Synopsis: A cleaner at King’s Cross has to deal with over-the-top Harry Potter fans all the time, unaware that their supposed magic is more real than he thinks.
“Bill, you’re needed again,” said Dave, as he walked past.
With a roll of my eyes, I grabbed all my gear, including a first-aid kit (just in case) and made my way down the platforms. Kings Cross was particularly busy this time of day, so why were these idiot kids even attempting it today? At least, I had assumed it was an idiot kid.
When I arrived at Platform 9, I was somewhat stunned to see a tall, blonde man collapsed in front of the pillar. He was sprawled over several large suitcases. One of them had burst open, the clothes inside having scattered across the ground. A few bystanders peeled themselves away from their phones to briefly glance at the sight before hurriedly moving on.
I sighed heavily as I helped the man up. I noticed that his long, black robe had red and gold trimmings. He also wore a pair of glasses that were clearly not designed for him and had a crudely drawn lightning bolt on his forehead. He looked like he was in his late 20s, maybe even early 30s; the hell was he doing trying a stunt like this?
“Are you OK, sir?” I asked, attempting to sound sincere. He assured me he was fine and hurriedly packed away his belongings back into his suitcase before sheepishly leaving the station. With that out of the way, I decided to do a quick survey of the platform, keeping an eye on the pillar and tidying up any rubbish I found on the way. You know, like a normal cleaner.
When I was told Kings Cross were looking for extra cleaning staff, this wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. Ever since those Harry Potter books took off, more and more people had been trying to reach Platform 9¾, as if it was a real place. And my job was cleaning up the messes they left.
I couldn’t wrap my head round it. I had read the books myself; I thought they were fine. I even did one of those silly “Which Hogwarts House Would You Be In?” quizzes (Hufflepuff, in case you were wondering). But these people were on a different level. I liked to believe they were doing it just for the novelty, but some were badly injuring themselves trying this. One small boy walked away with a nasty cut down this face; I was surprised his parents hadn’t tried to sue someone.
I had suggested to my boss that maybe we should seal off the area around the pillar. She said she’d consider it, but that was three weeks ago now. I made a mental note to bring it up the next time I saw her.
About an hour or so passed, and no one else attempted to ram into the pillar. Somewhat relieved, I decided to make my way to a different part of the station. The platforms had become even more crowded, so there was barely any room to even attempt to reach the “magic” platform.
That’s when I spotted her. Within the sea of London commuters was a small girl, maybe eleven years old, with wavy, ginger hair. Much like the man from earlier, she wore a black robe and had a trolley with two rather large suitcases. A cage with a tawny owl hung from the back of it. I couldn’t help but question what kind of parents would allow their kid to have an owl, but that thought quickly vanished when I saw the look of anxiousness on her face.
She was turning her head this way and that, keeping one hand on the trolley, as if she were trying to approach some of the strangers that passed her by. Once in a while, she would utter a quiet “Excuse me,” before immediately retracting. This was a girl who was clearly lost. Out of sympathy, I approached her and knelt down to her eye level.
“Hello there,” I said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible, “Are you lost?”
The girl took a look at my uniform, noticed that I was a staff member here, and nodded. “Um, I’m looking for Platform 9¾.”
Figures, I thought. “Where are your parents?”
“At work. They were too busy to drop me off so I had to get a bus here.”
I hoped my bafflement didn’t show on my face. What kind of parents would just allow their child to wander off to Kings Cross to live out some fantasy?
“I need to catch that train,” she said in a hurried tone. It looked like she was trying really hard not to cry. “If I miss it, then…”
I knew it was silly, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for her. She seemed to genuinely believe in all this magic stuff. I should’ve just said that there was no magic platform, but I felt like she wouldn’t believe me. I was just a random stranger to her. So I figured it’d be best to let her find out for herself. At least then, it’d be less of a hassle to escort her to security and contact her parents.
“It’s over there,” I said, pointing to the pillar between Platforms 9 and 10. “Don’t run too fast, though. We don’t want you tripping over and hurting yourself.”
