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.