‘No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever. So whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.’
What makes a story?
I am thirteen, and stuck on youth camp for the first time. I hate everything from the endless dreary rain to the mandatory team-building to the foot-smelling canvas tents. My aunt, knowing me perhaps better than I realise, has sent me away with a new book. It’s a paperback I’ve never seen before, unremarkable, with a young, brown-bearded man on the back wearing an outlandish outfit.
One evening when I am especially homesick, I sit in the tent (breathing shallowly) and open it. ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much‘. And I am gone, from all of it: the tent, the smell, the damp pants. Gone until I’ve finished it, when I peel myself reluctantly out of that world and back into mine. That’s a story.
A story is when I am fourteen, and on holiday on the Scottish border. I am walking through Berwick-Upon-Tweed when I see it in a bookshop window, purple and silver: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I want it immediately, but my parents are not given to buying expensive hardback books on a whim. They tell me I must wait for the paperback. The longing for it, for the continuation of the story I know is in there, makes me sick. I have lived and breathed in books for as long as I can remember, but it’s the first time I’ve wanted a book enough for it to hurt.
Not the last, though. That’s a story.
A story is when I am sixteen, and the film of Philosopher’s Stone is about to be released. My friends and I are dizzily obsessed with it, marinating in it: devouring every trailer and press photo, making complex Potter jokes, speaking mostly in quotes. The fourth book is out by now, and it’s big enough for the midnight openings, for me to buy the hardback immediately and read it in one gulp, expense be damned.
I know these characters like family. I sit in my classes, frizzy-haired, hyper-competent and horribly uncool, and console myself with Hermione Granger. She is not cool at all. She is unfashionable and earnest, fierce and grounded, unable to drop her point long after she should’ve done, driven by book-love and doing the right thing and absolute loyalty. I might never be that wonderful, but I love her. So I lift up my head and answer another question. That’s a story.
A story is when I am eighteen, and have my pre-ordered copy of Order of the Phoenix in my hands. There’s a sense of gathering darkness in these books now: the cheery end-of-term feasts that close the early books are long gone, and any of these beloved characters might be in for the chop. At the end of Phoenix, of course, someone is.
I am eighteen, and by now I know real heartbreak, real betrayal, real end-of-the-world, can’t-get-out-of-bed despair. And so I get it, forcefully and finally. I lie in bed and I cry tears for Sirius Black that are also for me. That’s a story.
A story is when I am twenty-two, and Deathly Hallows is finally here. Potter-mania is at fever-pitch, and I feel like one of the sage elder members of a giant, excitable family. I pick up my copy at midnight and stay up all night and all the next day reading it. It’s a war book, Hallows, and it’s as grim and hopeless as a war book should be. Characters are killed off left and right, with horrible suddenness, until I am numb from it. The eleven-year-olds I met in a canvas tent have been written into desperate, brave, traumatised seventeen-year-olds fighting an almost-impossible battle. There’s heroism and love, self-sacrifice and secrets.
I pull myself out of the final pages, as I’ve done all those times before, and feel like I’ve been battered with a stick. And also that this is it, the end, and I can’t bear to lose them. That most of all. That’s a story.
A story is when I am twenty-six, and hugely, unbearably pregnant with our first child. And we waddle to the cinema for the last Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part 2. I am swirling with feelings about impending motherhood, so close now – will I be adequate, will we be alright, what kind of childhood will I give this unknown baby in my belly – and watching the final struggles of these characters I’ve loved since I was a child myself is an emotional counterweight that feels right. I am not ready to say goodbye to them or to the person I’ve been all this time. But it’s about to happen, all the same.
The camera pulls back from Harry, Ron and Hermione standing on a broken bridge, holding hands, sunlight on their bloodied faces. I shift heavily in my seat, put a hand on the boy kicking my ribs and think ‘I will read this to you, one day‘.
He’s not old enough yet, but I will.
That’s a story, isn’t it? What a story. It hasn’t left me since.