Work and Play
‘What’s happening, Mammy?’ Henry asked me, puzzled.
‘James’s daddy needs to speak to that lady in private,’ I told him.
‘Why?’ Henry asked. I hesitated.
‘She probably wants to tell him a secret, Henry,’ Ginny told him. ‘At least, I hope she does. If she thinks she’s going to drag him off to work then she’d better have a bloo—ming good reason.
Ginny was wearing the same predatory expression I’d first seen when she was facing Mary, the expression which I’d seen again today and which I was certain had ensured that my husband would never again call her “Red”. Her scorching gaze seemed to cut through the air; perhaps it really did, because the woman glanced worriedly across at Ginny. I watched with interest.
Harry and the woman who Ginny had called Polly Protheroe had a very brief conversation. Harry signed something for her and beckoned to Ginny. I wasn’t certain whether he was extending the invitation to everyone, but Ginny set off immediately, carrying Lily and holding Al tightly by the hand. James did not want to be left behind and he started forward too. Henry followed James, so I followed too, indicating to my husband that he should keep Henry and James under control. Mike nodded.
‘Do not run across the car park,’ Mike ordered the two older boys. James and Henry exchanged a “we’d-better-not-risk-it” look and walked alongside me. Mike brought up the rear, keeping a watchful eye on them. The strange-looking woman was watching us coolly as we approached.
Henry and James were blatantly gawping as they drew closer to the pale-skinned, black-clad and heavily made-up goth. It was embarrassing, but hardly surprising. I had to force myself not to stare at her. I tried to examine her surreptitiously as we approached. What a sight, I thought, and then I realised that it was one of my mother’s expressions. My God, I realised, I’m turning into my mother! I’d always prided myself on my tolerance, but I’d never really tested it.
Purple painted fingernails protruded from black lace fingerless gloves; her face was white pancake, with black lipstick and crimson mascara. Her right arm was tattooed from her wrist to goodness knew where. If I’d seen her in the street, I would certainly have avoided her; she was that sort of woman. So much for tolerance I thought to myself. But despite Ginny’s obvious unhappiness, the woman was smiling and waving at Ginny and the kids. I realised as I got closer that she was also older than I’d first thought. She was older than Harry, older than me; it was difficult to tell because of her makeup, but she was probably in her late thirties.
As I came closer to her, I realised that she was looking at the Potter family almost longingly. I glanced at her left hand and it confirmed my suspicion. She wore rings of pewter, silver and gold. They featured skulls, pentagrams, a coffin, and her right thumb ring was what appeared to be a staring yellow eye. Only one finger was without a ring, the third. That seemed to be the only way in which she conformed to normal behaviour.
‘This is Polly Protheroe; she works for me,’ said Harry, introducing us to his colleague. ‘Polly, this is Mike, Jacqui, Henry and Annie Charlton.’
‘Hello.’ The woman nodded politely at us before turning to Ginny. It was obvious that Ginny knew her.
‘And hello, Missis P.’ The woman grinned at Ginny, somehow managing to ignore Ginny’s predatory glare. ‘Quite the family scene, eh? I only ever see Harry at work, and he’s not so relaxed in the office. It’s easy to forget he’s a dad too. Seein’ you with this lot makes me feel really old. I’d really like—’ I never discovered what Polly would really like, because Ginny interrupted.
‘Hello, Polly, it’s been a long time since I saw you. I hope you aren’t bringing bad news!’ Ginny spoke forcefully, but it seemed to me that Polly was unafraid, that she was deliberately not giving Ginny a straight answer.
‘Yeah, well, you wouldn’t see much of me, would you? Work and family don’t mix much, do they? And I weren’t at the office party at Christmas. They really aren’t my thing; I don’t fit in and the music is a pile of sh…’ She stopped mid-sentence, looked at Ginny, then me, then the kids, and rather lamely finished her sentence. ‘…not very good.
‘I’d rather go to one of the pubs in Camden Town,’ she continued. ‘But that ain’t your cuppa tea.’
Ginny continued to glare at her; with a wry smile, Polly finally told Ginny what she wanted to hear. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not draggin’ Harry to work or anything; I just needed a signature from the boss, that’s all.’
