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Threads of Hope by Oregonian

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In the ensuing weeks, Dolores followed Mr. Crouch’s advice determinedly. She learned that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had a departmental library where books and issues of journals could be read, and the librarian witch was a trusty helper in assisting her to find materials written at a level that she could understand.

Each morning she hurried to work a half an hour early to start her regular duties so that Mrs. Comer would grant her thirty precious minutes to spend in the library later.

As the weather grew colder and the wizarding community spent more time indoors, the number of complaints about clothing violations in the presence of Muggles became fewer, and there was often slack time at the end of the day when Mrs. Comer would let Dolores study old case reports. She took them to her cubicle one by one and spread the pages out on her desk.

Some offenders were determined to disregard the law, and their files detailed multiple escalating offenses, with escalating disciplinary actions — warnings, hearings, fines. There were cross references to related offenses such as flying a broom or using a wand in public, and alcohol was often cited as a contributing factor.

A few cases were pathetic — an elderly witch or wizard who lived alone without family or close friends nearby, seen wandering out of doors in disheveled, unwashed robes. A home visit by an Enforcement Officer, after one or two letters had been sent, revealed that the offender had not understood the letters and was vague about why the officer was there. Disposition usually was the placement of the offender in a group home with proper supervision.

They’re probably half-bloods or Muggle-borns. No pureblood would behave like that. Dolores was irritated that the reports did not specify the offenders’ blood status, and she brought that deficiency to Mrs. Comer’s attention, but the older woman only replied mildly, “Does it matter?”

At the monthly educational meetings during the autumn, Dolores made a point of always exchanging a few friendly but professional words with Mr. Crouch, cleverly managing to include a brief reference to what she was studying, and to her delight at the meeting on the first Wednesday of December, after she had taken her usual seat near the back of the room, Mr. Crouch appeared and actually sat down next to her.

“Good afternoon, Miss Umbridge,” he said. “I see you’ve been very faithful in attending these sessions. Are you learning very much from them?”

Dolores felt her heart beating faster. It was the first time he had initiated a conversation with her, and she was almost afraid to turn her head, as she sat in her chair, to face him. He was so close. She could detect the faint odor of something, hair tonic or after-shave lotion, maybe. The thought flashed through her mind that her light lavender robes didn’t harmonize well with his black ones as they sat side by side; she should have worn a darker color. What a silly thing to notice.

She realized that she had been holding her breath and forced herself to start breathing again.

“Ye – yes,” she managed to say. “Of course I don’t understand it all, but I always take notes…” She was starting to babble, so she tried to cover up her nervousness by reaching into her bag and pulling out some sheets of parchment. Her hands were trembling.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Mr. Crouch said. “There’s a beauty in the law, an orderliness that keeps society functioning as it should. It may seem confusing at first, but the overall structure will become clear.”

Dolores had no idea how to respond. She reached down to the little fold-away writing surface attached to the side of the chair, swung it up, and folded it out across her lap, in preparation for taking notes. She set her ink bottle in the round-shaped recess on the corner of the desk, and her quill in the recessed groove. People were streaming into the room, taking seats, and there was a low buzz of conversation, but Dolores couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say.

She expected that at any moment Mr. Crouch would get up and move to another chair closer to his colleagues because she was such an inadequate companion, but to her surprise he remained seated next to her and said, “Tell me, have you been making any official visits in person to repeat offenders of the Clothing Regulations, and how have they been going?”

Dolores felt a moment of panic. Despite her boast to Millie in the lunchroom the previous August, she had made no such visits. In fact, Mrs. Comer, despite her promise to think about Dolores’s request, had not mentioned the matter until Dolores, in October, had asked again. At that time, her supervisor had turned her down flat.

“Frankly, you’re not ready for extra-mural duties, Dolores. In-person contacts with people who have already given evidence of their disregard for the law involves a certain amount of risk. It’s not a simple matter. You need a thorough understanding of the law and excellent ‘people skills’. You’ve only been working here, what — three months?”

