Tea and Biscuits

With Annie squirming and sobbing in my arms, I followed Amber Skoll into a small hallway. The white-painted room was bright, but it darkened noticeably when Terry Boot followed me inside. He moved remarkably quietly for such a big man, but he was so tall and wide that he blocked most of the light. I heard him close the door behind me and fought down my panic.

There were two doors from the hallway, but one was closed. Amber hesitated before walking through the open door. I followed her into a large and bright kitchen. My panic fled as I saw the normal kitchen scene in front of me. Ginny’s mum was there, with four young children. In addition to Al and Lily, there was a little girl with bushy, untidy ginger hair and a red-headed boy who looked to be about the same age as Lily. I gazed curiously at the room and its occupants.

The kitchen stretched the entire width of the house and was a strange mix of old and new. Several colourful rugs were scattered across the stone-flagged floor. The ceiling, between the ancient black oak beams, was painted white. The two outer walls were stone, but the windows in them were modern.

The afternoon sun was streaming through the west-facing French windows, which opened out onto a large patio area. Somehow the Potters had managed to move in, and have a lot of building work carried out, without anyone noticing.

The kitchen was dominated by a huge scrubbed oak table with a dozen solid-looking oak chairs around it. Ginny stood with her back to the table, and to us. She nodded a greeting but was busy at a large old fashioned range located centrally on the south wall, where a large copper kettle was almost boiling. Hanging from the wall alongside the range were several substantial looking pans and a large gleaming copper jam-pan.

‘You’ll be able to make a lot of bramble jelly in a few weeks,’ I observed, nodding at the jam-pan.

Ginny grunted non-committally and began to look through her modern kitchen units. Her mum, however beamed.

‘That’s what I told her, dear,’ she announced. ‘The blackberries will be ripe in a few weeks and several of the apple trees in the woods are fruiting nicely. I’m Molly, by the way, Molly Weasley.’

Stepping further to the left, Ginny opened the door of another of the oak fronted cupboards, with a murmur of success, she pulled out a tray and placed it on the green Cumbrian slate worktop. A dozen mugs hung from pegs on the wall under the unit. Ginny selected five and placed them on the tray.

While Ginny worked her mum was busy putting a sugar bowl and a jug of milk on the table. Helping the old lady was the bushy-haired girl. The ungainly little girl, who appeared to be all knees and elbows, was carefully carrying a plate of homemade biscuits. The three other children, Al, Lily and the red-headed boy were silently watching the girl as she carefully placed the plate on the table.

‘Thank you, Rose,’ said Ginny’s mum.

‘These are Al and Lily’s cousins, Rose and Hugo, Jacqui,’ Ginny announced. ‘Mum is looking after them, too.’

‘Do they live locally?’ I asked.

‘Oh no, dear,’ Ginny’s mum said. ‘We flooed up here to look after…’

‘Flew, Mum, not flewed,’ said Ginny forcefully.

‘Yes, dear,’ said Ginny’s mum, looking rather embarrassed by her mistake.

Ginny was opening and closing cupboards almost at random. ‘Do you want tea, or coffee, Jacqui?’ I haven’t found the Earl Grey or the Jasmine, yet, so it’s either regular tea or Italian high roast coffee until we get ourselves sorted out.’

‘Afternoon tea would be wonderful, Ginny, thank you. Is it okay if I let Annie loose? She’s woken up full of energy,’ I explained. My daughter was squirming in my arms, and staring curiously at the other children.

‘I’m forgetting my manners, Jacqui. Sit down, please, and of course you can let Annie loose. I was going to ask Mum to look after the kids while we talked, I’m sure that she can cope with one more. If you think Annie will be all right with these four,’ said Ginny, nodding towards the three redheads and Al.

‘I don’t know,’ I began. Molly Weasley seemed a little eccentric. ‘Five is a lot of kids to look after, perhaps…’

‘I have a dozen grandchildren, dear,’ Ginny’s mum interrupted me, ‘and I really don’t think that little … Annie … could be any more difficult than Dominique, or Fred. I was just going to take these four into the living room for biscuits and milk, and to tell them a story.’

