The locals in a sleepy corner of the Cheviot Hills are surprised to discover that they have new neighbours. Who are the strangers at Drakeshaugh?
, General Characters:
Albus Severus Potter, Ginny Weasley, Harry Potter, James Sirius Potter, Lily Luna Potter, Original Character
Drama, Fluff, Friendship, General, Mystery/suspense, RomanceWarnings:
Introduction (and Author Notes)
This story is set in 2009 and is, therefore the most "modern" of my stories. This particular story is something of an experiment, so please let me know what you think.
Alwinton and Harbottle (and Harbottle Castle and the River Coquet) are real places in Coquetdale in the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland. The house called Drakeshaugh (pronounced Drakes-hoff) exists only in my imagination, but Harbottle Lough, Drakestone Burn and the Drake Stone itself are real.
Haugh is an old English word meaning meadow, or hollow (or sometimes hidden place) and is a common place name in Northern England and Scotland. For some unknown (to me at least) reason, Northumbrians use neither the English word lake nor the Scottish word loch, instead following the Irish tradition and calling large bodies of water loughs (locally pronounced loff). Confusingly, a “burn” in Northern England and Scotland, is a stream. Coquet (if you’re interested) is pronounced koh-kett.
This is a part of the UK I am familiar with (as should be obvious from my nom de plume), nevertheless, any resemblance between my Original Characters and the residents of Coquetdale is purely coincidental. The canon characters, of course, belong to JKR and I’m simply playing with them.
Finally, apologies to local footballing legend Jackie Charlton for the bad joke.
1. The Drop Off by Northumbrian
2. The Pick Up by Northumbrian
3. Misty Morning by Northumbrian
4. Sunny Afternoon by Northumbrian
5. Tea and Biscuits by Northumbrian
6. School Gates by Northumbrian
7. Wet Afternoon by Northumbrian
8. Work and Play by Northumbrian
9. Interlude: Thirty by Northumbrian
10. Conversations and Invitations by Northumbrian
11. A Confusion of Weasleys by Northumbrian
12. Baking Buns and a Barmy Blonde by Northumbrian
13. A Breakdown, a Bike and a Barmy Blonde Again by Northumbrian
14. Interlude: Three Families by Northumbrian
15. Arrivals by Northumbrian
16. Nosh and Natter by Northumbrian
17. Fireworks by Northumbrian
18. First Quarter by Northumbrian
The Drop Off by Northumbrian
The Drop Off
My husband saw her first.
I’d been facing backwards, twisted uncomfortably in my seat with my fully-extended seatbelt digging into my shoulder. I had been trying to prevent Henry from prodding his little sister. I’d succeeded by creating a barrier between them using the cat box. As a consequence, Henry was glaring at me with that sullen “how dare you stop me from doing what I want” expression of his.
‘Blimey,’ said Mike admiringly. ‘D’you think that’s real?’
As I turned to face forwards I caught a glimpse of the object of his appreciation. The woman was not tall; she wore tight denim shorts and a white t-shirt. A twisted rope of bright red hair was tied with two black bows. One was at the nape of her neck. The second was a little above the small of her back and it danced and swayed as she walked. She was holding a small boy firmly by the hand and pushing a buggy. The boy was wearing grey shorts and a turquoise sweat shirt, the same sweatshirt that Henry was wearing, the uniform of Harbottle Primary School. I doubted that Mike had even noticed him.
‘The bum?’ I asked, knowing my husband. ‘Definitely real.’
‘I was talking about the hair,’ Mike protested as we drove past.
‘No idea,’ I replied.
I turned and looked back; the buggy was a double. The woman was striding determinedly down the road towards Harbottle and the village school. She was a stranger, a newcomer to our little corner of the hills, but I instantly decided that I wasn’t going to like her. She had no right to a figure like that after three kids.
The Alwinton to Harbottle road is narrow, and there are no footpaths until you get into the village. The woman had been walking down the road, facing the oncoming traffic. Not that there was anything coming. We don’t see many cars on our roads and anything larger than a car is very unusual, unless the army are on the ranges.
We’d been crossing the River Coquet when Annie had started protesting about her brother’s prodding. We’d reached the castle car park when Mike spoke. I wondered where the woman had come from. I know everyone on our side of the river, in Alwinton and the surrounding farms. On this side, the south side, we had only passed two properties and I know who lives there, too. There was nowhere else.
Unless … unless someone had actually bought Drakeshaugh. The old farmhouse had been derelict for years, but as I considered the possibilities I realised that there was nowhere else she could have come from. Drakeshaugh was a mile and a half from Harbottle, up the track alongside Drakestone Burn. If she was from Drakeshaugh she had walked along the old and rutted track, and then along this road, while pushing two kids and holding the third.
‘Anyone mentioned any newcomers to you?’ I asked.
‘You keep up with the gossip, not me,’ said Mike. ‘We’ll find out soon enough; she’ll be taking the lad to school. He was in uniform.’ My husband had noticed the boy. Sometimes I underestimate him. After nine years of marriage I should know better.
We swept around the bends and into the single street that is Harbottle village. The stranger was lost in the distance behind us.
‘I could drop you off at the school, go back, and offer her a lift,’ Mike suggested.
‘Michael Charlton,’ I told him as we slowed down. ‘You are here for your son’s first full day at school, not to pick up curvy redheaded strangers.’
‘I could combine the two,’ he said with a grin.
‘What’re you talking ‘bout?’ Henry asked us from the back seat.
‘We’ve just seen a lady who we don’t know walking towards the school, Henry,’ I informed my son. ‘She has a little boy with her; he might be a new friend for you. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?’
‘No,’ Henry told me firmly.
I kept the sun visor down at all times. By using both the vanity mirror in the sun visor and the door mirror I could watch my children without them realising what I was doing, Henry was convinced that I did have eyes in the back of my head. My son was close to tears this morning, poor little lad. He was worried, nervous. It was a big day, his first full day at school.
Henry had been going to school for half days, mornings only, since Easter. He had settled in nicely, even made friends with a couple of the older children, but the six week summer break had been long enough to make him forget all about that. We’d had tears and tantrums from the moment we’d roused him this morning and I was extremely thankful that my husband had insisted on helping. Mike had arranged to start work late, so that he could be with Henry for the start of his first full day at school.
‘Here we are, Henny,’ Mike announced as he pulled up behind the line of cars already parked on the street outside the school.
‘Hen-ry,’ Henry corrected his father crossly.
‘You used to say Henny when you were a little boy,’ Mike reminded him. ‘Aren’t you still a little boy?’
‘No!’ announced Henry importantly. ‘I’m a big boy, I’m nearly five.’
‘A big boy who’s going to school for a whole day, like big boys do,’ said Mike knowledgeably.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ I told my husband. He grinned and winked at me.
I took my time getting out of the car, allowing Mike to walk around to lift Henry out from his seat onto the path. I leaned across Henry’s car seat and unbuckled Annie from hers. Settling her on my hip, I watched Henry take his daddy’s hand. Mike was doing a good job; he was playing the ignorant fool, keeping Henry’s mind on other things.
‘Is it this way?’ Mike asked, leading Henry in the wrong direction, away from the school gate, and allowing our son to scold him and lead him into the school yard. Mike says that sometimes acting daft is the most sensible thing to do; it certainly works with Henry most of the time. I smiled as I watched them walk through the gate and disappear.
I checked the back seat; Henry had left his school bag on the floor. I picked it up and cursed; it was dripping. The carton of fresh orange juice I’d packed for him was leaking, that was obvious from the smell. I swore under my breath, lifted the bag out from the car and dropped it onto the path. The bag was a sticky mess, and now, so was my hand.
‘Wassamatter, Mammy?’ my daughter asked.
I lifted her into Henry’s car seat and ordered, ‘Don’t move, Annie; I need to clear this up.’
I squatted down on the verge and began to unzip the bag.
‘Need any help?’ someone asked. Her accent gave her away instantly, it was definitely southern; West Country I thought. A few more words and I’d be certain.
I looked towards the voice. There was the boy in the school sweatshirt. He was auburn-haired and freckle faced and he was looking rather worried, not unlike Henry. There was the buggy, a muddy three-wheeled off-roader. Two children sat side by side in the buggy. The younger was a toddler, eighteen months old I guessed; a girl with hair as bright a red as her mother’s and tied into two bunches. The older child was perhaps three, and completely unlike the other two, he had a mop of unruly jet-black hair and bright green eyes.
Behind the buggy was a pair of pale, freckled and well-muscled legs. The woman’s faded denim shorts were quite long, three or four inches above her knees and they did not seem so tight from the front, but as her white t-shirt was low-cut, my husband would probably find something else to attract his attention; two something elses.
Oblivious to my uncharitable thoughts, the freckle faced and red-headed stranger looked at me, smiled, and then waved at my daughter who sat patiently in the car seat. The woman’s children looked at me as though they’d never seen another human being before.
‘Are we there yet, Mummy?’ the boy in school uniform asked her as I opened Henry’s bag.
‘Yes, James, we’re there,’ she told him.
Juice had dripped from Henry’s lunch box and onto his coat, which was wet and sticky. Under the silent scrutiny of the woman and her three children I pulled out the coat and dropped it on the path before opening the lunch box and checking the contents. Henry’s apple could be salvaged, if it were washed and dried it would be fine, but the rest of his lunch was ruined.
They were still there, watching and waiting. I glared at the woman; then remembered that she’d asked me a question; she’d offered to help, and I hadn’t replied. It was me, not her, who was being rude.
‘Sorry, I don’t think that you’ll be able to help, but thanks for the offer,’ I apologised to the woman. ‘My son’s orange juice carton has leaked and his lunch is ruined.’
‘Lunch?’ The young woman looked worried. Her children simply continued to watch me. ‘Isn’t lunch provided? I thought that lunch was provided.’
‘It is, if you’ve paid for it,’ I told her. ‘Have you?’
‘I don’t know,’ the woman looked confused. ‘Harry – my husband – made all of the arrangements. He was supposed to be here with me, but there’s been a crisis at work and he had to go.’
‘Want Daddy,’ the dark-haired boy announced. His ears had pricked up at the word “Harry”.
‘He’s at work, Al,’ the woman said exasperatedly.
‘We can talk to Mrs Wilson, the early-years teacher,’ I reassured her. ‘She’ll know whether … James (I struggled, but remembered what she’d called the auburn-haired boy) … has his name down for school dinners, and I’ll need to buy Henry lunch, too, now.’
‘Thanks,’ the woman gave me a pleasant and very grateful smile.
‘Would you like me to dry your son’s coat?’ she asked. ‘I’m Ginny Potter, by the way.’
She held out freckled hand. I picked up Henry’s coat, which now had grit sticking to it, too, and shook the hand she’d proffered. She had a surprisingly firm grip. I’m a farmer’s daughter; my grip is good, but hers was better.
‘Jacqui Charlton,’ I told her my name. ‘I’ve heard all of the jokes, so don’t bother.’ She looked at me blankly. She’s a Southerner, I remembered, so she’s probably never heard of Jackie Charlton.
‘I don’t think that you’ll be able to do anything with this,’ I told her. She simply smiled, reached under the buggy and pulled out a magenta towel. Taking the coat from me, she wrapped it inside the towel and rubbed vigorously. When she lifted the coat out it was clean and dry, and it wasn’t sticky.
‘How on earth did you do that?’ I asked.
‘This …’ Ginny Potter stopped and thought carefully before starting again.
‘George … my brother … one of my brothers … is a bit of an … inventor. His son, Fred, is the scruffiest, stickiest kid in the family, and he’s got a lot of competition, especially from this one.’ She ruffled her eldest son’s hair affectionately. ‘George … invented … this towel. It’s … specially treated … and a sort of test version.’
‘I’d buy one,’ I told her.
‘Don’t be so sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if everything I clean with it suddenly turns magenta later.’ She smiled, then realised what she’d said. She looked horror-struck at her words and covered her mouth with her hand.
‘Oh, shi… da… bother,’ she exclaimed, moving from one uncompleted swear word to another and doing the “not in front of the children” word shift I often do myself. ‘If it does, let me know and I’ll replace the coat. I’m sure we’ll see each other at the school gates again.’
‘Oi!’ my husband shouted.
‘Coming, Mike,’ I called.
‘My husband,’ I explained. ‘It’s our son’s first full day so he decided to take time off work.’
‘So did Harry, but something came up,’ Ginny told me. She was looking rather bewildered and I felt sorry for her.
‘Come with me, Ginny, I’ll introduce you to some of the other mums. This …’ I lifted Annie out of the car, ‘…is my daughter, Annie.’
I put Annie down, grabbed her hand tightly, and we toddled slowly towards the school gates alongside the Potters.
‘Say hello to Mrs Potter, Annie,’ I suggested.
‘Ello,’ Annie mumbled shyly.
‘Hello, Annie. These three are James, Al, and Lily. Say hello to Mrs Charlton and Annie, kids.’
‘Hello,’ the two younger ones chorused.
‘Hello to Mrs Charlton and Annie.’ James scowled.
‘James, behave yourself,’ Ginny scolded.
‘Don’t wanna go to school!’ James told his mother.
‘Neither does my son, Henry,’ I told him, ‘Perhaps you could keep each other company.’
‘That would be nice, wouldn’t it?’ Ginny asked.
‘No,’ James announced.
Before Ginny could speak we’d reached the gates, where my husband and son stood waiting. I performed the introductions. Mike was on his best behaviour, thank goodness, and he graciously agreed to look after Annie, Al and Lily while Ginny and I took our sons into school.
James and Henry were assessing each other carefully. James was looking wonderingly at the impressively painted school yard and, as we strolled up towards the school, the two boys began talking quietly to each other. Henry, I noticed, was explaining things. Suddenly my son wasn’t the new kid. He had found someone even newer.
‘It’s quite an old building,’ Ginny observed.
‘More than a hundred and fifty years old, early Victorian, but it’s been well modernised, don’t worry,’ I reassured her.
‘The school I went to was a lot older,’ she smiled.
‘Really?’ I began, but my son interrupted us.
‘James’s having school dinners,’ Henry announced.
‘Would you like school dinners, too?’ I asked, praying for the right answer.
‘Yes,’ he announced.
‘Well, if that’s what you want, Henry, we’ll organise it now.’ I winked at Ginny, who smiled a knowing reply.
So we took our sons into the school, spoke to Mrs Wilson and watched her settle the boys into the small class of four-, five- and six-year-olds.
It did not take long for Mrs Wilson to set them to work with paint and paper. When they turned their backs on us and started to mix paints, we left.
‘We can’t offer you a lift, sorry, Ginny,’ Mike said when we left the school. ‘Five seats for six people, I’m afraid that you won’t all fit. Have you been here long? Just moved in? Where are you living? What does your husband do?’
‘Oh, for goodness sake, Mike, don’t be so nosey. How can she answer all of those questions?’ I glared at Mike and he shut up. I could see that Ginny was on her guard the instant he began firing questions at her. I’d not find anything out now, so I decided to tell her about us.
‘Mike works in Morpeth, he’s a solicitor and land agent,’ I told Ginny. ‘I was born and bred up here. Mike’s the newcomer, originally from the big city, Newcastle. Eight years and he’s still not used to our quiet country ways.’
We were passing the huddle of other Mums at the school gate when I spoke. Mary Saville called across to me. She was looking curiously at Ginny and would want to know “absolutely everything, darling” about her.
‘Just as well we are out here in the “quiet country”,’ boomed Mary, waving a newspaper, ‘I certainly wouldn’t want to be in Sheffield at the moment.’
The headline read: “Werewolf Killer Writes: I’ll keep killing.”
Ginny frowned grimly and walked on, ignoring Mary.
‘Daddy gone Se’feed,’ Al Potter announced, looking up in interest at the mention of the city.
‘Yes, he has, Al. He’s there on business,’ Ginny said. ‘Thanks for your help, Jacqui, but I’d best get these two home. We have a lot to do today.’
‘Thank you,’ I told her. ‘Henry has a clean coat and, I hope, a new friend. He was very nervous this morning.’
‘So was James. It will be nice if he can mix with some Mu… some children who he isn’t related to.’ She looked a little sad as she spoke. I knew how she was feeling.
‘Kids have got to go to school. It’s good for them, even if they are a miss around the house,’ I reassured her.
‘That’s what Harry says, too, I hope that he’s right. Bye, Jacqui, bye, Mike. I’m sure I’ll see you again.’ With that, she turned and pushed the buggy containing her two younger children back down the road.
I didn’t have a chance to discuss Ginny Potter with Mike because Mary bustled over.
‘A mysterious stranger, tell me everything, darling,’ she began. I was a severe disappointment to her and I was glad when, after a couple of minutes, Mike helped me to escape by reminding me that he needed to take me home in order to get to work.
The Pick Up by Northumbrian
The Pick Up
That afternoon, while Annie was sleeping, I carefully reread the newspaper article about the Sheffield murders. I sat in the armchair beside the bay window, drinking my coffee. It is not something I normally do; daytime television (especially the property programmes) are my vice, but my interest was piqued, probably because of Ginny Potter’s conversation with her younger son, whose Daddy was “In Se’feed”. Ginny had said that he wasn’t with her because there had “been a crisis at work”. Her remarks had intrigued me and I’d even watched the midday news.
According to both the papers and the television news, late last Friday night, or early Saturday morning, there had been a brutal murder in Sheffield. The body of a young woman had been found in a suburb called Grimesthorpe. She had been torn to pieces “as if by a wild animal”, according to the reports in Mike’s copy of The Independent. The later editions of the Saturday papers had been full of the story. Then on Sunday the News of the World broke the news that there had been a similar murder in a different part of Sheffield, Nether Edge, about four weeks earlier.
The first body, a middle-aged man, hadn’t been found for several days apparently. But the News of the World was already claiming that both victims had been killed on the full moon night. They had even rounded up a few “witnesses” who claimed that they had heard a wolf howling at the moon. The police had confirmed that Friday had been the night of the full moon, but the police spokesman pointed out that the time and date of death of the other victim had not been reliably established. Nevertheless, the paper had called them “The Werewolf Murders” and the name had stuck.
That was yesterday. This morning the television news had been full of reports of a letter, purportedly from “The Werewolf”, who threatened to continue to kill on every full moon night “until Greyback is freed.” South Yorkshire Police had initially dismissed the reports, but “The Werewolf” had sent a copy to The Sun newspaper in addition to the copy he’d sent to the Police and eventually, they had confirmed that they had received a letter. They claimed to have no idea who “Greyback” was. There was a lot of speculation about whether this was true.
I read a lot of crime fiction; too much, Mike says. But I’d rather read a meaty murder mystery than a dreary and boring romance. Who cares what happens to a stupid and self obsessed girl and her arrogant and wholly unsuitable beau? My mind had been running riot. This morning, news broke about the mysterious “Greyback Letter” and also this morning Ginny’s husband was called to Sheffield on urgent business. I wondered if he was somehow involved with the murder investigation. Exciting new neighbours; now that would be news for Mary!
I picked up my cup and discovered that my coffee was almost cold. I checked my watch. It was time for me to leave to pick up Henry from school. I had been engrossed in my wild speculations and forgotten the time.
I was a few minutes late leaving the house and I was made even later because Annie was still asleep. It is always a struggle to get her into her car seat without waking her. Fitting her seat into the Micra isn’t easy, either. Fortunately, I’m usually at the school gate at least fifteen minutes before school closes, so late simply meant that I was ten minutes early, rather than quarter of an hour.
I drove past the school, turned around in Drakestone View and drove past for a second time. It was obvious that I was the last to arrive. Mary and her friends were already standing just inside the gates and the taxi buses for the kids from the outlying farms were all parked up, too. I pulled in and parked at the end of the line of cars and mini-buses. I was furthest from the school gates.
Annie was still asleep in her car seat. That gave me an excuse not to go and chat to the other mums. Waiting in the car meant that I wouldn’t be interrogated by Mary and her friends, and they wouldn’t realise how little I knew about the newcomers. I certainly wasn’t ready to share my crazy suspicions with them.
It was then that I realised I had not passed Ginny. One glance at the school gates told me that she wasn’t there. That hair of hers was unmistakeable and was obviously absent from the crowd. James would be out soon, and his mammy wasn’t going to be waiting. I was surprised, because, after my initial hostility (which, I had admitted to myself, was entirely because of her looks) I’d decided that she seemed to be a nice young woman. I stared through my windscreen, looking back up the road. She should have been approaching the school, but there was no sign of her.
I sat for a few minutes and tried to decide what to do. I had just met Ginny, I didn’t know how she would react if I went to find her. If she’d simply been delayed for a few minutes, then I’d be a busybody. If, however, there was a problem…
I had just resolved to drive up towards the lane which led to Drakeshaugh, to see if she needed any help, when the motorbike arrived. It roared up the road from behind me and pulled up to park directly in front of my car. It was a big, black and very noisy machine, an old Triumph, I thought, although it didn’t have a name badge. The rider dismounted quickly and in a fluid and obviously well-practiced motion he pulled the bike up onto its stand. This was even more mysterious than this morning’s encounter. I watched with interest.
The rider was wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket of a peculiar green-black colour. I watched him unzip the jacket to revealing a faded green t-shirt with the letters -RPI- on the chest; I couldn’t see the entire word. He finally took off his helmet, a bright red thing with a lion rampant painted on the side. This was Harry Potter, I realised, and he knew how to make an entrance.
While he was busy fastening his helmet to the bike, I got out of the car and smiled at him. The muttered conversation at the school gates behind me had stopped. I did not turn around, but I could sense the enquiring eyes of the school-gate mums behind me. I wondered if they, too, had recognised him.
‘Hello,’ I said rather breathlessly.
The second he’d removed the helmet I knew that this was definitely Ginny’s husband and Al’s dad. There could be absolutely no doubt about the latter, the jet black hair and bright green eyes proved it. As my dad would say, Al Potter was a dead spit of his father. Though, unlike Al, his father’s eyes were hidden behind glasses.
He was about average height and he looked young, very young, but he was probably in his late twenties. He wasn’t skinny, but he wasn’t muscular either, he was lean and slim and his hair was tousled and untidy. I prefer more meat on my men, but he was rather cute. He had a strange boyish charm which made me (and some of the mothers behind me, I suspected from the excited murmurs which I could now hear) want to look after him.
‘You must be Jacqui,’ he said, smiling as he held out a hand in greeting. ‘Ginny’s told me about you. I’m Harry Potter, James’s dad.’ There was so much pride in his voice when he spoke those last two words that I wanted to hug him. But I resisted the temptation and simply shook his hand.
‘Hello Harry Potter, James’s dad,’ I burbled stupidly.
I cursed inwardly at my ridiculous greeting. I was talking to a nice looking bloke and suddenly I was acting like a love-struck teen. He just grinned.
‘Call me Harry, please. Thanks for helping Ginny out this morning, I rather left her in the lurch … James, too,’ he added sadly.
‘I do hope that you’re not thinking of taking your son home on that thing,’ Mary Saville boomed from behind me. Harry Potter looked at her in surprise.
‘Of course not. We’ll be walking home; I’ll come back and collect the bike later,’ Harry told her abruptly before turning back to me.
‘So you’re obviously from further up the valley, Jacqui. Ginny told me that you drove past her on the road, from Alwinton?’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ I said, aware that by helping Harry to ignore Mary I was taking a dangerous path. School-gate gossip was the main form of communication in the valley, and Mary was the mistress of tittle-tattle. ‘We live in Alwinton village, and you must have moved into Drakeshaugh, because there’s nowhere else.’
He raised an eyebrow in surprise and I caught a glimpse of a scar on his forehead.
‘I thought no one would notice us around here,’ he said. I laughed and risked patting his shoulder in what I hoped was a friendly gesture.
‘Everyone will notice you around here, Harry. There are so few of us on this road and we all know each other, even if it’s just a polite nod as we drive past. But we don’t know anything about you. We didn’t even know that someone had moved into Drakeshaugh. All I know is that you’re a southerner, but you’re not from the West Country like Ginny.’
‘How do you know that?’ he asked, looking at me in surprise.
‘Accents. They’ve always been a hobby of mine, and Ginny drawls more than you. You’re closer to Estuary English, not London, but close, I’d say.’
‘You can tell that just by hearing me speak, and Ginny, too?’ he asked. He sounded amazed.
‘You’re from the Home Counties – probably Berkshire, Hampshire or Surrey,’ I guessed.
‘Surrey,’ he confirmed, ‘and Ginny?’
‘Possibly Cornwall, but probably Devon,’ I told him.
‘Impressive,’ he said, and he actually looked like he was impressed.
‘So you’re from Surrey, you live in Northumberland and you work in Sheffield. You must lead an interesting life.’ I smiled.
‘Who said I work in Sheffield?’ He asked his question rather sharply and I saw a disconcerting flash of sharp steel behind those smiling green eyes.
‘Your younger son, Al. Somebody mentioned Sheffield, because of those werewolf murders and he said “Daddy’s in Se’feed,” so I assumed that’s where you work.’
Harry Potter relaxed.
‘I try to work from home when I can, but my office is in London and I sometimes get called away elsewhere. This morning I was called to Sheffield,’ he said.
‘The murders?’ I asked abruptly, taking a chance and looking into his face. He hesitated. I knew that he was trying to decide whether to lie or not, which obviously meant, yes, the murders. He stared into my eyes and I suddenly got the crazy idea that he was reading my thoughts. He probably simply read my guess in my face, because he nodded grudgingly.
‘Yes. My office … my office provides specialist services for the government and the police. At the moment I’m working with South Yorkshire Police,’ he told me.
‘Specialist services?’ I asked.
‘Yes … offender profiling … that sort of stuff.’
‘Sounds interesting,’ I said.
‘Usually it’s deadly dull office work and that’s the way I like it,’ he said with a wistful smile. ‘But it has its moments.’ He was absent-mindedly scratching his chest as he spoke.
I didn’t get the chance to ask him anything else because the children were screaming out of the school gates. My mother’s ear caught Henry’s high pitched yells among the confusing cacophony.
I searched for my son and saw that he and James were together and running towards us, each proudly holding a curled up sheet of paper.
‘Daddydaddydaddy,’ James squealed. I looked round, then down. Harry had hunkered down onto the balls of his feet to greet his son at his own level.
‘Jamesjamesjames,’ said Harry, laughing. ‘Have you had a good day?’
‘‘esitwasgreatI’vedrawdapicher,’ he said proudly and rapidly.
‘You’ve drawn a picture, wow!’ Harry said, then Henry was on top of me and his excited and insistent shouts required my full attention.
Henry had drawn a picture, too. It was of his family: Mammy, Daddy and a shapeless little pink blob which he dismissively assured me was his sister. He proudly pushed his picture under Harry’s nose, and Harry, bless him, made all the right noises of appreciation at the confusion of smeared poster paints.
James then insisted on showing me his “picher”, too. It was, I noted jealously, rather better than Henry’s.
‘’sMummy’n’Daddy’n’Al’n’Lililoo,’ James announced.
He paused for breath. Lily-Lou, I noted. That was an unusual name, not like ordinary James. I wondered whether Al was an ordinary Alan, or, I smiled to myself at my flight of fancy, an Alphonse.
Ginny was basically red. She was a crimson circle for a head, crimson hair, crimson smile and a face spotted with crimson – not measles, I realised – but freckles. Harry was a black scribble of hair, glasses, green eyes and a smile; there was something else, too a red zig-zag between glasses and hair.
‘It’s lovely, James,’ I told him, ‘I’ll give it to your daddy to keep safe, okay?’
I handed Harry James’s painting, which he took very carefully as if it was a valuable masterpiece (which, of course, it was). As he took it, I looked curiously up at his forehead. He sighed in exasperation and lifted up a tangled lock of hair to reveal a faint zig-zag scar.
‘James is fascinated by it,’ he told me, ‘My parents died in a car crash when I was fifteen months old. I survived unscathed, apart from this.’
‘I’m sorry…’ I began automatically.
‘I have some photographs, but I don’t really remember them. When I was younger they used to haunt my dreams all the time but they haven’t since … well, not for more than ten years now.’ Harry’s words came out in a rush, his interruption making it clear that he had told me as much as he was going to about his parents. I wondered who had raised him, but I didn’t ask.
‘I like to think that I’m more than just an unusual scar…’ he began with a smile.
‘I’m sure you are, you’re a mysterious stranger, too,’ I told him jokingly. His face fell.
‘After Ginny dropped James off this morning she warned me that I hadn’t really thought this through. I thought that finding a nice quiet school in a remote area was the best thing for my children. Ginny and I like to lead a quiet life, but we’re going to be gossiped about, aren’t we? Just turning up and moving into Drakeshaugh and then arriving at the school unexpectedly is a big thing in a little place like this isn’t it?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ I admitted.
‘We’d probably have been more anonymous if we’d stayed in London. We’d have been lost in the crowds. But Ginny and I wanted our kids to have some space to grow up in, woods and streams and fields, not a London townhouse without a garden.’
‘If you didn’t want to draw attention to yourselves, you’ve done a spectacularly bad job. That bike of yours will be a talking point, too,’ I told him.
‘Perhaps I should take James out of school…’ he began.
‘No!’ James and Henry spoke together. Both Harry and I looked down at them in surprise. They had been listening in silence to our conversation. James looked close to tears.
‘Have you found a friend already?’ Harry asked his son. James looked at Henry, and my son gave a quivering-lipped confirmatory nod.
‘Yes,’ James said firmly.
‘Well, that’s settled then. We’re staying and we’ll simply have to put up with the unwanted attention, again,’ Harry said with finality. ‘We’d best get home Jamesy, and you can tell Mummy all about your day at school, and show her your beautiful painting, and you’ll see Henry at school again tomorrow.’
‘Do you want a lift to the end of your lane?’ I asked. ‘My car isn’t big, but I can squeeze you both in. The only problem is that I don’t have a booster seat for James to use.’
‘Thanks for the offer, Jacqui, but I’d like to walk back, to hear all about James’s first day at his new school. We’ll see you tomorrow. Bye Henry, bye sleepy-girl,’ Harry waved at Annie who had, fortunately, woken up happy and was watching us in still-half-asleep silence.
‘We’re not bad once you get to know us, and you’ve probably given me enough to keep the local busybody happy for a while,’ I replied quietly.
‘The big dark-haired woman who didn’t like my bike?’ Harry asked.
‘Mary,’ I said, nodding.
‘I’ve had worse people than her snooping about,’ said Harry. ‘Bye, Jacqui, and thanks again for helping Ginny.’
‘Bye, Henry,’ James whispered.
‘Taraa, James, seeya termorra,’ said Henry, strangling the English language to within an inch of its life.
‘See you tomorrow, I corrected him.
‘S’what I sed,’ Henry told me.
Behind me, car doors were slamming as everyone prepared to leave. I watched Harry walk up the road, hand in hand with his son, before lifting Henry into his seat.
When we drove past them a few minutes later, James was sitting on his Daddy’s shoulders. I tooted my horn and waved as we passed. Harry gave a quick wave, but had to stop as James was waving so wildly that he almost fell of his father’s shoulders.
‘It looks like you’ve found a new friend, Henry,’ I said.
‘’es,’ Henry said happily.
Misty Morning by Northumbrian
The dawn mist lay stubbornly unmoving in the hollows of the fields as I drove Henry down to school. The clouds overhead were thick and grey, and they sapped the strength of the sun, ensuring that its rays were too feeble to shift the mist. Fingers of fog drifted out from the little lakes of white, which sat in the hollows in the green fields, and the slithering white tendrils hung eerily in the air across the lowest points on the road. By the time I reached Harbottle I had driven into the low-lying morning mist.
As usual, I turned the car around before returning and parking outside the school. I carried a happily burbling Annie on my hip and grabbed Henry firmly by the hand. Mike had not taken a second morning off work, but despite his teasing warnings over breakfast, there were no mishaps. No spilled juice and no sticky coats.
We walked through grey air to the school gates. The clouds would probably break later, and there seemed to be the prospect of some sunshine, but at that moment, as we approached the school it was a dull day.
When I walked into the classroom with Annie and Henry, I discovered that Ginny had beaten me into school. She was busy making James comfortable in the classroom when I arrived. There was no sign of either Al or Lily.
James was looking very unsure again, but he smiled uncertainly when Henry and I arrived. I said a quick hello to Ginny, which she returned, but I then concentrated on Henry, as he suddenly seemed nervous too. I stood Annie on the floor, watched her toddle curiously around the classroom and helped Henry take off his coat. The moment he pulled his arms free from it, my son strolled slowly across the classroom to where James stood.
‘‘Lo, Henry,’ James said quietly.
‘‘Lo, James,’ my son replied.
And that was it. They circled shyly around each other for a few silent seconds, then, by mutual agreement, they concluded that they still liked each other and began chattering happily.
Ginny stood up and smiled at me.
‘Hello, Jacqui. I was beginning to worry again, but they seem to be okay,’ Ginny said.
‘They do, Ginny. Henry was looking forward to seeing James again this morning,’ I told her. ‘Bye, boys.’
‘Bye,’ they chorused.
‘Bye, James, bye, Henry,’ Ginny said.
I chased after Annie, who was investigating a box full of letter cards, scooped her up into my arms and followed Ginny into the cloakroom. I still had Henry’s coat and was struggling to hang it up while holding Annie, who was protesting squeakily about having been picked up.
‘Let me,’ said Ginny, taking the coat from me and putting it on the peg next to James’s coat. As she did so, I noticed that she examined the coat carefully.
‘The coat is fine, thanks, Ginny, and the boys will be fine, too, I’m sure,’ I told her. We exchanged understanding glances. It really is a wrench, taking your firstborn to school.
We were about to leave when a confusion of children piled into the cloakroom and continued through into the classroom. Ginny and I were forced to stand aside as they entered the school. The buses had arrived, and with them the majority of the pupils. The volume rose as over a dozen children squeaked and squealed their way to their seats. Ginny and I turned to ensure that our sons weren’t worried by the noisy influx. But neither of them even gave us a glance. Instead they looked to each other for reassurance and simply stood side by side watching the tumult flow around them. They would be fine, I decided.
As we walked outside into the moist grey air, Ginny thrust her hands into the pockets of the faded and dirty jeans she was wearing. She was a lot less tidy than she had been the previous morning. Her hand-knitted sweater was a worn and scruffy old red thing with a familiar-looking yellow lion on the front, the same design as Harry’s motorbike helmet, I remembered. The sweater clashed violently with her hair.
‘Do you knit?’ I asked her as we walked out of the school.
She looked down at her sweater and smiled depreciatively.
‘I can, and I do, sometimes. But I’m not as good as Mum. This is one of hers; she knitted it for Harry years ago, but he grew out of it. It’s my dirty-work sweater now. I need to get home as I still have a lot of tidying up to do. Mum is looking after Al and Lily while I finally finish moving us in. I hope that we will…’ she rolled her eyes dramatically, ‘finally be completely unpacked and tidy by tonight.’ Ginny sighed and looked a little downcast.
‘Moving house is a stressful time, Ginny,’ I assured her as we walked towards the school gates. ‘When we moved here the removal men broke two Lladró figurines. It took almost two years, and the threat of legal action by Mike, before they accepted responsibility. And then there was the dirt! At least our place had been lived in, though the previous owners left the place a real mess. Your house has been empty and derelict for years. It must have been a huge job getting it ready.’
I watched Ginny carefully as I spoke and sensed that the move wasn’t the only thing was worrying Ginny; from the way she reacted to my words, I realised that something else was bothering her too.
‘There’s something else, isn’t there?’ I asked. We stopped, just inside the school gates and Ginny turned, looked up at me and nodded.
‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,’ I told her. ‘Just tell me not to be nosey, I don’t mind.’
‘Harry was supposed to be off work, helping, but he can’t, at least, not for a few more days. He said that he’d told you…’ said Ginny.
‘Yes, he told me about his job yesterday afternoon when he collected James. Can’t he pass the Sheffield case on to someone else?’ I enquired. Ginny’s face fell at my suggestion and she heaved a deep, sad sigh.
‘Usually, Harry would delegate. But everything seems to be happening at once. He has a werewolf … a specialist in that sort of thing … he would use for this case. But Lavender … the specialist … had … is … was … pregnant.’ Ginny’s words came out in a rush; she simply wanted to tell someone, anyone, about her concerns, and she’d chosen me.
‘She had her baby unexpectedly, late on Friday, more than a month early. Lavender lost a lot of blood and they couldn’t do much for her until Saturday morning because … well, for various reasons. She has a … condition. The baby, a girl, isn’t very well either. They are both in Saint … in hospital and will be for some time,’ Ginny told me.
I patted her arm understandingly. A new mother and baby, both in hospital, is terrible. Though from her garbled reply I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, or why the baby was premature. I was murmuring some sympathetic response and trying to figure out how to find out more when Ginny glanced past me.
‘I’m sorry. I can’t stop and chat any longer; I’ve got to go, bye, Jacqui,’ she said suddenly.
With that she turned on her heels and strode rapidly ahead and out of the school gates. She appeared not to hear Mary shouting ‘Mrs Potter! … Ginny!’ from behind me. She marched hurriedly up the road and into the fine white swirling mist.
I began to ponder the latest snippets of information about our newcomers. Poor Ginny. From her anxiety, it was obvious that she knew and liked this Lavender woman. My musings were, however, interrupted.
‘Well,’ Mary said to me as we watched the dark shape which was Ginny vanishing into the mist. ‘Very strange, don’t you think?’
‘She’s busy, they haven’t finished moving in yet,’ I said.
Mary snorted in disbelief. ‘Do you really think that they’ve bought the place, darling?’ she asked me. ‘They certainly don’t look like they could afford to live here. Did you see that sweater she was wearing? And he wasn’t much better yesterday. A motor-bike, of all things! I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re simply a bunch of layabout hippy squatters. Perhaps you should call the police, Jacqui.’
Perhaps I should call the police? The bare-faced cheek of the woman! She was trying to persuade me to do her dirty work. Unknown to Mary, Mike had owned a motor-bike when we’d started going out, a dozen years ago. We’d travelled the country on it and we only sold it when Henry was born, just before we moved here. I had encountered anti-biker prejudice before, and I didn’t like it. I clenched my teeth and kept calm.
‘I’d be dressed like that if I was still unpacking,’ I said, somehow managing to keep my voice mild and reasonable. ‘And Harry works in London, apparently.’
‘Doing what?’ Mary sneered. ‘A motorcycle courier?’
‘I don’t really know, but I got the impression that he was a manager of some sort. He wasn’t here yesterday morning because there was a crisis at the office,’ I told her neutrally. Mary was really beginning to annoy me, so I decided not to tell her what little I knew about Harry’s job. ‘Perhaps they simply want to keep themselves to themselves,’ I suggested.
‘Perhaps they don’t want anyone to know where they are hiding,’ Mary replied. ‘Are you going to call the police?’
I was desperate to get away from the woman. But saying no to Mary was never easy, so instead I avoided answering.
‘My husband is a land agent,’ I reminded her. ‘I’m sure that if there was anything dodgy about the property deal Mike would have heard. He could easily find out about the sale if he needed to.’
Mary nodded and I saw an idea spark in her eyes. Happy that it did not involve me, I made my excuses and left.
As I drove home I thought carefully about the most recent pieces of information I’d discovered.
There are no hospitals which have the name of “Saint…Anything” anywhere near us, so this Lavender woman wasn’t local, but then neither were Harry and Ginny. Lavender and her baby were both still in hospital and Ginny was miles away, unable to visit. As a mother myself I could only sympathise. I wondered how they were, and how the dad was coping; if there was a dad, as these days you could never be sure.
I supposed that this colleague of Harry’s would have been expected to work the case if she was the expert. Did our government employ people who were experts on werewolves? That was a ridiculous idea! But a profiling office would probably have someone who knew how the weirdoes who believe in werewolves and flying saucers and other such nonsense, think.
I wondered what this Lavender woman was like. From her name I imagined her as an older mum, a bespectacled and skinny professorial type. She was probably in her early forties and just getting around to having her first baby. That would certainly explain the facts as I knew them.
Also of interest was the news that Ginny’s mum had knitted Harry a sweater which he’d “grown out of”. From the size of the sweater he’d have been in his early or mid teens when it was new. The sleeves were still the right length for Ginny, though the sweater was rather tight on her. I wondered how long Harry and Ginny had known each other and smiled to myself as I tried to imagine Harry as a skinny little thirteen-year-old.
I filled my morning with housework and Annie-minding and put the events of the morning school run from my mind. I had little choice in the matter as Annie had decided that she had reached “the terrible two’s” and it was one of those days when I couldn’t afford to leave anything within her reach. When he’d been her age Henry had attempted to destroy anything he could grab. Annie tried to eat it.
At about one in the afternoon I was standing in the nursery, swaying from side to side and trying to settle Annie for her afternoon nap. She would not be napping for much longer; Henry had not lasted as long, but Annie had exhausted herself with her antics during the morning.
She was almost asleep when the phone rang. I quickly carried Annie into the main bedroom, shifted her into one arm and picked up the phone. I wasn’t quick enough. Annie twisted and squirmed and began to howl.
‘What?’ I snapped angrily down the phone.
‘That’s not very nice,’ my husband told me.
‘You’ve woken Annie,’ I hissed. ‘Why phone at this time?’
‘You shouldn’t have set Scary Mary on me if you didn’t want a phone call, Jacqui.’ Mike sounded hurt and rather anxious.
‘What?’ I asked. Then I realised what Mike was saying.
‘Don’t hang up,’ I ordered. ‘I’m going to try to settle Annie.’
I shushed Annie, put her on the floor, dropped the phone on the bed and dashed through into the nursery. I picked up Rag-Doll and Freddy-Teddy and was about to head back when I heard Annie say “Daddy.” She could hear Mike’s voice. I picked up the battered old play phone which had once belonged to Henry and took that with me too.
I placed the two cuddly toys on the floor, but Annie ignored them and reached eagerly for the toy phone. I handed it to her, watched her begin talking into it and then picked up the real one.
‘Talk!’ I demanded, urgently.
‘Mary phoned up this morning,’ Mike began. ‘She said that you had suggested that I check up on the Drakeshaugh sale, that you wanted to be sure that it was all legal. I asked why she was phoning and not you…’
‘Good man,’ I interrupted. ‘She thinks they’re squatters. I said that you would know. But I did not suggest that you check up, I simply told her that you could.’
‘Damn! Well, she told me that you were busy and asked me to check out the sale and call her back.’ said Mike. ‘So I phoned up Joe from Patterson’s Estate Agents and asked what he could tell me about the purchase of Drakeshaugh. He said he’d check the files. He phoned me back quarter of an hour ago and I decided I’d better tell you before I phoned Mary. Joe said that the house was bought for cash, at least as good as cash. It was a direct bank transfer into the vendor’s account from a private bank Joe had never heard of … Gringotts. I made him spell it. My question had made him curious, so he decided to check up on the bank but couldn’t find them. They don’t seem to have a phone number or a website or anything, so he called the Financial Ombudsman Service. They hadn’t heard of them, either. The guy he spoke to said that he’d investigate and call back.’
Mike paused, whether for breath or dramatic effect I wasn’t sure.
‘And?’ I prompted him anxiously.
‘About half an hour ago Joe got a phone call from a young woman who claimed to be from Gringotts. She asked why he was enquiring about the bank. He told her that he’d been curious, because he had never heard of them. She said that they were a small private bank and asked him how he had heard of them. He told her about the Potters buying a house. Joe said that that this woman suddenly sounded really scary. She asked why he was making enquiries about the Potters’ bank. He panicked and told her the truth, that he’d been doing it as a favour for me. She said that she would be letting the Potters know. He phoned me straight away, and I phoned you. I thought that you’d want to know before the school run tonight.’
‘Thanks, Mike. If the bank contacts the Potters then they will think we’re nosey neighbours, prying into their finances. Don’t phone Mary and don’t tell her anything if she phones you back. Damn!’
‘Damn,’ Annie parroted. ‘Damndamndamn.’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
‘Sorry, Jacqui, it’s my fault, I should have ignored Mary, but I thought...’ Mike began.
‘It’s not your fault, Mike, it’s mine. I gave Mary the idea, sorry. Harry and Ginny seem like a nice couple, and Henry and James have hit it off. I don’t want to fall out with our son’s new friend’s parents. I’m going to drive down to Drakeshaugh now, to see Ginny and apologise and try to explain everything. I don’t want a scene at the school gate. Thanks for letting me know.’
‘It’s not really your fault, either, Jacques, it’s Scary Mary Saville,’ said Mike. My husband was worried and unhappy because he’d done the wrong thing. I knew that, because that’s the only time calls me Jacques.
‘I should have guessed what she would do. Mary can be a right bi…’ I saw Annie looking at me curiously and fortunately stopped short. ‘She can be rather unpleasant, sometimes,’ I concluded lamely.
‘Drive carefully, Jacqui. And apologise to the redhead from me, too.’
‘I will, thanks for letting me know, Mike, bye.’
I hung up the phone, lifted Annie from the floor and hugged her.
‘Well, Annie, we’re going for a ride in the car,’ I told her. ‘We’re going to see Ginny at her new house. What do you think about that?’
‘Damn!’ said Annie happily. I sighed; the day was turning into a disaster.