Adjusting a flounce of black, pink and purple petticoats, she squatted down in front of Al and James. ‘Wotcher, Jimmy, Hiya, Al. I ‘aven’t seen you two for years. You were a tiny baby, Al, an’ just look at you now. You’ll be at school yerself, next year, eh?’ Al nodded nervously. Polly ruffled his hair, an entirely redundant action, as Al’s hair was as untidy as Harry’s. ‘And you, Jimmy, I hear all about you! I hope that you’re being a good boy!’ She grinned at him and stood.
‘And look at you!’ she said, beaming at Lily. ‘As gorgeous as yer mum already!’ She gently stroked Lily’s cheek. That was when Henry decided that he’d been silent for long enough.
‘That’s a dragon,’ he announced, pointing at her arm.
‘Smart kid,’ Polly said. She held out her arm and twisted it, allowing the boys to see the fire-breathing monster twisting up her arm. ‘It’s a Hebridean Black.’ She tapped the side of her nose conspiratorially. ‘You can still see them in the wild, if you know where to look.’ She winked at me. She was obviously teasing the kids. ‘I’ve got a Hippogriff, too. Wanna see it?’
‘Polly,’ Harry said sharply. Up until then, he had been watching in amused silence.
‘Yeah, best not,’ she said. ‘Well, I just wanted to say hello to the Potter family. I’d better get away, bad guys to catch and all that. Thanks, boss, and cheers all!’ She waved at the kids and strode off across the car park.
‘She works for you?’ I asked Harry, trying not to sound incredulous.
‘Where’s the Hippogriff tattoo?’ Mike asked at the same time, talking over my question. Harry smiled almost apologetically and looked me in the eye.
‘Yes, Polly works for me, Jacqui. She walks a different path to most of us, at least as far as her lifestyle and dress sense goes…’ Ginny sniggered at that remark for some reason. ‘But she’s good at her job, and she’s not the most eccentric member of my team,’ he added ruefully before turning to my husband. ‘I’ve no idea where the Hippogriff tattoo is, Mike. I know where she tells everyone that it is, but in my job, I need evidence, and I’ve never seen it.’
‘Is it on ‘er bum, Daddy?’ James asked, revelling in the use of that rudest of words in the way only a little boy could.
‘Bum.’ Henry giggled. To my dismay, Mike snorted with laughter too, thus showing the Potters, if they hadn’t already guessed, that my husband is no more mature than most four-year-olds. I glared at him.
‘James.’ Ginny frowned at her son before turning to her husband. ‘So, is it good news, Harry?’ He glanced meaningfully at us and shrugged.
‘It’s too early to say, Ginny. Polly has a name and it looks better than the others we’ve been given. She wanted to tell me about it, and she needed authorisation for a surveillance operation. I’ll tell you all about it in the car.’ Harry smiled apologetically at us. ‘I can leave work for a few days, but work doesn’t always leave me, I’m sorry. Are we all ready to leave?’
‘Yes, you can follow us home if you’d like.’ Mike had already unlocked the car and was busy putting our bags into the boot.
‘Can James come wiff us?’ Henry asked me.
‘That’s up to Harry and Ginny,’ I told him. When I looked questioningly at them, they exchanged worried glances.
‘We’ve never let him be driven anywhere by someone else…’ Ginny began.
‘I wanna go wiff Henry,’ James announced. ‘An’ I’ve bin in Antermynee’s car.’ James spoke rapidly and I was unable to decipher the name. Aunt who? I wondered.
‘So you have,’ Harry agreed. ‘I think that Mummy must have forgotten about that.’
‘There probably isn’t room for you in Henry’s car, James,’ said Ginny.
‘They can have her,’ Henry offered, pointing disdainfully at Annie and offhandedly dismissing his sister into the care of the Potters. ‘That’ll make room.’
‘They can not,’ I told him. ‘Annie is your sister; you can’t just give her away, Henry!’
Henry pulled a face, obviously unconvinced about the need to have a sister. There were a few minutes of confused discussion. It was obvious that Ginny was not keen on entrusting James into our care. Harry was wavering, and Henry and James were standing shoulder to shoulder, determined to remain together. I marvelled at the speed at which they’d bonded. They’d only known each other for six days, and they were already inseparable.
