For a moment he had trouble remembering where he was or what he was supposed to do.
Apparition always gave Ned a headache and vertigo. Upon his arrival he nearly fell into a row of rubbish bins, just managing to catch himself in time. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, waiting for the episode to pass. Then he looked around him.
Under the hopelessly overcast skies and uniform mist of rain, the street was dark and badly maintained; stray bits of rubbish were creeping on the pavement in the light breeze. The wind was cold, and Ned wished that he had made some thicker and more waterproof clothing choices before beginning the day’s assignments. He shivered and fished out the bit of parchment on which the address was written. He took a moment to orient himself – it was hard to tell north from south in this light, and he didn’t want to risk a “four points” charm where a Muggle might see it – and reckoned that he was about a quarter mile from his destination. Ned started down the street to his left.
All around him as he walked were signs of neglect and outright abuse: graffiti slashed onto walls, paper and plastic in the gutters, and in many places the smell of refuse. The Muggles walking along the street were hunched against the cold. Many appeared to be underdressed for the weather, some were wheeling carts containing what could be all their worldly possessions, and not a few were talking to themselves. At one point he passed a gang of young men wearing identical knitted hats who somehow conveyed a sense of violence and anger – the tallest of them was looking right at Ned as a hungry man might look at a questionable bit of food. Clutching the wand hidden in the pocket of his clothes, Ned quickened his pace as he continued through what, long ago, had been called the Moss Side area of the proud city of Manchester.
To his relief, Ned came to his destination without damage. Rounding a corner, he found himself facing a large, red brick building that had once been a mansion, or a row of flats, or some sort of commercial establishment. Now, however, it bore a wide, hopeful sign that was a bit chipped and faded, despite its having obviously been repainted more than once over the years:
None are strangers here.
Ned walked up the steps and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but he could hear activity within. Knocking again and receiving no response, he cautiously opened the door, which was not locked, and stepped inside.
The room in which he found himself – a small entrance hall or foyer of some kind – was reasonably well lit from a small fixture above; the paint was not peeling although it was clearly not new. The room had no furniture except for a table on which were many pamphlets containing advice about obtaining government benefits, locating food and shelter, and preventing disease. A large sign saying Infirmary pointed to the left, while two signs saying Refectory and Dormitories pointed to the right. He could hear something like people moving or talking from both directions. Ned wasn’t sure what to do next, or in which direction to go to find the person he sought. He couldn’t guess the part of the building in which she was most likely to be found.
He was saved further deliberations by a girl of about ten rushing through the little foyer from right to left. She nearly knocked him over and would have continued with a muttered apology if he had not said, “Hello there, can you help me?”
The girl stopped and stared at him. She was wearing a green, secondhand dress and looked reasonably well-nourished, which made her stand out from the people he had seen on the street. Her dirty-blonde hair was cut in an even line around her head, as if someone had used a bowl or other simple guide to cut it quickly and cheaply. Her face was watchful and a bit suspicious.
“Who are you, then?” she demanded.
“I’m Ned, Ned Mason,” he said. “I’m trying to find someone.”
“Yeah? Who’re you trying to find?” she asked.
“I’m looking for Miss Weasley,” he said.
“Who?” replied the girl, to whom the name appeared to mean nothing.
Double-checking the parchment he’d brought, he read, “Ginevra Weasley.”
“Oh, you mean Mother Ginevra. Why didn’t you say so? She’s here.” The girl turned her head slightly in the apparent direction of the Refectory and shrieked, “Mother Gin!”
Ned heard footsteps coming from the right-hand doorway, and a calm, tired voice saying, “Don’t call me ‘Mother Gin,’ child; it makes me sound like an advertisement for spirits.”
