TEAM DRAGON ENTRY: Dacro "Act Five: Deconstruction of an Architect" Title: Act Five: Deconstruction of an Architect Author:dacro Team: Dragon Genre(s): Alternate Reality (London: 1884-1894) *Hover/Click for Games Definition of Alternate Reality * Prompt(s): Miles to go before I sleep, Dissident Rating/Warnings/Kinks: PG-13; PLEASE HEED THIS WARNING: *Severitus/Mentor!Snape (not romantic Snarry), minor character deaths, implied drug use* Word Count: 8500 (+-) Summary: A reporter once asked of me, ‘Sir. If the most notable moments of your life were to be documented for the stage, how many acts would there be, and what would they be called?’ I was of a mind to ignore him, and yet an answer came to my lips—much to my surprise. “Four acts—in no certain order: Death of a Father, Death of a Servant, The Bridge, and The Arrival of the Boy." There is also this movement, a fifth and final act that I neglected to share with him. It has no title as of yet. A/N: This fic is a result of three months of research, three weeks of deciding on the appropriate direction for voice and POV, three massive migraines, and three dollars worth of late fees at the library. My apologies to Sir Horace Jones and Sir John Wolfe-Barry, the actual architects/engineers of the Tower Bridge. I borrowed your landmark with utmost respect. Please don't haunt me for too long. Huge thank you to my support crew: saladbats, head beta and cheerleader ~ joanwilder, team mate, captain and finder of random capitalised words ~ who_la_hoop team mate and brilliant britpicker ~ and a special shout out to igtow for architectural-picking, amazing sleuth work, and for hashing out the title with me. *highfives* A million thanks to my team mates and the wonderful snarry_games mod crew. It was an honour to work with you all. To my readers: Thank you taking a chance on a PG-13 fic. It means the world to me and my team mates. I hope you enjoy reading this humble offering as much as I loved writing it. *loves*
Act Five: Deconstruction of an Architect
Fear not that life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning. John Henry Cardinal Newman
A reporter once asked of me, ‘Sir. If the most notable moments of your life were to be documented for the stage, how many acts would there be, and what would they be called?’ I was of a mind to ignore him, and yet an answer came to my lips—much to my surprise.
“Four acts—in no certain order: Death of a Father, Death of a Servant, The Bridge, and The Arrival of the Boy."
There is also this movement, a fifth and final act that I neglected to share with him. It has no title as of yet.
Act One: Death of a Father
Are we not like two volumes of one book? Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
In the haste of my youth, I vowed never to marry and have children if it meant I was fated to become like my own father. Perhaps I'd been sure my future would align with his, considering our childhoods had been reflections of each other. We had both been sickly children who lusted after knowledge and shared a common love of science, letters and the poetry of architecture. Not blessed with overly handsome features, my father made his mark with his mind, and turned heads with his innovation and candour. I am proud to say I am very much like him, and yet the one crumb for which I faulted him would have meant the end of my existence, had he been wise enough to correct it.
Yes, I know in the age of our treasured Queen and her swollen family, a man is judged harshly for choosing a solitary life of success and study over the joys of building a family and following her Majesty's consummate example.
It is not that my father underwent a fierce transmutation, or was in any way aware of his handicap—he simply, in my young and foolish eyes, failed to become the man he could have been—the man I expected him to be—had he not been tied to a wife and children. With the weight of a family he was never available for travel, constantly worried his hands over providing enough for a growing household and refused to work the long hours of single men who passed him by on their way to success.
My impression was rooted further once my brothers and mother had surrendered to the fever.
My father's mourning continued longer than the agreed upon year that society claimed was adequate, and he struck up a one-sided friendship with the chloral hydrate our neighbour suggested he try for sleep. As his temperament and appetite declined and his consumption of 'medicine' increased, his work—as a well-respected yet modestly paid architect—began to suffer. Only his good name and our servant Albus' clever wit with the shopkeepers kept us in home and food, and out of the workhouses. It was only at my constant urging and prodding that my father completed the design that, as irony would have it, would consume the next ten years of my life.
By the time his mind and body had wasted away, I was firm in my belief that I would never be fool enough to marry, particularly after I had measured the inadequate return and benefits of a life lived for love.
After the pennies were laid, I turned my attention to the possibility of undertaking formal studies. In the days before death had settled on the front steps, my father had taught me well from home. And later, as he relied more heavily on his drops, I made frequent visits to the London Library where I was provided with a wealth of material at no cost. Still, as every young man with breath in his lungs can attest, I too wanted to prove myself, better myself—make a name that was solely mine. I assumed one of the Universities would provide for that thirst. On the contrary, once I had reviewed what was left of our savings, and had been politely informed that the 'proper' age for an entry student was some ten years younger than I found myself, I was left with the sound of closing doors ringing in my ears. I was welcome to take the examinations at any time. However, without the support Oxford or Cambridge could supply, that prospect dimmed like the winter days that followed.