Sunny Afternoon by Northumbrian
The sun shone brightly and the remaining clouds were being blown down the valley by a busy breeze as I drove down towards Drakeshaugh. The day was certainly sunnier than it had been in the morning, but neither sun nor wind had managed to drive away my foggy and overcast mood.
Henry had been so excited and excitable last night. “James’n’me mixed colours and then me’n’James painted, ‘n then Sarah said my picher was rubbish n’James went like this,’ Henry shot out his arm straight forward in what almost looked like a fencing move, ‘an’e poked Sarah inna tummy wiff his brush and said “Stupidfly”.’ Henry hesitated, realising that in his excitement he’d accidentally told a tale on his new friend. “Miss stoptim’n’said that he shouldn’t of dunnit,” he’d admitted.
“Shouldn’t have done it,” I’d corrected, smiling.
On balance, I decided that James had been sticking up for Henry, which wasn’t really a bad thing. Though poking a classmate with a paintbrush probably hadn’t been wise. When he saw my smile Henry had staunchly said “But I think he should of dunnit!” I despaired at my son’s grammar, but allowed him to enthusiastically tell me about the rest of his day, which seemed to consist entirely of what “me’n’James” did. It was almost as if they were one person
I really did not want to fall out with the parents of my son’s new friend, especially not because of the actions of a busybody like Mary Saville. I glanced at my daughter in the rear view mirror as I drove. Annie’s head was lolling from side to side and her eyelids were heavy. She was still fighting sleep, but she was obviously too tired to win the battle. Nevertheless, she struggled valiantly. She was finally defeated by the Sandman just as I slowed down to turn onto the Drakeshaugh track. I felt a momentary tingle of anxiety as I pulled off the main road and stopped in front of the gate. I would be arriving uninvited.
The rusty old field gate I remembered was gone. Now, hanging from the weathered granite gateposts was a stained-timber five-bar gate. The adjacent timber stile had been renewed too. I quietly got out of the car, unbolted the gate, drove on to the track which led up the hillside, stopped and closed the gate behind me. Miraculously, I managed to do it all without waking Annie.
In my memory the track was little more than two wheel ruts. Fortunately, the track I drove along was different. The potholes had been filled with gravel and the journey was much easier than I expected. It should have been familiar to me; this was also the public footpath to the Drake Stone and I’d walked along it many times, but somehow it felt strange and new.
It was probably because of its proximity, but I hadn’t walked up to the stone for several years. It felt almost as if I was travelling the route for the first time. As I drove slowly up the bank I was suddenly struck by the wild beauty of these familiar hills.
The Drake Stone was almost directly ahead, its prominent profile perched conspicuously on a ridge. The “Draag Stane”, as my dad called it, was a splinter of sandstone erratic, deposited in some ancient ice age. It loomed, lonely, atop Harbottle Crag and from this distance it seemed to be no more than a strange pimple on the landscape. In fact the stone was over thirty feet tall.
According to legends, the Stone had healing properties, was a prehistoric druidic site, or was a lookout post in the days of the Border Reivers. The last of those is almost certainly true, because you can see for miles from the top of the stone.
To my right, sheep were busily cropping the rolling green pasture. A post and wire fence kept “the stupidest creatures on God’s earth” – as my Dad would say – from straying onto the track.
To my left was a dry stone wall, behind which a gnarled and unkempt old hedge shielded my destination from inquisitive eyes. The hedge was mostly hawthorn and blackthorn, with a scattering of holly. The thorns and holly consorted with a tangle of dog rose and bramble to create a thick and prickly barrier, enough to deter even determined visitors from entering Drakeshaugh by any means other than the gate.
Red rosehips and thick brambles tumbled wantonly over the wall. Some of the berries on the brambles were already darkening, and in a couple of weeks they’d be ripe for picking. Beyond this barbed boundary lay the thirty or so acres of weathered woodland which surrounded Drakeshaugh. The old house was almost invisible from the track. It was hidden within the woods and nestling in a hollow next to Drakestone Burn. I was now approaching the only entrance to Ginny’s home.
I crested the rise slowly. Very occasionally Forestry Commission Land Rovers use this track to reach their forests and the foresters often travel faster than they should. About a hundred yards ahead of me on the left hand side, exactly as I’d remembered, was a gap in the dry stone wall. This was my destination.
Drakeshaugh lay just beyond the gate. It was, however, unreachable. The gate was open but I could not enter. A gleaming black Range Rover was parked only just inside the entrance, completely blocking it.
I pulled my car as far off the track as I dared and stopped. The verge alongside the track carried an overgrown drainage ditch and I didn’t want to get stuck. Before abandoning the Micra I made certain that any other vehicles would get past, though I knew that it was unlikely that anyone else would travel this way. A few hundred yards further uphill, the track into the forest was barred.
By some miracle Annie was still asleep. Not wanting to wake her, I simply unbuckled the seatbelt and adjusted the carry-handle on her car-seat. I lifted the seat, with my slumbering daughter still in it, from the car and carried it with me. It was a struggle. Annie was not a particularly petite two-year-old and the chair was awkward to carry.
As I approached the gate, I heard voices. I stopped, peered through a small gap in the overgrown hedge and saw three people standing in the gravel yard. One of the three was Ginny. She was still in her scruffy jeans and sweater and she looked harassed. She was facing two strangers. At least, they were strangers to me. Both wore long black trench coats.
The man was a couple of inches over six foot in height, broad shouldered and burly. His thinning brown hair was shaved close to his scalp. He looked like a rugby player; big, beefy, flat-featured and rather thuggish, just like a prop forward. The black coat added to his already threatening appearance and he certainly didn’t look like the sort of man you’d want to mess with.
The girl (and she wasn’t much more than a girl) towered over Ginny too. She was barely out of her teens and had a wild mane of tawny brown hair. She was about Harry’s height, slim, willowy and unconventionally attractive.
‘Are you here about the bank?’ I heard Ginny ask. She knew already! I remained motionless and listened anxiously.
‘Gringotts?’ asked the man. He looked puzzled by Ginny’s question. His voice was deep, pleasant and surprisingly gentle. ‘No, we just wanted to let you know that Mark called into the office this morning with some news about…’
I had just identified the man’s accent as Nottinghamshire when Ginny interrupted him.
‘Lavender! How is she?’ asked Ginny urgently. The man hesitated, considering his words carefully, and the girl took his silence as an invitation.
‘She’s recovering well,’ the girl said. ‘Mum went to see her after we saw Mr Moon … Mark. He said that it would be okay. Her old wounds reopened on Friday, just as she was changing. But Mum has checked the wounds and she thinks that Lavender will be out of hospital in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, there’s no chance of Mr … of Mark and Lavender having another baby as her abdominal scars won’t take another pregnancy.’
‘Poor Lavender. How did they take that news?’ Ginny asked.
‘Lavender was devastated. Mark … well when he was in the office I thought that he was just happy that Lavender and the baby were both going to be all right. The baby is doing well, she was four pounds…’
‘And fourteen ounces, I know that, but it’s all I know,’ Ginny interrupted. The girl nodded.
‘He told us that they’ve decided on a name. They’re going to call her Violet Lillith Moon; she’s got Lavender’s eyes, apparently,’ the girl continued.
Ginny was smiling, ‘Well, at least they are all okay. That’s one bit of good news, which makes a refreshing change. Thanks for letting me know; do you and Amber have time for a cuppa, Terry? I’d like to talk to you about a problem neighbour.’
I decided that it was time to move. I had been listening for a dangerously long time and I definitely could not afford to be discovered eavesdropping on this conversation. I continued along to the gate, squeezed past the Range Rover and walked into the yard. I stepped out from behind the car as Ginny was opening the door to Drakeshaugh and I announced my presence by deliberately kicking the gravel in the yard. The trench coated duo whirled around at the sound and their hands darted inside their coats. For a crazy instant I thought that they were going to pull guns on me!
Time seemed to stop. The two stood motionless, each with a hand still inside their coats. My mouth suddenly dry, I looked at Ginny, then at her two companions. Annie, startled by the noise I’d made, had a shocked and unhappy awakening. She began to cry. Ginny’s expression, when she first saw me, had been one of anger. But that look lasted only until Annie’s wails echoed around the yard, when it was instantly replaced by a look of motherly concern.
‘I’ve come to apologise, Ginny,’ I said hastily, trying to make myself heard over Annie’s cries. I put my daughter’s car seat down on the gravel drive and began to unbuckle her. I needed to calm her before her screams reached their eardrum-shattering peak.
‘Let me explain, please,’ I begged, raising my voice to be heard over Annie’s wails. ‘My husband can be an idiot sometimes.’
To my relief, Ginny grinned.
‘We can all have that problem occasionally, Jacqui,’ she said. Both she and the tawny-haired girl had started to move towards me when Annie began to cry, but Ginny stopped. Her face was suddenly anxious.
‘I’ll let you get Annie calmed down, Jacqui. I’ll just go in and tidy up the kitchen, and then you can come inside and we can talk.’
The scary-looking man glanced questioningly at Ginny. I got the impression that he was waiting for orders and worryingly, that he’d have carried them out whatever they were. I lifted Annie from her chair and held her tightly as Ginny spoke.
‘It’s okay, Terry. This is Jacqui Charlton, she’s the mum of James’s new best friend,’ Ginny told him.
The man finally took his hand out from inside his coat.
‘Jacqui, this is Terry Boot and Amber Skoll. They both work for Harry,’ said Ginny. ‘They’ll look after you for a minute while I tidy up.’ With that, Ginny turned and dashed into the house.
It appeared that she wanted to tidy up for me, that was understandable, but it immediately struck me as strange that she had been prepared to invite two of her husband’s colleagues into her kitchen without worrying about the state of her house. I wondered what she wanted to hide from me.
I looked at the two trench-coated individuals and knew instantly that I would not be going inside until Ginny allowed it. I watched them closely. Could they really be carrying concealed guns? Surely that was illegal, even if they were police. If they were armed, then what did Harry really do?
‘So,’ I began nervously, ‘you both work for Harry, do you?’
Terry simply nodded. The girl, Amber, smiled and swept her fingers through her hair, lifting it from in front of her right eye and failing to tuck it behind her ear. After two further attempts she gave up and allowed it to fall untidily back across her face.
‘Yes, I’m sorry if we startled you, Mrs … Charlton,’ she apologised.
‘It’s all right,’ I crooned gently. I tried with my eyes to make it clear that I was speaking to everyone, not just my daughter, who was now sobbing into my chest. ‘It’s just … the way you reached inside your coats … I thought … I mean, I didn’t know what you were…’ My voice trailed off. I couldn’t bring myself to say the word gun. My dad’s a farmer; he has a shotgun licence, and two shotguns. But I’ve never seen a pistol, and I don’t want to.
The girl looked puzzled, but it was obvious that Terry understood.
‘Big black coats make us look threatening,’ he announced. He opened his coat wide, and took it off. There was no holster, no gun, nothing. The only thing I could see was a pen, or possibly a pencil, protruding from the inside pocket of his coat. Perhaps he’d been going to take a note of my name, I thought feebly.
Ginny and Harry were a little odd, but this had been a frightening encounter.
Under the coat, Terry wore smart black trousers, a bright white shirt and a grey tie. He nodded to the girl and she followed his example, revealing a short black skirt, white blouse and grey cravat. Her legs were slim and so long that they appeared to go on forever. She wore sensible flat shoes. In heels she’d be as tall as Terry.
Annie’s sobs were slowly subsiding as I cooed and rocked and concentrated on calming her down. Terry and Amber simply watched me.
‘So, are you any closer to catching this “Werewolf” character?’ I asked them.
‘What?’ Terry spluttered. He seemed to be astonished by the question. Amber stared at me, too. My question seemed to have upset her for some reason.
‘Have I said something wrong?’ I asked. ‘Harry said that his office … sorry, your office … were specialists, that you were helping the police.’
‘We are, we do,’ Terry said. ‘But Harry doesn’t normally discuss active cases outside the office.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘He hasn’t actually told me anything, it’s just that Al said that his Daddy was in Sheffield, so I asked Harry yesterday and he said that he was working with the police on this case.’
‘Well, we are working on it,’ Terry said carefully. ‘But there really is nothing to tell.’
The door opened and Ginny stepped out, smiling. She was followed by a plump, older, woman who was obviously her mother. She was a fraction shorter than Ginny and a lot more round, her hair was lighter too, but only because it was streaked with grey.
‘This is Mum,’ said Ginny, performing an unnecessary introduction.
‘Hello, dear,’ Ginny’s mother smiled at me as she brushed crumbs from the white apron she wore over her long, old-fashioned dress. ‘Ginny has told me all about you.’
‘The kettle’s on and Mum’s been busy making biscuits with the kids,’ Ginny smiled, ‘Come in, please.’
I turned to pick up Annie’s car seat, but Amber scrunched across the gravel and got there first.
‘I’ll carry this for you,’ she said, lifting it by the handle and examining it curiously.
I turned and followed her towards the house.
Drakeshaugh was at least a century old; it was a long thin building which seemed to grow out of the hillside on which it was built. More accurately, it was three attached buildings with weathered sandstone walls and grey slate roofs.
Nearest to the entrance gate was the single storey former barn. There was new stonework where the large doors had been bricked up when the barn had been converted. The wooden door gleamed with fresh white paint and a new, oak shingled porch had been added to protect the entrance from the rain. A black-painted wrought iron sign saying “Drake’s Haugh” was affixed to the door. This was obviously intended to be the front door to Harry and Ginny’s new home. The white door was flanked by sash windows, also newly painted. This was not, however, the door by which we were entering the house.
The gable of the old stone barn was attached to the main building, an old two-storey farmhouse. The two buildings had been converted into one. The old farmhouse was half a floor lower than the barn and Ginny and her mother had disappeared through this open door. Annie was silent and trying to twist curiously out of my grasp as I walked down to the door. Strolling down the slope I looked at the third and final building. The old outhouse attached to the opposite gable was little more than a stone shed with a lean-to roof. Its door was ajar and inside I glimpsed the exhaust and number plate of Harry’s motorbike and, hanging from the whitewashed wall, what looked like several birch twig besoms.
As I followed Amber through the door, Terry was waiting outside, waiting for us to go in first. My first thought was what a gentleman but my second was now I’m trapped. With a rapidly beating heart I walked into Drakeshaugh.
Tea and Biscuits by Northumbrian
Tea and Biscuits
With Annie squirming and sobbing in my arms, I followed Amber Skoll into a small hallway. The white-painted room was bright, but it darkened noticeably when Terry Boot followed me inside. He moved remarkably quietly for such a big man, but he was so tall and wide that he blocked most of the light. I heard him close the door behind me and fought down my panic.
There were two doors from the hallway, but one was closed. Amber hesitated before walking through the open door. I followed her into a large and bright kitchen. My panic fled as I saw the normal kitchen scene in front of me. Ginny’s mum was there, with four young children. In addition to Al and Lily, there was a little girl with bushy, untidy ginger hair and a red-headed boy who looked to be about the same age as Lily. I gazed curiously at the room and its occupants.
The kitchen stretched the entire width of the house and was a strange mix of old and new. Several colourful rugs were scattered across the stone-flagged floor. The ceiling, between the ancient black oak beams, was painted white. The two outer walls were stone, but the windows in them were modern.
The afternoon sun was streaming through the west-facing French windows, which opened out onto a large patio area. Somehow the Potters had managed to move in, and have a lot of building work carried out, without anyone noticing.
The kitchen was dominated by a huge scrubbed oak table with a dozen solid-looking oak chairs around it. Ginny stood with her back to the table, and to us. She nodded a greeting but was busy at a large old fashioned range located centrally on the south wall, where a large copper kettle was almost boiling. Hanging from the wall alongside the range were several substantial looking pans and a large gleaming copper jam-pan.
‘You’ll be able to make a lot of bramble jelly in a few weeks,’ I observed, nodding at the jam-pan.
Ginny grunted non-committally and began to look through her modern kitchen units. Her mum, however beamed.
‘That’s what I told her, dear,’ she announced. ‘The blackberries will be ripe in a few weeks and several of the apple trees in the woods are fruiting nicely. I’m Molly, by the way, Molly Weasley.’
Stepping further to the left, Ginny opened the door of another of the oak fronted cupboards, with a murmur of success, she pulled out a tray and placed it on the green Cumbrian slate worktop. A dozen mugs hung from pegs on the wall under the unit. Ginny selected five and placed them on the tray.
While Ginny worked her mum was busy putting a sugar bowl and a jug of milk on the table. Helping the old lady was the bushy-haired girl. The ungainly little girl, who appeared to be all knees and elbows, was carefully carrying a plate of homemade biscuits. The three other children, Al, Lily and the red-headed boy were silently watching the girl as she carefully placed the plate on the table.
‘Thank you, Rose,’ said Ginny’s mum.
‘These are Al and Lily’s cousins, Rose and Hugo, Jacqui,’ Ginny announced. ‘Mum is looking after them, too.’
‘Do they live locally?’ I asked.
‘Oh no, dear,’ Ginny’s mum said. ‘We flooed up here to look after…’
‘Flew, Mum, not flewed,’ said Ginny forcefully.
‘Yes, dear,’ said Ginny’s mum, looking rather embarrassed by her mistake.
Ginny was opening and closing cupboards almost at random. ‘Do you want tea, or coffee, Jacqui?’ I haven’t found the Earl Grey or the Jasmine, yet, so it’s either regular tea or Italian high roast coffee until we get ourselves sorted out.’
‘Afternoon tea would be wonderful, Ginny, thank you. Is it okay if I let Annie loose? She’s woken up full of energy,’ I explained. My daughter was squirming in my arms, and staring curiously at the other children.
‘I’m forgetting my manners, Jacqui. Sit down, please, and of course you can let Annie loose. I was going to ask Mum to look after the kids while we talked, I’m sure that she can cope with one more. If you think Annie will be all right with these four,’ said Ginny, nodding towards the three redheads and Al.
‘I don’t know,’ I began. Molly Weasley seemed a little eccentric. ‘Five is a lot of kids to look after, perhaps…’
‘I have a dozen grandchildren, dear,’ Ginny’s mum interrupted me, ‘and I really don’t think that little … Annie … could be any more difficult than Dominique, or Fred. I was just going to take these four into the living room for biscuits and milk, and to tell them a story.’
‘Stowy time, Gwanny,’ Lily announced happily.
‘Babty Rabty,’ the little redheaded boy squeaked.
‘Free Bruvvers,’ Al said. ‘It’s Daddy’s favouritest.’
‘Well, if you’re sure…’ I said uncertainly, lowering Annie to the ground. I had never heard of either of those stories, but I knew that it would be easier to talk to Ginny without the distraction of Annie. I smiled at my daughter and watched her toddle over to the other four children. They looked carefully at each other.
‘‘Ello, Annie,’ said Al shyly.
‘Annie will be fine, I’m sure,’ Molly assured me. ‘Rose, Albus, you can both take care of Annie. Lily, Hugo, take my hands, please.’ With that, Ginny’s mum took the children across to a second door and led them away. As I watched them leave, I pondered the name I’d just heard. Ginny had obviously read my expression.
‘It’s an old Latin name and it was popular in Scotland in the eighteenth century. It means white, and he’s named after … after someone who saved Harry’s life.’ said Ginny. She sounded rather defensive.
‘He was a great man, Albus,’ Terry confirmed.
‘It’s certainly … unusual,’ I said. Saved Harry’s life… I pondered that information too. There was nothing else I could say. It was a very peculiar name, and I decided to research it when I got home. But, I supposed, it was no worse than calling your sons Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. In fact it was no worse than other old and unfashionable names, like Albert. Al was a nice enough name. And I was here to make peace, I reminded myself.
The kettle was boiling and Ginny had placed a large teapot on the tray. She was reaching for the tea caddy when Terry spoke again.
‘If you’re certain you will be okay, Ginny, we really should go,’ he said. ‘We need to get on our way.’
‘Are you going to Sheffield?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Terry glanced at me, and I watched him as he turned to Ginny and chose his words very carefully. ‘We’re going to Scotland, to the prison. We’re going to interview … the prisoner … about Sheffield.’
Ginny nodded, knowledgeably.
‘And we’re going to talk to my grandfather, too,’ Amber said. ‘Mum thinks that he might know something.’
Ginny nodded again.
‘You’ve got a long way to go,’ she said. ‘At least take a few biscuits, please.’
Amber thanked Ginny, but refused the offer. Terry smiled and grabbed three or four.
‘Thanks, Ginny, and thank the kids for baking them,’ he said. ‘Goodbye, Mrs Charlton; bye, Ginny.’
Terry smiled at me, nodded politely, and with that he stood and left.
After a quick, ‘Thanks and goodbye,’ Amber Skoll followed quietly at his heels.
Suddenly, Ginny and I were alone in the kitchen. Ginny replaced the large teapot in the cupboard, found a smaller one and began making the tea.
‘I’m sorry to turn up uninvited, Ginny,’ I began. ‘And I’m sorry that I screamed. It’s just that … well … Terry looks rather scary, doesn’t he?’
‘Terry is one of the nicest and most gentle people I know, and probably the second or third cleverest,’ Ginny told me. She put the mugs onto the tray and carried them over towards the table. ‘He seems to be really shy and very quiet. When you get to know him you’ll discover that he really is really shy and very quiet, unless you’ve done something wrong.’
‘So, why did you contact our bank?’ she asked, changing the subject abruptly.
‘I didn’t!’ I protested.
Slowly, over tea and biscuits I told Ginny the story. She stared at me intently as I spoke; she was listening carefully to every word.
The biscuits were ginger, homemade and still warm from the oven. They were delicious, and the only time I strayed from my story was to tell her so.
‘They’re Mum’s recipe, I used to bake them with her myself, when I was little,’ Ginny told me.
I continued with my tale, finishing by telling Ginny that I’d asked Mike not to tell Mary anything, and assuring her that he wouldn’t.
‘Bloody Mary,’ said Ginny.
‘Mike shouldn’t have listened to her, I’m sorry. Oh, I may need to apologise for something else, too. If your kids start saying damn, that will be my fault,’ I admitted. ‘When Mike phoned and told me what he’d done I said the word in front Annie. She picked it up instantly.’
‘Given all of the other problems this move has caused, that’s nothing,’ Ginny assured me, smiling. I’m sure James has overheard me swearing, but he’s never said anything. So, Mary thinks that we’re knut – penniless squatters, does she?’
‘She didn’t say anything about nuts, just squatters,’ I said.
‘Well, whatever she thinks we are, I can guarantee that she’s wrong,’ said Ginny, smiling again. ‘Thanks for letting me know, Jacqui, I’ll contact the bank and tell them to take no further action.’
‘Action?’ I asked. ‘Were they going to take legal action?’
‘They said they would take action. I didn’t ask them what sort, but I’m sure that it would have been … legal,’ she told me. ‘If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I’ll get in touch with them now. Have more tea and biscuits, make yourself at home.’ She stood and hurried from the kitchen.
I sat in silence for a few moments, and then pushed back my chair and wandered across to the French windows. There was a large wooden table on the patio, and beyond it, a remarkably well stocked vegetable garden. I turned and gazed around the kitchen.
There was no sign of a washing machine, or a refrigerator, or a dishwasher. In fact, I realised, there were no electricity sockets anywhere. There were several gas, or oil, lamps around the wall. Were the Potters really living without electricity, I wondered. The place was homely enough, but no electricity? I couldn’t imagine it.
I replaced my cup on the tray on the table and wondered about that, too. The table had a dozen chairs, but could easily accommodate sixteen or more. I tried to picture Harry, Ginny and their kids sitting at that kitchen table. They would only half fill it.
“A dozen grandchildren,” Ginny’s mum had said, “One of my brothers,” Ginny had told me the first time I’d met her. I wondered how big her family was.
As I looked around the room I saw James’s painting. I hadn’t noticed it when I entered, because it was on the back of the door we had entered through. That door had remained open until Amber closed it when she left behind “nice quiet” Terry Boot. Henry’s picture was effectively in the same place in my kitchen, on the door between kitchen and hall, and that made me smile. The Potters were strangers, and possibly a little odd if they were trying to live without electricity, but the location of that carefully crafted picture was enough to assure me of their decency. That’s when I had my idea, I could both make Mike pay for his mistake, and get to know our new neighbours a little better at the same time.
‘I look like I’ve got spots,’ Ginny announced, making me jump. I hadn’t heard her re-enter the room.
‘No, they’re freckles, obviously,’ I assured her. ‘They’re just not quite to scale,’ I added, making her laugh. She was suddenly cheerful and happy again. Until that moment I hadn’t realised that there had been a tension between us, but now its absence was noticeable. I waited for her to stop laughing before continuing.
‘I’ve…’ I began.
‘I’ve…’ Ginny said at the same second. We both stopped.
‘You first,’ I said quickly.
‘No, you,’ Ginny said.
‘No, I insist,’ I told her.
‘I’ve spoken to the bank,’ Ginny told me. ‘They are fine, and the matter is closed. I’ve spoken to Harry, too, to let him know what’s been happening. He’s suggested that he meets me outside school. As Mum’s here we can leave Al and Lily and both go and meet James and Henry. Now, what were you going to say?’
‘I feel really bad about disrupting your day, Ginny. But I’m blaming it on my husband.’ I began.
‘Always a good policy,’ Ginny laughed again.
‘Mike has offered to do the cooking on Saturday. If the weather holds we’ll be having a barbecue, because that’s all he can manage. It will probably be the last one of the year. I’m sure that you’re still all at sixes and sevens with the move, so … would you like to come to our house for burgers and burnt sausages on Saturday? Come any time after four. We’ll be out until then, because we take the kids swimming straight after lunch. Unless … unless you want to come to the pool with us, too?’ I said.
‘I’d love to come to a barbecue, Jacqui, and I’m sure that Harry will, too. I’m not sure about swimming, but Harry was trying to teach the kids the basics when we were on holiday this summer. We can ask him at the school gates,’ she hesitated and looked across at her clock.
‘If I’m walking to school, I will need to set off in a couple of minutes,’ she said. There was only the shadow of a hint in Ginny’s words, but it was enough for me.
‘I’ll give you a lift down,’ I offered.
‘That will give Mary something else to talk about,’ said Ginny grinning mischievously.
‘I’ll be in trouble with her anyway, because Mike certainly won’t tell her anything,’ I admitted.
‘I’ll go upstairs and change out of my dirty work-clothes. You can go up to the lounge with Mum and the kids for a few minutes, unless you want to stay here?’
‘Lead the way,’ I said, curious to see more of Ginny’s house. She led me through the door by which her Mum had left the kitchen and into a small hallway.
‘There’s a loo there, if you need it,’ Ginny pointed to another door. I shook my head.
‘The lounge is up here.’ Ginny led me through an arched door in a thick stone wall, up a short flight of stone stairs and into a huge room, the converted barn.
There were a couple of doors at the far end of the room but this massive high ceilinged space seemed to occupy most of the old barn. The furniture was lost in the place. There were two sofas and four armchairs, but no television, simply an old fashioned looking radio. The far end of the room was full of unopened boxes and tea-chests. Ginny’s mum was sitting on the floor surrounded by the five children. She smiled at me when I entered.
‘Jacqui is going to take me down to collect James, Mum. I’m just going upstairs to get changed,’ Ginny said. She climbed a half flight of open wooden stairs leading up to another door in the thick stone wall through which we’d entered the room.
‘Can I ask you, how do you spell your first name?’ asked Molly.
I was confused, I know that some people write it Jackie, but until I saw the alphabet bricks scattered around the room I had no idea why she was asking.
‘J A C Q U I,’ I told her. ‘But actually, my name is Jacqueline,’ I added, spelling my full name for her, too.
‘Ten letters, that’s good. That is two each,’ Molly announced.
She then set each of the children off to find two bricks each, Annie was given “A” and “N” the first two letters of her name, and shown an A and a N on cards to help her. She scuttled proudly back with an “N”, and an upside-down “V”. I watched Mrs Weasley in admiration and wondered why I’d been worried. She was great with the kids. I joined in the congratulations when the children finally scampered back and my name appeared in multicoloured wooden bricks on the floor. Mrs Weasley then asked them to find all of the green bricks.
‘This isn’t too much, is it?’ Ginny asked me from the top of the stairs.
She twirled around on the top step. She was wearing boots, black leggings and bright green strappy top. Her hair was loose and it seemed to glow in the afternoon sunlight.
‘You put me to shame,’ I admitted, looking at the blouse and skirt I was wearing.
‘Is it too much?’ Ginny asked anxiously.
‘No,’ I admitted. ‘It’s fine. Especially if you’re out to show Mary that you’re not a scruffy squatter. You look great.’ I checked my watch while I spoke. ‘You really don’t have enough time to change, again anyway, Ginny. Come on, Annie, we need to go to collect your brother from school.’
‘Want stay here!’ Annie announced petulantly.
‘You can’t, sorry, Annie, we’re going to take Ginny down to the school to meet Henry, and James, too. And then we must go home. Ginny has a lot to do. I have stopped her from working this afternoon.’
Annie stuck out her lower lip and it began to quiver.
‘Sorry, Annie,’ Ginny said. ‘You can come here again.’
Annie looked at me hopefully and made sure that I knew that she didn’t want to leave by giving me a wet-eyed sob.
‘We will see Al and Lily again soon, I promise.’ I scooped my daughter into my arms and carried her, protesting from the room.
Annie was still unhappy when I put her into her car seat, and she continued to protest all of the way down to the school. Ginny was sitting behind her and she did her best to keep my daughter happy as I drove. I glanced at the school gates as I drove past to turn around. Mary had spotted Ginny in the car and I saw her face crease into a disapproving frown. It was still there when I drove back.
Ginny held the door for me while I lifted Annie from the car. Once Annie was safe in my arms Ginny looked at me mischievously.
‘Let’s go and say hello to Mary,’ she suggested. She then strode purposefully towards the gabbling mums at the school gate. I watched Mary carefully; suddenly, she looked a lot less confident.
School Gates by Northumbrian
6. School Gates
I lifted Annie from her seat and watched with some trepidation as, with leonine grace, Ginny closed like a predator on Mary. The gossiping mothers at the gate sensed the approaching altercation and their meaningless chatter died instantly.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Saville,’ Ginny began with exaggerated politeness. ‘I’m so sorry that I couldn’t stop to talk to you this morning. I’d left Al and Lily with Mum and I wanted to get back to them. And, of course, as we’re still moving in, I had a lot to do.’ Ginny’s smile resembled that of a lioness about to pounce. ‘Unfortunately, I still have a lot to do, because of an unexpected interruption,’ Ginny continued. ‘Now, what did you want to ask me this morning?’
Mary was lost for words. The immaculate and elegant young mother facing her in the afternoon sunlight was a long way removed from the scruffy and harassed woman of the morning.
‘I, er … nothing really, Mrs Potter, I just wondered if you needed any help with your move,’ Mary began.
‘No, thank you for the offer, Mrs Saville, but Jacqui has already said she will help,’ Ginny said. ‘Are you sure that there was nothing else? There seemed to be some urgency in your voice.’ Ginny took a final step forward, bringing her only inches away from Mary.
I was watching a battle for supremacy. Mary was taller and heavier. Ginny was younger, fitter, and more agile. It would be interesting to see if their physical attributes also applied to their verbal sparring.
‘If you want to know anything, just ask,’ Ginny told her. ‘I expect that everyone is very curious about us, but I would hate to be the subject of misleading rumours and gossip. Misinformation and lies can be spread so easily, can’t they?’ Ginny’s voice remained even and civil, her accusation was so courteous that any counter-attack would make Mary look bitchy.
Ginny paused and smiled politely at the other mums while allowing her words to percolate through the crowd. Mary nodded and tried to smile at Ginny while glaring at me. Her face was not equipped for such expressive gymnastics and she simply looked rather foolish.
‘We like a quiet life, to keep ourselves to ourselves.’ Ginny continued. ‘That’s why we moved out of our London townhouse and into a smaller, cheaper, and more rural property. But we have nothing to hide, we’re…’ She was interrupted by a car horn. Harry waved to her as he drove past in a Range Rover identical to the one Terry Boot had been driving. Ginny waved back happily.
‘Here’s Harry now,’ she observed, delightedly. She’d been self-assured before she’d seen her husband, and now she overflowed with confidence. ‘So was there anything else you wanted to know?’
‘No.’ Mary shook her head.
‘You don’t want to know how much money we have in our bank account? You aren’t interested in whether we’ve ever been convicted of any crime, even something as minor as drinking and driving?’ Ginny’s face was that of an angelic ingénue as she spoke. Her voice was pleasant and polite, without the slightest trace of sarcasm.
She smiled respectfully at Mary, offering her another opportunity to speak. Mary’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped at the second question, and she shook her head again, this time, without speaking. Mary had been silenced. Ginny leaned forwards slightly. Mary worriedly stepped back. Ginny had not only silenced her, she’d forced her to back off, and everyone knew it. Everyone was also wondering if Mary had ever received a driving ban. Her reaction to Ginny’s final question was certainly suspicious.
I heard the car stop. The engine noise died and a car door clicked closed behind me. I forced myself not to turn around. Most of the other mums were facing us. It was almost comical to watch the way they were trying to look in two directions. They were fascinated by the now silent face-off between Mary and Ginny and didn’t want to miss anything, but they were also very interested in watching Harry approach.
Ginny didn’t turn to acknowledge her husband’s arrival. She simply watched Mary, a polite and slightly amused smile on her lips. I tried not to turn and look at Harry, but almost everyone else had lost interest in Mary and was watching his approach. I finally gave in to temptation and glanced over my shoulder.
Harry was in the same “uniform”: black trousers, white shirt and grey tie that Terry had been wearing. He looked good in it, and clearly, several others thought so too. Amanda Berry was staring in blatant admiration at him.
‘Hi, Jacqui, nice to see you,’ Harry began as he caught my eye. I watched him stride the final few feet towards us.
‘Hello, Harry,’ I said, determined not to make a fool of myself in front of the other mums.
‘Hi Ginny,’ he said, slipping an arm around her waist and pulling her in towards him. She reciprocated; turning towards him she slid her arms over his shoulders and around his neck.
‘Hi,’ she said, and then they kissed.
It wasn’t a simple “hello” peck, of the sort my husband and I exchange; it was a full blown love-kiss. It was the sort of greeting kiss you give, and recieve when you’re courting, or when you’ve just married and are still in the first throes of passion. It was a young-lovers-meeting kiss of the finest sort, and I was jealous. One of the mums gave a romantic sigh. I knew how she felt. Mike used to kiss me like that once, I remembered. But for some reason having two children had changed things for us.
‘Everything okay, Ginny?’ asked Harry when they broke apart. Harry and Ginny held hands, fingers intertwined. His question was asked lightly and politely, but everything about him, from his perfectly poised stance, to his firm tone of voice and the searching sharpness of his bright green eyes said “if it isn’t, point me in the direction of the problem, and I will fix it”.
‘Mrs Saville wanted to speak to me urgently this morning, but now she seems to have forgotten why,’ said Ginny. Harry shrugged.
‘Did you sort out the problem with the bank?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Someone was illegally trying to find out about our finances. The bank tracked the source, but I told them not to take any action. How was your day?’ Ginny asked.
‘Frustrating. We’re no further forwards. I’m waiting for a report from Terry; he might have something for me later tonight. But I’ve got good news. Terry’s agreed to cover for me for the next few days. I’ve managed to get the rest of the week off.’
Ginny beamed. ‘Tomorrow should be long enough for us to finish unpacking and tidying.’
‘Where do you work, Mr Potter?’ Amanda Berry squeaked breathlessly. Tall and skinny, Amanda was Mary’s right hand woman and rarely spoke, other than to agree with Mary. Her curiosity had got the better of her. I waited, wondering what Harry would say.
‘Where? That’s a difficult question to answer,’ said Harry, smiling apologetically. ‘I work wherever the Ministry sends me. I work for the Home Office and I have a desk, and a secretary, in the Ministry in London, but I’m not often there … I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘Amanda, Amanda Berry,’ she said eagerly. ‘You work in the Home Office … Immigration? There are far too many immigrants…’
‘No, Amanda, I’m not in the Borders Agency, or Passports, or even the Criminal Records Bureau,’ Harry said.
‘And you’re not supposed to talk about work, Harry,’ Ginny interrupted him.
‘I’m just a pen-pusher, a Home Office bureaucrat,’ Harry said. ‘But, Ginny’s right, I’ve signed the Official Secrets Act, so I shouldn’t say any more.’
He was teasing, I realised. He’d told us where he didn’t work.
Amanda’s next question was unheard over the noise of children. School was over and attention reluctantly, but necessarily, turned away from the Potters as children flooded from the school. Henry and James arrived together.
‘MummyDaddy, MummyDaddy!’ James yelled.
‘Hi, Mammy,’ shouted Henry.
‘Hi James,’ said Ginny.
‘Hello James, have you had a good day?’ Harry asked.
‘Was all right,’ James announced as he ran up to his parents.
‘What about you, Henry?’ I asked.
‘Okay,’ he shrugged.
James stepped up to his parents, stood between them, and pulled their hands apart. They made him fight to do it, but he determinedly untangled their intertwined fingers and placed himself between them.
‘I told Ginny that nothing and no one would ever come between us.’ Harry was smiling as he told me. ‘It seems I was wrong.’
Ginny ruffled their son’s hair affectionately.
‘Would you like to go swimming on Saturday, James?’ she asked.
‘I’m going!’ Henry said. ‘Can ‘e cumwiffus, Mammy, perleez?’
‘Are we goin’ wiff Henry?’ asked James. Ginny nodded.
‘Great,’ said James, literally jumping with excitement.
‘We’ll all go; Al and Lily, too,’ said Ginny. ‘Come along, James, we need to get home. We’ll see you tomorrow, Jacqui. You too, Henry. Bye, Mrs Saville.’
‘Bye, Jacqui, bye, Amanda; Mrs Saville,’ Harry nodded politely at Mary. The Potter’s use of her surname was noticed by everyone. Mary glared at their departing backs and I was certain that I would be in trouble. But before she could speak, Amanda asked a question which stopped Mary in her tracks.
‘I wonder why she mentioned drink-driving?’
I didn’t hear any more as I was surrounded by Alice, Sue, and several other mothers all asking whether I’d seen the Potters’ house and what it was like. I had difficulty answering as there was a confusing chatter of comments and questions and I was trying to listen to it all.
‘Did you see that kiss?’
‘Do you know how much a brand new Range Rover costs?’
‘They deal with counter-terrorism, too, you know.’
‘Do you think he’s a spy?’
‘James Bond, with glasses.’
Through the chatter I managed to explain that I’d been to the house and that they were definitely still in the throes of moving in. I said that the kitchen and living room were nice, and very big. I told someone that I’d met Ginny’s mum too, but by then both Annie and Henry were tugging anxiously at my arms.
‘I really must go,’ I said to the other mums apologetically. ‘I need to get the kids home.’
I made toad-in-the-hole for dinner, with Cumberland sausages, of course, as they’re Mike’s favourite. The Yorkshire pudding was rising nicely when he arrived. He walked worriedly into the kitchen. He was concerned that he’d be in my bad books. In the excitement of the afternoon I’d almost forgotten the fact that, at lunchtime, I’d shouted at him on the phone.
‘Hi,’ he said.
‘Hi, yourself,’ I told him as, suddenly impetuous, I walked up to him. He looked nervous. I threw my arms around his shoulders and kissed him the way Harry and Ginny had kissed. He hesitated for no more than a fraction of a second before responding enthusiastically.
We only broke apart when Henry said, ‘Eugh, that’s gross, stoppit.’
‘You won’t think so in a dozen years time, Henry,’ Mike told him while I tried to find both my breath and my composure.
‘Will!’ Henry said, with the certainty of childhood.
‘Sorry about listening to Mary. I thought that I’d be in trouble. What was that kiss for?’ Mike asked me.
‘That was … because … it was just because! Don’t worry about Mary. Ginny and I have agreed on your punishment,’ I told him. ‘I’ll tell you all about it over dinner. Put Annie in her high chair for me, please, Mike, and then you can mash the potatoes while I serve.’
Over the meal I told Mike what had been happening. He agreed without hesitation to both the barbecue on Saturday and to the trip to the pool. He really had no choice, Henry’s vociferous enthusiasm for the plan made certain of that.
Mike was full of questions about the Potters, Drakeshaugh, and Ginny’s visitors. I told him everything.
‘So, swimming on Saturday … d’you think the redhead will have a bikini?’ he asked, grinning.
‘You old lecher,’ I scolded.
‘What’s a lecher?’ Henry asked.
‘It’s what lecturers give,’ Mike told him, indulging in his passion for bad puns and leading our son away from the original word and into the world of further education. Henry soon got bored and forgot his original question.
Mike then told me about his afternoon. His friend Joe had phoned to let Mike know that he’d been ordered (by Mr Patterson himself!) to delete all details of the Potter’s bank from their records. Old man Patterson owned the business, but he never interfered. He simply played golf and left everything to the junior partners. Joe told Mike that Mr Patterson had sounded worried when he’d given the order.
‘I apologised to Joe and promised to take him out for a pint. I wonder what Harry really does? What his job is?’ Mike pondered as he poured custard onto his rhubarb crumble.
‘He’s a Nora,’ Henry announced. ‘He catches bad people.’
‘A what?’ I asked.
‘A Nora,’ Henry explained carefully. ‘Swat James said when Miss asked us about our daddies. I said you was a special agent, an you sell feels.’ Henry told his father.
‘Nobody would buy them, trust me,’ I murmured, and Mike laughed even more.
‘I’m a land agent sell fields, Henry,’ my husband said. ‘And property, too. Did James say what his mother does?’
‘She’s his mammy,’ Henry announced. ‘She doesn’t do anything.’
‘I think that most mammies would disagree with that, son,’ Mike said. I smiled, and then he spoiled it by adding. ‘Your mammy spent the entire afternoon busily gossiping and drinking tea.’
I made him tidy up the kitchen for that crack.
Later, after we’d got the kids to bed, Mike poured a couple of glasses of red wine, sat on the sofa, and patted the space next to him. When I sat he pulled me in close and kissed me on the cheek.
‘You’re chirpier, and livelier, than you’ve been for a long time,’ he told me. ‘I’m not complaining. I think that the redhead is good for you.’
I turned sideways, almost turning my back to him, shuffled my shoulder under his armpit, settled my cheek against his chest, and lifted my feet onto the sofa. Sitting like that, with my back pressed against his side, was something I hadn’t done for years. Mike automatically draped his arm diagonally across my chest and held my waist. It was just like before we had the kids, except with more waist.
‘Thanks, and cheers,’ I said, raising my glass before sipping my wine.
‘Cheers,’ Mike responded. ‘I wonder what James really said? A Nora? An aura? Neither make any sense. Perhaps he is a spy.’
‘Counter-terrorism,’ I told him. I’d been saving the information until we’d got the kids to bed. ‘I checked the Home Office website. They are in charge of something called the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. The OSCT “coordinates other agencies and government departments” but also has “responsibility for some aspects of the counter-terrorist strategy”, at least I think that’s what the website said. It didn’t say much else. Harry’s involved with the Sheffield murders; perhaps this “Greyback” is a terrorist. That would explain why nobody knows much about him. “Greyback” and “The Werewolf”, they’re like codenames.’ Another idea hit me and my imagination ran wild.
‘Big bad Terry and his leggy sidekick were on their way to Scotland to interview “the Prisoner”; that would be Greyback. They’re trying to find out what he knows and who is trying to get him freed?’ I concluded. ‘That “profiler” story he gave me always sounded a bit suspicious.’
‘You know, normally I’d say that you’d read one too many thrillers, that you were talking complete and utter rubbish,’ said Mike. ‘But the way that Grim Guts Bank acted…’
‘Grin Gots,’ I corrected. I was struggling to remember the name of the bank.
‘And the way poor old Mr Patterson got dragged in to stop anyone asking awkward questions,’ Mike continued. ‘That’s almost enough to make me think you’re right.’
‘Almost?’ I sounded petulant, I realised. ‘What more do you want?’
‘Persuasion,’ he said. He moved his hand up from my waist, lowered my head backwards, and kissed me. Red wine and a snog! It really was like travelling back in time.
‘Maaameee,’ Annie wailed from her room. I cursed.
The remainder of the week passed with remarkable rapidity.
Harry delivered James to school on Wednesday. He was wearing jeans and a faded red t-shirt with the same lion symbol I’d seen on his bike helmet and Ginny’s sweater. He’d gone to a private school in Scotland from age eleven, and so had Ginny. The lion was the crest of his old school house he told me as we walked into the classroom together.
He introduced himself to Mrs Wilson and hugged his son goodbye. That was when I spotted the scar on his arm. He caught me staring at it.
‘I’ve got others too,’ he admitted. ‘This was a knife wound. It seems like it happened a lifetime ago.’ He lapsed into silence, so I didn’t ask.
Amanda was positively gushing towards him as we left the school; she was almost begging for an invitation to the house. Harry was polite, but non-committal, citing the move as an excuse. He strode off up the road claiming that they were still very busy and I again found myself the centre of attention. Mary was sullenly sidelined as I told everyone the latest about the Potters.
