7. Wet Afternoon
I sent the kids into the garden to play and set Mike to work tidying the kitchen. I dusted and vacuumed the entire house, and then cleaned the toilets.
When I walked back into the kitchen over an hour later, Mike had only succeeded in making more mess! The bench was littered with knives and vegetable peelings. I looked around the room in annoyance, and when Mike advised me to calm down, I exploded.
‘We’re having guests, Mike!’ I yelled.
‘And the rest of the house is tidy, Jacqui,’ he told me.
‘The kitchen isn’t. It’s nowhere near tidy! What on earth have you been doing while I’ve been slaving away?’ I demanded. ‘This place is still a complete mess!’
‘I’ve been sorting out the food for this evening, Jacques. I’ve prepared a salad, I’ve got the burgers and sausages out from the freezer and I’ve made some spicy chicken kebabs. There’s white wine in the fridge, and I even put some lager in there too, just in case Harry’s a philistine. There’s red wine and beer in the corner. I’ve got plastic glasses out for the kids and we’ve got lemonade, orange squash and “lashings of ginger beer” as they say in the old kids’ books. I’ve packed the swimming costumes and put everything we need for the pool in the car. Do we need anything else for the barbeque?’ he asked.
I couldn’t find fault with his preparations, damn him, so I shook my head. He’d done work that needed to be done; he simply hadn’t done what I’d asked him to do. Mike is a messy worker. I tidy as I go; he works and leaves a complete mess until he has finished. It shouldn’t annoy me, but it does. ‘The kitchen…’ I began.
‘We’ll be having lunch before we leave for the pool. I’ll finish tidying up the kitchen after we’ve eaten, I promise,’ he told me.
‘Finish! You haven’t started,’ I began.
He walked up to me, placed his hands on my cheeks, bent forwards, and kissed me. I was wearing rubber gloves and carrying a bucket in one hand and the bottle of bleach in the other, there wasn’t much I could do to stop him. It was a nice kiss and it succeeded in calming me down.
‘Do you think that we need to buy anything else? We could nip across to the supermarket when we leave the pool,’ he said, releasing me.
‘No, I think we’ll be okay,’ I said.
As I emptied the bucket down the sink, he squeezed my bum, kissed the back of my neck and assured me, ‘It will be all right, Jacqui. You’re always in a panic before we have guests, and afterwards you always wonder why you panicked. You’ve forgotten, because we haven’t invited anyone around here for ages.’ With those words he opened the kitchen door and took the vegetable peelings out to the compost bin.
I didn’t reply. I really hate it when my husband is right.
Henry wolfed down his lunch and skipped and bounced crazily around the kitchen while Mike tidied up and set the dishwasher going. Our preparations to leave took a lot longer than we expected, because we were constantly avoiding the four-year old bullet ricocheting around us. Henry was first out of the kitchen door when we were finally ready to leave.
He was standing next to Mike’s car shouting, ‘C’mon, c’mon, hurry up,’ while we locked up the house. Henry was so giddily excited that Mike had to hold him down in order to strap him into the car seat. Not only was he going “swimblering” with James, but James was coming to see him afterwards. As we set off, my son was busily listing all of the toys “me’n’james” were going to play with, which seemed to be all of them.
‘You tidied his bedroom, didn’t you?’ Mike asked as we drove towards Harbottle. I nodded. ‘If James is anything like Henry, it’ll take the two of them less than a minute to make it a complete mess again,’ he murmured. If Mike had his way, I’d never tidy Henry’s room.
I was prevented from making a catty reply by Mike saying, ‘There they are, Henry. I can see the redhead.’ Mike pointed towards the Range Rover and Henry whooped with joy. I tried to wave but we were already past them.
The journey to the pool was a long one, forty minutes. It didn’t seem to matter which route you took, it was always forty minutes. Henry usually got fractious and fidgety on the journey to the Sports Centre. That day he was too excited to complain, but he was driving me demented anyway.
‘Is them still ahind us?’
‘Can James swimble?’
I have no idea where that word came from, but Mike didn’t help. ‘It’s not swimble, Henry,’ I began.
‘It’s swimblerate,’ my husband interrupted. ‘Tricky thingles, these wordices, aren’t they Henry?’
‘Yes, Daddy,’ Henry agreed, nodding seriously. I gave up.
After half an hour in the car, Henry must have asked ‘Is them still ahind us?’ two dozen times, and the only improvement I’d managed was ‘Is they still ahind us?’ That tiny piece of progress was lost when, five minutes from the pool and frustrated by being asked the same question over and over and over again I cracked, and stupidly said, ‘No.’