On the dismal day in January that marked my thirty-fifth birthday, Albus opened the door to a group of men who asked to see my father, unaware that nearly a month had passed since his death. Shame-faced with their soggy wool coats dripping on the rug, they recounted a story I was well familiar with—the contest to design a bridge in response to the growing population, and numerous demands from the public to either expand London Bridge, or erect a new structure east along the Thames.
Designs of all shapes and sizes were submitted for consideration, and from fifty candidates, my father's design had been selected.
Just as the huddled men began bickering in earnest about who would lead the project now that the man behind the design was dead, Albus arrived with refreshments.
"Pardon me, sirs."
On being addressed directly by a servant, the three men stared in disbelief.
"To bring some cheer to a rather damp day, I have placed a parable under each of your saucers," he announced cheerfully.
Later, I was curious as to why—after the men had read their bits of paper—they had suddenly started questioning me about my qualifications and my knowledge of materials needed to proceed with such a vast project. Consequently, I asked Albus what he'd written for each of them. He simply smiled, winked, and confessed to giving all three men the same proverb.
When the work of the father remains undone, a thirst to complete it lives within the son.
The old, dear fool. With one written utterance jostled under a teacup, he had sealed my fate as the newest city architect with the most daunting task on the horizon.
None of the men had asked if I'd ever built any of the structures I'd designed, which in hindsight, was a blessing. It presented incentive enough for me to sit my exams—before they noticed their error—and be inducted as Chartered Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. If I had failed to produce the required credentials when asked, that one oversight might have sealed quite a different fate. A fate that perhaps would have led towards to my own bottle of medicine, but without a son to mourn my passing.
The Fates were once again dancing with delight, set on the task of finding unpredicted and extraordinary ways of augmenting my best laid plans.
Act Two: The Arrival of the Boy
It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us fathers and sons. Friedrich von Schiller
In the stillness that followed my father's death, it became clear to me that while my nose had been in my studies, Albus had become an old man. The practical side of my mind was counting the coins needed to add another servant to the household, one who was fit enough to take some of the more taxing and dirty jobs, allowing the old man to delegate rather than participate in whatever it took to manage the house. Secretly, however, I knew it would take more than one servant to replace him and more than my budget allowed for, even with the initial prize the council had left to begin my work.
Once charged with erecting my father's design however, I feared an apprentice would be a better investment if the promised pay raise ever arrived. The forthcoming years of construction and service to the city fathers was an overwhelming task to contemplate. Many a sleepless night in those early days was devoted to cursing myself over ever agreeing to the thing, while at the same time my mind was grappling with the great honour of being trusted with the undertaking. In the endless hours between putting out the lamp and the first feeble light of morning, I took stock of what I was: nearly middle-aged, the last of my family's name and now responsible for an undertaking where if I failed, it was unlikely I would ever find work in Britain again.
I should have known that Albus had a plan of his own already set in motion. He made me aware of it as I was reviewing a revised list of recommended engineers. The door opened without announcement—not unheard of with only two souls in the house. I looked up regardless.
There stood a boy, and not even much of one.
He was small and lean, wearing too-long knickerbockers, a greying shirt that hung from his shoulders like empty sails, a cloth cap that would have swallowed him whole if not for the fortunate placement of his ears, and a pair of beaten-up leather shoes sporting a considerable gap behind each heel.
"What is this?" I demanded of Albus.
I studied the boy again. He looked no more than nine or ten years old.
"I'm stronger than I look," the boy said, flopping forward a step. "And I'm quick at learning."
I had no notion of Albus' goals, and I was not in the mood to receive children—however pitiful.
"I have no need of him," I stubbornly said to them both, returning to my work. Albus, true to his nature, wasn't yet done with me.
"Respectfully, I ask you to reconsider on my behalf."
"On your—Albus, I have no wish to discuss this matter at..."
"An old man makes a very poor servant once his knees refuse to bend for scrubbing the floor and once his back protests the coal cart. A fit young man would be a great help to me, and is willing to devote himself to this household in exchange for food and a roof to sleep under while he learns his trade. Isn't that so?"
The boy nodded enthusiastically. The cap tilted forward. He pushed it back, revealing a jagged scar on his forehead and an unevenly cut fringe.
"Well, then," I said, with another quick glance at the boy—thinking to myself I'd never seen a worse candidate. "Where did you find him? If it's the workhouse, he goes back immediately. Nothing but sickness and decay come from those places."
"Until recently, he made his way as a broom boy on our very street. He has a sharp mind and a quick broom, if I may be allowed an opinion on the subject. His name is... Dear me, lad, I've forgotten your name."
The boy under the baggy clothes turned up his head revealing bright green eyes. They stood out dramatically from the rest of his grubby appearance.
"Harry, sir," he said with a respectful bow to Albus. On his way back up, however, he seemed to remember who the head of the household was and bowed in my direction so deeply his cap tumbled off.