That afternoon Ginny collected James, setting the pattern for the rest of that week. Harry delivered, Ginny collected. She arrived early and stood and chatted with the other mums. She told us that they had almost finished moving in and that they had moved here from a big townhouse in Islington. They hadn’t sold it, but now owned both properties. They were letting their London home. When I told Mike that evening he said that we could probably live comfortably on the rent from an Islington townhouse.
By Thursday evening Ginny was on first name terms with everyone. Everyone, that is, except Mary. Despite Mary twice asking ‘Call me Mary, please’, Mrs Saville remained Mrs Saville.
The morning run, which Harry did, offered fewer opportunities for gossip. He’d arrive just before school started, drop off James, and then leave. Everyone arrived for the afternoon pick up quarter of an hour, or more, before finishing time, so Ginny was the primary source of information.
Harry worked “with the police” and that’s all Ginny would say. Amanda was telling everyone that he was some sort of secret agent. As we were leaving on Thursday, I mentioned this to Ginny. I also told her what Henry had said about Harry being “a Nora”. She burst out laughing.
‘I’ll tell Harry,’ Ginny said. ‘He’ll think that’s really funny. Thanks for letting me know, Jacqui.’
On Friday morning Harry caught me by surprise while I was lifting Annie from the car. He seemed to appear from nowhere, I was certain that I had not passed him on the road.
‘Ginny told me what Henry said,’ he began. ‘And what Amanda has been saying about me. I’m not a spy, but I work for…’ He paused.
‘The Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism is my guess.’ I filled in the gap for him. He smiled.
‘We’re a very small office within that larger office,’ he confided. ‘We liaise with local police forces and other agencies. Any Anti-terrorist Units in Regional Organisations are dealt with by my office, the A-U-R-Or Office. We pull together information from all sorts of agencies, including the police. I know how curious everyone is, and I think that the truth would be better than rumours. So, if you want to mention that I work for the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism to the leader of my fan club…’ He didn’t finish the sentence, but simply nodded towards the Amanda, who was watching us from the gate. I smiled at him.
‘It’s hard for me to miss, and impossible for Ginny. I’ve told you as much as I can. I can’t and won’t talk about my job, Jacqui,’ he said.
We walked down to the school together and Harry offered to take both boys into the classroom. Henry was happy to go off with James, so I passed on the latest snippet of gossip to Amanda and the other mums.
I somehow missed seeing Harry leaving. No one else saw him go, either. It was almost as if he vanished into thin air.
On Friday afternoon Ginny was forced to field questions from several sources. She assured the other mums that Harry was head of an office of about fifty people and that she was not even slightly worried for his safety.
‘He doesn’t do field work any longer,’ she said. ‘He has people to do that for him. I’ll see you tomorrow, Jacqui.’ And with that, she grabbed James’ hand and was gone.
Wet Afternoon by Northumbrian
7. Wet Afternoon
I sent the kids into the garden to play and set Mike to work tidying the kitchen. I dusted and vacuumed the entire house, and then cleaned the toilets.
When I walked back into the kitchen over an hour later, Mike had only succeeded in making more mess! The bench was littered with knives and vegetable peelings. I looked around the room in annoyance, and when Mike advised me to calm down, I exploded.
‘We’re having guests, Mike!’ I yelled.
‘And the rest of the house is tidy, Jacqui,’ he told me.
‘The kitchen isn’t. It’s nowhere near tidy! What on earth have you been doing while I’ve been slaving away?’ I demanded. ‘This place is still a complete mess!’
‘I’ve been sorting out the food for this evening, Jacques. I’ve prepared a salad, I’ve got the burgers and sausages out from the freezer and I’ve made some spicy chicken kebabs. There’s white wine in the fridge, and I even put some lager in there too, just in case Harry’s a philistine. There’s red wine and beer in the corner. I’ve got plastic glasses out for the kids and we’ve got lemonade, orange squash and “lashings of ginger beer” as they say in the old kids’ books. I’ve packed the swimming costumes and put everything we need for the pool in the car. Do we need anything else for the barbeque?’ he asked.
I couldn’t find fault with his preparations, damn him, so I shook my head. He’d done work that needed to be done; he simply hadn’t done what I’d asked him to do. Mike is a messy worker. I tidy as I go; he works and leaves a complete mess until he has finished. It shouldn’t annoy me, but it does. ‘The kitchen…’ I began.
‘We’ll be having lunch before we leave for the pool. I’ll finish tidying up the kitchen after we’ve eaten, I promise,’ he told me.
‘Finish! You haven’t started,’ I began.
He walked up to me, placed his hands on my cheeks, bent forwards, and kissed me. I was wearing rubber gloves and carrying a bucket in one hand and the bottle of bleach in the other, there wasn’t much I could do to stop him. It was a nice kiss and it succeeded in calming me down.
‘Do you think that we need to buy anything else? We could nip across to the supermarket when we leave the pool,’ he said, releasing me.
‘No, I think we’ll be okay,’ I said.
As I emptied the bucket down the sink, he squeezed my bum, kissed the back of my neck and assured me, ‘It will be all right, Jacqui. You’re always in a panic before we have guests, and afterwards you always wonder why you panicked. You’ve forgotten, because we haven’t invited anyone around here for ages.’ With those words he opened the kitchen door and took the vegetable peelings out to the compost bin.
I didn’t reply. I really hate it when my husband is right.
Henry wolfed down his lunch and skipped and bounced crazily around the kitchen while Mike tidied up and set the dishwasher going. Our preparations to leave took a lot longer than we expected, because we were constantly avoiding the four-year old bullet ricocheting around us. Henry was first out of the kitchen door when we were finally ready to leave.
He was standing next to Mike’s car shouting, ‘C’mon, c’mon, hurry up,’ while we locked up the house. Henry was so giddily excited that Mike had to hold him down in order to strap him into the car seat. Not only was he going “swimblering” with James, but James was coming to see him afterwards. As we set off, my son was busily listing all of the toys “me’n’james” were going to play with, which seemed to be all of them.
‘You tidied his bedroom, didn’t you?’ Mike asked as we drove towards Harbottle. I nodded. ‘If James is anything like Henry, it’ll take the two of them less than a minute to make it a complete mess again,’ he murmured. If Mike had his way, I’d never tidy Henry’s room.
I was prevented from making a catty reply by Mike saying, ‘There they are, Henry. I can see the redhead.’ Mike pointed towards the Range Rover and Henry whooped with joy. I tried to wave but we were already past them.
The journey to the pool was a long one, forty minutes. It didn’t seem to matter which route you took, it was always forty minutes. Henry usually got fractious and fidgety on the journey to the Sports Centre. That day he was too excited to complain, but he was driving me demented anyway.
‘Is them still ahind us?’
‘Can James swimble?’
I have no idea where that word came from, but Mike didn’t help. ‘It’s not swimble, Henry,’ I began.
‘It’s swimblerate,’ my husband interrupted. ‘Tricky thingles, these wordices, aren’t they Henry?’
‘Yes, Daddy,’ Henry agreed, nodding seriously. I gave up.
After half an hour in the car, Henry must have asked ‘Is them still ahind us?’ two dozen times, and the only improvement I’d managed was ‘Is they still ahind us?’ That tiny piece of progress was lost when, five minutes from the pool and frustrated by being asked the same question over and over and over again I cracked, and stupidly said, ‘No.’
Henry burst into tears and demanded that we stop. I had to apologise to him for lying, and promise faithfully that ‘them is still ahind us, honest.’
I had just managed to calm him down and dry his tears when we arrived. Mike pulled into a parking space well away from the pool and Harry pulled up alongside us.
‘Hello, James,’ Henry yelled at the top of his voice, making me jump. Henry sat behind me, and James was behind his dad. They were waving frantically at each other and I could tell that James was yelling, too. Harry simply sat and smiled and indicated that I should get out first.
So we arrived in the car park together and disembarked en masse in a bewilderment of greetings and squeals. Henry and James were jabbering away excitedly at each other and I was trying to warn them to watch out for cars while also getting Annie from her seat and saying hello to Harry and Ginny. Mike cut across my greetings.
‘I’m Mike Charlton,’ he said, reaching out his hand to Harry. ‘But I’ll answer to pretty much anything these days: daddy, hey you, or even Michael if you want to use my Sunday name. It seems that our wives are too busy to perform the introductions.’
‘Harry Potter,’ Harry said, shaking my husband’s hand. I’d completely forgotten that they hadn’t met, and so, apparently, had Ginny. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Mike. I’ve heard a lot about you. But almost all of it has been from Henry, via James.’
‘If it’s good, it’s true. If it’s bad, it’s a lie,’ said Mike, grinning.
‘Boys!’ Ginny screamed. Henry and James were running towards the pool. They were scampering between parked cars and they hadn’t spotted the car travelling down the next aisle. Fortunately, both boys stopped, at Ginny’s yell. Mike and Harry had taken off like sprinters when Ginny shouted.
By the time Ginny and I had got the three little ones under control, both boys had received a severe telling off from their dads. They looked suitably chastised, but the moment the scolding was over they turned towards each other and grinned sheepishly.
Ginny had noticed too. She glanced at me and rolled her eyes skywards. ‘We’re going to have to watch those two, aren’t we?’ she said.
‘Henry can be a bit boisterous sometimes. He was probably leading James on,’ I apologised.
‘Don’t bet on it. I was going to apologise for James’ behaviour,’ said Ginny.
Mike was supervising Henry and James as they walked, and definitely did not run, across the car park towards the Sports Centre entrance. As we set off to follow them to the pool, Harry dashed back and picked up all of the bags, including ours. He ignored my protests and told me, ‘you just look after Annie.’ He turned to his wife and added, ‘I’ve got to go, Ginny. Mike’s threatening to pay for everyone.’ He strode off after Mike and the two boys, leaving Ginny and I with the three little ones.
‘James was driving me crazy in the car,’ said Ginny as we crept across the car park at toddling speed. ‘He was so excited. He was asking “Izzat Henry in front?” every two minutes.’
‘Henry was the same,’ I admitted.
‘Can your two swim?’ Ginny asked.
‘Henry can, almost,’ I said proudly. ‘I’ve been teaching him, but Annie’s still too small to be let loose without floats. Mike usually plays with her while I look after Henry.’
‘You teach swimming?’ Ginny asked.
Sort of,’ I said modestly. ‘I did a basic teaching course when I was in my teens. I was a club swimmer. I wasn’t really any good, just one of the plodders, but it was good fun. I was a backstroker, though not a great one. I was the one who makes up the numbers in the B team in a relay. I was keen for Henry and Annie to learn. What about you and yours?’
‘Harry and I learned together, about ten years ago. He prefers breaststroke to backstroke,’ she said. Her eyes sparkled and the corners of her mouth twitched.
‘Most men do,’ I told her. We grinned at each other. The three little ones were listening carefully so I returned to safer ground. ‘Ten years ago? That’s late in life to decide to learn to swim, isn’t it?’
‘On our first holiday together we saw some kite surfers. We tried it and loved it, and that’s when we decided that learning to swim properly would be a good idea. Harry tried to teach the kids to swim in Italy over the summer, but James thought it was a waste of time. Henry’s told him that it’s fun, so now he’s changed his mind,’ said Ginny.
We entered the Sports Centre to find a good-natured argument between our husbands, each of whom was insisting that they should pay for everyone. Ginny and I interrupted them and we agreed that we’d pay for our own families.
We led the Potters down the stairs to the changing area. It was fun to watch them. We were familiar with the place, but the Potters all looked around with interest. It was as though they’d never been inside a Sports Centre.
‘The family cubicles are at the far end,’ said Mike.
Harry nodded and led his family towards one cubicle while Mike headed for the adjacent one.
We were changed first and we waited for the Potters to emerge from their cubicle.
‘C’mon James, hurryup,’ Henry shouted impatiently.
The door opened almost immediately and James dashed out.
‘James, don’t run on the wet floor,’ ordered Ginny. She followed him out holding Al tightly by the hand. Mike’s wish had been granted; Ginny was wearing a blue bikini, at least, a Speedo two piece. She had tied her hair up. She looked pretty, and annoyingly curvy. She wasn’t bulging like me. Harry was wearing black jammers and was cradling little Lily, who was in green, to his chest.
The changing room was almost deserted. We watched as a group of wet and giggling teenagers pulled bags from lockers and moved into cubicles, leaving us the only people out in the open.
‘Harry,’ said Ginny quietly, glancing around the empty changing room and then at his chest. Harry took a deep breath and passed Lily over to his wife.
He was lean, almost skinny and his muscles weren’t well defined, but I knew that good muscle definition didn’t equate to fitness. In fact, Harry looked lithe and fit, and scarred. There was an oval scar on his chest. Next to it, over his heart, there was a second lightning scar, apparently identical to the one on his forehead. There was also a very faint trace of what looked like claw marks on his ribs. As Mike and I stared, he clenched his fists nervously. That’s when I noticed what looked like handwriting on the back of his left hand.
‘You’ve seen this,’ he said to me, twisting his arm around and revealing the knife scar I’d seen during the week. ‘And this,’ he lifted his untidy fringe revealing his scarred forehead.
He pointed at the claw mark. ‘This was done by a Bagh Nakh, or…’
‘Tiger claw, bloody hell!’ my husband said, revealing his compendious knowledge of ridiculous weapons, learned from years wasted on computer games. Harry nodded.
‘Burn,’ he said moving his hand up and pointing to the oval scar. ‘And the guy who gave me the burn thought that it would be a good idea to kill me by recreating the scar on my forehead too. They are old war wounds. Scars from a lifetime ago, and that’s all I’m saying about them.’
‘Harry and I have been together for years. We went on our first holiday together just before my eighteenth birthday,’ said Ginny, standing staunchly at her husband’s side. ‘Complete strangers stare at his scars, and ask stupid questions. It’s very annoying, so I thought that…’
‘It’s okay, red…’ my husband began. He stopped the instant he saw Ginny’s face. It was Harry’s turn to intervene. He stepped forwards.
‘Ginny is Ginny. Not redhead, or Red, or Ginger, or Ginge and definitely not Gin,’ Harry said quietly. ‘She isn’t Virginia, either.’
Ginny laughed when he said the last name. ‘Mummy to my kids, but Ginny to everyone else,’ she said forcefully.
‘Sorry, Ginny, I’ll remember that,’ Mike apologised. I glared at him, making certain that he knew I was unhappy, and that from now on I would be pulling him up every time he referred to “the redhead” too.
‘Has everyone forgetted that we’re going swimblering?’ Henry asked, breaking the uneasy silence. We laughed, assured Henry that we hadn’t, and we led our kids up to the pool.
‘She’s definitely a redhead,’ Mike said in an undertone. ‘She’s got a temper that’s even quicker than yours. I don’t want to die a horrible death, so don’t let me call her “red” again.’
‘I won’t,’ I promised him.
We trooped up to the pool together and entered the water. It was chaotic and a lot of fun. For a few minutes Ginny and I spent our time with Henry and James in the deeper water, trying to teach our sons to swim. Henry was much better, and I could tell that James was annoyed by the fact. What he lacked in technique, James made up for in determination.
Mike and Harry were in the small pool with the two girls and Al. I saw Al looking longingly at James and Henry, but Ginny’s younger son was far from confident in the water. Lily was too young to appreciate the danger and she happily splashed and burbled alongside Annie.
We’d been in the water for about ten minutes when Ginny asked me, ‘Can you cope with these two?’
I assured her that I could. Using an easy and fluid breaststroke, Ginny swam across to join Harry. After a short discussion, Harry left Lily with Ginny and brought Al into the big pool.
Harry was gently supporting and encouraging his younger son as he slowly moved out of his depth, splashing wildly. I was watching, while also keeping a careful eye on Henry and James; they had decided to have breath-holding competition. Henry won, and I intervened when a gasping James demanded a rematch.
‘You need more practice, James,’ I suggested. ‘Why don’t you try to do a forward-roll instead?’ I demonstrated, tucking up my legs and rolling over before emerging again.
‘Blow froo yer nose when y’roll,’ Henry added helpful. ‘Else the watter’ll go upyer nose.’ James tried, and emerged coughing and spluttering. But he watched Henry do it, and tried again. James refused to give up, I was impressed. The two boys were forcing each other to improve. Henry was practicing a lot harder than usual, determined to make sure that he was better than James.
After more than half an hour in the water I was still play-teaching Henry and James. Usually, that was the time when Henry would announce that he was tired and that he didn’t want to learn any more. Neither he nor James complained; they were each keen to keep up with the other. It was wonderful.
I was still busy with them much later when Harry drifted alongside me, still holding and encouraging Al. ‘Mike says that it’s time to go,’ he said. I looked up at the clock; we’d been in the water for more than an hour.
‘He’s right,’ I said. ‘Henry doesn’t usually last this long. Off you go, you two,’ I told the boys. ‘First one to reach Henry’s dad is the winner.’ They splashed away from us with their arms flailing like windmills and their heads out of the water. In their excitement they had forgotten everything I’d taught them.
‘I go too, Daddy,’ Al squeaked.
‘Okay,’ Harry said. ‘But you need these on first.’ He lifted the armbands he’d been carrying. Al looked unhappy.
‘Do you want to try this, Al?’ I asked. I handed him the float I’d been using to teach the older boys to kick properly. He nodded enthusiastically, so I showed him how to hold the float and Harry and I flanked him as he enthusiastically kicked his way across the pool.
‘You’re a good teacher, Jacqui,’ Harry told me. ‘I’ve been watching you. James has learned a lot.’
‘I told Ginny, I did a preliminary teaching course when I was in my teens, while I was still swimming,’ I said. ‘Amazingly, I seem to remember most of it. And teaching James and Henry together is actually easier than teaching Henry. Henry gets bored following his mum’s instructions.’ I turned to Al, who was starting to struggle. ‘Don’t bend your knees, Al, keep them straight and kick with your hips,’ I advised.
Al did as he was told, and started to move through the water a little more quickly.
‘Well done, Al,’ said Harry smiling encouragingly at his younger son. ‘Kick—kick.’
Henry and James were in the shallow water and standing talking to Ginny when we finally arrived. There was no sign of Mike or Annie. I looked around the pool. ‘Where’s…’
‘Annie’s had an emergency,’ Ginny said. ‘It was “Needatoiletdaddy”, and Mike got her out of the pool quick.’
‘I just wee inna pool,’ my son announced proudly and loudly as we left. James laughed.
‘Henry!’ I scolded, shaking my head in annoyance.
Mike was waiting for us when we got into the changing room. I retrieved her from him and led Ginny and Lily into the Ladies’ showers.
‘Are you coming straight back to ours, Ginny?’ I asked while we quickly showered. ‘Or will you need to go home and get changed?’
‘I’ve brought a change of clothes, Jacqui. We can come straight back, if that’s okay, or we can wait,’ Ginny offered.
After a short discussion we agreed that they would follow us home and we returned to the changing room to tell our husbands the plan. Ginny and her family vanished into a cubicle. They were ready and waiting for us when we finally emerged from ours. My hair was still damp when we left, but somehow, the Potters were all completely dry and smartly dressed. Ginny’s hair was shining and she was wearing a completely different outfit, black leggings, denim shorts and a grey sweatshirt, to the one she’d been wearing when they arrived. Dressed like that, she didn’t look old enough to have three kids.
I was once again struck by one of the many slight oddities about the Potters. The two bags Harry had shouldered didn’t look big enough to carry all of the stuff they must have brought with them.
We walked out of the Sports Centre together. Mike again watched Henry and James, I carried Annie, Ginny carried Lily, and Harry held Al’s hand. As we walked out into the afternoon sunshine there was a raucous whistle.
‘Wotcher, boss,’ someone shouted. There was a woman leaning against the back of the Potters’ car. Her hair was black and spiky and the sides of her head were shaved. She was a tall, solidly built Goth. There really was no other way to describe her. She wore Doc Marten boots, fishnets and a profusion of black and purple clothes.
‘Give me a minute?’ asked Harry. Ginny nodded.
‘Stay with Mummy for a minute, okay, Al?’ Harry asked. He released his second son and trotted across the car park towards the woman.
‘Do you mind waiting?’ she asked us. ‘That’s Polly Protheroe, she works for Harry. It must be important if she’s tracked us down here. I really hope that he won’t have to go into the office.’
Work and Play by Northumbrian
Work and Play
‘What’s happening, Mammy?’ Henry asked me, puzzled.
‘James’s daddy needs to speak to that lady in private,’ I told him.
‘Why?’ Henry asked. I hesitated.
‘She probably wants to tell him a secret, Henry,’ Ginny told him. ‘At least, I hope she does. If she thinks she’s going to drag him off to work then she’d better have a bloo—ming good reason.
Ginny was wearing the same predatory expression I’d first seen when she was facing Mary, the expression which I’d seen again today and which I was certain had ensured that my husband would never again call her “Red”. Her scorching gaze seemed to cut through the air; perhaps it really did, because the woman glanced worriedly across at Ginny. I watched with interest.
Harry and the woman who Ginny had called Polly Protheroe had a very brief conversation. Harry signed something for her and beckoned to Ginny. I wasn’t certain whether he was extending the invitation to everyone, but Ginny set off immediately, carrying Lily and holding Al tightly by the hand. James did not want to be left behind and he started forward too. Henry followed James, so I followed too, indicating to my husband that he should keep Henry and James under control. Mike nodded.
‘Do not run across the car park,’ Mike ordered the two older boys. James and Henry exchanged a “we’d-better-not-risk-it” look and walked alongside me. Mike brought up the rear, keeping a watchful eye on them. The strange-looking woman was watching us coolly as we approached.
Henry and James were blatantly gawping as they drew closer to the pale-skinned, black-clad and heavily made-up goth. It was embarrassing, but hardly surprising. I had to force myself not to stare at her. I tried to examine her surreptitiously as we approached. What a sight, I thought, and then I realised that it was one of my mother’s expressions. My God, I realised, I’m turning into my mother! I’d always prided myself on my tolerance, but I’d never really tested it.
Purple painted fingernails protruded from black lace fingerless gloves; her face was white pancake, with black lipstick and crimson mascara. Her right arm was tattooed from her wrist to goodness knew where. If I’d seen her in the street, I would certainly have avoided her; she was that sort of woman. So much for tolerance I thought to myself. But despite Ginny’s obvious unhappiness, the woman was smiling and waving at Ginny and the kids. I realised as I got closer that she was also older than I’d first thought. She was older than Harry, older than me; it was difficult to tell because of her makeup, but she was probably in her late thirties.
As I came closer to her, I realised that she was looking at the Potter family almost longingly. I glanced at her left hand and it confirmed my suspicion. She wore rings of pewter, silver and gold. They featured skulls, pentagrams, a coffin, and her right thumb ring was what appeared to be a staring yellow eye. Only one finger was without a ring, the third. That seemed to be the only way in which she conformed to normal behaviour.
‘This is Polly Protheroe; she works for me,’ said Harry, introducing us to his colleague. ‘Polly, this is Mike, Jacqui, Henry and Annie Charlton.’
‘Hello.’ The woman nodded politely at us before turning to Ginny. It was obvious that Ginny knew her.
‘And hello, Missis P.’ The woman grinned at Ginny, somehow managing to ignore Ginny’s predatory glare. ‘Quite the family scene, eh? I only ever see Harry at work, and he’s not so relaxed in the office. It’s easy to forget he’s a dad too. Seein’ you with this lot makes me feel really old. I’d really like—’ I never discovered what Polly would really like, because Ginny interrupted.
‘Hello, Polly, it’s been a long time since I saw you. I hope you aren’t bringing bad news!’ Ginny spoke forcefully, but it seemed to me that Polly was unafraid, that she was deliberately not giving Ginny a straight answer.
‘Yeah, well, you wouldn’t see much of me, would you? Work and family don’t mix much, do they? And I weren’t at the office party at Christmas. They really aren’t my thing; I don’t fit in and the music is a pile of sh…’ She stopped mid-sentence, looked at Ginny, then me, then the kids, and rather lamely finished her sentence. ‘…not very good.
‘I’d rather go to one of the pubs in Camden Town,’ she continued. ‘But that ain’t your cuppa tea.’
Ginny continued to glare at her; with a wry smile, Polly finally told Ginny what she wanted to hear. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not draggin’ Harry to work or anything; I just needed a signature from the boss, that’s all.’
Adjusting a flounce of black, pink and purple petticoats, she squatted down in front of Al and James. ‘Wotcher, Jimmy, Hiya, Al. I ‘aven’t seen you two for years. You were a tiny baby, Al, an’ just look at you now. You’ll be at school yerself, next year, eh?’ Al nodded nervously. Polly ruffled his hair, an entirely redundant action, as Al’s hair was as untidy as Harry’s. ‘And you, Jimmy, I hear all about you! I hope that you’re being a good boy!’ She grinned at him and stood.
‘And look at you!’ she said, beaming at Lily. ‘As gorgeous as yer mum already!’ She gently stroked Lily’s cheek. That was when Henry decided that he’d been silent for long enough.
‘That’s a dragon,’ he announced, pointing at her arm.
‘Smart kid,’ Polly said. She held out her arm and twisted it, allowing the boys to see the fire-breathing monster twisting up her arm. ‘It’s a Hebridean Black.’ She tapped the side of her nose conspiratorially. ‘You can still see them in the wild, if you know where to look.’ She winked at me. She was obviously teasing the kids. ‘I’ve got a Hippogriff, too. Wanna see it?’
‘Polly,’ Harry said sharply. Up until then, he had been watching in amused silence.
‘Yeah, best not,’ she said. ‘Well, I just wanted to say hello to the Potter family. I’d better get away, bad guys to catch and all that. Thanks, boss, and cheers all!’ She waved at the kids and strode off across the car park.
‘She works for you?’ I asked Harry, trying not to sound incredulous.
‘Where’s the Hippogriff tattoo?’ Mike asked at the same time, talking over my question. Harry smiled almost apologetically and looked me in the eye.
‘Yes, Polly works for me, Jacqui. She walks a different path to most of us, at least as far as her lifestyle and dress sense goes…’ Ginny sniggered at that remark for some reason. ‘But she’s good at her job, and she’s not the most eccentric member of my team,’ he added ruefully before turning to my husband. ‘I’ve no idea where the Hippogriff tattoo is, Mike. I know where she tells everyone that it is, but in my job, I need evidence, and I’ve never seen it.’
‘Is it on ‘er bum, Daddy?’ James asked, revelling in the use of that rudest of words in the way only a little boy could.
‘Bum.’ Henry giggled. To my dismay, Mike snorted with laughter too, thus showing the Potters, if they hadn’t already guessed, that my husband is no more mature than most four-year-olds. I glared at him.
‘James.’ Ginny frowned at her son before turning to her husband. ‘So, is it good news, Harry?’ He glanced meaningfully at us and shrugged.
‘It’s too early to say, Ginny. Polly has a name and it looks better than the others we’ve been given. She wanted to tell me about it, and she needed authorisation for a surveillance operation. I’ll tell you all about it in the car.’ Harry smiled apologetically at us. ‘I can leave work for a few days, but work doesn’t always leave me, I’m sorry. Are we all ready to leave?’
‘Yes, you can follow us home if you’d like.’ Mike had already unlocked the car and was busy putting our bags into the boot.
‘Can James come wiff us?’ Henry asked me.
‘That’s up to Harry and Ginny,’ I told him. When I looked questioningly at them, they exchanged worried glances.
‘We’ve never let him be driven anywhere by someone else…’ Ginny began.
‘I wanna go wiff Henry,’ James announced. ‘An’ I’ve bin in Antermynee’s car.’ James spoke rapidly and I was unable to decipher the name. Aunt who? I wondered.
‘So you have,’ Harry agreed. ‘I think that Mummy must have forgotten about that.’
‘There probably isn’t room for you in Henry’s car, James,’ said Ginny.
‘They can have her,’ Henry offered, pointing disdainfully at Annie and offhandedly dismissing his sister into the care of the Potters. ‘That’ll make room.’
‘They can not,’ I told him. ‘Annie is your sister; you can’t just give her away, Henry!’
Henry pulled a face, obviously unconvinced about the need to have a sister. There were a few minutes of confused discussion. It was obvious that Ginny was not keen on entrusting James into our care. Harry was wavering, and Henry and James were standing shoulder to shoulder, determined to remain together. I marvelled at the speed at which they’d bonded. They’d only known each other for six days, and they were already inseparable.
‘They’ll both be upset if we say no,’ observed Mike quietly, addressing Ginny. ‘I’m a good driver. I got a speeding ticket on my bike a dozen years ago, but I’ve been clean as a whistle since.’
It seemed to me that Ginny was waiting for Harry to say no. He said nothing. They looked at each other. Harry held reached out for her hand and squeezed it. Ginny’s thumb caressed the back of his hand, and she pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows enquiringly. Harry still said nothing. The implication was obvious. He would not prevent James from riding with us. I watched, fascinated. I’d never seen a discussion carried out in almost complete silence, and so rapidly.
‘He’ll be safe, Ginny,’ Harry assured her. He sounded definite, and Ginny nodded.
‘You be on your best behaviour, James Potter, or else,’ Ginny warned. ‘And remember what we told you!’
‘Yes, Mummy,’ James said. And that was it; the decision was made. Mike and Harry strapped James’s car seat into the back of our car, between Henry and Annie. Mike did most of the work, as Harry was concentrating on muttering something to James—reinforcing Ginny’s warning, probably. Once he was safely strapped in, we waved to the Potters and drove home with our new passenger.
From the moment we left the car park, Henry and James were chattering. Henry began by asking James about toys. James, it seemed, had very few toys. No cars, fire engines, diggers or soldiers. James did, however, have a train set, Lego and a broom! That last one puzzled me.
Henry began to boast about his toys, but he was struggling even before I could scold him. James was remarkably unimpressed. I knew why.
The Potters did not own a television. The fact that James didn't know about the Cartoon Channel meant that the poor boy had no idea about the origin of several of Henry’s toys. Henry’s complicated and confusing explanations were beginning to bewilder James, and I had to help my son to explain the cartoon background behind some of his toys. Annie tried to help too, but her explanations were even more confusing for James. At least the boys weren’t bored. Their conversation did not flag until we were on the final leg of the journey.
When they finally lapsed into silence, I asked, ‘So, apart from your daddy’s car, which other cars have you been in, James?’
‘Antermynee’s,’ he said. The nonsense word he’d said still made no sense.
‘Aunt who?’ I asked.
‘Aunt ‘Ermione,’ said James slowly.
‘Aunt Hermione,’ I clarified. ‘Do you have many aunts and uncles, James?’
‘Yes,’ he said. He paused. ‘Daddy says I have to ‘member the National Statue of Secrets. But aunties an’ uncles aren’t secrets, are they?’
‘I wouldn’t think so. Unless your aunt Hermione works for your daddy,’ I told him, wondering how he had managed to transform the Official Secrets Act into the National Statue of Secrets. It didn’t seem to fit, but I know from experience that four-year-old brains are sometimes strange places.
‘Uncle Ron says Daddy will be working for Aunt ‘Ermione soon,’ said James. His tone of voice told me that this was obviously important news.
‘Uncle Ron?’ I asked.
Uncle Ron and Aunt ‘Ermione are Rose and Hugo’s mummy and daddy,’ James told me.
‘I’ve met Rose and Hugo,’ I told James.
‘I knows, and Granny too,’ James nodded.
‘Yes, I’ve met your granny, too. So, where do your cousins live?’ I asked.
James gave that question some considerable thought. ‘Inna house,’ he told me.
Mike burst out laughing. ‘Good answer, James,’ he said. ‘Most people do. What about your new house? Do you like it?’
‘Yes,’ James began. In the mirror, I saw James’s eyes light up excitedly. ‘There’s a tactless forest an’ a raging river, just like inna stories. An’ I’m gonna make a den, an’ it’s gonna be secret. It’s great. It’s better than grim ole place an it’s even better than The Burrow.’
‘Tactless forest? Grim old place? The Burrow?’ said Mike, confused by James’ answers.
‘You mean “trackless forest”, don’t you, James,’ I explained to Mike. ‘You don’t read stories to your kids often enough, Daddy. But grim old place?’
‘’S where we use to live,’ James explained. ‘Kreacher still does.’
Mike and I exchanged expressions of confusion. The Potters had lived with a creature in a grim old place? I decided to simply let the subject drop.
‘Daddy’s made me a rope swing over a deep an’ trechruss river,’ James added. ’It’s very dangerous an’ I’ve gotta be very careful.’
‘We gotta swin’,’ Annie squeaked. James ignored her.
The “deep and treacherous river” would be the Drakestone Burn, I realised; it ran through Drakestone Wood, not far from the Potters’ home. At this time of year, it would be no more than four feet wide, and nowhere would it be more than a foot deep. I wondered how dangerous the swing really was. After Ginny’s concern about James riding in someone else’s car, I suspected that she would not allow her children to face very much danger. I imagined Harry and Ginny seriously telling their son to be careful.
‘Can I have a go on your swing?’ Henry asked.
‘Yes, you can come to my house whenever you want,’ said James.
‘Whenever your mummy and daddy want, James,’ I suggested. ‘You’d better ask them before you invite Henry round.’
‘They won’t mind,’ James said confidently.
‘Here we are,’ Mike announced as we turned off the road and clattered up the steep gravel drive to our house.
When we bought the place, our house had been named “Rivendell”. One of the first things we did was change the name back to the original. I did a little research to confirm it, but it took me no time at all to confirm that the property had always (until the last owners changed it) been “Lintzgarth”. The builders had taken the trouble to carve the name “Lintzgarth” and the date “1873” in the lintel above our front door, so there really was not any doubt.
Lintzgarth was built by a factory-owner from Newcastle. Some rumours claim that he built it for his mistress, although I’ve found no evidence to support that. It is a Victorian house, built of solid stone and with a slate roof. Mike and I spent a huge amount of money updating it when we bought it. After our first freezing winter, we spent even more on insulation and new windows.
From the road, Lintzgarth conforms to the standard child’s drawing of a house. Our front door, which we rarely use, is flanked by a window on each side (both bays); there is an identical arrangement of windows on the first floor and a chimney midway along the roof.
The drive passes the left side of the house and continues through the six foot high stone wall which surrounds our rear garden, separating us from Armstrong’s pasture. Our garage is an old stable, open fronted for most of its length. The old tack room at the far end is full of the usual junk, the kids’ bikes, the lawnmower, and various plant pots and gardening implements.
Mike pulled his car under the stable roof, stopping a lot closer to the wheelbarrow than I was comfortable with. He ignored my sharp intake of breath, wound down his window and waved his arm, indicating that Harry should pull up behind our car. I waited until Harry had stopped before getting out and helping the kids from their seats.
Mike carried the swimming bags across to the kitchen door, and feeling suddenly nervous, I herded the kids along behind him.
‘Welcome to Lintzgarth,’ I said to Harry and Ginny. They were both gazing around my garden. ‘Make yourselves at home. I’ll give you a guided tour later if you want. I’ll just…’ I waved vaguely at the kitchen door and bustled past Mike, who had just unlocked the door, in order to get into the kitchen first.
‘Jacqui is in full panic-mode,’ announced Mike, embarrassing me in front of our guests. ‘She is always the same when we have guests. She needs to make sure that the place is spotless, although she did that twice before we left.’
I went inside, fuming, and looked around the kitchen. It had been tidy when we left, and of course it was still tidy, but Mike shouldn’t have said what he did. There was an uneasy silence outside as the Potters waited. Thanks to Mike, they were waiting to be invited in.
‘What’s that?’ James asked. I looked through the kitchen window, but James must have been directly beneath it. I couldn’t see where he was pointing, but at the far end of the lawn, there was a swing, a seesaw, and…
‘A trampoline,’ Henry said. ‘You jump on it and bounce; it’s almost like flying. Wanna go?’
I saw Harry and Ginny exchange a worried glance. I was again surprised; I really had not expected them to be so overprotective of James. Mike had obviously noticed, too.
‘He’ll be perfectly safe,’ Mike reassured them. ‘There’s a net around it.’
‘I know he’ll be safe,’ said Ginny.
‘Be careful, James,’ Harry warned. ‘Don’t do anything silly.’ From the way he spoke, I got the impression that rather than falling, he was expecting James to do something very spectacular.
If you all want to go and play, go ahead,’ said Mike. The kids all scampered up the garden.
‘I’ll keep an eye on them,’ Harry offered.
‘Thanks, Harry, I’ll just offload the swimming things and I’ll be straight back. I need to get the barbecue going,’ Mike told him.
I glared at Mike as he strode through the kitchen.
‘It’s okay, Jacqui, everything is under control,’ he told me.
‘You haven’t offered them drinks,’ I reminded him.
‘I haven’t started on the food, and I haven’t put these away, either,’ he said. ‘Think of the trouble I’d be in if I just left these on the floor. Relax, Jacques!’ He thinks that phrase is really funny! He winked at me and walked into the hall. I heard him go upstairs.
‘Do you need any help, Jacqui?’ Ginny asked, peering into the kitchen through the still open door. She was still waiting for permission to enter. I cursed inwardly.
‘Sorry, Ginny, what must you think of me? Come in, please. Would you like something to drink? What about the kids?’
‘Drink!’ said Ginny, shaking her head in annoyance. ‘I’ll be back in a minute!’ She dashed back to their car, pulled open the boot rifled around in one of the bags and returned with a bottle. ‘We brought this for you. We didn’t want to come empty-handed. Thanks for inviting us. And thanks for all your help in the pool, Jacqui.’ Ginny offered me the bottle of red wine.
I protested that she didn’t need to bring a gift, and she insisted that she did. We indulged in that little dance of polite chit-chat which, as was inevitable, finally resulted in me saying “you’re very kind” and accepting the bottle. It was a Sicilian red wine, “La Segreta Rosso” according to the label. I’d never heard of it, but from the look and feel of the bottle, it wasn’t cheap.
‘You do drink wine, don’t you?’ Ginny asked me as Mike re-entered the kitchen.
‘Red?’ he said. Ginny rounded on him.
‘The wine,’ he said, trying to sound innocent. ‘We’re very fond of red wine, aren’t we, Jacqueline, darling?’
‘He’s going to be like this all night; sorry,’ I told Ginny. ‘He’s trying to be clever.’
‘Only trying?’ Mike asked.
‘You are always very trying, Michael,’ I told him. He burst out laughing. Ginny watched our bickering with apparent amusement.
‘Do you want to open it now?’ Mike asked us. ‘Or would you rather wait until we eat?’
‘That will be never, unless you light that barbecue,’ I reminded him.
‘I’m on my way, Boss,’ he told me. ‘You can sort out the drinks.’
Mike strolled into the garden, leaving Ginny and I alone in the kitchen. I watched as he began busying himself at the barbecue. Harry was happily supervising the kids. He was pushing Al on the swing and then rushing across to help Annie and Lily on the seesaw, as Lily was too light (or Annie was too heavy) to get any reasonable motion going.
‘Mike’s actually a pretty good cook,’ I told her. I then had another panic; suddenly worried that the Potters might not like the food and drink which Mike had prepared, I quickly ran through the menu. Ginny reassured me about the food, assured me that ginger beer would be fine for the kids, and accepted my offer of a lager from the fridge. I found a bottle of Riggwelter Ale for Mike and asked, ‘What will Harry drink?’
‘Ginger beer, probably, provided it’s not the alcoholic stuff,’ Ginny told me. ‘He won’t drink any alcohol when he’s driving.’
‘Mike’s the same,’ I told her. ‘If we go out to the pub, we take turns driving. I expect you do that as well?’
Ginny shook her head.
‘I can’t drive,’ she admitted. ‘I passed my bike test, so I can take the bike out, but that’s no use now we have the kids. I suppose, now we’re here, I really should learn…’ She shrugged.
Ginny and I sat at the kitchen table and spent some time discussing our motorcycling experiences. Outside, the men were doing all of the work. It was an enjoyable way to spend the early part of the evening. Mike was carrying on a loud — and frequently interrupted — conversation with Harry, who was at the other end of the garden with the kids.
Mike was in and out of the kitchen as he prepared the food. I handed him his beer on the first of his several trips to the fridge. On his second, he arrived with orders for drinks from the kids and Harry. Ginny was proved right; Harry was happy with ginger beer.
Ginny and I gossiped. I discovered that grim old place was, in fact, their London home, Grimmauld Place, and that the Potters had employed a housekeeper called Creech. Ginny was not keen on discussing their old house and the conversation turned to Harry’s bike.
Harry and Ginny had travelled across the country on the bike when they were younger. The bike had belonged to Harry’s late godfather and had been part of Harry’s inheritance. The bike had been a wreck, apparently, but Harry had rebuilt it with some help from Ginny’s family.
‘They helped?’ I said. ‘My parents hated the idea of me going out with a biker, even though he was a university graduate with a good job.’
For me at least, the evening flew by. Ginny and I discussed how we’d met our spouses. We talked about the kids. Lily had apparently been a terrible sleeper and Ginny was jealous when I told her how good Annie had been.
I gave Ginny a quick tour of Lintzgarth and we arrived back in the kitchen a little after seven, moments before Mike finally announced that the food was ready. He served the kids their burgers, sausages, salad and baked potatoes before serving us. I opened the wine and poured a glass for Ginny, Mike and myself. It was full-bodied, fruity and delicious; if it wasn’t expensive, it certainly tasted like it was.
I carried the drinks outside and we adults sat around the patio table while the kids picnicked on the lawn. We ate and chatted and joked, and Ginny flattered Mike by asking him for the recipe for his spicy chicken kebabs.
The kids wolfed down their food and Henry, realising that they’d been outside since they arrived and he hadn’t shown James any of his toys, dragged his friend indoors. The kids all seemed to be getting along well, although at that moment, I realised that Al was looking longingly after the two older boys. I suggested that he go and join them, but he shyly refused and went back up to join the girls on the swing and seesaw.
By the time Harry, Ginny, Mike and I had finished eating, the sun was slowly sinking and the horizon was just beginning to take on an orange tinge. Harry volunteered to watch the kids again. The rest of us cleared everything up and packed the dishwasher; at least, Mike and I did. Ginny looked as though she’d never seen such a thing.
Mike was busy pouring himself another beer when Harry strolled into the kitchen with Lily in his arms. His flame-haired daughter was whimpering and floppy.
‘Lily’s had enough,’ Harry announced unnecessarily. ‘I think it’s time for us to go, sorry. Thanks for a nice day, Jacqui, Mike. We’ve had a good time, and the kids have had a good time too.’
‘Happy kids! That’s the most important thing,’ I observed. Harry and Ginny nodded.
‘We might even get them all to bed early,’ suggested Ginny. ‘They’ve had a really busy day.’
It took us some time to get the kids rounded up. James created something of a scene, as he was happy playing with Henry and with Henry’s toys and he did not want to leave. I left Ginny to deal with him, which she did.
James was surly and sad when he stomped downstairs. But with Ginny standing behind him, he managed a polite ‘Thank you for inviting us, Mrs Charlton; I’ve had a really good time’.
‘We go swimming every Saturday,’ I told Ginny while Harry was strapping the kids into the car. ‘If you want to make it a regular thing … the swimming, not the barbecue, that is…’ I tailed off hopefully. I’d been lonely, I realised. I’d enjoyed my day too; it would be nice to have someone to visit, somewhere to go for a coffee.
‘Harry and I were discussing that while we were driving here,’ Ginny told me. ‘We’d love to. The kids all enjoyed their trip to the pool. But … I’m sorry … we can’t go next Saturday … we have a party to go to.’ My heart sank, I wondered if that was the first of several weeks of excuses, excuses which would last until I stopped asking. But Ginny sounded genuinely sorry.
‘Party!’ Mike strolled in and interrupted us. ‘Are you having a house-warming party, Ginny? Are we invited? When is it?’
I glared at him, but Ginny looked thoughtful.
‘It might be a good idea to meet our new neighbours,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘I’ll discuss it with Harry. I’ll see you at school on Monday, Jacqui, and thanks again.’ Ginny impulsively kissed me on the cheek, and then, to his obvious pleasure, did the same to Mike. She climbed into the car and we watched and waved as the Potters drove home.
‘Well, that went well,’ Mike observed. ‘They seem like nice people.’
‘A bit eccentric,’ I said. ‘No telly, no electricity. But, yes, nice people.’
‘I’d really like to see Harry’s bike,’ Mike told me.
Interlude: Thirty by Northumbrian
‘You’ve wetted me, Daddy,’ James complained.
‘You are already wetted, James,’ his father said. ‘In fact, you are soaked to the skin.’ Harry lifted another palm-sized pebble from the bank of the stream. ‘Watch out, Al,’ he called as he prepared to throw the stone into the water.
Ginny sat cross-legged on the grass and watched her husband. Harry looked over his shoulder and grinned mischievously at her. Once again, he managed to deliberately splash James, who was busy on the opposite bank. James simply laughed; he had already fallen into the water twice. It was impossible for Harry to make him any wetter than he was. Al paddled forwards and carefully relocated the stone his father had thrown.
Harry wore dark brown shorts, a pair of sandals and nothing else. He was busily helping five small children to move stones. They were attempting to dam Drakestone Burn. Despite almost an hour’s work, they were having only limited success.
