Cider

Ogmore-by-Sea, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales

1951

Carefully, Alphie picks up the tray and walks back over to the table in the cordoned-off section of the Goblin's Tooth. The pub is noisy, buzzing with chatter and laughter. It's the evening of the last day of the Quidditch season, and the Glamorgan Ogres are staying up. A group of fans are chanting it in the corner of the pub: "We! Are! Staying up, yeah we are staying up!"

Alphie doesn't sit with the fans. He's walking back to the roped-off section of the pub especially for the team. He walks through the magical barrier separating the team from the rest of the pub, and lays the tray of drinks down on the table.

"Got the right order in this time, did ya?" shouts Fergus Abercrombie, reaching over to tousle Alphie's hair. Fergus does that a lot, and it makes Alphie uncomfortable because Fergus is a Muggle-born. A Mudblood. So are Yondala St Ives, Beater, and Nadia Edwards, substitute Keeper. Mudbloods don't belong in the wizarding world, and certainly not on their Quidditch teams, so Alphie's ashamed to admit that he counts Fergus, St Ives and Edwards as his friends. He often worries about what his family would say if they knew he spent so much time with Mugg- Mudbloods. Often, Alphie worries about what being friendly with Mudbloods is doing to him. Is he letting down the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black?

Tonight's not a night for worrying, though. Tonight's a night for drinking and celebrating. The team grab their drinks from the tray, and Alphie takes a sip from the cider he bought for himself. Father taught him to always buy his round of drinks, though Alphie's only been able to do so with his own money for a couple of years. It's still a thrill to be able to say, "Next round's on me," and pay for it with coins from his own wallet.

"Says you, after you dropped that catch last week!" chirps Knox Jonston, Seeker. Knox caught the Snitch while flying backwards in this afternoon's match. Alphie's sure it'll be Season's Best Catch. He feels proud of Knox, proud of the team, and proud to be part of this world of sports and bars and cider. When Alphie was a boy, he dreamed of becoming a professional Quidditch player. A Beater probably, since he was built big. When Alphie and his father went to watch their local team, the Banbury Gnats, Alphie had imagined himself flying up in the air with the players, a Quidditch hero, and back home he'd would practise on his toy broomstick. Father said that Alphie would make a fine Beater one day.

Cygnus ruined it, of course. When Alphie's little brother turned five, Father decided that that was old enough to come to Quidditch matches too. Alphie felt furious that Cygnus had intruded on his special time with Father. Moreover, when Alphie and Cygnus re-enacted their favourite parts of the match at home on their toy broomsticks, it became clear that Cygnus was a better payer than Alphie. He was three years younger but already a better flier, thrower and catcher, and more skilled with a Beater's bat too. Alphie was only eight, but he knew that if he was up against boys like Cygnus, he'd never be a Quidditch player. He stopped practising on his toy broomstick and started reading matchday programmes and Quidditch magazines instead. Alphie started to learn the names and numbers of players, and at matches he'd tell Father and Cygnus facts about them. Instead of looking up at the players with envy, Alphie started observing them with scientific interest, working out which was a Wronski Fein and which was a Brazilian Lift. He began to study the league tables and goal records. Alphie wasn't good enough to become a Quidditch player, but he could make himself a Quidditch expert.

Alphie was nervous about going to school. He knew that all wizards and witches his age would be too, but for Alphie it was different, because by the time he was eleven it was clear that Alphie wasn't…well, clever. "Retarded", Walburga said, and though Mother told her off for that, Alphie knew that his brain didn't work the way other people's did. Letters and numbers jumbled together on the page in front of him. The puzzles and lessons his governess gave him were boring. Alphie couldn't remember dates from history or his seventeen times table. Why did galleons have to go into sickles into knuts anyway? Why couldn't there just be one coin?

"You remember Quidditch scores well enough," Father said, "Why can't you remember which way a J goes?"

But Alphie couldn't, and he couldn't do multiplication and subtraction, and he couldn't make his 5s stop looking like squashed, upside-down 2s. At first everybody said he wasn't trying, but as Alphie got older and Cygnus began to surpass him at lessons as well as Quidditch, Alphie's family had to admit that there was a problem. Alphie was both desperate to go to Hogwarts, and frightened that when he got there he'd be known as Alphard The Idiot.

"You're a Black," Father told him, straightening Alphie's robes on the station platform as they waited for the Hogwarts Express, "You deserve deference. Don't let anybody make you feel foolish,"

"But he is foolish," sneered Walburga, who was starting her fourth year and becoming nastier and surlier by the day. Alphie was worried, too, about ending up being only known as Walburga's Little Brother.

