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.