"I was wondering whether you could tell me anything of Tom Riddle's history? I think he was born here in the orphanage?"
"That's right," said Mrs. Cole, helping herself to more gin. "I remember it clear as anything, because I'd just started here myself. New Year's Eve and bitter cold, snowing, you know. Nasty night. And this girl, not much older than I was myself at the time, came staggering up the front steps. Well, she wasn't the first. We took her in, and she had the baby within the hour. And she was dead in another hour."
Mrs. Cole nodded impressively and took another generous gulp of gin.
"Did she say anything before she died?" asked Dumbledore. "Anything about the boy's father, for instance?"
"Now, as it happens, she did," said Mrs. Cole, who seemed to be rather enjoying herself now, with the gin in her hand and an eager audience for her story. "I remember she said to me, 'I hope he looks like his papa,' and I won't lie, she was right to hope it, because she was no beauty -- and then she told me he was to be named Tom, for his father, and Marvolo, for her father -- yes, I know, funny name, isn't it? We wondered whether she came from a circus -- and she said the boy's surname was to be Riddle. And she died soon after that without another word.
"Well, we named him just as she'd said, it seemed so important to the poor girl, but no Tom nor Marvolo nor any kind of Riddle ever came looking for him, nor any family at all, so he stayed in the orphanage and he's been here ever since."
Mrs. Cole helped herself, almost absentmindedly, to another healthy measure of gin. Two pink spots had appeared high on her cheekbones. Then she said, "He's a funny boy."
"Yes," said Dumbledore. "I thought he might be."
"He was a funny baby too. He hardly ever cried, you know. And then, when he got a little older, he was. . . odd."
"Odd in what way?" asked Dumbledore gently.
"Well, he --"
But Mrs. Cole pulled up short, and there was nothing blurry or vague about the inquisitorial glance she shot Dumbledore over her gin glass.
"He's definitely got a place at your school, you say?"
"Definitely," said Dumbledore.
"And nothing I say can change that?"
"Nothing," said Dumbledore.
"You'll be taking him away, whatever?"
"Whatever," repeated Dumbledore gravely.
She squinted at him as though deciding whether or not to trust him. Apparently she decided she could, because she said in a sudden rush, "He scares the other children."
"You mean he is a bully?" asked Dumbledore.
"I think he must be," said Mrs. Cole, frowning slightly, "but it's very hard to catch him at it. There have been incidents. . . . Nasty things ..."
Dumbledore did not press her, though Harry could tell that he was interested. She took yet another gulp of gin and her rosy cheeks grew rosier still.
"Billy Stubbs's rabbit. . . well, Tom said he didn't do it and I don't see how he could have done, but even so, it didn't hang itself from the rafters, did it?"
"I shouldn't think so, no," said Dumbledore quietly.
"But I'm jiggered if I know how he got up there to do it. All I know is he and Billy had argued the day before. And then" -- Mrs. Cole took another swig of gin, slopping a little over her chin this time -- "on the summer outing -- we take them out, you know, once a year, to the countryside or to the seaside -- well, Amy Benson and Dennis Bishop were never quite right afterwards, and all we ever got out of them was that they'd gone into a cave with Tom Riddle. He swore they'd just gone exploring, but something happened in there, I'm sure of it. And, well, there have been a lot of things, funny things. . . ."
She looked around at Dumbledore again, and though her cheeks were flushed, her gaze was steady. "I don't think many people will be sorry to see the back of him."
"You understand, I'm sure, that we will not be keeping him permanently?" said Dumbledore. "He will have to return here, at the very least, every summer."
"Oh, well, that's better than a whack on the nose with a rusty poker," said Mrs. Cole with a slight hiccup. She got to her feet, and Harry was impressed to see that she was quite steady, even though two-thirds of the gin was now gone. "I suppose you'd like to see him?"
"Very much," said Dumbledore, rising too.