"Very good!" Albus exclaimed, making it sound like praise as the boy flushed and retrieved his hat. "Master Harry."
"And does Master Harry have a proper name?" I asked, careful to keep annoyance the dominant emotion, and hold amusement at bay.
And from that day forward, he became Albus' shadow and my responsibility.
Days gathered speed and were replaced by months. I'll admit to occasionally forgetting about the lad in the hours after he'd gone to sleep—hours during which I contemplated the Queen's request to bridge the hectic river quickly without disrupting the good citizens overmuch. In spite of my demanding task, it was impossible to ignore the new presence in my house as soon as the hazy mornings arrived. Everywhere Potter went, chatter surrounded him. Albus' low, gentle tone could be heard responding whenever the boy paused, but it only seemed to encourage new prattle to spring up. There were many days when my patience wore thin and I rattled the walls with my own frustration and demanded silence. It only ever seemed to last as long as it took the next inane question to form in his inquisitive mind and leap off of his ready tongue.
One afternoon, plagued with choosing the most efficient design for the six giant water accumulators I required for the steam engines, I left my desk and hoped the garden would help me discover the answer I was searching for. On my way past the kitchen, the boy's voice caught my attention, and I promptly forgot my destination in favour of listening—once it became clear that I was the subject of discussion.
“Has his family gone to the seaside?” Potter asked.
"An undeniably good question. What made you ask it?"
"This is the biggest house I've ever been in, but there's only just the three of us living here. At first, I wondered if Mister Snape reserved all the empty bedrooms for special guests, or was planning to lease them."
"And what have you observed?"
"No one stays the night, he sleeps in the smallest bedroom, and you share your quarters with me. So, I thought that he might be waiting for his family to return and wanted the best rooms kept ready for whenever they came home from holiday."
After a long exhale, Albus answered. “There is a place reserved in his heart, certainly, but the rooms here remain empty for another reason altogether. Do you have another theory, Harry?"
"Yes. He's in his year of mourning. I should have realised sooner."
"Why do you say that?"
"He only wears black clothes, he's always cross, and I don't think he sleeps very well."
"This is his childhood home. His father passed on shortly before you came to join us. His mother and brothers were lost to the fever several years ago.”
There was a 'thump' I recognised as the familiar sound of pastry hitting the floured table top. I pressed my eye to the thin gap between the wall and the door, and witnessed Potter pressing small flat hands down into the lump.
“My parents too,” he said, his eyes cast down to his work.
“Ah. You must miss them.”
“Yes, sir. My relatives never mentioned when they died, but I know I was young, maybe even an infant—but sometimes when I'm dreaming, I'll hear a man laughing or a woman singing. I like to think it might be an old memory of them."
"I'm sure you are right."
After a long pause in conversation, broken only by a few footfalls and the sound of Albus retrieving the pie tins from the shelf above the window, Potter spoke again.
"Why aren't there any lady servants here?"
“Hmm... Now that, I don’t have an answer to.”
"Have you always done all the cooking, all the laundering?"
"Always. When the children found they had nothing to do—or were avoiding their studies—they would fill the kitchen and insist that I teach them how to make something tasty they could enjoy when the labour was done."
"And did you teach them?"
"Indeed. Every last one."
"Even Mister Snape?"
"Best young bread-maker I have ever known. He has much more important tasks to concern himself with these days, but once, even he was a curious child with his own infinite thread of questions for me."
“Do you have a family, sir?”
Albus chuckled warmly. “Of sorts. One is in his study, doing something terribly serious, I assume, and the other is turning the pie crust to leather as we speak."
If I had not looked again at that very moment I would have missed the boy's awkward swallow as well as the overwhelming gratitude that shone out from his damp eyes. I had forgotten how striking hope looked on the face of a child.
Act Three: Death of a Servant
Death twitches my ear. "Live," he says, "I am coming." Virgil
Hosting death in my home as often as I have, I am positive that others have regarded my efficiency with funeral arrangements and my dispassionate demeanour towards callers who wished to mourn my family, the actions of a Stoic. Then again, they were not witness to the internal damage created from the first day of my mother's fever. It continued to worsen as each life fell away from me. Yet I never allowed my pain to break the surface – at least not by the light of day, and never would I allow myself to form words to admit it to anyone. Albus knew, of course. The blasted old horse always had a secret key to the locked shutters of my thoughts. Most of the time, he was good enough not to mention how useless my otherwise dependable defences were on him. If I were not a man of science, I might be swayed—as others have been at times—to believe he possessed the gift of Sight. Nonetheless, I knew he was simply a man who was observant to a fault, and yet still human enough that he released grief in his own fashion – rolled it out into every pie, beat it out of the rugs, and tossed it into the fire to be liberated and added to the grimy haze that blanketed London.
It was an unseasonably humid night in June when Albus was taken from us, and ironically, one of the few nights I had fallen asleep without the aid of my nightly brandy.
