Sunny Afternoon

The sun shone brightly and the remaining clouds were being blown down the valley by a busy breeze as I drove down towards Drakeshaugh. The day was certainly sunnier than it had been in the morning, but neither sun nor wind had managed to drive away my foggy and overcast mood.

Henry had been so excited and excitable last night. “James’n’me mixed colours and then me’n’James painted, ‘n then Sarah said my picher was rubbish n’James went like this,’ Henry shot out his arm straight forward in what almost looked like a fencing move, ‘an’e poked Sarah inna tummy wiff his brush and said “Stupidfly”.’ Henry hesitated, realising that in his excitement he’d accidentally told a tale on his new friend. “Miss stoptim’n’said that he shouldn’t of dunnit,” he’d admitted.

“Shouldn’t have done it,” I’d corrected, smiling.

On balance, I decided that James had been sticking up for Henry, which wasn’t really a bad thing. Though poking a classmate with a paintbrush probably hadn’t been wise. When he saw my smile Henry had staunchly said “But I think he should of dunnit!” I despaired at my son’s grammar, but allowed him to enthusiastically tell me about the rest of his day, which seemed to consist entirely of what “me’n’James” did. It was almost as if they were one person

I really did not want to fall out with the parents of my son’s new friend, especially not because of the actions of a busybody like Mary Saville. I glanced at my daughter in the rear view mirror as I drove. Annie’s head was lolling from side to side and her eyelids were heavy. She was still fighting sleep, but she was obviously too tired to win the battle. Nevertheless, she struggled valiantly. She was finally defeated by the Sandman just as I slowed down to turn onto the Drakeshaugh track. I felt a momentary tingle of anxiety as I pulled off the main road and stopped in front of the gate. I would be arriving uninvited.

The rusty old field gate I remembered was gone. Now, hanging from the weathered granite gateposts was a stained-timber five-bar gate. The adjacent timber stile had been renewed too. I quietly got out of the car, unbolted the gate, drove on to the track which led up the hillside, stopped and closed the gate behind me. Miraculously, I managed to do it all without waking Annie.

In my memory the track was little more than two wheel ruts. Fortunately, the track I drove along was different. The potholes had been filled with gravel and the journey was much easier than I expected. It should have been familiar to me; this was also the public footpath to the Drake Stone and I’d walked along it many times, but somehow it felt strange and new.

It was probably because of its proximity, but I hadn’t walked up to the stone for several years. It felt almost as if I was travelling the route for the first time. As I drove slowly up the bank I was suddenly struck by the wild beauty of these familiar hills.

The Drake Stone was almost directly ahead, its prominent profile perched conspicuously on a ridge. The “Draag Stane”, as my dad called it, was a splinter of sandstone erratic, deposited in some ancient ice age. It loomed, lonely, atop Harbottle Crag and from this distance it seemed to be no more than a strange pimple on the landscape. In fact the stone was over thirty feet tall.

According to legends, the Stone had healing properties, was a prehistoric druidic site, or was a lookout post in the days of the Border Reivers. The last of those is almost certainly true, because you can see for miles from the top of the stone.

To my right, sheep were busily cropping the rolling green pasture. A post and wire fence kept “the stupidest creatures on God’s earth” – as my Dad would say – from straying onto the track.

To my left was a dry stone wall, behind which a gnarled and unkempt old hedge shielded my destination from inquisitive eyes. The hedge was mostly hawthorn and blackthorn, with a scattering of holly. The thorns and holly consorted with a tangle of dog rose and bramble to create a thick and prickly barrier, enough to deter even determined visitors from entering Drakeshaugh by any means other than the gate.

Red rosehips and thick brambles tumbled wantonly over the wall. Some of the berries on the brambles were already darkening, and in a couple of weeks they’d be ripe for picking. Beyond this barbed boundary lay the thirty or so acres of weathered woodland which surrounded Drakeshaugh. The old house was almost invisible from the track. It was hidden within the woods and nestling in a hollow next to Drakestone Burn. I was now approaching the only entrance to Ginny’s home.

I crested the rise slowly. Very occasionally Forestry Commission Land Rovers use this track to reach their forests and the foresters often travel faster than they should. About a hundred yards ahead of me on the left hand side, exactly as I’d remembered, was a gap in the dry stone wall. This was my destination.

Drakeshaugh lay just beyond the gate. It was, however, unreachable. The gate was open but I could not enter. A gleaming black Range Rover was parked only just inside the entrance, completely blocking it.

I pulled my car as far off the track as I dared and stopped. The verge alongside the track carried an overgrown drainage ditch and I didn’t want to get stuck. Before abandoning the Micra I made certain that any other vehicles would get past, though I knew that it was unlikely that anyone else would travel this way. A few hundred yards further uphill, the track into the forest was barred.