Henry burst into tears and demanded that we stop. I had to apologise to him for lying, and promise faithfully that ‘them is still ahind us, honest.’
I had just managed to calm him down and dry his tears when we arrived. Mike pulled into a parking space well away from the pool and Harry pulled up alongside us.
‘Hello, James,’ Henry yelled at the top of his voice, making me jump. Henry sat behind me, and James was behind his dad. They were waving frantically at each other and I could tell that James was yelling, too. Harry simply sat and smiled and indicated that I should get out first.
So we arrived in the car park together and disembarked en masse in a bewilderment of greetings and squeals. Henry and James were jabbering away excitedly at each other and I was trying to warn them to watch out for cars while also getting Annie from her seat and saying hello to Harry and Ginny. Mike cut across my greetings.
‘I’m Mike Charlton,’ he said, reaching out his hand to Harry. ‘But I’ll answer to pretty much anything these days: daddy, hey you, or even Michael if you want to use my Sunday name. It seems that our wives are too busy to perform the introductions.’
‘Harry Potter,’ Harry said, shaking my husband’s hand. I’d completely forgotten that they hadn’t met, and so, apparently, had Ginny. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Mike. I’ve heard a lot about you. But almost all of it has been from Henry, via James.’
‘If it’s good, it’s true. If it’s bad, it’s a lie,’ said Mike, grinning.
‘Boys!’ Ginny screamed. Henry and James were running towards the pool. They were scampering between parked cars and they hadn’t spotted the car travelling down the next aisle. Fortunately, both boys stopped, at Ginny’s yell. Mike and Harry had taken off like sprinters when Ginny shouted.
By the time Ginny and I had got the three little ones under control, both boys had received a severe telling off from their dads. They looked suitably chastised, but the moment the scolding was over they turned towards each other and grinned sheepishly.
Ginny had noticed too. She glanced at me and rolled her eyes skywards. ‘We’re going to have to watch those two, aren’t we?’ she said.
‘Henry can be a bit boisterous sometimes. He was probably leading James on,’ I apologised.
‘Don’t bet on it. I was going to apologise for James’ behaviour,’ said Ginny.
Mike was supervising Henry and James as they walked, and definitely did not run, across the car park towards the Sports Centre entrance. As we set off to follow them to the pool, Harry dashed back and picked up all of the bags, including ours. He ignored my protests and told me, ‘you just look after Annie.’ He turned to his wife and added, ‘I’ve got to go, Ginny. Mike’s threatening to pay for everyone.’ He strode off after Mike and the two boys, leaving Ginny and I with the three little ones.
‘James was driving me crazy in the car,’ said Ginny as we crept across the car park at toddling speed. ‘He was so excited. He was asking “Izzat Henry in front?” every two minutes.’
‘Henry was the same,’ I admitted.
‘Can your two swim?’ Ginny asked.
‘Henry can, almost,’ I said proudly. ‘I’ve been teaching him, but Annie’s still too small to be let loose without floats. Mike usually plays with her while I look after Henry.’
‘You teach swimming?’ Ginny asked.
Sort of,’ I said modestly. ‘I did a basic teaching course when I was in my teens. I was a club swimmer. I wasn’t really any good, just one of the plodders, but it was good fun. I was a backstroker, though not a great one. I was the one who makes up the numbers in the B team in a relay. I was keen for Henry and Annie to learn. What about you and yours?’
‘Harry and I learned together, about ten years ago. He prefers breaststroke to backstroke,’ she said. Her eyes sparkled and the corners of her mouth twitched.
‘Most men do,’ I told her. We grinned at each other. The three little ones were listening carefully so I returned to safer ground. ‘Ten years ago? That’s late in life to decide to learn to swim, isn’t it?’
‘On our first holiday together we saw some kite surfers. We tried it and loved it, and that’s when we decided that learning to swim properly would be a good idea. Harry tried to teach the kids to swim in Italy over the summer, but James thought it was a waste of time. Henry’s told him that it’s fun, so now he’s changed his mind,’ said Ginny.
We entered the Sports Centre to find a good-natured argument between our husbands, each of whom was insisting that they should pay for everyone. Ginny and I interrupted them and we agreed that we’d pay for our own families.
We led the Potters down the stairs to the changing area. It was fun to watch them. We were familiar with the place, but the Potters all looked around with interest. It was as though they’d never been inside a Sports Centre.
‘The family cubicles are at the far end,’ said Mike.