The boy was through my bedroom door and pulling at my hand before I was properly awake. He wouldn't stop talking or dragging me down the stairs until his urgent cries suddenly broke into my sleep-clouded mind and I understood the gravity of the situation. He dropped my hand and we ran together toward Albus' living quarters. I had made the trip countless times, and yet I remember the feeling of dread that settled over my heart as the corridor seemed to stretch out infinitely, slowing our progress. Once there, however, it was the last place I wanted to be.
He was taking his last breaths and using them to call our names.
Potter was at the bedside in an instant. He tried to apologise for leaving Albus alone, but the old man hushed him with a feeble wave of his hand. It was then that I noticed tears in both of their eyes.
The boy whipped his head around as if he expected to see a stranger entering the room.
"It's my given name." It was all I could think of to say.
I took the other side of the bed and sat, careful not to cause Albus any more pain. He had been growing steadily worse for weeks, but there was nothing to be done. His time had arrived, that was all there was to it. Life had given him longer than most, and he knew it.
With the last of his strength, Albus clasped our hands.
"I am proud to have known you both," he said with a warm glance for each of us. He turned again to me. "Don't let your heart ice over. It needs the sunlight." I nodded, unable to speak. "And you, Harry. Don't let yours lead you into too much trouble."
"Yes, sir," the boy managed through his sniffles.
He still had our undivided attention, and yet he gave our hands one final squeeze. A second later his body shook, and my heart pounded with alarm until I caught sight of the wide grin on his lips and realised he was laughing.
"What a strange family we make."
And with that, he closed his eyes and left us.
I eventually turned my eyes away from the man who had been a fixture in my home longer than I had been in the world, when the clock in the sitting room above chimed four. I looked over at the boy and found his expression was one of complete despair.
I later discovered that Albus' death was the first he had witnessed firsthand. At the time I was also quite baffled by the sadness written on every inch of his face. True, the old man had been his mentor and companion for the good part of a year, but to form so deep an attachment in such a short time was something I regret not having the maturity to understand at the time.
As much as I feared the consequences of being the persistent survivor, I somehow put my pain and anxiety on hold to deal with a child who was clearly in need of comfort. I was unprepared for the task, still, when my eyes fell upon his small straw bed in the corner, a solution presented itself.
"You're moving to a new room."
"I'd like to stay here, sir."
"That is not an option. It is unhealthy to share the night air with a body."
"It's nearly light now," he said before realisation that he had refused an order dawned on him. He lowered his head and spoke respectfully. "Should I stay in the kitchen for now, sir?"
I had intended to suggest it. However, those were not the words that I spoke as I spotted his shaking hands still clinging to Albus' own.
"Bring your pallet to my room. You may sleep there until we remove—until Albus has been moved. After that, you may choose to return to these quarters, or select one of the other bedrooms."
He gently laid Albus' hand down, wiped his face with his nightshirt and obediently moved towards the straw mattress in the corner. It occurred to me that he was a good deal taller at the moment than he'd been when Albus had sewn it for him.
After that night, I began to think of the boy as Harry, simply because I knew it was what Albus would have wanted. And as irony would have it, it was several years before Harry learned to address me as anything other than sir.
Act Four: The Bridge
Failure and success seem to have been allotted to men by their stars. But they retain the power of wriggling, of fighting with their star or against it, and in the whole universe the only really interesting movement is this wriggle. E.M. Forester
Before Harry's arrival, I wouldn't have believed that a man could reflect on his life and accomplishments with anything more than a logical and analytical mindset. Without my permission, a young boy had gradually dissolved the man I had always dreamt of becoming, and used his innocence and curiosity to breed patience and compassion I never knew I possessed. Not at first, of course. Every creature requires time to transform and, for some reason or another, I had need of a longer interval than most.
As the sun lifted on our first day without Albus I made arrangements, prepared the body and carried out each task in silence so as not to wake the boy curled up in the corner of my bedroom. Once awake, however, he rushed through the house attempting to complete his jobs before the sun made its journey back towards the horizon.
From the moment he clattered a tea service down on my sketches, I knew he had no future as a servant. Albus had probably known it all along.
"Sir, what's Bascule?" he asked, poking a sticky finger at a rescued sheet of paper.
"You're here to serve tea, not to ask questions," I said, attempting to keep tea and jam from ruining weeks of my work.
"I'm sorry, sir."
Something occurred to me while he hurriedly moved the service to a side table.
"You can read."
"Some. There's a lady at the church who teaches the working children to read in the evenings. I don't have my standards, and I stopped going when I started working here, but–"
"It's French. It's the word I'm using to describe the movement of the bridge deck. See it swings up, weighted at the other end–"
He nodded at the rendering. "Like a castle bridge over a moat."
Of course he was right. It was essentially the drawbridge design, but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction at the time. It had been a good long while since I'd carried on a polite conversation with anyone other than Albus and a few anxious engineers.