‘Stowy time, Gwanny,’ Lily announced happily.

‘Babty Rabty,’ the little redheaded boy squeaked.

‘Free Bruvvers,’ Al said. ‘It’s Daddy’s favouritest.’

‘Well, if you’re sure…’ I said uncertainly, lowering Annie to the ground. I had never heard of either of those stories, but I knew that it would be easier to talk to Ginny without the distraction of Annie. I smiled at my daughter and watched her toddle over to the other four children. They looked carefully at each other.

‘‘Ello, Annie,’ said Al shyly.

‘Annie will be fine, I’m sure,’ Molly assured me. ‘Rose, Albus, you can both take care of Annie. Lily, Hugo, take my hands, please.’ With that, Ginny’s mum took the children across to a second door and led them away. As I watched them leave, I pondered the name I’d just heard. Ginny had obviously read my expression.

‘It’s an old Latin name and it was popular in Scotland in the eighteenth century. It means white, and he’s named after … after someone who saved Harry’s life.’ said Ginny. She sounded rather defensive.

‘He was a great man, Albus,’ Terry confirmed.

‘It’s certainly … unusual,’ I said. Saved Harry’s life… I pondered that information too. There was nothing else I could say. It was a very peculiar name, and I decided to research it when I got home. But, I supposed, it was no worse than calling your sons Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. In fact it was no worse than other old and unfashionable names, like Albert. Al was a nice enough name. And I was here to make peace, I reminded myself.

The kettle was boiling and Ginny had placed a large teapot on the tray. She was reaching for the tea caddy when Terry spoke again.

‘If you’re certain you will be okay, Ginny, we really should go,’ he said. ‘We need to get on our way.’

‘Are you going to Sheffield?’ she asked.

‘No,’ Terry glanced at me, and I watched him as he turned to Ginny and chose his words very carefully. ‘We’re going to Scotland, to the prison. We’re going to interview … the prisoner … about Sheffield.’

Ginny nodded, knowledgeably.

‘And we’re going to talk to my grandfather, too,’ Amber said. ‘Mum thinks that he might know something.’

Ginny nodded again.

‘You’ve got a long way to go,’ she said. ‘At least take a few biscuits, please.’

Amber thanked Ginny, but refused the offer. Terry smiled and grabbed three or four.

‘Thanks, Ginny, and thank the kids for baking them,’ he said. ‘Goodbye, Mrs Charlton; bye, Ginny.’

Terry smiled at me, nodded politely, and with that he stood and left.

After a quick, ‘Thanks and goodbye,’ Amber Skoll followed quietly at his heels.

Suddenly, Ginny and I were alone in the kitchen. Ginny replaced the large teapot in the cupboard, found a smaller one and began making the tea.

‘I’m sorry to turn up uninvited, Ginny,’ I began. ‘And I’m sorry that I screamed. It’s just that … well … Terry looks rather scary, doesn’t he?’

‘Terry is one of the nicest and most gentle people I know, and probably the second or third cleverest,’ Ginny told me. She put the mugs onto the tray and carried them over towards the table. ‘He seems to be really shy and very quiet. When you get to know him you’ll discover that he really is really shy and very quiet, unless you’ve done something wrong.’

‘So, why did you contact our bank?’ she asked, changing the subject abruptly.

‘I didn’t!’ I protested.

Slowly, over tea and biscuits I told Ginny the story. She stared at me intently as I spoke; she was listening carefully to every word.

The biscuits were ginger, homemade and still warm from the oven. They were delicious, and the only time I strayed from my story was to tell her so.

‘They’re Mum’s recipe, I used to bake them with her myself, when I was little,’ Ginny told me.

I continued with my tale, finishing by telling Ginny that I’d asked Mike not to tell Mary anything, and assuring her that he wouldn’t.

‘Bloody Mary,’ said Ginny.

‘Mike shouldn’t have listened to her, I’m sorry. Oh, I may need to apologise for something else, too. If your kids start saying damn, that will be my fault,’ I admitted. ‘When Mike phoned and told me what he’d done I said the word in front Annie. She picked it up instantly.’