Harry nodded and led his family towards one cubicle while Mike headed for the adjacent one.
We were changed first and we waited for the Potters to emerge from their cubicle.
‘C’mon James, hurryup,’ Henry shouted impatiently.
The door opened almost immediately and James dashed out.
‘James, don’t run on the wet floor,’ ordered Ginny. She followed him out holding Al tightly by the hand. Mike’s wish had been granted; Ginny was wearing a blue bikini, at least, a Speedo two piece. She had tied her hair up. She looked pretty, and annoyingly curvy. She wasn’t bulging like me. Harry was wearing black jammers and was cradling little Lily, who was in green, to his chest.
The changing room was almost deserted. We watched as a group of wet and giggling teenagers pulled bags from lockers and moved into cubicles, leaving us the only people out in the open.
‘Harry,’ said Ginny quietly, glancing around the empty changing room and then at his chest. Harry took a deep breath and passed Lily over to his wife.
He was lean, almost skinny and his muscles weren’t well defined, but I knew that good muscle definition didn’t equate to fitness. In fact, Harry looked lithe and fit, and scarred. There was an oval scar on his chest. Next to it, over his heart, there was a second lightning scar, apparently identical to the one on his forehead. There was also a very faint trace of what looked like claw marks on his ribs. As Mike and I stared, he clenched his fists nervously. That’s when I noticed what looked like handwriting on the back of his left hand.
‘You’ve seen this,’ he said to me, twisting his arm around and revealing the knife scar I’d seen during the week. ‘And this,’ he lifted his untidy fringe revealing his scarred forehead.
He pointed at the claw mark. ‘This was done by a Bagh Nakh, or…’
‘Tiger claw, bloody hell!’ my husband said, revealing his compendious knowledge of ridiculous weapons, learned from years wasted on computer games. Harry nodded.
‘Burn,’ he said moving his hand up and pointing to the oval scar. ‘And the guy who gave me the burn thought that it would be a good idea to kill me by recreating the scar on my forehead too. They are old war wounds. Scars from a lifetime ago, and that’s all I’m saying about them.’
‘Harry and I have been together for years. We went on our first holiday together just before my eighteenth birthday,’ said Ginny, standing staunchly at her husband’s side. ‘Complete strangers stare at his scars, and ask stupid questions. It’s very annoying, so I thought that…’
‘It’s okay, red…’ my husband began. He stopped the instant he saw Ginny’s face. It was Harry’s turn to intervene. He stepped forwards.
‘Ginny is Ginny. Not redhead, or Red, or Ginger, or Ginge and definitely not Gin,’ Harry said quietly. ‘She isn’t Virginia, either.’
Ginny laughed when he said the last name. ‘Mummy to my kids, but Ginny to everyone else,’ she said forcefully.
‘Sorry, Ginny, I’ll remember that,’ Mike apologised. I glared at him, making certain that he knew I was unhappy, and that from now on I would be pulling him up every time he referred to “the redhead” too.
‘Has everyone forgetted that we’re going swimblering?’ Henry asked, breaking the uneasy silence. We laughed, assured Henry that we hadn’t, and we led our kids up to the pool.
‘She’s definitely a redhead,’ Mike said in an undertone. ‘She’s got a temper that’s even quicker than yours. I don’t want to die a horrible death, so don’t let me call her “red” again.’
‘I won’t,’ I promised him.
We trooped up to the pool together and entered the water. It was chaotic and a lot of fun. For a few minutes Ginny and I spent our time with Henry and James in the deeper water, trying to teach our sons to swim. Henry was much better, and I could tell that James was annoyed by the fact. What he lacked in technique, James made up for in determination.
Mike and Harry were in the small pool with the two girls and Al. I saw Al looking longingly at James and Henry, but Ginny’s younger son was far from confident in the water. Lily was too young to appreciate the danger and she happily splashed and burbled alongside Annie.
We’d been in the water for about ten minutes when Ginny asked me, ‘Can you cope with these two?’
I assured her that I could. Using an easy and fluid breaststroke, Ginny swam across to join Harry. After a short discussion, Harry left Lily with Ginny and brought Al into the big pool.
Harry was gently supporting and encouraging his younger son as he slowly moved out of his depth, splashing wildly. I was watching, while also keeping a careful eye on Henry and James; they had decided to have breath-holding competition. Henry won, and I intervened when a gasping James demanded a rematch.
‘You need more practice, James,’ I suggested. ‘Why don’t you try to do a forward-roll instead?’ I demonstrated, tucking up my legs and rolling over before emerging again.
