Harry Potter and The Master and Margarita

‘Are you feeling litigious?’

J. K. reponds with an empty smile. She brushes a loose strand of hair behind her ear, and looks back out of the carriage window, staring into the space between the pane and the Scottish fields sliding past. The dull scenery dances through droplets which clutch onto the exterior for a while, before drifting diagonally out of our vision.

‘I feel litigious,’ butts in a broad voice. ‘Lawyer me up. When I go around anywhere, I see copycats everywhere. I want barristers spilling out of my holsters. I’m sick of seeing myself in this infernal fun house of mirrors. I’ll sue them all, to hell and back. I’m the original fat cat. Humour me please, at the very least: create a more trim version of me. Behind a couple of pounds of this baby pudge, lies a rather cute pussy.’

The behemoth of a cat across the aisle from J. K. and me pokes at its monstrous belly, which bulges with such a gusto, unseen dimensions wobble to contain its bulk. Sat facing the cat, is a mad-hatted man (well, who wears a fez these days?) and betwixt this odd pair a chess game is in play.

The cat’s companion, the fez fellow, twists his long face towards J. K. and me.

‘Comrades, please, excuse my friend. Behemoth here, he can be …’

The fez bloke’s voice blurs into the background, as I become wholly absorbed by the kittification of nightmare. Surely the cat didn’t just talk? Now, it (he?) appears to be taking advantage of the fez man’s ongoing apology to J. K. and me by furtively winking, twitching his (its?) whiskers and sticking his(?) tongue out at his opponent’s pieces. One of the fez chap’s knight pieces deciphers this unorthodox semaphoric display and assents; the souped-up tiny jockey canters off the board and enjoys some well-deserved rest. The retired knight is reportedly glad for a chance to stop horsing around.

‘… rather prone to bouts of outbursts (and idioms). Apologies, again, comrades. Good day.’

‘Call me a sack full of proverbs if you must, but I will not be restrained. Till the cows come home, I will remain bullish. My tongue is as free as a bird, like a bat out of hell; it flies like a butterfly and stings like a bee; as it laps up milk and honey, it too will flap into battle, and slap slap slappity slap any foe foe pho-munching foe. I’ll have it you, you twits.’

‘Behemoth, please, stop it now. There’s no need for this palaver. Let’s leave our comrades in peace and return to our game.’

A miffed Behemoth, and the fezmeister, settle back down over the chessboard. Confusion slowly spreads across the hatted man’s brow, as he inspects the empty square where he could swear one of his knights should be.

I collect myself, and resolve not to look to my left again. I’ll just pretend they’re not there. J. K., opposite me, appears to be of the same mind. She is desperately trying to distract herself by scribbling into a thin notepad. Below a reminder to watch Star Wars again, and a line which reads have the Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers last as long as Spinal Tap drummers, I spot the words include living chess pieces like the crazy cat’s being added.

‘Are you feeling litigious?’

Tic-like, the question slips from my mouth again.

‘Why?’ J. K. bites this time, covering her writing, annoyed, as if I have asked some outrageous favour from her, as if I have asked whether I may tickle her behind the knees, on a Tuesday.

‘Well, I’ve been pondering a bit recently, about your work, and about influences generally, really, and I, I couldn’t help but… well, you see, we all… to be influenced is to be human, right? Ideas don’t just zoom into… out of the blue…’

‘Ooh, look! Look! Fezzy fezster, check this out! Out the window!’ The cat has lept onto his hind legs and is jumping up and down on his poor seat, jabbing a paw at a… outside in the rain… a car? No. A flying car. ‘She’s coming to the party! Woohoo!

‘Yoohoo! Margarita! Margarita!’ he continues to holler, waving his frying pan-sized paw at the flying Ford Rossiya E501 Deluxe. From inside the airborne vehicle, the so-hollered Margarita gives Behemoth two thumbs up, beaming under her crooked hat. ‘I’ll see you at Woland(emort)’s,’ we read from her lips.

‘Ah, the new witch learns quick,’ booms the hat man. ‘Brooms are terribly inconvenient, even the silk-padded ones. Cars are far superior. Back support is not to be underestimated.

‘And it is far too easy, awfully easy, to lose one’s headgear when riding a broom. I have lost a plethora of fedoras, an array of berets; it is how I have ended with this one, you see, the fez, to match my prince-nez.

‘Automobiles, are they not just wonderful? I do enjoy a good train ride though, comrades, it must be said. The characters you meet on a locomotive, they can be truly remarkable.’

Behemoth was too animated to notice his friend’s soliloquy. ‘I can’t wait for Woland(emort)’s! The party will be the bee’s knees, the cat’s whiskers, the dog’s …’

‘J. K., what I really mean is…,’ I struggle to tear my attention away from the ongoing farce to my left. It has all gotten rather out of hand.

‘What I mean is…,’ I plough on. ‘When does inspiration become plagiarism? Can an idea be borrowed, or copied, or stolen? What are the differences? When is a tip of a hat, more than that?’

‘And what the devil does that have to do with whether I’m feeling litigious or not?’ J. K. bats back icily.

‘Don’t misunderstand me, please, but I’m thinking of writing a piece… I recently read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between Bulgakov’s book and your own wizard ones…’

‘What are you going to do? Write: “Three things occur in both Harry Potter and The Master and Margarita:

  1. living chess pieces;

  2. flying cars;

  3. travel by fireplace.”?

You don’t need my permission for that. Anybody can do that. However, I confirm and deny nothing.’

‘Well no… that’s not quite what I plan to do; bullet points would be a tad bland. Also, I will have to mention somewhere (shoehorn if necessary) that The Master and Margarita is Daniel Radcliffe’s favourite book. It’s too juicy a fact to leave out. What I’m thinking of is possibly…’

‘What? Fictionalising me?’ she ponders, sucking against her teeth. A few tense beats hang before she shrugs. ‘Hell, whatever. I’m a reasonable human being with reasonable views. Do whatever you want,’ returning to twirling her Biro and messing about with Professor (Lord) Woland(emort)’s name.

Relief and exhaustion seep through my body. A shudder… slides. I focus on my breathing for some time. The pitter patter of rain has eased, and the countryside outside is now English. The night has sidled up, with a cold blanket, asking softly how my day has been. I try to look at my watch, to see how long left of the journey there is, but my eyelids are too heavy. Gradually, my ears are drawn, yet again, despite my earnest resolution, back to the peculiar couple.

‘Oi, Fezzer, remind me again. How are the rest of the gang getting to Woland(emort)’s tonight?’ purrs Behemoth.

‘Why? Have you not seen the chimney renovations? Surely you must be able to figure it out by now.