Before they started work, Harry had stuck a couple of twigs into the gravel right at the water’s edge, one upstream and one downstream of the proposed dam. Al, Lily and Rosie, unable to see any real difference in the water levels despite their labours, had all been back to check the sticks. The upstream stick was now slightly underwater and the water had receded from the downstream stick. Rosie was happy that they were making a difference, but wisely observed that stopping water wasn’t easy. After a huge amount of effort, they had succeeded in raising the water level upstream of the stone and pebble dam by a little over an inch.
Ginny glanced at her three young children, and at Rose and Hugo, as they busily piled stone upon stone and pushed gravel into the gaps. She then returned her attention to her husband. She watched the movement of the muscles on his back and shoulders as Harry toiled in the bright mid-September sunshine. Ginny fought back her desire to wade into the water and hug her husband. She knew that such an act would result in complaints from the kids. Later, she promised herself. Hopefully, just like last Saturday, the kids would be really tired tonight. And, equally hopefully, Harry wouldn’t be.
Autumn was approaching rapidly; its inevitable arrival preceded by cooling nights, fields being harvested, and the honking early arrival of Russian geese. The sun was giving up the last of its late summer warmth as the equinox approached. With October less than two weeks away, it was unlikely that there would be many more days as bright and warm as this.
Today, possibly for the final time of the year, the clearing behind their new home, Drakeshaugh, was warm and sheltered. Ginny soaked up the idyllic scene like a sponge, trying to imprint it forever on her memory.
White clouds were scudding across the sky. The treetops danced teasingly with a wind, which – within weeks – would begin viciously blowing the leaves from them. The dell beside the Drakestone Burn was surrounded by large mature trees, making this little hollow almost wind-free. The only noise was the faint rustle of the wind in the treetops and the splashing, clattering and chattering of five children playing.
Lily sat down in the stream with a splash and began to move several small pebbles.
‘Now I is wetted and sorking too, Daddy,’ she announced proudly.
Ginny smiled indulgently at her daughter. Lily refused to be left out. If James and Al were wet, then Lily would be wet too.
‘You are, Lily.’ Harry laughed. He bent down, kissed his daughter on the top of her head and hauled her back onto her feet.
Pleasure welled up inside Ginny. Harry was happy and the kids were happy. Drakeshaugh was perfect. It had only been a few short weeks since their move, but she was surprised to realise that she did not miss their old home. Twelve Grimmauld Place was close to the shops of central London and to the Ministry and Diagon Alley, but there were no other benefits.
Their house in Grimmauld Place was big, bright and comfortable, but it had no garden. There was no outside space at all. Three young kids stuck indoors had proved to be something of a strain on poor old Kreacher, especially when James had discovered that the elderly house elf would obey “the little master”. Ginny and her children had spent a lot of time at The Burrow simply to spare Kreacher.
Grimmauld Place had been their home for the seven years since they married. Really, it had been their home since long before then. Almost from the day she’d left school, she’d spent at least as much time in London as she had at the several flats that she’d shared with various team-mates on Ynys Mon, the Isle of Anglesea.
Early in the New Year, she and Harry had discussed the problems their London home presented. Often, after they had discussed and rambled and sidetracked their way through one of their problems, they were unable to remember who had finally come up with the solution. This had been one of those occasions. Moving into the countryside had been Harry’s idea, she was certain of that. Harry disagreed; he claimed that the idea had been hers. She’d started to argue, very vociferously, but Harry had merely laughed. He’d told her that he’d take the credit, if she insisted, but he didn’t care whose idea it was, so long as they were both in agreement.
Kreacher had remained behind at Grimmauld Place. It had always been his home, and it was the home of the still-revered Regulus Black. Their ancient house elf would have moved, had they insisted, but he would not retire, and despite their best efforts, he refused to be freed. Kreacher considered freedom to be a punishment. Grimmauld Place was now a lodging house, let to a variety of junior-grade Ministry trainees. Harry and Ginny were landlords, and Kreacher was the happy, and very protective, concierge.
Drakeshaugh was a much better home for a growing family, although the house itself was a lot smaller than Grimmauld Place. Drakeshaugh lacked a formal dining room and had fewer bedrooms, but the living room was huge, and there were enough bedrooms for the kids. The kitchen was large enough to invite the whole family around for a meal. And the master bedroom had an en-suite bathroom. Not only that; the en-suite had a bath big enough for two.
The main benefit of Drakeshaugh, however, was the extensive grounds. They had thirty acres, most of which was overgrown woodland. That was more than enough land for the kids to play in. It was secluded and hidden from prying Muggle eyes, too. The only drawback was that they were not physically close to The Burrow.
‘He could do that by magic in seconds,’ Ron observed, pulling Ginny out from her thoughts.
Ginny turned. Her brother was watching Harry as he helped Lily and Hugo fill the gaps in the dam with pebbles. Ron was sitting on the roots of an old oak tree, his back against the trunk. As usual, he was keeping in the shade. Hermione, in shorts and a t-shirt, lay on a blanket on the grass, enjoying the sunshine, and reading. She, like Harry, was still tanned from their summer holiday.
‘The kids can’t, and they are happy that their daddy – or Uncle Harry – is helping. He’s happy too, Ron. Just look at him,’ Ginny told her brother.
‘Yeah, he really loves playing with the little ones, doesn’t he?’ said Ron with grudging admiration.
‘Yes,’ said Ginny simply.
He does, she thought, because he always wanted to play in streams and kick balls and do what little children should do. And when he was their age, he wasn’t allowed to do anything like that. Now, he can. He’s not just being a good dad; he’s having the childhood he missed. Even after all these years, there were occasions when Ginny felt like hexing Vernon and Petunia Dursley.
‘Has James settled in at school?’ asked Hermione, closing the book she’d been reading and rolling onto her side to face Ginny.
‘Yes, he loves it. He’s had two weeks of Muggle school now, and he’s made friends with a few more of the children, but he and Henry Charlton are still inseparable,’ said Ginny.
‘This Henry kid, his mum’s been here, hasn’t she?’ Ron asked.
‘Yes,’ Ginny admitted. ‘She gave me quite a surprise, but not as big a surprise as she gave Terry and Amber. They almost hexed her!’ Ginny rolled her eyes as she relived the scene. ‘You know that we decided not to hide the house from the Muggles, but we did put a Suggestion spell on the entrance from the main road. It makes the Muggles realise that it would be very rude of them to arrive here unannounced. We can tell who has tried, because the next time we see them, they ask us if they can visit. There’s a woman called Amanda who is becoming a bit of a pest. Hopefully, that will stop after she’s been to the party.’
‘I think that you’re crazy to invite your Muggle neighbours to a house-warming party,’ said Ron. ‘We’ll be able to act normally, but you’ve invited Luna!’
‘Luna will blend in by not blending in at all,’ replied Ginny. ‘She can’t even blend in with other witches, you know that! We meet these people regularly at the school gates, Ron. If we’re going to stay here, we need to get to know them, to establish ourselves.’
‘How did this Jacqui woman get past the Suggestion spell?’ asked Hermione curiously.
‘We’re not sure. But Jacqui simply ignored the spell and drove through the gate. We think that she’s got some wizard blood, though we can’t be certain, because it seems to be through the female line. We checked up on the Charltons when it was obvious that James and Henry were getting close. Jacqui’s maiden name was Wake. Harry met her mum years ago, when he was hunting Lestrange. We haven’t told Jacqui, of course, because we don’t want her to know we’ve been checking up on her, but Mrs Wake, Jacqui’s mother, once told Harry that she’d caught a glimpse of the Shivering Stone. We think that a combination of a small amount of wizard blood and the fact that she thought her news was urgent – which it was – allowed Jacqui to ignore the spell.’
‘You’re probably right,’ said Hermione. ‘Is Harry’s cover story working?’
‘Yes.’ Ginny nodded.
‘It’s worked for years, Hermione,’ said Ron. ‘The Muggle Interface Team uses it all the time. These days, most of the Muggle police forces know that if they get a weird murder or inexplicable death, the “Home Office” send a team from the Auror Office to investigate. The Muggles think that they are a “Major Incident Team”, of course. We walked in on a police investigation ourselves once, Hermione. That was years ago, do you remember?’ Ron stared out into the distance, lost in thought. ‘Sometimes, I miss the old days,’ he said.
‘I don’t,’ said Hermione forcefully. ‘You remember the victories and the arrests, Ron. I remember the bodies, the danger and the hatred.’
‘Yes, but…’ Ron began. Ginny interrupted them before they began to bicker.
‘Our new neighbours don’t ask too many questions about Harry’s job, fortunately. Now that they think he works in national security, they’ve stopped asking. There’s a sort of understanding that what they know is enough,’ said Ginny. ‘It would have been nice to be physically closer to Mum and Dad, but as Harry said when we found this place, The Burrow is only a fireplace away. Anyway, there aren’t many remote places near Ottery St Catchpole, you know that! Perce and Audrey got the last one on the market.’
‘So, do you think that sending James to a Muggle school is a good idea?’ Hermione asked.
‘Yes,’ said Ginny with certainty. ‘I wasn’t sure when Harry suggested it. Mum did such a good job with Victoire and the others, but James is happy; he’s learning a lot and he’s making Muggle friends. Harry was right…’
‘Living completely apart from Muggles is a bad thing,’ said Hermione, staring pointedly at her husband.
‘It didn’t do us any harm, Hermione,’ Ron protested. ‘Did it, Ginny?’
‘No, but it would have been nice to know a bit more about Muggles, Ron,’ said Ginny. ‘Even simple things like how to use a telephone were beyond us. Dad always told us that Muggles were just like us, but without magic. He was right, but we didn’t actually know that, because unlike Harry and Hermione, we didn’t meet any. They didn’t know anything other than Muggles when they were little, and that didn’t do them any harm, either, did it?’
Ron gave a grudging nod of agreement.
‘Hiding away and staying completely separate can lead to prejudice and distrust, Ron,’ argued Hermione. The Malfoys and Greengrasses and a lot of other pureblood families, even the Macmillans, still hide themselves away. You were allowed into Ottery St Catchpole; you even wore Muggle clothes, you’re different to most of them. I know that we can’t force everyone to change; a lot of wizards still know nothing about Muggles, and they don’t want to know. But I don’t want my great-grandchildren to turn out to be Muggle-haters like the Malfoys simply because they’ve never met a Muggle. Harry’s right, we need to interact more, understand more. It won’t be easy. I’m sure that there will be a few problems with little slips and accidental magic…’
‘Last Saturday, Harry had to stop James bouncing impossibly high on a trampoline,’ Ginny interrupted. ‘James has problems knowing what he can tell people too. He makes mistakes, but he’s not even five yet and he’s got a vivid imagination. People think that a lot of the things he says are nothing but silly stories. Henry Charlton’s dad tells his son all sorts of nonsense, and Henry believes some of it. Nearly every day we need an excuse for something James has said, but we are managing. So, are you going to send Rosie to a Muggle school next year, Hermione?’ Ginny asked.
‘Yes.’ Hermione nodded, Ron frowned and shrugged. Ginny exchanged a knowing glance with her friend. That silent shrug was enough. Ron’s definite and vociferous “no” of two weeks ago had already turned into uncertainty. Hermione had won this battle.
‘How’s the case going?’ Ron asked. He was obviously unwilling to continue any discussion about Rose and Hugo’s schooling.
‘Are they any closer to catching the werewolf?’ Hermione added. ‘Things are beginning to get – unpleasant – in several departments. DMLE and Magical Creatures are getting complaints from everyone. The werewolves are annoyed because of the increase in Auror raids; they claim that it’s discrimination. The old werewolf-haters and bigots—everyone who opposed the Sentient Entities Rights Act—are all saying “we told you so” and demanding a return to the old days. They want the old restrictions on werewolves and house elves and vampires reinstated. The Daily Prophet’s editorial today is calling for more action, even though “fortunately, so far, it’s only Muggles”.’ Hermione spat the quote contemptuously. ‘The public are worried and frightened, Ginny. A werewolf killer who wants Greyback released. Harry needs to do something, and quickly.’
‘Don’t you dare say that to him!’ snapped Ginny. ‘He knows what’s going on, Hermione; he reads the papers too. He’s had your boss pestering him, and Kingsley is taking a personal interest in the case! Harry is under a lot of pressure, and our house move hasn’t helped. On top of everything else, the Auror Office is short staffed. Both Lavender and Trudi are on maternity leave; Bobbie has six weeks before she’ll join them, and Susan is in Transylvania with Camelia on a vampire-hunter case. The most experienced members of the Muggle Interface Team are unavailable. Lavender has volunteered to come in to help, but Mark won’t let her.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought he could stop her,’ observed Ron.
‘You’d be surprised,’ said Ginny. ‘Just because you had no idea how to handle Lavender…’ Ginny left the sentence unfinished and simply watched Ron’s ears turn pink. ‘Harry’s got as many people on this case as he can spare. Polly and Dennis are both working undercover. The Auror Office is getting a lot of anonymous tip-offs, which doesn’t actually help. Harry thinks that most of the tips, possibly all of them, are simply mischief-making. Unfortunately, he can’t take the chance. The Aurors have raided seven werewolf homes on the basis of the anonymous tip-offs and found nothing. All they’ve done is…’
‘Annoy the witches and wizards who suffer from lycanthropy,’ Hermione supplied. ‘Perhaps, if the Auror Office would stop calling them werewolves…’
‘Lavender calls herself a werewolf and so does Amber’s mum. Because that’s what they are! Changing the name doesn’t reduce prejudice, Hermione; it simply gives the bigots another name to use. “Persons suffering from lycanthropy” is too long-winded anyway,’ argued Ginny. She waved her hand dismissively at Hermione’s suggestion. ‘But Polly has a new suspect. It’s another anonymous tip, but this one looks good. Doxine Gray is a werewolf, and she lives in Sheffield…’
‘We know who she is, Ginny, and so does Lavender,’ said Ron with feeling.
‘Yes, but now Harry’s been forced to run two separate operations. Terry knows nothing about Polly’s surveillance of Doxine…’
‘Why not?’ Ron asked.
‘Because Terry’s wife is Doxine’s niece, remember, Ron,’ said Hermione.
‘It is a werewolf, isn’t it?’ asked Ron. ‘I mean, everyone is sure, aren’t they?’
‘Who else would rip a victim to shreds on a full moon night, Ron?’ Ginny asked him.
‘Well, look at it this way, Ginny,’ said Ron. ‘There is no way that the Wizengamot would agree to release Greyback, especially as it’s “only Muggles” who are being killed.’ Ron looked sorrowfully at his wife as he spoke.
‘It will take years to remove the prejudice, Ron,’ said Hermione. ‘It will never go completely.’ Ron grumbled and thumped the grass.
‘Yes, but, the killer won’t get what they want,’ Ron continued. ‘They must know that, unless they are really thick. Just look at what’s actually happening, what if that is the real plan? The werewolves are getting hassle from the Auror Office. Hermione is starting to get requests to rescind the anti-discriminatory legislation, which took her years to get passed. The bigoted purebloods are being listened to for the first time in years…’
‘I’ve been wondering about that too, Ron. I was going to talk to you about it later,’ said Harry. He was carrying a dripping Lily in one arm and an equally wet Hugo in the other. ‘The Muggles are easy targets, but why attack them? The Wizengamot are “expressing concern” but they are not as worried as the Muggles. Kingsley is getting more pressure from the Muggle Prime Minister than he is from the magical community. If it is a werewolf committing these murders, why aren’t they targeting werewolf-haters, or even ordinary wizards? I’ve done a lot of checking. Both of the bodies have been carefully examined. The Muggle pathologist said “large dog or wolf” and the Healers agree. The bite marks, the claw marks, everything is consistent with a werewolf attack. Even so, Dacia Skoll is going to re-examine the bodies for us.’
‘Whatshoo talkin’ ‘bout, Daddy?’ Lily asked.
‘Work, Lily, I’m sorry. I’ve finished now; no more work-talk. It’s time for us to get these kids dried and changed. We have a very special birthday to celebrate.’
Harry carefully lowered the two soggy children to the ground.
‘Happy birfday, Mummy,’ Hugo squeaked.
‘Happy birfday, Antermine,’ Lily added.
‘Thanks,’ said Hermione rather offhandedly, her mind still elsewhere. ‘Werewolf, or simply conjured or enchanted wolf?’ she asked Harry.
‘Enough, Hermione!’ Ginny ordered. ‘It’s your birthday! Like Harry said, no more talk about murders.’ She turned towards the three older children, who were still in the water. ‘Come on, kids,’ she called. ‘It’s time to get changed. We need to leave soon to visit Granny and Granddad Granger. We’re going to have a big birthday party.’
The three older children screamed excitedly and splashed out from the stream.
‘Party!’ Rose shouted. Ron ruffled his daughter’s wet hair, and then dried her with a wave of his wand.
‘How old is you, Aunt Ermione?’ James asked.
‘She’s positively ancient, James,’ said Ron. ‘Hands up everyone who’s in their twenties.’ He lifted his hand, laughing; Harry and Ginny followed.
‘Guess,’ Hermione asked her nephew, pointing to the badge on her t-shirt which was flashing; the words “Birthday Girl” were alternating with “30 Today”.
‘Forty?’ suggested James. Harry, Ginny and Ron burst out laughing, but Ron was quickly quietened by his wife’s expression.
Conversations and Invitations by Northumbrian
Conversations and Invitations
On the Sunday night, the day after the barbecue, I forgot to set my alarm clock. I stirred briefly when Mike’s alarm went off, but then I rolled over and went straight back to sleep. I didn’t even hear him leave for work. When I finally woke, it was half an hour after I normally rise.
My orderly morning routine was turned into a frenzy of confused kids, rushed ablutions and shouting. I simply left a bewildered Annie in her pyjamas and concentrated on getting Henry ready. Breakfast was a hurried and sloppy affair, and my drive down to the school was faster than I liked.
The mini-buses were already leaving as I approached Harbottle. One of the buses was well over the white line as he came around the bend towards me and I was forced to swerve. I heard the scrape of rubber against stone as I scuffed the kerb at the entrance to the castle car park. Fortunately, that was the only noise. I hadn’t damaged the wheel trim. I arrived at the school even more anxious but without any further mishaps.
Annie was very clingy and rather weepy when I lifted her from her car seat. My anxiety had rubbed off on her. I had to carry her while also chivvying a still yawning Henry into school. He was quite happy to go, but very lethargic. Fortunately, Henry was looking forward to seeing James and he perked up the moment we saw James’s dad. He was already hurrying from the school gate when I arrived. He looked very smart in his shirt, tie and black trenchcoat.
‘Where’s James?’ Henry asked.
‘In the classroom, Henry,’ Harry told him. ‘He’s wondering where you are. He’ll be glad to see you.’
Henry dashed towards the school.
‘Morning, Harry,’ I said, stifling a yawn. ‘Did you enjoy yourselves on Saturday?’
‘Yes, thanks,’ Harry told me. ‘James is unhappy because we can’t go swimbling next weekend; so is Al. So am I, actually.’ His green eyes sparkled happily. ‘Ginny and I had a wonderfully quiet night on Saturday when we got home. The kids were exhausted. We got them straight to bed and they were asleep within minutes. We all loved your barbecue, too. But like we said, we’re busy next Saturday. It’s the birthday of a very good friend of ours.’
‘I’m glad the kids enjoyed themselves; so did I,’ I said. ‘I think that swimming…’ I got no further. Harry had pulled out a shining—though rather battered—gold pocket-watch.
‘I’m really sorry, Jacqui, but I can’t stop to chat,’ he said. ‘I’ve got an important meeting this morning. Bye.’
I watched Harry stride from the school as he made a rapid exit. His long black coat was identical to the one Terry Boot had worn. It flapped and fluttered behind him in the wind; it almost looked as though he was wearing a cloak.
‘Not so friendly now, is he?’ said Mary as I watched Harry climb into his car and drive off.
‘He’s on his way to work,’ I said sharply. I followed Henry into the school. He’d managed to take his coat off and was attempting to hang it up. The moment I took it from him, he ran into the classroom to see James and I was once again forgotten.
As I walked back out to my car with Annie heavy in my arms, there were whispers from Mary and her friends, who were still gossiping by the gate.
‘Have you had an invitation to the Potters’ house yet?’ asked Amanda.
I shook my head, feeling a little deflated. We’d invited the Potters over, but they hadn’t returned the invitation. There was no reason why they should, of course; we’d simply been showing kindness to our new neighbours and “kindness is its own reward”, as my mother would say.
‘They visited you over the weekend, but they haven’t invited you to their house,’ said Mary with cynical sagacity. ‘I still think there’s something funny about them.’ Her words reinvigorated me.
‘There’s something funny about most of us,’ I told her firmly. ‘But I’m expecting to be invited to Drakeshaugh soon, and I may not be the only one to get an invitation. They are … a nice couple.’ I changed tack mid-sentence and cursed Mary’s baiting. She had needled me to the point where I’d almost mentioned the Potters’ housewarming party. It was in the planning stages, I reminded myself. It was a possibility, but they could change their minds. I couldn’t say anything, especially not to Mary. I contented myself with giving Mary and Amanda a smile which I hoped was both knowing and superior. As I yawned midway through it, I suspect that I simply looked foolish.
That evening, Ginny made no mention at all of the party; I didn’t ask. Instead, we simply admired the latest artwork our sons presented to us.
On the Tuesday morning, I missed Harry completely. I was, however, approached by Amanda, who asked me which swimming pool I used. At least, she began by asking about the pool, but she was soon discussing Harry’s physique. She told me that she had decided that swimming was good exercise. I agreed, and asked her about strokes and times. It was obvious that, apart from on holiday, she’d never been in a pool since school. She told me that she intended to take her kids swimming the following Saturday. I told her that although Mike and I would be there, the Potters wouldn’t, and she changed her mind instantly. Amanda was annoyingly blatant about it.
While we were waiting to collect Henry and James, I told Ginny about my encounter with Amanda, concluding: ‘You’re still causing a stir. I mentioned our Saturday swim to lots of people last term, but no one was interested in swimming with me. No one was interested in me at all. They still aren’t,’ I finished ruefully.
‘Amanda isn’t interested in me, either. She’s only interested in Harry,’ said Ginny. ‘She probably wants to see him in his swimming trunks. If she knew anything at all about Harry, she’d back off; he hates hero-worship. He always has and he always will.’
Ginny looked up at me thoughtfully. ‘I think Amanda has surprised him; he’s never thought of himself as good-looking. He’s simply assumed that it was only girls who know who he is who wanted to get closer to him.’
Ginny’s remarks puzzled me. ‘Is Harry famous for something?’ I asked. Ginny looked embarrassed for a moment, as though she’d said something she shouldn’t have. The sides of her mouth twitched; she burst out laughing and then hugged me. Her laugh was joyous and contagious and I found myself joining in, although I had no idea why we were laughing.
The other mums watched us curiously, but didn’t approach. Since Ginny’s outburst at Mary the previous week, the other mums had kept their distance. They nodded politely to Ginny and returned her greetings, but nothing more.
‘Oh, Jacqui! What a lovely question to ask. I’ll have to tell him, it will make his day.’ Ginny wiped tears from her eyes as she continued to chuckle. ‘The easy answer to that is no. Hardly anyone has heard of Harry Potter, but in his own little community, then yes, he’s very famous.’
‘His own little community?’ I asked.
‘Harry is—the Head of his Department, he’s sort of famous, to a few people,’ said Ginny.
I was still more than a little puzzled, but she shook her head and it was obvious that she would say no more. My imagination began to run wild. I’d seen his scars. He had obviously led a dangerous life when he was younger. When he was younger? I was struck by the strangeness of that thought; he wasn’t even thirty.
Perhaps he was a James Bond type, promoted after being a field agent. But, at least to me, he didn’t seem to be a cool, super, secret agent. I found myself comparing him to a rather different fictional character. To me, he seemed more like a Peter Wimsey; a troubled war veteran who’d found his Harriet.
The following morning, I saw Harry, but only briefly. He seemed to be in a constant rush. Nevertheless, he grinned when he saw me.
‘Ginny told me what you said, Jacqui,’ he said, his eyes creased in mirth. ‘Thanks. I like to think that I’m no one important, nothing special. I’m just another dad taking his son to school. That’s right, isn’t it, James?’
‘Yes, Daddy.’ James nodded.
On the Wednesday afternoon, Ginny quietly asked me to identify the other school gate mothers, and to match them up to their kids. Curious, I asked why.
‘It’s for the housewarming party,’ Ginny said as she walked back to the car with me. ‘We can’t invite everyone, so we’ve spoken to James. We’re going to invite those kids in his class he’s friendly with and their parents to our housewarming.’
My face must have betrayed my hopefulness, because Ginny smiled at me.
‘Yes, Jacqui, that puts you at the very top of the list,’ she said. ‘At least, it puts Henry there, so we have to invite the rest of you, whether we want to or not. I’m joking,’ she added hastily, and I wondered if my face had also given away my insecurity.
‘You’ve been really kind to us, Jacqui. You’ve made us feel welcome,’ Ginny assured me.
Ginny whispered nine names to me. Amanda was on the list; although her daughter was in year four, her youngest son, Daniel, wasn’t much older than Henry. Mary Saville wasn’t, but that was hardly surprising as Mary’s daughter, Helen, would soon be nine and would be going to middle school next year.
‘We wondered about asking Mary, too,’ Ginny said. ‘Harry thinks we should invite her. What do you think?’
I shrugged uncertainly; I didn’t really want to answer, but Ginny stared up at me, her pleading brown eyes demanding that I give an opinion. I decided to be honest.
‘I’ve never been much good at school gate politics, Ginny,’ I admitted. ‘Mary is Queen Bee here. If you don’t invite her, you’ll annoy her. But if you do invite her, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be any more pleasant to you afterwards. You may simply give her more ammunition if she doesn’t like the colour of your bathroom or…’ I finished with a shrug.
‘Thanks, Jacqui. That’s what I thought, too. I’ll discuss it with Harry,’ Ginny said. ‘See you tomorrow. C’mon, kids.’ She waved farewell and began walking up the road to Drakeshaugh. I watched her go. Her bright red hair was whipping in the autumnal wind as she pushed the buggy containing Al and Lily up the hill, with James chattering happily at her side.
As the week progressed Amanda’s hints that she’d like an invitation to Drakeshaugh had become as subtle as a four-year-old’s. Even Mary—who had changed tactics and was now trying to be pleasant to Ginny—was becoming embarrassed by Amanda’s behaviour.
I was certain that Mary’s change had come about because James had told everyone that there was going to be a party at Drakeshaugh. Mary was cross-examining me about it when Ginny arrived. I’d been explaining that James was probably talking about a birthday party for an old friend of the Potters.
‘My sister-in-law, Hermione, is thirty on Saturday,’ said Ginny, bringing the conversation to a close. As we left, she winked at me. ‘I’ll be handing out the housewarming party invitations tomorrow,’ she whispered.
On the Friday afternoon, Ginny was already at the school gates when I arrived. She was talking to a beaming Amanda and an astonished-looking Mary, both of whom were clutching thick parchment envelopes. It was obvious that Harry’s opinion had won out.
‘Hello, Jacqui,’ Ginny said. She rifled through a small stack of envelopes and handed one to me. ‘Our housewarming party will be one week from Saturday, on the twenty-sixth. I do hope that you, Mike and the kids can come. We’re still planning on going swimming with you beforehand. I was just explaining to Amanda and Mary that, unfortunately, we can’t invite everyone … There’s Judith; excuse me.’
With that Ginny strode across to hand an invitation to Dominic Hutton’s mother. Dominic was the best friend of Amanda’s son, Daniel; they sat at the next table to Henry and James and the four boys were all becoming close.
I opened the envelope and looked at the neatly hand written card. It was the same colour as the envelope, thick and of good quality. I felt it carefully, and considered sniffing it. I only just stopped myself. I’d check it when I got home, but it seemed to me that the envelope and invitation weren’t merely parchment-coloured paper; they were real parchment. I read the invitation:
Harry, Ginny, James, Albus and Lily now live at:
Drakeshaugh, Harbottle, Coquetdale, Northumberland.
We’d like to invite:
Jacqui, Mike, Henry and Annie
to join us at 5:00pm on Saturday 26th October 2009
as we welcome new neighbours, old friends and family, to our new home.
No gifts, please.
We look forward to seeing you.
‘Ginny says they are expecting over a hundred people!’ said Amanda excitedly. ‘I asked if she’d need help with the catering, but she said that everything was organised. She said that her mother and her sisters-in-law would be helping with the food.’ Amanda paused. ‘A hundred people,’ she repeated.
‘So, they aren’t getting caterers in,’ observed Mary acidly. ‘They’re probably trying to do it on the cheap.’
‘This isn’t cheap,’ I said, waving the invitation. ‘I think that it’s real parchment.’
Mary glared at me, but I didn’t care, and I didn’t shut up.
‘Perhaps they enjoy home-baking,’ I said forcefully. ‘I’m sure that Ginny knows what she’s doing. I know that they’re inviting ten or eleven families from here. That’s easily forty people if everyone turns up. And I’m sure they will, because we’re all curious about them.’
Mary simply sniffed disdainfully, trying to pretending that she was above such things.
‘Ginny has five older brothers,’ I continued. ‘I don’t know if they are all married, but if they are and they all have kids, that could easily be another forty.’ I said. I tried to remember what Ginny’s mum had said. ‘Ginny’s mum has at least a dozen grandchildren,’ I added.
I stopped and thought about that. The logistics of a family meal at Ginny’s mum’s house was mind-boggling.
‘She’s from a big family,’ I said. ‘They’re probably used to mucking in together.’
Mary simply muttered something under her breath.
Ginny was still handing out the invitations when the kids came bouncing out. A couple of the invitations were going to children who were on the mini-buses and whose parents I didn’t know, farming folk from the top of the dale, probably. Ginny asked James to identify the children; they were the two girls who shared a table with Henry and him.
My conversation with Amanda and Mary was interrupted by Henry’s arrival. James and Daniel were both with him. The boys were chattering excitedly about the party. Nine-year-old Helen Saville stood next to her mother and looked disdainfully down on the young boys. My conversation with Henry was interrupted by Annie, who pulled at the hem of my skirt and announced, ‘Wanna wee-wee, Mummy!’
‘Can you wait until we get home, Annie?’ I asked. As I looked at her, I knew the answer. She was hopping from one leg to another in an urgent dance.
I gave Ginny a wave, shouted my thanks for the invitation and hustled Henry and Annie back through the schoolyard and into the cloakroom.
‘See yer on Sunday, James,’ Henry shouted.
‘Yeah, bye, Henry,’ James shouted back.
‘Annie’s desperate, sorry,’ I told Henry’s teacher, Mrs Wilson, as I escorted Annie into the girl’s toilet. She smiled and nodded.
‘What are you doing this weekend, Henry?’ I heard Mrs Wilson ask as the door closed.
Henry was still talking to Mrs Wilson when I returned with a much more relaxed and comfortable Annie.
‘Henry tells me that you’re visiting the Potters this weekend,’ Mrs Wilson said.
‘That’s next weekend, Henry,’ I corrected my son.
Henry shook his head forcefully. ‘‘tisn’t!’ he told me. I decided not to argue.
The yard was deserted when we left the school. Mine was the only car outside and I was still busy strapping Henry into his car seat when Mrs Wilson drove past, waving.
Saturday’s trip to the pool was nowhere near as successful as the previous Saturday had been. Henry was moody and nowhere near as cooperative with my teaching. He wanted me to promise that James would be with us the following weekend, and he had a tantrum when I couldn’t. Mike was at his dopiest, child-friendly best, but even he couldn’t make Henry forget about his friend.
As we got changed, Henry was still moody. Mike came up with a solution: rather than go straight home, we would take the kids to the coast. It worked; the prospect of a trip to the seaside diverted Henry and brought him out of his mood.
We had a pleasant, if rather windswept late afternoon on the beach at Druridge Bay. The kids and their dad played in the dunes, kicked a football around the beach and got wet when the tide crept up on them. I sat on a folding chair and failed to read “Five Red Herrings” because of numerous interruptions from my family.
We left late and decided that we would stop for a pub meal at the Anglers Arms on the way home. When we arrived at the pub, Mike persuaded me to drive the last part of the journey, so he could have a couple of beers with his meal. I foolishly agreed.
We all ate too much. It’s difficult not to when the portions are so big. As we drove the last leg, Annie announced that she was thirsty, so Mike topped up her bottle with blackcurrant juice.
‘Well, that’s the last of it, Annie,’ Mike told her.
‘What?’ I said. ‘I filled a two litre bottle. You haven’t let her drink it all?’
‘What else was it for?’ Mike asked. ‘It’s thirsty work playing on the beach, isn’t it, little Annabel May?’
Annie simply let out a loud burp. That’s when I should have realised, but I didn’t. She fell asleep in the car and didn’t really wake up. Her head was rolling when I got her ready for bed and she was soundly asleep by the time I’d finished tucking her in.
When Mike and I went to bed a few hours later, he closed his eyes and instantly began to snore. Too much beer does that. It took me a couple of hours and a few hefty kicks before he rolled onto his side and fell silent. I was finally able to get some sleep. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
I had a very early wake-up call at a little after three o’clock; Annie had been sick. Turkey dinosaurs and chips might not have been too bad, but two litres of blackcurrant juice had to go somewhere too. Her vomit was a colour I hoped to never see again. Her sheets and nightdress were purple, and after three pints of bitter, Mike was bleary eyed and barely capable. He tried to help me, but he was simply getting in the way, so after I’d cleaned and changed Annie I sent him into our bed with her. By the time I’d stripped her bed, cleaned and disinfected the mattress, it was almost four o’clock.
I crept back alongside my husband and daughter and fell instantly asleep. The next thing I knew, it was after ten and Mike was waking me with a tray of coffee, hot buttered toast and marmalade.
‘Morning, sleepyhead,’ he said cheerfully. He’d brought himself a cup of tea, too. When I sat up he rearranged the pillows behind my back for me and plonked himself beside me.
‘The kids are sitting in front of the telly, watching Timmy Time,’ he told me. ‘Do you want to take Henry down to the Potters’ this afternoon, or do you want me to do it?’
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and sipped some more coffee.
‘The Potters’ party is next Saturday, Mike,’ I said. ‘The genuine calfskin parchment invitation is on the mantelpiece, remember.’
‘Yeah, but Henry says that James invited him round to play this afternoon,’ Mike said.
‘Ginny didn’t mention anything,’ I told him. ‘So that probably means she doesn’t know. This will be something Henry and James have dreamed up between them.’
‘There’s an easy way to find out,’ Mike said. ‘Just phone them up and ask.’
That was when I realised that I couldn’t contact the Potters. I didn’t have a phone number for them. There were no wires leading to Drakeshaugh from the telegraph poles which snaked up the valley. They obviously didn’t have a land line. I wondered whether they had mobile phones. They must have, I decided, because last week Ginny had contacted both Harry and her bank. Reception can be a little patchy in the dale, but I decided that I’d ask Ginny for her phone number; it would be handy if we could keep in touch.
‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘I don’t have their number, and they don’t have ours.’
That’s why, early on Sunday afternoon, I drove Henry down to Drakeshaugh. He was expected. He had been invited. He was adamant about that and would not be moved. Before I set off, I gave him a stern talking to. I told him that if the Potters weren’t expecting him, then we’d be coming straight home and he’d be in trouble. His reaction cheered me up; it was one of certainty, he knew that he’d been invited.
When I pulled into the gravel courtyard, there was another car parked there, a blue Mini. The Potters had visitors. I could hear voices coming from behind the house. Now worried, I prepared my excuses as I unstrapped Henry. I took his hand, led him to the kitchen door and knocked.
To my surprise, the door was opened by a pretty little blonde girl of about ten. Her hair was almost waist-length and she wore a pretty, calf-length party dress which perfectly matched her bright blue eyes.
‘Oh,’ she said, sounding disappointed. She turned away from us and shouted, ‘Maman, ce n'est pas Oncle Charlie! C'est une dame Moldue avec un petit garçon mais je ne les connais pas!’
My French is so rusty it has almost corroded away entirely. I picked up “Mum, it isn’t Uncle Charlie” and something about not knowing us. But “une dame Moldue?”
A Confusion of Weasleys by Northumbrian
A Confusion of Weasleys
The girl’s outburst in French was followed by the sound of several confused voices from inside the house.
‘What you say?’ Henry asked, looking up at the girl. ‘Can’t you talk proper?’
‘Henry!’ I scolded him sharply.
Before the girl could answer a tall blonde woman appeared in the doorway. The woman was obviously the girl’s mother. She was—I estimated—about my age, but she was slim, elegant and beautiful. Her long, loose hair was as straight and fair as her daughter’s. She somehow managed to look poised and chic despite the fact that she was wearing a rather shabby floral apron over her stylish dress. She looked at me, then down at Henry and she smiled.
‘Hello, I am Fleur Weasley and zis is my daughter Victoire,’ she began. She smiled fondly down at the girl. ‘I apologise for her lapse into French. You are not who she was expecting to see, and she believes that, by speaking French, she is keeping what she says secret.’ She turned to her daughter and her expression became serious. ‘It is very impolite, Victoire; you must use English.’
The girl, Victoire, nodded, but she was barely paying attention to her mother. She was staring at me with probing curiosity. I was certain that my clothing—jeans and an old cardigan—did not meet her approval.
‘We were expecting my bruzzer-in-law, Charlie,’ the woman added. Her accent was definitely French, but the faint hint of a West Country accent in her English turned her words into a melodic drawl.
‘I’m interrupting,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry. You’re obviously having a family get-together. I’m Jacqui Charlton; this is my son Henry. He’s James’s friend from school. He insisted that James was expecting him this afternoon. Henry was obviously making it up. I’m sorry to have bothered you. Please apologise to Ginny for me.’ I turned to leave.
‘I wasn’t making it up, Mummy!’ Henry insisted. His lower lip was trembling as he fought back his tears. ‘Where’s James? He said I could come and play with him on Sunday. An’ it’s Sunday. He promised!’
‘I really do not know where James is, Henri,’ the woman said. She used the French version of his name. ‘He is outside in the woods somewhere.’ She then turned to me and added, ‘I am very pleased to meet you, Jacqui. Ginny has told us all about you.’
As if on cue, Ginny’s head appeared around the door. She was trying to hide her annoyance at my unannounced arrival behind a puzzled expression, but she wasn’t trying hard enough and I sensed her exasperation.
‘Hello, Ginny.’ I began, once again, to embarrassedly blurt out a rapid apology. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that you were having a family gathering. Henry told me that James had invited him down here for the afternoon. I would have phoned to check, but I don’t have your number. I’m really sorry. We’ll just leave.’
‘James said I could come an’ play on his rope swing! Cos we dint go swimbling ‘esterday,’ insisted Henry stubbornly. Ginny’s expression softened as she stared down at an unrepentant and wet-eyed Henry.
‘You and James are very much alike, Henry,’ she said, sighing. She hunkered down and looked into Henry’s face. ‘James should not have invited you without asking me first, Henry, and he did not tell me about asking you here, so I’m a little bit cross with him. I suppose you can go and see him for a few minutes. James, and Al and Lily are with their cousins. They are playing at the swing, next to the stream. Victoire knows where they are, so she can take you. But you can’t stay long, Henry; I’m sorry.’
‘There’s no need, Ginny, we’ll just go…’ I began.
‘It’s fine, Jacqui,’ Ginny assured me. ‘I’ll speak to James later, to find out if he did invite Henry. Victoire, would you show Henry where the other kids are playing, please?’
Victoire looked up at her mother, who nodded.
‘Yes, Aunt Ginny,’ Victoire said in perfect English. ‘Follow me, Henry.’
She trotted off obediently, leading Henry around the side of the house.
‘Audrey’s keeping an eye on the sauce for you, Fleur,’ Ginny said. Fleur sucked in a worried breath.
‘Pardon me,’ said Fleur. The dazzling smile she gave me as she excused herself allowed her to display a set of teeth which were whiter and more even than a toothpaste advertisement. She turned and floated gracefully back toward the kitchen, looking so glamorously unreal that I expected to hear a musical accompaniment.
Her performance seemed a little redundant to me, after all there were no men to impress. I wondered what Mike would make of her.
‘That was Fleur, my brother, Bill’s wife,’ said Ginny. She was grinning; she’d been watching me as I watched Fleur. ‘You get used to her, eventually,’ she added.
‘How many decades does it take?’ I asked.
Ginny chuckled. ‘Come inside for a few minutes, Jacqui; we’ve just made a pot of coffee. You’ve met Fleur. Now that you’re here, you might as well meet the family.’
I tried to protest, but Ginny insisted.
‘You’ll meet them all next weekend, and forewarned is forearmed, as they say. If you have a coffee with us, James and Henry will have a little time together before you have to leave. I’ll wait until after you’ve gone before I give James a piece of my mind,’ she said. ‘You’re right, Jacqui; this is a family party, and James had no right to ask anyone here, not even his new best friend. I wanted to have my family around for a meal, to show them the house before the housewarming party.’
‘I’m so sorry, Ginny,’ I said again. ‘But please don’t put all of the blame on James. I’m sure Henry played a part; he insisted on coming. I should have said no. I would have, but he was adamant, and he did say something to me on Friday outside school. I wasn’t paying any attention because Annie was desperate for the loo and you were busy with the invitations and…’
‘It’s fine, Jacqui, don’t worry,’ Ginny declared. ‘It certainly sounds like something those two would cook up between themselves.’
I was grateful for her interruption; Mike says I talk rubbish when I panic and sometimes I think he’s right. I took a deep breath and collected my thoughts.
‘I would have phoned,’ I repeated. ‘But I don’t have a number for you.’
‘That’s easily rectified,’ said Ginny. ‘Come in and I’ll write my telephone number down for you.’
I followed her into the kitchen where five women were drinking coffee and gossiping. All conversation stopped when I entered. They stared at me, and I stared back.
Fleur had returned to the stove, where she was casting a careful eye over a large pot. Ginny’s mum, who was also at the stove, waved cheerily at me and smiled.
‘Hello, dear. The blackberries are nice and ripe now, aren’t they?’ Molly Weasley asked.
I nodded rather foolishly and wondered what on earth she was talking about. Then I remembered that she’d been discussing jam-making with me when I’d seen her more than a week earlier.
‘Yes,’ I said, grateful to have a topic of conversation. ‘How are the apples doing?’
‘Starting to fall, dear.’ Molly smiled. ‘It looks like Ginny and Harry will have a good crop.’
‘Everyone, this is Jacqui Charlton,’ said Ginny, preventing her mother from talking about jam making. ‘Her son, Henry, goes to school with James, and it seems that we can’t keep them apart.’
I carefully examined the three women I hadn’t seen before.
An earnest-looking long-nosed woman sat at the kitchen table. Her red-brown hair was long, straight and tied into a ponytail; she wore wire-rimmed spectacles not unlike Harry’s. The woman’s very long dress was decidedly unfashionable, and she looked at me curiously. It was almost as if I were a creature from another planet. At least they aren’t all like Fleur, I thought gratefully.
Standing immediately behind the bespectacled woman was a slender woman of average height whose brown hair was a wild mane. She wore black trousers, a white blouse, a bright purple cardigan and an expression of studious curiosity.
The third stranger was tall, elegant and black. The woman had ornately braided hair, and wore a brightly patterned dress and lots of bangles. She was perching on the edge of the kitchen table idly swinging a leg.
‘You know Mum, and you’ve just met Fleur,’ Ginny said. ‘These are the other Weasley wives, my sisters-in-law.
The bespectacled woman nodded a greeting and whispered an almost inaudible. ‘Hello.’
‘Hello, Jacqui.’ The black woman stood, strode over and shook my hand firmly. ‘Welcome to the madhouse. We’re all hiding in the kitchen, grabbing a bit of peace and quiet while we can. We’ve told the menfolk that we’re busy, but as we’ve left them in charge of the kids, it’s simply a matter of time before there is a disaster.’
‘And finally, Hermione, whose birthday we celebrated yesterday,’ concluded Ginny.
The brown haired woman smiled. She, too, came over and shook my hand. When she moved, I noticed the huge cake on the workbench behind her. It was a massive rectangular slab and it had been iced to look like a book. Someone had dropped a tea towel over the top of the title and the spine. All I could read were the words “A History – Happy 30th Birthday Hermione”.
‘Hello, Jacqui,’ said Hermione. ‘Ginny has told us all about you and Henry.’
‘Happy thirtieth birthday for yesterday, Hermione,’ I said. ‘I think I’ve met your children, Rose and Hugo. Mrs—Molly—was looking after them, er … the last time I arrived unannounced.’ I felt myself blushing and there was another awkward silence.
Would you like a coffee, Jacqui?’ Ginny asked.
‘Yes, please,’ I said, feeling embarrassed and rather overwhelmed.
Ginny was pouring me a mug of coffee when the kitchen door burst open and a male voice said: ‘I’m in paradise. A room full of beautiful ladies. But where’s my little princess?’
I turned to the door and saw a squat and powerfully built man in his late thirties. He wore a green t-shirt and jeans, his red hair was long and untidy, and he had the hands and muscles of a manual worker.
