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?”