Seated at her desk, Mrs. Comer had looked up at Dolores standing in the office like a schoolgirl facing a teacher. “You’re young, you’re short, and you’re female — three reasons why some of the offenders would disrespect you and be, shall we say, uncooperative. Perhaps in a few more years, when you are more experienced and can convey more of an air of authority.” Mrs. Comer had turned back to her desk again, leaving Dolores feeling quite deflated.

But she could not tell that to Mr. Crouch now. Frantically her mind raced to think of a cover-up. “Actually, I haven’t been on any home visits yet.” She turned her face to his and said, “We haven’t been getting nearly so many complaints since the cold weather set in, and there haven’t been any repeat offenders.”

“None at all?” Mr. Crouch asked, with a tone of surprise. “I’m glad to learn that, at least in the area of clothing regulations, the wizarding world is becoming more law-abiding.”

A witch who had been sitting at the front table came down the center aisle between the rows of chairs, distributing copies of an outline of the meeting’s lecture. When she reached the final row, she gave a handful of the papers to Mr. Crouch, whose chair was on the aisle. He took one and gave the rest to Dolores, who also took one and passed the remainder to the next attendee. Then, to Dolores’s surprise and joy, Mr. Crouch lifted up his own chair’s writing surface, opened it across his lap, and placed his paper on it. He wasn’t going to move to another chair after all! He was going to sit for the entire hour next to Dolores!

Although her heart was thrumming with excitement, Dolores forced herself to remain calm and professional. She picked up her quill, ready to dip it into the inkwell when the lecture would begin, and looked straight at the wizard who had taken his place at the podium, but a smile crept insistently across her round face, and in her mind she was saying triumphantly, Yes!

She found it almost impossible to attend to the speaker’s lecture for more than a few seconds at a time — something about variations among the laws of different countries — because images kept insinuating themselves into her train of thought: herself and Mr. Crouch traveling to these countries for high-level meetings and intimate holidays, she and he together in the spacious, wood-paneled rooms of their elegant home, so distant in scope from her present tiny flat, herself in designer robes at some major social function at the side of this tall, handsome man… Her eyes were directed toward the figure at the podium, but her mind was a thousand miles away.

At intervals Dolores would suddenly refocus her attention on the lecture, but the topic was technical, citing sections and subsections of laws and treaties she had never heard of, assuming background information she did not have, and she had long since lost the thread of the speaker’s thesis. She hastily scanned the brief sentences on the printed outline but could not associate any of them with what the wizard was saying at that moment. Her parchment contained no notes at all save the day’s date which she had written at the top. Belatedly she realized that the blank sheet would not impress Mr. Crouch, and that it would be impossible at that point to write anything intelligent, so she just placed the printed outline on top of her parchments and folded her hands over them. Let Mr. Crouch think she understood the lecture perfectly and did not need to take notes.

At the end of the hour there was a general rattling throughout the room as everyone folded their writing surfaces and stowed them away at the sides of the chairs. People began standing up to leave, and as Dolores and Mr. Crouch rose to their feet, she suddenly blurted out, “I’m saving up my money to be able to go to the national conference next year.” The national conference was held every October — she had seen the poster for this year’s conference in the library — and it encompassed three days, included some luncheons and banquets, and cost fifty Galleons to attend.

Mr. Crouch actually smiled down at her. “What a laudable goal. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it — I always do.” With that, he turned and walked away toward the door, joining the mass of other witches and wizards streaming out of the room. Dolores remained standing in front of her chair, her head turned to watch his retreating back, as other wizards in her row pushed past her toward the center aisle, saying “Excuse me” and “Pardon me.”

For the rest of the afternoon, Dolores could scarcely keep her mind on her work at the Improper Use of Magic Office. The Ministry Christmas party was coming up in only ten days, on Saturday evening, December sixteenth, and she was aquiver with anticipation. Mr. Crouch would be at the party, for certain. He would see her in her most festive and flattering robes. The Atrium would be filled with lights and music and merrymaking people. Wine flowing freely and trays of delicacies to eat. Would there be dancing? She fervently wished so. She closed her eyes and imagined herself swept away in his arms as they glided around the floor.