By some miracle Annie was still asleep. Not wanting to wake her, I simply unbuckled the seatbelt and adjusted the carry-handle on her car-seat. I lifted the seat, with my slumbering daughter still in it, from the car and carried it with me. It was a struggle. Annie was not a particularly petite two-year-old and the chair was awkward to carry.

As I approached the gate, I heard voices. I stopped, peered through a small gap in the overgrown hedge and saw three people standing in the gravel yard. One of the three was Ginny. She was still in her scruffy jeans and sweater and she looked harassed. She was facing two strangers. At least, they were strangers to me. Both wore long black trench coats.

The man was a couple of inches over six foot in height, broad shouldered and burly. His thinning brown hair was shaved close to his scalp. He looked like a rugby player; big, beefy, flat-featured and rather thuggish, just like a prop forward. The black coat added to his already threatening appearance and he certainly didn’t look like the sort of man you’d want to mess with.

The girl (and she wasn’t much more than a girl) towered over Ginny too. She was barely out of her teens and had a wild mane of tawny brown hair. She was about Harry’s height, slim, willowy and unconventionally attractive.

‘Are you here about the bank?’ I heard Ginny ask. She knew already! I remained motionless and listened anxiously.

‘Gringotts?’ asked the man. He looked puzzled by Ginny’s question. His voice was deep, pleasant and surprisingly gentle. ‘No, we just wanted to let you know that Mark called into the office this morning with some news about…’

I had just identified the man’s accent as Nottinghamshire when Ginny interrupted him.

‘Lavender! How is she?’ asked Ginny urgently. The man hesitated, considering his words carefully, and the girl took his silence as an invitation.

‘She’s recovering well,’ the girl said. ‘Mum went to see her after we saw Mr Moon … Mark. He said that it would be okay. Her old wounds reopened on Friday, just as she was changing. But Mum has checked the wounds and she thinks that Lavender will be out of hospital in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, there’s no chance of Mr … of Mark and Lavender having another baby as her abdominal scars won’t take another pregnancy.’

‘Poor Lavender. How did they take that news?’ Ginny asked.

‘Lavender was devastated. Mark … well when he was in the office I thought that he was just happy that Lavender and the baby were both going to be all right. The baby is doing well, she was four pounds…’

‘And fourteen ounces, I know that, but it’s all I know,’ Ginny interrupted. The girl nodded.

‘He told us that they’ve decided on a name. They’re going to call her Violet Lillith Moon; she’s got Lavender’s eyes, apparently,’ the girl continued.

Ginny was smiling, ‘Well, at least they are all okay. That’s one bit of good news, which makes a refreshing change. Thanks for letting me know; do you and Amber have time for a cuppa, Terry? I’d like to talk to you about a problem neighbour.’

I decided that it was time to move. I had been listening for a dangerously long time and I definitely could not afford to be discovered eavesdropping on this conversation. I continued along to the gate, squeezed past the Range Rover and walked into the yard. I stepped out from behind the car as Ginny was opening the door to Drakeshaugh and I announced my presence by deliberately kicking the gravel in the yard. The trench coated duo whirled around at the sound and their hands darted inside their coats. For a crazy instant I thought that they were going to pull guns on me!

I screamed!

Time seemed to stop. The two stood motionless, each with a hand still inside their coats. My mouth suddenly dry, I looked at Ginny, then at her two companions. Annie, startled by the noise I’d made, had a shocked and unhappy awakening. She began to cry. Ginny’s expression, when she first saw me, had been one of anger. But that look lasted only until Annie’s wails echoed around the yard, when it was instantly replaced by a look of motherly concern.

‘I’ve come to apologise, Ginny,’ I said hastily, trying to make myself heard over Annie’s cries. I put my daughter’s car seat down on the gravel drive and began to unbuckle her. I needed to calm her before her screams reached their eardrum-shattering peak.

‘Let me explain, please,’ I begged, raising my voice to be heard over Annie’s wails. ‘My husband can be an idiot sometimes.’

To my relief, Ginny grinned.

‘We can all have that problem occasionally, Jacqui,’ she said. Both she and the tawny-haired girl had started to move towards me when Annie began to cry, but Ginny stopped. Her face was suddenly anxious.

‘I’ll let you get Annie calmed down, Jacqui. I’ll just go in and tidy up the kitchen, and then you can come inside and we can talk.’

The scary-looking man glanced questioningly at Ginny. I got the impression that he was waiting for orders and worryingly, that he’d have carried them out whatever they were. I lifted Annie from her chair and held her tightly as Ginny spoke.

‘It’s okay, Terry. This is Jacqui Charlton, she’s the mum of James’s new best friend,’ Ginny told him.

The man finally took his hand out from inside his coat.

‘Jacqui, this is Terry Boot and Amber Skoll. They both work for Harry,’ said Ginny. ‘They’ll look after you for a minute while I tidy up.’ With that, Ginny turned and dashed into the house.