Father ignored her, and promised Alphie, "You'll find a subject you're good at, my boy. Wandwork, herbology, potions- there'll be something,"

He straightened up, clapped Alphie on the shoulder and repeated, "You're a Black,"

Alphie knew that what Father meant was that Blacks were special and sacred. They were above other people. But once term started, it became clear that Alphie was as good at wandwork, herbology and potions as he was at reading and writing. Walburga was right- he was a foolish, retarded bonehead. He was a Black by name, but without any of the prowess that members of his family were supposed to possess. However, Alphie's Quidditch knowledge helped him avoid being known as Alphie Idiot or Walburga's Brother. Calix Gibbon, who slept in the bed beside Alphie, saw his Banbury Gnats scarf, and asked if that was Alphie's team. Palgrave Nott snorted that the Gnats were playing hopelessly this season. Remembering that he was a Black, Alphie puffed out his chest and pointed out that, actually, the Gnats had won the league four times this decade, and it was only in the last two seasons that they'd gone downhill.

"Their goals-per-season average is higher than Puddlemere," Alphie insisted.

"Quidditch geek, are you?" asked Sol Sullivan.

Alphie crossed his arms. "Yes,"

And so, he became Alphie Black: Quidditch Geek. And he liked it. It wasn't as cool as being known as the rebel or the funny one, it wasn't impressive like being clever, and it since Alphie wouldn't make the team it wouldn't give him any status in Slytherin. However, knowing endless Quidditch trivia was just enough for Alphie to establish an identity for himself. The reputation for Quidditch knowledge stuck with him through school, and it was enough for him to make and keep friends, even when he had to repeat first-year. Walburga dropped hints that the only reason Alphie passed the second time was because of Father's influence and money. Alphie's never asked about that, though by the time NEWTs rolled round, it was clear that friends, influence and money wouldn't be enough. Not even a Black could get a Ministry job with only a couple of As at NEWT. Alphie wasn't bright enough to pursue healing or working with magical creatures, and he wasn't business-savvy, creative or adventurous either. There'd barely been anything at school that he'd been decent at. As his friends looked through pamphlets suggesting training security trolls, working in foreign relations, or applying to the Magical Confectionery Standards Agency, Alphie watched and thought dejectedly that he didn't have the brains for any of those. During his careers advice session, Professor Slughorn suggested that Alphie make a list of things he was good at, and all Alphie could think of was:

Quidditch trivia Daydreaming Keeping his bedroom and dormitory tidy Loud burps

Not enough to start a career in anything.

Alphie started to drink. He'd always enjoyed Common Room parties (not like Walburga, who stormed off to her dormitory to miss the fun), but as the panic set in, Alphie started downing cider at a more furious rate. He became a rougher, bolshier drunk: more obnoxious to his friends and more standoffish to people he didn't like. Alphie grew more disdainful towards Cygnus, who was fourteen, scrappy, handsome, and still better than Alphie at everything. More than once, Alphie's friends had to drag him away before he and Cygnus began a physical fight. Alphie got so drunk at graduation that he barely remembers the day now. What followed was a dreadful two years of watching his friends get jobs, make friends at work, earn their own money, move out and begin adult life. Alphie moved back into his bedroom at home. At first, his parents had tried to find tasks for him to do: re-organising bookshelves, beating the house-self when she needed punishing, writing cards to his cousins, running errands to Diagon Alley. Though Alphie's activities were hampered by having failed his apparition test, leaving him reliant on Floo (Blacks did not travel on the Knight Bus). Alphie went for walks in the woods, finding the most secluded areas to fly his broomstick in. He tried attacking Muggles a couple of times, but didn't manage to inflict much damage. After a few months, his parents ran out of jobs to keep him occupied, so Alphie spent most days sleeping late, flicking through Quidditch magazines, drinking cider, wanking, listening to the radio, and staring out of the window feeling bitter and hopeless. What was wrong with him? Was he born an idiot, or had he been kicked in the head by a horse when he was a baby, and Mother and Father had never told him?

Some of Alphie's friends were married off, either by choice or for convenience, and at their weddings guests would ask Alphie what he did. If they'd asked his name, which they usually had, they'd know he was a Black, so would expect him to be a banker, or working his way up through the Ministry, or studying further. Alphie wanted to melt into the floor when he had to confess that he didn't have a job. Though at least there was always plenty of booze at weddings.

Months went by. Cygnus passed his OWLs with Es and Os. Walburga, tetchy and mean as she was, was publishing articles and doing work for the Protection of Pureblood Rights Society. Alphie festered at home.

One evening, two years after they left Hogwarts, Palgrave Nott persuaded Alphie out for a drink. Palgrave had a job at the printworks in Arcasion Alley and had got two promotions in the last year, so Alphie had tried to avoid meeting him one-on-one for months. But Palgrave was persistent, and Alphie ended up agreeing just to stop him owling.

"My sister could get you a job," Palgrave drawled over cider in the Snuffling Walnut.

"I don't need charity," Alphie growled.

"Alph, it's been two years. You'll have to do something. Even you can't live off your family's money forever,"

Alphie launched himself across the table and grabbed Palgrave by the collar, "What did you just say?"

"I said that you're going to have to stop sulking and start earning a living," said Palgrave coolly.

Alphie shoved him back into his seat and scowled.

"Let me help you," continued Palgrave haughtily, "What's the one thing you were always good at at school?"

"Nothing,"

"No,"

"I know about Quidditch," Alphie relented.

"And you never left our dormitory a tip like the rest of us did,"

Palgrave left a silence.

