant.  But being attended by Healer Snape might be like being diagnosed by an authoritarian machine.  Or so Elton feared.  So he had decided to keep both the remaining trainees under very close scrutiny and for entirely different reasons.  Exactly when he had resolved to do that he wasn’t quite sure, but monthly progress reports made by the Healers raised continual questions about Severus.

He was quick to act / he was slow to act.

He was focussed / his mind was elsewhere.

He was attentive / he was distant.

He was knowledgeable–

Yes they were all agreed on that, Severus was knowledgeable and increasingly so.  He loved to learn and he loved to show what he knew.  Was that the same as being conscientious?  It certainly didn’t feel like it.

And he couldn’t be all the other things, could he?  It was as if two Snapes lived in the house that was Severus Snape – one ‘present’ and one ‘absent’.  Sometimes, for odd moments, he was literally absent – almost all the Healers had noticed such incidents.

It was not the same with Osbert.  Osbert was much more understandable – a clear case of ‘he doesn’t want to be here’; it’s merely a job, not a vocation.  But Severus had that subtle air of ‘other agenda’ that now recalled shades of Cheryl to Elton’s mind.  Why would someone as conscientious as Severus and so keen to parade his abilities, run any risk of accusations of negligence?

“Slytherins!” Elton concluded.  “That’s how they are.  Complicated.  Mysterious.  But I can’t overlook this – not indefinitely, not with all the Healers flagging it up.  I’ll have to get to the bottom of it somehow.  Anyway, let’s tackle Osbert first.”

So the formidable Miss E Butler was instructed to call Osbert to his office, and there Elton subjected him to a thorough dressing down.  Eventually Osbert admitted that Healership was not his choice of occupation; it was his father’s.  His real ambition was to be a newspaper photographer.  The row subsided into a frank discussion about Osbert’s career and he agreed to hand in his notice and leave on amicable terms.

“Very well” Elton concluded, “I understand now.  This explains many things.  I wish you’d been straight with me earlier.  By all means work the month’s notice, but if meantime you get a job offer let me know because I see little point in holding you to the month.  But do work, Osbert!  I’m not going to pay you for idling and dreaming.  You can assist Gabriel in the Dispensary.  Agreed?”

“Okay, sir” Osbert agreed.  “And thanks – I doubt my father will take it so well.”

“Okay.  Run along” Elton said.  “Oh, I almost forgot to ask” he added, causing Osbert to stop and turn.  “You are well again, I take it.  You got over that bug?”

“The stomach upset?  Oh, yeah!” Osbert said happily.  “Think it might have been the canteen pasty … Hey, while I was off, sir, did you have my locker checked, only someone’s used my camera.”

Elton looked bemused.  No one had made such intrusive checks since the previous August when he had followed up his suspicions about Cheryl, so he made it clear to Osbert that he had authorised no such thing.  Osbert refused to say how he knew his camera had been fiddled with but he was adamant that it had been, and that it had happened at odd times in the recent past.  And Elton was adamant that staff lockers are never pried into unless a member of staff is under suspicion.  Osbert seemed content with this but as he turned again to leave Elton put a further question.

“Your camera – is there a film in it?”

“Not at the moment, sir.  I was just about to reload it.  I’m taking it home anyway; would have done last week if that pasty hadn’t floored me.  No point in keeping it hidden now … Is something wrong?  Why did you want to know about film?”

Elton was thinking furiously.  He looked a little awkward.  “Osbert” he said, “Can I ask you to do something, without telling you why I want you to do it?”

“Depends … nothing illegal–”

“Goodness me, no!  I just want you to leave your camera in the locker and go off sick again.  Right now, this very moment.  And leave your locker absolutely untouched.  Come back next Monday.  If anything happens to the camera I’ll replace it.”

“But–”

“You have my word on that.”

Osbert agreed – he knew he could trust Elton.  When he was gone Elton checked Severus’s work programme and spoke at length to a Healer on the third floor.

 

The work programme didn’t have to be changed – Severus was due to be working on the third floor the following day, and because of a sudden emergency he found himself all alone with a most interesting case – a little witch of about ninety who had been given a poison that mimicked the effects of a Dementor attack.  Vital signs showed that the witch was alive and fighting to survive, but she had the outward appearance of being dead.  She had been carried in slumped over, still clutching her gardening trowel, the dregs of a green liquid seeping from her mouth; and had been hastily laid on an examination table.  No one knew her name but an identity bracelet bore the name Phoebe.  Severus was ordered to get a range of standard emergency antidotes and he hurried down to the Apothecary Lab, scribbling a list as he went.  He also handed over a sample of the witch’s saliva which was in a glass phial with a note secured to it.