‘They’ll both be upset if we say no,’ observed Mike quietly, addressing Ginny. ‘I’m a good driver. I got a speeding ticket on my bike a dozen years ago, but I’ve been clean as a whistle since.’
It seemed to me that Ginny was waiting for Harry to say no. He said nothing. They looked at each other. Harry held reached out for her hand and squeezed it. Ginny’s thumb caressed the back of his hand, and she pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows enquiringly. Harry still said nothing. The implication was obvious. He would not prevent James from riding with us. I watched, fascinated. I’d never seen a discussion carried out in almost complete silence, and so rapidly.
‘He’ll be safe, Ginny,’ Harry assured her. He sounded definite, and Ginny nodded.
‘You be on your best behaviour, James Potter, or else,’ Ginny warned. ‘And remember what we told you!’
‘Yes, Mummy,’ James said. And that was it; the decision was made. Mike and Harry strapped James’s car seat into the back of our car, between Henry and Annie. Mike did most of the work, as Harry was concentrating on muttering something to James—reinforcing Ginny’s warning, probably. Once he was safely strapped in, we waved to the Potters and drove home with our new passenger.
From the moment we left the car park, Henry and James were chattering. Henry began by asking James about toys. James, it seemed, had very few toys. No cars, fire engines, diggers or soldiers. James did, however, have a train set, Lego and a broom! That last one puzzled me.
Henry began to boast about his toys, but he was struggling even before I could scold him. James was remarkably unimpressed. I knew why.
The Potters did not own a television. The fact that James didn't know about the Cartoon Channel meant that the poor boy had no idea about the origin of several of Henry’s toys. Henry’s complicated and confusing explanations were beginning to bewilder James, and I had to help my son to explain the cartoon background behind some of his toys. Annie tried to help too, but her explanations were even more confusing for James. At least the boys weren’t bored. Their conversation did not flag until we were on the final leg of the journey.
When they finally lapsed into silence, I asked, ‘So, apart from your daddy’s car, which other cars have you been in, James?’
‘Antermynee’s,’ he said. The nonsense word he’d said still made no sense.
‘Aunt who?’ I asked.
‘Aunt ‘Ermione,’ said James slowly.
‘Aunt Hermione,’ I clarified. ‘Do you have many aunts and uncles, James?’
‘Yes,’ he said. He paused. ‘Daddy says I have to ‘member the National Statue of Secrets. But aunties an’ uncles aren’t secrets, are they?’
‘I wouldn’t think so. Unless your aunt Hermione works for your daddy,’ I told him, wondering how he had managed to transform the Official Secrets Act into the National Statue of Secrets. It didn’t seem to fit, but I know from experience that four-year-old brains are sometimes strange places.
‘Uncle Ron says Daddy will be working for Aunt ‘Ermione soon,’ said James. His tone of voice told me that this was obviously important news.
‘Uncle Ron?’ I asked.
Uncle Ron and Aunt ‘Ermione are Rose and Hugo’s mummy and daddy,’ James told me.
‘I’ve met Rose and Hugo,’ I told James.
‘I knows, and Granny too,’ James nodded.
‘Yes, I’ve met your granny, too. So, where do your cousins live?’ I asked.
James gave that question some considerable thought. ‘Inna house,’ he told me.
Mike burst out laughing. ‘Good answer, James,’ he said. ‘Most people do. What about your new house? Do you like it?’
‘Yes,’ James began. In the mirror, I saw James’s eyes light up excitedly. ‘There’s a tactless forest an’ a raging river, just like inna stories. An’ I’m gonna make a den, an’ it’s gonna be secret. It’s great. It’s better than grim ole place an it’s even better than The Burrow.’
‘Tactless forest? Grim old place? The Burrow?’ said Mike, confused by James’ answers.
‘You mean “trackless forest”, don’t you, James,’ I explained to Mike. ‘You don’t read stories to your kids often enough, Daddy. But grim old place?’
‘’S where we use to live,’ James explained. ‘Kreacher still does.’
Mike and I exchanged expressions of confusion. The Potters had lived with a creature in a grim old place? I decided to simply let the subject drop.