It appeared that she wanted to tidy up for me, that was understandable, but it immediately struck me as strange that she had been prepared to invite two of her husband’s colleagues into her kitchen without worrying about the state of her house. I wondered what she wanted to hide from me.

I looked at the two trench-coated individuals and knew instantly that I would not be going inside until Ginny allowed it. I watched them closely. Could they really be carrying concealed guns? Surely that was illegal, even if they were police. If they were armed, then what did Harry really do?

‘So,’ I began nervously, ‘you both work for Harry, do you?’

Terry simply nodded. The girl, Amber, smiled and swept her fingers through her hair, lifting it from in front of her right eye and failing to tuck it behind her ear. After two further attempts she gave up and allowed it to fall untidily back across her face.

‘Yes, I’m sorry if we startled you, Mrs … Charlton,’ she apologised.

‘It’s all right,’ I crooned gently. I tried with my eyes to make it clear that I was speaking to everyone, not just my daughter, who was now sobbing into my chest. ‘It’s just … the way you reached inside your coats … I thought … I mean, I didn’t know what you were…’ My voice trailed off. I couldn’t bring myself to say the word gun. My dad’s a farmer; he has a shotgun licence, and two shotguns. But I’ve never seen a pistol, and I don’t want to.

The girl looked puzzled, but it was obvious that Terry understood.

‘Big black coats make us look threatening,’ he announced. He opened his coat wide, and took it off. There was no holster, no gun, nothing. The only thing I could see was a pen, or possibly a pencil, protruding from the inside pocket of his coat. Perhaps he’d been going to take a note of my name, I thought feebly.

Ginny and Harry were a little odd, but this had been a frightening encounter.

Under the coat, Terry wore smart black trousers, a bright white shirt and a grey tie. He nodded to the girl and she followed his example, revealing a short black skirt, white blouse and grey cravat. Her legs were slim and so long that they appeared to go on forever. She wore sensible flat shoes. In heels she’d be as tall as Terry.

Annie’s sobs were slowly subsiding as I cooed and rocked and concentrated on calming her down. Terry and Amber simply watched me.

‘So, are you any closer to catching this “Werewolf” character?’ I asked them.

‘What?’ Terry spluttered. He seemed to be astonished by the question. Amber stared at me, too. My question seemed to have upset her for some reason.

‘Have I said something wrong?’ I asked. ‘Harry said that his office … sorry, your office … were specialists, that you were helping the police.’

‘We are, we do,’ Terry said. ‘But Harry doesn’t normally discuss active cases outside the office.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘He hasn’t actually told me anything, it’s just that Al said that his Daddy was in Sheffield, so I asked Harry yesterday and he said that he was working with the police on this case.’

‘Well, we are working on it,’ Terry said carefully. ‘But there really is nothing to tell.’

The door opened and Ginny stepped out, smiling. She was followed by a plump, older, woman who was obviously her mother. She was a fraction shorter than Ginny and a lot more round, her hair was lighter too, but only because it was streaked with grey.

‘This is Mum,’ said Ginny, performing an unnecessary introduction.

‘Hello, dear,’ Ginny’s mother smiled at me as she brushed crumbs from the white apron she wore over her long, old-fashioned dress. ‘Ginny has told me all about you.’

‘The kettle’s on and Mum’s been busy making biscuits with the kids,’ Ginny smiled, ‘Come in, please.’

I turned to pick up Annie’s car seat, but Amber scrunched across the gravel and got there first.

‘I’ll carry this for you,’ she said, lifting it by the handle and examining it curiously.

I turned and followed her towards the house.

Drakeshaugh was at least a century old; it was a long thin building which seemed to grow out of the hillside on which it was built. More accurately, it was three attached buildings with weathered sandstone walls and grey slate roofs.

Nearest to the entrance gate was the single storey former barn. There was new stonework where the large doors had been bricked up when the barn had been converted. The wooden door gleamed with fresh white paint and a new, oak shingled porch had been added to protect the entrance from the rain. A black-painted wrought iron sign saying “Drake’s Haugh” was affixed to the door. This was obviously intended to be the front door to Harry and Ginny’s new home. The white door was flanked by sash windows, also newly painted. This was not, however, the door by which we were entering the house.

The gable of the old stone barn was attached to the main building, an old two-storey farmhouse. The two buildings had been converted into one. The old farmhouse was half a floor lower than the barn and Ginny and her mother had disappeared through this open door. Annie was silent and trying to twist curiously out of my grasp as I walked down to the door. Strolling down the slope I looked at the third and final building. The old outhouse attached to the opposite gable was little more than a stone shed with a lean-to roof. Its door was ajar and inside I glimpsed the exhaust and number plate of Harry’s motorbike and, hanging from the whitewashed wall, what looked like several birch twig besoms.

As I followed Amber through the door, Terry was waiting outside, waiting for us to go in first. My first thought was what a gentleman but my second was now I’m trapped. With a rapidly beating heart I walked into Drakeshaugh.

You must login (register) to review.