At that, her face lit up. “Oh, thank you very much.” She turned to the owl. “Don’t worry, Horatio. We’re not going to miss it.” With a skip in her step, she pushed her trolley with a surprising amount of gusto. She was clearly ignoring what I said about not running, her pace only quickening as she neared the pillar.
I took off after her. “Hey, slow down!” The black-suited masses had conveniently dispersed somewhat, giving the girl ample room to pick up speed. A few businessmen crossed my path, forcing me to slow down. I hurriedly scooted past them, desperately trying to catch up to the girl. It was clear that I wasn’t going to make it.
As she came in contact with the pillar, I came to a stop and winced in preparation. I waited for that horrid crunch of metal, the crashing of suitcases falling, the girl’s inevitable cry. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, the girl just… vanished. One second, she was there. The next, gone. I stood there in stunned silence, unsure of what had just happened. I looked around, partly hoping that at least one other person would look just as confused as I did. But everyone around me continued to walk past, either staring at their phones or in deep conversation with one another. How could no one else have seen that?!
I soon found my legs moving again, as I ran to check behind the pillar. Had the girl just missed it? Was she on the other side? That had to be it.
I passed the pillar, but there was no girl there. I scanned the rest of the platform. She would’ve been easy to spot within the crowds, yet I couldn’t see her. I looked back towards the pillar; the memory of what just happened constantly looping in my brain. Did she actually… go into the pillar?
I approached the pillar and tapped a side of it. As I had thought, it was solid brick. I did the same on another side, but the results were the same. I poked at random bricks, as if one of them was some button that would open up a hidden door. Naturally, that didn’t happen. I could only stare intently at the pillar, racking my brain for any reasonable solution.
Had I maybe just imagined it? Was I hallucinating? Unlikely. I mean, I’d never taken… substances or anything, and I’ve been teetotal for the last five years. But what other explanation could there be?
It was then that I remembered that one other person should’ve seen it. I made a mad dash for the surveillance office. Whoever was monitoring them could clarify what I saw.
As I reached the door, though, my boss, Gina, suddenly appeared in front of me. “Bill!” she said with her usual authority. “Can you come into my office real quick?”
I almost said no, desperate for answers regarding the vanishing girl, but thought better of it and followed her into her office. I wondered what she needed to speak to me about. If it was about sealing off the pillar, it was a bit bloody late for that.
She gestured towards a chair and sat opposite me, behind her desk. She seemed a bit more tense than usual. I became worried once she pinched a mint from the bowl on her table and began to chew it. She only ever did that when she was particularly stressed.
“Um, do you need something?” I asked. There was a rather long pause before Gina answered.
“I just spoke to Ahmed in security,” she said. “He mentioned how you were talking to a young girl with an owl.”
I mentally sighed in relief. The girl was real, at the very least. “Yes, she was lost so I was just helping her find her way.”
“And where did you see this girl go?”
All of a sudden, the conversation felt like an interrogation. Gina gave me a hard look, like she was trying to read my mind. I soon realised that I had been silent for a few seconds too long. I needed to give an answer. But could I really tell her that I saw the girl magically vanish? She’d think I was nuts. On the other hand, lying might only make things worse.
“Well, I took her to that pillar between Platforms 9 and 10. She ran at it – like people do – and… she just vanished.”
Gina continued to eyeball me. “Are you sure?” She didn’t even raise an eyebrow at my bizarre statement.
“Uh, yes?” I slowly said, unsure if that was the answer she wanted or not. I began to regret it when Gina planted her face in her hands.
“Oh Lord,” she muttered, before taking a deep breath. “How long have you been with us, Bill?”
I was startled by the sudden shift in topic. “Oh, uh, almost two months now. Why?”
Gina proceeded to swallow her mint. “OK, Bill, I’m going to need you to stay calm when I tell you this. What you saw actually happened, because Platform 9¾ does, in fact, exist. And that’s because magic… is real.”
Another silence filled the office, only broken by my sudden laugh. “You’re joking, right? I’m sorry, but aren’t we a bit old for pranks?”