‘Victoire is outside, Charlie,’ said Fleur, while the other women chorused their hellos.
Charlie was striding purposefully around the table. He grabbed Audrey by the shoulders and kissed her full on the lips. My initial assumption was that she was his wife, but from her blushing, squealing reaction, it seemed not.
‘Good to see you, Audrey,’ he said. He dropped her, turned and moved determinedly toward Angelina, who threw open her arms and rushed to meet him. She flung her arms around him and sighed dramatically, collapsing into him.
‘Oh, Charles, darling Charles, George is such a bore; let’s run away together,’ she said. Angelina was a couple of inches taller than he was, and it was his turn to look startled until she burst out laughing. ‘Good to see you, Charlie; Ginny was worried that you wouldn’t make it.’ They hugged and kissed briefly.
Charlie released her and moved on to Hermione. ‘Happy birthday, Hermione,’ he said, there was an assessing look between them and then he leaned forward and she politely pecked his cheek.
‘Thanks, Charlie,’ she said as he handed her a carefully wrapped present. ‘I’ll open this later.’ She glanced meaningfully at me as she spoke.
Charlie strode rapidly toward me and I found myself being given a breathtaking hug.
‘Hello, lovely lady who I don’t know,’ said Charlie. ‘Do you work with…?’
‘Jacqui lives just up the valley, Charlie,’ Ginny interrupted. ‘Her son goes to school with James.’
‘Ah,’ said Charlie. He released me and re-examined me, an expression of curiosity and uncertainty furrowed over his forehead.
While I was puzzling over the significance of the emphasis Ginny had used, and Charlie’s reaction to it, he said, ‘Hello, Jacqui, I’m Charlie, the prodigal Weasley.’ He winked at me and stepped past me to Fleur.
‘Ma belle, Fleur,’ he began.
‘You cannot speak French, Charlie; do not try,’ she interrupted him and then she bent forward, and lightly kissed his lips.
‘Nice place, little sister!’ he said. Ginny hugged and kissed him.
‘Thanks, Charlie, I’m glad you could make it,’ Ginny told him.
‘Good afternoon, Mother. You look more radiant every day,’ he finished. He grabbed Molly’s hand, bowed and kissed it.
Molly Weasley smiled indulgently at him, pulled him into a hug and then stepped back and examined him carefully.
‘Your hair needs cutting, Charlie,’ she announced.
‘If you cut it, I’ll just regrow it, Mum,’ he said. ‘Now, where’s my goddaughter?’
‘Playing in the stream with the other kids, I expect,’ said Ginny.
‘What about my brothers, and that speccy kid you married?’ Charlie asked.
‘I’ve just told you, Charlie. The kids are all playing in the stream,’ said Ginny.
‘Burn,’ I corrected her without thinking. Everyone fell silent and looked at me, all except Charlie, who for some reason examined his arms.
I was about to explain, but Ginny suddenly understood. ‘The stream is called Drakestone Burn,’ she stopped, allowing me to speak.
‘That was rude of me, sorry, Ginny. But it’s always been the burn, not the stream. I was raised between Spithope Burn and Hawks Burn. It’s a stupid thing to be picky about, but to me, it’s the burn. I’m interrupting, and you can call it what you like. I’ll shut up, sorry,’ I said, realising that I was probably making a fool of myself.
‘You need to learn the language, Ginny,’ said Angelina mischievously. ‘After all, you decided to move north.’
‘There’s nowt wrong with the north, Angelina,’ Audrey said firmly, surprising the others and revealing a Yorkshire accent I hadn’t picked up, because she’d only said one word.
‘You tell them, Audrey.’ Charlie grinned. ‘Perce would be proud of you!’
Audrey blushed, but I smiled gratefully at her.
‘There isn’t,’ I agreed. The others were laughing and I didn’t want to get into a silly north/south argument, so I hastily changed the subject. ‘How many kids is my Henry meeting? Are any of them yours, Audrey?’ I asked.
‘There are…’ Audrey hesitated as she calculated.
‘Twelve,’ Hermione interrupted. ‘Nine Weasleys and three Potters. You’ve already met my two, Rose and Hugo, and so has your daughter, Annie.’
‘Mine are Molly and Lucy,’ said Audrey.
‘I’m guilty of Fred and Roxanne, but I plead extenuating circumstances,’ said Angelina, smiling.
‘Victoire, Dominique and Louis are my petit angels,’ added Fleur, who was now adding a large quantity of white wine to whatever was in the pot on the stove.
Ginny arrived at my side and handed me the mug of coffee she’d poured just before Charlie arrived. He made a hopeful face.
‘Help yourself, Charlie, it’s in the cafetière,’ Ginny told him.
‘Do you get together often?’ I asked Ginny. ‘A dozen kids and a similar number of adults, it’s no wonder you’ve got such a large kitchen table.’
I looked at the table and blinked. It seemed to be even bigger than I remembered. I was about to make a comment, but before I could speak, Hermione pounced on me.
‘School,’ she said forcefully. ‘Can I ask you a few questions about school, Jacqui? I went to school in Hampshire, and it seems to be different up here.’
Hermione was inquisitive and determined, and she seemed to retain everything. I was left puzzled by some of her questions, but that’s because I wasn’t paying her as much attention as I should have been. On the other side of the table, Charlie was asking Ginny about Greyback.
I tried to listen to both conversations but failed. Ginny said something about Greyback having nothing to do with it, and that Harry now believed that it was a pure blood plot. At least, I thought that’s what she said. I glanced across at Ginny and Charlie, but I could hear no more; it was as if something was interfering with my hearing.
I gave up and returned my attention to Hermione. She wanted to know everything: class sizes, mixed age classes and what the boys were being taught. She seemed to know a lot more about the expected achievement levels at Key Stage One than I did, and she was a little surprised when I told her that I hadn’t thought about those tests at all.
‘Henry isn’t even five, Hermione; the tests are more than two years away,’ I told her. ‘I’m certainly not going to worry him about them now.’
Both Angelina and Ginny thought my remarks were funny but I from her expression, I suspected that I’d offended Hermione. I was about to apologise, but Ginny took my empty cup from my hand and asked, ‘Shall we go down to the burnand see the kids, Jacqui?’
Despite the teasing emphasis she used, I picked up the undercurrent of a polite hint in her words.
‘It’s time Henry and I were leaving,’ I said. I glanced at my watch; I’d already been at Drakeshaugh for more than half an hour.
‘Goodbye, everyone; I expect I’ll meet you all again next week,’ I said. ‘Oh, I almost forgot, Ginny, you mentioned a phone number.’
‘I’ll do it now,’ Ginny said. She produced a notepad and a pencil from a kitchen drawer and scribbled something on it. I followed her from Drakeshaugh to a round of farewells and good wishes. Everyone was polite, but there was no doubt that they were glad to see me go. Charlie followed us out.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Charlie. ‘I haven’t seen my princess yet.’
‘I hope that Hermione didn’t bore you,’ said Ginny as we walked across the yard and into the trees. ‘She can be a little intense sometimes, especially about education.’ She handed me the square of paper and I read the number.
Ginny: 44669 768837
‘That’s an unusual phone number,’ I said. ‘Why doesn’t it start with a zero? If it’s a mobile number, shouldn’t it be oh-seven-something?’
Ginny simply shrugged.
‘The number was issued by Harry’s office; you’d better ask him,’ she said. ‘And please, whatever you do, do not give my telephone number to anyone else.’
We walked around the side of the house and towards the noise of children playing. A few stepping stones were set into the lawn; they led to a gap in the bushes surrounding the wood. We entered the trees and the environment changed almost immediately.
The branches were blowing in the wind, casting dancing shadows across the rough and rather muddy track. The leaves were turning, and some were already blowing from the trees. We followed the track as it snaked its way through the woods. Charlie was keeping a couple of paces behind us. I had to turn and check, because he was moving surprisingly quietly.
‘I won’t call unannounced again, Ginny.’ I promised. ‘The next time Henry tells me he’s invited I’ll phone up and check.’
‘I’ll do the same,’ Ginny assured me. ‘You can give me your number at school tomorrow. I won’t remember it now.’
‘I’ve got pen and paper in the car,’ I said. ‘I’ll write it down for you before we leave.’
When we walked into the large clearing, my screaming son and an equally loud James were both dangling from the rope swing in a tangle of limbs. The rope was hanging from the stout branch of a horse chestnut tree, and the kids were being well supervised by half-a-dozen men.
I was struck by the astonishing number of redheads. More than half of the children and every adult male other than Harry had red hair, although some had more hair than others.
‘Here’s your mum, Henry,’ I heard Harry say. ‘It must be time for you to leave.’
‘Nooo…’ Henry wailed.
‘Mummy, no,’ James added his voice.
‘You can have a few minutes while I introduce Henry’s mum to your uncles,’ Ginny said
‘Uncle Charlie,’ Victoire squealed excitedly as Charlie entered the clearing behind us. She left the others and ran into Charlie’s arms.
‘Princess Victoire,’ he shouted, swinging her around and making her scream in delight.
The other children, apart from James and Henry, ran screaming in Victoire’s wake and Charlie was engulfed in a sea of small people, all of whom seemed to be demanding sweets and presents, and galleons. As I turned my attention to the adults, I wondered if Charlie was a seaman.
Ginny’s brothers were a disparate bunch. Charlie was the shortest. The tallest, and most gangling, was involved in an arm-wavingly earnest discussion with Harry. Harry and the tall man were left to supervise James and Henry, who were still on the rope swing, while the other four moved to greet us.
As they strode towards me, I tried to determine which man belonged to which wife. I also tried not to stare at two of them: the one with the scarred face, and the one with the missing ear.
One of the others was easy; he was obviously Ginny’s dad. He was a thin, bespectacled and almost bald man, with only a fine fringe of red hair at the sides and back. He looked very excited about meeting me. Next to him was another balding and bespectacled man. I was struck by the resemblance between the younger man and his father. It seemed inconceivable that the younger balding man was Fleur’s husband, and it was almost as unlikely that he was Angelina’s. Hermione’s, I wondered?
‘Jacqui, this is my dad, Arthur Weasley,’ Ginny began.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, a real pleasure.’ Ginny’s dad beamed and shook my hand enthusiastically. ‘Did you drive here? In a motor car? With an engine?’
‘Er, yes,’ I stammered.
‘How exciting!’ he said. He looked so animated that I wondered if there was something wrong with him.
‘Dad,’ said Ginny warningly. ‘And this is Percy…’
‘Audrey’s husband,’ I said. I should have guessed from Percy’s rather odd clothing. ‘Hello Percy.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Jacqui.’ Percy shook my hand rather nervously.
‘My turn, Perce,’ the one-eared man said as he elbowed Percy aside. ‘Did you guess about Audrey, or were you told? I’m George; do you know who my missus is?’ George was the shortest of the brothers, apart from Charlie. This was the creator of the cleaning towel. He didn’t look like an inventor. He shook my hand warmly; I tried to concentrate on his cheery smile and ignore his missing ear, which kept drawing my eye. It wasn’t easy, but he seemed to be a jolly type of man, so I risked teasing him.
‘You’re married to Angelina, who thinks you’re boring and wants to run away with Charlie,’ I told him. He looked at me in stunned surprise for a second, and then he burst out laughing.
‘You had me there for a minute,’ he said. ‘I like you, Jacqui!’ He looked as though he meant it, too. ‘Charlie,’ George called. ‘Have you been trying to snog my missus again?’ He patted my shoulder, chuckled and strode over to Charlie, leaving me facing the tall, scar-faced man.
‘I’m Bill Weasley,’ he said. ‘James and your son certainly seem to have hit it off, don’t they? They remind me a bit of Ron and Harry, sticking together like glue, through thick and thin.’
I found him difficult to talk to and I didn’t know where to look. It was difficult not to stare at Bill’s scars; they reminded me of the claw marks on Harry’s chest. I tried to concentrate on the other side of his face and realised what a good-looking man he’d once been.
‘Ron?’ I asked.
‘That’s me, Ron Weasley,’ the final brother said as he shook my hand. ‘Except Harry and me were eleven when we first met, not four, Bill.’
Harry stood alongside him, holding both a surly James and a gloomy Henry by the hand. I looked at both Bill and Ron curiously. They were, I estimated, the youngest and oldest of Ginny’s brothers. Uncle Ron was Rose’s daddy, I remembered, so Bill must be Fleur’s husband.
‘It’s time to go, Henry,’ I told my son. He looked unhappy about it, but I caught his eye and glanced towards Harry and Ginny. Thankfully, for once, he caught my hint.
‘Thank you for lettin’ us stay and play, Mr an’ Mrs Potter,’ he said.
‘There’s only one of you, Henry. It’s me, not us,’ I corrected.
‘You’re welcome, Henry,’ said Harry.
‘I’ll walk you back to your car, Jacqui, and get that phone number from you,’ said Ginny.
‘And it’s time you lot were getting inside; you need to get washed before dinner,’ said Harry.
Henry and I were followed back into the yard by the crowd of kids and dads, and everyone’s Uncle Charlie. I scribbled down our phone number for Ginny, thanked her and her family and drove out of the yard. I was halfway home when I realised that the blue Mini was the only other car in the yard, apart from Harry’s. They could not have all arrived in the Mini. How on earth had they all got there? I pondered the answer to that question all the way home, barely listening to Henry’s excited chattering. Harry could have collected them, I supposed, but Charlie arrived after me. How?
Baking Buns and a Barmy Blonde by Northumbrian
Baking Buns and a Barmy Blonde
That evening, over Sunday dinner, Mike and I tried to discuss my latest visit to the Potters’ house. I wasn’t able to tell him much because Henry insisted on talking about the rope swing, and the woods, and the kids, and what fun he’d had. He loudly and enthusiastically confirmed the sheer size of Ginny’s family.
‘Fred ‘n Dominic is funny, ‘n Molly ‘n Victor is bossy; the others is all right,’ he said, firmly announcing his assessment of the kids. I thought back to the names I’d been told in the Drakeshaugh kitchen. Fred belonged to Angelina and George; Molly was Audrey’s, but the others? I racked my brains and smiled when I realised.
‘Victor?’ I asked Henry. I was certain that I knew who “Victor” was; I was fairly certain about “Dominic”, too.
‘The big girl,’ he told me. I smiled at Henry. Mike looked at me quizzically.
‘It’s Victoire, not Victor, and I think that Dominic is probably her sister, Dominique,’ I said. ‘They are French names, Henry; their mother is French.’
Henry shrugged dismissively; however, it was obvious that the information had piqued Mike’s interest. He gave me a curious look.
‘Their “Maman” is tall, blonde, and called Fleur.’ I answered my husband’s unspoken question.
‘Va-va-voom?’ he asked, raising his eyebrows.
‘Trés chic, and with a couple of extra va-va’s,’ I told him. He burst out laughing. I spent most of the meal trying, with Henry’s “help”, to tell him my impressions of Ginny’s family.
‘And Harry has no one?’ Mike asked when we’d finished.
‘No,’ I confirmed. ‘No parents, no brothers, no sisters. There’s a cousin, I think, but Harry is definitely outnumbered by Ginny’s lot. I think he originally met Ginny through her brother, Ron.’
We continued to chat after dinner, but we had to stop when the kids’ bedtime approached. While I bathed them, Mike tackled the kitchen. Once the kids had each been told a story and were tucked up and settled, I returned to the living room. Mike had been watching a football match, but he switched it off when I collapsed onto the sofa.
‘Another good weekend,’ he said.
‘Good? Purple vomit, and I gatecrashed a private family party at the Potters,’ I told him. He simply laughed.
‘That’s what I said, another good weekend,’ he repeated. ‘Admit it, Jacqui; things are a lot livelier around here than they were before the Potters arrived. And you like it.’
‘I suppose I do, at least, most of it. But not the purple vomit,’ I told him. ‘I still haven’t forgiven you for giving Annie all that juice.’
‘What you need, my darling, is a drink,’ he said. He strolled through into the dining room and returned with the bottle of wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, which we’d opened with our roast chicken dinner. The bottle was still almost half full. Mike poured me an extremely generous glass and sat back in his armchair before pouring the remainder into his glass.
As we drank, I told him about Charlie’s arrival, and the mysterious lack of cars. Mike, of course, had a reasonable explanation. It was so obvious that I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it myself.
‘Charlie must’ve arrived by taxi,’ said Mike. ‘Perhaps they all did, unless Harry collected them. Didn’t you say that Ginny’s mum flew up here the other week? She lives in Devon, doesn’t she?’
‘Yes.’ I nodded.
‘Well, then, they either caught the Bristol to Newcastle plane or took a cross country train. Whichever they did, they must’ve come the rest of the way by taxi, unless Harry collected them.’ Mike spoke with absolute certainty. I must have looked disappointed because he burst out laughing.
‘What was your theory, Jacqui?’ he asked. ‘Do you think that they “beamed down” like on Star Trek? They came by taxi! It’s obvious.’ He slid from his armchair, knelt on the floor in front of me and put his hands on my shoulders. ‘Isn’t it?’ He looked into my eye and smiled.
‘I suppose it is, yes,’ I admitted.
He kissed my nose and teasingly told me, ‘It’s a good job you’ve got a clear-headed and sensible husband, Jacqui. All those books you read make you see a mystery even when there isn’t one.’
I went to bed early. Mike was right; it had been another interesting day, and a tiring one. The wine had gone to my head, too.
I didn’t see Harry the following morning; once again, James was already settled in the classroom when I got there. I’d hoped to speak to Harry because, over breakfast, I’d been worrying about the events of the previous afternoon. I’d arrived at Drakeshaugh unannounced twice, and both times, I’d interrupted something. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a guilty thought (“you weren’t invited”) wormed its way through my brain, making me feel uneasy.
As I walked out from the school, I decided that I needed to do something to apologise to Harry and Ginny. It wasn’t until I was driving back home with Annie that I decided what to do. I would bake.
‘Today, we’re going to make chocolate buns, Annie,’ I told my daughter the moment we walked into the kitchen.
‘I likes chocklick bun,’ said Annie happily, clapping her hands and dancing.
‘And I’m going to give some to Mrs Potter when we see her at school this afternoon,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ said Annie, frowning. She knew what she liked, and what she didn’t like; and she didn’t like the idea of sharing chocolate. But, honestly, who does?
‘I’ll make lots,’ I assured her.
Annie and I had an enjoyably messy morning. We made four dozen buns, although I had barely enough butter for the buttercream icing. It took me some time to tidy the kitchen and find a tin for the buns; by then, it was time for lunch. Afterwards, as a special treat for both of us, we scraped both the cake mix and icing bowls clean. By the time we’d finished, Annie was up to her elbows in cake mixture and buttercream; she was sticky, but very happy.
When I carried her upstairs to clean her up, I discovered she’d somehow managed to get chocolate icing on her knickers (and it was a relief to realise that’s what it was). She was so sticky that I stripped her, put her in the bath, and found her a complete change of clothes. We had a splashing time, and spent ages playing with her bath toys. By the time I’d got her ready it was almost time for me to leave for school, and it was raining.
While I’d been in the bathroom, thick clouds had darkened the day, a bright morning had become a dull and dingy afternoon and the rain was relentlessly hurling itself against the windows. It was no weather for walking anywhere. I looked at the sky, at the tin of buns, and at the weather, and I decided to ring Ginny.
I was convinced that the phone number she’d given me wouldn’t work. I really didn’t expect to be connected; I don’t know why, unless it was because the number was so strange. Nevertheless, I punched the numbers into the handset and waited.
I didn’t get a ringing tone. There were several seconds of silence and then, just as I was about to hang up, a polite female voice said, ‘Connecting you now, please hold the line.’ Then, once again, there was utter silence. I waited uneasily for several more seconds before anything happened.
‘Hello, Jacqui,’ said Ginny.
‘Hi, Ginny,’ I spoke in a breathless rush. ‘I’m sorry for ringing, but it’s hoying it down… I mean, chucking it down…’ (I decided it would be best to translate the word) ‘…with rain here, and I don’t suppose that it’s any different at Drakeshaugh. I wondered if you’d like a lift down to school. I can’t bring you back, of course; the car will be full with you, Al and Lily, never mind James and Henry, but at least we can wait outside school in the car, keep dry. Al could use Henry’s seat and his original baby seat is in our garage; it’s a bit grubby, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It should be fine for Lily; we aren’t going far after all.’
When I stopped speaking, there was another echoing silence.
‘Ginny?’ I said.
‘I’m still here,’ she said. ‘It’s nice of you to offer, Jacqui, very thoughtful of you to telephone…’
There was another pause while she considered my offer.
‘Will you be able to fit the buggy in your boot? Your car isn’t very big, is it?’ she said.
‘It’s big enough for a buggy. I’m sure that we can manage,’ I told her.
‘Okay, why not?’ said Ginny. ‘I’ll expect you in—how long—a quarter of an hour?’
‘That sounds about right,’ I said.
I bundled Annie into her raincoat, grabbed the cake tin, threw my Barbour jacket over my head and carried Annie out to the car. I got her into the passenger seat easily enough, but it took me a few minutes longer than I expected to fasten Henry’s old rear-facing baby seat behind Annie and clean the cobwebs from it. As a consequence, I was a little delayed in setting off for Drakeshaugh.
Annie and I splashed our way down the valley happily singing nursery rhymes. The landscape was a grey blur of rain and the road was a fast-flowing river. It was proper rain, bold rain, the type rain which noisily lets you know that it’s out to soak you. Even with my wipers at their fastest setting, it was difficult to keep the windscreen clear. Personally, I prefer that sort of weather to those sneaky little showers and drizzle; they try to pretend that they’re not really going to get you wet.
When I pulled in to the gravel yard in front of Drakeshaugh, Ginny opened the back door and beckoned me inside. By the time I’d unstrapped Annie and collected the cake tin, she had vanished. I ran across to the open door, carrying Annie, ‘Wheeeeee’, under one arm. I had the cake tin in the other hand. Once inside the small entrance hall, I took off my coat, which was already dripping, and hung it on one of the hooks.
I closed the back door behind me, and rather cautiously, walked into the kitchen. Al and Lily were chasing each other around the table, laughing. They dashed up to Annie, shouting greetings.
Hi Jacqui,’ said Ginny over the racket. ‘I’m not quite ready, sorry. I had another call after yours and I’ve only just broken the connection.’
What an odd way to say “hung up”, I thought.
‘No problem,’ I said. ‘I’m usually very early for school; we have plenty of time.’ I noticed that Ginny was looking at the tin I was holding. ‘Oh, and I’ve made these for you. I interrupted your family gathering yesterday; I’m sorry. These are to apologise. You can give me the tin back any time. No rush.’
I handed it to Ginny. She gave a polite smile and opened it. The smell of chocolate escaped and filled the room; it was so powerful that it immediately attracted the kids attention.
‘Chocklick, my hellups Moomee, bacon,’ Annie mispronounced proudly.
Fortunately, Ginny had a mother’s ear and was able to decipher Annie’s statement without my help. ‘You helped your mummy when she was baking; what a clever girl,’ said Ginny. Annie beamed. ‘We like chocolate; thank you, Annie. And thank you, Jacqui; thank you very much. But there’s no need to apologise; James confessed. He did invite Henry, and he didn’t tell us. And thanks for the offer of a lift, too.’ She gave me a dazzlingly grateful smile.
While Ginny fastened Al into his coat, I did the same for Lily. It took two trips to get the three kids strapped into the car and to get Ginny’s double buggy into the boot. While we worked, the rain continued to lash at us relentlessly.
As I drove down to the school, I asked Ginny how her family gathering had gone. We chatted about her family all the way down to the school.
It was still raining when I parked the car, so we simply stayed in it, sheltering from the rain and talking. I discovered that: Bill was a banker; Percy and his wife were civil servants; Ron and George were in business together, and; Charlie worked abroad on some sort of animal conservation project; Ginny was so vague about the details of Charlie’s job that I suspected she didn’t really know. Charlie was home for the week. Ginny also confirmed that her family would, as I’d suspected, be helping her with the catering.
That was when the kids started appearing. With the rain, the confusion of getting Henry into the car, my keeping an eye on the Potter kids while Ginny unfolded her buggy and everything else that was going on, we didn’t have time for any more chat. I watched Ginny trudging off into the rain with a pang of guilt. They’d probably be soaked to the skin by the time they got home. But I simply couldn’t squeeze them all into the car. I knew that Ginny couldn’t drive. I wondered if, faced with our weather, she would learn. The Potters were certainly wealthy enough to have a second car.
The following morning, I saw Harry only briefly.
‘Hi, Jacqui,’ he said as he dashed out from the school. I said ‘Hi,’ back, but then he was gone.
That evening was glorious: the sun was back and the previous day’s storm was no more than a memory, and a slightly higher than normal river. Ginny and I were discussing the party with some of the other mums, and Ginny was collecting acceptance letters from them, and from several kids.
Henry and James were two of the last to leave the school. They were, as always, side by side when they dashed up to us. Unusually, however, James ignored his mother and ran straight up to me.
‘Hello, Henry’s mum; has you got more of them chocolate buns?’ he asked.
‘James!’ Ginny pulled an apologetic face at me.
‘No, but I can bake more if you liked them, James,’ I told him. He nodded happily.
‘They were a big hit with the kids, Jacqui,’ Ginny told me politely, before staring at James in annoyance. ‘You can’t simply demand things from people, James,’ she told her son.
‘Wasn’t a demand, was compling meant,’ said James. ‘They was very nice.’
‘They were,’ Ginny agreed. ‘And I’m sure Jacqui appreciates your compliment, James. Poor Harry didn’t get home quickly enough, so he only got one.’
‘I’ll bake some more,’ I said. ‘But I’ll need to buy the ingredients. I’m glad you liked them, James. If the kids all liked them, I could even bake a big batch for your party, Ginny.’
‘Yay!’ shouted James.
‘That would be great, if you don’t mind. I think we have plenty of food, but Mum’s panicking, and if I tell her you’re helping, too…’ said Ginny, smiling. I knew what she meant, as my mother would be exactly the same. Ginny hesitated for a moment, and lowered her voice. ‘Are you doing anything on Thursday, Jacqui? Would you and Annie like to have lunch with us? We can discuss the party, and swimming, then.’
‘Yes, please,’ I squeaked. I suspected that there was rather too much enthusiasm in my voice.
We arranged that I’d arrive at noon, and we were still agreeing details when Mary arrived. She glared at me as she handed Ginny a pale blue envelope.
‘Thank you so much for the invitation, Ginny,’ said Mary. ‘My husband and I are very busy, but we’ve managed to find some time for you on Saturday.’
‘I’m honoured,’ said Ginny. There was no trace of sarcasm in her voice, but she perfectly mimicked Mary’s pompous tone. ‘I do hope that you didn’t have to cancel anything; after all, we aren’t important.’
I had a coughing fit. It was either that or I would burst out laughing, and I still wasn’t ready to laugh at Mary in public.
I told Mike what had happened as soon as he got home. I was so ridiculously excited by the invitation to lunch at Drakeshaugh that I dashed outside to tell him before he’d even finished parking his car. He grabbed me around the waist and kissed me.
‘Great! Make friends, go out, enjoy yourself,’ he told me. ‘I love to see you happy, Jacqui; you’re gorgeous when you’re happy. I’m beginning to think we must have been in a bit of a rut.’
I kissed him back, but Henry arrived at the kitchen door and protested, so we had to part.
Wednesday dragged, although Ginny and I did manage to make arrangements for our trip to the swimming pool. When Thursday finally arrived it was another rainy day. I was ready to leave at eleven, but we’d agreed that I’d arrive at twelve.
I paced; I sat; I failed to read; I simply could not settle. Finally, I got angry with Annie over absolutely nothing and made her cry. It took me ages to calm her down, and by the time I did, it was almost twelve, and I was a few minutes late leaving.
When I reached Drakeshaugh, Ginny was once again waiting for me at the kitchen door. It was as though she’d known exactly when I would arrive. Annie had calmed down, and I’d been talking to her all of the way down the valley. She had somehow caught my excitement and she excitedly refused to be carried. We held hands and dashed into the house through a squally shower which flapped at our coats as we ran. At least Annie ran; I only needed to do a brisk walk to keep up with her. We said our hellos to Ginny, took off our coats, and followed her into the warm, welcoming and surprisingly empty kitchen.
‘Where are Al and Lily?’ I asked.
‘They’re up in the lounge,’ Ginny told me. ‘One of my old school friends is looking after them. She will be at the party too. I wanted you to meet her first. She was one of my bridesmaids and is Lily’s godmother. I do hope that you’ll like her.’
For the first time since I’d met her, Ginny seemed to be rather nervous. ‘Luna is a… she’s… well… she’s… she’s … Luna.’ Ginny shrugged. It seemed that she’d finally decided that no further explanation was necessary, or perhaps possible, so she simply led Annie and me from the kitchen through the small hallway and up the stairs into the lounge.
‘And this,’ a voice sang, ‘is a Crumple-Horned Snorkack. No one has ever seen one, Lily, Al, but one day, I will.’
The woman, Luna, was sitting on the sofa, a large book on her lap. Al sat on one knee and Lily on the other. Luna’s feet were bare and her toenails were each painted a different colour. She wore brown paisley culottes and a yellow checked blouse, an interesting choice. Her blonde hair was piled in a bun and it was held in place by a stick of wood that was almost a foot long. She stared at me with wide, unblinking, grey eyes.
‘Lo, Henrysmum,’ said Al.
‘Hello, Al, and Lily, and hello,’ I said to the blonde. ‘You must be Luna, I’m Jacqui.’
‘Yes, I’m Luna Lovegood. Jacqui, that’s an unusual name, isn’t it?’ she asked.
‘Not like yours,’ I told her, trying to keep my face straight.
‘Really?’ she said. ‘I’m surprised that you think so. I don’t know anyone else called Luna, and Daddy and Uncle Andy are the only Lovegoods I know.’
‘Irony is wasted on Luna, as is sarcasm,’ Ginny told me. ‘Honesty works.’
‘Oh, were you trying to be funny?’ Luna asked me.
‘It seems I failed,’ I told her.
‘Yes,’ Luna agreed. ‘Perhaps you need more practice.’
Ginny burst out laughing, and so did I. I had no choice, really. It was obvious from her clothes and her conversation that Luna was one of those people for whom social conventions don’t exist.
‘What’s a Snorkack?’ I asked. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’ I looked curiously at the book on Luna’s lap, but I couldn’t make out the title.
‘Oh,’ said Luna. ‘I was just telling Al and Lily a story, that’s all.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘It’s like the Gruffalo; there are so many wonderful children’s stories, aren’t there?’
‘A Gruffalo?’ asked Luna.
‘Gruffalo,’ said Al. He jumped from Luna’s lap, dashed to a bookcase untidily stacked with colourful books and returned with that very book. ‘Read,’ he demanded.
‘Yay, Guffalluff!’ Annie agreed. Luna looked curiously at the book.
‘It was part of Al’s Christmas present from Hermione’s parents, Luna,’ Ginny said. ‘Would you like to read it to the kids? Jacqui and I will get lunch ready, if that’s okay?’
‘This looks very interesting,’ said Luna, sounding excited. She lifted Lily from her knee, sat her on the floor and slid from the sofa to sit alongside her. Al and Annie sat too, and looked up expectantly at Luna. She opened the book, prodded the illustration, watched it, shrugged and began to read.
I went into the kitchen with Ginny and helped her prepare a salad and sandwiches.
‘First impressions?’ Ginny asked.
‘She ploughs her own furrow,’ I said. Ginny looked a little puzzled. ‘She goes her own way,’ I explained. ‘She strikes me as nice, but unconventional.’ I lowered my voice. ‘I’m not trying to be rude, but is she extremely clever, or is she simply eccentric?’
‘Both.’ Ginny laughed.
We called them down for lunch. Luna and Ginny chatted about who would be at the party on Saturday. Several names were mentioned: Dennis, Neville and Hannah, and several others. Luna seemed to know them all.
The rain stopped, so after lunch, we walked through the woods. Luna remained barefoot; her only concession to the cool breeze was to put on a blue and yellow cardigan which looked like it had been badly hand-knitted by a giant. When I said so, she shook her head and corrected me in a way only Luna could.
‘Only a half-giant,’ she said. ‘He’s called Rubeus.’
Luna was like that, I discovered. Her conversation crazily banged, chimed and bounced from topic to topic like the ball in a pinball machine. When we walked into the clearing next to Drakeshaugh Burn, Ginny made some flippant remark about the stream being a burn.
‘You didn’t study Ancient Runes, Ginny,’ said Luna disapprovingly. ‘If you had, you’d know that the word is perfectly acceptable. It’s derived from old English “burna”; it is a fresh water spring.’
Luna strode ahead of us, and Ginny turned to me and pulled a “that’s me told” face.
‘I’ve decided. After that remark, I like your friend Lune,’ I said, smiling. Ginny laughed, and so did I.
Luna, meanwhile, had stepped into the burn, cupped her hands in the water and was noisily slurping the water from her hands. ‘Good, fresh and cold,’ she announced.
Of course, once Luna had drunk from the stream, the kids had to drink too. Ginny joined them, but when offered, I declined.
‘The last time I drank from a burn I was thirteen,’ I said. ‘That was Spithope Burn, not far from my parent’s farm. Then I walked upstream and found a dead sheep in the water.’
‘Eugh!’ The kids all pulled faces.
‘Were you ill afterwards?’ Luna asked.
‘No,’ I admitted.
‘So the water was pure anyway,’ said Luna. ‘That’s a silly reason not to drink.’ It was my turn to pull a “that’s me told” face at Ginny. I gave in, scooped up some water and drank it. Luna was right; it was sweet, and so cold that it made my teeth tingle.
The kids all wanted to play on the rope swing. They needed careful supervision, especially Lily, who seemed to be completely fearless. We spent the afternoon playing with the kids and gossiping. The three kids seemed to be quite happy playing together. Al was gentle and quiet. It seemed to me that he was trying to look after the girls, too.
While the kids were playing, I took the opportunity to ask Ginny what she’d be wearing, and what Harry would be wearing. ‘Mike hates wearing a suit outside work,’ I said, worriedly.
‘We’re having a party, not a dinner party, Jacqui,’ Ginny reassured me. ‘Harry will be casual. You don’t think that anyone will turn up in evening dress or a ballgown, do you? We’ve invited the kids! I’m expecting at least one jelly or trifle related crisis and at least one temper tantrum.’
‘That may well be Mary,’ I said. Ginny laughed.
‘Just wear whatever you’re comfortable wearing,’ Ginny assured me. ‘There’s probably no need to buy something new.’
‘Probably?’ I asked. That single word alerted me. ‘What about you?’
‘I’ve bought a new dress,’ she admitted. ‘I’m the hostess, Jacqui; I want to look my best.’
‘I’m a guest; so do I,’ I said determinedly. ‘I’d thought about wearing trousers and a jacket; it’s practical. But … a new dress … I could probably persuade Mike. I’d have to go into town tomorrow, but I couldn’t take Annie into town. I’ll ask my mum…’
‘If you want to go shopping for a new dress tomorrow, Jacqui, you could leave Annie with me,’ Ginny offered. ‘Luna and I can look after three kids as easily as two.’
‘I couldn’t impose…’ I began.
‘Don’t be silly, Jacqui,’ said Ginny. ‘Would you like to come back again tomorrow, Annie?’
‘Yay,’ said Annie.
‘When do you need to leave to collect James, Ginny?’ Luna asked.
Ginny and I checked our watches.
‘Now,’ we chorused.
I half-heartedly tried to turn down Ginny’s babysitting offer as we hurriedly prepared to leave. Luna agreed to stay at Drakeshaugh and look after Al and Lily. I once again gave Ginny a lift down to school, and we discussed plans for the following day.
‘I’ll have to talk to Mike about it,’ I said. ‘Are you sure that you don’t mind?’
‘Jacqui,’ said Ginny seriously. ‘We haven’t known each other for long, but do you really think that I’d volunteer to do something if I didn’t want to do it?’
‘Thank you. I’ll telephone tonight and let you know,’ I promised.
‘Tell Mike that he owes you a new dress,’ Ginny suggested.
‘Purple vomit,’ I said immediately, and I was forced to tell Ginny the story.
A Breakdown, a Bike and a Barmy Blonde Again by Northumbrian
A Breakdown, a Bike and a Barmy Blonde Again
That evening, I told Mike of my planned trip to the shops.
Ginny and Luna had agreed to look after Annie while I drove into Newcastle to buy a new outfit for the housewarming party. When I finished explaining why I needed new clothes, and who Luna was (and that took a lot of explaining), Mike asked me if I wanted to meet him for lunch. He told me that he was going to be in town himself because he had a meeting at one of the big solicitor’s offices on the Quayside.
The school run went to plan. Luna stayed at Drakeshaugh to look after Al and Lily, so after I dropped Henry at school, I took both Ginny and Annie back to Drakeshaugh. I turned down Ginny’s offer of a coffee, tempting though it was, and told her that I needed to get on my way. I said my goodbyes to Annie, who didn’t seem at all worried about me leaving her, and drove straight into Newcastle. Somehow, I managed to find my way into one of the city centre car parks without getting lost in the one way system, and then I hit the shops.
My shopping trip was successful; I was very pleased with the floral-print godet skirt, matching camisole and jacket I bought. Mike said he liked them too when I showed him the contents of my bags, although he hadn’t seen me wearing them. He phoned me as he’d promised he would when his meeting was over, and we met at Grey’s Monument a little after noon.
Mike held my hand and led me down the finest street in England: Grey Street. We turned onto High Bridge and he took me to a little Italian place. It was a place we’d regularly visited before we were married, before we moved out of the city.
‘This is just like being on a date,’ Mike joked as we walked towards the café.
‘When’s the last time you took me out?’ I asked him.
He made a couple of suggestions.
‘Without the kids,’ I said.
‘Too long ago,’ he admitted. He made fun of himself and teased me too, because we soon realised that neither of us could remember the last time we’d been out to lunch, just the two of us.
Because I’d finished my shopping, we dallied over lunch, gossiping and even flirting a little. Eventually, it was time for me to leave. Mike was running late, too; he should have left and returned to his office at least half an hour before we finally parted. When we got back onto Grey Street, he grabbed me by the waist and kissed me.
‘Bye, gorgeous,’ he said, before he turned and walked downhill. I watched him strut down the road, and I smiled at him when he turned to wave to me. Then I crossed the road and headed for the car park.
The roads were quiet, and I managed to find my way out of the city without any problems. I made good time on my homeward journey and I was certain that I would have time to collect Annie before I met Henry at the school gates.
It didn’t work out that way.
I’d passed through Thropton and had turned onto the Sharperton road when it happened. I had just negotiated the first of two sharp bends, so fortunately, I wasn’t going particularly quickly when there was a loud bang and the car swerved towards the verge. I swore, using several words I definitely wouldn’t want Annie or Henry to hear, and then I wrestled with the steering wheel.
The car was making an awful noise, as though a wheel had fallen off. I fought to keep it in a straight line and touched the brakes gently. Because the car was trying to pull to the left, I was worried that braking hard might simply make me swerve into the fence. I’d taken my right foot off the accelerator and slammed the left onto the clutch the moment I heard the bang, so I was slowly rolling to a halt anyway. But the second sharp bend was rapidly approaching and I didn’t really want to try to get round it. There was an untidy concrete track leading across the grass to a field gate and it was right on the bend. Using brakes and gears, I managed to bring the car to an untidy halt on the side of the road.
I switched off the engine and simply sat there, holding the steering wheel and shaking. It seemed like I waited in the silence forever, but it was probably only a few seconds. I had managed to bring the car safely to a halt, but my imagination was accelerating dangerously out of control. My head was filling with what-ifs, each more terrifying than the last; until, finally, I burst into tears. Don’t be silly, I scolded myself. I took several deep breaths and tried to calm down. It wasn’t easy.
I was still sobbing when I heard the motorbike. As the roar of the engine died down, I reached into the glovebox for a tissue. Half of me was desperate for it to be Harry, because I knew that he could—and would—try to help. The other half was hoping that it wasn’t, because I’d almost crashed the car and I’d been crying.
I looked in the mirror. The black bike had pulled to a halt directly behind me, and its red helmeted rider was dismounting. It was Harry. I fumbled for the car door, pushed it open, and staggered out. I almost fell, but Harry dashed forwards, grabbed my arm and steadied me.
‘You’re okay, Jacqui,’ he reassured me. ‘I’m on my way to school, I assume you are, too.’
‘I almost died,’ I sobbed, and the tears flowed again. Harry put an arm around my shoulders, reached into his pocket and produced a large white handkerchief.
‘No, you didn’t, Jacqui,’ he said firmly. There was an almost mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he continued, ‘If you had, you’d be almost dead, and you look very much alive to me. In fact, I don’t think anyone almost dies. Either you die, or you don’t. You didn’t, and there’s no use in worrying about something that didn’t happen. You’re a little shocked, but you’re okay, aren’t you?’
I nodded. ‘I was lucky,’ I said.
‘You deserve the credit, Jacqui; it wasn’t luck, it was you. You kept control of the car.’ His voice was calm and reassuring.
I blew my nose and wiped my tears on his handkerchief, and then I realised that Harry’s arm was still around my shoulder, and I was leaning in to him. I stood upright and he removed his arm.
‘Any idea what happened?’ he asked.
‘There was a bang, and the car swerved,’ I said.
Harry walked around the car, examining it carefully. ‘Your front nearside tyre is flat,’ he said. He gave me a self-depreciating smile. ‘I’m no expert, but I think that’s your problem, right there.’ He bent down to take a closer look and I followed him onto the verge. He pointed at some damaged rubber and the split in it. ‘It looks like the side wall split. It’s scuffed, as if it’s been…’
‘Oh, no!’ I put my head in my hands and groaned. ‘I hit a kerb on Monday, on my way to school. But I forgot all about it. Mike says I must tell him if there’s a problem with the car. I’ve probably damaged the wheel, too. It will probably cost a fortune to repair. He’ll kill me.’
‘He won’t,’ said Harry confidently. ‘If he’s got any sense, he’ll simply be happy that you’re okay, damn the car, and damn the expense.’ He stared at me; those remarkable green eyes of his seemed to bore into my head. ‘People are more important than property; you know that, and so does Mike, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I admitted.
‘Now, we need to be practical. Unfortunately, I don’t really know much about cars; I know blokes are supposed to know these things…’ He lowered his voice, despite the fact that there was probably no one else for several miles around. ‘But, to be honest, cars and football are two things I’ve never been interested in,’ Harry admitted. ‘It can’t be difficult to fix, I hope. I assume that you’ve got a spare tyre somewhere. Is it in the boot?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Probably,’ I added uncertainly. ‘Unless it’s somewhere else, or there isn’t one.’
Harry raised an eyebrow, and I realised what I’d said.
‘Sorry.’ I laughed rather more than I should have done and my own foolishness. Nerves, I suppose. Harry simply waited until I stopped. ‘I should have simply said that I don’t know! I’m not much use, am I?’
‘You probably know at least as much about cars as I do, Jacqui,’ he assured me. ‘It will take us a while to change the wheel, assuming that there is a wheel to change.’ He pulled a battered-looking pocket watch from the pocket of his leather jacket. ‘Even if we both knew what we were doing, there’s no way we could change the wheel and be at school in time to collect the kids. I’d better contact Ginny and let her know, unless…’ He paused and nodded meaningfully to the bike.
‘I don’t have a helmet,’ I said, although part of me was screaming do it!
‘Ginny’s is strapped to the seat,’ Harry said.
I looked and realised that it was. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it earlier.
‘I’m not dressed for it,’ I said hesitantly. Just do it; you know you want to, the voice in my head was becoming more insistent.
Under most circumstances, I would have said yes without any hesitation, but under most circumstances I’d be wearing trousers. Because I had been into town, because I was meeting Mike and shopping for clothes, I was dressed up for the occasion. The tan leather jacket I was wearing was far from new, but it was made for fashion, not practicality. Worse, I was wearing a knee-length pencil skirt.
‘You might have to sit side-saddle,’ Harry said. ‘But the footwear looks okay.’
I looked down at my feet and blushed. I’d been rather pleased with my “going out” outfit; when he’d met me at the Monument, Mike had told me how nice I looked. Now, however, the effect was rather spoiled by the battered and well-worn blue trainers I was now wearing. They didn’t match anything else.
‘You know I’ve been in town shopping, Harry. I can’t drive in heels,’ I explained. ‘My smart shoes are in the car and…’
Harry was grinning broadly. He’d been teasing me.
‘It’s okay, Jacqui,’ he said. ‘You obviously aren’t dressed for a bike ride. I’ll contact Ginny and ask her to collect James and Henry.’
He reached into his jacket, and this time, he pulled out what looked like a smartphone. It was mirror-bright on one side, and it appeared to be a dark wood-effect on the other. He didn’t, however, touch the screen; he just looked at it, said ‘Ginny’ and then held it to his ear. I should really phone Mike, too, I thought, but I didn’t.
‘Hi; oh, ear. Problems, Harry?’ Ginny asked. Her voice was very clear and it carried across to me. Harry’s phone must be voice activated, I realised.