"Bascule is derived from the French word for see-saw, and the bascule bridge works on a pivot with a heavy weight at one end to balance the greater length at the other."
The tea went cold as he asked more questions, and I, for some unknown reason, answered each one. I might have been a spot snappish when he inquired about my childhood with Albus and my family. Nonetheless, when we stayed rooted in the realm of bridges, steam power, and reading revision the conversation was pleasant enough and a welcome distraction from our grief.
Albus had been right that the boy possessed a sharp mind—certainly not for the complexities of science and figures—but he grasped them in general terms and seemed to be uncommonly skilled at finding practical solutions to situations I had a tendency to overcomplicate. His inquisitiveness became less of a bother over time. In fact, I came to regard it as one of his most unique attributes. Where many men had free reign of their decisions, I was cursed and privileged enough to have a young mind constantly inquire about my choices, therefore challenging me to re-examine my motives at every turn. It might sound a tiring process however, in truth, it prepared us both for the years ahead when thousands of labourers, citizens, and even members of parliament would call me to task on various issues concerning the design, the progress of construction and the completion date of the project.
A day after Harry's eleventh birthday, a member of the Bridge and Subway Committee turned up at my door and announced—loud enough for the neighbourhood to hear—that my income would be increased from one hundred and fifty to three hundred annually. Harry stared in shock at the man until I sent him inside to put on the tea.
My first order of business was to secure a day-maid to relieve Harry from attempting to continue his housekeeping duties. He seemed disappointed until he discovered that he was to become my apprentice, which would include daily lessons in reading and writing. After that revelation, and a trip to the tailor's to purchase him some proper clothes, it was difficult not to smile at his temporary loss of speech. He wore a constant expression of disbelieving awe for several days, and often tried to insist that he was not worth a pair of shoes that fit, or a new ledger with crisp, white pages.
He took to reading like a bird to the sky yet his tastes ran to stories of adventure, theatrical plays and tales of Arthur and his good knights, despite my best efforts to point him towards more serious subjects. It became a common occurrence to find him tucked into one corner of his window seat, reading by the light of the street lamp hours after he'd been sent to bed.
In that regard, Harry might as well have been my true son. On the nights we needed rest, thousands of unvoiced thoughts floated around under our nightcaps, and when sleep managed to succeed, it was never restful. Albus once said it was difficult to appreciate the sunrise if one was sleeping. I wanted to agree, although I knew well that a frantic mind and a body starved of rest rarely has time for the beauty of nature.
When he was young, I never asked Harry about the difficult dreams from which I knew he suffered, and instead—to the best of my ability—tried to make his waking hours as pleasant as possible. To his credit, he never complained about any task I asked of him. Although, there were many afternoons when he lost the battle against sleep and took rest where he could. I would look up from my work to see his cheek pressed to the page of some book, eyelids closed in sleep. Somewhere in the back of my mind, Albus would chuckle.
Once construction on the bridge began, time management was of the utmost importance. I orchestrated vast numbers of men, kept the peace with impatient local residents, and tried to avoid the casualties that usually followed a project of such size. As a result of which, I spent most of my days and several nights a week at the site. Harry stayed at home and carried on with his studies, but would often turn up underfoot with a meal or tea when it was most needed. At first I discouraged his visits, spouting something I'm sure was very practical and correct about the dangerous mix of a curious boy, an unstable riverbank, and hundreds of weary workers.
A few days later, he turned up once again with tea and fresh bread which he shared with some of the men while he chattered on about their progress with the supports. I was of the mind to pull him aside for another lecture when I noticed a crowd had gathered around him. The men were laughing, patting him on the head for luck and returning to work with smiles on their faces. I had to rub my eyes to make sure they were the same men I knew, men who had—only the day before—been clamouring for shorter work hours with higher pay, which I promised I would mention on my next appointment with the committee.
After that day, I began an experiment. I asked Harry to come down to the river every second day, and discreetly watched the transformation of the workmen. On the days of Harry's visits, the general mood among the men was noticeably more good-humoured—regardless of the weather—with a marked increase in production. Stranger still, most of the men warmed toward me by association, even on days when Harry did not make an appearance. A few months later, I discovered the reason for this was a simple matter of misunderstanding. Upon initially meeting the men Harry had not introduced himself as Potter, or the architect's apprentice, but simply as Harry. Added to that was his ease around the site, the familiarity in which he spoke with me, and our similar colouring. From this observation the men had assumed he was my son. In those early days, it was for selfish reasons that I chose not to correct their mistake, but as both Harry and the structure grew, I warmed to the idea, although it was years before my words and stunted emotions harmonised with my private hope.
Three years later, Harry looked up from the book he was reading on the emergence of the suspension bridge design from the Incan rope bridge and asked "Sir, what do you think of allowing the men's families to visit the site?"
I set down my tea cup and looked up. "You know it's too dangerous. Why would you suggest it?"
