6. School Gates
I lifted Annie from her seat and watched with some trepidation as, with leonine grace, Ginny closed like a predator on Mary. The gossiping mothers at the gate sensed the approaching altercation and their meaningless chatter died instantly.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Saville,’ Ginny began with exaggerated politeness. ‘I’m so sorry that I couldn’t stop to talk to you this morning. I’d left Al and Lily with Mum and I wanted to get back to them. And, of course, as we’re still moving in, I had a lot to do.’ Ginny’s smile resembled that of a lioness about to pounce. ‘Unfortunately, I still have a lot to do, because of an unexpected interruption,’ Ginny continued. ‘Now, what did you want to ask me this morning?’
Mary was lost for words. The immaculate and elegant young mother facing her in the afternoon sunlight was a long way removed from the scruffy and harassed woman of the morning.
‘I, er … nothing really, Mrs Potter, I just wondered if you needed any help with your move,’ Mary began.
‘No, thank you for the offer, Mrs Saville, but Jacqui has already said she will help,’ Ginny said. ‘Are you sure that there was nothing else? There seemed to be some urgency in your voice.’ Ginny took a final step forward, bringing her only inches away from Mary.
I was watching a battle for supremacy. Mary was taller and heavier. Ginny was younger, fitter, and more agile. It would be interesting to see if their physical attributes also applied to their verbal sparring.
‘If you want to know anything, just ask,’ Ginny told her. ‘I expect that everyone is very curious about us, but I would hate to be the subject of misleading rumours and gossip. Misinformation and lies can be spread so easily, can’t they?’ Ginny’s voice remained even and civil, her accusation was so courteous that any counter-attack would make Mary look bitchy.
Ginny paused and smiled politely at the other mums while allowing her words to percolate through the crowd. Mary nodded and tried to smile at Ginny while glaring at me. Her face was not equipped for such expressive gymnastics and she simply looked rather foolish.
‘We like a quiet life, to keep ourselves to ourselves.’ Ginny continued. ‘That’s why we moved out of our London townhouse and into a smaller, cheaper, and more rural property. But we have nothing to hide, we’re…’ She was interrupted by a car horn. Harry waved to her as he drove past in a Range Rover identical to the one Terry Boot had been driving. Ginny waved back happily.
‘Here’s Harry now,’ she observed, delightedly. She’d been self-assured before she’d seen her husband, and now she overflowed with confidence. ‘So was there anything else you wanted to know?’
‘No.’ Mary shook her head.
‘You don’t want to know how much money we have in our bank account? You aren’t interested in whether we’ve ever been convicted of any crime, even something as minor as drinking and driving?’ Ginny’s face was that of an angelic ingénue as she spoke. Her voice was pleasant and polite, without the slightest trace of sarcasm.
She smiled respectfully at Mary, offering her another opportunity to speak. Mary’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped at the second question, and she shook her head again, this time, without speaking. Mary had been silenced. Ginny leaned forwards slightly. Mary worriedly stepped back. Ginny had not only silenced her, she’d forced her to back off, and everyone knew it. Everyone was also wondering if Mary had ever received a driving ban. Her reaction to Ginny’s final question was certainly suspicious.
I heard the car stop. The engine noise died and a car door clicked closed behind me. I forced myself not to turn around. Most of the other mums were facing us. It was almost comical to watch the way they were trying to look in two directions. They were fascinated by the now silent face-off between Mary and Ginny and didn’t want to miss anything, but they were also very interested in watching Harry approach.
Ginny didn’t turn to acknowledge her husband’s arrival. She simply watched Mary, a polite and slightly amused smile on her lips. I tried not to turn and look at Harry, but almost everyone else had lost interest in Mary and was watching his approach. I finally gave in to temptation and glanced over my shoulder.
Harry was in the same “uniform”: black trousers, white shirt and grey tie that Terry had been wearing. He looked good in it, and clearly, several others thought so too. Amanda Berry was staring in blatant admiration at him.
‘Hi, Jacqui, nice to see you,’ Harry began as he caught my eye. I watched him stride the final few feet towards us.
‘Hello, Harry,’ I said, determined not to make a fool of myself in front of the other mums.
‘Hi Ginny,’ he said, slipping an arm around her waist and pulling her in towards him. She reciprocated; turning towards him she slid her arms over his shoulders and around his neck.
‘Hi,’ she said, and then they kissed.
It wasn’t a simple “hello” peck, of the sort my husband and I exchange; it was a full blown love-kiss. It was the sort of greeting kiss you give, and recieve when you’re courting, or when you’ve just married and are still in the first throes of passion. It was a young-lovers-meeting kiss of the finest sort, and I was jealous. One of the mums gave a romantic sigh. I knew how she felt. Mike used to kiss me like that once, I remembered. But for some reason having two children had changed things for us.