‘I’ve had to stop to help Jacqui; we’re only about four miles from the school, but she has a flat tyre. It looks like we’re going to be late for the kids,’ Harry said.
While he spoke, I was looking at his bike. The voice in my head had taken control, and I was fantasising about a bike ride. I tried to push the idea aside. I can’t go on the bike, I told myself sternly, not in this outfit.
In order to distract myself, I opened the boot to look for the spare wheel. Lying there where I’d thrown it the previous afternoon was my old Barbour jacket. I reached into the pockets and found my gardening gloves. Tight skirt, my conscience reminded me.
‘You’re standing next to her, aren’t you?’ I heard Ginny ask.
‘Yes,’ he confirmed.
‘Hi, Ginny,’ I shouted, letting her know that I could hear her. ‘How’s Annie?’
‘Hi, Jacqui; she’s fine. Thanks for letting me know, Harry. Luna was going to walk down to the school anyway. She wants to see what it’s like. I’ll tell her to collect Henry as well as James. We’ll keep both Henry and Annie here until you…’ That’s when I cracked.
‘You can give me a lift,’ I told Harry. I held up the jacket and gloves.
‘Just a second, Ginny,’ Harry said. ‘Are you sure, Jacqui?’ He looked pointedly at my skirt.
I was already feeling the buzz of a bike ride; perhaps that’s what made me babble.
‘I first met Mike in Newcastle. It was a Saturday. I’d been at a swimming competition at City Pool and I’d gone into town with a couple of girlfriends during the lunch break. Mike just walked up to us and started talking to me. He was really nervous; he said he’d never done anything like that before. My friends teased him and tried to put him off, but he persevered. When they got bored and left us, he asked me out. I said yes and gave him my address.
‘Mike turned up at my flat the following day. He was on his bike. I was all dolled up and wearing a skirt. He’d said that he’d take me to Whitley Bay for the day. I knew that he was a law student and I thought he might be rich, have a flashy car, although I really expected that we’d be taking the Metro. He hadn’t mentioned the bike.
‘It was his idea of a test; if I hadn’t gone with him, I don’t think I would’ve ever seen him again. When he saw what I was wearing, Mike suggested that I change, but I was too stupid and stubborn to agree. Instead, I found myself wearing my shortest skirt and perched on the back of the Aprilia as he did a ton along the coast road. It was the best first date I’d ever had, and it was the last first date I ever had!’ I paused for breath, thinking about what I’d said. ‘They’re probably always the best ones, aren’t they?’
‘I think they probably are, yes.’ Harry laughed and placed the phone back to his ear.
‘Did you hear all that, Ginny?’ he asked.
‘Oh, yes.’ Ginny couldn’t keep the laughter from her voice, either.
‘I’ll give Jacqui a lift to school, Ginny. We can decide what to do about her car later. It’s safe enough where it is.’
While he was talking, I picked up my shopping and my shoes from the passenger floor well, put them in the boot and locked my car. I pulled on the grubby wax cotton jacket, knowing that at least my torso would be warm, and dry if it rained, although one glance at the clear sky told me that was unlikely. By the time I’d fastened my coat, Harry had ended the call.
He handed me Ginny’s helmet. I pulled it over my head and fastened it. Harry was watching, making sure that I knew what I was doing. He seemed to be happy, because he swung himself onto the bike, leapt up and kicked it into life. It really was a classic; no starter motor! He fastened his helmet and jacket and pulled on his gloves. I donned my gardening gloves.
Harry pulled the bike upright and kicked up the side stand. Standing astride it, he leaned back and pulled the pillion pegs into place for me. I hitched up my skirt a little, then a little more, all the while cursing myself for my choice of clothing. Catching his eye, I made sure that he had the bike balanced and was ready for my weight.
He nodded, so I stepped onto the footpeg, swung myself over behind him and sat. It was tricky. My skirt was tight around my thighs even with the rear slit, which was under some strain. I hoped that it wouldn’t rip. Harry tried to sit, but because of the skirt, he didn’t fit between my knees. I shuffled right to the back of the seat, and Harry moved right to the front.
It was ridiculous, and I started to laugh. I had two options. Hitch the skirt higher, revealing more leg than I’d done since I was a teenager, or ride with my knees forced tightly against Harry’s hips. I shuffled, and pulled the skirt higher. Harry slid back and got into his riding position. I put my hands on my knees, leaned forwards until our helmets touched and yelled ‘READY.’
I saw Harry jump in surprise.
‘Merl...’ he said, his voice surprisingly loud in my ears. ‘There’s an intercom built into the helmets, Jacqui,’ he said quietly. ‘There’s no need to shout.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. We hadn’t even set off and I could already outgrin a Cheshire cat.
‘You know that your legs will get cold,’ he added. He still seemed to be trying to put me off.
‘By the time we were married, Mike had bought a Ducati,’ I said firmly. ‘For our honeymoon, we rode across Europe on it. It can be colder than this in the Alps, even in the summer.’ I smiled at the memory. ‘I’ve just thought of something else, Harry,’ I added. ‘Mrs Wilson keeps an eye on the school gate. She won’t let a stranger collect James and Henry. And they don’t come much stranger than Luna. We’d better go.’
‘Okay.’ Harry chuckled. He pulled in the clutch and kicked the bike into first gear, and as we roared off up the road, he rapidly and smoothly toed his way up through the gears.
I simply stayed behind him and enjoyed the ride. When we dropped down into Sharperton, he took the bends at speed, but smoothly. As we leaned steeply into the second bend, I glanced down at the road. We were skimming along only inches above it.
‘This is brilliant!’ I announced.
‘You’re a good pillion,’ Harry told me. ‘You’re like Ginny; you stick with me, lean with me. I took Hermione out once. She screamed and fought to stay upright at every bend. Never again!’ He shook his head.
‘Either trust the rider, or get off,’ I said. The words Mike had used when I’d climbed nervously behind him on our first date suddenly came back to me. That’s what I’d always done. I’d leaned when Mike leaned, moved the way he’d moved; anything else was fighting the rider.
As we sped toward Harbottle, I wondered why Harry would have agreed to take Hermione on his bike. She was his best friend’s wife, but she didn’t strike me as being the sort who would like motorcycling.
Harry slowed as we approached Harbottle, the bend and the school. I realised with some regret that my bike ride was almost over. It had been much too short. I’d forgotten the adrenalin rush, the sensation of true speed, which you simply don’t get when you’re enclosed in a big metal box.
‘I’d forgotten how much fun this is,’ I said. ‘It’s as close to flying as you can get.’
‘I suppose it is, yes,’ Harry said. ‘In fact, thinking about it, it certainly is.’ I couldn’t see his face, but from his voice, he seemed to be amused by my comment. I was still grinning like a lunatic; I knew that.
A bike isn’t practical, not with two kids. I remembered the discussions we’d had when we made the fateful decision to sell “the Duke”. A solicitor and a family man can’t ride a motorbike to an important meeting. We need a car; in fact, out here, we need two cars, one each. We can’t afford the bike, too. We don’t really need the bike, do we?
‘I wish we hadn’t sold our bike,’ I said sadly as we rode sedately past the school. I waved cheerily at Mary and her friends as we passed. I think that, for a few seconds, they must have thought I was Ginny. But I’m a lot bigger than Ginny, and Mary must have realised that it was me almost immediately, because her gang closed ranks, going into a disapproving huddle. I didn’t care.
Harry rolled the bike to a halt. He put his feet on the ground and waited. I faced my next problem. I have yet to discover a ladylike way to dismount from a motorbike whilst wearing a skirt, and this time, the skirt was too-tight and hitched embarrassingly high.
I did my best. I stood up on the pegs and swung my leg back, but my legs were cold and I was trying to keep my skirt down. I stumbled and tottered onto the path looking a lot less cool and calm than I’d have liked. If I’d been in my heels, I’m certain I’d have fallen. Fortunately, I managed to stay upright, but I had to readjust my skirt under the critical gaze of Mary and her friends.
By the time I’d pulled off my gloves and unfastened the helmet, Harry had turned off the engine, dismounted, and hauled the bike onto its main stand.
‘Thanks, Harry,’ I told him loudly as I handed him the helmet and automatically checked my hair in the bike’s mirror. No helmet line; I hadn’t been wearing it for long enough, unfortunately.
Pushing my gardening gloves into my pocket, I unfastened my Barbour jacket, shrugged it off and held it over my arm. As I walked towards the school gates, I could feel the stares. A susurrus of gossip hissed through the air and unspoken questions flew towards me. Mary glanced at my feet and said something which made her friends laugh.
I’d be expected to explain myself, I realised, but in my heart, I was still flying along on the back of the bike. Sod them! I decided that if they wanted to know, they would have to ask. I simply nodded politely and wondered where Harry was. He hadn’t followed me.
‘I don’t think the shoes match the outfit,’ Mary said. Some of her friends giggled.
‘Driving in high heels is stupid, don’t you think?’ I asked. The sharp intake of breath from Angela told me that I should have checked Mary’s feet before I spoke.
‘You weren’t driving,’ said Mary acidly.
‘I was,’ I said. ‘One of the tyres on the car blew out. I almost crashed, and I wouldn’t have got here in time if Harry hadn’t rescued me.’
‘Are you all right?’ Angela asked sympathetically, surprising me.
‘Yes, thanks,’ I told her.
I looked at Mary, because the snappy comeback I’d been expecting hadn’t arrived. In fact, Mary had stopped looking at me. She was staring over my shoulder, and so were her friends. I turned to see what they were looking at. I should have realised. Luna was talking animatedly to Harry, her hands waving wildly as they approached.
‘Who on earth is that?’ Mary asked. ‘And what on earth is she wearing?’
It seemed fairly obvious to me what Luna was wearing. She wore baseball boots (one blue and one yellow) candy-striped dungarees over a yellow shirt and a claret-coloured smoking jacket. An interesting choice for the school run, but I’d arrived wearing batty old trainers and a tatty jacket over my smart clothes. I wasn’t going to criticise. After all, Luna made me look normal.
‘Hello, Luna,’ I called.
‘Hello, Jacqui.’ Luna waved her arms in a wildly enthusiastic greeting. ‘I didn’t realise that Jacqui was short for Jacqueline. Ginny didn’t tell me until today. I think Jacqueline is a very nice name, but I think Ginevra is nice, too, and Ginny prefers Ginny.’
‘Mary was wondering what you are wearing,’ I said, while processing that latest snippet.
“Ginny isn’t Virginia,” Harry had said at the swimming pool. I’d assumed that he’d meant that she didn’t like the name, or she’d been christened Ginny. Harry, James, Lily, Ginevra, Albus. Some common names, some considerably less so.
My musings came to an abrupt halt. They were interrupted by Luna’s explanation to Mary.
‘These are called dungarees,’ Luna began. She was talking slowly and patiently, as though she thought Mary might not be able to follow. ‘They’re sort of like trousers, except they have these straps over your shoulders.’ To demonstrate, she gave one of the straps a tug. ‘And they have this bib-thing at the front. They’re very comfortable and have lots of pockets, which is useful.’
‘I know what they are,’ Mary snapped. ‘I was wondering why you chose to wear those … clothes,’ Mary sneered. She glared at me, but I simply thought about the bike ride, smiled, and watched Luna.
‘Why did I choose to wear these clothes?’ Luna asked, looking curiously at everyone. ‘I like wearing clothes, especially comfortable, colourful clothes. Also, for reasons no one has ever satisfactorily explained to me, it is not socially acceptable to be naked. Would it make you more comfortable if I took my clothes off?’ Luna’s expression was one of genuine concern for Mary’s welfare, and sanity.
‘She’s great, isn’t she?’ Harry whispered to me. He was watching Luna with open affection in his eyes.
‘I … I … of course not,’ Mary spluttered.
‘So, why are you unhappy that I’m wearing clothes?’ Luna asked.
‘I’m not,’ said Mary. She was beginning to crumble under Luna’s polite and cheerful questioning. Mary excelled at the snide put down, but Luna would continue to question, to ask why, until she got the truth. And Mary suddenly knew it. She was an expert at cutting remarks, but her remarks were always indirect or masked as polite interest. If she wanted to insult Luna, Mary would have to be both direct and rude. She liked being politely unpleasant, but she didn’t like direct unpleasantness.
‘I…’ Mary was lost for words. She stood there, open mouthed.
‘Oh, dear,’ said Luna. She reached forwards and vigorously flapped her hands around Mary’s head, as though swatting invisible insects. ‘Is that better?’ she asked solicitously.
‘Better?’ Mary asked.
‘You seem to be rather confused,’ said Luna.
‘I’m confused!’ Mary spluttered disbelievingly.
‘I’m glad you agree,’ Luna told her. I could see that Angela, still standing next to Mary, was struggling to keep her face straight. Some of Mary’s other friends had given up the fight.
Mary was saved by the arrival of the kids. Harry was suddenly surrounded by people confirming the time of his party, thanking him for the invitations and handing over last minute confirmations of their attendance. I couldn’t hear much of what was happening, because James and Henry were excitedly telling Luna and me about their day. By the time things quietened down, Mary had left.
As we walked up the road to Drakeshaugh, I finally plucked up the courage to phone Mike and tell him what had happened. Harry was proved right.
‘Sod the bloody car,’ Mike interrupted my apologies. ‘Are you okay, Jacques?’
‘I was a bit shook up when it happened, but I’m fine now.’
’Well, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I’m going to leave work now. There’s nothing on my desk that can’t wait until Monday. Do you want me to pick you up from Drakeshaugh, or has Harry offered you a lift home?’
‘He hasn’t; just a second, Mike,’ I said. Ahead of me, Harry was holding Henry’s hand, and Luna was hanging on to James. ‘Mike has offered to pick me up from Drakeshaugh, Harry, if that’s okay.’
‘Fine, Jacqui, that’s not a problem.’
I passed the message on to Mike.
‘See you in three quarters of an hour,’ he told me.
Interlude: Three Families by Northumbrian
Interlude: Three Families
Approximately three hundred miles south of Drakeshaugh at the other end of England, a bright blue Mini was being packed.
The enclosed and sheltered yard in which the car stood was paved in red brick. The bricks were old, possibly as old as the adjacent house, and they were carefully laid in a herringbone pattern. The yard was large enough to accommodate at least half a dozen vehicles but the Mini stood alone.
At one side of the yard was a large white-painted and thatch-roofed house. A timber plaque affixed to the solid oak front door proclaimed the property to be “The Roost”. At the opposite side of the yard to the house, there was a well-trimmed privet hedge which stood some eight feet tall. The top of the hedge was perfectly flat; it was as though someone had flown a broom at that particular height and magically sliced off all of the upward growing branches.
The only break in the hedge was a white wooden gate which led out from the yard and onto a rough track known as Green Lane. The track’s name doubled as its description; Green Lane was narrow, grassy and hemmed in by hedges for its entire length. From The Roost, it wound its way eastwards between fields for a little over a quarter of a mile, before joining Halfpenny Lane, in the village Oakford Fitzpayne, in the County of Dorset.
The Roost was the only house on Green Lane, and no-one drove to it, at least no-one other than the owner of the Mini (and, occasionally, her parents). It was as though the other residents of Oakford Fitzpayne had forgotten that The Roost existed. There was a very good reason for this. They had.
The Mini’s owner was using her wand to levitate a large trunk towards the open boot of her car. There was absolutely no way it would fit into the available space, but that obvious fact didn’t bother the woman. She was not alone in the yard. The Mini’s passenger door was open too, and a tall red-haired man was leaning into the back of the car; he was busy fastening two children into their car seats. Once that task was completed, he stepped out from the car and watched as his wife neatly fitted the trunk into the boot.
‘We’re spending one whole night away from home, Hermione,’ Ron Weasley said. ‘Are you sure that you’ve packed enough stuff?’
Hermione pulled out a list from the pocket of her jeans and glanced anxiously at it. Ron wisely turned away from his wife before rolling his eyes despairingly.
‘There are four sets of swimming things in the bag in the car, Ron,’ began Hermione. ‘In the trunk I’ve got party clothes for this evening, nightclothes and three complete changes of clothes for tomorrow. I’ve also got buckets and spades JUST in case we go to the beach with my mum and dad tomorrow. Rose has Raggedy-Maggie and Hugo has Scarecrow-Sam. I’ve packed two cases of Dom Perignon, because we’ll need something to toast Harry and Ginny’s new home; the Muggle guests will expect some fizz, and Harry will have forgotten, because he has a lot other things on his mind. There are a dozen bottles of lemonade, too. I’ve made a dozen pizzas for the kids, and finally, there are fifty-seven tuna, mayonnaise and sweetcorn sandwiches in a preserving-box to keep them fresh,’ Hermione told him as she squeezed the trunk into the car and closed the boot lid. There was a noticeable and dangerously sharp edge to her final words.
‘You counted the sandwiches?’ asked Ron worriedly.
‘I made sixty,’ Hermione told him, her eyebrows meeting accusingly above her nose.
Ron ducked his head back inside the car. ‘Uh-oh, we’re in trouble, Rosie,’ he told his daughter. ‘You were right; Mummy counted the sandwiches.’ He straightened up and smiled at his wife. She was trying to be angry with him, but he’d had years of experience of that, and it was obvious from her expression that she wasn’t really trying very hard. He was safe. ‘They’re for a party, Hermione,’ he explained. ‘Rosie and I decided to test them; we wanted to make sure that they were tasty enough for Harry and Ginny’s guests, didn’t we?’
‘Tasty-tasty, dust ike Mummy,’ Rosie squeaked.
Hermione pulled a face as she tried not to smile. ‘She’s picking new words up very quickly, Ron. You’d better be very careful what you say in front of her.’
‘True,’ said Ron. ‘But you are tasty, Hermione. I tell you that all the time.’ He stepped up to her, gave her a casual hug, absent-mindedly bent forwards and kissed the top of her head.
She looked up at him in mock-exasperation and sighed. ‘If the kids are strapped in, Ron, it’s time we left.’
‘I’ll lock up,’ said Ron. He drew his wand and cast the usual protection spells over their home. Climbing into the passenger seat, he turned to Hermione. ‘I could drive,’ he offered, smiling. ‘I can, you know; I drove Dad’s car when I was twelve.’
‘And you crashed it into a tree,’ she reminded him. ‘We’re not going straight to Drakeshaugh remember, Ron. We’ll be driving on Muggle roads when we get there. You know that it’s illegal for you to drive on roads until you pass your Muggle driving test. So, if you want to drive the car, you know what you need to do! Take some lessons and … pass … your … driving … test.’ She forcefully emphasised every word.
‘I’ll try to find some time for lessons soon,’ he promised her half-heartedly.
‘You could easily find time, Ron, but I know you; you won’t. You’ve been saying “soon” since before we were married. You’ve been saying it for … ten years, probably,’ she said. ‘Honestly, Ron, I won’t be surprised if Rose passes her driving test before you do! Now, fasten your seatbelt. It’s time we left.’
Ron grinned and obeyed. Hermione pulled a mirror from her jacket pocket and fastened it into the cradle on the dashboard. Satisfied that it was secure, she reached forwards and switched on the Invisibility Booster. The Mini vanished.
‘Ready, Rose, Hugo?’ she asked.
She looked at the mirror and spoke. ‘Portkey Office.’
‘Mrs Weasley,’ a young woman’s face appeared in the mirror. ‘You have a Portkey booked for one o’clock, from Oakford Fitzpayne to the sky above Alnmouth. It is now twelve fifty-eight; are you ready to depart?’
‘We are, yes.’
‘Your Portkey is now logged and authorised. Enjoy your trip.’
‘Thank you. We will,’ Hermione said. She pulled out her wand, touched the steering wheel and said, ‘Portus.’
Ron felt the familiar jerk in his stomach. Hugo squeaked in surprise. Rosie said ‘Wheeee!’
Suddenly, they were in mid air, hovering above a river as it meandered its way across a wide and sandy beach into the sea.
‘Seaside,’ Rose squeaked excitedly as she peered out of the window. ‘And sand, lots ’n lots of sand!’
‘’We might go to the seaside tomorrow, Rose, with Grammy and Dan-dad,’ said Hermione. ‘But now, we’re going to go to meet them at the swimming pool, and we’re going swimming with Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny.’
‘An’ Dames an’ Al an’ Lily,’ said Rose.
‘James,’ Hermione corrected.
‘Djames,’ said Rose, struggling to sound the “J”.
‘And Harry’s new Muggle friends, too. And Aunt Loony, probably,’ Ron added.
‘Luna,’ Hermione corrected him automatically.
‘That’s the road we want, Hermione.’ He pointed inland and to the north.
Hermione flew north eastwards until she reached the road. She dropped down until they were flying low above it, waiting until there was no traffic in sight before gently bringing the car to a landing on the road and switching off the Invisibility Booster.
They continued to drive along unfamiliar roads, Ron with a Muggle roadmap on his lap. They soon found their way inland to the outskirts of Alnwick, the large town which was their destination. After only one wrong turning, and a very minor exchange of cross words between husband and wife, Ron successfully navigated them into the swimming pool car park.
‘There’s Uncle Harry,’ said Ron, pointing to the entrance as they drove through the car park.
‘An’ Dames-Djames an’ ’is fren’ Hennerry,’ said Rosie.
‘And that must be Henry’s dad,’ said Ron, pointing at the thickset man in the group, the only person he didn’t recognise.
Hermione pulled into a parking space. Ron grabbed the bag containing their swimming things and began to help Hugo from his car seat while Hermione unbuckled Rose.
‘I’ll just get in touch with Mum and Dad, let them know we’ve arrived,’ Hermione said.
‘I’m surprised that they want to watch the kids swimming, but I’m glad they’re here for the party. Harry and Ginny have invited a lot of Muggle neighbours. A few Muggles and Muggle-borns who know what’s really going on will help divert suspicion, I hope.’ Ron shook his head in disbelief. ‘I really don’t believe Harry and Ginny; they’re having a party in four hours, and they’ve decided to come to the swimming pool first. I know that they promised the kids, but…’
‘They missed out on swimming last weekend because it was my birthday, Ron. And Harry will almost certainly be at work all next weekend,’ Hermione reminded him.
‘Full moon, I know,’ said Ron. ‘But…’
‘We’ll only be here for an hour, Ron,’ said Hermione. ‘We’ll be at Drakeshaugh only a few minutes later, unlike the Charltons, and Mum and Dad. They will have to drive, but we’ll have at least two hours at Drakeshaugh before the party starts; that’s definitely long enough to get changed and organised. Just before we left home I spoke to Ginny to confirm that they’d arrived here. She told me that your mum and Kreacher have both taken charge of the catering. Ginny was glad to be out of the way until one of them wins.’
‘There will never be a winner in that contest,’ said Ron. ‘That’s not a fight; it’s irresistible force and immovable object!’
‘Perhaps Fleur will be able to keep the peace,’ suggested Hermione, making her husband splutter with laughter. ‘You take Hugo and the bag, Ron. Rose, you stay with me for a moment. I’m going to talk to Grammy and Dan-dad; they’re going to Uncle Harry’s party so they’re staying in a hotel close by. We’ll be staying in the same hotel tonight, too.’
Rose nodded wisely. ‘I say hello to Grammy and Dan-dad with you, Mummy,’ she announced.
‘That’s right, Rose. Good girl,’ Hermione said. ‘They’re coming to watch you swim.
Ron shouldered the bag, grabbed Hugo’s hand and led his son across the car park. As they walked towards the pool, Ron took stock of Harry and Ginny’s new Muggle friends. Jacqui Charlton was about Audrey’s height; she was taller than Ginny and Hermione, but not as tall as Fleur or Angelina. She was a broad-shouldered woman whose straight dark-brown hair reached down to her collarbone. Her husband, Mike, was a six-footer, he too was broad-shouldered and was taller than Harry, but not quite as tall as Ron. Mike was a little paunchy and his short, straw-coloured hair was beginning to recede. The little girl, Annie, was in her father’s arms and her hair was fairer that his. The boy, James’s friend Henry, was stocky and brown-haired, and he and James were whispering to each other.
‘Hello, Potters. Hi, Jacqui,’ said Ron. He was met by a chorus of hellos. Releasing Hugo into the clustering kids, Ron held out his hand to the straw-haired man. ‘You must be Jacqui’s husband, Mike. I’m Ron Weasley, Ginny’s brother.’
‘I can tell,’ Mike looked up at Ron, and then down at Ginny, who was almost a foot shorter than her brother. ‘Although—did they stretch you, or shrink her?’ Mike asked.
‘Michael!’ Jacqui snapped. ‘I’m so sorry, Ron.’
Ron simply laughed. ‘That’s okay. When you meet my mum and dad, you’ll understand, Mike.’ Ron saw Jacqui’s eyes light up in understanding. She, of course, had met them both, Ron remembered.
‘Yes, you will,’ Jacqui told her husband firmly. She was no longer looking at Ron, but instead looked over his shoulder.
‘Hello, everyone,’ said Hermione from behind Ron. ‘Mum and Dad will be here soon; they said we should just get changed.’
‘Mike, this is my wife, Hermione.’ Ron performed the introduction. Mike and Hermione shook hands and exchanged a polite greeting.
‘Swimble time,’ Henry and James reminded the adults.
‘Swimming time,’ Rose corrected them.
‘You’re right, it is. We should go and get changed,’ Harry agreed. ‘We need to leave, to get back to Drakeshaugh, in an hour. Do you know why, Rosie?’
‘Another party, but not Mummy’s birthday,’ said Rosie knowingly.
‘That’s my girl,’ said Ron proudly.
The three couples made their way to the changing rooms with a crowd of excited children. James was busily boasting about his swimming skills to Rose, but she was ignoring him and chattering to Al.
‘No Luna?’ Ron asked, looking around.
‘She’s helping Mum, and everyone else, with the catering,’ said Ginny. ‘We asked her if she’d like to come with us last night, when we were making final arrangements with Mike and Jacqui. She said no.’
‘She said that there were too many comicals in the water at a swimming pool,’ said Jacqui, smiling.
‘There’ll be one less comical…’ Ron and Mike began together. They stopped and grinned at each other.
Ron waved his hand, indicating that Mike should finish the sentence.
‘…if she isn’t in the water,’ Mike finished.
‘So, you’ve met Luna,’ Ron observed.
‘Yes, Jacqui got a flat tyre and I was forced to call at Drakeshaugh last night to rescue her and get her back to the car once I’d changed the wheel. That’s when we discussed plans for this swimming trip,’ Mike confirmed.
‘Good old Luna; she’s unique,’ said Ron.
‘We all are,’ said Jacqui.
‘But Luna’s the most unique-est person I’ve ever met,’ Mike added
Ron laughed and they entered the changing room. Mike grinned and seemed prepared to continue the conversation.
‘We should go and get changed,’ Harry reminded everyone. ‘We can’t stay for a long time today, kids.’
‘Party!’ James shouted. ‘An’ Uncle George’s fireworks!’ The other kids cheered.
By the time the families were changed and had herded their children onto the poolside, Hermione’s parents had arrived. While Hermione performed the introductions Ron had a hasty word with Harry.
‘You’re mad, Harry,’ said Ron. ‘You’re busy at work and it’s the full moon next weekend. Why on earth would you organise your housewarming party for today, and then arrange to go swimming, too?’
‘The party is this weekend because the full moon is next Sunday, Ron,’ Harry told him. ‘And the weekend afterwards, it’s James’s birthday. Once we’d decided to have a housewarming party, it was either this weekend or November! James likes swimming. It’s good for him; it’s good for us all, and I won’t be able to bring Ginny and the kids next weekend.’
‘How’s the case going?’ asked Ron in an undertone.
‘Not as badly as the press think. But not as well as I’d like,’ Harry began. He was about to say more, but the introductions were over and the kids, and the Charltons were ready to head into the pool.
Swimming in an enclosed public pool was a new experience for Ron. He’d been in pools before, but splashing around in an open air pool while on holiday wasn’t the same, especially as, on this occasion, Jacqui seemed to be taking charge. Harry and Ginny seemed to be okay with that, and to Ron’s surprise, Hermione was letting Jacqui take control, too. His wife was even taking advice from Jacqui.
‘Getting their faces into the water is really important, Hermione,’ Jacqui explained earnestly. ‘If you want them to swim and not to panic, they need to have confidence that they will float, and that opening their eyes in the water won’t do them any harm.’
While Jacqui, Ginny and Hermione were concentrating on the five younger kids, Harry and Mike had taken James and Henry out into the deeper water. Ron found himself without anything to do, so he simply floated at the edge of the pool and watched. Jacqui had suggested that James and Henry practise doing forward rolls, which, under the watchful eyes of their fathers, they were doing.
‘What on earth is the point of that?’ Ron called over to Harry. Harry merely shrugged and glanced at Jacqui.
Jacqui slid gracefully alongside Ron, and he was struck by how at home she appeared in the water.
‘I’ll show you, Ron,’ Jacqui told him. ‘Follow me.’ She rolled forwards off her feet and put her face into the water. With four quick strokes she sped away from him and into the middle of the pool. Feeling a little wary, he splashed his way clumsily behind her.
When he reached her, Jacqui was treading water. She was barely making a wave. Ron knew that he wouldn’t be so graceful. Fortunately, by standing on his tiptoes, he could still touch the bottom of the pool. Harry, James, Mike and Henry splashed over to join them. They were all treading water, even James, who was managing quite well. Jacqui looked at the sides of the pool as if to get her bearings, before looking down at the thin line of darker tiles below her.
‘I’m a little out of practice,’ Jacqui apologised. ‘But you might want to watch this, Henry, and you too, James. This is why you need to learn how to do forward rolls.’
She waited until a couple of giggling teens got out of her way and glanced around to make certain that no one else was approaching. She set off at speed, doing a powerful freestyle as she swam rapidly towards the end of the pool. She made no attempt to slow down; in fact, she continued to accelerate. At the last minute, she rolled; her legs lifted out of the water and she seemed to twist. Suddenly, to Ron’s surprise, she was pushing off the wall and powering back towards them. She took two powerful underwater pulls, surfaced just in front of them, and pulled herself to a halt.
‘Wow, Mum,’ said Henry, impressed. ‘That was brilliant! I bet you can beat anyone in a race.’
‘That’s what the forward roll is for,’ said Jacqui a little breathlessly. ‘But I’m slow, Henry. I’m faster than your dad, but that’s not fast.’
After that demonstration, Ron was happy to allow Jacqui to instruct Rose and Al in addition to her own children and James. He simply relaxed and watched the kids as they followed Jacqui’s instructions. Rose was soon enjoying herself, and so was Al. They even raced each other. To Ron’s disappointment, Al won.
When it was time to leave, Harry confirmed the plans with the Charltons.
‘We’re heading straight home, Mike,’ Harry said. ‘We’ll shower and change there, and we’ll see you at Drakeshaugh later. There’s no rush; just arrive when you can.’
‘Jacqui is keen to get there as soon as possible, before any of the other school mums,’ Mike Charlton muttered, as he nodded in understanding. He lifted his daughter from the water and began to ease off her armbands.
The moment they climbed out from the water, Hermione’s parents announced their intention to depart.
‘We’ll go and see if we can help Molly,’ said Jean Granger cheerfully. ‘See you all soon. What clever children you are, and what a good teacher you are, Jacqui. Hermione was always scared of the water when she was small.’
Jacqui Charlton, obviously embarrassed by the praise, mumbled her thanks as she led her son into the changing area. The others followed closely behind.
The moment the Charltons disappeared into the shower area to get ready for the party, the Potters and Weasleys exchanged a knowing glance. Each family found a large cubicle. They were magically dried and dressed before there was any sign of the Charltons emerging from the showers. They shouted their goodbyes to be answered by shouted replies, and naked Henry, who trotted out to say goodbye to James.
‘See you soon, James,’ he yelled after them as the Potters and Weasleys left.
‘D’you mind if I travel with Harry?’ Ron asked both his wife and his sister as they left the pool and walked across the car park.
‘Fine,’ said Ginny. ‘You don’t mind, do you, Harry? That way, I’ll be there sooner. Hermione has a Portkey booked.’
‘Okay,’ Hermione agreed.
‘The flight is only fifteen minutes, Ginny,’ said Harry. ‘We won’t be far behind you.’
‘Are you still having problems with Lily?’ Hermione asked.
‘When did you last take her by Portkey?’ Ron added.
‘When we moved up here, last month,’ said Ginny. ‘I brought Lily and the boys to Drakeshaugh by Portkey. The Floo Network Authority was being inefficient about relocating our secure connection, as usual. I had no choice. Lily puked everywhere and she was still unwell the following day.’
‘Some little ones simply don’t like it,’ said Hermione sympathetically.
‘Hugo doesn’t have a problem,’ said Ron, failing to keep the smugness from his voice.
‘I think we’ll have at least an hour to get ourselves organised before the Charltons will arrive at Drakeshaugh,’ said Harry evenly, ignoring his friend’s comment. ‘We’ll easily beat your mum and dad too, Hermione.’
‘Are the Charltons really intending to get showered and changed, ready for the party, at the pool?’ Hermione asked.
Harry nodded. ‘They’d have to drive past Drakeshaugh to go home and change and we told them last night that, if that’s what they wanted to do, it was fine. Jacqui has made a big batch of chocolate cakes for the kids, so she needs to be there before the other guests. It simply means that the magic will stop a little earlier. I’ve got the gate alarmed so we’ll know when the Muggles are approaching. Jacqui doesn’t seem to think that it will be a problem to get ready here.’
‘Public showers,’ said Ron with a shudder.
‘Mike and Ginny told me about Jacqui’s flat tyre, Harry,’ said Hermione.
‘Yes, I drove back down with Mike and we changed the tyre together,’ said Harry. ‘That was an interesting experience. Mike knows a lot more about Sirius’s bike than I do. He asked me all sorts of technical questions about it. And Jacqui doesn’t miss anything, so we’re going to have to be very careful today.’
‘The Grangers and Dennis and Lesley Creevey will help. That’s three Muggles and a Muggle-born who know the truth, and how to behave. But it’s time to leave, Harry,’ Ginny reminded her husband. He kissed her, and they climbed into their separate cars and set off.
‘How’s the investigation going, Harry?’ asked Ron the moment they were in the air.
Harry turned on a recording of nursery rhymes, waited until his children were singing along and then limited the noise to the back of the car before replying.
‘As I said, not as well as I’d like,’ he admitted. ‘Dacia Skoll has had a look at the victims and carried out a lot of tests. There is no saliva or any other human or animal material in the wounds, but the injuries certainly look like wolf bites. However,’ he added, pausing to emphasise the significance of his words, ‘although there is no other obvious cause of death, bleeding appears to have been minimal.’
‘So, they were killed first, and then mauled?’ asked Ron. ‘Was it the Killing Curse?’
‘We think so, Ron. The wounds are bad, but it looks very much like the Avada Kedavra, disguised by post-mortem bites. Dacia reckoned that someone had taken a cast of a wolf’s jaw and was using it to apply the bite injuries after death. She’s managed to recreate the jaw from the bite marks.’
‘Wolf, or werewolf?’ asked Ron eagerly. Harry grinned at his friend and chuckled.
‘Sometimes I think you want your old job back, retired-Auror Weasley,’ he said. ‘We can manage without you, you know.’
‘Wolf, or werewolf?’ Ron repeated.
‘It’s difficult to tell; you know that,’ said Harry. ‘But, actually, we know that it’s a werewolf.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Ron. ‘A werewolf could, and would, simply bite the victims. Why take a cast of their own jaw? It gives you a lead, and proof. And the teeth can’t be from a dead werewolf, because they revert to human form when the moon sets.’
‘All true, Ron, almost. We managed to figure that out without your help, which is why Polly and her team have been removed from the watch on Doxine Gray and moved to the Marvellous Magical Menagerie.’
‘That old museum in west London, the one with all of the stuffed magical creatures?’ asked Ron. ‘Mum and Dad took Ginny and me there when were little. It was rubbish. The dragon was okay, I suppose, but the rest of the stuff looked like it had been there forever.’
That’s because it had, Ron. Most of it dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when laws, and sensibilities, were different. There is a two-hundred-year-old stuffed werewolf on display. Amber Skoll knew that, and she told me about it, during the case discussions. Amber is really annoyed that it’s still there, so is her mum.’
‘I’m surprised Dacia didn’t demand its removal,’ said Ron.
‘She did,’ Harry told him. ‘Amber and Dacia both want it removed. Lavender will too when they tell her. It’s like stuffing a person and putting them on display.’
‘Creepy,’ Ron agreed.
‘We don’t know who the werewolf was, but she was killed in 1776, preserved before moonset and stuffed.’
‘Nasty,’ said Ron.
‘And, unfortunately, she’s going to have to stay there until we solve this case. I sent Amber and Al Webb over to check it out. Al decided that it would be a good idea to go in incognito. It was a good idea. They managed to get a cast of the jaws, and they match the wounds. A werewolf who’s been dead for two-hundred-and-fifty years is guilty of mauling our victims.’
‘Sounds like you’re doing okay to me,’ said Ron, impressed.
‘I’m now confident that it isn’t a werewolf, Ron. You were right, it’s simply someone who is trying to blame the werewolves, but we’ll be mounting a raid on Doxine Gray on Monday anyway.’
‘The stuffed werewolf is inside a glass display cabinet, Ron. Al and Amber spoke to the director, a man called Hereward Wallace. There are only two dozen people working at the Menagerie, and only eight of them have access to the display cases. We now have nine suspects.
‘I’m not discounting the director. Mr Wallace was investigated and cleared after the battle. But our files say “insufficient evidence”, not “cleared of all charges.” I have two Aurors assigned to watch each one of the nine, but we’re raiding Doxine’s place to throw the real suspects off the scent.’
‘Good luck, mate.’
‘We’re here, kids,’ Harry announced, and he brought the car down into the yard outside Drakeshaugh and switched off the Invisibility Booster.
Henry was chattering excitedly even before we’d driven out from the car park. As we made our way towards Drakeshaugh he asked dozens of questions. I tried to respond sensibly, but Mike talked nonsense to him.
‘Many peoples will be there?’ Henry demanded.
‘I’ve no idea, Henry,’ I told him. ‘Ginny has five brothers…’
‘Proper peoples, not grown-ups,’ said Henry forcefully.
‘He’s finally spotted that we aren’t proper peoples, Jacqui,’ Mike said. ‘We’re really Martians, Henry, so now you’re in trouble.’
‘What?’ Henry asked.
‘There will be at least two dozen children, Henry, probably more,’ I said, ignoring my husband and doing a quick calculation. The Potter kids plus their cousins made an even dozen, and I knew that there would be at least the same number from school.
‘What’s a dozen?’ Henry asked.
‘It’s what you get when you add a half-dozen to another half-dozen,’ Mike told him.
‘It’s another way of saying twelve, Henry,’ I said.
‘Why didn’t you just say twelve?’ Henry asked.
‘Because Mammy doesn’t think you can count to twelve,’ Mike said. ‘And besides, Mammy doesn’t know the score.’
‘What score?’ Henry asked.
‘A score is a trio of half-dozens plus a duo,’ said Mike immediately. He’d obviously been thinking about that one.
‘You are very silly, Daddy!’ said Henry.
I was in full agreement with Henry, but I didn’t say so. I decided to shut up and leave my husband to explain himself. It was one of those stupid, bantering conversations where Mike used lots of words that Henry didn’t know. It made the journey pass quickly, but Henry was much too young to understand even half of what Mike was saying. My son was baffled and my head was spinning when we pulled to a halt at the gate.
‘Nearly there!’ Henry announced excitedly, his confusion forgotten.
I pushed the gate open for Mike and stood aside to allow him to drive through onto the track. My new skirt flapped and slapped against my legs. The wind was a northerly, and as it blew down the valley, its blustery, skin-chilling gusts brought with them a faint reminder of the Arctic. Wondering what the weather might hold for the party, I looked up. The few clouds scattered across the azure sky were high and white. The wind would add a chill to the day, but the afternoon promised to be a dry and sunny one. After sunset, however, the temperature would probably drop quickly, especially if the wind remained.
As I strolled back to the car after closing the gate, I suddenly became aware that I was as nervous and excited as Henry; I was simply better at hiding it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to a party, a real party, where I would meet new people. Proper people, not children, I thought to myself with a smile. I was still grinning when I climbed back into the car, and Mike gave me a very nice smile in return.
‘We’re very early,’ he told me as, for the second time in two days, he drove up the track to Drakeshaugh. ‘The invitation said five, and it’s not much after four.’ I was surprised at how worried he sounded.
‘They’re expecting us to be early, Mike,’ I told him. ‘I agreed it with Ginny yesterday while you were away fixing the car with Harry, and I confirmed it again at the pool. I’ve got five dozen chocolate buns to deliver, remember?’ I panicked, suddenly realising how many people would be there. ‘Five dozen won’t be enough! I should have made more,’ I added.
‘I’m sure that they won’t run out of food, Jacqui,’ he assured me.
As we approached the gates into the yard, I noticed two people in the distance. They were standing a little further up the forestry track and gazing out over the fields towards the Drake Stone. They looked over their shoulders at us when they heard the car, but I lost sight of them as Mike swung into the Potters’ yard and we scrunched over the gravel.
Harry, looking very smart in black trousers and a pale green casual shirt, was waiting at the open front door as we drove in. I looked along the house. The kitchen door, the only door I’d ever used, was firmly closed.
He waved to us, and gestured that we should park alongside the four cars which were already there. Hermione’s Mini was parked next to Harry’s Range Rover. On the other side of the Mini was a large silver Audi. Next to that was a tiny, open-topped two-seater sports car; it was bottle-green with a white nose, and a white stripe up the centre of the bonnet.
‘Harry’s showered and changed already,’ Mike observed as he parked next to the little green car. ‘They must have really flown here.’
‘We showered and changed at the pool and drove here,’ I reminded him. ‘They drove here and showered and changed. It’s the same thing, but opposite.’
He chuckled. ‘Another reason why I love you,’ he told me, much to my surprise. ‘How many women would be prepared to get showered, changed and ready for a party in a swimming pool changing room?’
‘Anyone who started swimming competitively when they were ten,’ I told him, smiling. ‘But it’s nice to be appreciated. Steph, Nix and I used to do it all the time, and not just for parties. After all, you never know who you’ll meet when you’re wandering the city streets during lunch break.’
Mike laughed, reached over the gear lever, and squeezed my right leg just above my knee.
I started to open the car door. ‘Careful with the door, Jacqui; that’s a kit-car, a Caterham Seven,’ Mike warned me. ‘I reckon that it’s at least twenty grand’s worth, and it will definitely be someone’s pride and joy. Whose is it, do you think?’
‘It’s a car, Mike,’ I said. ‘A tin box with a wheel in each corner, that’s what you used to call them.’
‘That bike ride yesterday really got you, didn’t it?’ he chuckled. His hand was still on my leg, preventing me from getting out. When I turned to face him he gently stroked my cheek with his free hand, leaned forwards, and kissed me. It was no more than a gentle brushing of lips, but it was a pleasant surprise. It was also too much for Henry.
‘Come on,’ said our son impatiently. ‘We’re here! Get me out!’ He was desperately struggling with his seatbelt.
‘Al an’ Lily house. Yay,’ Annie shouted excitedly.
Mike released me and winked. We climbed out and released our struggling kids from their seats. The Potter children, closely followed by Ron and Hermione’s two, dashed noisily across the yard to greet us. Henry and Annie ran to meet them midway. Harry was strolling behind the kids, smiling his welcome at us.
‘Hello again,’ he called.
‘Hello, Harry,’ I shouted back, trying to make myself heard over the excited chattering of seven children.
As I looked towards the cluster of under-fives, Ginny emerged from the door behind Harry. Mike whistled under his breath when he saw her.
‘Blimey,’ he said quietly. ‘She’s almost as good-looking as you are, my darling.’
‘Two compliments in as many minutes,’ I told him. ‘But flattery will get you nowhere, and lies certainly won’t. She’s absolutely stunning, Mike, and you know it.’
Her waist length hair was unbound. As she walked towards us a sudden gust caught it and her red mane rippled sideways, glowing and flowing like bright lava in the afternoon sunlight.
‘Hello, Charltons,’ Ginny called out from behind her husband.
Ginny was wearing an emerald green cap-sleeved sheath dress. It pretended to be plain and simple, but it deceived. It was a classic, and it was perfect for her. The little green dress hugged and complimented her like the very best of friends. I had no doubt that she’d be the centre of attention, and I was instantly proved correct.
When he heard her voice, Harry looked over his shoulder. The moment he saw the vision that was his wife, he forgot all about us, turned, strode back and kissed her.
As I watched them kiss, Mike slipped his arm around my waist and pulled me sideways until we were hip to hip.
‘You know your problem, Jacqui?’ he said. ‘You just can’t take a compliment. Mike Charlton married a stunner. I think you’re beautiful, so just this once, let me be nice to you without complaining about it.’ He bent forward and clumsily kissed my nose.
I really hate it when he teases me, but I didn’t reply, because by then, we were being watched by two other people. The couple I’d seen further up the track had just walked in through the gate.