"I think it would increase production," he said, closing his book and pulling his legs up under him on the sofa.
"What are your other arguments?"
"All right," he said, lifting his hands up. "Imagine yourself working for the butcher."
I leant back in my chair. "Harry, please acquaint me with your point."
"I'm trying, sir." He pulled a hand back though is hair and bit at one corner of his mouth until he had an answer. "Working for the butcher all day would earn you a wage, but you might also get to bring home some meat for your family, right?" he asked, eyebrows hidden by his fringe.
"Now, think about our workers. They work very hard—some of them for years—but they have nothing to take home at the end of day to show for it."
I shook my head. "Harry, I respect these men, but there isn't enough money to—"
"Not money, sir. I think if we allow their families to visit, the men can show them what their hard work is building."
I sat up straighter as his intent became clear. "Pride in their work will generate pride from their families."
"Yes!" he exclaimed with a punch to the air. "And if they are proud of what they're producing, they will work from their hearts, not just their backs." He paused long enough for a warm smile to bloom across his face. "I want them to see these years as an investment in something much more lasting than just a bridge."
I stood and made my way over to where he crouched in excitement. He settled back when I joined him on the sofa and regarded him with mock-suspicion.
"These are not the thoughts of a lad of fourteen. Where have you hidden Albus?"
His laughter filled the room. It was a wonderful sound.
"Good idea, then?"
I nodded before reaching out to tousle his hair. "Worth trying, certainly. I suppose you have a plan set up?"
He looked uneasy for a moment, and then met my gaze. "It would have to happen when work isn't going forward."
I formed a stern expression and made him laugh again. "Halting work to increase production might be the flaw in your plan."
He shook his head. "We already stop once a day. Can we extend tea time one day a week for the families to come?"
"Are you also hopeful that their wives and children might bring them something from home to eat to further lift their spirits?"
The confident smile was answer enough. "It will work."
"I believe you."
The years swept over us like wild fire, punctuated with delays, endless difficulty with supplies, countless pleas to the committee for more money, and daily design amendments to match the Queen's temperament of the moment. Even so, there were never a group of men more proud of their work than the crew who poured their lives into seeing the bridge take shape. Some worked as father and son, some grew up and most grew old. Still, the bridge was ours, and our collective efforts shone out from every inch of the beast.
Harry completed his informal studies at sixteen and began joining me daily at the site. Because of his ease with the public, I placed him in charge of all incoming shipments, and made it known that he could answer in my place if I was engaged with the installation of the steam engines, which, by that time, I frequently was. Within a week he was keeping the ledgers, ordering supplies and receiving deliveries with the fluency of someone well beyond his years. He had even acquired a friend in the process, Nolan Carroll, son of the stationer who made the paper delivery. Sandy-haired, fair-skinned and with an unmistakeable Irish brogue, he was poles apart from Harry, but there was no better match as for loyalty, honesty and good-humour. Seemingly overnight they progressed from acquaintances to dear friends, as close as brothers. It was not uncommon to witness them sharing a Friday tea, conversing together, perched on the highest point they could safely reach, while the worker's families arrived for the weekly presentation of tea and progress. I never inquired as to their topic of conversation, although now, I suppose I could speculate with some accuracy.
I would occasionally glance at Harry, a handsome young man who looked as natural paying for a shipment of Scottish steel as he did leaping aboard the barge to assist in the backbreaking task of unloading it, and struggle to remember him as the awkward boy who had arrived in my study in ill-fitting clothes all those years ago. I was unbelievably proud of the man he was becoming, though I worried about the consequences of sharing my burden with him. Six years of our lives had already been consumed by the bridge, and I often contemplated how many more was fair to ask of him.
He showed no desire to be anywhere else. Nevertheless I wondered if he ever thought about following the crowds though the subway and seeking his life somewhere on the other side. There were times when I'd witnessed him staring out over the river, and a look of longing would surface for a moment and then vanish. I had invented several different reasons for why I believed him to be inwardly unhappy, but I would have never landed on the truth—not even if I had a million attempts to deduce the answer.
On the eve of his seventeenth birthday, we ended our day early to celebrate with dinner at home in the garden. He had been unusually quiet all day so, naturally, I assumed he was reflecting on his youth and envisioning his future, as I had done at the very same age. However, when his silence continued into dinner and his eyes stared out past the roses, I finally set down my wine and asked what was weighing on his mind.
He was quiet a moment longer before pouring himself a glass and drinking a generous measure. Next, he regarded me with a sad, honest expression. It is an image I can still recall in an instant if I desire to.
"Sir, do you—do you reckon there are chaps who fancy spending time with each other more than with ladies?"
"If not, there would likely be no sporting matches, smoking rooms or banks," I said as I refilled our glasses.
He blinked at me in confusion and then produced a nervous smile.
