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.’