‘Blow froo yer nose when y’roll,’ Henry added helpful. ‘Else the watter’ll go upyer nose.’ James tried, and emerged coughing and spluttering. But he watched Henry do it, and tried again. James refused to give up, I was impressed. The two boys were forcing each other to improve. Henry was practicing a lot harder than usual, determined to make sure that he was better than James.
After more than half an hour in the water I was still play-teaching Henry and James. Usually, that was the time when Henry would announce that he was tired and that he didn’t want to learn any more. Neither he nor James complained; they were each keen to keep up with the other. It was wonderful.
I was still busy with them much later when Harry drifted alongside me, still holding and encouraging Al. ‘Mike says that it’s time to go,’ he said. I looked up at the clock; we’d been in the water for more than an hour.
‘He’s right,’ I said. ‘Henry doesn’t usually last this long. Off you go, you two,’ I told the boys. ‘First one to reach Henry’s dad is the winner.’ They splashed away from us with their arms flailing like windmills and their heads out of the water. In their excitement they had forgotten everything I’d taught them.
‘I go too, Daddy,’ Al squeaked.
‘Okay,’ Harry said. ‘But you need these on first.’ He lifted the armbands he’d been carrying. Al looked unhappy.
‘Do you want to try this, Al?’ I asked. I handed him the float I’d been using to teach the older boys to kick properly. He nodded enthusiastically, so I showed him how to hold the float and Harry and I flanked him as he enthusiastically kicked his way across the pool.
‘You’re a good teacher, Jacqui,’ Harry told me. ‘I’ve been watching you. James has learned a lot.’
‘I told Ginny, I did a preliminary teaching course when I was in my teens, while I was still swimming,’ I said. ‘Amazingly, I seem to remember most of it. And teaching James and Henry together is actually easier than teaching Henry. Henry gets bored following his mum’s instructions.’ I turned to Al, who was starting to struggle. ‘Don’t bend your knees, Al, keep them straight and kick with your hips,’ I advised.
Al did as he was told, and started to move through the water a little more quickly.
‘Well done, Al,’ said Harry smiling encouragingly at his younger son. ‘Kick—kick.’
Henry and James were in the shallow water and standing talking to Ginny when we finally arrived. There was no sign of Mike or Annie. I looked around the pool. ‘Where’s…’
‘Annie’s had an emergency,’ Ginny said. ‘It was “Needatoiletdaddy”, and Mike got her out of the pool quick.’
‘I just wee inna pool,’ my son announced proudly and loudly as we left. James laughed.
‘Henry!’ I scolded, shaking my head in annoyance.
Mike was waiting for us when we got into the changing room. I retrieved her from him and led Ginny and Lily into the Ladies’ showers.
‘Are you coming straight back to ours, Ginny?’ I asked while we quickly showered. ‘Or will you need to go home and get changed?’
‘I’ve brought a change of clothes, Jacqui. We can come straight back, if that’s okay, or we can wait,’ Ginny offered.
After a short discussion we agreed that they would follow us home and we returned to the changing room to tell our husbands the plan. Ginny and her family vanished into a cubicle. They were ready and waiting for us when we finally emerged from ours. My hair was still damp when we left, but somehow, the Potters were all completely dry and smartly dressed. Ginny’s hair was shining and she was wearing a completely different outfit, black leggings, denim shorts and a grey sweatshirt, to the one she’d been wearing when they arrived. Dressed like that, she didn’t look old enough to have three kids.
I was once again struck by one of the many slight oddities about the Potters. The two bags Harry had shouldered didn’t look big enough to carry all of the stuff they must have brought with them.
We walked out of the Sports Centre together. Mike again watched Henry and James, I carried Annie, Ginny carried Lily, and Harry held Al’s hand. As we walked out into the afternoon sunshine there was a raucous whistle.
‘Wotcher, boss,’ someone shouted. There was a woman leaning against the back of the Potters’ car. Her hair was black and spiky and the sides of her head were shaved. She was a tall, solidly built Goth. There really was no other way to describe her. She wore Doc Marten boots, fishnets and a profusion of black and purple clothes.
‘Give me a minute?’ asked Harry. Ginny nodded.
‘Stay with Mummy for a minute, okay, Al?’ Harry asked. He released his second son and trotted across the car park towards the woman.
‘Do you mind waiting?’ she asked us. ‘That’s Polly Protheroe, she works for Harry. It must be important if she’s tracked us down here. I really hope that he won’t have to go into the office.’