‘Everything okay, Ginny?’ asked Harry when they broke apart. Harry and Ginny held hands, fingers intertwined. His question was asked lightly and politely, but everything about him, from his perfectly poised stance, to his firm tone of voice and the searching sharpness of his bright green eyes said “if it isn’t, point me in the direction of the problem, and I will fix it”.
‘Mrs Saville wanted to speak to me urgently this morning, but now she seems to have forgotten why,’ said Ginny. Harry shrugged.
‘Did you sort out the problem with the bank?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Someone was illegally trying to find out about our finances. The bank tracked the source, but I told them not to take any action. How was your day?’ Ginny asked.
‘Frustrating. We’re no further forwards. I’m waiting for a report from Terry; he might have something for me later tonight. But I’ve got good news. Terry’s agreed to cover for me for the next few days. I’ve managed to get the rest of the week off.’
Ginny beamed. ‘Tomorrow should be long enough for us to finish unpacking and tidying.’
‘Where do you work, Mr Potter?’ Amanda Berry squeaked breathlessly. Tall and skinny, Amanda was Mary’s right hand woman and rarely spoke, other than to agree with Mary. Her curiosity had got the better of her. I waited, wondering what Harry would say.
‘Where? That’s a difficult question to answer,’ said Harry, smiling apologetically. ‘I work wherever the Ministry sends me. I work for the Home Office and I have a desk, and a secretary, in the Ministry in London, but I’m not often there … I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘Amanda, Amanda Berry,’ she said eagerly. ‘You work in the Home Office … Immigration? There are far too many immigrants…’
‘No, Amanda, I’m not in the Borders Agency, or Passports, or even the Criminal Records Bureau,’ Harry said.
‘And you’re not supposed to talk about work, Harry,’ Ginny interrupted him.
‘I’m just a pen-pusher, a Home Office bureaucrat,’ Harry said. ‘But, Ginny’s right, I’ve signed the Official Secrets Act, so I shouldn’t say any more.’
He was teasing, I realised. He’d told us where he didn’t work.
Amanda’s next question was unheard over the noise of children. School was over and attention reluctantly, but necessarily, turned away from the Potters as children flooded from the school. Henry and James arrived together.
‘MummyDaddy, MummyDaddy!’ James yelled.
‘Hi, Mammy,’ shouted Henry.
‘Hi James,’ said Ginny.
‘Hello James, have you had a good day?’ Harry asked.
‘Was all right,’ James announced as he ran up to his parents.
‘What about you, Henry?’ I asked.
‘Okay,’ he shrugged.
James stepped up to his parents, stood between them, and pulled their hands apart. They made him fight to do it, but he determinedly untangled their intertwined fingers and placed himself between them.
‘I told Ginny that nothing and no one would ever come between us.’ Harry was smiling as he told me. ‘It seems I was wrong.’
Ginny ruffled their son’s hair affectionately.
‘Would you like to go swimming on Saturday, James?’ she asked.
‘I’m going!’ Henry said. ‘Can ‘e cumwiffus, Mammy, perleez?’
‘Are we goin’ wiff Henry?’ asked James. Ginny nodded.
‘Great,’ said James, literally jumping with excitement.
‘We’ll all go; Al and Lily, too,’ said Ginny. ‘Come along, James, we need to get home. We’ll see you tomorrow, Jacqui. You too, Henry. Bye, Mrs Saville.’
‘Bye, Jacqui, bye, Amanda; Mrs Saville,’ Harry nodded politely at Mary. The Potter’s use of her surname was noticed by everyone. Mary glared at their departing backs and I was certain that I would be in trouble. But before she could speak, Amanda asked a question which stopped Mary in her tracks.
‘I wonder why she mentioned drink-driving?’
I didn’t hear any more as I was surrounded by Alice, Sue, and several other mothers all asking whether I’d seen the Potters’ house and what it was like. I had difficulty answering as there was a confusing chatter of comments and questions and I was trying to listen to it all.
‘Did you see that kiss?’
‘Do you know how much a brand new Range Rover costs?’
‘They deal with counter-terrorism, too, you know.’
‘Do you think he’s a spy?’
‘James Bond, with glasses.’
Through the chatter I managed to explain that I’d been to the house and that they were definitely still in the throes of moving in. I said that the kitchen and living room were nice, and very big. I told someone that I’d met Ginny’s mum too, but by then both Annie and Henry were tugging anxiously at my arms.
‘I really must go,’ I said to the other mums apologetically. ‘I need to get the kids home.’