‘Given all of the other problems this move has caused, that’s nothing,’ Ginny assured me, smiling. I’m sure James has overheard me swearing, but he’s never said anything. So, Mary thinks that we’re knut – penniless squatters, does she?’

‘She didn’t say anything about nuts, just squatters,’ I said.

‘Well, whatever she thinks we are, I can guarantee that she’s wrong,’ said Ginny, smiling again. ‘Thanks for letting me know, Jacqui, I’ll contact the bank and tell them to take no further action.’

‘Action?’ I asked. ‘Were they going to take legal action?’

‘They said they would take action. I didn’t ask them what sort, but I’m sure that it would have been … legal,’ she told me. ‘If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I’ll get in touch with them now. Have more tea and biscuits, make yourself at home.’ She stood and hurried from the kitchen.

I sat in silence for a few moments, and then pushed back my chair and wandered across to the French windows. There was a large wooden table on the patio, and beyond it, a remarkably well stocked vegetable garden. I turned and gazed around the kitchen.

There was no sign of a washing machine, or a refrigerator, or a dishwasher. In fact, I realised, there were no electricity sockets anywhere. There were several gas, or oil, lamps around the wall. Were the Potters really living without electricity, I wondered. The place was homely enough, but no electricity? I couldn’t imagine it.

I replaced my cup on the tray on the table and wondered about that, too. The table had a dozen chairs, but could easily accommodate sixteen or more. I tried to picture Harry, Ginny and their kids sitting at that kitchen table. They would only half fill it.

“A dozen grandchildren,” Ginny’s mum had said, “One of my brothers,” Ginny had told me the first time I’d met her. I wondered how big her family was.

As I looked around the room I saw James’s painting. I hadn’t noticed it when I entered, because it was on the back of the door we had entered through. That door had remained open until Amber closed it when she left behind “nice quiet” Terry Boot. Henry’s picture was effectively in the same place in my kitchen, on the door between kitchen and hall, and that made me smile. The Potters were strangers, and possibly a little odd if they were trying to live without electricity, but the location of that carefully crafted picture was enough to assure me of their decency. That’s when I had my idea, I could both make Mike pay for his mistake, and get to know our new neighbours a little better at the same time.

‘I look like I’ve got spots,’ Ginny announced, making me jump. I hadn’t heard her re-enter the room.

‘No, they’re freckles, obviously,’ I assured her. ‘They’re just not quite to scale,’ I added, making her laugh. She was suddenly cheerful and happy again. Until that moment I hadn’t realised that there had been a tension between us, but now its absence was noticeable. I waited for her to stop laughing before continuing.

‘I’ve…’ I began.

‘I’ve…’ Ginny said at the same second. We both stopped.

‘You first,’ I said quickly.

‘No, you,’ Ginny said.

‘No, I insist,’ I told her.

‘I’ve spoken to the bank,’ Ginny told me. ‘They are fine, and the matter is closed. I’ve spoken to Harry, too, to let him know what’s been happening. He’s suggested that he meets me outside school. As Mum’s here we can leave Al and Lily and both go and meet James and Henry. Now, what were you going to say?’

‘I feel really bad about disrupting your day, Ginny. But I’m blaming it on my husband.’ I began.

‘Always a good policy,’ Ginny laughed again.

‘Mike has offered to do the cooking on Saturday. If the weather holds we’ll be having a barbecue, because that’s all he can manage. It will probably be the last one of the year. I’m sure that you’re still all at sixes and sevens with the move, so … would you like to come to our house for burgers and burnt sausages on Saturday? Come any time after four. We’ll be out until then, because we take the kids swimming straight after lunch. Unless … unless you want to come to the pool with us, too?’ I said.

‘I’d love to come to a barbecue, Jacqui, and I’m sure that Harry will, too. I’m not sure about swimming, but Harry was trying to teach the kids the basics when we were on holiday this summer. We can ask him at the school gates,’ she hesitated and looked across at her clock.

‘If I’m walking to school, I will need to set off in a couple of minutes,’ she said. There was only the shadow of a hint in Ginny’s words, but it was enough for me.

