On Your Marks
I met my husband when I was 11 years old. That is, I met the boy who would grow to be the man I would marry, as well as the …. No, again.
I met Malcolm and Richard when I was 11 years old. The train had finally arrived at its terminus and we were standing on the platform, huddled in a herd of first-year students, waiting for the biggest man I had ever seen to lead us to wherever we were going. I found myself with two boys straggling behind the herd.
One was tall and skinny, his strait blond hair carefully parted on the left and combed into a perfectly smooth and precisely arranged cut. He had brown eyes that were wide with wonder—and some fear. Clearly Muggle-born, and unsure about a world he hadn’t known existed just a few weeks ago.
Next to him was a shorter, stockier boy with a riot of brown curls that swept back from his forehead and just touching the collar of his shirt. There was one stray lock that poked forward and dangled in front of his right eye. He would often brush it away, with what I would come to know as a characteristic gesture. His eyes were a pale blue that on another face might seem piercing or cold, but on his displayed a shy warmth. He was also trying to take in a new universe that had ceased to be invisible to him, but with a cautious delight and growing eagerness. He was certainly Muggle-born as well, but leaning toward whatever was coming.
At our shepherd’s command we shuffled along, with a few bleats of concern from among our number, to a lakeside dock where several small boats were tied. We were instructed to break into smaller groups and get in the boats, which most of the lambs began to do. The three of us were still at the back of the group, and as it inched forward I noticed that the blond boy had come to a dead stop. The curly-haired boy noticed me looking and turned back to him as well. The blonde’s eyes were now filled with terror.
“Are you OK?” He asked the blond boy with a rich highland accent.
The blond answered in a low flat voice, hardly above a whisper, “I can’t get in a boat.” The second boy hesitated for just a moment, then walked over and took the blonde’s right hand in his left.
“Oh, it’s a fine night, and the lake is smooth as a sheet of ice. The two of us will sit on each side of you and we will glide along easy as can be.” He looked at me with a pleading eye. “Won’t we then?”
Of all the things one might expect an 11 year-old male to do at such a moment, this was the last. There was no mocking or guile in his voice, no self-consciousness in his manner, nor hesitation in his action. The blond needed help, so he was giving it.
That’s when I knew I was going to marry him.
“Of course,” I said with rather more confidence in my voice than I had in my gut. I joined them, and took the blond boy’s left hand. “I’m Jordan Denbeigh.”
The brunette smiled, his eyes actually twinkled, “Malcolm Ramsay.”
“Richard...Richard...Richard Weston.” He slowly forced his gaze from the dock to us. “Water is…boats…I can’t swim…I’m afraid….”
“You can hold our hands, and close your eyes, and we’ll just have a chat until it’s over.” Malcolm was matter-of-fact.
“We better go now, everyone else is ready to leave,” I said, and started to where the rest of our year was waiting for us. Richard had a vice-like grip on my hand, and I noticed Malcolm trying to loosen his hold and restore circulation. We managed to get to the dock and get ourselves into the boat. We wedged ourselves onto the same seat, if Richard hadn’t have been so slender it never would have worked.
At the big man's command the tiny boats, each with its own lantern casting a halo of light on the dark lake, began to glide towards the battlements of the school. Malcolm kept a soft and steady stream of words flowing throughout the journey. He talked about dark of the night and how the lights of the boats seeming to float in the air through the darkness. He asked me if I had heard of Hogwarts before, and what I thought classes would be like compared to our old schools.
I told them I had never been to a school before, but had been tutored at home.
Richard kept his eyes closed and seemed to be counting to himself. Malcolm hesitated,
“Is your family...”
“Wizards. My parents, well, they didn’t want me in school with Muggles. Some Wizard families are, ah, funny about that. I think it’s silly. If we weren’t all magical we wouldn’t be at Hogwarts.”
By now we were entering a cave below the school and heading for the dock. We struggled out of our boat and onto the rock landing. Richard finally opened his eyes and released his death grip on our hands.