The man was short, wiry and almost boyish-looking. He wasn’t much taller than Ginny, and because Ginny was, like me, in heels, it seemed likely that even she would be looking down on him. If the man was small, then the spiky-blonde-haired woman he was with was tiny; or, at least, she was tiny in most directions. She was only a fraction over five feet tall, but her belly looked like a balloon which was about to burst. It has always seemed to me that small women invariably appear to be much more pregnant than larger ones, and she was massively pregnant.
‘Come and see what you’ve got to look forward to, Dennis,’ Ginny shouted across. The man, Dennis, presumably, was watching the rabble of under-fives with some alarm, and when the other Weasley kids (all except “Victor” I noticed) came tumbling from the house, his alarm turned to obvious panic.
‘Is that yours?’ Mike asked Dennis, ignoring the kids and indicating the open topped car.
‘Yes, but it’s getting to be a little impractical,’ he said. He gently stroked the woman’s belly by way of explanation.
‘This is Mike and Jacqui Charlton,’ Harry called, his arm still around Ginny’s waist. He indicated us as he performed the introductions. ‘And this is Dennis Creevey and his wife, Lesley.’
‘Lovely country,’ said Dennis enthusiastically. ‘A lot closer to my parents’ house than I expected, too. That’s why we’re so early.’
‘No,’ his wife said. ‘We’re early because of the breakneck speed you drove us here, Den.’
He simply grinned. ‘We’ll have to come back here for a walk sometime, Les,’ he said as they strolled towards us.
‘I won’t be walking very far for a while, remember,’ she said, looking down at her bump. ‘It would be nice to walk to that stone, or climb Cheviot, but I really don’t want to give birth up there.’
‘When are you due?’ I asked.
‘Not for another six weeks,’ she said. ‘But I already feel like I’m about to explode. I don’t know if I’ll last that long. I hope that I do. I’ve got a lot to do in the office before I finish work.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I work for a planning consultancy,’ she told me. ‘I’m dealing with a big housing development in Dorking. I’d like to get it approved before I leave. What about you?’
‘I haven’t worked since Henry was born,’ I admitted. ‘Before that I was in a call centre, for British Gas, but they outsourced us to India while I was pregnant, so I didn’t have a job to go back to.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘Don’t be,’ I said. ‘It was a long commute to work, and I probably wouldn’t have gone back anyway. Besides, while I was on maternity leave, Mike was made a partner in his company. We’re managing nicely on his money, and I’m watching my children grow up. I don’t miss my job.’
Harry and Ginny were herding the kids back to the house. I found our two kids in the tumult and identified them to Lesley. As I did so, Mike and Dennis left us. They strolled over to the car and began examining it closely.
‘Boys and toys,’ Lesley said, smiling at me. I turned and watched Mike and Dennis as they examined his car.
‘Nice paintwork. British Racing Green?’ asked Mike.
‘Of course,’ said Dennis, grinning. ‘It’s the only colour to have, isn’t it?’
‘Did you build it yourself?’
‘Yeah, I always wanted to build a car from scratch, and the kit made it easy for me,’ Dennis told my husband. ‘It took me a year to do it. It’s a Roadsport 175—that’s brake-horse—the engine is a two-litre Cosworth. I’ve had it up to a hundred and thirty.’
‘I used to ride a Duke—a Ducati—Multistrada,’ Mike told him, sounding a little jealous. ‘Twelve-hundred cc, and it only pulled one-fifty, but I reckon it would still…’
‘Beat this? Probably,’ said Dennis. ‘What was the top end?’
‘Dunno. I had it up to one-forty on the Autobahn.’ Mike smiled, mollified.
‘Apart from speed, I have no idea what they are talking about,’ I told Lesley. I was already bored with their conversation.
‘Just nod and say yes,’ she replied. ‘That’s what I do.’
Harry and Ginny had managed to get the kids through the front door. I was prepared to follow, but Mike and Dennis weren’t moving. They were closely examining the car. Their conversation was full of technical talk and kerbside weights and nought-to-sixties.
‘Perhaps we should leave them to drool and go inside,’ Lesley suggested. She leaned back, rubbed the back of her hips and twisted. It seemed to me that she needed to take the weight off her legs.
‘Good idea,’ I said. We left our men and strolled towards the open front door. ‘Have you known the Potters for long?’ I asked.
‘A few years,’ she told me. ‘But they’re Den’s friends more than mine. He’s known them for a long time. He works for Harry; he has done since he left school. And he’s a good friend of Ginny’s brother, George. George was best man at our wedding.’
‘Really?’ I said, stepping aside to allow her to be the first to walk through the small wooden porch and into the Potter’s living room.
‘Yes, I … bloody hell,’ she said as she stepped inside. I too was astonished, but I simply looked around in stunned silence. I hadn’t been back inside the huge living room since my first visit almost three weeks earlier.
The Potters, it seemed to me, had been living in their kitchen, which was itself impressively large, but it was dwarfed by the huge space we had just entered. I had been in the converted barn before, but at the time it had been cluttered with boxes. Now, it was simply a huge space. Lesley and I stood in the doorway and stared.
Three of the walls were rough stone, one of those being the wall we’d just entered through. To our right was the outer gable wall. What must once have been the barn doors were now a huge glazed arch, giving views over the Drakestone and the Cheviots. The wall opposite was broken by three narrow slit windows and an open door which, I suspected, led out to the large patio area I’d seen from the French windows in the kitchen.
The wall to our left connected the barn to the converted farmhouse which formed the bulk of the Potter’s home; it was plastered and painted white. Since my previous visit it had been decorated. Someone had hand-painted remarkably accurate portraits of Harry, Ginny and their children on the wall next to the fireplace. Above the smiling faces were the words “The Potters” and below, the words “Drakeshaugh, 2009”.
‘Luna,’ said Lesley as she, too, stared at the portraits. ‘She’s good, isn’t she?’
‘Very,’ I agreed. So, Luna was an arty type. It should have been obvious from her choice of clothing.
Next to the portraits was the fireplace, in which a log fire was burning. On the other side of the fireplace to the portraits was an open door, which I identified as the door which led down to the kitchen. Finally, against the side wall was the half flight of stairs which led up to the bedrooms. The door at the top of the stairs was closed.
Two sofas and four armchairs were clustered around the fireplace, and several long wooden benches were set out along the side walls. I turned my attention back to the other end of the room. Four large and laden trestle tables were set out in front of the arched window.
I had never seen so much food, and there was still room for more. Three tables contained savouries; pies, pizzas, cold meats, cheeses, sandwiches and a lot of different breads. There were French batons, ciabattas, baps and stotties.
On the central of the three savoury tables was a huge, cauldron-like pot, resting on a hot plate. Fleur Weasley was the only person in the room. She was wearing a scoop-neck ankle-length summer dress and her fine blonde hair was in an elaborate pile in top of her head. She was fussing over the cauldron, but she turned to greet us. I could still hear Harry, Ginny and the kids; it sounded as though they were outside, on the patio.
‘Allo, Lesley. Bonjour, Jacqui,’ said Fleur. ‘The little children are all outside. Bill, Charlie and George are looking after them while we finish in here. You have the pain au chocolat, Jacqui, yes?’
‘Ah,’ I said, suddenly worried. ‘That’s a direct translation, Fleur. But what I have are not pain au chocolat.’
‘This is a good thing,’ Fleur smiled. ‘I, myself, have made pain au chocolat, clafoutis aux cerises and this.’ She indicated the cauldron.
‘And I helped, Maman,’ said Victoire proudly from the other end of the room. Fleur’s eldest had arrived from the door leading to the kitchen; she was carefully carrying a tray of pain au chocolat. Victoire was wearing a dress very similar in style to her mother’s and she had flowers woven into her own ornate coiffure. She looked like a fairy princess.
‘And did you help with the—whatever that is?’ I asked Victoire, indicating the cauldron.
‘They are moules marinières,’ Victoire told me very seriously. ‘I chopped the onions until they made me cry, and then Papa and Uncle Charlie helped me.’
Victoire was followed into the room by Angelina, who wore tight white trousers and an explosively colourful blouse. She was balancing a pizza on each hand. ‘Hello, fatty,’ she said cheerfully to Lesley. I was shocked, until I heard Lesley laugh.
‘Don’t you start,’ Lesley said. ‘I get enough fat jokes from that lunatic husband of yours.’
‘Ignore him. That’s what I do,’ said Angelina. ‘But if he’s really annoying you, knee him in the crotch; it’s the only thing that shuts him up. You’re really looking great, Les. I know an excellent weight loss programme; it’s called giving birth. The bad news is, it hurts like hell and the weight doesn’t all drop off with the baby.’
‘Too right it doesn’t,’ I muttered to Lesley.
Angelina flashed me a bright smile. ‘Hello, Jacqui,’ she added. ‘Still turning up here? Us crazy Weasleys haven’t put you off yet?’
‘A little craziness is a good thing,’ I said, but I wondered what on earth it would be like in George and Angelina’s home. More than just a little crazy, I expected.
Angelina had been followed into the room by Audrey, who had undergone a major transformation since the last time I’d seen her. She was wearing a short skirt and a tight sweater. She was a lot more fashionable and showing a lot more leg than the last time I’d seen her. She had a lot of leg to show, too. Audrey was carrying a large plate which was piled high with squares of brown cake. Lesley and I watched as the procession of food passed us, and the gaps on the table were filled.
‘Parkin,’ I said. I recognised the smell the moment Audrey walked past us. She gave me a dazzling smile and nodded.
‘Real Yorkshire parkin; Mam’s recipe,’ she said.
‘Hi, Jacqui,’ said Hermione, who was carrying a huge plate of sandwiches. She had changed from the clothes she’d been wearing at the pool, and had tied her hair back.
‘Hello, ladies,’ my husband said as he walked into the room behind me. He slipped an arm around me and pulled my hip onto his.
‘Hello, Weasleys,’ Dennis added as he stepped alongside Lesley and took her hand.
‘Have you finished discussing who has the biggest bore?’ Lesley asked her husband. He and Mike grinned.
The Weasley wives greeted Dennis like an old friend. They welcomed Mike cheerfully enough too, but I decided that I’d better perform the introductions anyway.
‘This is my husband, Mike,’ I said to everyone. ‘You know Hermione, Mike. Meet Fleur, Audrey and Angelina, Ginny’s other sisters-in-law; and this is Bill and Fleur’s daughter, Victoire.’
‘Hello, Victoire. Hello everyone,’ Mike said. ‘What can I say but wow!’ Angelina gave him an odd look, and he explained. ‘The food and the room … very impressive. I’ve brought your cakes in from the boot, Jacqui. Where do you want them?’
‘I’ve brought an empty plate for them, Mike,’ said Luna, who had just entered the room with Harry and Ginny. All three were carrying even more food. Mike and I walked over to the table, and Luna helped us to arrange my definitely paltry contribution on the desserts table. Angelina, meanwhile, had strolled across to talk to the Creeveys. She towered over them.
‘I hope Harry’s got you on light duties, Den,’ she said. ‘Little daddy Dennis! Looking forward to it?’
I didn’t catch what was said next, because there was a sudden influx of people.
‘We, er, hired a mini-bus for this lot,’ said Harry by way of explanation as a dozen adults and half that number of children strolled in through the front door.
Harry took it upon himself to carry out the introductions, and with bewildering speed, we met the newcomers. I’d met one of them previously, but they were all people who Harry described as “very old friends”. It was obvious to me that we were the only outsiders in the room. Ron, Hermione and Angelina plainly knew the new arrivals very well. Fleur and Audrey appeared to know them too.
Terry Boot was the first to say hello. He added that he hoped that he had been forgiven for startling me at our first meeting. I assured him that he was. He then introduced me to his wife, Fenella. She was a bespectacled black-haired woman with a rather prominent nose. Fenella was almost as tall as Terry was. She smiled and gave me a whispered hello, but then they both fell silent.
The next couple were Trudi and Michael Corner. When Harry introduced them, he told me that, like Terry and Dennis, Trudi also worked for him. She was a sturdy, well-muscled woman with short-cropped dark hair who had, it appeared, made no attempt to dress for the party. She wore combat trousers, a vest top and a pair of very solid-looking boots. Her husband could not have been less like her. He was a long-haired and bearded refugee from some long-forgotten hippy commune, and he wore a rather shabby old pinstripe suit over a bright blue t-shirt. He smiled vaguely at me, but his mind was obviously on other things.
I soon found out what. It was obvious that Terry and Michael were old friends, as Michael seemed very keen to tell Terry that he’s just heard from Anthony, who was in Russia. I wondered why they hadn’t discussed it on the mini-bus. They were acting as though they had only just met.
Dean and Frankie Thomas were Londoners. Dean made some crack to Mike about Newcastle United being in the Championship league, and Mike responded with the fact that the Magpies were, so far, unbeaten. When he discovered that Dean was a West Ham fan, Mike countered with a comment about West Ham’s appalling performance in the Premiership. They were yet to win a game. I immediately lost Mike to a football discussion, and Frankie rolled her eyes at her husband. We left them to it as Frankie introduced us to their two sons, six-year-old Bradley and three-year-old Ethan.
Seamus Finnigan was a sandy-haired Irishman. His wife, Sinead, was also Irish. They had, flown across especially for the party. Sinead was carrying their eighteen-month-old daughter, Siân, on her hip. The Finnigans and the Thomases were obviously good friends and I found myself pushed out of a conversation between Seamus, Sinead and Frankie. Mike and Dean were still happily talking football, so Harry introduced me to the final two couples.
Parindra and Parvati Rathod were both doctors. They were an immaculately dressed and friendly couple who had two children. The girl, Rani, was dark and pretty, and only a few months younger than Henry; the boy, Haresh, was a serious-faced child who looked to be a little older than Annie. Unlike Frankie Thomas, who was keeping her kids close, the Rathods were quite happy to release their children and send them off to join the others outside.
The Longbottoms, Neville and Hannah, were simply lovely. Both were solidly-built, fair-haired and round-faced, and it was no surprise that the chubby, four-week old baby, Florence, who was sleeping peacefully in her mother’s arms, was also round-faced and fair. Hermione, Ginny, Parvati and Audrey all joined me in cooing over the bonny wee baby. This allowed Neville to offload the weird looking cactus-like plant he was carrying on Harry. I’d never seen anything quite like it.
‘Housewarming present, mate,’ Neville told Harry. ‘It won’t take much looking after. Because I know what you’re like, you won’t look after it!’
‘Thanks, Prof,’ Harry told him. ‘I’ll put this in the study, in case it gets damaged.’ Harry obviously wasn’t a gardener, because he handled the plant as though it might explode. Prof? I wondered. I didn’t have the opportunity to ask.
‘The first car has just arrived,’ called Ron. ‘I hope that everyone is ready.’
Nosh and Natter by Northumbrian
Nosh and Natter
There was a sudden change in the atmosphere. An expectant hush fell over the room and everyone looked towards the door. Somehow, Ron’s final word, “ready,” seemed to be filled with much more serious connotations than simply “the food’s on the table and the house is tidy.” For some reason I was reminded of one of my mother’s favourite films, The Sting.
Harry took Ginny’s hand, and they strolled casually towards their open front door to greet the first arrivals. Before they reached it Amanda Berry, in a very short and figure-hugging dress, tripped daintily into the room with her two children at her side.
I checked my watch. It was exactly ten to five. From Amanda’s surprised expression, I was certain that she had expected to be the Potters’ first guest, and that she would have them to herself for a few minutes. The cavernous and impressive living room was enough to create a sense of wonder in anyone. When also faced with more than half of Ginny’s family, and a similar number of “old friends”, the usually self-confident Amanda was reduced to an inarticulate stutter.
‘Oh, er, I…I, um, I was going to apologise for being a few minutes early,’ Amanda told Ginny, as she rapidly regained her composure. ‘But I see that I’m far from the first to arrive.’ She spotted me, the lone familiar face among the horde of strangers, and gave me a false smile. Harry and Ginny greeted her warmly, and then introduced her to everyone else.
There was no sign of her husband, and I realised that I’d never actually seen him. In response to a question from Ginny, Amanda told us that he worked on the rigs, and was currently in the middle of the North Sea.
I felt a little sorry for Amanda. She was, after all, facing a roomful of total strangers, every one of whom seemed to be very interested in everything she was saying. Daniel and Phoebe, Amanda’s two children, were staying close to their mother and looking nervously around the room. The only other kids in the room, apart from Siân Finnigan and the Longbottoms’ baby, were Dean and Frankie’s two boys and Victoire Weasley.
Daniel, his hands stuffed deep into his pockets, was slouching untidily and gazing curiously at Bradley and Ethan Thomas. The two little Thomas boys were looking back shyly. Daniel’s sister, Phoebe, who was in a bright blue party dress, had engaged Victoire in a staring-down-the-nose contest. They were sizing each other up with that attempt at aloof seriousness which girls who have almost, or only just, reached a double-figure age seem to think makes them appear more mature.
As I watched Phoebe and Victoire trying to decide whether or not to deign to talk to each other, I realised rather guiltily that I’d forgotten my own children. They had dashed off with the Potter and Weasley kids, and I hadn’t given them a thought since. I was wondering whether to check on them when the noise levels in the room suddenly rose. I saw Amanda’s eyes once again widen and I looked over my shoulder to see Audrey herding the missing Weasley men, all of the children, and several other adults, into the room. Despite the sudden influx, the room was still nowhere near full.
James and Henry dashed across the room and dragged Daniel Berry away from his mother. One glance at my son told me that he was okay, and that he would not thank me if I fussed over him. He and James were side by side and laughing.
While James and Henry were talking to Daniel, George and Angelina’s son, Fred, and another boy had wandered over to talk to Dean and Frankie’s two boys. The second boy had a tousled mop of untidy red-blonde hair and already muddy dungarees. Fred, too, was muddy.
‘Oh, Dominique,’ I heard Fleur murmur despairingly. Curious, I followed her eyes and realised that the dirty dungaree-wearer wasn’t in fact, a boy. At that age it’s often difficult to tell, but I was amazed that Fleur’s younger daughter had been allowed to have such short hair, and wear such boyish clothes. Bill, however, had followed the kids across the room. He happily ruffled Dominique’s hair and spoke to Frankie Thomas. Within moments the two Thomas boys went over to join the other children.
I sought out Annie. She was happily tagging along with the younger kids, the toddlers and pre-schoolers. She was alongside Al, Lily, Rose and Hugo Weasley, Haresh Rathod, and a girl who could only belong to George and Angelina. I fought for the girl’s name … Roxanne.
The younger kids were being watched over by Ginny’s parents, Hermione’s parents, and a tall, imperious-looking woman whose thick black hair was streaked with silver. To assuage my guilt, I strolled over to make certain Annie was happy. I knew that, unlike Henry, she would always be happy to see me.
‘Hello again,’ I said, smiling at Molly and Arthur Weasley, and John and Jean Granger before crouching down in front of my daughter. ‘Are you okay, Annie?’ I asked.
‘’Es, we’sgonnaplaygamesoon, Mammy,’ she told me excitedly. ‘Inna big forest!’
‘That’s nice,’ I told her.
‘Harry and Ginny have organised a treasure hunt and other games for the children, Jacqui,’ Molly told me.
‘So, you’re Jacqui,’ the tall woman said brusquely.
I looked up into her heavily hooded dark eyes. She gazed inscrutably down at me through long lashes.
‘I wondered…’ she said no more, but her eyes darted away from me and I knew, without looking, that her dismissive gaze had momentarily rested on Amanda.
‘I … yes … Jacqui Charlton,’ I said. I held out my hand and it was very firmly shaken.
The woman was, I estimated, in her mid fifties. She wore a smart wrap dress in green and white, and an aloof expression.
‘Andromeda Tonks,’ the woman told me, before turning her attention back to Ginny’s mother. ‘These things can be so difficult, you know, Molly,’ said Andromeda. She sounded rather irritated. ‘I can remember one occasion when we invited Ted’s family to our place.’ She shook her head sadly and glanced meaningfully towards me. ‘I’d best say no more.’
Annoyed by the woman’s attitude, I fussed over Annie, Al and Lily, for a few minutes. They seemed to be happy enough. I assured Annie that I would not be far away, and then took my leave, still wondering who on earth Andromeda Tonks was.
By the time I’d found Mike, who was still talking football with Dean Thomas, more cars had arrived. I listened to Mike’s football conversation for a few minutes, but soon got bored and simply moved aside and watched as everyone else arrived. Within the next fifteen confusing and increasingly crowded minutes, the other local families entered, looked around in surprise, spoke to Harry and Ginny, and then greeted the people they knew.
Amanda was certainly glad to see some familiar faces. When Mary arrived, at a little after ten past, she scuttled over to her friend’s side. I watched Mary and Amanda as their eyes flicked around the room. Their gaze lingered longest on the people I was sure they would be calling “the ethnics”, although they also stared at long-haired Michael, who was still waving his hands in an excited discussion with Terry Boot.
Mary Saville was at her elegant best. She wore a smart black dress, and her hair was an ornate pile which must have taken her hairdresser hours. I was suddenly self-conscious about my own hastily washed hair. I’d managed to remove the smell of the swimming pool, and I’d brushed and blow-dried it, but that was all.
Mary’s husband, Robert, was a round-faced and balding man who sported a combover. His belly had long ago ensured that he would never again be able to see his belt, and it was doubtful that he’d be able to fasten the jacket he was wearing. Like Michael Corner, he wore a suit, but there the resemblance ended. Robert’s suit was expensive, his shirt and tie bright and colourful. Somehow long-haired Michael managed to look more stylish in a shabby old suit than Robert did in an obviously expensive one.
Robert Saville was one of those men who could easily manage to look unkempt, even when wearing a smart business suit. It was a skill which many men, including my father, possessed. But at least my father didn’t sport a ridiculous hairstyle.
I’d seen Mary’s husband at the school gates a couple of times, but he’d never got out of the car. All I knew was that he owned and ran a haulage business which he’d built up from nothing. According to the gossip, he was as self-important as a self-made-man could be. He muttered something to Mary, and she looked over towards me, obviously identifying me to him. I smiled at them, and then pointedly turned my attention to our hosts.
Harry and Ginny were still standing side by side at the door and greeting the final few arrivals, talking to children and parents alike. By about quarter past, it was obvious that the last of their guests had arrived. After a short conversation with Harry and Ginny, the last arrivals, a ruddy faced and weather-beaten farmer, his wife, and their two young kids strolled into the centre of the room. I recognised the little girl as one of the kids who arrived by bus from one of the farms up the dale.
All I knew about her was what I’d learned from Henry: she sat at the same table as Henry and James, she was called Jo, and she was a girl. Henry seemed to think that any more information, even a surname, was unnecessary.
The room was filling with the buzz of dozens of conversations as friends both old and new met and mingled. As I watched, I noticed that Phoebe Berry had been joined by Mary’s daughter, Helen, and that now both girls were busily staring at Victoire Weasley. I was amused to realise that, with almost identical expressions, their mothers were now sizing up Fleur. Robert Saville and several of the other men were obviously smitten by the elegant French blonde. Many of them were also casting glances towards Ginny. Mary’s husband’s head was swivelling as he tried to watch them both.
As I continued to observe the crowds, I was startled by an arm sliding around my waist.
‘Hello, gorgeous,’ my husband said. ‘Old Bobby Saville’s never been subtle, has he?’
‘He’s trying to decide which of the two is most beautiful,’ I said.
‘A mistake many people make,’ said Mike knowledgeably. ‘There is absolutely no point. You might as well ask: which is most beautiful; a lioness, a single rose, or an MV Augusta F3?’
I stared up at him, trying to reconcile my usually down to earth husband with this half-baked romantic. He grinned stupidly.
‘What on earth are you talking about, Mike?’ I asked.
‘Beauty is different things, my darling,’ he told me. I wondered if he’d been drinking. ‘Fleur is a fragrant and delicate rose, although I suspect she has thorns, the sharpest being that scarily scarred husband of hers; Ginny is the graceful lioness, and I know she has claws; and you…’
‘I’m a motorbike!’ I said, unaccountably annoyed. I saw the wicked gleam in his eye. ‘Don’t you dare make a ride joke, Michael Charlton!’ I hissed, feeling myself blushing.
He laughed. ‘Sleek, powerful and exciting,’ he told me. I smiled. ‘But needing to be steered,’ he added. I slapped his arm, and then remembered something else he’d said.
‘Bobby Saville?’ I asked. ‘Do you know Mary’s husband?’
‘We’ve done some contract work for him; at least, we’ve done some work for S.T.S. … Saville Transport Services,’ Mike told me. ‘I should have realised Mary was his wife. Bobby is a difficult man to deal with, but he’s a real character. I could tell you some stories…’
‘Quiet,’ George bellowed at the top of his voice. The conversations all stopped and a startled silence descended. ‘Our host and hostess want to say a few words,’ George announced.
Everyone turned to face Harry and Ginny, but before they could speak James, obviously in answer to a question from Henry, knowledgeably said, ‘He means my Mummy and Daddy.’
Harry and Ginny were standing in front of the fireplace. Harry’s hand was resting easily on his wife’s shoulder; Ginny’s arm encircled her husband’s waist. They looked happy, and their relaxed contentment seemed to percolate through the crowd. They drew everyone’s eye, captivating us as they waited for the laughter brought about by their son’s remark to die down.
‘Thank you, James,’ said Harry.
‘Wuz just splainin’ fo’ Henry, Daddy,’ said James.
‘We guessed,’ said Harry. He looked around the room, watching us all. ‘Hello, all. Ginny and I would like to thank you for coming,’ Harry began. He was halted by a gentle squeeze from Ginny.
‘Sorry, Harry,’ Ginny interrupted. ‘This isn’t going to be a smooth speech, folks. I can see a strange young man skulking around outside our front door. For some reason he seems unwilling to enter.’ She turned toward the still open front door and raised her voice. ‘Don’t worry about interrupting Harry, Rolf,’ she called. She turned to Luna and winked.
‘Rolf!’ Luna dashed across to the door.
‘Luna’s got a boyfriend! Luna’s… Oof!’ George Weasley’s childish chant was halted when Angelina elbowed him in the ribs. Dean, Seamus and Ron, who had begun to join in, were similarly silenced.
The young man who entered was no taller than me. He was fair of skin, fair of hair, and barely out of his teens. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans, a dress shirt, a colourful cravat, and an old fashioned leather bomber jacket. It seemed to me that Luna had found herself a kindred spirit. From his dress, Rolf appeared to be as eccentric as she was.
‘I’m sorry I’m late, sir,’ he began, addressing Harry.
‘For goodness sake, Rolf,’ said Luna. ‘It’s only Harry, there’s no need to call him sir! Sorry for the interruption, Harry. Please continue, you and Ginny can tell us how nice it is to see us all.’ She motioned for him to continue.
‘Thanks,’ Harry smiled. ‘Luna has pretty much summarised my speech. I only wanted to say thank you all for coming. Ginny and I would like to welcome you all: family, and friends old and new, to Drakeshaugh, to our new home.’
‘Yes, welcome, everyone. Make yourselves at home,’ said Ginny. ‘One other thing, because I’ve already been asked, I’ll tell you that the loos are at the top of the stairs, and also at the bottom of the stairs.’ Ginny waved an arm towards the corner of the room.
‘Also, we’ve organised some games for the kids outside, but that’s for later,’ said Harry.
‘But first, as you can see, there is plenty of food, and drinks, too,’ added Ginny seamlessly. They were remarkably good at it. I got the impression that they could finish each others sentences. ‘Please, help yourselves. The buffet is open. Make sure that you get there before Ron does!’ The Potters’ friends and family all laughed.
At Ginny’s final words, people had begun to move forwards. As an orderly queue began to form, I found myself being dragged into it by my always hungry husband. We ended up in front of Parindra and Parvati Rathod, and behind the Dean and Frankie Thomas. Mary and her husband were in front of Dean and Frankie.
‘Have you known the Potters for long?’ Mary asked Frankie, doing her very best to sound polite. ‘Where did you meet them?’
‘I, er,’ Frankie began, but Dean took over.
‘Harry and I went to school together,’ Dean began. He stepped sideways so that he could see me, too, caught my eye, and grinned at me. ‘Harry doesn’t like to admit it…’ he continued, looking around conspiratorially. I wondered what on earth he was going to say. ‘We’re all public schoolboys. I hope you won’t think badly of us, just because we went to a posh school, to the same posh school. I shared a dormitory with Harry, Ron, Seamus and Neville for years, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.’ He gave Mary a gleaming smile. ‘I suppose that you could say that we’re Harry’s “old boy network”.’
‘And old girls,’ Parvati supplied from behind me. ‘I was in the same year as Harry and Dean and the others, too.’
‘That reminds me,’ Dean said. ‘Where’s Padma?’
‘She’s working, Dean,’ she said. ‘She’s looking after the RANDOM system for Michael. She’s trying to fix it, and it needs to be watched constantly.’ Parvati turned to Mike and me. ‘Padma is my twin,’ she explained. ‘She’s a … scientist … she works with Michael.’
‘An Unspeakably good one, just like Michael,’ said Dean.
Parvati glared at him.
‘RANDOM system?’ my husband asked. ‘Will it help us win the National Lottery?’
‘It’s a…computery thing,’ Parvati stopped. ‘Only Padma can explain it.’
‘Or Michael?’ my husband asked.
‘Yes, but don’t ask him, please,’ Parvati begged.
‘Not unless you really want a boring lecture on probability theory, predictions, and the randomness of human behaviour,’ said Dean. ‘There are only two other people in the room who have any idea what he’s talking about.’
I followed Dean’s gaze as he looked at Michael and Terry, who were still involved in an intense discussion. Terry’s wife had abandoned them, and was now talking to Luna and her boyfriend. Michael’s wife, too, had left them to it. She stood alone in the centre of the room, silently watching everyone. I remembered that Ginny had told me Terry was one of the cleverest people she knew.
Dean then looked towards the Longbottoms. Ron’s wife was with them, busily cooing over their baby daughter.
‘Terry Boot, and Professor Longbottom?’ I asked. Dean and Parvati both burst out laughing.
‘Neville?’ Dean chuckled. ‘No, Neville’s a plant man, a herb … alist. Hermione is the Arithma … the mathematical genius.’
‘The all-round genius,’ Parvati said. ‘She was top of the class, Hermione.’
As we continued to shuffle closer to the food, Parvati looked over to Trudi Corner. She strode over.
‘Problem, Parvati?’ she asked.
‘No, but I mentioned that Padma is busy helping Michael with the RANDOM system, Trudi,’ Parvati admitted.
The short-haired woman stared at us. I was struck by how physically fit she looked. She appeared to be bounding with energy.
‘It’s a computer system,’ Trudi told us. ‘Related Abstractions of Non-deterministic Distributions to an Ordered Mean … RANDOM. I don’t fully understand it. Michael is the mathematician, not me. It can be used to make predictions, or, at least, determine probabilities. We’re hoping, Harry is hoping, that it will help us.’
‘Clutching at straws,’ sneered Robert Saville. ‘Wasting taxpayers’ money.’
‘Using every resource available to us,’ said Trudi. ‘We’ve had some success with the RANDOM system in the past. It can see patterns and probabilities which even the cleverest of people can’t. Even if all it does is tell us where not to look, it will be useful. The system can certainly outthink an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ She glared at Bobby Saville. ‘I’m not sure that you can waste money if you’re trying to save lives. How much is a life worth?’
Trudi spoke mildly, but she had subtly changed her stance; she was a weapon, loaded and ready to fire. Robert Saville stared angrily at her, his face reddening.
‘Let’s all calm down, shall we?’ Mike suggested. ‘Hello, Bobby. I’m Mike Charlton, I dealt with your appeal to the Traffic Commissioners, remember?’
Trudi turned and left us, and Mike successfully diverted Bobby’s anti-government diatribe to a subject he knew well, the bureaucrats who monitored his business. We had almost reached the table when a voice called from the doorway.
‘Hello everyone, sorry we’re late. Come along, Mark, don’t dawdle.’
The woman who swanned into the room wasn’t very tall; her husband, however, was almost Ron’s height. Mark, I thought, where have I heard that name before? The woman’s curly brown hair tumbled over her shoulders and cascaded down her back as though she’d stepped from a pre-Raphaelite painting. She wore a knee-length pink lace dress and a “look at me, everyone” smile.
The man, Mark, was thin and angular and almost nondescript. He, however, seemed to be attracting the most attention, at least the bundle of pink frills he was carrying was.
‘Lavender, when did you get out of hospital? How are you?’ Parvati called, waving wildly.
Lavender tapped toward us on pink platform shoes, and Parvati’s shout finally brought forth a memory. The lacy pink creature who was now embracing Parvati as “her bestest friend in the world”, and petulantly ordering her husband to “let Parvati see little Violet, Marky, let her hold her,” was, in fact, Harry’s werewolf expert. I looked at her again. It seemed very unlikely to me, but, I reminded myself, Harry also employed a Goth named Polly, and Dennis Creevey, a little man who looked like he’d blow away in a strong breeze.
It was, however, impossible to dislike a baby. I gave in, and I, too, cooed over the tiny, pink-faced newborn. Amazingly, so did Mary. We left the queue, along with Parvati and her friend, giving instructions to our husbands to collect food for us, too. Mike and Bobby discussed business, and Parindra and the Thomases discussed kids, while they all filled plates from the laden tables.
Lavender, it turned out, was one of those mothers who seemed to be unable to understand that other people have had babies too. She insisted on telling us things we already knew, and was astonished that we’d had the same experiences with our own newborns. When Mark and Lavender Moon left us to greet the Potters, and the Longbottoms and their equally new baby, I found myself exchanging an exasperated glance with Mary.
Mike arrived with two plates, each filled with mountains of delicious home-cooked food.
‘The kids are all served, and they’re eating outside,’ Mike told me. As people began to eat, the room quietened down. Mike and I found a seat next to Dennis and Lesley Creevey. As we ate, my curiosity got the better of me.
‘Does that woman,’ I nodded towards the Potters, Longbottoms and Moons, ‘Lavender, really work for Harry?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Dennis assured me. ‘She’ll be a miss. She will be away for at least nine months on maternity leave.’ He looked at my face and laughed. ‘Lavender is as tough as they come, and everyone always underestimates her,’ he said. ‘You really wouldn’t believe some of the things she’s done.’
I pressed Dennis, but he would not say any more. I watched the kids as they scampered in and out getting seconds, and dessert, and trampling mud in from outside.
We had eaten, and Mike had gone back for seconds, when there was one of those sudden lulls in the conversation, the loud buzz dropped to a low hum in which everyone could hear my son’s voice as he loudly asked a question.
‘What happened to your ear, Uncle George?’ Henry said. The silence in the room was suddenly absolute. I cringed, and, like everyone else, I stared at George Weasley, wondering how he’d react. Henry was with James and Daniel Barry, and the three boys were staring at George Weasley, who was sitting between his wife, and Fleur. I wondered whether there was a hole I could hide in.
George’s jaw dropped, his eyes widened, and his eyebrows shot up as he pantomimed surprise. ‘It hasn’t fallen off, has it?’ he asked. He cautiously raised his hand and tugged at his ear. ‘It’s still there,’ he said, wiping imaginary sweat from his forehead. ‘Are you trying to trick me, Henry?’
‘Not that ear,’ said Henry with all the exasperation he could muster. ‘I meant the other one.’
George handed his plate to his wife, slid off the bench, and hunkered down in front of my son. He stared into his eyes. The room remained silent, but George paid us no attention. He was concentrating on Henry and, like everyone else, I realised that I was now watching a performance.
‘You can’t fool me, Henry,’ said George, looking very serious. ‘This is the only ear I have.’ He tugged it again.
‘But why?’ Henry asked, unwilling to be put off. I blamed Mike; no matter how preposterous Mike’s answers, Henry had learned that, if he wanted an answer, he had to persevere.
‘Well,’ said George. ‘It’s a long story, and it starts the way all good stories start. Do you want to hear it?’
‘Yes, please,’ said Henry, nodding vigorously. I took a crumb of comfort from the fact that Henry had remembered to say please. Across the room, the other children were nodding and moving towards George. Ginny, however, was glaring at her brother; he caught her gaze and winked at her.
‘Once upon a time,’ George began, ‘I had two ears, just like you.’ He reached forwards and tugged first Henry’s right ear, and then his left. There was a tinkling noise, and a ten pence coin fell to the floor.
‘Wow!’ George cried. ‘You’ve got a magic ear, Henry, just like I had.’
‘What?’ asked Henry. ‘How’d you do that?’ He twisted around to follow the path of the coin as it rolled across the floor.
Daniel Barry was quickest; he stepped forwards and snatched the coin. ‘Mine,’ he announced triumphantly. I realised that Henry was about to argue. So did George. He peered into Henry’s ear.
‘It looks like there are a lot more coins there, Henry,’ George said, diverting him. ‘Hold your hand here.’ He guided Henry’s left hand up to just below his left ear and held it there with his right hand. With his left hand, George reached around behind Henry’s head. He took hold of Henry’s earlobe and tugged. A small coin fell into Henry’s hand.
‘Don’t move,’ George warned as Henry began to hop excitedly from foot to foot. Henry instantly stopped moving, I had never seen him stand so still. George continued; a tug, a coin, a tug, a coin, on and on until Henry’s little hand was full of coins. When George stopped, Henry carefully lowered his hand and examined the pile of coins. The entire room applauded.
‘Nice one, George,’ Ron called.
‘How’d you do that?’ Henry asked again.
‘I didn’t do anything, Henry,’ said George, once again peering into Henry’s ear. ‘You have an ear that’s completely full of money, just like I had. There is still a lot more in there!’ He looked around the room, caught my eye, and grinned wickedly. I realised what was coming next.
‘Would you like to get some more?’ asked George.
‘Yes, please,’ said Henry.
‘Well, there’s an easy way to get it all out,’ George said. ‘Does anyone have a knife?’
‘No!’ Henry shouted, covering his ear with his empty hand.
‘No?’ asked George. ‘Are you sure, Henry?’
Henry nodded, an awkward thing to do while clasping one hand to his ear while trying not to drop any of the coins in the other.
‘You’re probably wise,’ said George seriously. ‘If you chop it off, you will only get curious little boys asking you what happened to it, and…’ George looked down and I, along with everyone else noticed a black lace hanging from Henry’s pocket. George tugged at the lace, and pulled out a small leather drawstring bag.
‘That’s useful,’ said George. ‘You can keep your money in this bag. Do you always keep a money bag in your pocket, Henry? Is it to keep all the money when it falls out of your ear?’
Henry looked at the bag, and at the collection of coins in his hand.
‘Not my bag. You’re doing magic,’ said Henry wisely.
‘Actually, Henry, what I’m doing is called prestidigitation,’ said George, ‘which is a much more impressive word. Can you say it?’
‘It,’ said Henry promptly, thanks to Mike’s constant teasing. George roared with laughter.
‘Well done, Henry, and thank you,’ said George. He helped Henry to place the coins into the bag, stood and took a bow, receiving his well-deserved round of applause with a flourish. I began moving towards my son before the applause died down.
‘George Weasley, card tricks, conjuring and confusion, a speciality,’ he called. ‘Thank you, and now… I’ve always wanted to try one of the bigger tricks. Ladies, step forwards if you’re prepared to let me saw you in half.’ He turned to face me. ‘Jacqui!’
I stopped midstride, but it was too late. ‘No!’ I said, holding my hands up in horror.
He smiled. ‘Gotcha,’ he said. I joined in the laughter.
George walked across and hugged me. ‘Serves you right,’ he said. ‘I haven’t forgotten that crack you made about Charlie and Angelina the other week.’
‘I can’t let Henry keep your money,’ I said.
‘Of course you can,’ he said, ‘I don’t want it back.’ He put his hands on my shoulders and stared into my eyes. ‘James set him up, I know that, but he called me Uncle George, and I liked that, too. It’s nice to be a crazy uncle. So Henry can keep the money, and the money bag. And, because I still haven’t answered his question and I know he’ll ask you later… When I was young and stupid I thought that I’d live forever. I volunteered for a dangerous job. I ended up in a fight, and that’s when I lost my ear.’
His eyes blazed, and suddenly I was looking at a different person. ‘I’d do it again,’ he said with an almost insane passion. ‘In fact, I’d give my other ear, and a limb or two, if I could change just one part of the past.’ He grinned manically, and my worry must have shown on my face.
‘Sorry, Jacqui,’ he apologised. ‘I’m not often like that, not any more, but … well… It’s at times like this that I miss … Never mind.’ He gave me an apologetic look. ‘I’m off to play with the other kids. That always cheers me up.’ He turned on his heels and left me pondering what on earth he was talking about.
Fireworks by Northumbrian
I was concerned and a little confused by George’s final outburst, but as I had no idea what to say to him, I simply let him leave. As I watched him walk outside into the garden, I studied the slump of his shoulders. It seemed obvious that he was haunted by some past event, and it appeared to be associated with the loss of his ear. I wondered whether, despite George’s jokes and tricks, Henry’s question had been the trigger.
Mike was at my side the moment George left. ‘Are you okay, Jacques?’ my husband asked me. ‘For a moment there, I thought that he was going to burst into tears. Or explode.’
‘Something’s bothering him,’ I said. ‘But I’ve no idea what it is, not really.’
Still worried about him, I peered out through the open door. George’s demeanour had changed again. He was back to normal, at least, as normal as any of the Potters’ friends and family were. He’d sat down at a large picnic table on the patio and pulled out a pack of cards. The moment he did so, he was surrounded by laughing and shouting children. George the entertainer was back, and the kids were avidly watching his flamboyant card-shuffling.
‘He said that playing with kids cheers him up,’ I told Mike. ‘He looks okay, now.’
‘Yeah,’ Mike agreed. ‘He’s really good at magic, isn’t he?’
‘Yes, although I wouldn’t want him to try to saw me in half.’
‘Neither would I,’ Mike told me.
‘I hope he’ll be okay,’ I said, peering out into the garden.
‘Don’t worry about my George. I don’t,’ said Angelina as she appeared behind us. ‘He gets a little depressed sometimes, but the bad days aren’t frequent, and the moments pass quickly. He’ll be okay.’
Mike, Angelina and I stood in the doorway and watched as Harry, Ginny, and George began to organise the children. George was giving each of the children a card. They were, in theory, being randomly sorted into teams based on the card. As I watched, I saw that James and Henry were each brandishing an ace, signifying that they had been placed in the same team. I suspected that their pairing was not by chance; after all, it seemed to me that George could easily fix the cards and, therefore, the teams.
The Potters had prepared several games in the woods and while George dealt out the cards, Harry and Ginny explained their plans to the kids. They paid particular attention to James and Henry’s classmates.
As I watched the cluster of kids, I realised that Victoire wasn’t with the other children, and neither were Phoebe Berry or Helen Saville. The three girls were a little older than the other children but only by a couple of years. I turned my head, and saw that all three were still in the living room. They were standing in a huddle, gossiping. They had obviously decided that they were too mature to join in with outdoor games. As I watched then, Bill strolled over and spoke to his daughter. He appeared to be attempting to persuade Victoire to join the younger kids. She lifted her nose in the air and shook her head with the determination of someone preparing to have a tantrum if she didn’t get her own way. Bill left the girls, and I returned my gaze to the younger kids.
Once the kids had been split into teams, Harry, Ginny and George handed control over to Molly. I listened as she carefully explained that there were coloured ribbons hanging on trees throughout the woods. The teams were being asked to find ribbons of a specific colour and there was a prize for the winning team; Ginny was showing the kids a large box of chocolates while her mum was talking. Molly was assisted by her husband, Hermione’s parents, and the mysterious Andromeda. I was surprised how remarkably relaxed Andromeda was around the children.
‘You’re very well organised,’ I said to Angelina.
‘Do you think so?’ she asked. ‘I’ll let you into a secret, Jacqui; it’s all an illusion. We’re like swans on a lake. It looks like we’re gliding along serenely but underwater, where you can’t see, there’s a lot of frantic paddling going on.’
I laughed. Everything certainly seemed to be going smoothly, although Dominique, her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her dungarees, was eyeing James’s school friends suspiciously. The Weasley children were clustered together and were chattering happily amongst themselves. The dark and freckled Fred was laughing with the slender and fair Louis. Roxanne was earnestly explaining something to Lily and Hugo.
‘Your two seem to get along really well with their cousins. Do you meet up often?’ I asked.
‘All the time,’ said Angelina. ‘Once a fortnight, Molly invites everyone around for Sunday lunch. Charlie isn’t often there, of course, and he spoils all of the kids rotten when he does turn up, and he loves to play with them. Charlie will be out there in the woods somewhere, right now, keeping an eye on them all. But Molly and Arthur see most of us, and we see each other every couple of weeks. I really don’t know how Molly does it, especially now that she has a dozen grandchildren as well as her children and in-laws. But she’s always had a lot of kids around her. Two are enough for me. I’ve no idea how she managed to cope with seven.’
‘Seven?’ I asked, surprised. I’d thought I had Ginny’s family sorted. She had five older brothers; Bill, Charlie, Percy, George, and Ron.
Angelina gave me a look I couldn’t make out, it seemed to be halfway between regret and annoyance. She realised that she’d given something away, but the sharpness of her glance told me that I was prying into things which she did not want to talk about.