Opening her eyes again, seeing the dull surroundings of her cubicle and the stack of complaint letters on her desk in front of her, she sighed deeply and picked up the next one. The complaints had long since ceased to be interesting — they were becoming annoying in their sameness and predictability. Dealing with them was just a chore.

She set the letter back on the stack and began to write a to-do list: shop for new party robes, look for jewelry to match, book a hairdressing appointment, get new shoes (she put a question mark next to that item). She would have to dip into the Galleons she had been saving for the 1962 national conference, but this party was important. When finally she could think of no more items to add to the list, she shoved it into her pocket so that Mrs. Comer wouldn’t accidentally see it and went back to work on the complaint letters.

In the days that followed, Dolores spent all her lunch hours searching for the perfect party clothes. Lunch sack in hand, she Floo’ed from the Ministry to Diagon Alley and visited shop after shop, pushing her way through the crowds of witches and wizards doing their Christmas shopping. The shop windows were lit with twinkling lights and sparkling ornaments that mirrored her mood; inside, the racks of party robes were pawed over by dozens of eager young witches, and there was a long wait for the dressing rooms to try the robes on.

Dolores felt torn between her urge to see every gown that was available and her fear that if she hesitated too long, the perfect one would be claimed by someone else. Once she had made the agonizing choice, settling on a fuchsia-colored satin with ruffles and a low neck, then it was necessary to find shoes that matched and jewelry that harmonized.

A hair appointment for the morning of Saturday, December sixteenth, proved hard to book — every female Ministry employee seemed to be wanting one — and Dolores went from salon to salon, being told at each one that they had no vacancies, until she found Sally’s Hair Salon, a small establishment as plain as its name, with only two chairs, at the opposite end of the street from the Leaky Cauldron. This was the low-rent district, but the hairdresser still had openings for December sixteenth, and the price was lower than at the tonier salons.

Dolores was glad about that because she had only a little money left, not enough to buy an evening cloak to wear over her party robes. Her everyday cloak would have to do.

Each morning when she awoke in her tiny bedsitter, she reminded herself, “Only nine more days to the party…eight more days…seven more days…” Each night when she went to bed, she repeated the phrase “One day less.” She could hardly contain her excitement.

On the afternoon of Friday, December fifteenth, an hour before quitting time, the Improper Use of Magic Office had its own little Christmas party in its conference room with punch and biscuits on a sideboard. The table had been decorated with greenery, berries, and red ribbons, and all the employees brought little wrapped inexpensive gifts which were placed in a large basket, from which each employee drew one. Dolores brought a pair of earmuffs and received a box of scented soap. She ate a biscuit, drank a cup of punch, made a little small talk, and left as soon as she decently could. Most of these witches and wizards were middle-aged or older, and she did not know many of them.

That night she could hardly sleep, and she awoke on Saturday morning with such a knot of anticipation in her stomach that she had no appetite for breakfast. She lay in her bed, gazing at the fuchsia satin gown hanging on her closet door. The Big Day had arrived.

The hours seemed alternately to drag and then to fly. She had nothing to do before her hair appointment, and then she found herself rushing so as not to arrive late. Once home again with a gauzy scarf thrown over her elaborate hairdo to protect the charmed curls (despite her doubts about the modest salon, Sally had done an excellent job), Dolores paced and fidgeted nervously, peeping at the clock between periods of admiring her beautiful clothes and jewelry and re-checking her makeup supplies.

The sun went down and her street grew dark. She forced herself to eat a dish of applesauce and some buttered toast and then vigorously brushed her teeth to remove any dark crumbs still stuck to them. The minutes crawled by, not speeded by Dolores’s instant checking of the clock.

What ought she to say to Mr. Crouch when she saw him at the party? Something about law and her efforts at self-improvement? Or maybe the party wasn’t the right setting for a business conversation. Something personal? She realized that she know almost nothing personal about Mr. Crouch, and she fantasized an intimate conversation as they sat at a little round table for two, holding glasses of wine…

But what could she say in return about her Muggle mother, floor-mopping father, and Squib brother? That she was an only child and that both her parents were dead? Or say nothing at all about her family, be the ‘mystery woman’, and encourage him to keep talking about himself? That would be the best approach, she decided. After all, men liked to talk about themselves.