“Thank you,” he said softly.
“Not a bit of it, said Malcolm, “This is our first adventure as friends. What better way to start?”
Richard gave his first smile. “Friends, yes.”
I found my voice had a little catch in it: “But what if we’re in different houses?”
“It can’t matter, can it? Richard replied, as we followed the rest of the herd up steps. “Can’t we be friends even if we are in different houses?”
“Why not?” Malcolm asked firmly, but there was doubt in his eyes.
We finally arrived at our destination the main entrance of the school. Two great doors opened and we made our way in to the light of a massive foyer. We were outside another set of doors of a room that, by the sounds coming from the other side, was very large and full of a great many people. A tall woman with black hair and a no-nonsense manner waited for us to settle.
She said that her name was Professor McGonagall. She welcomed us to the school and began explaining about the houses. My attention began to wander. That summer my parents and I had been at the wedding of some cousin and I had sat at a table with several other children during the reception. One, a distant cousin named Lucius, had been telling us younger ones what to expect when we went to Hogwarts.
For him, at least, there was a very clear hierarchy when it came to the houses at school. Slytherin, his own house, was of course the top. “Pure blood” was its hallmark, and the only criterion worth notice.
Next was Ravenclaw. They were at least smart in the classroom, if not all they should be in ancestry, there were Muggle-born students allowed. Well, he used the “M-word” which was never spoken in our house—although it was frequently implied.
After that was Gryffindor, full of race traitors, was a cohort of lesser beings who were too full of themselves, considering their families. They also had the temerity to win the House Cup much too often, and at the expense of Noble Slytherin.
The bottom of the heap was pathetic Hufflepuff, who took those students who were too worthless even for Gryffindor.
I had the feeling that this recitation had a bit of bias, although nobody in our family ever spoke of any house but Slytherin. I did hear a whisper that we had cousins who had been sorted into Gryffindor, but that was all I heard. When I tried the topic with my parents later I was firmly informed that I would also be a Slytherin, or I would be brought home in disgrace to continue with tutors. The chance I would be sleeping in the same room as Muggle-born children was too distressing to consider further, so it was dropped.
The tall witch left us in a side room to wait until we would be taken before the school for sorting. Richard, Malcolm, and I huddled together.
“Maybe we’ll all be in the same house, that would be nice,” said Richard. His voice was stronger than any other time that evening, but lacked conviction.
“If I’m not in Slytherin, my parents won’t let me stay,” I managed to say with what I was sure was a firm declaration, but Malcolm told me later that he thought I might start crying. It was certainly the way I felt. I was on the verge of having my first real friends, neither of whom would ever be allowed into Slytherin, and the thought of the alternative: spending the next seven years cared for by house elves (who were, admittedly, kind to me), taught by properly-blooded if not always gifted tutors, and mostly ignored by my parents loomed very darkly ahead.
Malcolm now took my hand and gave it a little squeeze without speaking as Professor McGonagall returned and directed us to follow her.
We threaded through the hallway and entered the dining hall. The room was immense, four long tables, one for each of the houses, stretched along most of the space, with the staff table on the perpendicular at the top of the room. We made our way past the house tables to the dais but stopped before we reached the head table. We were standing in a line waiting with the eyes of the entire school on us as Professor McGonagall brought a stool and a very battered and exceedingly old looking hat to the center and set them down with the hat on the stool.
I had heard about the Sorting Hat; this was the thing that would determine my fate. Would I be staying for the year or heading home tomorrow? The Hat stirred on the stool, and there was silence in the room. Then the Hat began to sing. I wish I could tell you what the song was, any of it. I was in such a state of anxiety by that time that it was just a loud hum to me.
I was pulled back into the moment by applause as the song ended. Now Professor McGonagall pulled out a roll of parchment and called the first name. We were going in alphabetical order, and I was fourth. My stomach was in a knot. The wait was brief and interminable. The three students preceding me had sat on the stool and had the hat put on, well over, their heads. In no time they were headed to their new house table. Now, my turn.