“I know it’s hard to believe but it’s the truth,” said Gina, “Everyone hear at Kings Cross knows it too. I had planned on telling you once we gave you a permanent contract.”
I could barely believe what I was hearing. I kept waiting for her to finally break down; for that stony face to turn into a mischievous grin. But it never happened.
Instead, the door to the office opened and in stepped a rather short man. He was wearing a trench coat that seemed a bit too big for him and was an ugly mix of orange and purple. A pair of sandals poked out from under the hem. I was about to ask if he was lost but Gina recognised him.
“Ewan, you got my message?”
“Yes, I’m not late, am I?”
“No, this is actually perfect. Bill, this is Ewan Topridge. He’s our contact with the Ministry of Magic. Ewan, Bill McConnell.”
Topridge extended a hand for me to shake, but I just sat there, baffled. “OK, what is this? Is this some hazing ritual? Because it’s not as funny as you think it is.”
Topridge retracted his hand as he spoke to Gina, “Did you not tell him?”
“Yes, but obviously he doesn’t believe me.”
A sly smile crept up on Topridge’s face. “Maybe he’d like a demonstration.” As he spoke, he slid a short stick out of his sleeve. I recognised it as a wand. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at how far they were going with this.
Then, with a flick of his wrist and a mutter of “Expecto Patronum,” a small, ghostly-looking rabbit emerged from the wand. It hopped through the air briefly before evaporating. Once again, I could only respond with silence, my mouth agape at what I just witnessed.
“That… that was…” I finally managed to utter but Topridge interrupted me.
“Magic? Yes, yes it was.”
A million questions immediately began to swarm around in my brain. I struggled to pick one of them to ask first. Eventually, I went with “So, those books are all real?”
“Sort of. Most of it’s accurate, though I don’t mind telling you that Mrs. Rowling embellished a few bits here and there. We can give you the full rundown at a later date.”
That only raised further questions. I turned back to Gina. “You said… everyone here knows? Like, everyone?”
“Well, yes. You think wizards and witches would be able to vanish into pillars without any of the staff here noticing? It’s how Kings Cross has been run for years. In fact, Ahmed’s married to a witch. And Ellen’s kid, the one she sent to boarding school? Actually a wizard at Hogwarts.” She seemed relieved to be able to tell me all this.
My whole world felt like it was turning upside down. All this time, actual magic had existed right under my nose. And the people who I had worked with, had drinks with; they had all known. Topridge seemed to sense my confusion.
“I understand that this is all quite shocking to you. Most muggles tend to struggle with this knowledge at first. That’s why we want to give you a choice.” His sincerity suggested he’d had this conversation before.
“On the one hand, we can take you out of work – all expenses paid, mind you – and help you understand the need-to-know basics of the magical world and what your job would then entail. Or…”
He glanced at the wand in his hand, almost uncomfortably, “I remove your memories of magic and we reassign you to another role where you’ll never encounter any magical activity. While I am happy to oblige, I do find the idea of altering one’s memories to be rather… inhumane. But the choice is yours.”
I thought long and hard about what I wanted. It still didn’t feel real; I half-expected to wake up in bed. But no, this was happening. It was all too much; having my memories taken and returning to blissful ignorance seemed like the easiest option.
But being permitted to know about the existence of magic almost felt like a privilege. Could I really throw this opportunity away? The longer I thought about it, the idea of having my memories altered seemed more and more off-putting. I supposed I ought to be grateful that I was even being given the choice.
I sat there for what felt like an eternity, before finally giving my answer.
The pair of teenagers came to a sudden stop. They were so wrapped up in their conversation that they hadn’t even seen me standing by the pillar. They both each had a small suitcase that they dragged behind them.
“Planning to go to Hogwarts, are you?” I asked, feigning a serious tone. The pair of them shuffled slightly, clearly embarrassed.
“W-we were just gonna try and run into the pillar,” one of them eventually muttered.