“That’s for urgent analysis” he said.  “It’s some kind of dementation draught.”

Gabriel passed it on, and took his list of antidotes.  “You want all these?” he wheezed.  “Blimey!  Okay.  Accio hellebore…”

“No Osbert today?” Severus enquired as he watched Gabriel summon potion bottles from the Laboratory shelves and scribble in a ledger.  In the distance Basil raised his head but continued to stir his cauldron, and Sheilagh remained intent on decanting a cobalt blue oily liquid into a row of phials.

“Osb’t?  Osb’t oo?” Gabriel scoffed.  “He’s not even bin ’ere, yet.  Went off sick agen.  Elton said ’e was still ill from before, but if yer ask me it coulda bin soming Elton said to ’im.  Really ’ammered ’im, I reckon.  Okay, I got all on yer list.  Use the Mandragora firs–”

“I do know that, thank you” Severus said acidly.

He signed the ledger page that Gabriel presented to him, took the tray of bottles and hurried away.

As he turned to head back, Severus could contain his excitement no longer – Osbert was not here; but if he went off in that much of a hurry maybe his neat little camera was still in his locker.

It took only seconds to detour to the locker room, open Osbert’s locker, and grab the camera.  Severus fitted his own film into it as he returned to the ward.  He didn’t even begin by calling the Healer-in-Charge or by trying to administer the first antidote himself; his mind was totally fixated on taking the photograph.  And he was poised, camera raised, when Elton and Basil appeared from nowhere to confront him.  There was little argument; his impressive technical ability counted for nothing – Severus was dismissed on the spot, and Elton advised him against an appeal to the management board.

 

Ex-Trainee Healer Snape found himself walking through the streets of London in something of a daze, his head reeling from the casual way he had thrown away his career.  Was this what Cheryl had done, he wondered?  But no, the word was she had chosen to leave.  What would they say about him?  His reputation in the field of Healership was in tatters.  Why hadn’t he been more careful?

“That old bitch, Payne, warned me against getting carried away” he muttered darkly.  “Years ago she said that, and it still applies.  You bloody idiot, Severus! … What can I do now?  I can’t go home – Mother will crucify me when she finds out I’ve lost my job.  When she finds out how I lost my job.  No, she mustn’t discover that … But no job – no income – I can’t stay at Flora’s without means to pay the rent.  I must have an occupation.  I need an introduction.”  He thought for a while and whispered “When in doubt – Lucius!”

When he Apparated in Wiltshire he found Lucius in an odd mood.  However Lucius sat Severus in the library, listened to the problem, and then left him with a liberal supply of Firewhisky.  He was gone for the better part of an hour and Severus began to wonder if Lucius had simply forgotten him because he seemed distracted and not really interested.  And Severus couldn’t blame him – if a friend had arrived out of the blue in a similar predicament he knew he would not have felt very sympathetic.

But suddenly Lucius was back and smiling his cold smile.

“Stay with us for a few days” he suggested.  “Narcissa wants you to have The Wedgwood Room.  It’s her latest creation.”

“Won’t your father mind?”

“Not at all.  Anyway, since my marriage he’s passed the house over to me” Lucius replied smoothly.  “But he wouldn’t object to you staying here.  Any friend of mine – etc, etc.”

The Wedgwood Room was one of the third floor guest rooms.  It was painted in a pale shade of powdery blue and with all the plaster decoration – cornice, freeze, ceiling lamp roses, and Robert Adam wall swags – picked out in white, so that it resembled a piece of pottery from the Staffordshire factory of Josiah Wedgwood.  The white French Empire furniture and frilly broderie-anglaise bed-linen added to the effect.  As he eased off his shoes and wiggled his toes into the pale blue Wilton, Severus decided that the room was too feminine for his taste but he also reminded himself that beggars cannot be choosers and the Wiltshire mansion was a useful bolt-hole.

Although he was worried about how he would ultimately break the news to his mother, an evening of being wined and dined and pampered by the Malfoys raised Severus’s spirits and the following day he set off for London again, carrying a piece of parchment on which was written Nobody’s Perfect, 93A Diagon Alley.  Lucius had arranged an interview at a mysterious establishment that he said was above a shop, and the nature of whose business he had refused to explain.  Severus didn’t like the name of the business – in fact had the parchment not borne a plausible address he would have thought Lucius was playing a cruel joke upon him.