The old woman who followed the voice into the room was short and slightly built, but showed the marks of toughening by long, arduous work. Probably closer to eighty than seventy, her back was perfectly straight and her gaze was steady. Her contemplative, weary eyes were that worn shade of tan that dark brown eyes sometimes take in later years, and had an echo of softness almost completely hidden behind a wall of practicality, decisiveness and endurance. There were lines of worry around her eyes and mouth, with branching rivers of tinier lines extending across her cheeks and forehead; but Ned fancied that he saw, in her cheekbones and the planes of her face, the afterimage of great youthful beauty. There was beauty to her now, but of a different sort – the ascetic beauty of a bare branch in winter as opposed to the florid beauty of a rosebush in June. Her hair, tied back in a no-nonsense silver-white braid that reached four inches past her shoulders, had a few faint threads of copper in it, leading Ned to believe she had once been a fiery redhead. Her hands were small but calloused and strong. She wore a plain, cheap, durable, blue work dress and shoes that had seen a lot of walking.
She looked at Ned appraisingly for a long moment. Then she turned to the girl and said, “See to the Infirmary, please, Rebecca; Rodney will need his salve again and Emily might be a bit worse.”
After the child left, the white-haired woman turned again to Ned and said flatly, “You’re wearing lederhosen with an Aloha shirt; you must be from the Ministry of Magic.” Her voice was tough too, though here was a hint of disused mirth behind it.
“Yes, Ma’am,” answered Ned. He didn’t see what his clothing had to do with it.
“I’m Ginevra,” she said. “Not Gin,” she remarked again in the direction the girl had gone. She turned back to Ned. “And who are you?”
“Edward Mason, Ma’am; my friends call me Ned.”
“Are you saying that we’re to be friends?” she asked, her eyes widening slightly.
“Perhaps not,” he admitted. “You could simply call me ‘Mason,’ if that makes you more comfortable.”
“I think I’ll call you Ned, at least for the time being. You can call me Ginevra.”
“I heard the girl call you ‘Mother Ginevra.’”
“Yes, some people here call me that, but I’m not anyone’s mother and it’s not necessary. So, Ned Mason of the Ministry of Magic, why have you come?”
“I’m following up on Ministry business,” he explained. “You should have received our owl about two weeks ago.”
“Young man, I haven’t opened owl-post in over fifty years,” she said.
“But why not?”
“Because owl-post comes from wizards, and there are no wizards whose letters I want to read. But you’re here now, and you can tell me yourself. No, wait,” she added as he began to speak. “Come into the kitchen and we’ll have a cup of tea. You can tell me there.” Although her words had the form of an invitation, Mother Ginevra did not smile.
He followed her through a long Refectory to get to the kitchen, in which she apparently had been working before the girl called her. The kitchen was not very large, considering the size of the building and the number of people he imagined it served. Over the flames on the stove there were several enormous pots that appeared to contain the beginnings of soups or stews that would feed a few dozen. There was also a steaming kettle from which Ginevra poured boiling water into a large teapot on the big worktable in the center of the room. She covered the pot with a cloth and sat down on a stool at one corner of the table, motioning for Ned to do likewise.
She looked at him shrewdly for a few moments, then occupied herself with readying the chipped teacups. Clearly she was waiting for him to speak.
Ned cleared his throat and said what he had come to say. “We have information that you performed a healing charm in front of a Muggle at approximately 2:45 a.m. on Sunday, November 5th.”
She looked into space for a moment, then nodded. “That would be when Archie Felton was brought in off the street with a gunshot wound. Yes, I think that’s correct,” she confirmed.
“You admit that you did this?” he asked carefully.
“Admit? Why yes, I suppose I do ‘admit’ it,” she said with some irony in her voice.
“I must remind you,” he said formally, “that performing magic in the presence of Muggles violates the Statute of Secrecy. Even accidental spells require the subsequent intervention of an Obliviation Squad. If you can give me the names of all the Muggles who saw you perform the charm, we can have their memories modified and allow this incident to pass with a warning.”
She stood up, unwrapped the teapot, lifted the lid, peered inside and stirred it for a moment with a spoon stamped out of thin metal, before re-wrapping it and sitting down again.
“No,” she said.
“Failure to cooperate with the Magical Law Enforcement branch will compound the offense,” Ned recited.
“If you say so,” she answered, her calm demeanor unchanged. “But I won’t help to remove or alter anyone’s memories. A person’s memories are his own, no matter how terrible they may be.” This struck Ned as a rather stark and melodramatic way to put it.
“But see here – ” Ned was momentarily at a loss for words; this was not the reaction he had expected. “You can’t go around performing magic in front of Muggles!”