When the clock finally said eight, Dolores began her preparations. First the special lacy undergarments that enhanced her figure and made her feel so feminine, even though no one could see them. Then the makeup, including the special lipstick, rouge, and eye shadow, all chosen to harmonize with her dress. Lastly she put on the beautiful robes for which she had spent so much of her carefully-saved money, and the jewelry, a simple silver chain with a single pendant jewel in a shade as close to the color of the robes as she had been able to find, and matching silver jeweled earrings.

I look like a proper Gryffindor, she thought with a twinge of irritation, but she knew it couldn’t be helped. Red flattered her and green made her look sallow. Mr. Crouch was a Ravenclaw, she reminded herself; he wouldn’t care.

Which perfume to wear? A light, floral scent to emphasize her youth? A spicy scent to arouse his hidden desires? A more musky, Oriental scent to convey mystery and sophistication? Her hand wavered, poised over her three bottles of scent, and then landed on the spicy one.

She slipped her feet into the new shoes with the three-inch heels that made her look taller, wrapped her black coat around herself, and Apparated to the Ministry.

The Atrium was completely transformed with looping evergreen garlands covered with glittering multi-colored ornaments festooning every wall and draping over every fireplace. Great silvery icicles hung from the ceiling, and lacy white snowflakes appeared to be falling, although they vanished before reaching the heads of the party-goers. Towering fir trees, so thickly draped with ornaments that they seemed positively baroque, were spaced along the sides of the hall. Colored lights played over the Fountain of Magical Brethren. The image of Hogwarts’s Great Hall decorated for Christmas flashed through Dolores’s head, magnified many times over. She had never before seen anything like this.

The room was filling rapidly, and the constant “Pop” of Apparators mingled with the rising tide of happy conversation. A serving wizard approached Dolores and gave a brief bow, a nod of the head.

“May I take your cloak, Madam?” She shrugged off her cloak and handed it to him in a daze. “And the name, Madam?”

“Dolores Umbridge,” she said. “Thank you.” He headed toward one end of the hall where she presumed a temporary cloakroom had been set up.

Dolores looked about her in the vast hall, now crowded with witches and wizards in elegant robes, the women dressed in a rainbow of jewel-like colors, many with expensive-looking jewelry. They were all chatting with one another, some laughing — everyone appeared to have companions, and many people were holding wine glasses. Dolores did not see anyone she knew, and suddenly she felt very conspicuously alone.

Maybe I should have come with Millie, she thought. But no, the presence of another woman at her side could have hindered her relationship with Mr. Crouch. She had to find him somewhere in this crowd.

Along one wall of the hall, in front of the trees, she saw long tables with white tablecloths covered with elaborate foods, and she was aware of how scantily she had eaten that day. But she dared not walk up to the food tables and serve herself all alone, much less carry a plate to one of the small round tables and sit there eating by herself in lonely solitude. It would be like holding up a sign reading “I am a nobody.”

So she walked slowly through the crowd, going nowhere in particular, concentrating on not losing her balance in her shoes or accidentally putting her stiletto heel through the hem of her robe. She kept a smile on her face and made brief eye contact with anyone she could, strangers all, though most people were focused on their own companions.

Serving wizards whom she passed offered her glasses of wine from their trays, but she declined, not wanting to be seen drinking alone.

Finally she came across a group of three older women whom she recognized as employees of her office, and she walked up to them and stood beside them. One of the women, whom she knew only as Alberta, glanced over at her, said, “Oh hello, Dolores. You look nice. Are you having a good time?” and without waiting for an answer turned back to the other women and resumed her conversation. They were talking about family members and events of which Dolores knew nothing, so after listening for a few minutes to this boring dialogue, she excused herself and moved on.