I made toad-in-the-hole for dinner, with Cumberland sausages, of course, as they’re Mike’s favourite. The Yorkshire pudding was rising nicely when he arrived. He walked worriedly into the kitchen. He was concerned that he’d be in my bad books. In the excitement of the afternoon I’d almost forgotten the fact that, at lunchtime, I’d shouted at him on the phone.
‘Hi,’ he said.
‘Hi, yourself,’ I told him as, suddenly impetuous, I walked up to him. He looked nervous. I threw my arms around his shoulders and kissed him the way Harry and Ginny had kissed. He hesitated for no more than a fraction of a second before responding enthusiastically.
We only broke apart when Henry said, ‘Eugh, that’s gross, stoppit.’
‘You won’t think so in a dozen years time, Henry,’ Mike told him while I tried to find both my breath and my composure.
‘Will!’ Henry said, with the certainty of childhood.
‘Sorry about listening to Mary. I thought that I’d be in trouble. What was that kiss for?’ Mike asked me.
‘That was … because … it was just because! Don’t worry about Mary. Ginny and I have agreed on your punishment,’ I told him. ‘I’ll tell you all about it over dinner. Put Annie in her high chair for me, please, Mike, and then you can mash the potatoes while I serve.’
Over the meal I told Mike what had been happening. He agreed without hesitation to both the barbecue on Saturday and to the trip to the pool. He really had no choice, Henry’s vociferous enthusiasm for the plan made certain of that.
Mike was full of questions about the Potters, Drakeshaugh, and Ginny’s visitors. I told him everything.
‘So, swimming on Saturday … d’you think the redhead will have a bikini?’ he asked, grinning.
‘You old lecher,’ I scolded.
‘What’s a lecher?’ Henry asked.
‘It’s what lecturers give,’ Mike told him, indulging in his passion for bad puns and leading our son away from the original word and into the world of further education. Henry soon got bored and forgot his original question.
Mike then told me about his afternoon. His friend Joe had phoned to let Mike know that he’d been ordered (by Mr Patterson himself!) to delete all details of the Potter’s bank from their records. Old man Patterson owned the business, but he never interfered. He simply played golf and left everything to the junior partners. Joe told Mike that Mr Patterson had sounded worried when he’d given the order.
‘I apologised to Joe and promised to take him out for a pint. I wonder what Harry really does? What his job is?’ Mike pondered as he poured custard onto his rhubarb crumble.
‘He’s a Nora,’ Henry announced. ‘He catches bad people.’
‘A what?’ I asked.
‘A Nora,’ Henry explained carefully. ‘Swat James said when Miss asked us about our daddies. I said you was a special agent, an you sell feels.’ Henry told his father.
‘Nobody would buy them, trust me,’ I murmured, and Mike laughed even more.
‘I’m a land agent sell fields, Henry,’ my husband said. ‘And property, too. Did James say what his mother does?’
‘She’s his mammy,’ Henry announced. ‘She doesn’t do anything.’
‘I think that most mammies would disagree with that, son,’ Mike said. I smiled, and then he spoiled it by adding. ‘Your mammy spent the entire afternoon busily gossiping and drinking tea.’
I made him tidy up the kitchen for that crack.
Later, after we’d got the kids to bed, Mike poured a couple of glasses of red wine, sat on the sofa, and patted the space next to him. When I sat he pulled me in close and kissed me on the cheek.
‘You’re chirpier, and livelier, than you’ve been for a long time,’ he told me. ‘I’m not complaining. I think that the redhead is good for you.’
I turned sideways, almost turning my back to him, shuffled my shoulder under his armpit, settled my cheek against his chest, and lifted my feet onto the sofa. Sitting like that, with my back pressed against his side, was something I hadn’t done for years. Mike automatically draped his arm diagonally across my chest and held my waist. It was just like before we had the kids, except with more waist.
‘Thanks, and cheers,’ I said, raising my glass before sipping my wine.
‘Cheers,’ Mike responded. ‘I wonder what James really said? A Nora? An aura? Neither make any sense. Perhaps he is a spy.’
‘Counter-terrorism,’ I told him. I’d been saving the information until we’d got the kids to bed. ‘I checked the Home Office website. They are in charge of something called the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. The OSCT “coordinates other agencies and government departments” but also has “responsibility for some aspects of the counter-terrorist strategy”, at least I think that’s what the website said. It didn’t say much else. Harry’s involved with the Sheffield murders; perhaps this “Greyback” is a terrorist. That would explain why nobody knows much about him. “Greyback” and “The Werewolf”, they’re like codenames.’ Another idea hit me and my imagination ran wild.
