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.’