Everywhere her eyes searched for Mr. Crouch, all through the hall, but she could not find him. A band began to play, its music scarcely rising above the sea of voices, and her senses felt assaulted by the noise, the crowds, the colors. She had to sit down, and she made her way, weaving between the knots of people, toward an area of round tables at the end of the hall.

As she came near to the tables, she finally saw someone she recognized — Mr. Crouch’s friend Colbert Gordon. She was so thankful to see a familiar face that she approached him and boldly greeted him with a smile.

“Mr. Gordon? Mr. Crouch’s friend?”

He stood up hastily, pushing his chair back from where he had been sitting with another wizard and two witches, and held out his hand with a genuine smile that suggested he was glad to see her.

“Miss Umbridge, isn’t it? The little intern with the big ambitions? So nice to see you here. You look lovely tonight. Are you having a good time? Come, join us.”

Relief flooding through her entire body, Dolores took his hand in a brief handshake and sank into a chair at the table. Finally she had made a connection. She could sit at this table, and passersby would think that these people were her friends, and she would no longer look like a wretched loner.

“I’m having a fine time, thank you. The hall is just beautiful.” Her smile was no longer fake.

“Let me introduce my friends to you,” Mr. Gordon continued, extending his left hand slightly in their direction. “Melissa Bingham, Charlie Weiss, Carolyn Booker.” Dolores murmured greetings to them, and they reciprocated. “Miss Umbridge is a new intern this year in MLE, but she’s been working hard to further her knowledge,” he said to his companions, and then to Dolores, “I’ve seen you at the seminars. You’re very diligent.” Dolores was surprised — had he and Mr. Crouch been discussing her?

Mr. Weiss stood up and asked her, “Have you had anything to eat yet?” Half-empty plates were sitting on the table in front of everyone in the group. Dolores shook her head, and he said, “I’ll get you something,” and left the table. She was touched by his offer, a sign of her acceptance in the group. She pictured him at the food table, a little white porcelain plate in hand, picking out delicacies he thought she would like.

She turned to Mr. Gordon and said, “I had thought your friend Mr. Crouch would be here, but I haven’t seen him tonight.”

“No,” Mr. Gordon said with a grin and a shake of his head. “Barty is otherwise occupied. He’s on his honeymoon.”

His honeymoon…? Dolores felt herself go stiff, her eyes widened, and her smile vanished into a half-open gape. She was speechless for a moment, not even breathing.

“His honeymoon? He got married?” What was this? How did it happen? He married…someone else?

“Yep, last Wednesday. They’re in France now.” Mr. Gordon was smiling broadly as if this were happy news.

“I — I had no idea,” Dolores stammered. Her fingers moved feebly over the surface of the fuchsia-colored satin in her lap, seeking something to cling to. She felt as if she had stepped into an alternate reality.

“Who did he marry?” she continued after a moment, forcing herself to lift her eyes from the tablecloth.

“The former Miss Vivienne Derwent,” Mr. Gordon answered.

The name meant nothing to Dolores. It was not someone she had known or heard of at Hogwarts.

“I don’t believe I recognize the name.” She was getting a grip on herself and could speak with a steady, conversational voice again. “Does she work at the Ministry?”

“Work? No,” Melissa Bingham said. “Vivienne’s from an old family. She’s been living at home since she left school.”

Oh, Merlin. An old family. Not a custodian-Muggle-Squib family. But maybe family didn’t count for everything. He was a Ravenclaw. Maybe he would become bored with her, a woman with no career, and start thinking with regret about the intern who was so eager to learn and advance. Maybe…

Charlie Weiss returned to the table with a plate of shrimps, tiny vegetables, stuffed mushroom caps, berries, little meat things on skewers, and set it in front of Dolores.

“I hope you approve of what I brought you,” he said.

“It’s lovely,” she replied. “Thank you so much.” But there was a lack of enthusiasm in her voice, and even less in her motions as she picked up her fork and speared a mushroom. When Charlie had left the table, she had been looking forward eagerly to this plate of food, but now it was as if she were seeing it through a gray haze.
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