‘Big bad Terry and his leggy sidekick were on their way to Scotland to interview “the Prisoner”; that would be Greyback. They’re trying to find out what he knows and who is trying to get him freed?’ I concluded. ‘That “profiler” story he gave me always sounded a bit suspicious.’
‘You know, normally I’d say that you’d read one too many thrillers, that you were talking complete and utter rubbish,’ said Mike. ‘But the way that Grim Guts Bank acted…’
‘Grin Gots,’ I corrected. I was struggling to remember the name of the bank.
‘And the way poor old Mr Patterson got dragged in to stop anyone asking awkward questions,’ Mike continued. ‘That’s almost enough to make me think you’re right.’
‘Almost?’ I sounded petulant, I realised. ‘What more do you want?’
‘Persuasion,’ he said. He moved his hand up from my waist, lowered my head backwards, and kissed me. Red wine and a snog! It really was like travelling back in time.
‘Maaameee,’ Annie wailed from her room. I cursed.
The remainder of the week passed with remarkable rapidity.
Harry delivered James to school on Wednesday. He was wearing jeans and a faded red t-shirt with the same lion symbol I’d seen on his bike helmet and Ginny’s sweater. He’d gone to a private school in Scotland from age eleven, and so had Ginny. The lion was the crest of his old school house he told me as we walked into the classroom together.
He introduced himself to Mrs Wilson and hugged his son goodbye. That was when I spotted the scar on his arm. He caught me staring at it.
‘I’ve got others too,’ he admitted. ‘This was a knife wound. It seems like it happened a lifetime ago.’ He lapsed into silence, so I didn’t ask.
Amanda was positively gushing towards him as we left the school; she was almost begging for an invitation to the house. Harry was polite, but non-committal, citing the move as an excuse. He strode off up the road claiming that they were still very busy and I again found myself the centre of attention. Mary was sullenly sidelined as I told everyone the latest about the Potters.
That afternoon Ginny collected James, setting the pattern for the rest of that week. Harry delivered, Ginny collected. She arrived early and stood and chatted with the other mums. She told us that they had almost finished moving in and that they had moved here from a big townhouse in Islington. They hadn’t sold it, but now owned both properties. They were letting their London home. When I told Mike that evening he said that we could probably live comfortably on the rent from an Islington townhouse.
By Thursday evening Ginny was on first name terms with everyone. Everyone, that is, except Mary. Despite Mary twice asking ‘Call me Mary, please’, Mrs Saville remained Mrs Saville.
The morning run, which Harry did, offered fewer opportunities for gossip. He’d arrive just before school started, drop off James, and then leave. Everyone arrived for the afternoon pick up quarter of an hour, or more, before finishing time, so Ginny was the primary source of information.
Harry worked “with the police” and that’s all Ginny would say. Amanda was telling everyone that he was some sort of secret agent. As we were leaving on Thursday, I mentioned this to Ginny. I also told her what Henry had said about Harry being “a Nora”. She burst out laughing.
‘I’ll tell Harry,’ Ginny said. ‘He’ll think that’s really funny. Thanks for letting me know, Jacqui.’
On Friday morning Harry caught me by surprise while I was lifting Annie from the car. He seemed to appear from nowhere, I was certain that I had not passed him on the road.
‘Ginny told me what Henry said,’ he began. ‘And what Amanda has been saying about me. I’m not a spy, but I work for…’ He paused.
‘The Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism is my guess.’ I filled in the gap for him. He smiled.
‘We’re a very small office within that larger office,’ he confided. ‘We liaise with local police forces and other agencies. Any Anti-terrorist Units in Regional Organisations are dealt with by my office, the A-U-R-Or Office. We pull together information from all sorts of agencies, including the police. I know how curious everyone is, and I think that the truth would be better than rumours. So, if you want to mention that I work for the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism to the leader of my fan club…’ He didn’t finish the sentence, but simply nodded towards the Amanda, who was watching us from the gate. I smiled at him.
‘It’s hard for me to miss, and impossible for Ginny. I’ve told you as much as I can. I can’t and won’t talk about my job, Jacqui,’ he said.
We walked down to the school together and Harry offered to take both boys into the classroom. Henry was happy to go off with James, so I passed on the latest snippet of gossip to Amanda and the other mums.
I somehow missed seeing Harry leaving. No one else saw him go, either. It was almost as if he vanished into thin air.
On Friday afternoon Ginny was forced to field questions from several sources. She assured the other mums that Harry was head of an office of about fifty people and that she was not even slightly worried for his safety.
‘He doesn’t do field work any longer,’ she said. ‘He has people to do that for him. I’ll see you tomorrow, Jacqui.’ And with that, she grabbed James’ hand and was gone.