‘Daddy’s made me a rope swing over a deep an’ trechruss river,’ James added. ’It’s very dangerous an’ I’ve gotta be very careful.’
‘We gotta swin’,’ Annie squeaked. James ignored her.
The “deep and treacherous river” would be the Drakestone Burn, I realised; it ran through Drakestone Wood, not far from the Potters’ home. At this time of year, it would be no more than four feet wide, and nowhere would it be more than a foot deep. I wondered how dangerous the swing really was. After Ginny’s concern about James riding in someone else’s car, I suspected that she would not allow her children to face very much danger. I imagined Harry and Ginny seriously telling their son to be careful.
‘Can I have a go on your swing?’ Henry asked.
‘Yes, you can come to my house whenever you want,’ said James.
‘Whenever your mummy and daddy want, James,’ I suggested. ‘You’d better ask them before you invite Henry round.’
‘They won’t mind,’ James said confidently.
‘Here we are,’ Mike announced as we turned off the road and clattered up the steep gravel drive to our house.
When we bought the place, our house had been named “Rivendell”. One of the first things we did was change the name back to the original. I did a little research to confirm it, but it took me no time at all to confirm that the property had always (until the last owners changed it) been “Lintzgarth”. The builders had taken the trouble to carve the name “Lintzgarth” and the date “1873” in the lintel above our front door, so there really was not any doubt.
Lintzgarth was built by a factory-owner from Newcastle. Some rumours claim that he built it for his mistress, although I’ve found no evidence to support that. It is a Victorian house, built of solid stone and with a slate roof. Mike and I spent a huge amount of money updating it when we bought it. After our first freezing winter, we spent even more on insulation and new windows.
From the road, Lintzgarth conforms to the standard child’s drawing of a house. Our front door, which we rarely use, is flanked by a window on each side (both bays); there is an identical arrangement of windows on the first floor and a chimney midway along the roof.
The drive passes the left side of the house and continues through the six foot high stone wall which surrounds our rear garden, separating us from Armstrong’s pasture. Our garage is an old stable, open fronted for most of its length. The old tack room at the far end is full of the usual junk, the kids’ bikes, the lawnmower, and various plant pots and gardening implements.
Mike pulled his car under the stable roof, stopping a lot closer to the wheelbarrow than I was comfortable with. He ignored my sharp intake of breath, wound down his window and waved his arm, indicating that Harry should pull up behind our car. I waited until Harry had stopped before getting out and helping the kids from their seats.
Mike carried the swimming bags across to the kitchen door, and feeling suddenly nervous, I herded the kids along behind him.
‘Welcome to Lintzgarth,’ I said to Harry and Ginny. They were both gazing around my garden. ‘Make yourselves at home. I’ll give you a guided tour later if you want. I’ll just…’ I waved vaguely at the kitchen door and bustled past Mike, who had just unlocked the door, in order to get into the kitchen first.
‘Jacqui is in full panic-mode,’ announced Mike, embarrassing me in front of our guests. ‘She is always the same when we have guests. She needs to make sure that the place is spotless, although she did that twice before we left.’
I went inside, fuming, and looked around the kitchen. It had been tidy when we left, and of course it was still tidy, but Mike shouldn’t have said what he did. There was an uneasy silence outside as the Potters waited. Thanks to Mike, they were waiting to be invited in.
‘What’s that?’ James asked. I looked through the kitchen window, but James must have been directly beneath it. I couldn’t see where he was pointing, but at the far end of the lawn, there was a swing, a seesaw, and…
‘A trampoline,’ Henry said. ‘You jump on it and bounce; it’s almost like flying. Wanna go?’
I saw Harry and Ginny exchange a worried glance. I was again surprised; I really had not expected them to be so overprotective of James. Mike had obviously noticed, too.
‘He’ll be perfectly safe,’ Mike reassured them. ‘There’s a net around it.’
‘I know he’ll be safe,’ said Ginny.
‘Be careful, James,’ Harry warned. ‘Don’t do anything silly.’ From the way he spoke, I got the impression that rather than falling, he was expecting James to do something very spectacular.
If you all want to go and play, go ahead,’ said Mike. The kids all scampered up the garden.