"Yes, but that's not—I meant–" His choked sentence and suddenly crimson face told me all I needed to know. An image came to mind of two heads—one light, one dark—bent together in secret conversation one hundred feet above the river in an unfinished window. I chose my words carefully as he busied himself with another drink of wine and avoided my eyes.
"It is possible for a man to steal a look over the wall into a private garden and want to sample the fruit growing there, yes."
He eyes locked on mine with a look of relief. "Has anyone ever opened the gate and actually gone in?"
I tried to keep my appearance neutral as I answered the baffling question. "That particular form of adventure is against the law, at least in this part of the world. If they are fortunate, trespassers are arrested. Therefore, most need to content themselves with hasty glances over their shoulders, or else court the dangers of growing such a garden out of the sunlight."
He sunk slightly in his chair. I disliked the look of defeat he suddenly wore.
"What is Mister Carroll's opinion on—gardening?"
"Nolan, he– He's been reading about—the soil in Germany and France." He picked up the wine once more but lowered his gaze to the table. "Thinks it might be more receptive."
"It might," I said, reaching across the table to lower the precarious bottle in his unsteady hand. "Still, uprooting has always been uncertain business."
"I—yes." He took a few slow breaths and then looked up again.
I saw it then in his shining eyes, his plan, his future, and felt my heart break for the adversity and hardship he would surely encounter. Then, even though I had never been a man of faith, I sent up a prayer that he would also have enough love, happiness and contentment to over-balance the scales.
"Nothing is for certain," he said, as if reading my secret thoughts. "I'm not uprooting until the bridge finished."
"Are you certain? By my figures, I estimate two and a half years more, if everything moves forward at the same rate."
He nodded. "Whatever it takes. There's no hurry. I was there at the beginning, and I want to be there at the end."
"Thank you, sir."
I don't know why I said it, but the moment it left my lips, I knew it was the right decision. I was not ready, however, for his instant reply.
"Or—or father? I've thought of you that way for so long now, but if you wouldn't–"
There was never a more fortunate man. Or one so delighted to have his youthful dreams of solitude shattered and re-sewn in such a seamless design.
"Either would be a great honour."
All at once, Harry left his chair and knelt next to mine.
"I wish Albus could see us."
I ran my hand through his hair several times, thinking that it was a shame I had never thought to do it before.
"I'm sure he's found a way to continue his meddling," I said, picturing in my mind the old man stirring his oar to rearrange the stars to his liking.
From that day forward, Harry's phantom sadness appeared to vanish, and Nolan's presence at the site became more frequent, although always discreet. Work was long and demanding for every man on the project, and three years stretched on with scarcely any time to rest or reflect on our labour.
The citizens who dealt daily with the suffocating subway and the dangerously overcrowded London Bridge were growing intolerant of assurances that the wait was almost over. Some would gather along the banks and shout insults and criticisms at myself and the men as they worked. Others wrote tasteless letters to The Times, badly constructed arguments to Parliament, and a few brave souls tried to bend the ear of the Queen herself. However, once the upper walkway was completed and the Cornish granite appeared on the steel abutments, the wave of hostility calmed to a faint ripple of disgruntlement and eventually resurfaced as mild restlessness.
For the sake of public safety, the bascules were to be installed by means of two barges, raised, and then left in their vertical position until the official opening, allowing the river traffic to proceed uninterrupted. The honour of raising the newly mounted decks fell to Harry and myself, supported by several millwrights, engineers and strong arms with tools in hand, on the chance that something went awry in the process. When the boilers sang, we knew it was time. The monstrous engines groaned and protested, but eventually began their rhythmic music as thick steam filled the air around us and two thousand tonnes rose into the air. Success was ours in less than two minutes.
Later, Harry revisited the moment, describing it as he'd always imagined an adolescent dragon would have taken to being roused from a deep sleep—steam and fury, but no fire.
I was thankful for that much.
Harry's twentieth birthday had come and gone and Autumn had settled for nearly a month when the last set of inspectors finally pronounced the bridge completed. The date for the official opening was announced, and the city came alive with excitement.
That night, I invited Nolan to join Harry and I for dinner at any restaurant that they agreed upon. It was a memorable evening filled with laughter, wine, excellent food and a smattering of ill-sung pastoral songs on our walk home. Before falling into his bed, Harry had insisted we purchase new suits for the grand event, and I couldn't find any fault with indulging him.
I slept that night, more soundly than I had in years.
As we took the steps up to the small sun-warmed platform in our new finery, the cheering of the crowd rose in volume. I had never seen such a sight. People as far as the eye could see, from all walks of life—every age and class, gathering in the street, on the riverbank, and some were even watching from boats.
I settled a hand on Harry's shoulder and, as one, we turned our attention to the main attraction. The Prince of Wales declared the bridge officially open and awed the masses by raising the bascules with the touch of a button.