I tried to walk normally up to the stool, but I felt every step as though I had lead weights on my feet, and I was convinced that the stool was pulling away from me with each tread. Somehow, I made it all the way to the stool and took my turn to sit and have the Hat fall to my shoulders.
“Well, the last sprig of the Debeighs and Blackthornes!“ I heard the voice in my head, but I realized that no one in the hall could. “Your ancestors have been at Hogwarts since the first sorting, now here you are. Hmm, not too much of either family in you, it seems. Quiet, cautious, a sharp and thirsty mind... finally the families have one for Ravenclaw.”
“NO!” I thought I had shouted it, but nothing happened in the hall, so it must have just been in my head.
“No? You couldn’t be a better fit. Your hunger is for knowledge, not power. You’re not Salazar’s sort: none of the Denbeigh arrogance or the Blackthorne lust for attention. You should have a chance to stretch your wings and be yourself.”
“No, it’s impossible, they’ll never allow it.”
“Your parents? It’s not up to them. It’s what you want, isn’t it?” That much was true, I had to admit. I would be wonderful to be with people who were more concerned with what there was to know than who their family knew.
“You see, in your heart, you know Ravenclaw is the right house.”
“It doesn’t matter what I want, my parents will never allow me to stay unless I’m in Slytherin!”
“Come now, they were sorted where they belonged and were happy for it. They would want the same for you.”
We went back and forth, the Hat trying to convince me to do the thing I most wanted, I having to argue against both my deepest wishes, and probably my self-interest. The Hat might have sorted both of them, but I knew that there was nothing empty about my parents’ promise: if I was not in Slytherin tonight, I would be home by lunch tomorrow and Hogwarts would be a very short bit of happiness that I would mourn for the rest of my life. I had no choice but to fight for the next to last thing I wanted.
At last, the Hat gave in and I made my way to the Slytherin house table. The cheers seemed subdued as I sat among them. I caught the eye of my cousin Lucius, he was smiling, but I don’t think he was very happy. By the next morning the word had gone around the school that I had set the Hatstall record. It still stands: 8 minutes, although aficionados point out that it was not the Hat's indecision that was responsible.
Malcolm went into Hufflepuff and Richard to Ravenclaw, both sorted quickly with no angst at all. This meant I had classes with each of them, but not both at the same time. We would go to the library to study rather than our house common rooms when we could, and spent most of our free time together. Each of our houses saw our friendship as vaguely treasonous at first, but eventually we became just another excepted quirk of Hogwarts.
Over time our friendships deepened and strengthen. Malcolm and I developed a tacit understanding about our future together. Richard's coming out as gay in our sixth year was a relief. We hated the thought that our relationship might hurt Richard and threaten our mutual friendship. Now we looked forward knowing we could each follow our hearts without hurting the others.
Unlike so many of our classmates, our lives were permanently knit together in our school years. As friendships faded with time and distance, ours solidified. Malcolm and I made firm plans for our future. Richard and I went to Cambridge: he to King’s for Natural Sciences, I to the School of Clinical Medicine. Malcolm learned the craft of wand making, Richard went on to potion research and I continued medical studies.
During my first year of medical school I made the final split with my family over Malcolm. I had little to leave behind, I was merely their failed effort to produce a suitable heir. Their attentions toward me were always more for show: their wish to be known as proper “Pure Bloods.” Throwing me away made their social lives and relations with the rest of the family much easier.
And so it was that finally the day came when Richard was Malcolm's Best Man, and Minerva McGonagall who stood-up for me. We had a ceremony for our wizarding friends on the grounds of Hogwarts, and later one for Malcolm's Muggle friends and family in the village kirk.
When I remember the day of our hand-fasting, standing in the soft grass on the sunny grounds of the school with two best friends, I think of a sign I saw recently in an office supply store: ink & memory. What better description of Hogwart’s place in our lives? Buckets of ink poured on to parchment over seven years, and the memory of three children helping each other toward adulthood, starting with a little boat.