‘I’ll keep an eye on them,’ Harry offered.
‘Thanks, Harry, I’ll just offload the swimming things and I’ll be straight back. I need to get the barbecue going,’ Mike told him.
I glared at Mike as he strode through the kitchen.
‘It’s okay, Jacqui, everything is under control,’ he told me.
‘You haven’t offered them drinks,’ I reminded him.
‘I haven’t started on the food, and I haven’t put these away, either,’ he said. ‘Think of the trouble I’d be in if I just left these on the floor. Relax, Jacques!’ He thinks that phrase is really funny! He winked at me and walked into the hall. I heard him go upstairs.
‘Do you need any help, Jacqui?’ Ginny asked, peering into the kitchen through the still open door. She was still waiting for permission to enter. I cursed inwardly.
‘Sorry, Ginny, what must you think of me? Come in, please. Would you like something to drink? What about the kids?’
‘Drink!’ said Ginny, shaking her head in annoyance. ‘I’ll be back in a minute!’ She dashed back to their car, pulled open the boot rifled around in one of the bags and returned with a bottle. ‘We brought this for you. We didn’t want to come empty-handed. Thanks for inviting us. And thanks for all your help in the pool, Jacqui.’ Ginny offered me the bottle of red wine.
I protested that she didn’t need to bring a gift, and she insisted that she did. We indulged in that little dance of polite chit-chat which, as was inevitable, finally resulted in me saying “you’re very kind” and accepting the bottle. It was a Sicilian red wine, “La Segreta Rosso” according to the label. I’d never heard of it, but from the look and feel of the bottle, it wasn’t cheap.
‘You do drink wine, don’t you?’ Ginny asked me as Mike re-entered the kitchen.
‘Red?’ he said. Ginny rounded on him.
‘The wine,’ he said, trying to sound innocent. ‘We’re very fond of red wine, aren’t we, Jacqueline, darling?’
‘He’s going to be like this all night; sorry,’ I told Ginny. ‘He’s trying to be clever.’
‘Only trying?’ Mike asked.
‘You are always very trying, Michael,’ I told him. He burst out laughing. Ginny watched our bickering with apparent amusement.
‘Do you want to open it now?’ Mike asked us. ‘Or would you rather wait until we eat?’
‘That will be never, unless you light that barbecue,’ I reminded him.
‘I’m on my way, Boss,’ he told me. ‘You can sort out the drinks.’
Mike strolled into the garden, leaving Ginny and I alone in the kitchen. I watched as he began busying himself at the barbecue. Harry was happily supervising the kids. He was pushing Al on the swing and then rushing across to help Annie and Lily on the seesaw, as Lily was too light (or Annie was too heavy) to get any reasonable motion going.
‘Mike’s actually a pretty good cook,’ I told her. I then had another panic; suddenly worried that the Potters might not like the food and drink which Mike had prepared, I quickly ran through the menu. Ginny reassured me about the food, assured me that ginger beer would be fine for the kids, and accepted my offer of a lager from the fridge. I found a bottle of Riggwelter Ale for Mike and asked, ‘What will Harry drink?’
‘Ginger beer, probably, provided it’s not the alcoholic stuff,’ Ginny told me. ‘He won’t drink any alcohol when he’s driving.’
‘Mike’s the same,’ I told her. ‘If we go out to the pub, we take turns driving. I expect you do that as well?’
Ginny shook her head.
‘I can’t drive,’ she admitted. ‘I passed my bike test, so I can take the bike out, but that’s no use now we have the kids. I suppose, now we’re here, I really should learn…’ She shrugged.
Ginny and I sat at the kitchen table and spent some time discussing our motorcycling experiences. Outside, the men were doing all of the work. It was an enjoyable way to spend the early part of the evening. Mike was carrying on a loud — and frequently interrupted — conversation with Harry, who was at the other end of the garden with the kids.
Mike was in and out of the kitchen as he prepared the food. I handed him his beer on the first of his several trips to the fridge. On his second, he arrived with orders for drinks from the kids and Harry. Ginny was proved right; Harry was happy with ginger beer.