Some have hailed it as The Achievement of the Century, other reporters named it aself-indulgent eye-sore, but it was to become known as the Tower Bridge in the months and years to come, due to its proximity to London Tower. For myself, it represented years of trial, error, disappointment, brilliant inspiration, utter misery and astonishing pride. When I asked Harry for his thoughts as he studied the completed structure, he simply replied, "It's beautiful. Well done, father."
I'm not ashamed to admit those words made any other praise pale in comparison.
It was odd to simultaneously be filled with conflicting emotions of relief, pride and loss. As much as I had longed for the day to arrive, my heart was quick to remind me of Harry's impending departure, and of how utterly unprepared I was for that moment.
"You'll be setting out soon?" I asked him over breakfast the next morning.
He kept his eyes on his bread and nodded. "Tomorrow."
My chest began an uncomfortable ache.
"I see. What are your plans?"
Harry lifted his head and transformed his expression into one of reassurance I was certain was for my sake alone.
"Nolan wants to take in the boat races before moving on."
I stared at him for a moment, thrown off balance by the last answer I'd expected. "Oxford and Cambridge?"
I studied the man before me and noticed again how years of being out in the open air had toughened his skin and given him the build of a labourer.
"You would have done well at rowing."
He smiled, evidently pleased with my observation. "I'd like to try it some day."
"There is enough set aside for your education, should you choose to study as well as row."
There was a moment of solemn silence that Harry had the bad taste to break with an attempt at humour.
"I thought about Greek studies–" he sputtered, finally abandoning the utterance for red-faced laughter.
Once his breathing returned to normal and the smile had been chased away from my own lips, Harry stood and motioned for me to join him in the sitting room.
"I think we'll try for France," he said, suddenly looking every one of his twenty years.
I searched my mind for something to offer—something tempting enough to turn his mind from his fool's errand. Even as I schemed, I knew nothing I could suggest would compare to the pull of the life he wanted to pursue—however uncertain.
"Keep in contact," I said at last, careful to keep my tone light, in contrast to the sadness that was setting in. "I'll even load you down with pennies for the post if I must."
He embraced me. I held him there, unwilling to let go.
"I'll write, I promise," he muttered to my shoulder.
"See that you do," I said before releasing him so I could deliver my next news face to face. "When my course is run, you will have control of the estate."
"Severus, no, I–"
I held up my palm. "I have already made the arrangements."
He seemed unable to move until tears were silently running down his cheeks. Looking stunned, he brought his hands up to his eyes.
"I don't know what to say."
I held out my handkerchief. "Two words: I agree."
"I agree," he whispered. "Thank you."
I couldn't resist embracing him again. This time he shook slightly in my arms, and I remembered clearly how ill-equipped I had been to comfort an eleven year old boy who had lost a mentor.
"Please don't wait for an invitation to return home should it prove necessary," I said, meaning every word sincerely.
"We will. I promise."
He collected himself and pulled back after a few moments.
"And you have your accounts set in order?" I asked, walking back to the table to retrieve some water.
"Yes. Stop worrying," he said teasingly.
I handed him a glass and he emptied it quickly.
"I've heard that worry is the burden of a father," I said, pausing to drink as well.
When I looked up, he was looking back with a devilish grin.
"I'm sure you mean the mother."
Before I had a chance to properly laugh or scold, I found my arms once again full. All humour left the room as he whispered into my ear.
"If something happens, will you save a place for me in your heart?"
I kissed his temple and answered him.
"It was reserved for you long ago."
I prefer to think of myself, Albus and Harry as misplaced creatures surrounded by a city of manners, calling cards and conformity. We were a house of dissidents – perhaps a new breed of men—one for each generation. We forged our path, followed an inflexible inner compass, and willingly disregarded the expectations and conventions that trap even the strongest of men.
I miss them both—one long departed, and the other just starting on his journey. I have never felt at ease with matters of the heart, and yet, I have found ways to keep them near until our paths cross again. For Albus, I give the maid every Sunday off, invade her kitchen and bake bread in the same slow, comfortable way he taught me as a child. For Harry, I make myself a sandwich with the fresh bread and enjoy it on the tower walkway, making sure to pause at his favourite window and imagine him rowing for Oxford, Nolan cheering like a madman from the banks.
I believe my young self would be appalled at the unfamiliar old man I've become—one who fills his pockets with crumbs for the birds, and his guest rooms with young apprentices. In truth of fact, I scarcely recognise myself these days, although I am more pleased than I thought I would be at the transformation.
Perhaps time shapes men in the same manner as a bottle left too long in the sea. We are pounded until we break, churned until unrecognisable, refined and eventually recreated as something well-rounded.
I affectionately blame this time of reflection on the reporter who asked about documenting my life. If our paths were to cross again one day, I believe I would now be able to name the fifth and final act.
Tower Bridge: The picture at the top is an actual photo from the opening day of the bridge. Schematic Official Website Victorian life: Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell (this is the source I primarily used) Quotes were all found using the Google quote garden, and all were written either during or before the era of the story.
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