‘I’ll give you a lift down,’ I offered.

‘That will give Mary something else to talk about,’ said Ginny grinning mischievously.

‘I’ll be in trouble with her anyway, because Mike certainly won’t tell her anything,’ I admitted.

‘I’ll go upstairs and change out of my dirty work-clothes. You can go up to the lounge with Mum and the kids for a few minutes, unless you want to stay here?’

‘Lead the way,’ I said, curious to see more of Ginny’s house. She led me through the door by which her Mum had left the kitchen and into a small hallway.

‘There’s a loo there, if you need it,’ Ginny pointed to another door. I shook my head.

‘The lounge is up here.’ Ginny led me through an arched door in a thick stone wall, up a short flight of stone stairs and into a huge room, the converted barn.

There were a couple of doors at the far end of the room but this massive high ceilinged space seemed to occupy most of the old barn. The furniture was lost in the place. There were two sofas and four armchairs, but no television, simply an old fashioned looking radio. The far end of the room was full of unopened boxes and tea-chests. Ginny’s mum was sitting on the floor surrounded by the five children. She smiled at me when I entered.

‘Jacqui is going to take me down to collect James, Mum. I’m just going upstairs to get changed,’ Ginny said. She climbed a half flight of open wooden stairs leading up to another door in the thick stone wall through which we’d entered the room.

‘Can I ask you, how do you spell your first name?’ asked Molly.

I was confused, I know that some people write it Jackie, but until I saw the alphabet bricks scattered around the room I had no idea why she was asking.

‘J A C Q U I,’ I told her. ‘But actually, my name is Jacqueline,’ I added, spelling my full name for her, too.

‘Ten letters, that’s good. That is two each,’ Molly announced.

She then set each of the children off to find two bricks each, Annie was given “A” and “N” the first two letters of her name, and shown an A and a N on cards to help her. She scuttled proudly back with an “N”, and an upside-down “V”. I watched Mrs Weasley in admiration and wondered why I’d been worried. She was great with the kids. I joined in the congratulations when the children finally scampered back and my name appeared in multicoloured wooden bricks on the floor. Mrs Weasley then asked them to find all of the green bricks.

‘This isn’t too much, is it?’ Ginny asked me from the top of the stairs.

She twirled around on the top step. She was wearing boots, black leggings and bright green strappy top. Her hair was loose and it seemed to glow in the afternoon sunlight.

‘You put me to shame,’ I admitted, looking at the blouse and skirt I was wearing.

‘Is it too much?’ Ginny asked anxiously.

‘No,’ I admitted. ‘It’s fine. Especially if you’re out to show Mary that you’re not a scruffy squatter. You look great.’ I checked my watch while I spoke. ‘You really don’t have enough time to change, again anyway, Ginny. Come on, Annie, we need to go to collect your brother from school.’

‘Want stay here!’ Annie announced petulantly.

‘You can’t, sorry, Annie, we’re going to take Ginny down to the school to meet Henry, and James, too. And then we must go home. Ginny has a lot to do. I have stopped her from working this afternoon.’

Annie stuck out her lower lip and it began to quiver.

‘Sorry, Annie,’ Ginny said. ‘You can come here again.’

Annie looked at me hopefully and made sure that I knew that she didn’t want to leave by giving me a wet-eyed sob.

‘We will see Al and Lily again soon, I promise.’ I scooped my daughter into my arms and carried her, protesting from the room.

Annie was still unhappy when I put her into her car seat, and she continued to protest all of the way down to the school. Ginny was sitting behind her and she did her best to keep my daughter happy as I drove. I glanced at the school gates as I drove past to turn around. Mary had spotted Ginny in the car and I saw her face crease into a disapproving frown. It was still there when I drove back.

Ginny held the door for me while I lifted Annie from the car. Once Annie was safe in my arms Ginny looked at me mischievously.

‘Let’s go and say hello to Mary,’ she suggested. She then strode purposefully towards the gabbling mums at the school gate. I watched Mary carefully; suddenly, she looked a lot less confident.

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