“Well, if you’re both wizards, that’s fine,” I said, “But we can’t have young muggles doing it. You’ll only hurt yourselves.” I held out my hand. “I’m gonna need some ID.”
“ID. Proof that you’re wizards. No casting spells, though. We are in a public place.”
The two teens shared a quick look of disbelief. Clearly, they weren’t expecting this level of interaction. Whether out of annoyance, shame or both, they instead turned and left, occasionally looking back to see if I was still there.
As weirdly exhausting as it was just standing by the pillar, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy seeing how people reacted. Some played along, others just got mildly irritated that they couldn’t ram face-first into brick and risk breaking their nose. And then there was the third kind.
“Daddy, what’s that man doing by the pillar?”
I broke myself out of my daze and saw the family of five approaching. All three kids had luggage with them and all of them seemed a bit uneasy upon seeing me.
“Oh, I meant to mention,” said their father, “They’ve placed a guard here to stop muggles from running into the pillar.”
“Why would muggles want to run into it?” one of the sons asked, genuinely confused. “They’re not magic; they’d just break their nose. I swear, they’re just plain stupid sometimes.”
His mother lightly smacked him on the arm. “Don’t be rude.” She then looked towards me. “I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s fine,” I answered. “Anyway, I will need to see some form of ID.” I saw all three kids’ eyebrows raise in shock. “I have to make sure you’re all allowed to get on the train. And no magic, please.”
The oldest son seemed ready to argue, but his dad cut him off by handing me three pieces of paper. I checked the pictures on them, making sure the faces matched.
“Thank you very much,” I said, handing them back. I quickly surveyed the area to make sure no one was looking. “You may go through now.”
“Finally!” groaned the oldest. The family hastily vanished through the pillar, except for the dad, who had hung back.
“You seem to have taken to this new job rather well,” he said.
“Thanks. It’s still a lot to take in,” I admitted. “It’s actually made me re-read those books, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
The dad chuckled, “Not at all. I think she captured our lives pretty well, all things considered. Though, to be honest, that cupboard under the stairs wasn’t that small.”
It was then I noticed, under that slightly messy fringe of hair, was a faint scar shaped like a lightning bolt. Before it even registered properly, the man followed his family into the pillar, no doubt grinning at my now perplexed face.
- This was the first of what will no doubt be many stories based off of prompts supplied by the Tumblr blog Writing Prompts, so shout outs to them. For those wondering, the prompt was: “You’re the “cleaner” at King’s Cross. Your job is to clean the mess created by the fanatical Harry Potter fans who run headfirst into the pillar between platforms 9 and 10. One day, you see another fan running at it but this time he went through.”
- I gave Topridge a rabbit Patronus as a reference to the classic magician trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Plus, it’s just funny imagining him sicking a tiny bunny on Dementors.
- Originally, only Gina would’ve know about the existence of magic but I figured it’d make more sense if the entire staff knew too, since it’d be pretty hard for them not to notice wizards and witches constantly vanishing into a pillar. Also (assuming Rowling hasn’t confirmed it herself) I like to think this is how it works in the books too.
- Because the prompt implies that it takes place in the real world, I saw this as an opportunity to make a little meta joke. But I wasn’t sure whether to have the Harry Potter stories remain fictional in this context or actually be based on real events. I went with the latter simply because I found the idea of J.K. Rowling going around, documenting all this stuff and then selling it as fiction to muggles slightly funnier.
- I also considered having the magical community actually hate the Harry Potter franchise because they find it offensive (considering it treats people who actually suffered and died as fictional characters) but I decided against it since it came off as a bit mean spirited.
- I had a few different ideas for the ending, such as Bill choosing to forget everything but have the same thing happen again, but I wanted something conclusive and satisfying. Having him forget would’ve almost undermined the story somewhat.
- I wasn’t sure whether to have the family at the end actually be the Potters; I was worried it may have come across as a bit cringey. I asked a few peoples’ opinions and they liked it so I left it in.
- Finally, a massive thank you to my friend Josh for beta-reading it and giving me loads of editing advice. It came out much better because of his help.