Ginny and I gossiped. I discovered that grim old place was, in fact, their London home, Grimmauld Place, and that the Potters had employed a housekeeper called Creech. Ginny was not keen on discussing their old house and the conversation turned to Harry’s bike.
Harry and Ginny had travelled across the country on the bike when they were younger. The bike had belonged to Harry’s late godfather and had been part of Harry’s inheritance. The bike had been a wreck, apparently, but Harry had rebuilt it with some help from Ginny’s family.
‘They helped?’ I said. ‘My parents hated the idea of me going out with a biker, even though he was a university graduate with a good job.’
For me at least, the evening flew by. Ginny and I discussed how we’d met our spouses. We talked about the kids. Lily had apparently been a terrible sleeper and Ginny was jealous when I told her how good Annie had been.
I gave Ginny a quick tour of Lintzgarth and we arrived back in the kitchen a little after seven, moments before Mike finally announced that the food was ready. He served the kids their burgers, sausages, salad and baked potatoes before serving us. I opened the wine and poured a glass for Ginny, Mike and myself. It was full-bodied, fruity and delicious; if it wasn’t expensive, it certainly tasted like it was.
I carried the drinks outside and we adults sat around the patio table while the kids picnicked on the lawn. We ate and chatted and joked, and Ginny flattered Mike by asking him for the recipe for his spicy chicken kebabs.
The kids wolfed down their food and Henry, realising that they’d been outside since they arrived and he hadn’t shown James any of his toys, dragged his friend indoors. The kids all seemed to be getting along well, although at that moment, I realised that Al was looking longingly after the two older boys. I suggested that he go and join them, but he shyly refused and went back up to join the girls on the swing and seesaw.
By the time Harry, Ginny, Mike and I had finished eating, the sun was slowly sinking and the horizon was just beginning to take on an orange tinge. Harry volunteered to watch the kids again. The rest of us cleared everything up and packed the dishwasher; at least, Mike and I did. Ginny looked as though she’d never seen such a thing.
Mike was busy pouring himself another beer when Harry strolled into the kitchen with Lily in his arms. His flame-haired daughter was whimpering and floppy.
‘Lily’s had enough,’ Harry announced unnecessarily. ‘I think it’s time for us to go, sorry. Thanks for a nice day, Jacqui, Mike. We’ve had a good time, and the kids have had a good time too.’
‘Happy kids! That’s the most important thing,’ I observed. Harry and Ginny nodded.
‘We might even get them all to bed early,’ suggested Ginny. ‘They’ve had a really busy day.’
It took us some time to get the kids rounded up. James created something of a scene, as he was happy playing with Henry and with Henry’s toys and he did not want to leave. I left Ginny to deal with him, which she did.
James was surly and sad when he stomped downstairs. But with Ginny standing behind him, he managed a polite ‘Thank you for inviting us, Mrs Charlton; I’ve had a really good time’.
‘We go swimming every Saturday,’ I told Ginny while Harry was strapping the kids into the car. ‘If you want to make it a regular thing … the swimming, not the barbecue, that is…’ I tailed off hopefully. I’d been lonely, I realised. I’d enjoyed my day too; it would be nice to have someone to visit, somewhere to go for a coffee.
‘Harry and I were discussing that while we were driving here,’ Ginny told me. ‘We’d love to. The kids all enjoyed their trip to the pool. But … I’m sorry … we can’t go next Saturday … we have a party to go to.’ My heart sank, I wondered if that was the first of several weeks of excuses, excuses which would last until I stopped asking. But Ginny sounded genuinely sorry.
‘Party!’ Mike strolled in and interrupted us. ‘Are you having a house-warming party, Ginny? Are we invited? When is it?’
I glared at him, but Ginny looked thoughtful.
‘It might be a good idea to meet our new neighbours,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘I’ll discuss it with Harry. I’ll see you at school on Monday, Jacqui, and thanks again.’ Ginny impulsively kissed me on the cheek, and then, to his obvious pleasure, did the same to Mike. She climbed into the car and we watched and waved as the Potters drove home.
‘Well, that went well,’ Mike observed. ‘They seem like nice people.’
‘A bit eccentric,’ I said. ‘No telly, no electricity. But, yes, nice people.’
‘I’d really like to see Harry’s bike,’ Mike told me.