"So?" Alphie asked begrudgingly.

"Do you know what my sister does?" asked Palgrave, with an infuriating smile on his lips.

Alphie didn't reply.

"She's a Mediwitch for the Glamorgan Ogres. Their groundskeeper just left,"

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you could do it," Palgrave cried, "You could take that groundskeeper job,"

"Don't be stupid,"

"Why not? You love Quidditch and you're good at keeping stuff tidy,"

"A dormitory isn't a Quidditch ground,"

"It's only the Ogres, Alphie, I'm not asking you to groundskeep for England,"

Alphie sat up and puffed his chest out, "I'm a Black. We don't do work like that,"

"Blacks aren't supposed to be retarded either, but look at you," sneered Palgrave. Alphie wanted to grab Palgrave again for calling him that, but Palgrave rushed on, "I'm trying to help you. Here. Her name's Watnage. Write to her,"

He scribbled an address down and slid it across the table to Alphie. Alphie crumpled the parchment into his pocket and changed the subject, but, once he'd Flooed home that evening, he looked at it again. Meeting with Palgrave had left him tense and tetchy- all the more so because he knew that Palgrave was right. Alphie had known that he was living a boring, impotent existence that had lasted too long and couldn't continue forever, but hearing Palgrave say so was different. Alphie stared at the parchment with Watnage Nott's address on. Groundskeeping for a Quidditch team was beneath Alphie. To submit to Palgrave's suggestion would be admitting defeat. But, Alphie confessed to himself, I would enjoy it. He certainly hadn't enjoyed the last two years. Was it a direct battle between pride and having a shot of happiness? Alphie wasn't sure. Wouldn't hurt if I were to find out, would it? It's just a letter.

Alphie slept on the decision, and in the morning he sat at his seldom-used bedroom desk and concentrated hard on his spelling and handwriting to write Watnage Nott a letter. Two days later, she replied.

That was three years ago now, and Alphie hasn't looked back. He comes to the ground every day to perform his tasks: flying the eagle around the ground to scare off pigeons, checking the pressure of the bludgers and quaffles, making sure everything's ready for the team to train. There isn't much demeaning work, since the house-selves do most of the cleaning and tidying. On match days, Alphie sits in the top box, along from the manager, journalists, promoters and Watnage Nott's Mediwitch and healer team. He meets all the Quidditch teams the Ogres play- he's even friendly with some of the Banbury Gnats. After matches, Alphie, the Ogres and some of the staff go for drinks at the Goblin's Tooth, and then Alphie Floos home to his flat above the clubhouse. The Quidditch League provide a handful of staff tickets to the Summer and Christmas parties, and Alphie always attends. They're not the type of fancy work parties his parents and brother attend, but Alphie still feels proud to be included in this part of wizarding society.

"What you daydreaming about, Pitch?" Fergus asks, elbowing Alphie in the ribs. Alphie jolts- he hadn't realise that he'd drifted off. "Pitch" is Alphie's nickname here; pitch as in Black, and because he takes care of the Quidditch pitch. Father would be cross if he knew Alphie had a nickname which is a reference to the manual work he does, and a corruption of their sacred surname. For the last three years, Alphie's parents veered between relief that Alphie's found employment and independence at last, appalled that he's doing such a menial job. Alphie hasn't told them how close friends he is with the team, or how many Muggle-borns play for the Ogres. Thankfully, his parents are busy back home, fussing over Cygnus' baby daughter and trying to find somebody to marry Walburga, that they don't take much notice of what Alphie does.

"Nothing," Alphie shrugs.

"Head in the clouds, as usual," says Fergus, giving Alphie a friendly elbow in the ribs.

"That's you, mate, flying into that rain in the first half!" chips in Aneurin Sprout.

"You could have warned me I was heading for it,"

"You should have looked,"

"Remember when Fergus used to wear goggles to fly?" giggles Roo Mazrahi.

"Ha! I'd forgotten about that," laughs St Ives.

"Who cares about that cloud, we're staying up, boys!" Fergus insists.

"And girls," adds Edwards.

"Women," corrects St Ives.

"Fine, boys and women," Fergus huffs.

"And whatever you are," sneers Martha Ducker.

The Glamorgan Ogres' banter is different to the way the Black family verbally spar, and from the jokes and banter back in the Slytherin Common Room. Lots of things about Alphie's world here is different to the world he grew up in, and that doesn't always sit comfortably with him (Alphie uses Fergus' momentary distraction as an opportunity to shift away from him and his Mudblood hands). That discomfort can be puzzling, because it sits alongside the happiness and acceptance Alphie feels here. Alphie isn't in the Ogres team, but he's one of them. They're his friends and this is his world. Here in Glamorgan, he has a job, a flat, a social life, a purpose, and independence. Nowadays, Alphie's drinking isn't from misery and boredom- it's for fun and celebration and to feeling part of something. He's no longer festering. Alphie Black is, well, flying.

Alphie grins, and takes another sip of his cider.


Thank you so much for reading. Feedback would be lovely, so please leave a comment. Thanks a lot.