‘George was a twin; his brother … died,’ said Angelina shortly. Her expression made it clear that she was not going to say more. It seemed that the wound was still raw, even for her. I said nothing, I had dozens of questions, but it was obvious that they would not be welcomed. Instead, I again looked outside, trying to find my own children.
Annie was obviously enjoying herself with Rose and Al, and Henry and James were surrounded by a huddle of classmates and cousins. Molly was talking earnestly to them all. Whatever she was saying, it was holding their attention, and I was happy to leave them to get on with it.
‘She is wonderful with the little ones, isn’t she?’ I said to Angelina, nodding towards her mother-in-law and returning to a safer subject. She smiled, partly, I thought, in thanks for the fact that I hadn’t pressed her about George’s twin.
‘Yes. I don’t know what we’d do without her,’ she said. ‘A grandmother who is prepared to look after her grandchildren while we’re all at work is priceless.’
‘She doesn’t look after all of them, does she?’ I asked, astonished.
‘No, only half of them, and even then she doesn’t have them all at the same time,’ said Angelina. ‘I think that twelve might be too many, even for Molly. Most days she has four of them. She has Rose and Hugo four days a week, Fred and Roxy for three days, and Molly and Lucy for two.’ Angelina leaned towards me conspiratorially and whispered, ‘To be honest, I think that Molly was a little upset when Fleur decided to give up work and look after her three. Then, Ginny went and did the same thing.’
‘Harry and Ginny live a long way from the rest of you now,’ I said, surprised. ‘And they used to live in London, so there’s no way Ginny could drop off the kids in Devon, is there? The rest of you must all live very close to each other to be able to use Molly as a babysitter.’
‘Yes, we must, mustn’t we?’ said Angelina. For some reason she looked a little panicked by my observation. ‘Excuse me, I need to check something with the family,’ she added, and she went off to talk to Audrey, Percy, Ron, and Hermione. Almost as soon as she started talking, they all looked across at me. It was obvious that I was the topic of their conversation.
‘She’s a bit intense, isn’t she?’ said Mike.
‘Is she?’ I said. ‘I think this party has been a bit of a strain on them all. Ginny organised it very quickly. She’s dragged her family all the way up north for two weekends in a row.’ As I spoke, I was struck by a sudden worry. ‘Oh, no! I’ll bet that she was simply going to have a quiet family housewarming party last weekend, and that’s all. I hope that she didn’t organise this simply because of your flippant suggestion at the barbecue, Mike. I hope that they aren’t blaming us for forcing them to have a party.’
‘That’s silly, Jacqui,’ Mike assured me. ‘I’ve only known Ginny a few weeks and so have you. But do you really think that we could pressure her into doing something she didn’t want to do?’ He put his arm around my shoulder and hugged me.
‘I suppose you’re right,’ I said fretfully. Then I thought seriously about it. ‘No, I know you’re right,’ I admitted, slipping my arm around his waist. He kissed the side of my head, and then began to chuckle.
‘Talking about people who do exactly what they want…’ Mike said. He gently pulled me around so that I was facing into the room and he nodded across to the opposite wall. Luna and her very young man were talking to Mary and Robert Saville. They had the Savilles backed against the wall, and both Luna and Rolf were waving their arms as they spoke. Mary looked absolutely terrified. Robert was merely bewildered.
‘Do you think we should go and help?’ I asked Mike.
‘Don’t bother,’ a male voice said from over my shoulder. ‘Take it from me, Luna doesn’t need any help.’
Mike burst out laughing, and I turned to face Ron and Hermione.
‘Are you enjoying yourselves?’ Hermione asked.
‘Yes, thanks,’ I said. ‘Are you?’
‘We always do,’ said Ron. ‘Especially at parties like this where we can offload the little monsters on Mum and Dad and talk to grown-ups.’
‘Ron!’ scolded Hermione.
‘Grown-ups? Speak for yourself,’ said Mike.
Ron chuckled. ‘Yeah, when the kids aren’t around, we don’t have to act all sensible and mature, do we?’ he asked. My husband grinned and squeezed my bottom.
‘Mike,’ I hissed, mortified. He simply laughed.
‘You never act “all sensible and mature”, Ron,’ said Hermione. ‘But it is nice and relaxing to know that the grandparents are looking after them.’
‘And Mrs Tonks, whoever she is,’ I added.
Hermione smiled. ‘Andromeda Tonks is our adopted Aunt,’ she said. ‘Adopted by Harry first, and then Ginny, and the rest of the Weasleys. Over the years, she’s become part of the family. She lost her husband eleven years ago, and her daughter and son-in-law only a few weeks later. Andromeda was left to bring up her grandson, Teddy, alone.’
‘Poor woman,’ I said, reassessing my opinion of her in light of this information. Perhaps her brusqueness was her shield.
‘Yes,’ Hermione agreed. ‘Teddy was only a few months old when his parents … died, and Harry is Teddy’s godfather. He’s done his best to help her.’
‘Teddy?’ I asked, looking out into the garden. The kids, however, had scattered into the trees and there was no one in sight. ‘Is he here?’
‘No, and he’s very unhappy because he isn’t,’ Hermione told me. ‘He’s never been here, and now everyone else in his adopted family has. Teddy is eleven, and he went off to boarding school in September. Andromeda won’t admit it, but she misses him.’
Mike had been silent, pondering everything he’d heard.
‘You seem to have had a rough time, all of you,’ he said sympathetically. ‘Harry’s parents were killed when he was little. Mrs Tonks’s family were killed, and George’s twin died, too! That’s a lot of deaths. And then there’s Harry’s scars, and George’s ear, and your brother Bill, and at the pool I noticed some strange scars on your arms, Ron. It’s … ow ... bloody hell, Jacqui.’
My, ‘Sorry,’ was addressed more to Ron and Hermione than to Mike. They had looked more and more concerned as my oafish husband listed all of the misfortunes which had befallen Harry and Ginny’s family.
The, ‘Mike,’ that followed immediately after my apology was said between clenched teeth as I glared at him. ‘Did I accidentally dig my heel into your foot?’ I added. He had the good grace to look embarrassed. Sometimes, when he’s nervous, he lets his mouth run away.
‘Yeah, well, we had a rough few years, but that’s all in the past,’ said Ron firmly.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I began again.
‘Don’t be,’ Hermione assured me, putting on a brave face. ‘That was years ago, these days, things are okay.’
‘Only okay?’ asked Ron. He grinned at me and threw an arm around his wife. ‘I thought this was our “happily ever after”, Hermione. Aren’t you happy? What can I do to make you happy?’
Hermione rolled her eyes despairingly, but she still hugged him and gave me a contented smile.
‘I hope you’re paying attention, Mike,’ I said, I put my hands on my hips and gave him a mock glare. ‘Why aren’t you trying to make me happy?’
‘Because you are happy, Jacqui,’ he told me. ‘You’re happier than you’ve been for ages. You love the bustle and the chatter, and you like watching the kids enjoy themselves. And here’s Henry back.’
We all looked out of the door and watched as Henry handed a ribbon to Andromeda Tonks, turned, and ran back into the forest.
That was when it happened. There was a loud shriek from behind us. The comforting background murmur of dozens of conversations halted instantly, and everyone turned and stared at the source of the noise. Phoebe Berry was crying. It was obvious why. She was covered in trifle. It looked like someone had upended the unfinished bowl of trifle over her head. The obvious culprit was Victoire, who was looking worriedly at her parents. But it was impossible, because Victoire was standing next to the window and the trifle had been several yards away at the other end of the table.
Harry, Ginny, Bill, Fleur, Mary and Amanda dashed across and tried to make sense of the arguments and counter arguments the three girls were making. Victoire claimed that Phoebe had called her names, Phoebe claimed that Victoire had called her names, and that someone had thrown the trifle at her. Interestingly, Phoebe didn’t blame Victoire. Helen Saville, who had been standing with the other two girls, claimed that the trifle had flown off the table all by itself.
One result of the commotion was that the Savilles managed to escape from Luna and Rolf. Mary strode over and gave her daughter a stern talking to, telling her not to make up silly stories. Unfortunately, she only succeeded in making Helen cry. Harry, in an attempt to calm things down, led all three Savilles downstairs into the kitchen.
To my surprise, Fleur followed Harry, but she soon returned. Fleur was carrying what looked like the magenta cloth I’d seen the day I’d first met Ginny, or something very like it. It seemed to soak up the mess from the floor with remarkable ease.
While all this was going on, Ginny took both Phoebe and her mother upstairs to clean up. Victoire, too, was led away. She was taken outside by Bill, and it seemed to me that, rather like the Savilles, he was a lot more angry with his daughter than was appropriate. After all, Victoire couldn’t have thrown it.
The mess was cleaned up quickly, but the peculiar incident was the talking point for some time. Ron and Hermione tried to simply dismiss it as “one of those things”, but exactly how the trifle and Phoebe had managed to meet without anyone being responsible was a mystery. I watched Bill return without Victoire. She had “decided to help Uncle Charlie organise the little kids.” At least, that’s what he told Fleur.
Despite much questioning, no one admitted to throwing the trifle, and when someone flippantly suggested a ghost, Luna disagreed. Luna believed in ghosts—something which didn’t surprise anyone in the room—but she “knew” that they were incapable of picking things up. Of course, being Luna, she had an alternative theory. It was her opinion that the incident had happened simply because the girls were not being very nice to each other. Luna was firmly of the belief that, if people were nice, things like that wouldn’t happen. Something I could agree with. But then she blamed a poltergeist; a creature which, she claimed, was spontaneously created whenever children argued. That was when she lost me, and everyone else.
‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,’ Ron whispered to me as the excitement finally began to die down. ‘Luna is bonkers, but in a really great way.’
‘She’s certainly got a very active imagination,’ I said.
As things returned to normal, Hermione again began questioning us about schools and schooling. It was quite some time before she finally ran out of questions, but by then we’d been joined by Percy and Audrey. Percy, who it seemed to me had a tendency to pontificate, wanted to discuss some Ministry contract with Ron, so Mike and I made our excuses and began to move around the room.
We spoke to several of the parents of Henry’s classmates and finally managed to identify the parents of Jo and Catriona, the two five-year-old girls who shared a table with Henry and James. While we were talking to them, Ginny, Amanda and Phoebe returned. So did Harry, but he was alone. There was no sign of the Savilles.
Harry had a quick word with Ginny, Amanda, and Phoebe and then strode over to join us.
‘What’s happened to the Savilles?’ Jo’s mum asked Harry.
‘They said that they had to leave,’ Harry told her. To me, his shrug appeared to say “but I didn’t believe them”. He looked candidly into Jo’s mum’s eyes. ‘They had another appointment, apparently. I tried to persuade them to stay, but young Helen Saville wasn’t happy. Helen is a little older than the other kids, apart from Phoebe and Victoire, and she has decided that this place is haunted. I couldn’t persuade her to stay, but I think—I hope—that I’ve persuaded her parents to let it rest.’
I was about to ask Harry what he thought had happened during the trifle incident, but the pink and fragrant Lavender arrived. Her eyes were full of fire and the tottering and feminine flounce she’d used when she’d arrived had turned into a prowling lope. She looked more like a wild beast than a pampered princess.
‘Trudi has just told me, Harry,’ began Lavender angrily. ‘It’s inhuman. I don’t care about the bloody case, you can’t leave a body…’
‘Not here, Lavender,’ Harry told her sharply. ‘Come with me, we can discuss this in private.’ He gave us an apologetic glance as he led the fuming Lavender away from us and back down the stairs to the kitchen.
The moment Harry left Amanda Berry and her daughter joined us. She greeted us like long-lost friends and began singing Ginny’s praises.
‘Ginny is a miracle-worker,’ she told us. Her opinion was based on the fact that Ginny had somehow managed to clean and dry Phoebe’s party dress while Amanda had been helping Phoebe to clean up. Amanda was bursting to tell us something, that was obvious.
‘The master bedroom is really magnificent. Ginny let Phoebe and I use the en suite to tidy up,’ Amanda told us in a confidential tone. ‘Have you seen it, Jacqui?’ she asked, almost gloatingly. Her smile told me that she was certain that I had not and that, finally, she knew something about the Potters that I didn’t. I politely acknowledged the fact.
‘They have a huge four-poster bed with curtains and everything,’ said Amanda gleefully. Mike took my hand and gave it a calming squeeze. ‘There are lots of photographs on the walls too. There’s one of a huge castle and one of Harry’s parents, too. He looks a lot like his dad. The en suite is massive. The bath is easily big enough for two, isn’t it, Pheobe?’
‘Yes, Mummy,’ Phoebe confirmed.
We listened to Amanda for some time as she continued to compliment Ginny and politely tell me about the décor and photographs. She did not really have a lot to say, but she certainly made the most of the fact that she’d seen a part of the house which I had not. While she was speaking, I saw Lavender return, but there was no sign of Harry. It was some time before Amanda finally ran out of things to tell us. When she did, I made my excuses and dragged Mike across the room to join another little group.
George and Angelina, and Lavender Moon and her husband, were talking to Dennis and Lesley Creevey. Angelina was terrifying poor Lesley with tales of the birth of her eldest, Fred, which had involved cutting and pulling. At the same time George was winding Dennis up with graphic descriptions of blood and gore. Lavender, meanwhile, was piling on the misery by talking about her own, recent, birthing problems. It seemed that a long healed scar had been causing her problems, and at a little over eight months, it began to split. Little Violet, I discovered, had arrived prematurely via an emergency Caesarean section. Mark Moon, who was still carrying Violet, did little more than look anxious and nod in agreement. As I listened, I could see how worried Lesley was becoming.
‘I had no problems at all, Lesley,’ I said, trying to be a calming influence. ‘Most births are straightforward, you know. I didn’t even see a doctor. We opted for a home birth and hired a birthing pool.’
‘So did Hermione,’ said Angelina.
‘We talked about a home birth,’ said Lesley. Dennis nodded in agreement. ‘But the midwife persuaded us to go to hospital because it will be my first,’ she told me.
‘My midwife was a bit concerned when I insisted on a home birth for Henry for the same reason,’ I said. ‘First child and all that, but I put up a fight. She gave in because we were living in town at the time, so it was only a short ride from the RVI—the Royal Victoria Infirmary,’ I explained when she looked puzzled. ‘Our midwife admitted that there is no real risk in a home birth.’’
‘No risk at all?’ asked Dennis worriedly, and I realised that although Lesley was keen on a home birth, he was not.
‘Well, sometimes there are problems,’ I told him. ‘But I did the research,’ I turned to his wife, ‘so long as you’re getting your check-ups, and provided that you’re fit and healthy, which it seems to me you are, Lesley, you aren’t likely to have any problems.’
‘We’re only fifteen minutes from Queen Charlotte’s, Dennis,’ said Lesley.
I glanced at Mike and, for once, he realised what I wanted him to say.
‘I was like you, Dennis,’ Mike admitted. ‘I was worried about the idea of a home birth, but it was great.’ He was grinning like a lunatic at the memories. ‘It’s so much less clinical. And the midwife made me feel useful. I reckon that if we’d been in the hospital, I’d have been standing around like a spare prick at a wedding. Instead, I filled the pool, helped Jacqui, and did whatever the midwife asked me to do. Jacqui did all of the hard work, of course, as usual.’ He grinned and hugged me. ‘She swore like a trooper, too. Very creative, she was. It was great. We never saw the inside of a hospital.’
‘Everything went okay?’ Dennis asked.
‘Henry took his time,’ I admitted. ‘And it wasn’t exactly pain free, but the midwife will bring a canister of Entonox with her. It can’t have been bad because we did it the second time, too. I was in and out of the pool several times with Henry, but then, you really don’t know what to expect when it’s your first. Annie was very quick. Out almost before we knew it.’
‘She was born with hair the colour of Harry’s,’ said Mike wistfully. ‘It was very long, too. Within two days it all fell out and she was as bald as a coot for weeks, poor little thing. When it grew back, she was a blonde.’
‘So don’t listen to George,’ I said.
‘Spoilsport,’ said George. He and the others had been listening in silence to my description. ‘A man’s got to be allowed to wind up his friends, you know.’
‘But not tae the point you’re worrying the Mum-to-be,’ said Lavender’s husband forcefully. He pulled her in close to him. ‘I’m bloody glad we got tae St Mungo’s in time, and the hospital is always an option if there’s a problem.’
‘My lovely Emmsy,’ Lavender simpered, throwing her arms around his waist and batting her eyelashes at him.
George pretended to vomit. Angelina merely rolled her eyes. Mark and Lavender ignored them.
‘Yes, but…’ George began. He got no further because the kids returned.
As I looked out through the still open door, I realised that it was dusk. I checked my watch and discovered that it was a little after seven in the evening, almost Annie’s bedtime. The hours had flown over!
The children all streamed back inside, chattering happily and all proudly clutching bags of sweets. Several of them looked a little untidy and most of them tracked mud into room, but Harry and Ginny, who had been handing out the sweets, didn’t appear to be bothered.
Like everyone else in the place, Mike and I found ourselves listening to our children as they described their adventures in the woods. They had played several games, including what—given the number of kids involved—must have been a completely chaotic game of musical bumps.
Henry had collared me, and he would not shut up. He was gabbling away, nineteen-to-the dozen, and I could barely follow what he was telling me. “Him’n’James” had got lost; they had been on a great adventure; they had got lots of sweeties; and they had climbed a tree. I could not get a word in edgeways.
Annie, meanwhile, was treating Mike to a similar outpouring of excitement. And she was even less intelligible than her brother.
Ron Weasley rapped loudly on one of the tables. He was obviously preparing to make an announcement, and everyone fell silent and turned to face him.
‘Just in case anyone doesn’t know, I’m Ron Weasley, the best looking of Ginny’s brothers…’
His brothers and their wives noisily disagreed.
‘And I’ve known Harry for years. On behalf of everyone, I’d just like to say thanks to Harry and Ginny for inviting us here today.’
Everyone began to clap, but he motioned us into silence.
‘I’d also like to wish them a happy and prosperous future in their new home here in the far north. And I think that it’s about time that we toasted them. There’s champagne for the grown-ups and juice for the kids. Please, help yourselves to a glass.’ Ron motioned to the stairs to the kitchen where the Corners, the Creeveys, Victoire, Phoebe Berry, and Luna and her boyfriend stood with trays laden with drinks.
There was a good natured scramble towards the drinks, and soon, everyone was holding a glass. Hermione was ushering Harry, Ginny, and their children across the room towards Ron.
‘To the Potters, may all your days be happy ones,’ said Ron.
‘The Potters,’ we all chorused.
‘Thanks, Ron,’ Harry began. Ginny stepped alongside him and took his hand.
‘Yes, thanks Ron, and thank you all for coming,’ Ginny said. ‘We hope that you’ve enjoyed yourselves, especially the children. Have you?’
The kids began to cheer, and we all joined in. Unfortunately, the noise disturbed both Violet Moon and Florence Longbottom, and the two babies began to howl unhappily. Their parents took the babies out, heading down to the kitchen.
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Harry. ‘As we’ve just been noisily reminded, there are some very small children here. Some of you, I know, will be anxious to leave. However, Ron has just told me that he and George have brought some fireworks along with them. So we’ll be rounding the evening off with a firework display.’
‘Yay! Weasleys’ Wildfire Whiz-bangs,’ James shouted. ‘Bestest inna world.’ He was jumping with excitement.
James wasn’t wrong. The display was louder and more colourful than anything I’d ever seen before, better, even, than the professional display I’d seen at the Millennium. Ron and George were treated to an ovation when they finally returned from the woods.
After the fireworks, the party seemed to have naturally reached its end. The kids, especially the littlest ones, like Lily and Annie, were flagging. The Moons and the Longbottoms had left before the fireworks, and several other families were preparing to leave. I tried to persuade Ginny to let me help tidy up, but she was adamant that she could manage.
‘Harry will help, once he’s got the kids to bed,’ she said. ‘And so will the family. It’s a party, Jacqui, you don’t tidy up after someone else’s party.’
‘But you help your friends,’ Mike told her. ‘I’m capable of wielding a tea towel, too.’
‘Not with Annie asleep in your arms,’ she told him. ‘But thanks for the offer, and thanks for making us welcome.’ She hugged Mike, hugged me and strolled outside to wave off some of the departing guests.
Dennis Creevey was standing in the darkness by his car, chatting to several dads about it. His wife loomed out of the darkness, politely thanked Ginny, and then hugged me.
‘Thank you Jacqui,’ she whispered. ‘Thanks for what you said. You’ve no idea how wonderful it is to have a normal conversation.’
With that, she waddled over to her husband and clambered cumbersomely into the little sports car. They waved cheerfully, and Dennis roared off into the night.
‘What a nice couple,’ I said.
‘It’s time we left, too, Jacqui,’ Mike told me. He nodded towards Henry, whose eyes were heavy. Annie was already asleep in his arms.
First Quarter by Northumbrian
I was lying on my chest, relaxing in the baking hot sun. With a soft massaging motion, Mike was gently spreading sun cream on my bare back. Relaxed and happy, I basked in somnolent bliss.
My pleasure was interrupted by a loud crash. The noise was only feet from where I was lying. Mike’s hands vanished. I rolled onto my side and opened my eyes to investigate the noise.
I was bewildered to discover that, instead of the Kefalonian beach I was expecting to see stretching out before me, I could see nothing more exotic than our bedroom door and our pyjama-clad son. The door was still reverberating from its impact against the dressing table. Henry stood in the doorway and stared at me. It was obvious that he hadn’t meant to burst through the door quite as noisily as he had done.
‘Oops,’ he uttered contritely, using his favourite word of apology. ‘Hungry. Want breakfast,’ he added loudly as justification. His shrill voice confirmed the fact that I was not, in fact, enjoying a holiday in the sun with my boyfriend but was back in the real world; the world in which Mike and I were ten years older and had a lot less freedom.
As a final confirmation that this was, in fact, reality, Mike’s only acknowledgement of our son’s presence was an unintelligible grunt of greeting. My husband didn’t make any attempt to move. It was, of course, my turn to do the early shift; even so, I was illogically annoyed by the fact that the thoughtful attentiveness of dream-Mike had not made the leap to wakefulness alongside me.
Mike had been the early riser on Saturday morning; nevertheless, the knowledge that he could stay in bed rankled with me. I sighed, rolled over, and looked at the clock next to me. To my surprise it was a little after nine, almost two hours after Henry usually rose.
‘Okay, Henry,’ I said, yawning.
Still half asleep, I pulled back the duvet and sat up in bed.
‘Eeew! You’ve got no ’jamas on, Mammy,’ he told me.
He was right, of course. The moment I’d sat up, I’d remembered. I hastily pulled up the duvet and covered my chest.
‘I was very hot last night,’ I told him, searching for an excuse.
‘Too right you were,’ Mike agreed in a low and lust-filled whisper. Suddenly, instantly, he’d decided that he would wake up after all, and that he’d be a pest. His hand slid across the bed onto my thigh and squeezed.
‘You go and find your dressing gown and slippers for me, Henry,’ I told our son as I firmly removed Mike’s hand from my leg. ‘I’ll be through in a minute to help you. What would you like for breakfast?’
‘Toast an’ marmarmarmarmalade,’ he told me.
‘You need to learn when to stop saying marmalade, Henry,’ Mike told him.
‘Marmarmarmarmarmalade,’ said Henry. He sang it to the tune of the Beach Boy’s Barbara Ann, and as he danced out from our bedroom, Mike chuckled.
‘That must be your fault,’ I accused.
‘Sure is,’ he said in a pathetic attempt at an American accent. ‘A man’s gotta have a bit of fun with his kids, babe.’
‘Idiot,’ I told him as I rolled out of bed. Shivering in the cool room, I began rifling through my underwear drawer.
‘I’d like some tea and toast, too,’ said Mike hopefully. I turned and stared angrily at him, my clean underwear still in my hand.
‘Get up and get your own breakfast,’ I told him.
He simply looked me up and down, popped his eyes, and wolf-whistled.
‘Bloody hell, you’re gorgeous,’ he said. ‘What on earth did you see in me?’
Probably because of my dream, my mind flew back to the very dishy young man who’d taken me on a two week holiday to Skala. He had wined and dined and pampered me. And he had good-naturedly allowed me to swim in the almost magically warm and clear Ionian Sea every day. The memory made my heart skip a beat, and I almost complimented him. However, before I could formulate a reply, Annie toddled in through the door rubbing her eyes. Unlike her brother, she ignored my nakedness.
‘Buddy el, zit time for get up now?’ Annie asked.
I tried to be cross with Mike, but he simply burst out laughing.
‘Come and give your Daddy a good morning kiss, lovely little Annie,’ he said, sliding to the edge of the bed and pointing to his cheek.
As I hastily dressed, I watched Annie approach her dad. She reached out a pudgy little hand, touched his cheek, and withdrew it immediately.
‘No kiss, Daddy, 'cos you’re all scratchy,’ she told him.
Laughing, he grabbed her around the waist, lifted her onto the bed, and began tickling her. I left the room to the noise of Annie’s delighted laughter and went into Henry’s bedroom. He was struggling to dress himself, so I gave him a helping hand.
‘Joo fink,’ Henry began the moment his head emerged through the neck-hole of his sweatshirt. ‘Joo fink ’at we could have fireworks like ’at on my birfday at Bonfire night?’ he asked. ‘They was the bestest fireworks ever.’
‘Do I think that we could have fireworks like that?’ I said. He nodded so vigorously that his entire body shook with the effort. ‘They were very good, weren’t they, Henry?’
‘They was brilliant,’ he told me.
‘They were brilliant.’ I corrected him.
‘In every sense of the word,’ said Mike as he carried Annie into Henry’s room. ‘Brilliantly good and brilliantly bright and sparkling,’ he explained to a puzzled-looking Henry. ‘I’ve never seen anything like them, not even at a professional display, Henry. I asked Harry about them last night. He said that Ron and George manufacture fireworks. We can ask Harry and Ginny when we see them. We might be able to get some in time for your birthday bonfire.’
‘If they are not too expensive, and if they’re for sale to the general public,’ I added before Mike made a promise that we couldn’t keep. ‘They might be restricted to professional displays only. We might not be able to buy them. We’ll see what we can do, Henry, okay?’
‘Yay,’ Henry clapped his hands and danced with joy.
‘Good morning, gorgeous,’ Mike said, slipping an arm around my waist, drawing me close, and kissing my cheek. ‘I’ll get Annie ready, shall I?’
‘Thanks, Mike,’ I said.
He smiled and winked at me, just the way he’d done when we were younger, and I simply had to turn and hug him.
‘Hungry,’ Henry reminded me, grabbing my hand and pulling it off Mike’s back. I took Henry’s hand, gave Mike an apologetic smile, and led our son downstairs.
I was still busy buttering Henry’s toast and keeping an eye on my porridge when Mike and Annie arrived. Annie was squirming in Mike’s arms as he tried to scratch her cheek with his bristly chin.
‘Stoppit, stoppit, Daddy.’ She squealed and squirmed, but was happy to be fussed over.
‘Would you like some porridge, Annie?’ I asked.
‘Ess, peas,’ she said, nodding.
Mike sat her at the table and then filled the kettle.
‘I think I’ll join you,’ Mike said, pouring more milk and oats into the pan and stirring the porridge. ‘What have we got planned for today, Mammy? Annie asked me, and I didn’t know.’
I shrugged. ‘To be honest, other than roast pork for Sunday dinner, I hadn’t really thought about today. I didn’t think much beyond the party,’ I said. ‘What would you like to do today, Annie?’
‘Go Drake-soff an’ play,’ she said promptly.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Henry, instantly. My heart sank.
‘I’m sorry,’ I told them. ‘We can’t, not today. I’m sure that James’s Mummy and Daddy will be busy. They have relatives staying with them, and friends probably. We can’t simply turn up unannounced.’ I paused. ‘Again,’ I added guiltily.
‘We could go across to Thrunton, for a nice walk,’ suggested Mike. ‘We could explore the woods. We could take sandwiches and have a picnic lunch.’
‘Yeah,’ Annie agreed.
‘S’pose,’ said Henry gracelessly.
‘Great,’ Mike told them. ‘After we’ve had breakfast and got washed and done our teeth, Mammy can…’
‘Mammy can make the beds and get Henry’s uniform and Daddy’s shirts into the washing machine ready for another ordinary week,’ I said firmly, handing Henry his toast and marmalade. ‘And then she can tidy up the house while Daddy clears away the breakfast things and makes the sandwiches.’
Mike made a pot of tea, scraped the thick and glutinous porridge into three bowls, and brought them across to the kitchen table. As he placed a bowl in front of me, he kissed me on the temple.
‘Life goes on,’ said Mike, speaking to all of us, and mirroring my own thoughts. ‘We had a good time yesterday, but we can’t party every day.’
‘Why?’ Henry asked.
‘Because that would be boring,’ Mike told him.
‘Wouldn’t!’ Henry told us firmly. ‘Party was great. We had lots of games and stuff and we ran and hid and we beat Dom and Molly and Fred inna treasure hunt, and Dom was cross.’
‘Dominique.’ I corrected him.
‘Everyone else says Dom,’ he countered firmly.
‘The party was great,’ said Mike. ‘In fact, it was a great night from start to finish.’ He winked at me.
‘All you did was talk,’ Henry told his father dismissively. I saw the mischief in Mike’s eyes.
‘We were having fun all night, in a very grown-up way, Henry,’ I told him before Mike could say anything else. ‘Would you like to have a cup of tea, Henry?’ I asked as Mike chuckled.
Henry shook his head, but Annie announced that she wanted a cup, so I poured her a very milky one and tested it to make certain that it wasn’t too hot. As we ate, we continued to chat about the party.
Henry confidently told us that Victoire had thrown trifle over Phoebe Berry. When I told him that she couldn’t have, because she’d been standing right next to Phoebe when it happened, Henry claimed that Victoire had admitted to James that she’d done it. She’d apparently told James that she’d done it by magic. I looked at my husband and rolled my eyes.
‘I think that Victoire just likes being the centre of attention,’ I told Henry. ‘I think she was telling James a story.’
‘Someone must have thrown it,’ said Mike. ‘If it wasn’t Victoire, I wonder who it was.’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t suppose we’ll ever find out.’
‘Harry knows a lot of odd people, doesn’t he?’ asked Mike. ‘I didn’t get the chance to tell you last night, but that hippy bloke—the one with the wife who looked like she should be in the SAS…’
‘Michael Corner,’ I supplied the name.
‘Yeah, him,’ Mike told me. ‘He spent most of the night talking to the big bloke with less hair than me,’ Mike ran his hand through his thinning locks. ‘The one who looked like a prop forward…’
‘Terry Boot,’ I said.
‘Yeah. Hey, he’s the guy you met the first time you went to Drakeshaugh, isn’t he?’ Mike asked.
‘Yes.’ I nodded.
‘I wish I’d realised. I’d have said something about him frightening you!’ he said regretfully. ‘Well. I was talking to Den Creevey about his car. He’s a really nice bloke—fit as a lop, you know, he’s a fell runner—and he knows his engines. Anyway, next to us, Michael was getting really wound up about something. Him and Terry were talking about probabilities and maths and stuff. It was way over my head, but Michael was getting worried about some computer programme he was using; he was convinced that it wasn’t working properly, and he wanted Terry to take a look at his calculations. Then, that Lavender woman wandered over and told him that he might as well use Tarot cards, astrology, or tea leaves since they were just as accurate as his silly machine, and he got really twitchy. He was convinced that it was a plot and that everyone was trying to make him look stupid. For a minute I thought that his missus was going to clock Lavender.’
‘What happened next?’ I asked, curious. I’d already beguen calling the rather nervy and odd Michael “the boffin” in my head, and I was curious about what, exactly, he was doing for Harry. From what I’d overheard, it was some form of crime analysis.
Mike shrugged, ‘I don’t know. Dennis dragged me over to speak to Ron’s wife’s parents. They’re both dentists. Did you know?’
I sighed; it was typical of Mike that he only had half a story.
‘If we’re going out for a picnic lunch, it’s time we got organised,’ I said. ‘Come along, kids, let’s get hands, faces, and teeth done.’ Annie slid from her chair; Henry, rather reluctantly, did the same.
‘Okay,’ said Mike. ‘I’ll do the dishes and then start on the food. What would you like in your sandwiches, Henry?’
Mike missed my urgent head-shake and managed to finish the question before realising that I’d been trying to stop him.
‘Salt’n’vinegar crisps wiff ketchup,’ Henry said, as I’d known he would.
Mike pulled an apologetic face at me and, with a single raised eyebrow, silently mimed an enquiry. I made an unhappy face in reply, but nodded, and Mike correctly interpreted my answer.
‘Just this once, as a special treat,’ Mike told him. He glanced at Annie, and this time looked at me for confirmation before speaking. I nodded again.
‘And what would you like, Annie?’ he asked.
‘Tease and martyr,’ she said promptly. Bewildered by her answer, Mike again silently asked me for help, but I simply smirked and left him to figure it out for himself.
‘Cheese and tomato,’ said Mike triumphantly after about half a minute.
‘Tease and martyr,’ Annie confirmed.
‘I’ll have the same as Annie,’ I said. ‘There’s some Redesdale and some Nettle left in the fridge, Annie likes the Nettle, I’ll have whatever’s left; I’m easy.’ I ignored Mike’s leer and left him in charge of the kitchen. ‘Come on kids, wash time.’
An hour later, the kids were playing in the back garden, but I was still busy. I’d tidied the kids’ rooms and made the beds. I had just picked up a pile of dirty laundry to bring downstairs, the last of my chores, when I heard a car drawing to a halt. When I looked out of the window, I saw the Potters big black Range Rover. The passenger door opened, and Ginny jumped out. Panicking, I threw the laundry onto our bed, closed the door, and dashed downstairs.
I hoped that Mike had finished washing up the breakfast dishes and making the sandwiches. With any luck, the kitchen would be tidy. I had no idea whether or not the house was presentable because I hadn’t been down to check.
The moment the kids had gone out to play on the swing and the trampoline, Mike had put a CD, CSI:Ambleside, in the player. I’d bought him the Half Man Half Biscuit CD for his birthday over a year ago. I wasn’t particularly fond of it, and several tracks definitely weren’t child friendly, but Mike had always been a fan of the band, and it was the CD he always played when he was in a good mood.
As I clattered hastily down the stairs to the front door, I could hear Mike singing along.
‘Twmpa, Twmpa, you’re gonna need a jumper. It gets a bit chilly on top of Lord Hereford’s Knob.’
The doorbell rang the moment I reached the bottom of the stairs. I shouted to Mike, but he didn’t seem to hear me over the music.
‘Hello, Ginny,’ I said, pulling open the door before the bell’s ring had faded. Ginny looked startled by the speed I’d opened it.
‘I was in the bedroom, and I saw you arrive,’ I explained.
Ginny was carrying a canvas shopping bag, but Harry was still sitting in the car with the kids. He waved cheerfully, as did the three little Potters. I smiled and waved back, realising that they weren’t coming in.
‘Tonight he’ll be sitting on top of Lord Hereford’s Knob,’ sang Mike as the song came to an abrupt halt.
‘Mike,’ I yelled, taking my chance in the momentary silence. ‘We’ve got visitors.’ The music was immediately turned off.
‘Sorry Ginny,’ I said. ‘Half Man Half Biscuit. Mike’s been a fan since—forever, I think.’
‘Half what?’ Ginny stared at me blankly.
‘It’s the name of the band,’ I explained. ‘Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral.’
It was obvious that I was only succeeding in making Ginny even more confused, but if it weren’t for Mike, I don’t suppose I’d have heard of them, either.
‘Sorry, where are my manners. Come in, please, Ginny,’ I said. I glanced over my shoulder and realised that the living room was a mess. I hoped that I’d been right in assuming that this wasn’t really an unannounced visit. Though if it were, I realised, I could hardly complain.
‘Thanks, but no, thank you. We’re on our way to Alnwick,’ said Ginny.
‘Who? Oh, hi Ginny,’ Mike said behind me. ‘You, er, you didn’t hear me singing, did you?’
‘Lord Hereford’s Knob,’ said Ginny straight faced.
‘Ah,’ said Mike. ‘It’s a mountain in Wales, honest.’
‘If that’s all the song’s about, then it’s a complete waste of a good double-entendre,’ Ginny told him.
‘I’ll tell the kids you’re here, shall I?’ said Mike, stifling a laugh. ‘They’re out the back.’
‘No!’ ordered Ginny firmly. She widened her eyes as though her own words had startled her. ‘Sorry, Mike, that sounded ruder than I intended. It’s just that if our kids see your kids, they’ll want to stay, and they can’t.’
‘That’s okay, Ginny,’ I said.
‘We know what you mean,’ Mike added, nodding sympathetically.
‘Ron and Hermione spent the night in a hotel in Alnwick with Hermione’s folks,’ said Ginny. ‘The Grangers are staying for a few more days because they’ve never been up to this part of the country before. But I wanted to return these to you.’ She lifted my cake tins from the bag and handed them over to me. ‘And we wanted to give you this, too.’ She handed us a bottle of champagne and two bars of chocolate. ‘Ron and Hermione brought the champagne for us. They brought too much, but they refused to take it back. We’ve got half a dozen unopened bottles, so we thought we’d give you one. There were lots of chocolate bars left too, so we thought … well, the kids can’t have champagne. It’s just to say thanks for all your help.’
‘Help?’ I asked. ‘What did we do to help?’
‘You made us welcome, Jacqui. You helped us to settle into our new home,’ she said gratefully. ‘And Henry helped James feel happy at school.’
Overcome, I hugged her. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘But I think that James helped Henry, too.’
Ginny lowered her voice conspiratorially, despite the fact that there was no one around. ‘We thought that we might give Amanda a bottle of champagne too, because of the accident with Phoebe.’
‘Accident?’ asked Mike, sounding surprised by Ginny’s choice of words.
‘If someone actually threw the trifle, we haven’t been able to discover who it was,’ said Ginny. ‘No one seems to have actually seen anything. I thought it would be best to simply call it an accident and forget about it. I hope that Amanda agrees.’
‘I’m sure she will,’ I assured her. I wondered whether to tell her about Victoire’s ridiculous claim but decided against it. ‘Are you sure that you won’t come in for a minute, Ginny?’
‘No, thanks for the offer, but we really should be going,’ Ginny told me. ‘Would you like to come for coffee one morning next week? Not tomorrow, because Rolf and Luna are leaving for Sweden and, well, Luna! And Rolf! Would Wednesday be okay for you? You can come straight over after you drop Henry at school.’
‘Wednesday will be great, thank you, Ginny,’ I said. ‘I’ll bring more chocolate buns.’
‘There’s no need,’ Ginny protested. ‘You’ve been generous enough.’
‘Unlike you,’ I told her as I waved the bottle of champagne at her. I’d seen the label; it wasn’t cheap fizzy plonk; it was Dom Perignon.
She laughed. ‘That would be nice, thanks,’ she said. ‘I’d better go. Bye.’ With that, she turned and walked down the path to the car. Mike and I stood and waved them off, and then suffered the wrath of Henry when he discovered that James had been here and we hadn’t told him.
He began his sulk while we got ready to leave and managed to keep it up until we reached Thrunton. Fortunately, the sights and sounds of the woods finally brought him out of it.
After we’d returned from our picnic and walk, I was standing in the kitchen peeling parsnips in preparation for the roasting tray when I was struck by the sheer number of smells assailing me. The usual smells of parsnips, carrots fresh from the vegetable plot, apple sauce, and roasting pork were competing with the smell of poster paints and glue.
Behind me, Henry was making a thank you card for the Potters, and he was determined to paint it “hisself”. Annie, not to be outdone, was also attempting to make her own card. She had graciously decided that Daddy could help her “a little bit”. The process seemed to involve them both laughing a lot and getting covered in glue and glitter.
After finishing the parsnips, and before starting on the potatoes, I strolled over to inspect their handiwork. Mike had carefully written the words “Thank you” for Henry to copy. Henry had started big, and the letters had got smaller and smaller as he realised that he was running out of space. Nevertheless, the end result was impressive, and very crowded. He’d drawn a splodge of green trees and brown trunks, with lots of stick people running through the trees. In the corner of the card he’d drawn a round-faced person whose smile filled more than half of the head, leaving little room for eyes and nose. When I asked, he explained that it was, “me, I’m very happy”.
Mike and Annie had manufactured a card covered in sparkling glitter and several shiny stars. It was, they assured me, lots of lovely fireworks.
I didn’t see Harry on Monday morning. James was already in the classroom when I arrived at school. He ran across to greet us the moment we arrived. I said hello to James, but he wasn’t interested in talking to me. He insisted on telling Henry that he’d been to the seaside the day before and that he’d played in the dunes with his cousins.
Henry wanted to tell James about our walk, so I left them chattering away to each other. It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realised I still had the cards Henry and Annie had made. I had no choice but to keep them and deliver them to the Potters at the end of the school day.
Monday afternoon had a decidedly autumnal feel about it. The brisk breeze was depositing leaves in its wake, and there was the promise of a squally shower in the air. Although I was early, Ginny had arrived before me, but Al and Lily were nowhere to be seen. Annie and I arrived just in time to see Ginny present an ecstatic Amanda with a bottle of champagne. Mary looked on with grim-faced displeasure.
‘Were you at the Potter’s party?’ one of the other mums asked me before I reached Ginny.
When I answered in the affirmative, she said, ‘Mary was telling us how dreadful it was, but Amanda seemed less certain, and then Ginny arrived.’
‘It wasn’t dreadful at all,’ I said confidently. ‘Harry and Ginny have a nice family and friends. Some of them are a bit odd, like Luna—the blonde woman who was with Ginny last week. Everyone was very pleasant. The food was all homemade and fresh and delicious. It’s true that Amanda’s daughter had a mishap with some trifle, but apart from that, it was a wonderful afternoon and evening.’
I soon found myself surrounded by most of the mums who formed Mary’s usual clique. They were all curious to hear my version of events. I tried to keep a close eye on Mary while I talked, but Ginny seemed to have captured the attention of Amanda, and they were chatting like old friends. I felt a twinge of jealousy; Ginny was my friend. Mary glanced at me but she didn’t look happy, and seemed unwilling to leave Amanda alone with Ginny.
The fireworks were a huge talking point, particularly for the mums who lived nearby. They had all seen them in the sky above Drakeshaugh and had been very impressed by them, particularly the finale. Somehow, George and Ron had managed to launch a “tribute” to Harry and Ginny. One exploding rocket had fallen in a shower of bright red, giving the impression of Ginny’s hair. Two others had formed silver circles in the sky, each surrounding a bright green light, in a remarkable approximation of Harry’s spectacles and eyes.
By the time the school bell rang, I’d learned from some of the other mums, parents of kids who weren’t in Henry’s class, that Mary and her husband had been far from happy. From what they said, it seemed that Mary had told them that the party had been full of coloureds, weirdos, hippies, and badly behaved children. I shook my head in disbelief. ‘Coloureds!’ I said, trying to indicate my distaste for the term. ‘That would be a very nice married couple, both doctors, one of Ginny’s sister’s-in-law, and an old school friend of Harry’s and his wife. As for the rest, Luna and her boyfriend, and a beardy IT guy, were all lovely. Mary left early, I’ve no idea why.’
A quiet, mousy woman standing at the back of the cluster of mums said, ‘She was probably annoyed that she wasn’t the centre of attention.’ Her words were sharp and a little spiteful. Everyone fell silent, and the woman looked a little embarrassed. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’
‘An outbreak of truthfulness,’ one of the other mums said. Everyone laughed rather nervously and looked warily across to Mary. She noticed and frowned at us, but the kids were coming out and our gossiping was ended as the group was splintered by the arrival of our kids.
‘Has you gived James’s mummy my card?’ Henry asked when he arrived at my side. I was forced to admit that I hadn’t.
‘Why don’t you give it to her?’ I suggested, pulling it from my bag.
‘My give mine,’ Annie demanded, so I gave her the card and allowed her to lead me across to Ginny.
By the time Annie and I reached her, Ginny was already fussing over Henry and praising his card.
‘My make one an’ all,’ Annie announced, thrusting it towards Ginny. ‘Daddy helped. A bit.’
Thank you, Annie,’ said Ginny. She looked over Annie’s head and smiled at me. ‘And thanks, Jacqui.’
‘It was nothing to do with me. It was Henry’s idea to make a thank you card,’ I said. ‘And Mike helped Annie with hers.’
‘And these are wonderful cards, thank you, Henry and Annie,’ Ginny said. ‘Are these fireworks on your card, Annie? Did you like the fireworks?’
‘Yes,’ said Annie.
‘I’d like Uncle George’s fireworks for my birthday,’ Henry said.
‘You have fireworks on your birthday?’ Ginny asked him.
‘We always have fireworks for Henry’s birthday,’ I explained. ‘Henry was born on Guy Fawkes night, we don’t have much choice. We loved those fireworks, Ginny. Does your brother sell them?’
‘Yes, but not to … just anybody … They’re special. But I’ll speak to George and Ron; I’m sure that we can get you something.’
‘Yay!’ shouted Henry. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
‘I need to be getting back,’ said Ginny. ‘I’ve left Luna and Rolf in charge of Al and Lily, but they really need to leave. They’re supposed to be in Sweden for a conference, and it starts in an hour.’
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.