She led him out of her office and up the stone stairs, calling out instructions and admonitions to helpers and children as she passed. The orphans, Harry saw, were all wearing the same kind of grayish tunic. They looked reasonably well-cared for, but there was no denying that this was a grim place in which to grow up.
"Here we are," said Mrs. Cole, as they turned off the second landing and stopped outside the first door in a long corridor. She knocked twice and entered.
"Tom? You've got a visitor. This is Mr. Dumberton -- sorry, Dunderbore. He's come to tell you -- well, I'll let him do it."
Harry and the two Dumbledores entered the room, and Mrs. Cole closed the door on them. It was a small bare room with nothing in it except an old wardrobe and an iron bedstead. A boy was sitting on top of the gray blankets, his legs stretched out in front of him, holding a book.
There was no trace of the Gaunts in Tom Riddle's face. Merope had got her dying wish: He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale. His eyes narrowed slightly as he took in Dumbledore's eccentric appearance. There was a moment's silence.
"How do you do, Tom?" said Dumbledore, walking forward and holding out his hand.
The boy hesitated, then took it, and they shook hands. Dumbledore drew up the hard wooden chair beside Riddle, so that the pair of them looked rather like a hospital patient and visitor.
"I am Professor Dumbledore."
"'Professor'?" repeated Riddle. He looked wary. "Is that like 'doctor'? What are you here for? Did she get you in to have a look at me?"
He was pointing at the door through which Mrs. Cole had just left.
"No, no," said Dumbledore, smiling.
"I don't believe you," said Riddle. "She wants me looked at, doesn't she? Tell the truth!"
He spoke the last three words with a ringing force that was almost shocking. It was a command, and it sounded as though he had given it many times before. His eyes had widened and he was glaring at Dumbledore, who made no response except to continue smiling pleasantly. After a few seconds Riddle stopped glaring, though he looked, if anything, warier still.
"Who are you?"
"I have told you. My name is Professor Dumbledore and I work at a school called Hogwarts. I have come to offer you a place at my school -- your new school, if you would like to come."
Riddle's reaction to this was most surprising. He leapt from the bed and backed away from Dumbledore, looking furious.
"You can't kid me! The asylum, that's where you're from, isn't it? 'Professor,' yes, of course -- well, I'm not going, see? That old cat's the one who should be in the asylum. I never did anything to little Amy Benson or Dennis Bishop, and you can ask them, they'll tell you!
"I am not from the asylum," said Dumbledore patiently. "I am a teacher and, if you will sit down calmly, I shall tell you about Hogwarts. Of course, if you would rather not come to the school, nobody will force you --"
"I'd like to see them try," sneered Riddle.
"Hogwarts," Dumbledore went on, as though he had not heard Riddle's last words, "is a school for people with special abilities --"
"I'm not mad!"
"I know that you are not mad. Hogwarts is not a school for mad people. It is a school of magic."
There was silence. Riddle had frozen, his face expressionless, but his eyes were flickering back and forth between each of Dumbledore's, as though trying to catch one of them lying.
"Magic?" he repeated in a whisper.
"That's right," said Dumbledore.
"It's. . . it's magic, what I can do?"
"What is it that you can do?"
"All sorts," breathed Riddle. A flush of excitement was rising up his neck into his hollow cheeks; he looked fevered. "I can make filings move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to."
His legs were trembling. He stumbled forward and sat down on the bed again, staring at his hands, his head bowed as though in prayer.
"I knew I was different," he whispered to his own quivering fingers. "I knew I was special. Always, I knew there was something."
"Well, you were quite right," said Dumbledore, who was no longer smiling, but watching Riddle intently. "You are a wizard."
About the book:
The war against Voldemort is not going well; even the Muggles have been affected. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses. And yet . . . as with all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Harry receives some extraordinary help in Potions from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. And with Dumbledore's guidance, he seeks out the full, complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort -- and thus finds what may be his only vulnerability.
Excerpt from Swing Time
- Zadie Smith
Excerpt from Invisible Monsters
- Chuck Palahniuk